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Book Report: Cherma captured in poetry

Back in 1920, Edgar Lee Masters, who grew up in a small Midwestern college town wrote a wonderful book of poems about the kind of people who settled his town of Galesburg, Ill.

He called it "Spoon River Anthology," after the classical custom of writing messages on tombstones of the dead.

Ninety years later, a River Falls native, Jacqueline Cobian West, has written "Cherma" (University of Wisconsin/Parallel Press). Unlike Masters, Cobian West's characters don't have Yankee names like Lucinda or Boone Matlock. Her names are Bohemian, taken from the tombstones of a cemetery a few miles outside River Falls, where settlers from present-day Czechoslovakia settled more than 100 years ago; names like Kusilek, Pechacek, Stepanek, Dusek, and, yes, Cobian.

Even so, the resemblances between Masters' and Cobian West's work are both startling and impressive. Cobian West begins with a bit of history she picked up from older relatives and grandparents in a poem called "Yanys," the name of a family taken off a tombstone in the old Cherma cemetery:

"She did not know if she should tell

how, of the seventy-four who sailed

only thirty-eight remained alive,

how the rest had slid from a wet deck

in makeshift shrouds, their landings divots in the waves.

"Most of the Dvorak cousins were gone,

three of the Jansas, five of the Mareks,

and all of the children who could not subsist

on biscuits soaked in salty leakage,

on crates of flour curled with worms."

Many of Masters' characters are somewhat gothic or grotesque. Same goes for his young successor, Jacqueline Cobian West.

Joe Dusek was the neighborhood butcher, on the surface an American success story, but:

"Each closing time, Joe scrubbed his face and hands,

hung up his stained smock and changed linen shirts.

Still his wife could smell the blood

that hung like a warm mist around him.

"On her face would rise the same mute fear

Joe saw in the eyes of tethered calves

when he stepped close, grasped the rope.

He hardly touched her anymore."

There's sweet stuff, too, as in the story of the Wurst family and an embroidered napkin that got eaten:

"The lamb had come late, too small, too many.

Farmer Krost from down the road

had let it go for almost nothing.

And so Papa brought it home.

"The girls fed it with their fingers

dipped by turns in a pan of milk

while Mama watched them over the hem of her work,

her needle planting flowers that shot through the white like plums.

"One fall day, Mama's cry pulled the girls from the garden

where they were yanking up weeds,

and they found her sitting beneath the clothesline

where every silk stem and blossom had been nibbled away.

"Papa laughed while Mama wiped her nose

on the edge of a shredded napkin,

said it was better than any county fair ribbon

that her flowers looked good enough to eat,

good enough to tempt a bewitched little lamb

as they danced on their white fields in the wind."

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 426-9554.