Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Small Town Beating of My Heart

One of the things I grew to appreciate about traveling across the country was seeing small town America. There was a time, when I was much younger and in a hurry to get wherever I was going, that I would do whatever it took to avoid these little towns. They slowed me down, kept me from my destination and, at the time, I'd seen all I wanted to see of small town America in my own life. Rarely was I heading for a city, so it wasn't the towns themselves I wanted to leave behind, it was the mindset that seemed to go with them. The mindset might still exist - in my own small town I see evidence of it with a certain regularity - but I've gotten to the place where it no longer matters. What matters is the mindset I have for my own life. Now, when I travel, I like going through them to see what's happening and what they tell me about our country. Those same small towns I once eschewed invite me to play at being someone somewhere else and I have fun imagining what might be, given another life. Here's the poem that sparked the thought:

"Passing Through a Small Town"

Here the highways cross. One heads north. One heads east
and west. On the corner of the square adjacent to the
courthouse a bronze plaque marks the place where two Civil
War generals faced one another and the weaker surrendered.
A few pedestrians pass. A beauty parlor sign blinks. As I turn
to head west, I become the schoolteacher living above the
barber shop. Polishing my shoes each evening. Gazing at the
square below. In time I befriend the waitress at the cafe and
she winks as she pours my coffee. Soon people begin to
talk. And for good reason. I become so distracted I teach my
students that Cleopatra lost her head during the French
Revolution and that Leonardo perfected the railroad at the
height of the Renaissance. One day her former lover returns
from the army and creates a scene at the school. That evening
she confesses she cannot decide between us. But still we spend
one last night together. By the time I pass the grain elevators
on the edge of town I am myself again. The deep scars of love
already beginning to heal.

~ David Shumate

Note: I like what the poet says about his preference for the prose form: "[Prose poetry] allows me to use narrative and lyrical elements in ways that line break poetry does not. I find that it corresponds to my breathing, to the cadence of my heart."

The photographs are mine, taken in Valentine, Nebraska.


  1. Hello Teresa:
    There is certainly something very apposite about the rhythm of this poem and the pace of life in a small town such as the poet describes.With time on one's hands, the mind can wander and weave its magic into the most mundane of things or experiences.

  2. The poem is excellent and the whole piece is thought-provoking. I wonder if there is a British equivalent to the American small town. I doubt it due to the distances involved. Ever village over here is near a town, every town near a city.

  3. I appreciate learning more about poetry from you, Teresa. Today, prose poetry comes into my life, though it was always there, I didn't know that it had a name.

    I, too, enjoy the small towns I would have bypassed in my early years. I've always loved small towns, I just haven't always respected them. Shumate's poem really recalls the small town in Iowa that Tom's dad grew up in. It had the feel of of Shumate's words when we visited it last fall.

    This was another lovely post.

  4. Small town America figures so much in movies. I have always liked dawdling around in them. But, unlike you, I did not have to deal with them when I was growing up. Guess I wouldn't feel the same if I had.

  5. I am not sure what constitutes a "small town." It seems to me that my small town of Boulder is not what you are talking about here. I love that prose poem. It is just perfect as it is.

  6. There are small towns like those lovely New England villages, and there are small towns like the southern town I grew up in — narrow-minded places which profess to believe in freedom, but do everything within their power to limit the expression of it individually. As you can see, I will never totally recover, and as a result, I always approach small southern towns with a bit of fear and trembling. I sometimes think I would rather live in a city and know no one than live in a small southern town and know everyone.

  7. The simplicity and innocence of a Mayberry is long gone.

    Never to return again.

  8. There is good and bad both in a small town. Today I had to go to a city, a small one but a city none the less. A small town suddenly became so much better.

  9. Dear Teresa, your posting today spoke to me clearly. I am accepting the fact that I will probably have to spend the rest of my life here in Missouri. And I, who am a liberal Democrat, find that living among so many conservative and evangelical Republicans is trying. I feel like an alien in a strange land--a stranger in a strange line to quote Heinlein.

    And yet, as you say about the mindset of small towns, "What matters is the mindset I have for my own life." And this I think can be a salutary lesson for me. I can live here so long as I look deep within myself for what home is. I need to ponder this. Peace.

  10. Isn't it funny, how time and experience change the very world that we see?

  11. In our youth the small towns threaten to close us down - I dreaded them and suburbia too, in the UK it seemed to me to be caught in such a place would be like being buried alive. But now as you say what counts is the mindsets for our own life.

    Love the poem. I've been enjoying prose poetry lately especially that of Robert Hass

  12. I've always thought the smaller the town the larger the personality. My rare ventures into town are fun. And I no longer feel capable of judging anyone else since I figured out I was far, far away from being perfect (ha!).

    A wonderful poem. You sure know how to find great poetry.

  13. Going to a town ice cream socila everyone wanted to know hwho I was, hoping perhaps a old family memeber. I love to go and hear all ther storries.

  14. Small towns are great to visit. I love doing that. I love going in to local cafes and shops and 'feeling' the town.

    Always interesting and always intriguing as to what will make me want to stay and play or bypass or stay for a moment then go.

    Middle and large cities the same way. Towns and cities have vibes - energy. Fascinating stuff - travel.

  15. Teresa, I like what you say about wanting to leave behind the mindset of a small town - but then realizing it is your own mindset that matters. I've always appreciated quaint, small towns as I pass through them but never had to live in one until a few years ago. Moving beyond their mindset and embracing my own - that's a challenge.

  16. Thanks, Everyone, for your comments and thoughts. I'm always grateful that people take the time to read and respond.

  17. "One [highway] heads north. One heads east
    and west." From such three-way intersections, which were apparently as common in ancient Roman villages as they still are in the small towns of modern America, comes the word trivial.