ew literary motifs are as American as that of the open road. From Huck and Jim’s raft ride down the Mississippi, to the Joad family’s drive from Oklahoma to California after their crops are destroyed in the Dust Bowl, to fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross’s ride from Fort Smith, Arkansas, into the wilderness to avenge her father’s death—to go on the road means freedom, adventure, the shucking of responsibilities, and the promise of a better future, especially if that road heads west. Walt Whitman sums up these hopes in the beginning of his poem “Song of the Open Road”: “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me, / The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.”
The road in Johnathon Williams’s thoughtful first collection, The Road to Happiness, however, is a road that runs through rural western Arkansas, and the speaker is not on it. These poems are to Arkansas what Robert Frost’s poems are to New England: they are poems deeply rooted in a physical place, with copperheads, locust shells, and blackberries; kilns, pork rinds, and Walmart, too; and they are spoken by a colloquial voice that calls mud wasps “dirt daubers,” refers to the mentally challenged as “retards,” and commands dogs to “turn loose” when their jaws lock on something they shouldn’t. Like Frost, Williams explores a primal darkness and isolation, using the constraints of blank verse and the sonnet to order the chaos of a difficult life and quiet what would otherwise be unmanageable feelings. Ultimately, he shows us the frustration and clarity of vision that come when one physically and emotionally stays put.
The title poem appears several pages into the collection, but the first road we’re introduced to lies at the end of the first poem, a sonnet reminiscent of Arkansan James Whitehead, heavy on stressed syllables and Saxon-rooted words. In “Mena, AR” we are first offered a gritty but seemingly bucolic evocation of place:
Well pump and iron water, the spigot sucked by dirty mouths, one after the other, country boys abandoned to the summer, to dry creek and wet forest, beating copperheads from the honeysuckle, snatching blackberries from the thorns:
And while a cursory read suggests a summer paradise for country boys, the details make it clear that in Johnathon Williams’s Mena, sweet-smelling flowers hide deadly snakes, and fruit must be “snatched” from the thorny bushes. The sonnet’s turn is typical of Williams, when we learn that the boys “fear only Sunday, / the minister and his fat, sweaty hands.” Where a lesser poet would suggest that these boys fear Sunday because of its cliché constrictions, or introduce a molesting or at least hypocritical minister, Williams makes the poetic turn subtler and therefore more unsettling. The boys’ freedom is actually the kind of terrifying abandonment that Philip Larkin describes in his poem “High Windows,” where the freewheeling contemporary lack of social strictures is compared to what can be seen in the high windows of a church: “the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” The boys of Mena fear the afterlife because they will be trapped there, “stuck in a place where fall will never come,/and eternity is the dust-beaten road / past the homes where no one wants them.”
This tension between the narrator’s longing for and fear of freedom rides along with the reader through the rest of the book. For Williams, leaving is only a dream. When the speaker looks out at the headlights passing on I-55 at nightfall, he fantasizes about disappearing.
tomorrow they would find a car, a wallet, a cell phone—twelve missed calls, the side of the road. The overpass camera would show: no hazards, no harm. A silhouette wading into the wheat. Fifty miles of lidless night. A farmhouse, a porch. Their single, meager light.
But it’s clear throughout the collection that—whatever we may dream of—Williams believes that we are inextricably bound to each other as son and father, husband and wife, writer and subject. Even Whitman, traveling on his open road, admits that
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens; I carry them, men and women—I carry them with me wherever I go; I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them; I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
Unlike Frost (perhaps more like E.A. Robinson?) Williams introduces us to those who people his Arkansas, in unsparing but compassionate portraits: the men and women foraging moss along the creek for twenty dollars a pound; the Christian Motorcycle Association arriving in town for its annual rally; Pentecostal girls in the high school marching band. The focus, though, is on the relationships between his narrator and two characters. One is a beloved father who sickens and dies broke, leaving behind a barn full of lumber he sawed and a family who will shortly declare bankruptcy and lose the speaker’s childhood home. The other is a bride the narrator meets and marries when they are still in high school. They marry on a school night, then after, sit upright on his “twin bed like witnesses / to a car accident where no one / was at fault.” Rather than consummate the marriage, they “dress her dolls in the diapers / everyone assumed we needed.” Years later, the speaker cannot manage to love or leave her, a woman who “only ever says the sweetest things: / Love you, and miss you, and what do you want / for dinner?”
But the most heartfelt addresses in these poems are not made directly to these people; instead, they are made to the night, the wilderness, abandoned buildings, imagined women, and ghosts. A consistent roadblock in the world that Williams masterfully constructs is the fragility of human connections, the inability to actually speak out, and the tendency of the world to disintegrate around us. The speaker dreams of other women, but feels terribly guilty about it. He only manages to have imaginary conversations with these women in the yard at night, or to deliver a soliloquy to a peephole in the door of apartment 9, behind which lives the woman he saw earlier, reading Goethe in the laundromat. The estranged wife is usually addressed at night, when she is elsewhere and asleep. Out alone on a one-lane bridge, having left his wife sleeping in their anniversary bed, the speaker asks, “And you, my fair, my sweet unnamed: / How like you these spindling rails, / these splintered boards? Are you tired— / are you sleeping, too? Have you any idea?” He seems to long for her to reach out to him; his most erotic memory of her takes place in their high-school days, when she calls him out for taunting a student in the lunchroom: “Jesus, the arch / of her back. Her fists and hair. My shame and joy.”
One gets a sense that silence is part of this world, and that the speaker learned his silence from his father. Near the end of the collection, the speaker says to his father’s ghost, “ ‘In truth I’m just like you,’ / meaning, few friends, and my heart / a frog’s satcheled throat, buzzing with secrets.” The image most closely associated with the father throughout these poems is the sawdust from the lumber he cuts: “cherry, ash, and oak—cedar, maple, and pine,” words the father says with “a kind / of reverence most men reserve for their lovers / or wives.” His cotton shirts are still sweet with the smell of sawdust even after his funeral, the disintegration of the wood like the disintegration of the father’s plans, and the dissolution of the broken household.
So where is the road to happiness? And does Johnathon Williams think he’s on it? The only time Williams explicitly addresses the idea of a road to happiness is early in the collection, in the title poem, when he states that for some, the road to happiness ends “at Roger’s Rec, / in shuffleboard and cigarettes / near the beer-only bar.” It’s implied that the men who frequent Roger’s know themselves, and that, if self-knowledge only leads them there,
the jukebox stuck on Skynyrd, the lost and found of prepaid cell phones, the dollar pitchers every Tuesday am—well, better that than the dinner table drone of doctor’s appointments and report cards, Little League games and church potlucks: all subsumed beneath a sudden, batting wind, as of a man falling from a precipice, a plane.
But if this is the either/or of the world Williams gives us, one suspects that the narrator also knows that he is not quite fit to be one of the crowd at Roger’s any more than he is quite fit for the current incarnation of his domestic life. These men wish only to shut out the dinner table drone; Williams’s speaker wants this, too, but he also knows Bosch, and quotes Ovid and Goethe. This end of the road to happiness is one of forgetting and oblivion. Williams’ speaker, on the other hand, can’t help but be attached, and remember. The last two poems in the book, “Reunion” and “Morning Fire,” address once more the dead father, and in the final poem, the father is remembered lighting a fire in the stove in the morning. The narrative is reminiscent of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” but in this poem, the father is temporarily more powerful than nature, a man “the morning must have feared.” “I have never seen such stillness,” the speaker says, “as when the match trembled in your hand.” The image also suggests that Williams’s speaker, who has hesitated emotionally throughout this collection, knows he must eventually act. I can’t help but feel that Williams might agree, again, with Robert Frost when Frost says, “I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places.”
The physical “desert places” of Arkansas that Williams so eloquently inhabits in his writing are disappearing. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton became president, stock and real estate values soared, and the stars of Walmart and Tyson Foods ascended. A few miles north of Mena and the Ouachita Mountains, the population of northwest Arkansas exploded. The area acquired an international airport, an interstate, and chain restaurants and hotels. New suburbs and McMansions strained its utility grid. Many of the area’s single-lane bridges of the kind Williams writes about have been replaced by four-lane highways, the creeks they cross rendered nearly invisible. In “Trespassing in My Childhood Home,” Williams’s speaker returns to his childhood home in the middle of the night, where he trespasses and breaks into the well house which was once his work to tend:
Here was the kiln where he dried the long boards of cherry and ash—here the auction where, bankrupt, we sold it all after he died. Snake sleeves in the molting months, cicada shells on pine bark—the living world knows where it has been and does not return to what it leaves behind.
The speaker realizes that the well house is dark because the bulb that warmed the pump and pipes has burned out, but now “the ground tap burst, the pipes / abandoned, nothing survives for me to fix.” The family who now lives in this house does not need a well, and does not work the land (though not, perhaps, because they have a higher income or are more modern or educated—looking at the house, the speaker recalls his father saying “They’re called white trash for a reason”). Nonetheless, at this moment, it seems to me that this entire collection is a form of trespassing into a childhood home no longer owned by the speaker, with the father serving as both character and a metaphor for a disappearing place and way of life. The theme is taken up again in “Reunion”:
And the new owners, needless of a barn, boarded the doors, let the proud blades sweat and rust in the shame of all forgotten things, and I’ve had enough—I stomp to my father, kick his workbench, cry out, “Where have you been?” But a sigh is his only answer, and the barn keeps his secrets as it keeps his silence, his kinship with tools, his workspace and the soft, spectral daubers tending their mounds of discarded earth.
Silence prevails, in this poem and elsewhere, and the speaker will never learn his father’s secrets. But come, reader: it is not too late. Although the father, the marriage, and an undeniably hard way of life in rural Arkansas are dead, Johnathon Williams is an agile and serious guide who knows the terrain with the surefootedness of those raised here, who, listening to the night sounds of the Ouachita National Forest, can say, “I recognize the language but not the words.” Williams has the sober wit to build terrific poems as space around the silence. There is still time to snatch blackberries from the thorns.
Johnathon Williams is a writer and web developer living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His poems and essays have appeared in Best New Poets 2009, Crab Orchard Review, and The Morning News, among other publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas. The Road to Happiness is his first book.
Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two books of poems, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas, and co-author of the chapbook On Marriage. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, The American Scholar, Orion, Post Road, Poets and Writers, and other magazines. She has received fellowships from the McKnight, Bush, and Fulbright Foundations; been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference; and held residencies at the Amy Clampitt House, the Poetry Center of Chicago, and the MacDowell Colony. She teaches in the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband, novelist John Reimringer, and their daughter, Anna.