Snapshots of a boy’s life in Nebraska

Issue 2020, vol. 74

Review of Joseph Gascho, Cornfields, Cottonwoods, Seagulls, and Sermons: Growing Up in Nebraska (DreamSeeker Poetry Series, Cascadia Publishing, 2019)

This book of poems by a Mennonite cardiologist called to my mind William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), the American physician and man of letters who was said to have scrawled his short poems on a prescription pad in his office. Like Williams – whose major work was about a place, Paterson, N.J. – in this book of poems, Gascho focuses on his Nebraska boyhood on a farm near Grand Island and on the people of Wood River Mennonite Church, which his father pastored. Though Gascho left Nebraska at age 13 when his parents moved to Harrisonburg, Va., to give him better schooling and opportunities, the images of his early life and the people he knew then follow him into adulthood and haunt his psyche. He shares with Williams an interest in the local and concrete, and linguistic choices rooted in common speech and the real.

We have here a gathering of poems about, as the title suggests, that “goodly heritage” Gascho invokes as an epigraph from Psalm 16:6 – not from the first-person “I” of some autobiographical or confessional poems, but rather from the omniscient narrative eye that follows “the boy” of these poems. The boy “milks the Jersey . . . held down the pigs as his father made the cuts . . . there was the brown shawl the boy knitted but never wore . . . after the boy has taken his weekly bath . . . the boy goes out to the field to change the irrigation tubes . . . On a good day the boy can turn over fifteen acres.”

Gascho uses a photographer’s eye to show the reader snapshots of the boy’s life in Nebraska. This tactical use of the third person gives the book a kind of universality about a time and place that would be lost had he used the first-person “I” to document a distinctly Joseph Gascho experience.

The point of view also contributes to a sense of the peoplehood of those who are part of that “goodly heritage.” The second section of poems. titled “The boy sits in the second pew, beaming,” comprises more than 30 poems about family members: ancestors he never knew as well as his parents and his older sister Hope.

The poems about Gascho’s father are especially poignant when we realize that the reason the family left Nebraska was to give the boy an education and a better life. “His mother always told the boy his dad/had hoped to be a doctor, but had to quit/school after eight grades to plow the land.” The adult Gascho reflects that his father would have walked out of med school classes when “the anatomy professor flashed the Playboy breasts on the screen” or “when he woke at 4 a.m. in the call room/to find the night-shift nurse naked in his bed” (82) and yet, “the boy cannot forget how gently/his father smeared salve/on the cat’s sore paw, and how/the cat purred as the gauze/was wrapped round and round.” Throughout the poems, there is this sense of harking back to embrace that place he first knew as a boy, measuring his adult life against those beginnings.

The first two sections of the book – “He is five now, right?” about boyhood, and the family poems, of “The boy sits…” – comprise the bulk of the book, with 32 poems in each. The last three sections are much shorter.

“A dot on a Nebraska map” includes poems about specific places in Nebraska – Cairo, Grand Island, Wood River, Rural Route 3, Wood River Mennonite Church. Section Four, “He knows he will be something else,” includes coming-of-age poems. The last section, a kind of postscript of only four poems, “Rings of years,” gives us the poet of a certain age looking back. “Shingling the Barn Roof” concludes, “And now in later years,/ high on the academic roof,/he finds himself gazing down/to where he’s been,/wondering how he’d reached this height,/wondering when the shingling /is done, are there other barns?”

The title “Rings of years” comes from the last poem in the book, “Cottonwood Coffin,” in which the poet wishes for a cottonwood coffin made from a tree from the old home place whose stump “will show the rings of years of growth,/each ring outside/for one whole year/for all to see,/no rot at the core/that would in time/have killed the tree” (130). A cardiologist’s sentiment, yes, that fear of rot at the core; also the sentiment of a pious preacher’s son.

Throughout the book, one sees the photographer-poet Gascho’s nostalgia for the natural images he recalls from growing up in Nebraska if, indeed, he has outgrown the stern pieties. In many of the poems, the natural beauty and simplicity of his boyhood are weighed against the grown man’s recognition of how far life has taken him from those times.

In “Reading the Sunday New York Times,” the poet begins by reflecting on the Sabbath practices his father maintained when Gascho was a boy: doing extra chores on Saturday “so there’d be less work on Sunday”; filling up the Ford on Friday so as not to have to buy gas on the Lord’s Day; packing sandwiches to drive somewhere on Sunday so as not to have to pay cash for food or require someone else’s labors. The adult cardiologist reflects back from present time in the last verse, remembering that other long-gone way of spending the Sabbath: “He stops on the way home from rounds/for lunch and reads the New York Times book reviews./He tips the waitress an extra dollar./She’s running all over the place,/the after-church crowd is so large.” The poet does not judge – he merely observes how time has changed his circumstances.

Not surprisingly, I found the poems of the first section to be the most lyrical and moving. For example, in “Becoming a Man,” Gascho does not feel his manhood so much when he helps pull a calf or backs the wagon of wheat into the tight shed just in the nick of time before the hail hits. Rather, it is “when he turns thirteen/and pushes his niece Janet/around the block in her carriage/and an old lady with bifocals/and a blue coat stops them,/pulls aside the blanket, and tells him/what a beautiful baby he has” (32).

There are other poems where Gascho appears to have inherited his father’s gentleness and a kind of maternal nurturance one would wish for in one’s cardiologist. For example, there is self-criticism and empathy in “Sandhill Cranes,” a poem that describes the adult poet returning with his Nikon to see the Sandhill cranes on the Platte near Kearney, only 30 miles from where he had grown up. He admits he is irked that his teacher never mentioned the cranes, even imagines her not wanting to go see so many birds for fear of getting droppings on her clean windshield. In the beautiful final stanza, the poet self-corrects: “He didn’t know the walls/of her little house, half a mile/from the school, were plastered/with paintings of the cranes/bowing, leaping, dancing,/and that she had a 78-rpm/recording of a pair trumpeting,/sonorous sounds emanating from/their coiled windpipes in their sternums,/and that Miss Waters didn’t want/to share this wonder with anyone” (43).

I am moved by the poet’s humility here, his recognition that those purveyors of the rural culture of his childhood were indeed, people with aesthetic appreciation. He seems to suggest here that they knew more than he gave them credit for in his leaving. A number of the poems hint at why he chose to become a doctor. “Hardening of the Arteries” depicts the young boy asking, after learning of Otto Schultz’s death from hardening of the arteries, whether the arteries were hard like cement. And in “Jungle Doctor,” he wonders where his mother found the books of Dr. White, describing “how he fought Schistosomiasis, cut/out cancers, and on Sundays preached the Word/in Tanganyika, books the boy devoured/like Mom’s bread hot out of the oven./He still keeps the first volume, safe between/Grey’s Anatomy and Feigenbaum’s Principles/of Echocardiography on the top shelf in his study” (113).

A perfect poem for the way the poet works in this book is “Sunrises and Sunsets.” “He cannot decide/if the two-hour climb/to the top to see the sun/rise and the lights/from all the little towns/blinking off is better/than his memory of the sun/setting over the acres of corn,/not a tree in sight,/only two yard lights,/just turned on, a mile away” (52).