Howard Starks (August:Osage County)

As homage to his late mentor Howard Starks, Tracy Letts titled his play set in Pawhuska, Oklahoma after Starks’s poem “August: Osage County.” The poem, published in the Oklahoman poet’s book of poetry titled Family Album: A Collection of Poetry (1997), touches on themes of ageing, the passage of time, and the simple, yet poignant, words and actions of loved ones while waiting, sometimes expectantly, for death. Letts’s play delves into similar themes, but the poetic references extend beyond August: Osage County’s thematic commonalities with its progenitor. Throughout the play — but most significantly in the prologue – more than a dozen references to poets and poetry create a strong sense of the nostalgia and irony characteristic of postmodern works. As Courtney Elkin Mohler explains, the play “articulates a kind of ‘ironized nostaligia’” and “can be read as a postmodern rumination on the American identity and family in the 2000s.” Not surprisingly, some theater critics, such as Chris Jones, Charles Isherwood, and Teresa Choate, describe August as a postmodern portrait of a dysfunctional contemporary American family replete with alcoholism, drug-addiction, suicide, infidelity, child-molestation, and incest. However, I assert that in this Shakespearean length tragicomedy the numerous references to poets and poetry are more than mere intertextual references challenging a “master narrative” or criticizing liberal humanism. Rather, in August: Osage County the allusions and references to poets and their poetry, including framing the play with quotes from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” point to the diminishment or dismissal of the intrinsic value of poetry in the lives of the Westons — the allegorical representation of Western ideology’s “master narrative.”

“August: Osage County” by Howard Starks (pdf starks.august osage county)
published in Family Album: a Collection of Poetry, Running Board Press, Durant, OK 1995.

Dust hangs heavy in the dull catalpas;
the cicadas are scraping interminably
at the heart-thickened air—
no rain in three weeks, no real breeze all day,
In the dim room,
the blinds grimly endure the deadly light,
protecting the machined air,
as the watchers watch the old lady die.

“I’m eighty-six,” she said: “it’s high time—
now John’s gone.”
And to the town’s ne doctor
“You’re a good boy,” (she had a great-grandson
who was older,) “so don’t fiddle around.
When fighting was needed, I fought –
But I’m all fought out.”
and later—
“John left when he was due—well—I’m due now,”
“I promise, “ he whispered;
I’ve learned when right is right.”

Now, her daughters sit – – and her grand-daughters –
and at night, her grandsons- –
and her pampered sons-in-law.
One of these, not known for eloquence – –
or tears—said, last week,
“Ola, chance gave me a mother,
but God gave me two.”
She smiled at that,
“yes, I had one boy; god gave me seven more.”

She lies under the sheet,
Thin as one of her old kitchen knives,
honed by years and use to fragile sharpness,
but too well-tempered to break just yet.

It’s two days since she spoke—
“Don’t cry, Bessie;
puppies just die, that’s all.”
(A girl again,
gentling baby sister.)

All the watchers can do
is wipe her dry mouth with gentle wetness.

They watch her old hands and murmur—
How many biscuits
and pans of gravy?
How many babies soothed
and bee-stings daubed with bluing?
How many lamp-wicks trimmed?
How many berries picked?
words circling
as her quiet breath winds down to silence.

No sobs, for she was due, but tears, a few,
selfish ones,
before the calls, the “arrangements”
to put her to bed, beside John,
on the dusty hilltop.

Standing there,
we look up from the dry clods
and the durable grey stone,
upwards—
expectantly—
westwards—
where the clouds grow dark.

2 comments

  1. Ron Wallace

    Howard was a great poet, and now perhaps he is the most under rated poet on the planet. All those who loved and appreciated the man are thankful to Tracy Letts for bringing him some recognition.

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