Summer 2004


Summer 2004

Crossing America CD Puts Leo Connellan To Music

Wayne NJ's, which recently released a CD of the late poet Leo Connellan reading all 30 sections of 'Crossing America," with full musical interpretation, is to be congratulated on producing a work of great force and power that grows in likeability with each hearing.

Created by an intrepid group of producers who were both lucky and industrious, the CD brings to dramatic life the work of a poet who, for all his awards and recognitions, has not yet achieved the renown his work ought to command.

Leo Connellan (1928-2001), originally from Portland Maine, was poet laureate of Connecticut, was awarded the Shelley Memorial Award from the PSA (for the 1982 "Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country), and was a writer who was praised by both the Bohemians and the Academic during his lifetime. In fact Connellan regularly won the praise of such established figures as Karl Shapiro, Richard Eberhart, Hayden Carruth, Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur.

Yet in his career he remained very much an outsider - perhaps because Connellan is a writer whose stance straddle worlds, one of those whose gift is both gruff as the earth and yet schooled by the grim unyielding demands of the intellect.

Now, with a CD of his work which has been released and is circulating in the New York area - through at PO Box 4308 Wayne NJ 07474; - the possibility emerges that a new public will be exposed to the work of a man who portrayed vividly the honest and passionate, and sometimes the stalking and the helpless, underbelly of America.

Connellan, declared Paragon House when they published his collected poems in 1989, "belongs squarely among Whitman's landscape of roving energy and spirit." Richard Wilbur called his poetry vivid, harsh, spare, surely cadenced and colloquially eloquent." They both missed a key word - monumental: "Crossing America," published in 1976, has a monumental quality to it.

It belongs in the category of the memorable writing of the twentieth century which is Whitmanian, in fact, mixing into its fundamental elegaic adoration of America's expanse a social and psychological consciousness missing in 19th century diction. To go along with Walt's incredible sense of celebration, here is alienation, protest and a profound sense of loss or failure in the shadow of America's literary tramps hoofing it across the continent.

James Dickey tries in his poem, "Folksinger of the Thirties," but against Connellan's work Dickey's pales - as hypothetical and distant compared to the "Crossing America," which thoroughly convinces us that he's lived the tale he's telling.

It also surpasses, one might argue easily, Bukowski. This is poetry that is far more than an the angel/derelict pose, entertaining and authentic as Bukowski's beer-soaked musings may be. No less a critical authority than the Hudson Review affirms this view, saying without compunction that Connellan writes "much better than Charles Bukowski, but with the same unrelenting fierceness, fueled by what he has seen of this country's underside."

This is nowhere more evident than in 'Crossing America,' written in America's bicentennial year, seemingly with an acute consciousness of that fact.

'Crossing America' is quite simply an astounding work, a pastiche of snapshots and vignettes told in thirty sections. This long poem, dedicated to "the woman who crossed America with me" by Connellan, stands shoulder to shoulder with the works of great mid-20th century American story-tellers - Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, Hart Crane and John Steinbeck - for its scope, richness and trans-continental sweep.

We are confronted by the freezing shotgun moments on abandoned roads, suspicious and dangerous encounters in one room backwash shacks. Connellan plums the miserable depths of cold and loneliness, mercy and desperation, innocence and devotion, and even love, in section after section - as in Minook Illinois:

Minook Illinois,
one street ouf of no where through cornstocks.
winter clutched the cornfields into Chicago.
Cold, we couldn't get in out of the cold.

But a lonely filling station owner risked
letting his death in out of the night.
I lay on his gas station floor and let her
use me as a bed.

I will never forget the cold into
my kidneys or lying awake bearing the
pain while she slept like a two month
old child on the hill of its mother's tit.

It was on that stone floor
that I knew I loved her

It is composed of a myriad of rich small town American vignettes from a lost time when sheriffs ran drifters out of town, work gangs worked the apple country and cross-country hustlers whisked loose dollar bills from drunks in unwary midwestern bars. Appropriately to the time of its publication during the nation's bicentennial, there is a harkening to a lost American wildness: "You are gone like buffalo never/existed in my time, except up from Pueblo,/Colorado, freak herd for truck diner/steaks now. In a museum for children/who will never know they roamed/open plains as you whistled on a halo/of congealed smoke through quiet/back-o-towns pulling our nation together/like a stubborn zipper."

The work is also infused with literary allusion, frequently direct, and directed toward poetic icons - Whitman, Lorca, Frost, Hart Crane.

Sometime the reference leads Connellan to the elegaic, even in his hard-bitten weighed down New England overcoat twang, as in the brilliant section III on Vermont: "Frost lived in blood spouting green/and white blinding snow and was/stronger than anything that could/kill him, but finally death yanking him out/of the world he would never have left."

But the poet is also capable of crying out against social malaise. "Federico! we must not/mark our Bicentennial/until no man can languish//or die imprisoned in a land/of the free and the brave" he writes, addressing Lorca, "you and I are bitter together." Or here, in Section XI: "Walt Whitman, because our whole song/springs from the nest of your whiskers, I/scream to you of poor people..." Connellan goes on to chastise poets from Allen Ginsberg to Gertrude Stein and Hart Crane for not noticing as poverty rotted through the body of the American people ("Allen Ginsberg, what on earth is Gertrude Stein/doing to you down in your Cherry Valley...//Hart Crane, while you were noting/the telephone poles stretching across our ghost...")

Time and again Connellan proves himself capable of calling forth a voice possessed with the pungency of sourdough bread, haunted by experience - arresting as skunk cabbage in a new spring hollow. He hovers between presenting himself as a lost drifting son, an egregious hustler fleecing women and drunks, and an alter ego of the lost generation of working men set awash across hobo America during the Depression era. "The apple country when/Sunday smelled of our taste buds,/our loneliness rattled in freight..."

It should also be noted that there is frequently in the work a barely restrained power and unmasked wrath at the domineering of fathers anywhere.

"For all the years unable to cope I
write this, for all the ruined children
of others pacing their lives out in white
rooms I write this, stab me with thorns
of roses for writing this, let ground glass
be in all I eat for the loathesome back handed
ingrate treachery of writing this, but youth
does not dust its trail in the whim of the old man."

One might argue that a work with qualities like these deserves to be examined as one of the major achievements of American poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. And one might hope that the newly released CD could prompt such a reexamination.

The story of how the CD came to pass makes for compelling reading in itself. It seems Leo met a group of musicians in Connecticut from a local arts collective called Hoobellatoo, who heard him read a poem in his 'skid-row lobsterman's twang' and were smitten. That moment occurred in Willimantic, Ct, in the basement of Curbstone Press, recording some local poets, notes Chris King of Skuntry, when Leo departed from the scripted session during a break and read from a portion of Crossing America. It was brutal, frank and lyrical, and King and others were stunned.

Michael Shannon Friedman of was later to call the poem a work which 'considers America itself as a kind of poem, a desolate hymn to beauty, pain and loss...a testimony to the possibilities of encounter' with the road. Of Connellan's poetic oeuvre, he aptly notes its 'disenfranchised, too-emotionally candid" nature, "not talk-show enough for the culture of victimization and complaint."

The poem reflects on Connellan's 1950s jaunts hitch hiking across America.

"We hitchhiked America. I
still think of her.

I walk the old streets thinking I
see her, but never.

New buildings have gone up.
The bartenders who poured roses
into our glasses are gone.
We are erased."

Thankfully, notes King, the mike was not off, and for the rest of that field recording journey he and his friends "wore out a cassette dub of Leo's reading." It wasn't until later that King learned that what they had heard was only one section of the thirty-section epic, and were able to get Connellan to record the entire work.

After recording Connellan reading the poem in its entirety, King and friends reckoned that the material amounted to 37 minutes, it turned out, and after living inside the poem for awhile, determined to coax a range of musicians to work up musical interpretations for each section.

That effort brought them on a pilgrimage to locations around the nation as diverse as Brooklyn and New Jersey to Vermont, Maine and rural Illinois. They recorded Matt Fuller in a garage in Los Angles, William Teague on the South Side of St Louis, an anonymous tuba player at an herb store and a brass band at a high school. "We crossed America with Leo's poem," said King.

The result is compilation of a panoply of music, as varied and diverse as America. There's the plaintive, front-porch harmonica work of Pops Farmer (and Rich Hubbs' backwoods banjo). There are shattered modernist pianistic moments, courtesy of Nate Shaw. Moody trumpet and bass work come from the artistry of the Esser Brothers. Dave Stone Trio's incredibly driving be-bop sax racing through passages.

Quite a few of the strongest pieces carry a mountain-home rangy angularity to them, as written and performed by Three Fried Men, including the sections on Green Vermont, True With Silence, and Just Around The Corner From Night. This group offers up a funky roadhouse sound, three wheels on the ground, some crazy combination of Lowell George, Tom Waits and Zappa, authentic and tangential as a hobbling and hungover country drunk.

And a clear highlight of the CD is the chain gang thrust of The Apple Country, performed by Rosco Gordon & The Rotten Dogs.




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