Katharyn Howd Machan and others will read from Secret Music: Voices from Redwing, 1888 at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at Buffalo Street Books.
Frolicking through tall, summer grass with the scent of strawberries filling the air, the people of Redwing, New York, share their lives with families and lovers in the year 1888. But beyond each person’s friendships and marriage, scandals of adultery and tales of grief taint the lives of Redwing residents. Each person in the small town copes differently — from sputtering out small stanzas to long, angry lines — and the words of these people come alive in Katharyn Howd Machan’s newest collection of poetry, Secret Music: Voices from Redwing, 1888.
Machan crafts a collection of poetry through the monologues of more than 150 characters living in a fictional town in Central New York. Redwing, the town in Tuscarora County she invented, has the same small-town vibes of other places in the area, with each person’s story subtly intertwined into another. Machan began writing the monologues Jan. 17, 1985, thinking up characters and families in Redwing. In the Author’s Note, Machan said she has been writing these monologues for half of her life.
The date Jan. 17 marks two-and-a-half weeks after Machan’s mother passed away. In the note, she said the monologues and the creation of Redwing may serve as a way to cope with the grief of losing a loved one. Creating families and relationships may have allowed Machan to explore the unspoken scripts through her life and relationships, according to the note.
What began as a small project grew into a large collection of work. The monologues of Redwing characters have been published before, but Secret Music: Voices from Redwing, 1888 is a comprehensive anthology of all the characters Machan created the past three decades.
While the poems have been in the making for 30 years, the amount of characters Machan has managed to create is still astounding. Each has its own rhythm, vocabulary, rhyme scheme and structure, separating each character. Reading through, you can nearly hear the old voices of the characters, echoing like ghosts on the pages. The titles of the poems are the names of the characters, which also helps build a more vivid picture.
The poems are organized alphabetically by last name, which at first seems like an irrelevant means of organizing, but grouping by last name keeps the voices of one family together. On one page, a mother speaks, on another her daughter speaks and on the following her brother speaks.
This especially shines through in the Fenton family, one of the strongest group of poems in the collection. This group follows the four children and the mother of the Fenton family, from the worm-eating Bessie to the fragile, feminine Jacob. Each family member discusses great fears, accomplishments and secrets, all while not telling these same stories to one another. The Fenton family is the largest in the anthology, and watching the stories unfold through different perspectives gives readers a vivid picture of each character — even when said character isn’t speaking.
Each poem reads like a diary entry from 1888: the consistency in language while also crafting individual voices shines through. Though unlike most stories of the 19th century, many of these monologues resist patriarchal thinking, especially from the women: a refreshing look at an otherwise oppressive time period. Machan has been vocal about her commitments to feminism in her other collections, and seeing these themes present in Secret Music: Voices from Redwing, 1888 doesn’t come as a surprise but rather as a comfort.
It’s satisfying to know that each monologue now has a home, all in the same pages. When the book is closed, it’s as if the townspeople are mingling together, spreading rumors and exploring one another’s company. And should Machan write new monologues in this universe, readers will wish for them to find a home in another published book, too. •