My Kansas writer for this month, July, 2010, is Eric McHenry, author of Potscrubber Lullabies.

  Potscrubber Lullabies
                                                                             The Potscrubber completes a cycle
                                                                                                so vigorous the knives were rattling,
                                                                                                and pauses, waking Evan Michael,
                                                                                                who finds all silences unsettling.

                                                                                                There's no resemblance.  It's too early.
                                                                                                Everything is still so round.
                                                                                                But we've occurred to him as surely
                                                                                                as silence has occurred to sound,

                                                                                                and when he's finished sharpening
                                                                                                into himself, and when we've blurred,
                                                                                                we're going to go on happening
                                                                                                in silence like he's never heard.

                                                                                               I wore him like a broken arm
                                                                                               all summer, slung
                                                                                               from my right shoulder in a paisley hammock
                                                                                               so deep the sides closed over him.
                                                                                               When I walked he swung, and slept,
                                                                                               lulled by the time his body kept
                                                                                               against my stomach.
                                                                                               When I stopped I had to sing.

McHenry                                  Book Cover

                                                                    Eric McHenry                                                                 Potscrubber Lullabies

Eric McHenry was born in Topeka, Kansas, April 12, 1972, and is a fifth-generation graduate of Topeka High School.  He went on to Beloit College, in Wisconsin, and Boston University, where he earned an M.A. in creative writing and won the Academy of American Poets Prize.  His first book of poems, Potscrubber Lullabies (Waywiser Press, 2006), won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Harvard Review, Northwest Review, Orion, and Agni.  He also has done poetry reviews for The New York Times Book Review since 2001, and writes for Slate

Eric has much stronger roots in Topeka than I do, for example (I was brought here by the Air Force during the Korean War), going back those six generations (really) at Topeka High School, and, since he returned with his wife and two children to Topeka, they now live in a house three doors south of the one his great-great grandmother Schenck lived in, and he teaches at Washburn University.

I didn't know Eric when he was a child, beyond seeing him, perhaps, when his mother, Sue,  invited some of us over on Robert Burns' birthday to read Burns' poetry, but both he and I knew Peggy Greene well.  She was a good friend of ours.  I knew her primarily from reading her daily column in the Topeka paper, as "Peggy of the Flint Hills," and felt I knew her even better than I do Andy Rooney, of "Sixty Minutes," who I know better than any of my next-door neighbors, and I only get together with him once a week.  My wife, Naomi, knew Peggy more personally, as they were both very active with Topeka Civic Theatre, and went to New York together when Topeka Civic Theatre won a national award for Neil Simon's The Good Doctor.  Naomi was the stage manager for the show, and Peggy was writing about it.  Naomi is the one who has the personally autographed copy of Peggy's book, Skimming the Cream, Fifty Years with "Peggy of the Flint Hills."

Eric, on the other hand, did know her as his next-door neighbor through all those years he was growing up.  She was like an additional grandmother to him, as Naomi was to the three children of our next door neighbor at the time.  They moved to Tennessee, but she has stayed in touch for all these years, by phone and letter (and three visits) until those kids  are now all college age.  Eric knew Peggy first as a baby sitter, then became impressed by her discipline as a writer, hearing "the daily sound of her Olivetti keys clacking away through the open window of her study," and finally for the spirit revealed in fifty years of that writing.  He is currently engaged in working with her daughter in editing "Peggy's  memoir, which has been languishing in a shoebox  ... a reminiscence of her childhood and young adulthood in rural Missouri and Kansas ..." (so before her fifty years of columns).  As many in Topeka must, I look forward to reading that.
  And Eric is still so young--it's hard to tell what he will have done by the time he's my age!

We opened with the title poem from Potscrubber Lullabies, an interesting poem in terms of its comments on sound and rhythm (and other things of course), and we'll close with my favorite poem in the book, in part because I spent the two WWII years 1942 and 1943, when I was 13 and 14, milking cows on two different dairies.  My grandfather saw to it that we always had music on the radio while milking, and I believe that there is a special kind of truth in Bird's instincts.

Bird Plays to a Cow
"A Swedish musician remembers a drive through farm country in a car full of musicians, one of whom told Bird
that cows love music.  Bird asked the driver to pull over ..."  -- Gary Giddins , Celebrating Bird: the
Triumph of Charlie Parker

Fifty years from now
a writer, writing about me
playing to this cow,
will call the cow "he."
There's her udder, plain
as an udder, and yet ...
something about what people want
a cow, or an audience, to be.

Some painters haze the foreground
and render something in the  middle-distance
unnaturally sharp, to remind the idiot looker
that this is a painting, not a pasture.

The writer will probably do
something self-referential, too,
and will almost certainly call the cow "bewildered."

"Bewildered."  As though
I strode out here expecting her to nod
in time or stand on two hooves and applaud.
As though cows stand around waiting for something,
and not just anything, to come along.
Come on.  What I do might confuse
you, but this cow was  wildered when I got here.

To this cow there is only the plain fact --
     hot fence, sharp fence, shit,
     puddle, tuft of grass, golden horn
     in the hands of the brown man
     who wasn't here this morning and is here now --

     and notes, too ...
     after so much noise,
     the plain fact of song.

My friend,
the bewildered one who is still in the car,
told me that cows dig music.
I choose to believe that.  That's what I'm doing here.
She chews.  That's what she's doing here.