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Story By John Murray
John Noelke was raised on a ranch in West Texas and now owns Howard’s, an independent bookstore nestled along the eastern bank of the Naugatuck River in downtown Torrington. Noelke is a long way from the arid landscape of his youth, but for six decades, through his higher education in Boston and New York, he has carried a lesson from his mother.
“When I was a kid in West Texas, maybe seven or eight years old, she looked at me and she said, ‘Don’t be a racist’,” Noelke said. “I grew up with Hispanics on the ranch, and my friends on the ranch were Black Seminoles. When my mother said that to me, in the melancholy way that she had about her, I didn't even know what a racist was.”
The world outside the ranch judged shades of melanin in a person’s skin much differently than the Noelke family.
“I soon learned that if you were Native American, or if you had Black blood, that it wasn’t a good idea to let it be known in West Texas,” Noelke said. “My mother instilled in me a sense of humanity that I carry with me to this day.”
When Noelke moved to Connecticut years ago he quickly learned that John Brown was born in Torrington, and he devoured books and information about the famous abolitionist. Five years ago Conrad Synkiewicz approached Noelke and asked him if he would write a poem about Brown for the annual celebration at the old Brown homestead in Torrington.
“Conrad knew I had studied poetry, and I agreed,’ Noelke said. “I have always found that poetry is an immediate way to connect with your humanity.”
But writing a poem about one of the most controversial individuals in American history - Brown tried to incite a slave rebellion in 1859 by raiding a federal armory in Virginia - was a daunting assignment.
"There's not a more difficult subject matter to approach than John Brown," Noelke said , "but there are no two words you can put together that are more powerful than John Brown. In my opinion, those two words abutted are the most powerful words in the English language."
Noelke struggled with the poem and couldn't figure out how to begin it. "I was driving in my truck and I started yelling his name out," I don't I know where that came from, but I had my beginning."
This is the poem Noelke, with the volume on high, has performed four times in Torrington.
Was it the look that made the story,
Or was it the story that made the look?
In your brown eyes as a boy you saw:
The man chained to a wagon in the morning
til evening, til dark
the horse though with hay with water
on Water Street,
a man lifts a spoon after
his wife and daughter have been sold
looks hard into nothing
which is you,
the mangled gaze,
the mangled hand
the scar runs from some place deep within
where dignity once held shop,
Up the back, this scar
which after all is no more than a line
from the back
drawn down Main Street
to the mills,
the blacksmith to
All for the soft ease of cotton
a line across the nation
through the hills of Appalacia
to the plantations
to the banks
and back again
a clear demarcation between conscience
and the mind of money
which side of the scar are you on!
this simple line between money
Was it real that a woman
would throw her own baby
to stop a breath enslaved future,
giving her instead to God’s world,
or was it all a dream,
a nightmare to analyze in our century,
Then is this scar?
But there it is, in the street
at your feet.
John Brown John Brown John Brown
Nevermore. nevermore. never more
After Noelke belted out his poem to John Brown the first time, he strode off the elevated ground that held the stone monument marking Brown's birthplace, and was met with a stunned silence.
"It was a pinnacle kind of American experience to be standing right there and yelling that out," Noelke said. "The first time I did it there was 30 people there and I just unleashed that thing. When I finished everybody was frozen. I almost had to call 911. That's my poetry, but I never experienced something on that level."
Right after the poem the group walked off into the woods and no one said anything to Noelke. "During the walk, and afterwards," Noelke said, "people started expressing themselves. The poem had shocked them."
Noelke said he doesn't like to discuss the poem, "because it's something that is deeper than the mind, and everything I have to say about John Brown is when I yell that out."
Noelke is fascinated about the complexity of John Brown. "The whole thing about John Brown among White people, not Black people, is he was crazy. But the question is, was his conscience driven crazy by the circumstance or did his Gestalt come from a genuine craziness. That's always been the discussion that that I've heard, that he was crazy, but actually I thought his strategy was brilliant."
One of Noelke's Texas ancestors had a slave, and fought for the Confederacy. "There's a discussion now about the past and why do we have to keep bringing it up,' Noelke said, "maybe it goes back to my mom, but I want to atone for the past in every possible way." •
Check out two other Observer stories about John Brown at...