By DONNA URSCHEL
When B.H. (Pete) Fairchild received the 2004 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry at the Library of Congress in late April, he read from his award-winning book, transporting the audience to the Kansas of his youth, a land occupied by hardworking stoic men and bored teenage boys who roll their speeding cars for kicks.
Several autobiographical narrative poems are included in "Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest," published in 2003 by W.W. Norton, which is the eighth book to win the Bobbitt prize. The $10,000 prize recognizes the most distinguished book of poetry written by an American and published during the preceding two years.
At the event, Poet Laureate Ted Kooser introduced
Fairchild, who goes by Pete instead of B.H. "I feel just a little proprietary about Pete Fairchild's poems, since much of their experience has been informed and seasoned by
the same, enormous, open landscape from which I hail," Kooser said.
He continued, "That word, 'hail,' perfectly befits those vast plains because, though a 'hi' or a 'hello' is for people close up, a hail is a hello from a long way off. … I like to think that in a thousand little sun-baked, gray towns across the great plains, lots of people are out in their gardens right now, trying to get the spinach in before it gets dark, but just now pausing to raise their hands to hail Pete Fairchild, hailing him from Texas and Kansas and Oklahoma, the Dakotas and my own Nebraska, wishing him well … because his poetry honors their lives, their landscape and their history."
Fairchild started his reading with the book's title poem, "Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest," in which a 5-year-old boy remembers accompanying his dad, an oil field laborer, out to the plains to a stalled oil rig. He also read the poem "Delivering Eggs to the Girls' Dorm," about love and yearning and loneliness. During his graduate school days, Fairchild held a job delivering eggs to the freshmen girls' dorm.
Fairchild then turned to a long, vivid poem, "Rave On," which tells the gripping story of four teens, based on Fair-
child and his three friends, who get a cheap car from Roman's Salvage, fix it up with some spare parts and then speed it wildly down the road in order to flip it over and try to survive the ordeal, to "go in a boy and come out a man."
" … Coming up
out of the long tunnel of cottonwoods that open onto
Johnson Road, Travis with his foot stuck deep into the soul
of that old Ford come on, Bubba, come on beating
the dash with his fist, hair flaming back in the wind
and eyes lit up by some fire in his head that I
had never seen. …
… I think we were butt-deep in regret and a rush
of remembering whatever we would leave behind—
Samantha Dobbins smelling like fresh laundry,
light from the movie spilling down her long blonde hair,
trout leaping all silver and pink from Black Bear Creek,
the hand of my mother, I confess, passing gentle
across my face at night when I was a child—oh, yes,
it was all good now and too late, too late, trees blurring
past and Travis wild, popping the wheel, oh too late
too late. …"
They survived. Only one suffered any injuries, a broken arm. They grow up and, as Fairchild said, "become, at last, our fathers."
He also read the poems "Mlle Pym," "A Photograph of the Titanic," "At Omaha Beach" and "At the Café de Flore."
Fairchild ended the reading with "Beauty," a poem from an earlier book, "The Art of the Lathe." The long biographical narrative focuses on Fairchild's realization that the stoic men of his hometown, "men who knew the true meaning of labor and money and other hard, true things and did not, did not ever, use the word, 'beauty'."
Also at the reading, benefactor Philip Bobbitt spoke briefly about the prize, which is given in the memory of his late mother, Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt of Austin, Texas, the sister of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Bobbitt pointed out that the prize, given every other year, is 16 years old this year, "sweet 16," with a bright future ahead.
The winner of the Bobbitt Prize is chosen by a three-member jury appointed by a selection committee composed of the Librarian of Congress, the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a publisher named by the Academy of American Poets and a literary critic nominated by the Bobbitt family. The jury for this year's prize was Clarence Brown, R.S. Gwynn and Ed Ochester.
Fairchild grew up in small towns in Texas, Oklahoma and southwest Kansas. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Kansas, and a doctorate from the University of Tulsa. He is a recipient of Guggenheim, Rockefeller/Bellagio and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He recently received the Arthur Rense Poetry Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He now lives in California.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.