Can epic save us from 'legions of sowbugs'?

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Making a point: Thomas Capuano, who is on the faculty of the Classical and Modern Language Department of Truman State University in Missouri, teaches Spanish and Portuguese literature, language, and linguistics. Over more than three decades, he has worked on an epic poem about Altamont, which he published in May.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“Only John Groot can be fully trusted,” Thomas Capuano writes of one of Altamont’s 18th-Century settlers, buried off of Western Avenue in Altamont and glorified in his epic poem. “It’s a poem to be read aloud,” Capuano writes, “preferably late at night, preferably in the dead of winter, and advantageously, when sleep is wanted and won’t come, or when sleep is so direly wanted for the children…”

ALTAMONT — Some memories last a lifetime and infuse current thoughts.

Thomas Capuano has a strong sense of place, rooted in boyhood recollections, carefully tended in manhood. His sense of Altamont as a worthy homeland led him, through three decades, to create a book-length poem, an epic, which now, poised at age 60 to retire from a career as a college professor, he has published.

Capuano remembers how, as a 10-year-old kid, he rode his bike from his Euclid Avenue home to the rural outskirts of the village. With his butterfly net in tow, he pedaled to the Crounse farm on Brandle Road at the foot of the Helderbergs.

“Old Mister Crounse lived there,” he said. “I came to pilfer, to catch butterflies. I didn’t know him. He saw me and he brought out handfuls of ripe grapes from his vineyard…Concord grapes…They were warm and delicious.”

Capuano tells the story as he sits at his mother’s kitchen table. She shares a house with her daughter and son-in-law on that very farm, perched above the old pear orchard. Across the street, where the Concord grapes still grow near the 19th-Century farmhouse, Capuano’s brother lives with his wife and two children.

Thomas Capuano hopes to live here, too, after retiring from his career teaching Spanish and Portuguese at Truman State College in Missouri. “I’m finally good at what I do and I really enjoy it, but I’ve always wanted to farm, to be one with nature,” he says.

“That memory has been seminal for me,” Capuano goes on, recalling the unlooked-for gift of sun-warmed grapes. “The earthiness, the direct contact with a member of a family that goes all the way back in the history of Altamont — and he put them in my hands.”

Capable hands

Capuano’s hands were willing and able to write. He had a childhood steeped in language and, as a young man, wrote words that reached a wide audience on an important world issue.

One of four siblings, Thomas Capuano was raised by parents who met in normal school and became teachers. His mother, who hailed from Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, taught Latin, French, and Spanish. His father taught science and math at the old Altamont High School.

Capuano remembers loving Spanish lessons at Altamont Elementary School. Languages came naturally to him. He heard Italian at home and, after high school, studied in Falun, Sweden for a year. Following that, he started studying foreign languages at the University at Albany when, in the midst of the Vietnam War, his number came up in the draft.

A committed pacifist, Capuano, with the mayor of Altamont, Larry Warner, vouching for his sincerity, was granted conscientious-objector status and did two years of alternative service, working with emotionally disturbed children near New York City.

“It was very challenging,” he said “I learned a lot. I learned how hard some people had it.”

When his service was up, the Mennonite Central Committee for which he worked offered him a job in Brazil, helping underprivileged children in the city of Recife.

Capuano and Larry Rosebaugh, a Catholic priest and peace activist, worked with the homeless there and decided to prepare meals for them on the city streets.

“We made soups every day and shared experiences,” he said. “Brazil was under a military dictatorship. We both had long hair and beards. They claimed we were subversives…We were picked up, shoved around, and put in jail.

“I wrote about this in The New York Times,” he said.

President Jimmy Carter at the time was stressing the importance of human rights in Latin America and Rosalynn Carter visited Rosebaugh and Capuano at the American Consulate in Recife, a gesture The Times called “a dramatic statement of her husband’s position on human rights.”

The June 8, 1977 New York Times article on Rosalynn Carter’s visit quotes the pair as saying they had been living on the streets, sometimes in cardboard boxes, with the city’s poorest residents, helping them scavenge and prepare food and that, after their arrest — although they were never charged with a crime — they had been held incommunicado for three days and detained, naked, in a small cell holding 34 men.

“I felt myself being turned into an animal,” Capuano told reporter Laura Foreman. “I was pushed, kicked, knocked down by so-called prisoner guards. A terrible stench was constant, the stench of human excrement, human sweat. Lice were everywhere. There were wall-to-wall bodies. At night, when it was time to lay down, there was no room to lay down.”

Capuano said this week of the Brazilian jails, “Being young, I didn’t know they were all like that.”

Capuano was deported as his visa ran out. Rosebaugh continued his work; he was murdered in 2009 at the age of 75 by masked gunmen in Guatemala.

The importance of names

Capuano returned to his studies at the University at Albany in 1977, riding the city bus from Altamont to the campus for classes. Along the route, he would look at historical markers, like the one on Western Avenue where John Groot is buried, and contemplate Altamont’s past.

At the same time, in class, he was being inspired by Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and the Os Lusiadas — the national Portuguese epic poem.

“As I rode the bus, I’d just let my imagination go,” said Capuano. “I decided Altamont was good enough to have an epic poem. I grew up here. It means a lot to me.”

After completing his undergraduate studies, Capuano went on to get a Ph.D., writing his dissertation on the 13th-Century Spanish author, Gonzalo des Berceo.

Capuano re-worked his original book-length thesis at the insistence of the president of the Royal Spanish Academy, focusing on agricultural terminology from the era. “They are words never in any dictionary,” said Capuano, who expressed no bitterness in having to re-write his dissertation.

Meanwhile, his own epic was taking shape.

Some of it involves rhythmic lists of names — whether of original settlers or native plants — that he says are reminiscent of the lists he found in his studies, enumerations from the Spanish epics.

Capuano calls his epic The Tale of Tekarionyoken: Being the first known verse account of the ascent of the Hudson River, the arrival at Fort Orange and the passage westward to the foot of the Helderbergs of a certain Band of Wanderers, together with a deft critical edifice casting salutary doubt on its veracity.

The title name, Tekarionyoken, like other terms throughout the epic, is Mohawk; it means “the land between two streams,” Capuano said, explaining, “All the Mohawk I got from a linguistic professor at Albany State, Maryann Mithun…She spoke fluent Mohawk.”

The two streams are the “Ostenraky,” which means “the creek of shale bed,” and runs along Euclid Avenue, and “Joriohenen,” which means “the creek that falls from the cliff,” and runs by Altamont Elementary School.

Because of Capuano, Altamont’s creeks officially bear those Mohawk names. Capuano has a letter, dated April 12, 1979, from William Aylward, then the mayor of Altamont, thanking him for his “very constructive recommendation that the streams in the Village of Altamont be named ‘Ostenraky’ and ‘Joriohenen’.”

Aylward’s letter goes on, “By board resolution at the March 20, 1979 meeting, your recommendation was adopted and the streams will carry the names.”

Creating an epic

Capuano says of writing the poem, “I wanted to experiment with the idea of creating myth. A myth is something you inherit but I wanted to pretend.”

He sets his story in a frame inside of a frame. The first is that a copy of the lost epic was found at a Saturday garage sale. The second is that the story is being told to children.

“Creating layers gives you a sense of authentic origin,” he said.

He made a conscious attempt, he said, to pretend this found poem was the origin of rhymes from games he remembered playing as a child. “We played ‘The Cheese Stands Alone’ in first grade,” he said, recalling his days at Altamont Elementary.

That sentiment takes a dark turn in the epic when the narrator’s voice laments, “No one can hear me. The poem is alone!”

Most of the verse in the opening chapters is made up of quatrains, four lines of four feet each, with the last words in the second and fourth lines rhyming:

 

“Come snuggle up closer, come hear the long story

I’ve waited so long to unravel for you,

The longest and oldest tale ever related

And told to the end, every word of it true.”

 

The story tells of the first European settlers to arrive at the foot of the Helderberg escarpment, where Altamont stands today. “I got a lot of it from Arthur Gregg’s Old Hellebergh,” said Capuano.

As a boy, Capuano used to visit the Guilderland historian. “He lived at the end of my street,” said Capuano. “He loved to talk and refer to the people around town, both living and deceased….I knew he was a special man, very studious.”

Capuano’s epic, divided into seven chapters spanning 99 pages, covers the journey up the Hudson River by ship and the trek by the settlers to Tekarionyoken. One of the settlers, John Groot, leaves the party and travels by himself into the wilderness where he encounters a mystical maiden, an allusion to Kateri Tekakwitha, a Catholic Mohawk known as the Lily of the Mohawks who died in 1680 and was recently made a saint.

“The poem is not historical but it is on a spiritual plane,” said Capuano. “I didn’t really have any famous personages that I could weave into an Altamont anthology. The Poem of the Cid is about a famous conqueror…At least we know he existed. We didn’t have anybody like that in Altamont, no one high profile.”

So, in creating his epic, Capuano, reached out to Auriesville to have John Groot consult with Tekakwitha and bring back the truth.

“I like the idea of the femininity,” Capuano said. “To me, she’s like a goddess. I presented her that way. I did not do her any historical justice.”

Parts of his poem are ribald, parts are sentimental; parts are infused with gaiety and other parts with morality.

“I tried to imagine what that first day was like for a founding party, when they flopped down in the meadow to decide how to settle this area,” said Capuano, “bearing in mind how Guilderland now is with all that traffic, just overrun.”

When John Groot returns from his wandering, he is reviled by the other settlers, dismissed as a poet and dreamer, while they have sweated to become colonels and governors; patriots, minutemen, mayors, and clerks.

Gone are the measured quatrains of the opening chapters, replaced with the rollicking rhythms of unfolding lists as the tempo crescendos to a veritable fury, echoing the evils of modern life:

 

“In the name of our Schermerhorns, Harpers, and Banckers,

Their glorious words and their glorious works,

And again in the name of Van Aernam and Vrooman,

Myndersie, Hungerford, Kieenholz and Crounse,

In the name of all those we have named and left nameless,

In unison thus we pronounce:

That this tale of the land of Tekarionyoken

From start to the end be erased;

That the tale of the land of Tekarionyoken

By only one truth be replaced:

By the Great Western Turnpike, its Tollgates and Turnstiles,

By Crossgates and Westgates, their byways in place;

By the banners and bankers and hatters, by levies

That pay for the cannon that fill the stockades

That guard the Dominion of chapmen and traders

That warrant the welfare our workmen have made;

By our carriages horseless, in ceaseless commotion,

Like legions of sowbugs in brave locomotion

By all of us, we who dared cross o’er the ocean;

By Half a Moon’s face, and by all set in motion

When Father Time’s hands hid his face.”

 

“Yet Altamont isn’t ruined,” says Capuano.

He also says, “We’re all immigrants. We’ve all had a hand in bringing the nature around us to the state it’s in now — all except John Groot.”

Can the poet save us?

Capuano is not sure who will want to read his book. He notes it is available to be borrowed from the Altamont Free Library and is also for sale at the Book House in Guilderland’s Stuyvesant Plaza.

Although he has published many editions of early scientific writing in Old Catalan and Old Spanish, this is the only poetry he has ever written.

“I got it in its final form in May,” said Capuano of the self-published book. “I’ve always worked on it, on and off. I feel it’s benefited from sitting on a shelf. Every time I work on it, it gets much better.”

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