At Goat Hollow and Other Poems
by Wilda Morris
57 Poems ~ 96 pages
Publisher: Kelsay Books
To Order: Kelsay Books and Amazon.com
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
If you’re anything like me you enjoy reminiscing while flipping through the pages of old family albums. As I took a slow walk-through Wilda Morris’s poetic family album, At Goat Hollow and Other Poems, I found myself swept up emotionally within her lines. My goal in this review is to give my readers a taste of family-love at its poignant best.
While the collection revolves around the peerless Uncle Norman, Morris is up to something more than merely showcasing one fascinating person. With Norman as the main-character hub, the spokes emanating from him illustrate how families work: their conflicts, losses, ironies, successes … the pathos of life.
Goat Hollow is a real place situated in rural Iowa between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. For Wilda and her older sister Dorinda the CRandIC interurban train became their link to adventure.
Morris introduces Uncle Norman with a sterling pantoum which serves as Preface. Norman was the favorite of the nephews and nieces even though deemed unworthy by family authority figures. You see, Uncle Norman was an outlier. Didn’t go to church, smoked too much, excelled in telling tall tales. This excerpt from “Pantoum for Uncle Norman,” stirs the imagination of this grown-up child:
You invited us out to the country,
taught us the names of Iowa wildflowers
and let us feed and milk your goats.
you knew how to make children happy.
I was glad I read this superbly crafted poem first . . . nice profile.
Who is Uncle Norman and how did he become the way he is?
While Norman is not an easy fellow to run into a corner, certain things had a shaping effect. Morris gives a clue about one such event:
Grief is written in my sister’s eyes,
forgiveness, too, but how can I forgive
myself? I hear Junior’s laughter
when I try to sleep, see him dash off
on pudgy little legs, full of the joy
of a little boy who’s learned to run,
to almost fly across an unmown field.
The howls I hear at night are not coyotes,
not wolves baying at the sky,
but his small voice amplified,
his fright as he falls again and again
into the dark, deep well.
They left him in my care.
I let him run ahead.
As the eldest son, Norman held a lot of sway with his siblings. This too, had a shaping effect, as noted in “Norman on the Role of the Eldest Child”:
One by one my siblings come
and, as the oldest son,
I’m told to help: you must do
whatever Mother tells you to.
Feed the chicks. There are eggs to gather.
Now, don’t tell me what you’d rather!
and don’t you dare slam the door.
Oh, yes, and one thing more …
What was it about Uncle Norman that was so impactful?
We get a clue to that question as well as learn about the author’s early life in “Balance”:
Dorinda and I were never allowed
to walk the railroad tracks alone,
but Uncle Norman would cross the field
and climb the rise with us, listen for trains
as we balanced on rails, small feet
in Buster Browns–Uncle Norman,
the one adult who modeled
breaking rules, telling fanciful
family tales, choosing the cathedral
of meadow or glen over church,
bringing another kind of balance
to our somewhat constricted lives.
In poem after poem, Morris captures Uncle Norman’s remarkable life. Norman’s life was not spent alone. His wife was Wilda’s Aunt Irene.
for Aunt Irene
It’s 1950. The Weavers hit the Billboard charts
With Good Night, Irene. For half a year
it’s played over and over on the radio.
It seems that song was written just for you, dear aunt.
Sometimes you live in the country, where you wish
you were now, but sometimes you have to winter in town
in your in-laws’ home where Mother, Dorinda, and I
have the attic. Many evening Sis and I come downstairs
before bed and sing that song to you. You grin,
giggle like a schoolgirl at our slightly offkey rendition,
maybe the best gift we ever gave you.
Sometimes I still see you in my dreams.
What was Uncle Norman’s Legacy?
I noted above that Norman was a smoker. In the touching poem “Uncle Norman Can’t Get Warm,” the poet paints a picture of that which spelled the end of Norman’s life.
I kiss his cheek,
I felt a tear forming. This excerpt refers to Norman looking up his diagnosis in the dictionary. He finds it under the letter “E” for emphysema. Morris devotes three poems to Norman’s death; he left his body to science.
What he left beyond the gift of his body couldn’t be better expressed than by the poem on the volume’s “In Memoriam” page:
This is the stoneless monument
for Uncle Norman, the eulogy unspoken
at his funeral. Life was not always kind
to him, but he was kind to life.
Let this book be a memorial
also for his wife, Aunt Irene,
and for the countless folk whose stories
may be lost to future generations
because they die having no children of their own
but who nurture nieces and nephews,
students, young neighbors, or other children.
Through At Goat Hollow and Other Poems, I met John Norman Webber (1898-1975), and now count him among my treasured friends.