Free Union is much more than a small Virginia town. It is also the choice involved; the choice to go back to the land, the choice to settle with a partner, father children, and find both comfort and discomfort in the God these pages depict.
Walking the line between modern confessional and a reinvention of the pastoral, John Casteen’s poems speak to the need of fully living the one life he’s been given. A former designer and maker of custom furniture, Casteen traded his ten self-employed years for a future more concerned with approaching the blank page. Perhaps it is the urgency required in such a move that allows the poems in Free Union to arrive at their peace with well-crafted fervor and elegant conviction.
“Poem for Mary Magdalene” begins this poet’s debut with the forceful assertion:
I was raised to be the judging kind.
Not much halts that, not much galls it,
but the winter sun stalls me. Sedge-color-sedge,
black Iowa River, north of town, tan marsh-grass,
black trees above the river…
This poem works to locate both the poet and the town in one fell swoop of a stanza that promises to bring Casteen’s world to light. By world I mean a town boasting just over twelve hundred inhabitants, and about thirty square miles of land that still resembles the landscape Abraham Lincoln may have seen on his way to the White House. But by world I also mean the poet’s inner landscape, which is shaped by the same workers’ hands, woodworking tools, and large farm equipment, as the land he claims as home.
The collection’s title poem identifies Free Union as, “the husk of the general store, / broad semaphores of six-board fence. The frieze of the hills, and of their omnipresence.” Throughout this, and all of Casteen’s poems, there’s a definite sense that Free Union is much more than a small Virginia town. It is also the choice involved; the choice to go back to the land, the choice to settle with a partner, father children, and find both comfort and discomfort in the God these pages depict. The journey here is not the long walk home, but the walking of home with Casteen as he moves through his adult life, simultaneously away from, but closer to, the truths of his native land and self.
The poem “Gravid” illustrates the movement to fatherhood, and echoes the fatherly sentiment one finds in Frost’s “Home Burial,” but Casteen’s version of the feeling doesn’t end in despair or gut-wrenching ambiguity, it mixes the anxiety of new fatherhood with the kind of experience one gains on the return home after a long while gone. It’s here that we see the knowledge of the one who got out, but chose to come back, perhaps because the world was big in a way not meant to suit the speaker, who is able to say both:
In this season which is the season of invented errands,
the least of tasks explains a drive along the smaller roads.
We live in two instincts: the one to make ready
the other to rest, and wait. The baby was due
The garden is gone to seed and I am calling all over
for kind people I haven’t seen in years. They seem fine.
I’m thinking of my child’s introduction to this world,
or to its unambiguous, it’s relevant: sweet, sour, bitter, salt.
In this moment the speaker displays his ability to turn his wife’s pregnancy into a season all its own, while also telling each of us about our own lives. This is the power of Casteen’s poetry: his unnerving ability to graft the simpleness he’s learned in Free Union onto the skin of his readers so that we too are able to reduce our hectic, waiting lives down to what the tongue can taste. Knowledge like this comes only from a traveler who has made it home to tell the tale.
The God infused throughout Casteen’s poetry initially made me nervous, wary of this poet’s conceit. We’ve all read poems that seem insistent and pushy in their telling of their faiths. But like Dan Albergotti in The Boatloads, Casteen is able to delight and surprise the reader, reverently turning his God into a spirituality rising from the Blue Ridge, far above the need for denomination. “Night Hunting” for example, begins:
Because we wanted things the way they were
in our minds’ black eyes we waited. The beaver
raising ripples in a V behind his head
the thing we wanted…
He then moves forward with a meditation on the heart’s moral dilemma while hunting, the strangeness “to hope / to see the signs of motion, to make an end / to Peter’s old refrain: He’ll be along, son of a bitch, / and then you best be ready.” Translating the saint’s words into the central Virginia vernacular just under the opening lines of this poem calls the reader back to that earlier moment in “Gravid,” “We live in two instincts: the one to make ready, / the other to rest.” Again we see the poems moving with the spirit in the nature, the notion of Free Union complicating itself layer upon layer, building to the book’s second section, which begins with the poem “More about the World of Things and the World of Ideas.”
In this poem the poet writes:
We learn that there is the word: fiat,
say, or truth. And then there is the world.
Do we learn the one without asking of the other
what is it…
There is, after all, that other world, where
our letters are nothing. Where we can know the truth
but cannot write its name. Here, then, is the anvil,
warm from its celestial forge; here is the hammer,
pealing like a bell. Our words the wrinkles in damascus.
This is recollection, and is the pattern behind the pattern.
Damascus is both the oldest inhabited city in the world and a type of metalwork, which involves tedious labor, resulting in a beautiful swirl of metals bonded in a way nature won’t naturally allow. In this instance “damascus” is the giving of one’s self over to his humanness. It’s the ability to make this utterance that allows Casteen his move to Free Union’s end: “Letter to Family, before Leaving” and “The Night Pasture.” The former calling back to the choice to return home: “I hope I never tire of this valley’s changing faces…and bringing you / family, my life, my love,” the latter, still sustaining the patient, observant voice with which the book began, leaving us with a farmer’s telling of his heifer who’s just birthed a stillborn:
…Little changed, except something
sank in me like a leaf settling silently in water—
there’s another mouth to feed, but I think
you know where. I’ve said enough now.
At latitude 38.155, longitude -78.564, and an elevation of 587 feet above sea level, Free Union, Virginia is centrally located in the middle of nowhere. The same cannot be said for the poems in this collection, where John Casteen conflates tightly woven lyrics with lyric narratives, and his woodshop’s sounds with honest experience to build his readers a house in Free Union, where “our life here is poor and full.”