Wayne NJ's Skunty.com, which recently released a CD
of the late poet Leo Connellan reading all 30 sections
of 'Crossing America," with full musical interpretation,
is to be congratulated on producing a work of great
force and power that grows in likeability with each
Created by an intrepid group of producers who were
both lucky and industrious, the CD brings to dramatic
life the work of a poet who, for all his awards and
recognitions, has not yet achieved the renown his work
ought to command.
Leo Connellan (1928-2001), originally from Portland
Maine, was poet laureate of Connecticut, was awarded
the Shelley Memorial Award from the PSA (for the 1982
"Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country), and was a writer
who was praised by both the Bohemians and the Academic
during his lifetime. In fact Connellan regularly won
the praise of such established figures as Karl Shapiro,
Richard Eberhart, Hayden Carruth, Anthony Hecht and
Yet in his career he remained very much an outsider
- perhaps because Connellan is a writer whose stance
straddle worlds, one of those whose gift is both gruff
as the earth and yet schooled by the grim unyielding
demands of the intellect.
Now, with a CD of his work which has been released
and is circulating in the New York area - through Skunty.com
at PO Box 4308 Wayne NJ 07474; firstname.lastname@example.org - the
possibility emerges that a new public will be exposed
to the work of a man who portrayed vividly the honest
and passionate, and sometimes the stalking and the helpless,
underbelly of America.
Connellan, declared Paragon House when they published
his collected poems in 1989, "belongs squarely
among Whitman's landscape of roving energy and spirit."
Richard Wilbur called his poetry vivid, harsh, spare,
surely cadenced and colloquially eloquent." They
both missed a key word - monumental: "Crossing
America," published in 1976, has a monumental quality
It belongs in the category of the memorable writing
of the twentieth century which is Whitmanian, in fact,
mixing into its fundamental elegaic adoration of America's
expanse a social and psychological consciousness missing
in 19th century diction. To go along with Walt's incredible
sense of celebration, here is alienation, protest and
a profound sense of loss or failure in the shadow of
America's literary tramps hoofing it across the continent.
James Dickey tries in his poem, "Folksinger of
the Thirties," but against Connellan's work Dickey's
pales - as hypothetical and distant compared to the
"Crossing America," which thoroughly convinces
us that he's lived the tale he's telling.
It also surpasses, one might argue easily, Bukowski.
This is poetry that is far more than an the angel/derelict
pose, entertaining and authentic as Bukowski's beer-soaked
musings may be. No less a critical authority than the
Hudson Review affirms this view, saying without compunction
that Connellan writes "much better than Charles
Bukowski, but with the same unrelenting fierceness,
fueled by what he has seen of this country's underside."
This is nowhere more evident than in 'Crossing America,'
written in America's bicentennial year, seemingly with
an acute consciousness of that fact.
'Crossing America' is quite simply an astounding work,
a pastiche of snapshots and vignettes told in thirty
sections. This long poem, dedicated to "the woman
who crossed America with me" by Connellan, stands
shoulder to shoulder with the works of great mid-20th
century American story-tellers - Woody Guthrie, Jack
Kerouac, Hart Crane and John Steinbeck - for its scope,
richness and trans-continental sweep.
We are confronted by the freezing shotgun moments on
abandoned roads, suspicious and dangerous encounters
in one room backwash shacks. Connellan plums the miserable
depths of cold and loneliness, mercy and desperation,
innocence and devotion, and even love, in section after
section - as in Minook Illinois:
one street ouf of no where through cornstocks.
winter clutched the cornfields into Chicago.
Cold, we couldn't get in out of the cold.
But a lonely filling station owner risked
letting his death in out of the night.
I lay on his gas station floor and let her
use me as a bed.
I will never forget the cold into
my kidneys or lying awake bearing the
pain while she slept like a two month
old child on the hill of its mother's tit.
It was on that stone floor
that I knew I loved her
It is composed of a myriad of rich small town American
vignettes from a lost time when sheriffs ran drifters
out of town, work gangs worked the apple country and
cross-country hustlers whisked loose dollar bills from
drunks in unwary midwestern bars. Appropriately to the
time of its publication during the nation's bicentennial,
there is a harkening to a lost American wildness: "You
are gone like buffalo never/existed in my time, except
up from Pueblo,/Colorado, freak herd for truck diner/steaks
now. In a museum for children/who will never know they
roamed/open plains as you whistled on a halo/of congealed
smoke through quiet/back-o-towns pulling our nation
together/like a stubborn zipper."
The work is also infused with literary allusion, frequently
direct, and directed toward poetic icons - Whitman,
Lorca, Frost, Hart Crane.
Sometime the reference leads Connellan to the elegaic,
even in his hard-bitten weighed down New England overcoat
twang, as in the brilliant section III on Vermont: "Frost
lived in blood spouting green/and white blinding snow
and was/stronger than anything that could/kill him,
but finally death yanking him out/of the world he would
never have left."
But the poet is also capable of crying out against
social malaise. "Federico! we must not/mark our
Bicentennial/until no man can languish//or die imprisoned
in a land/of the free and the brave" he writes,
addressing Lorca, "you and I are bitter together."
Or here, in Section XI: "Walt Whitman, because
our whole song/springs from the nest of your whiskers,
I/scream to you of poor people..." Connellan goes
on to chastise poets from Allen Ginsberg to Gertrude
Stein and Hart Crane for not noticing as poverty rotted
through the body of the American people ("Allen
Ginsberg, what on earth is Gertrude Stein/doing to you
down in your Cherry Valley...//Hart Crane, while you
were noting/the telephone poles stretching across our
Time and again Connellan proves himself capable of
calling forth a voice possessed with the pungency of
sourdough bread, haunted by experience - arresting as
skunk cabbage in a new spring hollow. He hovers between
presenting himself as a lost drifting son, an egregious
hustler fleecing women and drunks, and an alter ego
of the lost generation of working men set awash across
hobo America during the Depression era. "The apple
country when/Sunday smelled of our taste buds,/our loneliness
rattled in freight..."
It should also be noted that there is frequently in
the work a barely restrained power and unmasked wrath
at the domineering of fathers anywhere.
"For all the years unable to cope I
write this, for all the ruined children
of others pacing their lives out in white
rooms I write this, stab me with thorns
of roses for writing this, let ground glass
be in all I eat for the loathesome back handed
ingrate treachery of writing this, but youth
does not dust its trail in the whim of the old man."
One might argue that a work with qualities like these
deserves to be examined as one of the major achievements
of American poetry in the second half of the twentieth
century. And one might hope that the newly released
CD could prompt such a reexamination.
The story of how the CD came to pass makes for compelling
reading in itself. It seems Leo met a group of musicians
in Connecticut from a local arts collective called Hoobellatoo,
who heard him read a poem in his 'skid-row lobsterman's
twang' and were smitten. That moment occurred in Willimantic,
Ct, in the basement of Curbstone Press, recording some
local poets, notes Chris King of Skuntry, when Leo departed
from the scripted session during a break and read from
a portion of Crossing America. It was brutal, frank
and lyrical, and King and others were stunned.
Michael Shannon Friedman of Skuntry.com was later to
call the poem a work which 'considers America itself
as a kind of poem, a desolate hymn to beauty, pain and
loss...a testimony to the possibilities of encounter'
with the road. Of Connellan's poetic oeuvre, he aptly
notes its 'disenfranchised, too-emotionally candid"
nature, "not talk-show enough for the culture of
victimization and complaint."
The poem reflects on Connellan's 1950s jaunts hitch
hiking across America.
"We hitchhiked America. I
still think of her.
I walk the old streets thinking I
see her, but never.
New buildings have gone up.
The bartenders who poured roses
into our glasses are gone.
We are erased."
Thankfully, notes King, the mike was not off, and for
the rest of that field recording journey he and his
friends "wore out a cassette dub of Leo's reading."
It wasn't until later that King learned that what they
had heard was only one section of the thirty-section
epic, and were able to get Connellan to record the entire
After recording Connellan reading the poem in its entirety,
King and friends reckoned that the material amounted
to 37 minutes, it turned out, and after living inside
the poem for awhile, determined to coax a range of musicians
to work up musical interpretations for each section.
That effort brought them on a pilgrimage to locations
around the nation as diverse as Brooklyn and New Jersey
to Vermont, Maine and rural Illinois. They recorded
Matt Fuller in a garage in Los Angles, William Teague
on the South Side of St Louis, an anonymous tuba player
at an herb store and a brass band at a high school.
"We crossed America with Leo's poem," said
The result is compilation of a panoply of music, as
varied and diverse as America. There's the plaintive,
front-porch harmonica work of Pops Farmer (and Rich
Hubbs' backwoods banjo). There are shattered modernist
pianistic moments, courtesy of Nate Shaw. Moody trumpet
and bass work come from the artistry of the Esser Brothers.
Dave Stone Trio's incredibly driving be-bop sax racing
Quite a few of the strongest pieces carry a mountain-home
rangy angularity to them, as written and performed by
Three Fried Men, including the sections on Green Vermont,
True With Silence, and Just Around The Corner From Night.
This group offers up a funky roadhouse sound, three
wheels on the ground, some crazy combination of Lowell
George, Tom Waits and Zappa, authentic and tangential
as a hobbling and hungover country drunk.
And a clear highlight of the CD is the chain gang thrust
of The Apple Country, performed by Rosco Gordon &
The Rotten Dogs.