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Somewhere Near Defiance




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The water answers everything,
the moon, the wind, the mud
It carries off and carries on
through a town called Defiance
Two rivers meet there, two armies met there long ago
Mad Anthony’s soldiers tore the fruit trees down in triumph
in Defiance

And Walt Whitman thought his poems might stop the war
but when it came he moved to Washington
Took a day job to be near the wounded soldiers there
And he read to them, wrote letters,
mopped their sweaty brows, told them lies about their wounds.
When I went to Washington,
wounded soldiers were still everywhere.

Some mornings now I wake up
grateful that my heavy dreams are gone
And I snag the zipper of my coat
going off to tell some tales I hope are true.
Then I step into a room and see
the rows of faces, hopeful and new
as yellow apples
hanging from the orchards of Defiance.

The day came brilliant to my quiet town
I saw a robin on the wire.
Nothing that I do
matters to the earth or the sky.
But I’m somewhere near Defiance
and I believe I hear a voice say
Even from Defiance
nothing’s more than half a world away.

Holiness is like my mind
it’s full of holes.
But I’ve stalled around too long near Defiance
and it’s flood time again.
Peace on terror, peace on drugs
peace on war.
Peace on the Muslims, Jews and Christians
and the Tea Party too.

Peace on Mad Anthony
and his soldiers, they’re all quiet now.
Peace on the warriors they fought
and the fruit trees that they tore.
Peace on Defiance, peace in Defiance, oh, Defiance
Even from Defiance, nothing’s more than half a world away.


Listen to "Somewhere Near Defiance"

About “Somewhere Near Defiance”

This all began several years ago, when the U.S. was still bogged down in wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I had been wanting to write a political poem with some kind of ambition, after my old teacher John Fisher had accused Mennonite poets of not writing enough anti-war poems. I had some ideas: the story of Defiance, a town near me in northwest Ohio, where there used to be a fort, where according to some sources at least there was a Native American village, fields and gardens, and an orchard. When the battle was won, the story goes, General Mad Anthony Wayne’s soldiers tore branches from the trees and rode around waving them. Then there was the story of Walt Whitman, who went to Washington during the Civil War to help take care of wounded soldiers, and a trip to Washington I made for the Split This Rock poetry festival—a great organization of poets and activists. And then there was my own sense of living out in the provinces, helpless to make the empire swerve an inch, but not ready to just knuckle under either.

I had the title, I thought: “Somewhere Near Defiance.” Yes, of course you can read that several ways.

But I’d been struggling to write the poem, trying to pull all this stuff together without being too self-righteous, too obscure, or too wordy, when I got word of a little workshop on writing socially engaged songs that was happening on the Bluffton campus as part of a special day. I’d also been thinking about trying to write songs more seriously, so I picked up my working copy of the poem and took it along. There were just 4 or 5 of us there, but the spirit was good.

Partway through I got so interested in the problem of making a song out of the poem that I borrowed a guitar and went off by myself for twenty minutes to try to figure out how it might go. I got the basic chord pattern, and the plan of shifting to a minor progression along the way, and a very rough start on the words. It was far from finished, but a start. So I came back and sang that rough version to the group, and they seemed to like it . . . one of the students actually wrote “Even from Defiance, nothing’s more than half a world away” on her jeans, where she was taking notes. That seemed like a good sign.

That was the start, or at least the new start. It ended up being both the title poem of my new book and the start of a more focused songwriting endeavor that led to my spending a good deal of time in my upstairs home office, recording with my trusty 12-string, one condenser mike and Audacity on my laptop. The result, so far, is a set of eight songs that at least begin to suggest what I can hear in my head. You can find the whole thing by searching at www.soundcloud.com for “Somewhere Near Defiance.”



About the Author

Jeff Gundy

Jeff Gundy’s Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace appeared from Cascadia in fall 2013. This gathering of essays on theopoetics and Mennonite writing is a sequel to his Walker in the Fog: On Mennonite Writing, winner of the Dale E. Brown Award. His sixth full-length collection of poems, Somewhere Near Defiance, was published by Anhinga early in 2014. An essay on his time in Salzburg as a Fulbright lecturer, “The Other Side of Empire,” is forthcoming in The Georgia Review. Other recent work is in The Sun, Nimrod, Conrad Grebel Review, Kenyon Review Online, Shenandoa and Kestrel. A graduate of Goshen College, with a PhD in English from Indiana University, he teaches at Bluffton University.

Photo by Bill Walker