John Steinbeck (1939) The Grapes of Wrath.

prophecy and poetry
prophecy and poetry

I’m called, drawn back to re-reading The Grapes of Wrath by something, I’m not sure what, perhaps it’s the refugee crisis, the image of a child’s body on the beach, and the masses of people moving between borders, and the contempt and hatred we’ve shown them. I’m not looking for answers, but I am looking for answers. Perhaps the answer is in the dithyrambic prose of Steinbeck written in one inspired, barely legible, draft, a calling down of a Joad family and a reverend that has given up religion, Jim Casey, who becomes part of the Joad family, although he’s not part of the Joad family; in the same way that the Wilsons, Sarah and Ivy become that great exodus of common people, or working people, become part of the Joad family, with nothing and no one but themselves, who are on the road together, travelling Route 66, that 2000 odd miles that separate Oklahoma from California because they have to as they’ve nowhere else to go; and they’ve all seen the printed handbill, promising riches ‘Pea Pickers Wanted in California. Good Wages. All Seasons.’ It’s something the Joads of the world nursing their jalopies and their dreams along need to believe in. Granda Joad imagines a white picket house and reaching up and picking oranges and letting the juice run down his chin, but he’s on the road and his grave is unmarked beside the road, because they can’t afford to the fee to bury him properly and instead Tom Joad writes a note in his best handwriting, puts it in a jar beside the family’s fallen patriarch, and they wrap him in Sarah’s quilt because that’s the way it is. The law no longer straight, like a road, Pa Joad concludes, and sometime you got to skit round about it. And the Joads won’t be beholden because that’s not their way, but at every corner and stretch of road there’s someone waiting and wanting to take a cut of them, a little bit more is the price, and the price hundreds of thousands of other tenant farmers like them, chased from the land, by the banks and bankers that were holding their notes, moving them on for their own good. You’d go screwy thinking about it, like Muley, obstinate, crazy, determined to stay, no matter the cost. ‘Where will we go? Where will we go?’ asked the women, waiting to see if the man would break.  No one to blame. God knows, the ground wasn’t good for nothing, and the people on the land and their lifetime belongings worth less, but if they moved on in California, there was work, plenty of work, for those that wanted to work. Only, of course, there wasn’t. There were camps were they were safe and camps were they weren’t safe and there were men with guns, some of them in uniform turning they away, asking for their documents and ripping them up in their face, and telling them to go back to where they’d come from, for there was nothing there for them, couldn’t they see that. Turn back. Go home.  The Grapes of Wrath is a religion without a God and it might have something to say about wrath. But that was then and this is now. Poor Rose of Sharon feeding a starving man with new-born breast milk. Surely we couldn’t come to that. Foodbanks that can no longer cope. But surely we couldn’t come to that. Surely we couldn’t come to that?  The Grapes of Wrath is an old book but a new book and a true book. Read the poetry of prophecy anew.

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