Poet Captures Vivid, Tragic Rim Country History

News articles and oral histories provided the grit for compelling book of poems for writer who can escape into her imagination

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For years, she made the pilgrimage to Payson each February, when the Maryland winter close by Gettysburg grew too bleak to endure -- away from her life and to the place where her imagination dwelled.

Ostensibly, Carrie Carlson came to visit her parents -- former Payson town councilor Judy Buettner and her husband Jim, who retired to Payson in 1997.

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Photo courtesy Carrie Carlson Poet Carrie Carlson wrote 27 poems that centered on events in the Rim Country's long, colorful history, to help the Northern Gila County Historical Society with its Sept. 20 fund-raiser. Carlson used the Roundup archives as the basis for her gripping human dramas, although she had to use a voice recorder due to health problems.

The registrar of a small college and a writer of the heart, Carlson had also suffered since childhood from a still-mysterious nerve disease that caused her chronic pain and that had been squeezing down on her life inexorably for decades.

But Carlson is a poet -- so in her mind she could move gracefully through time and through worlds as well -- sensing the history and drama in the sleepy little forest town before that highway connected it to the common world.

Poets will do that: live in two times, always just out of phase, always watching -- barely blinking as they memorize the details.

So Carlson found herself always imagining the laughing, weeping ghosts of the place -- with battered pickup trucks loaded with moonshine, eyeballs swollen from the scratching of the catsclaw branches, lonely graves on isolated ranches, whisky-sipping crowds standing in the street watching the saloon burn.

She found herself looking through the 70-year-old copies of the Roundup, thrilling over the tales of local tragedy written by Roundup columnist Stan Brown and having long conversations about the old days with Ira Murphy, Jinx Pyle, Jayne Peace Pyle, Marguerite Noble and Anna Mae Deming.

Her mother arranged for her to meet the still living pioneers of Rim Country and the old photographs and articles about the careless details of the hard life on the frontier fed her imagination.

But her life lay back in Maryland, where she returned after her one-month sojourn in Rim Country each March.

Her disease progressed, gradually confining her in the mercifully spacious boundaries of her imagination. It grew ever harder to type, to write, to walk -- to leave the house. The airplane flight to Payson became in impossible ordeal.

Then her mother asked her to write a poem about Payson, hoping to use it at the Sept. 20 annual banquet and fund-raiser at the casino for the Northern Gila County Historical Society. The event raises money for the Rim Country Museum and Zane Grey Cabin, and this year will include a portrayal of pioneer Sharlot Hall by Jody Drake.

Carlson took on the project, warning her mother that she couldn't possibly condense everything into one poem.

Several passionate, astonishing, revealing, glorious months later, Carlson had produced 27 poems, almost all of them based on primary accounts and newspaper articles.

She found herself absolutely absorbed by the lives captured in the archives and oral histories she pored over. She had cut back on her pain medications, partly so her mind would be clear enough to write.

Now the stories possessed her, waking her in the middle of the night, sometimes insisting that she discard a poem to change the tone or point of view.

"I've been consumed with this since my mother asked me to do it," said Carlson. "I've never written so much in my life. Even with this, I would say ‘I'm not going to write anymore,' but then the next day I'd have to do it."

The project called on the keenly developed imagination and practice in meditation that she had used all her life to separate herself from the painful nagging of her nerve endings.

"Any creative act does give you energy back -- it's all energizing."

Her mother helped with the legwork, looking up biographical material and accounts of events that Carlson wanted to incorporate into a poem.

"It got her writing again," said Buettner, "it's just so exciting. It has made me so happy -- just so happy for her. To see her writing again, just fills my heart with joy."

The poems offer a compelling glimpse of frontier life, sparse and compassionate -- by turns humorous and tragic. The unrhymed free verse vignettes are terse and unadorned, yet lyrical in their open-hearted, clear-eyed invocation of the gritty, patient, cussedness demanded by survival in a remote cow town miles from anywhere.

And perhaps that's because Carlson tried so hard to honor the pioneers who shared their stories and make them real people in her lines rather than mythic, Western cardboard cutouts.

Besides which, sometimes when she strayed -- some voice, some instinct, would wake her in the night.

"I tried to take very little license" with the facts. "I remember I woke up one morning worrying about one of the poems and thinking ‘I've totally blown it.' Almost like someone was poking me."

She has other poems crowding her imagination these days -- most of them about the tough, funny characters to settled Payson. But she's thinking about casting about around the 200-year-old farmhouse she and her husband are restoring, perhaps applying the technique to Gettysburg and other nearby areas.

But in the meantime, she only hopes that her poems have done justice to the people who shared their stories -- and whose spare and curiously eloquent lives were captured in those yellowing newspaper archives.

"It's like they gave me this great gift," she says.

And now she's passed to along to us.

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