Jim Simmerman’s Child’s Grave, Hale County, Alabama
The power of an image is immense. A poem can single out an ordinary object of daily life and give it a history, meaning, and emotional worth, all through the use of an image. In Child’s Grave, Hale County, Alabama, Jim Simmerman uses the simple image of a child’s final resting place in rural Alabama to create a history that illustrates the meaning of loss in a way words alone cannot seem to do. In this essay I hope to summarize and explain in some detail Simmerman’s poem, as well as point out some literary techniques used in creating mood and emotion, focusing on the use of image to provoke a deeper significance and understanding in which the basic meanings of words are incapable to capture.
Child’s Grave, Hale County, Alabama is a forty-two line poem written in a single, unrhymed stanza. Because it is written in one stanza, for the sake of clarity, I will discuss one sentence at a time starting with the first sentence and ending with the last. Each sentence is six lines long. Immediately Simmerman uses images to provoke certain emotions. “Someone drove a two-by-four/ through the heart of this hard land…” (p.555). Obviously the land that Simmerman mentions does not have a heart, but the image of a piece of lumber being driven through the metaphorical heart of the land is a powerful image, perhaps something one might experience in some vampire movie. The word heart itself carries with it many meanings: love, emotion, center, life, etc. But by using heart, Simmerman is also personifying the land, giving it a human characteristic, which focuses the reader on the land. In fact the first sentence is only about the land, how hard the red clay of Alabama is, and how difficult it would be to dig into that land, etc.
The second sentence, beginning on line seven, shifts its focus to the lumber used to make the grave. This is where Simmerman begins to give the grave a history. He starts, “He’d have had…” (p.555). Immediately the reader knows the speaker of this poem is now inferring, whereas the first sentence was purely a description of the grave, the second sentence guesses at what this man had to go through to acquire the simple materials used for the grave. Perhaps the speaker knows the man personally, or possibly the speaker is inferring this by the impoverished conditions that this man must have been in to mark a grave only with a piece of wood. Regardless the reader is lead to believe that this man had to steal the wood, emphasizing that the man had to go through hardship and take great risk in order to dig this grave.
The third sentence is also expanding upon the history behind this grave, only this time focusing on the living conditions of this man. He is obviously poor, for “his wife is asleep on a cornshuck mat” (p.555). Simmerman also uses repetition to emphasize that the man had to leave. He had to “leave his wife” and “leave his broken brogans”, furthermore he had to leave “lullaby soft” in the night, secretively. These details all add to the particular mood of the event. Simmerman uses certain sound to add to the mood as well. “Stove”, “slip” ,“soft” ,“sack”, all begin with that quiet ‘s’ sound, thus emphasizing the secretive nature of the incident. “Broken brogans”, “bundle”, “burlap”, have a similar effect.
The forth sentence, starting on line nineteen, continues to add to the overall mood of the poem. It is in this sentence where the reader is given a more detailed setting for the grave. “A cold night in December, /1936, alone” (p556). The reader now should have an idea of how it must have had to feel like for that man, that night, cold and alone. Also 1936 was a year around the same time period as America’s Great Depression, adding to the image of poverty through out this poem. Simmerman once again uses alliteration in “raspy…red, rock-ridden” (p556).
The fifth sentence reemphasizes the amount of physical “toil” that this man went through, pounding “this shabby half-cross/ into the ground” (p556). It is not only physical toil that this man is going through, it is emotional as well. The reader does not forget that this man is actually burying his child. The physical toil is symbolic of his emotional toil.
In sixth sentence, beginning on line thirty-one, the speaker points out that there are no words on the “shabby half-cross”. He then explores the man’s intentions on why this might be so. Perhaps he is illiterate, or just tired from digging the grave, or maybe just too simple minded to even think of writing something. Simmerman again uses repetition to emphasize the word ‘simple’. This is a simple man, who dug a simple grave, which speaks to us simply.
In this final sentence, Simmerman closes his poem and conveys a last thought. It is in this sentence that the speaker shares with us the simple fact mentioned in the previous sentence, “there are no words for this.” (p556). That the experience of burying a child is too powerful for words. That somehow words come up short and are unable to convey the reality of that situation.
Words are symbols, each with their own attached meanings. However we are not able to invent words for every meaning there can possible be, for we would need an infinite amount of sounds and letters to create the words necessary to correspond with the limitless amount of different possible meanings in the universe. At best words can only generalize. In order to express the particularities of life, we rely on the image that certain words bring about. It is through the image, not the words, in which true emotion is expressed, the speechless is expressed, the inexpressible. That is why Simmerman uses the image of the grave to express the inexpressible feeling of burying a child. He gives this grave a history, makes it real and significant, which allows the reader to empathize with this parent in the poem. “The unscore lumber… and the hump of busted rock/ spoke too plainly of his grief” (p.556). The image is enough.