Poetry Moment: Jerry Wemple and 'Night'
Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Shara McCallum is this year’s Penn State Laureate.
Today’s poem is “Night” by Jerry Wemple.
A Pennsylvania native, Jerry Wemple often writes about the people and places of the Keystone State. His work includes three full-length collections of poetry, two poetry chapbooks, and numerous essays. Wemple’s poem for today, “Night,” comes from his latest book, Artemas and Ark: the Ridge and Valley Poems. A Professor of English at Bloomsburg University, Wemple is co-editor, with Marjorie Maddox, of the anthology Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. The pair are currently working on an updated version of the anthology.
“Night” is part of a narrative sequence set in a small town in Pennsylvania. Across the sequence, characters wrestle with feelings of belonging and nonbelonging and with class and race. These themes play out against the backdrop of place. The setting of “Night” and the figures in the poem are brought forth with chiseled diction and precise detail. Wemple is like a painter working in the tradition of realism. Yet the overall effect of the poem is otherwise. Under Wemple’s gaze, the town and its inhabitants approach the realms of allegory and myth.
Night falls suddenly when the sun declines
behind these granite hills. The boy sits on
the river side of the flood wall, his back
to the town. He smokes a cigarette, counts
the cars and tractor trucks on the state road
across the water. Wonders where they’re bound.
The boy would like a car, some way, any way
to leave the town, to drive past the farms
until the hills grow and the woods thicken
and sit beside the tiny stream that is the start
of this half-mile wide river. The boy rises,
heads into town. He walks past the little park,
a few blocks up Market, enters a tiny hot
dog restaurant, nods to Old Sam, who started
the place after the war. Sam knows, fixes
one with everything, uncaps a blue birch
from the old dinged metal floor cooler,
while the boy fingers the lone coin in
his pocket. Outside the wind rises and shifts.
That was “Night” by Jerry Wemple.