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Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Edward Dorn: On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Ordering from Sears Roebuck catalogue because of the distance to the nearest store, Pie Town, New Mexico: photo by Russell Lee, June 1940 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Summer was dry, dry the garden
our beating hearts, on that farm, dry
with the rows of corn the grasshoppers
came happily to strip, in hordes, the first
thing I knew about locust was they came
dry under the foot like the breaking of
a mechanical bare heart which collapses
from an unkind an incessant word whispered
in the house of the major farmer
and the catalogue company,
from no fault of anyone
my father coming home tired
and grinning down the road, turning in
is the tank full? thinking of the horse
and my lazy arms thinking of the water
so far below the well platform.

On the debt my mother owed to sears roebuck
we brooded, she in the house, a little heavy
from too much corn meal, she
a little melancholy from the dust of the fields
in her eye, the only title she ever had to lands --
and man's ways winged their way to her through the mail
saying so much per month
so many months, this is yours, take it
take it, take it, take it
and in the corncrib, like her lives in that house
the mouse nibbled away at the cob's yellow grain
until six o'clock when her sorrow grew less
and my father came home

On the debt my mother owed to sears roebuck?
I have nothing to say, it gave me clothes to
wear to school,
and my mother brooded
in the rooms of the house, the kitchen, waiting
for the men she knew, her husband, her son
from work, from school, from the air of locusts
and dust masking the hedges of field she knew
in her eye as a vague land where she lived,
boundaries, whose tractors chugged pulling harrows
pulling discs, pulling great yields from the earth
pulse for the armies in two hemispheres, 1943
and she was part of that stay at home army to keep
things going, owing that debt.

Edward Dorn (1929-1999): On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck, from Hands Up! (1964)

Image, Source: intermediary roll film

Trees killed by drought and grasshoppers frame this farm in Grant County, North Dakota: photo by Arthur Rothstein, July 1936 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Image, Source: intermediary roll film
Trees stripped bare by drought and grasshoppers on farm near Saint Anthony, North Dakota: photo by Arthur Rothstein, July 1936 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
Image, Source: intermediary roll film
Stripped bare by drought and grasshoppers. Trees on the farm of Mrs. Emma Knoll, Grant County, North Dakota: photo by Arthur Rothstein, July 1936 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
Image, Source: intermediary roll film
Signs along highway approaching Hurst, Williamson County, Illinois: photo by Arthur Rothstein, January 1939 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
Movie advertisements, Herrin, Illinois: photo by Arthur Rothstein, January 1939 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
Shoppers, Herrin, Illinois: photo by Arthur Rothstein, January 1939 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)
Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Trespasser, Steritz, Illinois: photo by Arthur Rothstein, January 1939 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film
 Funeral service at undertaker's establishment, West Frankfort, Illinois: photo by Arthur Rothstein, January 1939 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)


TC said...

The judgment of American poetry by the academic arbiters who form accepted orders of critical value has always been skewed by the pressure of economic interests at whose trough academia feeds. Independent thinking in this area is rare, and the uniqueness of the early poetry of Edward Dorn, which shone out as exceptional at the time of its production, has been further accentuated even as its hard truths become increasingly difficult for academics to confront -- that is to say, its courage and originality have come to stand out with full clarity only now that there begins to emerge a general comprehension, at least on the part of those outside academia, of the desolation and devaluation of the human inflicted upon this country by an economic system geared to the benefit of the very few at the expense of the very many. Few have so articulately challenged the foundations of this monolithic structure as did Edward Dorn, in his early, enduring songs of the marginalized American experience..

Dorn began sending me his poems in 1963-1964, when I was in England and he was in Idaho. I had just lately begun editing poetry for The Paris Review. Dorn's independent, intelligent, sensitive yet uncompromising and often righteously indignant "outsider" voice, manifested in poems like this one, or like "The Sense Comes Over Me, and the Waning Light of Man by the 1st National Bank" (which I placed in The Paris Review #35), was not the sort of voice one was used to hearing in that journal -- up to that time (and indeed now again, as it happens) strictly a mainline "company" venue in poetry.

William McPheron, writing in a monograph on Dorn in the Boise State University Western Writers Series, 1988, contributed what remains the most useful introductory assessment of this poet's work.

McPheron, speaking of the early poems:

"These early years in Illinois were informed by rural poverty and its emotional desolation. Their imprint was deep, producing attitudes that animate much of Dorn's writing. His conviction of the injustice of the American economic system, anger at the suffering it inflicts, and distrust of the privileged classes that benefit from it may be traced to this period. 'On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck' powerfully evokes the sorrow of dispossessed farm life, while 'The Sense Comes Over Me, and the Waning Light of Man by the 1st National Bank' directly links his own family's deprivation to the country's financial structure."

The "father" referred to in the present poem is actually Dorn's stepfather, Glen Abercrombie -- his real father, an itinerant railwayman, having passed out of the picture too early to be remembered.

A moving poem from Dorn's first book, The Newly Fallen (1961) remembers his mother in a characteristic attitude: left behind, uncomprehending, caught as if frozen in a "year-long stare / across plowed flat prairielands":

Goodbye to the Illinois

Economic analysis always proceeds most firmly on the ground of experience. When Ed and I met in 1965, we spoke often of our memories of our native state, though Ed's downstate rural history and my own upstate urban background were in many respects quite unlike. He said once that in the part of the state where he had grown up, a region of "sodbusters", my ilk were described (with some irony) as "Chicago busters". Still we discovered there were many memories we shared in common, and among these was the memory of growing up in households in which the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalogue, pored over at length by the mothers who kept the families going by assiduous scrimping, was the most consulted book.

Nin Andrews said...

Great poem, and I don't know Dorn well. I would love to read more--will order an early book. Sears Robuck was such an event back then. We used to love that catalog, and ordered from it every fall. And we saved them to make paper dolls and such from last years' pages.
I must have been born just when it was going out . . . but I also remember thinking that Dick and Jane were dressed in Sears catalog outfits.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

One wishes to be taken seriously
despite what it looks like
instead of the outward suspended
inward longing reach across a continent.

It is practical to focus on the mailbox
that stands between. Something

in the mail keeps the wheels spinning
round and round

wheels turning.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

My Mother's Olden Tongue

A place of rivers. A
map of dry lightning.

The Iller. The Danube. The Rogue.
The Salmon. The Kuzatrin. Rattlesnake Creek.
Tundra telepathy.
Yoga before it was popular.

Roman. Olden. Fairy tale muscle. Animal.
Bird. Mountain singing.

Mine--raspberry, strawberry. Plant-like, fruit-like.
Spoiled. American. Breathy chime. Bossy father sense.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

The debt kept them alive
before credit cards.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

"a meaningless map, a meaningless riddle
of what in simpler life would say was lost"

Nothing is here to grab onto in a concrete way. A desperate disappointment, more than sad, ache for the rich land underfoot. It's right there out of reach. Its dream is in the twisted branches of the locust-eaten trees. The people have eaten everything there is to eat. It is stark and desolate, futuristic in black and white, even though this happened eighty years ago. Back to hunting, back to gathering. A regretful explanation. The poet does not anticipate any change yet, any hope, except the west that pulls invisibly.

Hazen said...

So glad Dorn sent you those poems. So glad you published them. His memories and feelings well up, become words . . . honest, plain, and beautiful. Dorn and Stryker’s crew of photographers seem to have been mining the same vein of reality. They’re a good fit.

An economy of debt. We’ve been taking this ride for a long time.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

All of a sudden there is no center. It is not found in the pages of the catalog. It is not by the well, not by the house, the old places. The field is meaningless. There is no substance. It is not at the Hippodrome. It used to be. It used to be. Wars will scramble everything up, yet again.

The poet should have saved this world but it was beyond saving, or would've been happier to ignore this feeling, this reality, but he cannot. He is way too sensitive even though he was not supposed to be this refined, feeling everything, everything affecting him so much. His heart had broken a long time ago. Nothing would ever affect him so much ever again. He was over it, there. He was bitter and forever in love with it. It gave him freedom to embrace alternatives less crushing.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

"The judgment of American poetry...songs of the marginalized American experience."

What an amazing piece of writing. Forget Dorn's poem--no, don't forget it, who could, but, wow, great to read these words about a dedicated miner who tossed us the good bits of what he dug out with bare hands.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

before credit
before computers were needed
to count it all out.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

The corn became a sad mirror
nobody could look into
especially those looking
to go, itching to disappear
they did not want you
anyway. They looked through you.

At the old places
to fit in
too handsome
to be used
for long. Your voice

didja know it would be
a hindrance
at the odd jobs?

Not enough this not enough that.
To hell. Clueless to what--

life was worth it
in all seriousness
all beauty
in your debt
your service
to its credit.

Wooden Boy said...

That terrible sense of how debt holds you in place, the unspeakable anxiety of it.

The repetition of the word, dry, in the opening stanza makes for a hard and necessary way in to the poem's world. It scratches.

Wooden Boy said...

It's great to read a poet who understands that poetry is something that happens ethically.

TC said...

It's hard to develop nostalgic feeling for any company that has managed to survive into the monstrous amerikan corporate present -- and the survival of Sears is/was down to the sort of corporate morphing that eventually yielded a grey conglomerate of "democratic" agencies such as Kmart, All State & c. -- but back in those Dick & Jane days, before plastic and credit, there was a certain cultural signification in the cut-price mail-order function... all gone by the boards now of course, in the nightmare maelstrom of "our" cheapjack surrogate stars and stripes mall 'n Smartphone invented version of reality.

But once upon time...

What the Sears catalogue meant to one West Texas woman

WB, it would be pleasant to be able to say that ethical motive has remained a driving force in the poetics of this benighted republic. Alas however even the possibility of that has by now been bred out of the strain. Dorn could no more have written this poem now than he could have lived through the history it describes.

As to the debt to our mothers, that is something we will be servicing, in our tiny shrunken alien-millennium hearts, the rest of our few given days.

Curtis Faville said...

Is the world washed-out?

Does the washing hanging on the long wire, stretched from the edge of the back porch overhang to the corner of the barn, blank out white and pure-smelling forever?

Or has it faded into insubstantiality like so much of our wrinkled past?

T-shirts thus finished had a lovely freshness which no amount of "spinning" in the mechanical tumble could ever accomplish.

I remember poring over the lingerie ads in the Monkey Wards catalog for the best view of the ladies' torsos. Alas, the girdles and bras of those days were entirely too elaborate, unlike the Victoria's Secrets call-girls of our day.

How much imagination makes an apple?

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Sir Edward Dorn

Knight of the table mesa
slayer of the sideways boulder
thinker of the feelings
of across
that landscape.
What happened there
with the official message
all its implicit
neurotic iron
flat on the mountainside.
The town appears to be run
with computers
but that is not what
is really going on
beneath the surface
of all that shopping
at the Natural Food Store.
It would take a major poet
to point this out.

Anonymous said...

I was moved by this . . . am still, as I replay the lines and movement between them . . . and am stuck at how timely it is . . . the ethics and pain of debt, its craven necessity, like the locust bound for the field. This one will stick with me, and I will certainly read more Dorn.

Someone asked me the other day, Tom, what I thought was the best online resource for learning about poetry. Without hesitation, I told them your blog. I stand by that.

TC said...


It may be the sense of timeliness we feel with certain poems takes a while to accumulate, as a kind of historical increment. So too, perhaps, the sense of timelessness, with the very best ones. This poem was fine when it was written a half century ago, and has "aged" extremely well. It has improved with the expansion of its range of application -- and implication. It's impossible to say that about the great majority of "famous" poems of its time, those well-shaped-urn ship-in-a-bottle creations of Richard Wilbur, Tony Hecht, et al., which now amount to little more than a dossier of evidence confirming the cultural vacuity of the period, much as (say) the Mickey Mouse Club.


Speaking of ladies' torsos (ah, it's been a while), the history of female body self-imaging must be inseparable from the constantly shifting projections of ideal anatomical shape delineated in those old, dog-eared (possibly from pawing by covert adolescent hands) mail order catalogues.

Marcia said...

This Dorn poem and the images of the dry, desolate land bring back the few stories I remember about the Dust Bowl. I wish I'd asked more questions. I wish the elders would have talked more about the days. I do remember hearing of the never-ending dust and wind and heat, the grasshoppers eating everything and clinging to people's clothes, and lard sandwiches in school lunch buckets. One thing that still existed in my day was the Sears Roebuck catalog. It was a treat to study, and as the short clip from the woman in Texas showed, once it was well-worn, it served yet another purpose.

One couldn't help but think about those dark, dusty days while the midsection of our country burned under 100+ degrees much of this past summer. Now one can't help but think about those desolate times as we try to see through the flying dirt of politics....

TC said...


Maybe the experience of surviving (or fleeing) those looming walls of dust and biblical plagues of grasshoppers and locusts was so overwhelming it could not be easily spoken of.

About the bonus function of the Sears Roebuck catalogue pages, I do remember going out to the country to visit the farm of my Uncle Jack and Aunt Sadie (to neither of whom of course we were actually related), and finding those scattered palimpsests of bits of ads for dresses and shoes and so on, conveniently stacked right there for instant access in the privy.