Finding Direction Through Local Poetry In 'Compass Roads'

Mar 26, 2019

I stood in a field of dirt beside the Connecticut River on a very cold but sunny day, considering what about this setting might inspire a person to write poetry.

"It's beautiful here in the fall," poet and bookseller Forrest Proper said, "when you get the whole vista of the fall leaves — and the Connecticut River with the leaves. It should inspire more poetry. More people should stand out here on a 12-degree day in December, and be inspired to write poems!"

Proper did write one. His poem, "The Fields of Hatfield," is among more than 100 previously-unpublished poems in a small, recently released book, "Compass Roads." It was edited by the prolific author and editor Jane Yolen.

Poet Forrest Proper reads from the anthology "Compass Roads" at an elbow of the Connecticut River in Hatfield, Massachusetts.
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR

"I see it as a kind of compass that you could have with you when you travel around the valley," Yolen said. "I'd go, 'Oh, wait a minute, there's a poem about this,' and stop and read that poem aloud when you're at the place."

Though all of the poems are about the Pioneer Valley, they take many forms. There are rhymed poems, non-rhymed poems, poems about people and about place.

"Some of them are going to be very surprising to people," Yolen said.

One of the book's surprising poems is "Eating Crow," written by poet Marian Kent. The setting? A gas station in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. Her poem is just 11 lines long.

The Sunoco on Armory Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, inspired the poem "Eating Crow."
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR
Marian Kent's poem, "Eating Crow," in the book "Compass Roads."
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR

Kent said she wrote "Eating Crow" after the 2016 election. As part of her work commute, she would pass by Springfield's Armory Street.

"In the fall, there is actually an amazing display of bird life flying overhead," she said. "It's not happening right now, but after work there would be just a huge number — hundreds of these crows flying back and forth across the street."

I was still thinking about birds as I drove 60 miles northwest toward the hills to understand and absorb a poem by Diana Gordon called "On West Hill Road." Coincidentally, it's also about birds — excerpted here:

My car and I stop for the slender hens,

like a clique of schoolgirls with straight calves,

ignoring the boys, puffed-out Toms

working so hard to be noticed — all those exhausting feathers held erect,

heads exploding ice-blue,

wattled red stoplights shining through the mist,

—I might marry the last one standing if I were a hen,

and he would be my turkey hero,

but my Honda and I must leave

their timelessness., these little dinosaurs that survive.

Gordon said "On West Hill Road" was inspired by the geography and history of Hawley, Massachusetts.

"It’s way high, and it’s very twisty and windy," she said. "And I was passing farm houses, and was thinking what it was like to build this road and be up here."

Gordon said her poems are often more imaginative than the one selected for the anthology. But while her poem is about what she thought the road was like centuries ago, she said the turkeys she included were very real.

Diana Gordon stands on the side of the narrow, twisted road where she set her poem "On West Hill Road" in Hawley, Massachusetts.
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR

Gordon imagines readers might use "Compass Roads" in a very different way than how Jane Yolen described.

"You probably put it in your bathroom, and you pick it up every now and again, when you need to," Gordon said.

"Compass Roads" is a book of poems about our region that you can read… anywhere.