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'The Hill' from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction by Stu Hennigan

This is a real curio; a collection of free verse poems in which over two hundred people who have lived and died in the town of Spoon River, Illinois, narrate their life stories from where they lie in the cemetery overlooking the town.

The wonderfully named cast of characters - “Indignation” Jones, “Butch” Weldy, Willard Fluke, Griffy the Cooper, Russian Sonia, Mrs Purkapile - hail from all levels of society and walks of life; in allowing the dead to speak for themselves (pre-dating Addie Bundren’s monologue from her coffin in As I Lay Dying by a good fifteen years) and including overlapping details from poem to poem, Masters paints a vivid picture of a complete community and its interrelations in all their glorious complexity. There’s a real sense of stepping back in time, reading these now, a hauntological trip to a lost America, resurrected by the voices of the dead, some of whom were apparently based on real people in the author’s residence of Lewistown.

Towards the end comes The Spooniad, (“The late Mr. Jonathan Swift Somers, laureate of Spoon River (see page 111), planned The Spooniad as an epic in twenty-four books, but unfortunately did not live to complete even the first book. The fragment was found among his papers by William Marion Reedy and was for the first time published in Reedy’s Mirror of December 18th, 1914,” says the annotation), a poem-within-a-poem about the town and its denizens, written in life by one of the dead who has already given voice to his own story. This metatextual element is amazingly modern and hugely appealing to me, as is the overall conceit/form, all of which is executed with the intricate precision of a watchmaker.

I harbour a long-standing love for a certain type of greyscale Americana – the kind of stuff Willy Vlautin does so well now, following the footsteps of JT Leroy, Raymond Carver, the Great Denis Johnson, John Fante et al. Retrace those tracks a little further and your path will lead you right back to Spoon River, where “The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter...All are sleeping on the hill.”

The Hill

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley, The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter? All, all are sleeping on the hill. One passed in a fever, One was burned in a mine, One was killed in a brawl, One died in a jail, One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife — All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill. Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith, The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one? — All, all are sleeping on the hill. One died in shameful child-birth, One of a thwarted love, One at the hands of a brute in a brothel, One of a broken pride, in the search for heart's desire, One after life in far-away London and Paris Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag — All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill. Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily, And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton, And Major Walker who had talked With venerable men of the revolution? — All, all are sleeping on the hill. They brought them dead sons from the war, And daughters whom life had crushed, And their children fatherless, crying — All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill. Where is Old Fiddler Jones Who played with life all his ninety years, Braving the sleet with bared breast, Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin, Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven? Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago, Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary's Grove, Of what Abe Lincoln said One time at Springfield.

Stu Hennigan is a writer, poet and musician from the north of England. His book Ghost Signs was shortlisted for Best Non-fiction at the 2022 Books Are My Bag Wards, and Best Political Book By A Non-Parliamentarian at the 2022 Parliamentary Book Awards, and was listed by Blackwells as one of their Books of the Year. His fiction, essays and poetry have been published in print and online by Lunate, Massive Overheads, 3:AM, Lune Journal, Expat Lit, Visual Verse and others. He also works as Senior Librarian For Stock and Reader Development for the library service in Leeds.

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