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Thursday, May 15, 2003 02:20 pm

Fellow traveler

Poet Frank Stokes breathes life into the inhabitants of an imaginary town

Frank Stokes
Nick Steinkamp

Miss Vernon rents her guest-room by the night
To tourists passing through. Imagine that!
Complete strangers, maybe a squalling brat,
Sharing your bath. Somehow that don't seem right.
There's mighty few in town that I'd invite
To stay--much less offer the welcome mat.
But yesterday when I stopped by to chat
And heard how much she made, I saw the light.

That empty coop out back has room for four.
Clear out the roost, the nests, the chicken smell,
Add some paint, a new linoleum floor,
Some feed-sack curtains for the homey touch--
Don't have to make it seem a fine hotel.
Wayfarers in a strange land don't need much.

--From Frank Stokes'
Bethel Grove: Sonnets from the Village Day Book

One wayfarer traveling near Jerusalem, the biblical patriarch Jacob, dreamed of a stairway to heaven. When he awoke, he named the place Bethel, or heaven's gate. Poet Frank Stokes wasn't dreaming of heaven when he named his new book Bethel Grove: Sonnets from the Village Daybook, but his 121 interrelated poems may nonetheless seem miraculous to readers.

Taken as a whole, Stokes' sonnet cycle reads like a novel set in the era of the Great Depression. The inhabitants speak their minds through the poet and their soliloquies sound an emotional chord that resonates with perfect pitch. Scenes from Bethel Grove do not bring to mind the quaint postcard, nor do they conjure a feeling of nostalgia. Inside the barbershop, the man in the chair occasionally bleeds. All of the characters breathe. They love and hate each other; they rejoice and despair; they bear children and sometimes bury them. Bethel Grove even has a murder for the reader to unearth.

When first entering the village, you are introduced to Gary Bullock, editor of the Bethel Grove Weekly Sentinel. He explains that the poems we are about to read have been "hidden among the curiosities" for 60 years, unsigned and unpublished for fear of offending the town folk. Bullock's comments, dated 1998, set the poems in the l930s. He says they were mailed to the paper over the course of ten years, ending in 1941. The supposed author is Arnold Sasser (Stokes likes to sass us now and again), though the village rolls show no one by that name. The third poem in the book has Bethel's resident English teacher trying to solve the riddle of the anonymous poet:

Rather than spending our time wondering who
Composed this quasi-literary prank,
Take it for what it seems, the poet's frank
Yet timeless sketch--his prairie Xanadu.

In just four lines, Stokes expresses a modesty the poems do not deserve, puns on his own name, and aptly describes what is to follow--a stately pleasure dome of poetry, erected not in Kubla Khan's territory, but in ours, the prairie.

"I worked to write lines in ordinary language which could be read straight through--no inversions, etc., for the sake of a rhyme," Stokes says. "Since the speakers use their own language, they cannot do much with literary niceties--allusions and such. If that's 'anti-poetic,' I accept the fault. When I refer to it as a 'quasi-literary prank,' I suppose I meant that the book would have seemed normal in 1950 but to publish it today seems an attempt to parody the past." But works of true literary merit are timeless. Our admiration for Bethel Grove is not diminished by its copyright date.

Lots of poets have tried their hands at writing sonnets. Shakespeare immediately comes to mind, and then there's Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The form may seem antiquated, but the sonnet has thrived under the pen of modern practitioners, including Illinois' own Gwendolyn Brooks and our current U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins. Strictly speaking, a sonnet is a poem of 14 lines. Each line has 10 syllables and the poem is divided into an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six). The poem must follow a certain rhyme scheme, but there are a few from which to pick. Stokes has done his in one of the trickier forms, the Italian sonnet, also known as the Petrarchan Sonnet, after its creator, Francesco Petrarca. Writing a sonnet sounds difficult. But Stokes makes it seem, well, seamless.

Stokes says that without Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology there would have been no Bethel Grove. The influence of Masters' great work is apparent throughout Stokes' book. Masters chose to use free verse, and his characters speak from the grave, while Stokes' townsfolk still have time left for redemption. For this particular reader, the people of Bethel Grove seem more real because they are "living," despite the fact that they speak in a more constricted form. Yet Stokes is not seeking to better his master. His book is self-published, and therefore may not find the audience it deserves. But keep in mind what the village professor has to say:

If verse can liven worlds that truth disowns,
No epitaph need grace the poet's bones.

Though evenly metered and rhymed, the poems in Bethel Grove are made up of ordinary words that try to catch the way people in the 1930s really talked. The poet says that one of his aims was "to producea book of poetry for people who do not ordinarily read poetry at all."

Stokes retired in 1993 as a professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. He moved to Maui for five years to write fiction, but upon returning to Springfield, where he grew up (Springfield High, Class of '48), he resumed writing poetry. He has self-published two previous poetry collections, Out of Nothing a Something and Stone Songs and Lighter Verses. His work has appeared in the Kansas Quarterly, Ball State Forum, Scholia Satyrica, and the Christian Science Monitor.

Copies of Bethel Grove ($6) are available in the regional section of the Springfield Barnes & Noble and at the Lincoln Book Shop in Charleston. Copies are also available by e-mailing the author at kitster@motion.net.

The Charleston Alley Theatre in Charleston, Illinois, will mount a full stage production of Bethel Grove on May 17, 18, and 19. The Saturday and Monday performances are at 8 p.m.; the Sunday performance begins at 2 p.m. Tickets are $6, $5 for students and seniors. Tickets may be reserved by calling the Lincoln Book Shop in Charleston at 345-6070, or they may be purchased at the theater box office one hour before the show. The Charleston Alley Theatre is located at 718 Monroe Street, one block off the Charleston Square, across from the Will Rogers movie house.

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