Carruth’s “Marshall Washer”

Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands contains a number of Frost-like character poems that are developed over several pages, and I must admit that I’m generally not enamored of the form, first because I’ve already read enough of them, and, probably, more importantly they generally describe people I don’t recognize, like Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith.”

Thus, I was a little surprised when I found myself falling in love with a poem called “Marshall Washer” about an old-fashioned dairy farmer who is the narrator’s neighbor. The poem consists of six sections, but I was convinced when I read this one:


As for friendship,
what can I say where words historically fail?
It is something else, something more difficult. Not
western affability, at any rate, that tells
in ten minutes the accommodation of its wife’s-well,
you know. Yankees are independent, meaning
individual and strong-minded but also private;
in fact private first of all. Marshall and
worked ten years together, and more than once
hardship. I remember the late January
when his main gave out and we carried water,
hundreds and thousands of gallons, to the heifers
the upper barn (the one that burned next summer),
then worked inside the well to clear the line
in temperatures that rose to ten below
noonday. We knew such times. Yet never
did Marshall say the thought that was closest to him.
Privacy is what this is; not reticence, not
minding one’s own business, but a positive sense
of the secret inner man, the sacred identity.
A man is his totem, the animal of his mind.
Yet I was angered sometimes. How could friendship
share a base so small of mutual substance?
Unconsciously I had taken friendship’s measure
from artists elsewhere who had been close to me,
people living for the minutest public dissection
of emotion and belief. But more warmth was,
and is, in Marshall’s quiet “hello” than in all
those others and their wordiest protestations,
more warmth and far less vanity.

Of course, I probably liked this poem so much because it reminded me so much of important people in my life, perhaps even myself. Actually, it’s hard not to see quite a bit of my own father in this description, a second-generation Scotsman who seldom had a word of praise but still managed to somehow let you know when he was proud of you.

I suspect dad was the real reason I loved John Wayne’s The Quiet Man so much. Except for occasional bursts of temper, you seldom knew how he felt about you or others except through his actions, the personal sacrifices he made so that his family could have more than he ever did as a child.

Even as a boss, he had a genuine affection for those employees he had worked with, and surpassed, for years. Though he wasn’t shy about chewing someone out when they screwed up, he managed to find ways to keep people employed who probably should have been let go while still managing to run the most efficient plant on the West Coast. Their shared experiences, especially hardships, seemed to give them a bond that was never mentioned but always felt. They never needed words, except perhaps at retirement parties where praise was usually combined with humor to reveal their true feelings for each other