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Ozarks economy in poetry, or what was Frederick Seidel thinking?


They bring the Dow Jones into the Ozarks and the Ozarks into the E.U.
A raving flash flood vomits out of a raindrop. The Western World is in the I.C.U.

What?

My eye caught the unexpected words “canoe” and “Ozarks” words as I was reading an article in the Jan. 10 issue of The New Yorker. The words appeared in a poem called “Rain” on the same page as the article I was reading.

The poet is Frederick Seidel, born in St. Louis in 1936. The poem begins by referring to events of the spring of 2010, “The coldest spring in living memory everywhere,” the recession, “teen vampires are the teen obsession,” Germany’s reluctant economic aid to Greece, a heat wave in Texas, and floods in Tennessee.

Suddenly the poem shifts to the Ozarks:

Canoeing in the Ozarks with Pierre Leval, the rains came down so hard
The river rose twenty-three feet in the pre-dawn hours and roared
Came the dawn, there was improbably a lifeguard,
There was a three-legged dog, the jobless numbers soared.
Dreamers woke in the dark and drowned, with time to think this can’t be true.
Incomprehensible is something these things do.
They bring the Dow Jones into the Ozarks and the Ozarks into the E.U.
A raving flash flood vomits out of a raindrop. The Western world is in the I.C.U.

Get the picture?

Here’s what I think Seidel is writing about in the quoted stanza. External events (the rain) change everything locally. In the ensuing chaos we see the improbable (the lifeguard) and the maimed survivor (the dog). But we’re still in the larger economic environment (joblessness and the Dow Jones in the Ozarks and the Ozarks in the E.U.). Pierre Leval is a federal appellate judge from New York and Seidel’s friend.

The doomed dreamers were not spared the horror of their fate. With the interconnected world, when things are bad in many places, the Western world is in the I.C.U., a distinction that implies that Asia might be doing fine.

But a city guy can’t visit the Ozarks, even metaphorically, without the hillbilly smear. The final stanza starts with more description of the flood, which uncannily evokes the flood scene in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” with a three-legged dog playing the role of the cow.

Entire trees rocket past. One wouldn’t stand a chance in the canoe.
A three-legged dog appears, then the guy it belongs to.
You instantly knew
You’d run into a hillbilly backwoods crazy, itching to kill you.
Berlin and Athens, as the Western world flickers,
Look up blinking in the rain and lick the rain and shiver and freeze.
They open black umbrellas and put on yellow slickers
And weep sugar like honeybees dying of the bee disease.

Seidel, like many St. Louisans and other city dwellers, seems to view the Ozarks as Deliverance Country, a concept that was created by another poet, James Dickey. Dickey wrote the novel Deliverance and the screenplay of the movie and played the sheriff in the movie. An anonymous poet concisely sums up the concept as, “Paddle faster, I hear banjos.”

If you’re curious about Seidel, check out this 2-minute YouTube recording of him reading one of his poems. There’s no video, just his photo. He has a real pretty mouth.

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About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

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