Watermark: Poems of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 by Barbara Sabol


Poems of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889
by Barbara Sabol


A once-in-a-century storm coupled with a structurally fraught mountain lake in the rough steel and coal country of western Pennsylvania sets the stage for the Johnstown Flood of 1889. Watermark is a lyric documentary of personae both real and imagined. Voices of the unidentified flood victims, those “coffined” without a name, are drawn from the hand-scripted morgue book listing their features, clothing, and artifacts. Voices of other figures from the disaster, such as Clara Barton and railway engineer John Hess, also flesh out the larger narrative. In this collection of historically authentic and lyrically compelling poems, a chorus of voices—scullery maid, carpenter, drifter, telegrapher—brings the story of “The Great Flood” to life.

Content Warning: death, morgue descriptions, grief, loss, body parts, child death


“Like a hand reaching to pull the drowning from deep water, Barbara Sabol’s book of portraits reclaims the lost voices of the Great Johnstown Flood: working class lives she precisely renders with a polyvocal and beautiful tenderness.”
—Sean Thomas Dougherty,
author of The Dead Are Everywhere Telling Us Things

“‘Dressmaker, scullery maid, drifter, carpenter, millwright, mother, / the children whose dreams scatter in the grass, you are not forgotten’ in Barbara Sabol’s Watermark. These vivid poems rise from the floodwaters of 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania, carrying with them the variously imagined voices and stories of a fully realized town. This is poetry of witness at its finest—present and fierce.”
—Marcela Sulak,
author of City of Skypapers

“In its beautifully woven poems, Watermark gives voice to those lost voices of the 1889 Johnstown Flood, telling the stories of loss, devastation, and the slow process of healing and recovery. Barbara Sabol has painted a masterful, moving portrait of time and place in the regional spirit and tradition of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and E. A. Robinson’s Tilbury Town poems. Watermark is a significant addition to the canon of Northern Appalachian poetry.”
—William Scott Hanna,
poetry editor, Northern Appalachia Review

“Using a variety of forms—among them ballad, golden shovel, triolet, erasure, and epistle—Barbara Sabol crafts a lyric remembrance of one of America’s greatest disasters. Sabol not only evokes the voices of the perished and survivors, but also of memorable figures of the times. More often, readers hear from common people. In ‘The Carpenter,’ the title character is described as a tattooed ‘fighter’ who discovers on the last day of May over 130 years ago, ‘For all my mass, I was no match for that water’s brawn, its gnarled fist.’ Watermark rises to give voice to an event now gone from living memory. It is a substantial poetic achievement that rewards readers on every page.”
—Jerry Wemple,
author of We Always Wondered What Became of You

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• Poems | Historical | Pennsylvania
• 5” x 8” Perfectbound Trade Paperback
• Cream Paper, 132 Pages
• Paperback ISBN-13: 978-1-946580-41-2
• Paperback ISBN-10: 1-946580-41-4
• Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-946580-42-9
• Hardcover ISBN-10: 1-946580-42-2
• Ebook ISBN-13: 978-1-946580-43-6
• Ebook ISBN-10: 1-946580-43-0
• LCCN: 2023947752
• First Edition: October 17, 2023
• Short URL: tinyurl.com/watermarksabol
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Cover jacket designed by Leah Angstman, featuring wraparound watercolor artwork by Stefan Schweihofer and a portion of “Bird’s-eye View of the Conemaugh Valley, from Nineveh to the Lake, Johnstown, Pa.: From Personal Sketches and Surveys of the Pennsylvania R. R., by Permission” map drawn by Alex Y. Lee for the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1889, courtesy of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, loc.gov/item/2010588930.

Barbara Sabol was raised in Pennsylvania coal and steel country, a place that has strongly influenced both her values and her writing. She attended the University of Massachusetts and enjoyed a long career as a speech pathologist. Barbara has been writing poetry for more than 25 years, and holds an MFA from Spalding University.

Her fifth book, Connections: core & all: haiku (Bird Dog Press, 2022) is part of a dual collection of short-form Japanese poems. Barbara won the Sheila-Na-Gig Editions Poetry Prize in 2019 for her book, Imagine a Town. She went on to become the associate editor of Sheila-Na-Gig online and edited the anthology Sharing This Delicate Bread: Selections from Sheila- Na-Gig online (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2022). Her awards include an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council and the Mary Jean Irion Poetry Prize. She conducts poetry workshops through Literary Cleveland. When not at her desk, Barbara is walking the trails of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park or traveling the country in a restored camper van. She lives in Akron, Ohio, with her husband and wonder dogs.

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