BOOMTOWN: A PRAIRIE CAPITAL by James Engelhardt A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy Major: English Under the Supervision of Professor Hilda Raz Lincoln, Nebraska June 2010 UMI Number: 3407858 All rights reserved INFORMATION TO ALL USERS The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted. In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed, a note will indicate the deletion. UMI 3407858 Copyright 2010 by ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved. This edition of the work is protected against unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code. ProQuest LLC 789 East Eisenhower Parkway P.O. Box 1346 Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1346 BOOMTOWN: A PRAIRIE CAPITAL James Engelhardt, PhD University of Nebraska, 2010 Adviser: Hilda Raz “Boomtown,” a collection of poems by James Engelhardt, explores the landscape, culture, and non-human nature of Lincoln, NE from deep pre-history to the contemporary era. Based on research into the history and ecology of the city, “Boomtown”’s early sections resist the familiar first-person narrative in favor of descriptive lyric, short narrative, and persona poems. The collection rejects boosterism and teleology by focusing on marginalized populations and settings, including non-human nature, immigrants, women and men, and domestic life (many poems rely on recipes as an organizing principle). Major events and figures are touched on, often as a frame within which a more intimate scene takes place. By the final section, the reader has a context for contemporary life in the city. The introduction, “Ecology of a Boomtown,” describes the research process and situates the poems in the developing fields of ecopoetics and ecocriticism. The ideas of scholars such as Joni Adamson, Leonard Scigaj, David Gilcrest, Scott Bryson, Neil Evernden, Leslie Paul Thiele, and Glen Love are used to develop and extend the place- and nature-based poetry of “Boomtown” beyond the nature writing tradition. The ecopoetry of the collected poems relies on fiction, an understanding of interdependence between human and non-human, and a respect for deep history. The introduction also notes poetic influences ranging from mid-twentieth century poets Muriel Rukeyser and William Carlos Williams to germinal ecological poets such as Gary Snyder and Simon Ortiz, and from fairly formal poets such as W.S. Merwin, and William Stafford to the more experimental contemporary poets Arthur Sze and Brenda Hillman, among others. By taking on one small city in the middle of the country, “Boomtown” deepens our understanding of life in the last century and a half. Acknowledgments: Thank you to my committee: Hilda Raz, Chris Gallagher, Thomas Lynch, Stephen Behrendt, Robert Brooke, and John Janovy. Thanks to William Reichert who gave some early advice on some of the poems. I want to thank my colleagues Cody Lumpkin, Marianne Kunkel, Jill Johnson, Zack Strait, Christine Stewart-Nuñez, Sarah Chavez. My deep appreciation goes to the editors of journals who found these pieces up to their standards: KNOCK, “What Connects You to the Flyover States?” Platte Valley Review, “Postage Stamp Suburb,” “Reversing Houses,” Alligator Juniper, “Flights of July” Fine Lines, “At 27th and Capitol Parkway,” “Jealousy”, “Food Culture, Tradition” Still, “Walking to School” Terrain.org, “O Salt Creek Tiger Beetle,” “Seeds of Victory” Two community members, Ed Zimmer and Stephanie Mitchell, were helpful in putting a contemporary face on historical people and places. A special thank you goes to Meadowlark Coffeehouse, for fuel and highspeed internet. Lastly, but of overwhelming importance, I want to thank Dana Kinzy for her understanding and reading. This book is dedicated to her and our daughter, Wendelynne. “During the winter of 1861-2 the coyotes practically had the elevations where the city now stands all to themselves.” A.B. Hayes and Sam D. Cox, History of Nebraska (1889) “September 1, 1880, the Prairie Capital called itself at last a City. […] Lincoln […] had a population of 13,003 souls.” J.E. Miller, The Prairie Capital (1930) “The city is still young; its age spans only a lifetime. With its modern office buildings, its Capitol, the traffic and bustle of its downtown area, it retains a certain rawness; the prairie remains close up on its borders.” Works Project Administration, Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State (1939) “We are the world that thinks itself.” Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (1968) Boomtown: A Prairie Capital Table of Contents Introduction: Ecology of a Boomtown Welcome Poem i 1 A WELL, A SALT MARSH, A SCATTERING OF TALL TREES On Ancient History 3 City of Ghosts 4 The Uncarved Creek 5 Legend of the Founding 6 Things Left Behind 7 Saline 8 Madness of the Young City 9 Maps of Imagination 10 Grand Opening 11 Wife Speaks 12 Hunter’s Pudding 13 On the Persistence of Objects 14 University 16 Czarnina (Duck Blood Soup) 17 Cowboy and Call Girl 18 At Play with Such Fervor, Such Strange Feelings The Great Commoner 20 Dark Secret 21 Capital Beach, 1909: Ghosts in the City 22 The Gateless Way 24 Seeds of Victory Ensure the Fruits of Peace 25 Kolaches (Czech) 26 John Prey Points 28 Marsh Mallows 29 The Furrow Is Not the Trench 30 Bohemian Pressed Blood Sausage 31 Gown and Gown Problems 32 Recipes You Need 33 ROADS RISE OVER A FLAT PLAIN Progress and Uplift 35 Capitol Dust, 1935 36 Pierogi (Polish) 37 19 Pfeffernüsse 38 Answering the Appeal: Ghosts in the City 39 Response to William Jennings Bryan 40 The Parks Are Closed 41 Starkweather 42 After Quartets and Before Shampoo 43 Images of Native America 44 Candy Cane Cookies 45 Cowboy Culture 46 Birds 47 Boosalis 48 Arise and Carry 49 Late Immigration 50 Repercussion and Birthright 51 Deuteronomy 29 Verse 23 52 Ghosts in the City 53 Boulevard Trees 54 Legacy 55 O Salt Creek Tiger Beetle 56 Chrysopoeia 57 Local Flocks 58 I LET DOWN MY ANCHOR IN THE LAND AROUND ME Rising Sign 60 December Ghosts in the City 61 Four Houses Framed in a Window 62 What Connects You to the Fly-over States? 63 Greetings from Hendersonville, NC 64 The Neighborly Business of Shoveling Snow 65 At 27th and Capitol Parkway 66 Postage Stamp Suburb 67 Angel Problem 68 Jealousy 69 Storm Runoff 70 Heirloom Produce 71 Flights of July 72 Autumn Saturday, Home Game 74 Pests 75 Reversing Houses 76 War Poem 77 Food Culture, Tradition 78 Merchants and Students 79 Waking Prairie 80 Easement on South Twenty-third Street 81 Exotica 82 Walking to School 83 A Whirlwind Comes 84 Works Consulted 85 i Ecology of a Boomtown James Engelhardt The project that is now “Boomtown: A Prairie Capital” began in the fall of 2005. As I read and explored various critical voices in Thomas Lynch’s ecocriticism class— many of those readings would become formal entrants into my comprehensive examination reading lists—I became convinced that my dissertation project should engage ecocritically with my local environment. That decision was easy to make, but initial conditions are a strangely sensitive group of phenomena and it took some time for the project to develop. On my long walks to and from campus, I considered the class readings (including critics like Lawrence Buell, Glen Love, Dana Phillips, and collections like The Ecocriticism Reader, among others), ideas about how the “local” in “local environment” is constructed, and the poetry I might explore. I still didn’t have a good sense of what shape the project should take, so the summer after Lynch’s class, I organized a dérive—a walk that adds chance operations to a stroll through the city. I generated a lot of material during that afternoon, and as that walk came to an end, I noticed—not for the first time, but with more focus—a bronze historical marker on the side of Sandy’s bar at the corner of 14th and O Streets. The marker notes the site of Luke Lavender’s cabin, perhaps the first wooden building built in the area. As I took a seat at Yia-Yia’s, a local pizzeria, to wait for the rest of the dérive participants, I realized that I had my topic: the daily, two mile walk to and from my office. The areas I moved through included early neighborhoods, the grounds of the capitol, and ii the university campus itself. I became convinced as I began the project that I—the Romantic subject—was less and less interesting. This conviction was not a question of self-esteem; rather, it came from my developing ideas about ecopoetics. The pastoral, the ramble, the clichéd “solitary in the woods epiphany” poem—all seemed to have the Romantic “I” attached, and the I who was engaging with this project wanted to find a different position from which to explore place. Also, my conviction that I lived in nature, even in this small Midwestern city of 250,000, lead me consider a different subjectivity, a subjectivity that—at least in the poems—opened up to include other voices, other circumstances, a subjectivity that draws attention away from the poet. Throughout the project I have wrestled with the idea of what it means to write ecopoetry, environmental poetry, or however any number of critics care to describe a poetry influenced by place and nonhuman nature. In order to ground the rest of the discussion of “Boomtown,” I am going to review briefly the positions and critics most central to the project and compelling to me as a poet. Joni Adamson is one of the first and most persistent voices informing the writing of this project. In American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place, she insists that ecologically informed writing needs to expand beyond the nature ramble and return to the local. This insistence is certainly at the heart of what I’m after in moving beyond the Romantic “I” and understanding place. However, “Boomtown” does little to address environmental justice, though the book takes up questions of race in poems like “Recipes You Need,” “The Parks Are Closed,” and “Images of Native America.” iii But not every critic demands activist speech. Leonard Scigaj, one of the very first people to use the term “ecopoetry” defines it as a poetry that has an awareness of the limits of language, a poetry that is engaged with processes of perception, considers how perception “welds” subjectivity to the world, maintains the natural world as equal and separate, provides models of behavior, challenges anthropocentric views and encourages biocentrism (xiv). Further, he argues that ecopoetry can help other people re-imagine their relationship to the world (xiv). It was this re-imagining that I had in mind as I moved away from the Romantic “I.” David Gilcrest, while using the term “pragmatic environmental poetics” instead of “ecopoetry,” calls for poetry to be “pragmatic in its engagement with the world” (113). It “makes room for nonhuman alterity as it compensates for the vicissitudes of symbolic action. It is successful to the extent that it is responsive to both. The best environmental poetry thus reorients our relationship to nature and to language” (113). Later, he notes that such a poetics “acknowledges, either implicitly or explicitly, the limitations that human perception and language place on mimetic ambitions” (123). By writing the history of a city, however, I am foregrounding the history of humans in that place. Yet “Boomtown” turns from solely human concerns and argues implicitly (as early as “Ancient History” and “Uncarved Creek”) that those concerns can be understood—indeed, should be understood—as being intimate with the non-human. Even in a city. Gilcrest turns to Leonard Scigaj and the latter’s idea of référance. I have not written, for the most part, about an “unmediated experience of the living world” (Gilcrest 136), nor do I completely understand what it might look like on the page, given the levels iv of cognition and shaping that go into the work of a poem. Nevertheless, my daily trek through the city allowed me to engage with the environment in ways that were very different from my research, which was necessarily text- and photograph-based. Scott Bryson, in the introduction to his anthology on ecopoetry, defines ecopoetics as going beyond Romanticism, engaging an interdependent world, expressing a humility before nature, and is skeptical of hyperrationality (5-7). Later in that collection, Bernard Quetchenbach argues that there are different kinds of ecological awareness, including place, region, and bioregion (249-53), categories that were important to the development of this book and that are expressed in the final selection of poems. As an example, the animals and plants in the early poems “Uncarved Creek” and “Legend of the Founding” (native species) are in direct contrast to the animals and plants in the late poem “Exotica” (species introduced by European immigrants). I had a lot of voices telling me what I needed to keep in mind, but at this point, my project was still rather formless, so I turned to books by John Lane, Rita Dove, William Carlos Williams and William Least Heat Moon—books that looked at place and history carefully—to help me to consider a structure. I wanted to find some unifying moment or character that would let me build the book in a less linear direction than a simple timeline and that would let me reach beyond the limits of my route. Research, however, proved difficult. The first barrier I faced was the Nebraska State Historical Society. While their online resources were useful, their facility—with its extensive collections—was closed for renovations during most of my project. They reopened almost exactly one month before the project was due. v At the beginning, though, I still had hope that I could use their resources. The website said that the Historical Society collections remained available, but the use of them needed to be arranged by email. So I contacted the Society. It became clear almost immediately that the style of research employed by poets (and perhaps other creative writers) is different from historians or genealogists. I ran into this loop quite a bit: “I’m looking for information about the history of Lincoln.” “Excellent. We have extensive material.” “Good! Could you suggest something?” “Certainly. What are you interested in?” “The history of Lincoln.” “Can you narrow that down?” “Not yet. I’ll be able to narrow it down when I have more information.” “Excellent. We have extensive material.” I can’t quite decide if I had a chicken-or-egg problem or a who’s-on-first problem. The project—and I think this is true for writers generally—required me to sift through a lot of material in order to find stories, people, situations, etc., that suggested drama or offered revealing detail or brought seemingly unconnected strands together. I had a broad vision that I was interested in, and so I couldn’t offer the Society much of a topic. In a sense, I needed to put myself in the path of inspiration. I should note here that “inspiration” in this case turns on a very different conception of the word than the Romantic conception of the word. I mean here the sort of insight that comes from paying close attention to the information that comes from research (and there are many different kinds of research). I vi resist the Romantic notion of a genius turned inward toward a disembodied muse driven by the writer’s own passions. In response to these difficulties, I followed other trails, all similarly conventional. The University of Nebraska library had good holdings. I interviewed Ed Zimmer, the city architectural historian. But I ran into another blank wall when contacting Jon Roth, a local author whose book Lincoln Looks Back had just been published. While I had several email exchanges, Facebook message exchanges, and several voice mail exchanges, he proved impossible to meet. Inevitably, the project changed. While I stayed with the idea of my walk to and from the office, I developed characters from the early history of Lincoln to pull together otherwise disparate threads. My greatest disappointment with the closing off of my more open-ended research strategies was the clear limitation of possible surprises, rediscovery, and recovery. The history that was available in published resources was still interesting, but the silences were overpowering. In the end, my choice of topic and material were shaped by my experience as a researcher. Science, however, was very available. I relied on several publications to sort out native and non-native plant and animal species, which led to some interesting poems. In “Judges 9:45,” which is set sometime in the early 1970s, I explore the native plants that lived in the salt marshes west of Lincoln before the marshes were drained. I return to the saline area in “O Salt Creek Tiger Beetle,” a poem that brings together biological details of the beetle, cultural resonances of salt, history (the role of salt in the Lewis and Clark expedition), and other practices involving salt. The sciences let me explore the idea of vii geologic history and to keep that long perspective in mind while I worked. While there are political and economic ways to understand the Great Plains and Midwest, the disciplines of geology, biology, botany, and others offer perspectives that, while mediated through culture and science, allow for more a more detached understanding of the place and its landscape. The sciences are also at the heart of ecopoetics. Glen Love, in Practical Ecocriticims, encourages people “to keep finding out what it means to be human” (6) and suggests the bioregionalism and ecotones might be some of the useful ideas to explore (3134). Douglas Reichert Powell argues in Critical Regionalisms that regions can help to explore “how spaces and places are connected to spatially and conceptually broader patterns of meaning […] critical regionalism can be a way to assert what the relationships among places should be” (4). Science is a product of culture even as it struggles to articulate raw facts. I have connected the events and people of the book, of the city, to events and people much farther away as well as to the biology and geology of the place. As I went along, I realized that certain topics were going to be imposed on me. I had anticipated the Dust Bowl, but I hadn’t considered Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. While I knew that the world wars were going to resonate, I hadn’t known about their impact on the campus particularly. Of course, student enrollment dipped during both wars, but the fact that barracks were built on campus during the second war was new to me. The campus unrest that unsettled many colleges and universities during the 1960s and early 1970s touched UNL in less violent and cataclysmic ways than at other national viii campuses, yet that revolution had a lasting effect on the campus environment, especially for women, as the old model of the university in loco parentis was dismantled. From the beginning, it was important to me that the place itself—the land and weather as well as the nonhuman inhabitants—be a character in the collection. The land is changeable, evolving along with the humans, sometimes because of the humans. The place speaks as trees, as a salt basin, as part of the dust bowl, as the various animals that appear in the book. Thus, a theme of environmental degradation runs throughout the book, starting and ending with the salt basin, first as a shallow promise and source of minerals in “Saline” and “Maps of Imagination” and ending with the Salt Creek tiger beetle’s imminent extinction in “O Salt Creek Tiger Beetle.” The insistent timeline seemed insufficient to me, however, as a unifying principle for the project. Place is a useful category, strong enough to engender this book and countless others, but I wanted to find other categories through which to explore this place. Non-human aspects were useful—plant and animal life, geography, etc—but I wanted a way to think about human lives that was not entirely linked to consumerism (though those links are hard to avoid in a capitalist culture). While visiting my former colleague Christine Stewart-Nuñez, I talked with her about an assignment she had given her students: write in response to recipes. I had liked Simon Ortiz’s “How to Make a Good Chili Stew” and seen other poems that used recipes as either a starting point or as a frame (174). So I began to look for recipes. I tracked down some recipe books in thrift stores and found books on pioneer cooking and on edible plants in the region. I transcribed recipes that seemed ix particularly interesting or that might have a larger resonance across the project, though I had to abandon some recipes as the project developed. The recipe strategy allowed the book to describe some of the various ethnic groups in Lincoln (though only a very few and already I can think of other groups I’d like to add) and to explore an important, basic aspect of life—eating. The reduction of humans to their most basic needs allows us to think about ourselves as animals, though animals that pass on a sophisticated culture. Thus, the blood in several recipes operates as a fairly explicit metaphor for family and intergenerational relationships. On a more structural level, the recipes also let me signal changes in era and the accompanying technologies. Thus, the recipes worked in a variety of ways, but I could not initially find a way to make them work as social commentary. I also wanted another layer of commentary that did not require my direct observation and that would allow me to explore concerns outside my own. I decided that ghosts might work as commentators. The idea of ghosts certainly isn’t a part of ecocriticism, but I agree with Dana Phillips and David Gilcrest that fictional elements can allow a better understanding of nature—and, by extension, I will argue, place. I chose as my ghosts three early, important, figures: Mary Monell (who came to Lincoln in 1869, started the Universalist Church here, and hosted the first garden party in the city), John Prey (one of the first European settlers in the area), and Standing Bear (a Ponca chief from the region who successfully argued for Native Americans to receive legal status as people; though he’s not from Lincoln, one part of the Ponca tribe is headquartered on E Street near my home). I have borrowed some basic aspects of their personalities (i.e., John Prey’s x impulses toward trade and exploration, Mary Monell’s progressivism, and Standing Bear’s concerns for people and land) to allow their ghosts to comment on the developing history of Lincoln. As I have laid them out, three strands unify “Boomtown:” place and history, cooking, and ghosts. All three, I believe, lend themselves to ecopoetic exploration. However, the last section (“I Let Down My Anchor in the Land Around Me”) is the part of the book that engages most clearly with the strand of ecopoetics that insists on the phenomenological engagement and reportage that Scigaj, Gilcrest, and Bryson (among others) look for in ecopoetry. This engagement and reportage is a full-body experience of the world that engages the non-verbal parts of the brain, an experience which is then available for writing. But even at the moment of phenomenological engagement I am concerned, like Neil Evernden in his book The Social Creation of Nature, with the ways that human life frames and informs non-human nature (e.g., “At 27th and Capitol Parkway” and “Storm Runoff”). It is a poor literary movement that cannot range across the variety of human experience, assuming as I think we must that poems are meant for a human audience. “Flights of July,” for example, explores the kind of interaction with non-human nature that most Americans are likely to have in a suburban (or perhaps even urban) ecotone: in the midst of some human-defined task, a homeowner encounters a wasp. The non-human around us has found a way to coexist, however uneasily that coexistence might be balanced. Poems throughout the book—from “On Ancient History” with its deep historical sweep, through “Wife Speaks” with her concerns about her environment, on to “Seeds of Victory Ensure the Fruits of Peace” which ties the local garden to global events, xi to “Boulevard Trees” and “Local Flocks” with their details grounded in nature, and on into the last section—all these poems are unified in their exploration of non-human nature. Thus, the ecopoetics of “Boomtown” relies on a variety of contexts and strategies to build a book that in its individual poems might not be immediately recognizable as ecopoems. Leslie Paul Thiele has two terms that I have found useful in considering this balance as I drafted the book: interdependence (the notion that humans are webbed into relationships with their history and future, with other life on the planet, and with other humans), and coevolution (thinking and acting interdependently; that is, we're moving forward along with these other relationships) (xxiii). What “Boomtown” seeks to do with ecopoetry is to make explicit the coevolutionary condition. It can be far too easy to forget or ignore the historical and non-human aspects of the places in which we live. The demands and clamoring of our own desires, our schedules, the quotidian, all of these easily command more attention than lives at the margins of our awareness or than the events of fifty or a hundred years ago. But those other lives, the non-human constraints of geography, the choices of our forebears, all of these shape our choices and behavior. Ecopoetry returns our attention to those issues. Reading ecopoems can help us to consider where we are—however far away we might be from the setting of those particular poems—in ways similar to how metaphor works: the tenor is not the vehicle, but we understand each better when they’re brought together. “Boomtown,” then, should have larger resonances beyond Lincoln, and I read Thiele as arguing for “web” in a large, planetary sense. xii In working on this piece, it was hard to ignore the influence of Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. 1 (the first section in particular). This manuscript bears witness to the strategies all three employ, but “Boomtown” differs significantly from all three. Both Paterson and the salient section of U.S. 1 have much longer poems (and a much higher degree of interpolation from other sources), though each book breaks up easily into smaller divisions. I also kept returning to Gary Snyder’s Danger on Peaks, which offered the structural idea of small poems revealing aspects of a life, though in my own book the life has become the history of a small city. Somewhat less obvious will be the influence of Arthur Sze. The poems in The RedShifting Web and Quipu offer a model for how poetry can engage multiple topics, agendas, and registers both emotional and intellectual simultaneously. Short poems such as “Syzygy” and “Oracle-Bone Script” move quickly through these registers, but it’s in the longer pieces that Sze’s strategies become truly important. His title poem, “Quipu,” uses couplets, cinquains, isolated single lines, and tercets its nine sections to model the knotted record-strings of the Mayans after which the poem is named. The first section seems to speak to the strategies of his book with these lines: “And as a doe slips across the road behind us, / we zigzag when we encounter a point of resistance, // zigzag as if we describe the edge of an immense leaf, / as if we plumb a jagged coastline where tides // wash and renew the mind” (27). The poem moves fractally (movement patterns become leaf patterns become coastline) as it explores the issue of conception and miscarriage. Throughout, the xiii work remains poetically interesting, intellectually engaging and emotionally compelling, especially to me as I was writing. And there are other voices that murmur in the background. W.S. Merwin offered ways for nonhuman nature to creep into and overlap with human life. I also struggled toward his more relaxed, unpunctuated line as well as the relationship of that line to the rest of the poem. A poem like “So Far,” with its neatly formed cinquains is a good example. In that poem, the narrative of the newly hatched gecko stumbles across lines much like the lizard itself stumbles across a floor. The story is interrupted by brief diversions into setting and science (“a species rare if not officially / endangered named for one man Rumphius”) (85-86). While less driven by elliptical associations than Sze’s poetry, his poems still range widely over a loose line. I was drawn to William Stafford’s sense of the line, too, though with punctuation. I default to a very short line of few beats, so Stafford offered a useful model. His “Traveling Through the Dark” is the most famous instance, but a poem like “Vocation” that starts “[t]his dream the world is having about itself / includes a trace on the plains of the Oregon trail” (102) has five strong beats across a mostly iambic line. The rhythm swings steadily, subtly, an effect I was trying to emulate in “At Play with Such Fervor, Such Strange Feelings” and “At 27th and Capitol Parkway,” among others. The influence of both Merwin and Stafford reverberate throughout “Boomtown.” Like Stafford, Sandra Alcosser writes her body on to the page, a practice which moves her close to the phenomenological ideal that Scigaj and other critics admire. While I have not consulted her other work much (though there is much to admire in Except by xiv Nature), the idea of the body remained important to me. Characters in “Boomtown” are, mostly, embodied, with the obvious exception of the ghosts. Lastly, while the first section of her book is set in Louisiana, the second section offers details from her life growing up in South Bend, Indiana, and the last section is filled with explorations of non-human nature (in poems like “Spittle Bug” and “Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel”). Her interest in the natural world makes her an obvious model. Although not writing about the Midwest, A.R. Ammons allows nature a kind of place in his poetry that is hard not to admire. In particular, I am delighted by how nature appears in quite familiar settings. For example, from “The Imagined Land” we read that “I want a squirrel-foil for my martin pole” (260). He brings in the language of science, too, as well as the quick, easy rhythms of informal, spoken English. I have a strange pair that worked together in my head as I composed the poems for “Boomtown.” Yusef Komunyakaa underscored for me the need to continue to engage with the very human context of culture. His poetry is steeped in an awareness of and speaks back to the literary and mythological canon of many cultures. It is instructive to note that his new and collected poems is titled Pleasure Dome. But his erudition does not overwhelm the work. His control of small narratives was also an inspiration, especially in the poems of Dien Cai Dau. Because of poems like “Jasmine” and “Tuesday Night at the Savoy Ballroom” I wanted more music in my manuscript—songs from each of the eras I worked with—but there was only so much time. The other poet whose erudition I paid careful attention to is Brenda Hillman. Her book Cascadia suggests that there are many different ways to grapple with place. Unlike any of the previous poets, she works in a xv more, for want of a better word, experimental vein. Her intellectual engagements are far more aggressive than Komuyakaa’s, and I am not sure I enjoy her work as much. For example, her poem “Styrofoam Cup” uses space and a total of fourteen words to suggest dismay over that nigh indestructible artifact of the twentieth century (21). The experiment is interesting, but it does not draw me in. However, her work did continue to remind me that there are many ways to engage and explore place, and a strict adherence to plain speech is not always required. One last poet kept coming to mind as I worked. Jimmie Santiago Baca pays careful attention to family and place. In particular, he describes intergenerational relationships so that we, as readers, participate in a broader sense of what it means to be human, to live the social lives of humans. Examples of this kind of focus include “What’s Real and What’s Not” and “Family Ties.” In the former, two old friends take a camping trip into the desert. The poem is about the relationship of the two men, but it ends with “[w]e enter city limits, / and the torch my body is / dims to old darkness again” (56); too much humanity degrades the spirit. And in the latter poem, Baca feels “no love or family tie,” even when surrounded by them (62). Still, when he heads out into the landscape, he takes his wife and children. In a poem about the issues of land ownership, he finds his own family calming. Throughout Baca’s work, human and non-human are fairly intimate: animals, plants, and landscapes inform his poetry. But the nature that emerges in the poems does not seem to appear as if by special arrangement. Baca engages with nature in a way that lets the non-human act as itself: each actor has their own mind and agenda. They follow their own whims, which the poet quickly notes. xvi In the end, I could not resist the power of the timeline in crafting “Boomtown.” I struggled to find another organizing principle, but I am content with the shape the project has taken. The book as it stands allows for a variety of voices, of poetic styles, and, yes, of research into its pages. “Boomtown” connects a broad sweep of history—both human and non-human—to the many lives and stories of Lincoln, Nebraska. The book celebrates the sometimes troubling but always interesting diversity of a small city born of imagination and desire, a city that has managed to thrive despite having no real reason to do so. At each step of the composition process, from research to draft to revision, I worked to cultivate the ecopoetic principles I outlined earlier, and at each step the engagement with a larger world, with broader contexts, led to interesting choices and stronger poems. This project has convinced me that ecopoetry is a powerful aid to the imagination and has the potential to offer substantial, important work to local, regional, and global culture. xvii Works Cited Ammons, A.R. Collected Poems 1951-1971. New York: W.W. Norton, 1972. Print. Adamson, Joni, ed. American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Tucson, AZ: U of Arizona P, 2001. Print. Alcosser, Sandra. Except by Nature. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998. Print. Baca, Jimmy Santiago. Black Mesa Poems. New York: New Directions, 1989. Print. Bryson, J. Scott, ed. Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 2002. Print. Dove, Rita. Thomas and Beulah. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie-Mellon UP, 1986. Evernden, Neil. The Social Creation of Nature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. Print. Gilcrest, David W. Greening the Lyre: Environmental Poetics and Ethics. Reno, NV: U of Nevada P, 2002. Print. Hillman, Brenda. Cascadia. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Print. Komunyakaa, Yusef. Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2004. Print. Love, Glen A. Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment. Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia P, 2003. Print. Merwin, W. S. Travels. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Print. Ortiz, Simon. Woven Stone. Tucson, AZ: U of Arizona P, 1992. Print. Phillips, Dana. The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2003. Print. xviii Powell, William Reichert. Critical Regionalisms: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Print. Quetchenbach, Bernard. “Primary Concerns: Development of Current Environmental Identity Poetry.” Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Bryson, J. Scott, ed. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 2002. 249-59. Print. Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Kaufman, Janet E. and Anne F. Herzog, eds. Pittsburg: U of Pittsburg P, 2005. Print. Snyder, Gary. Danger on Peaks. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005. Print. Stafford, William. The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1999. Print. Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1999. Print. Sze, Arthur. Quipu. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005. Print. ---. The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1998. Print. Thiele, Leslie Paul. Environmentalism for a New Milennium: The Challenge of Coevolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1999. Print. Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. 1946. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1992. Print. 1 Welcome Poem If you were blown here from somewhere else, lifted by wind as you traveled from a place where forests ride down rocky slopes to deep harbors, where warm air eddies around you as fingers of condensation trail down your wine glass, then welcome. Others have traveled here before you their names written in streambeds and sod. I ask you to stop for a moment hold on to your hat and sunglasses consider the floor of this ancient seabed now dry but crossed by currents of air consider whether you are the pivot of this whirling space. Reach down to the earth. I’m sure you have questions we have plenty of time and light. 2 A WELL, A SALT MARSH, A SCATTERING OF TALL TREES 3 On Ancient History Imagine, says Chief Blackbird, that the seat on the river bluff is mine that under me sits the horse the Spanish brought and we learned to use on grasses nothing like the grasses of Andalusia. Imagine farther, though, he says, stretching either not at all or across the sharp horizon line, imagine that we’re here in water a floor of sand and a forest of floating weeds above us. Transform the warm breeze you feel into currents, streams within this deep expanse. Open your mouth to taste the passing fish, listen to the coos and shrieks from their strange necks. Don’t you feel anxious yet? Stars carving up the bowl of night? The flash of morning after morning blasting out of the east. The land tips, the sea retreats, hot air turns cool, but always dry. Blackbird stops—stops talking, looking out, reaching— then says: So here I am atop my horse, wrapped in this deadly blanket, watching the strange business of business at the end of the Milky Way. 4 City of Ghosts The slight hollow built from rucked up hills offers too little protection for ghosts to have settled here with their grey implements and their love of tireless observation. They will arrive, of course, a kind of progress of the spirit, a residue of choice and chance that starts bewildered and might become wise or fade, distracted by the taste of earth. Wagons arrive and almost as quickly the Model T the Nash Rambler, the Toyota Camry, games grow from hoop to tiddledy winks to cards. Cooks learn from deprivation and chemistry. Bison get displaced, but raccoons keep their lunar rendezvous, coyotes lope between sod and looping birds, and Thunderbird gets replaced by radar and pressure systems. Death will pile up on death, and memory will stick to place like bacon grease to wallpapered walls, that strangely familiar smell in the old house you’ve just moved into. Yes. Ghosts will come. 5 The Uncarved Creek land of feet of hooves of whisker-thin limbs deeproot tallgrass bastard toadflax sun stalks a glide of heat daisy fleabane sawtooth sunflower western prairie fringed orchid so shy, it’s almost impossible bison, whitetail, pronghorn greater prairie chicken thirteen-lined ground squirrel like a definition of sleek jewel-wing damselflies darting among sumac and buckthorn high summer closes with the weight of scales 6 Legend of the Founding No seven hills in this corner of Nebraska not even much of a fertile crescent. No kings dying at enemy hands, no son looking for a fish and a boar. A salt marsh, some clear streams, Yes to hills, to wandering plainsfolk. Cottonwood and walnut a short ride west. Timothy, bluestem, buffalo grass and wind. In open land, what will stop a man heading westward from the rivers? Why stop at these bright salt basins reflecting sky like a blinding pool? 7 Things Left Behind A young man and his wife read newspapers and dime westerns in a narrow room in an eastern city, their small daughter snoring. They consider the soot, the tumble of sound and look at each other. To head west means a future that burns. They know themselves as flint. After the river bluffs, life opens up to sky, and every mood of landscape reaches into the lizard brain. In space, words whisper the necessity of supplies to take his family beyond trial, trail and difficulty into a vegetable kingdom of valley, into new starts, new anonymity. But a prairie schooner is narrow, the hold not deep. What goes first? The hats, the spools of thread? How bad can deprivation get? This far from Philadelphia it’s hard to put a value on clothes and shoes. To move lighter, faster means the road ends sooner. Leave the grindstone. A millstone has so many meanings, and he’s read them all. So maybe books, too, should be left in the grass. An extra wagon body? Sure, but mattresses and quilts? the baking oven? Ahead, a dark swarm of flies. Closer now, the carcasses—swollen and tight—of eight oxen. Beside them, another cache of stuff: iron nails and smithing tools. A plough. The trail must end, or endurance. Or his wife’s endurance. Which small place might be appealing? All the way to the golden coast? Or they could stop here in Iowa, or move on into the territories. They hear about a village over the Missouri that sounds good. So they pick up soap, a scythe, handsaws, under a sign that says “Help Yourself.” Though he thinks about another way to read it. Here’s a sawmill. Another cook-stove. Kegs and barrels. More than a hundred years later, I leave an old Camry, a Macintosh desktop, two cats adopted with another woman. And I left her, too. Left the remnants of any faith I might have had, stepped into a sky-wide void with a new wife and a daughter. 8 Saline First, a puzzle to solve: salt. John Prey says he traveled halfway across a continent to be alone and then…salt. The body moves with salt, salt calls across cells. And then family: salt taste of blood, his salty stick and her slick slit, salt caught at eyelid corners, armpit, and skin down to skin. Salty the Scottish idioms Prey used, crossing the salt language of sea’s capped waves, its ice, its minerals crusted and fogged. O salt of hypertension, of heartburn, of edema and ulcers. O salt replacing minerals in bones. O salt, your salty road to death: A slug sliding on a salt lick, deer lured there will taste the trace before the bullet ends those salty days. At Salt Creek where Prey stayed, buffalo, elk, deer, and antelope dug hooves into earth for surface salt or wallowed down for creek bank crystals, dipped for brine from the pale stream. Salt deep enough for salt angels, but Lancaster village was defeated by deep salt mines and their tall mountains of salt. Who doesn’t respond to a healthy shake, the crystal blizzard of a pour? Prey wouldn’t say this, but the valley was open like a cheap margarita, a little salty at the rim and promising sweet promises about what happens at the bottom. 9 Madness of the Young City Roberts and his friends stretch out on wavering hills under a cloudless sky, the smell of early spring shoots bruising over dry earth. With a pint of whiskey, they congratulate each other on avoiding Valentine’s Day last week and on jobs building the new university. They’re feeling expansive looking at the scattered houses, the few stores gathered near the artesian well to the north. Sap and wealth rising. From the south, a cloud and clatter, and Graham sees teams of horses straining with lumber wagons and the governor in his two-seat carriage: the legislature and the citizenry race His Honor from the new penitentiary site. The air miraculously still as the racers rumble and holler up 14th Street past the young men and on to the capitol. After a moment, the new workers laugh. Three years of statehood and the spirit of the age rolls on them as lightly as a brief wind. 10 Maps of Imagination Hold my hand and walk backward with me a hundred and ten years and watch the past jump out of sepia and blur into clarity and color. Where I’m writing, for instance, disappears and we float down to the treeless muck of suggested streets. We could stop in May or June, so the wind off the plain is warm and grassy, redolent of ungulates. How long ago, now? Can you tell by the sun? Or the dreams of these men and their families scattered by a small stand of cottonwoods or gathered in the corner of an attic space speaking their modest dreams of salt, railroad, agronomy, and carriages, perhaps with some whisky or beer. But let’s pull ourselves up the draw of time, and here we are again in my small room, not quite light out, the moon vibrant. The city unthinkably large to those founders but still ordinary. Our imagination sharpens futures for children, careers, our sleeping spouses, futures cluttered with outdated maps, storm-stripped trees, failed electricity, and us huddling dark with this small candle. 11 Grand Opening Any one of the men in suits and tall hats— standing for decades as smudges against façades in photo histories— any of them could front a second story on a garret make a tall forehead space for words like a street performer’s trick—patter with a paint brush. In the long afternoon, the painting done, that man would stand out front on the broad planks, his fingers in a shallow vest pocket, and watch dust deviling across the dirt streets. Desire works this way: you want a thing— a new city, a desert forest, insurance, or a new register, leather slippers, children, perhaps a wife with instincts for cooking and bookkeeping—and when you step into the space you know, surrounded by the things you own, then you can see where the next expansion will go, where sales will open a mirrored wall and you can sell hot coffee or cold soda or small desserts, and as you slap the salt-rimmed dust from your black vest, you stop for a moment, already distracted. 12 Wife Speaks Husband stands knee-locked unlaced boots screwed into earth says: I want you to say adventure and I think: these fields of red wheat these west winds these snows that eat coal, wood, cow shit that burns with a dragon’s reek the lantern’s oil drained by flame pink mouths born from the split of our guts no rain in this clotted-grass desert and the skies when the sun slows overhead stare dead with blue until only dust and a widow’s measure run my answer behind him: the fence line gapped like bad teeth the wires singing sharp and the silent moon 13 Hunter’s Pudding Make deprivation sweet: a song, a bit of whiskey, a dance with any settlement girl. Take suet, flour, dried fruit— close to hand in log or sod, the single room a double step to reach each side— and spice with allspice, lemon, a bit of this and that the ends of good seasons. Spoon the mix into a cloth and boil. Absence stays a while, so keep this not-so-sweet hung up and wrapped. Six months on a different dance. You know you’ll stay, and the next fresh sky rings a lively square. 14 On the Persistence of Objects Loess drifts off his canvas duster, bar of mouth across a leathered face, I need he says, and sets his hands. The counterman smells him over his own reek. In winter, cologne will do for clean. Yes, sir? Glass cases on the plank floor, watches jewelry cards clocks. I want the trail man shuffles boots away and back. The unstable displays of the narrow room stack to ceiling rugs mirrors flasks skins. There’s so much he says, going sideways in the room. The counterman doesn’t own the store, stays in the narrow room during daylight, keeps his one rented room neat. The man across the glass owns nothing that can’t be packed up and carried through miles of sun and space. The front window opens a grassland bowled up under sky, treeless and thronged. The counterman walks the long display comes around to the other man and hangs his arm across the sharp shoulders. continued, stanza break 15 Outside, they share tobacco, and over the hush of winter wind through dormant grass the counterman asks what’s her name. A grunt and a nod, Grace. What gets added, the trail man might say, must be left somewhere, abandoned, or someone takes it away. 16 University Who would go to Lincoln in autumn 1871? Sod from here, sod to there. Bluestem and lanceleaf sage. A long walk, a shattering ride—the right price. The university grounds start as a commons town cows tethered there and children picking violets, foraging for buffalo beans. And it was fine, that first building, an edifice like a Greek temple if you grew up in a sod house, grew up riding across broken turf. But the local stone foundation chipped hammers on one corner and eight feet later dissolved in hot water. County bricks washed back to sand and clay. The slate of the roof could be collected by kids pausing in their insect chasing, cattle wrangling. The rest of the roof, tin, took flight in any breeze stronger than lecture. Student and teacher heat burned stronger than the furnace, but the institution promised promise, offered a vellum with a better view than a wing twisting into a thermal over the green bowl of the village. 17 Czarnina (Duck Blood Soup) Capture and cut with a steady hand the duck a hunting cousin brings over. Spill vinegar into the heavy crockery bowl one of the old women brought from Krakow. Drain the blood into the vinegar. Have your daughter, young and attentive, stir the mix constantly. The rest of the family tangles just outside. More cousins, nieces and nephews, many born here. Simmer the duck trimmings and blood with spareribs, celery, a few sprigs of parsley, one onion, four whole allspice, four whole cloves, some salt. And three peppercorns. Your mother called the dish czernina, but your daughter will hear it wrong and her husband won’t hear it at all. Even when his spoon dips again. He won’t know that you and she conspire against more children. Her sisters know the secrets, too, secrets easy to keep from the men and their priests. When nearly done, add dried prunes, dried apples, dried pears, three handfuls of dried cherries or raisins. Can you use something besides celery? How can you find it around here? Does celery seed store well? Keep the stovetop hot with cowchips. Insist on scouring with handmade soap after each stoking. The soup’s close to done, now. Stir in flour, a cup of cream, honey and more vinegar. Show your daughter how she can approximate these measures. You don’t know what you’ll give to her, if she’ll outlive you, or if her husband’s family will have a collection of scales and domestic tools. Whisper to the girl that she can use a pig’s blood instead of duck. Never tell her husband or the other men. They don’t need to know. Then call the table open. 18 Cowboy and Call Girl It’s the first time he’s been here after so many other times. Not his first time with a woman, or with her, but what to do? She takes him to herself, but he doesn’t know. She responds, but does she mean it? The first time she’s invited him to her own place, this small brown room. It’s the first time he knows he’s naked. Frontier town with marble sense of self, but wildness comes through, trade comes through. Certainly he can’t be stopped now, and just as certainly she wouldn’t let him. They had passed the “Good Beer” sign, turned under “Rooms” and gone up. Many rooms like this hover over shops: sticks of furniture and rough mattresses. Trains and cattle straight through town. Men have their ways and needs. She allows him to taste another. 19 At Play with Such Fervor, Such Strange Feelings It’s best to be young when the world is young when money is young, when games get lifted out of lithographed boxes and hands meet over cards or spinners. And the best game in the world in 1890? Tiddledy winks. From England, from the queen, trundled through Massachusetts and onward to Nebraska where the red, red robins are thrushes. Such nice gentlemen, such good young women bending and reaching, university students dressed in such smart fashion in air hot with gas lamps and coal furnace. The one electric bulb faint in the excitement of the snap snap snap at Miss Graham’s house. Miss Graham who hosts these progressive parties, who carefully arranges at every table felt for the winks, a cup, who drapes on the mantle ribbons for winning and losing. It’s easy to be flushed, even when the stays are let out a little—just a little— to angle more ambitiously over the winks. Trays come in with little drinks, but the boys step out without their hats and come back from the porch, eyes brighter quicker, and they start to laugh at the girls. Miss Graham and Miss Richards, at different tables, knock cups, the men jar elbows, the winks flit, spin in air, a young lady jumps up and shouts and the boys guffaw—when can these colorful creatures become women, men? The moon, unsteady and pale, holds them. She knows the future fills and empties, that each night—triumph or loss—returns to her. 20 The Great Commoner for William Jennings Bryan What’s uncommon is the oratory, the passion roaring out over each stop on the train tour all about god and silver and the devil rum. A good church man, he wears his piety loudly and about as deep as the Platte River. Imagine three unsuccessful runs for president what that must do to a man, to get support win affection, hope, belief that you could get something done in this world but never get elected outside of the party. Wouldn’t doubt worm into you like a corn borer? But Mary smoothes his wool shoulders, squares him up, sends him on to meetings for peace, for women’s votes, to keep black men sharecropping. Here’s a dramatist for you, all-American folderol and performance. Listen, I tell you, for the teeth endlessly burrowing in. 21 Dark Secret “This recipe is over 100 years old and is delicious!” -Bobbie Worrell, Favorite Recipes Never bet heavy with either side, study the distance North and South, trade east with west, the power you know and the one that might be. You will believe what you want to believe, that water follows the plough, that the natives on their shaggy ponies steal your birthright, that your husband just works late every Thursday, that your wife doesn’t have another bank account. Ingredients easy to find: eggs, sugar, baking powder, the Irish struggle with Home Rule, the 40th parallel and who goes free, Indian Wars, women’s suffrage, walnuts, bread crumbs, dates. Beat eggs. Add sugar. Stir in nuts and dates. Mix well. Use a shallow pan and a slow oven. Cut, and serve with cream. Call your position a posture of balance. Risk is how to understand reward. And when the secret is done baking, no one will say a word about anything except how good each piece tastes. 22 Capital Beach, 1909: Ghosts in the City Prairie broken, sun burst daily, August so hard you want to stand underwater. At the amusement park, no crinolines no satin ribbons. Mary Monell wore satin ribbons now unraveling to dust. She tests the nature of light, fragments particles, breaks waves. Standing Bear acquires the language of ground beetles, coffin flies, springtails. A nearby museum lines up glass racks of beetles and flies, stolen war bonnets and peace pipes. East, and an ocean away, a man explores gravity, its bending and shaping. In France, lab radiation sprays. But here, among seared hills opium smokers suck peacefully on pipes. Men too hot in saloons clop out onto roofed boardwalks to talk about Tel Aviv. John Prey holds less light than photographs of Halley’s Comet. continued, stanza break 23 He whispers less than airplane flight across the English Channel, and in the zero shade of noon three shades drift together at 14th and O to agree that death is better than this heat. 24 The Gateless Way From just south of the capitol Lily can see the jagged line of stores and offices past the pale shoulders of the settling building. The second-story apartment almost empty, still, though Sorrel has a good job with C.C. Burr. He works hard, and she tries to stay busy. The streetcar rattles past below her window. There’s no gateway into the city, no arch, no broad and graceful promenade of oaks or iron lamps. Sorrell talks about trundling along one of the roads in a new Model T, and Lily thinks of the wild seasons: mud, dust, blow, freeze. The only thing between her and the north pole would be the glass of their Ford or the barbed wire fence on his side. Sometimes she makes her way down to the train yard to study perspective— lines of trains and rail disappearing into pyramidal distance. Brick warehouses close enough for awning fringes to rustle in the wake, turn black with coal soot. Back in her own rooms, Lily gathers up laundry, thinks about gin, about the school at the top of the hill, then turns to the letters from her mother still living in Chicago. The day fills and empties with each breath. 25 Seeds of Victory Ensure the Fruits of Peace -World War I propaganda poster war garden into canning jars pickles in brine and herbs and spices canning kettle rolling over the blue gas comfort of the gunstock shocked into the shoulder nests shattered along the Marne snow falling like flecks of ammonia world and word remade liberty cabbage, Salisbury steak kus-sun-ar for a sneeze gods retreating even from the trenches welcome the familiar need to eat, to feed even on late January plains make sure the caps don’t pop every garden a munitions plant when do you enter history, born low, a commoner used to rivers with ice dams breaking and flooding? the world revealed, holy for an instant before turned to dust and sky and air transformed by canvas and wood everything dry or dissolving in jars put up when every step bruised green parades, soldier bands, women driving Red Cross cars, women with news from Europe women gardening, picking vegetables canning fruit, canning meat food will win the war 26 Kolaches (Czech) On his wife’s birthday, Premysl rises early to offer breakfast kolaches this was in the early days when they still lived in the small house near the capitol he has an old scrap of recipe half in Czech and half in English both fractured scalded milk is called for cakes of yeast and sugar— mixtures that rise, heat, cool Premysl is a ploughman a good one and he knows the smell of horse the softness of oiled leather he keeps an eye on the blade of the plough as it cuts and dulls, moldboard pitted she keeps sleeping, Libuse, as he stokes the stove looks for implements cream sugar and butter? something itches and he pauses for a long scratch yolks as well as eggs? a sponge? a quick oven? the table—so plain, so useful— bewilders him, ingredients gathered, needful and pale continued, stanza break 27 and so full of mockery across the bedroom’s threshold he hears her stir she says, You ask for a man and this is what you get 28 John Prey Points Mary and Standing Bear can’t tell if the scene before them has moving parts. Marionettes? A diorama? If only these white men would move, shift shoes, take up their papers, tighten faces, stroke mustaches. These men conjured illusions, summoned spirits in an age when science and business were becoming the only spirits to be summoned. Their city blind to any imagination but ambition. Not the kind of city that would tie itself to a mast to feel the force of song. For so long, a city of spring mud and summer dust. These men conjured food from a salt plain, raised a forest on a desert’s slight slopes. They had a vision bigger than bluestem and music louder than meadowlark. 29 Marsh Mallows Tongues don’t change, not enough, anyway to separate your taste from your ancestors’. Would you choose to drink lungwort tea? boil vinegar in lead for a nice sweet-n-sour? This old recipe for marshmallows asks a lot of the cook: boil, strain, pay attention. And then “flavor to taste.” What taste? whose? lutefisk? cinnamon? that taste after a hard night of drinking? What would the children like now that summer’s gone, the best cook still in the east and winter cracking his knuckles over the lakes west of town? 30 The Furrow Is Not the Trench He works the smooth, sharp hoe along a row of low beans and the thick man, tough as his hat, pauses, leans against the tool as his mind opens to a thought about his situation in the hereafter. He’s thinking of a recent sermon— a rare event for him to see— about loved ones in eternity but what has him standing in his cobbled boots isn’t his mother, father, or children but this: His first wife died in childbirth and now he’s taken a second wife and has another son and daughter. This man hasn’t thought on love so much, much less his soul, and these questions still his hands until he doesn’t know where to put them. 31 Bohemian Pressed Blood Sausage Mid-October, autumn roaring toward All Saint’s Day, and the hog’s just been butchered one of the uncles asks for the dish says he’ll beat the blood if no one else will ten years since the last war, breathe easy another harvest another progress your sister says the sausage smells like the outhouse in August your brother dares you to peek into the pot with boiling head, snout, ears, tongue, and neck Grandma keeps asking where everything is salt and pepper, ginger and allspice, a skillet with lard arguments about money about stocks quick dips into the strong crock of plum brandy in a backyard corner the contents of the now-clear stomach the intestines wait somewhere else for another delicate treatment childhood framed by war but in this noisy house right now a pig stomach re-filled by Czech women who boil it awhile, then press it and grandfather pounds his cane and rants about promises and open fields 32 Gown and Gown Problems Almost Valentine’s Day 1932, a Saturday night a dance in the coliseum. Gone are the corsets of their mothers and everyone seems happier. Students murmur about Joan Crawford, an art major mentions Frida Kahlo, but no one knows what else to say. The chaperones empty the dancers into cold winter at 11:30, then disappear into a little side room, wives and dates hoping for a little literary conversation as Lowry Wimberly and his editors open a contraband bottle of whiskey. Who would knock on a door hidden in a corner after flushed students have scurried off just before women’s curfew? What leads a policeman and two prohibition officers back into coliseum cavern? But there it is. Surely they knock. Shave-and-a-haircut? Peremptory official thuds? Who were these lovebirds and intellectuals expecting that they opened the door? Eighty years later I shake my head over the scene: soft dresses, hats, thin ties, vests. The Prohibition Era drained to the last, and a few Lincoln Regents setting their silk parasols against the future. One thoughtful Regent smells a set-up. So everyone goes away with a slap to the face and wallet. The story started long before and will go on, so pull your blankets up. Go to sleep. This day will come around again. 33 Recipes You Need To Make a Cake Without Butter Melt down a piece of salt pork, strain it through muslin, let cool, and then use as butter. You can fatten a pig on any damn thing, but milch cows will eat you out of grain and green. Your father knows they’re prettier to look at—big eyes, soft ears, the wet nose and heavy tongue—but only one family nearby will be able to afford one. So when you’ve narrowed your choices to one young man and he brings his family for dinner, you’re more likely to have salt pork than butter. Once the salt’s out, fat is fat. To Make Sugar of Sorghum Boil sorghum until thick and it will granulate over 10 days in a warm room. Then pour into containers with perforated bottoms and let the molasses drain off. Who do you send into the warm room to check? Send your daughter and tell her it’s a story about how the races separate. She’ll keep that phrase in her head for her whole life, when she moves out to Seattle, when she marries that boy from Boston who’d moved west to work with real timber for a few years. She’ll go back with him and their son, and she’ll always think about that dark sorghum syrup running out leaving white white white crystals. A Good Receipt for Vinegar Take forty gallons of water, one gallon of molasses, and four pounds of acetic acid. Mix and let sit for a couple of days. There are other ways, other means, but the need for the bite of vinegar is strong. Sorghum molasses you already have, and the acetic acid should be cheap, even by mail order. Don’t handle the crystals directly. Pour them in. Let the molasses darken and sweeten those forty gallons. Popcorn Pudding Soak two quarts of freshly popped corn in three pints of sweet milk over night. when ready to bake, add three well-beaten eggs, a little salt, and sugar to taste. Bake like a custard pudding. Popcorn is cheap, available, but you don’t want to give the extra to the pig. And you don’t have enough ingredients to have a dessert for the family, though tomorrow is Sunday. And you’ve about run through the credit at the store. You don’t have enough. You can’t make them all content, and certainly not happy. How to extend the custard? You could give it a flavor like smoke. Hulls add flakes of texture. Tell yourself it’s good that way, that the family will want more. 34 ROADS RISE OVER A FLAT PLAIN 35 Progress and Uplift When he stopped his ten-year-old Ford for hitchhikers he didn’t know: Earth leaves earth, unbound from ground. Test the depths of the survival instinct the deep brain wiring, that stem reaching into heart and lungs. When the storm slapped its black rolls over the road, the fields, the towns, the young wife in the car saw the lights go out, electricity glow along the body. The windows hid the world, closed on her tightly, but not enough to shut out the choking loess. Failure and failure. Bank and plough. In the car’s darkness, you remember grandfather in his Civil War uniform for parades, a neighbor still marked with slavery’s scars, farmers lifting from their land like grasshoppers and raging down on capitols with every anger. Wind pushes land east until someone answers. They all survive the night in the car. The young wife will keep her bungalow neat, following suggestions from the WPA. She will keep her windows sealed even when her children tell her they can’t breathe. 36 Capitol Dust, 1935 mosaic floor gods and goddesses black and white tiles water, fire, air and earth spring water caught underground wind’s tug and shove sways fires sucks at earth four states surfaces lift into air across the old sod desert and the new tower disappears behind earth 37 Pierogi (Polish) Simple food, really, the sour shells folded over filling—a kind of dumpling to boil and fry with butter and onions but imagine a boy coming back to his house of accented newspapers after an afternoon watching Judy Garland turn rosy after landing in Oz and the smell of popcorn caught in his hair crimped pierogi and country sausages slip around on a plate with blue and red designs nothing in the house as bright as Oz as bright as the dark theater he’s supposed to pray in Polish but he’s thinking of yellow— of light and film 38 Pfeffernüsse I will inject myself into history here though I’m two generations early and neither my grandmother nor I ever shopped at Amen’s grocery in the Russian bottoms. The recipe’s syrup and molasses I believe and the pepper, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, anise, and the other, expected stuff of baking. The recipe I have here calls for coffee, black, and I wonder how strong these German immigrants would boil the grounds. Weaker than cowboy. A traditional Christmas cookie, yes, that will keep indefinitely. Like seasonal spirit? My mother runs the oven now, except she’s given that up, too, so I’m back to finding spicy cookies in old, thrift-store books, books with stained pages where a German woman splashed a little coffee a little beer as she pulled her family around the cut trees and traditions her mother brought from a village no one in this family can name. And a crazed man with a tiny mustache rattles a saber everyone in the world can hear. 39 Answering the Appeal: Ghosts in the City Rosie shows up one day and Mary couldn’t be happier. She tugs on Prey’s sleeve, See? The trousers are from years ago, but the work is new and all these women find they’re strong, can lift a box, or sheet of metal, can flex the force they’ve always had to lie about. Weak lights and fog hide the outlines of John and Mary as they drift past barracks slung up on campus. The stagger and shift of axis and allies transforms the farmbelt with demands for food, hemp, training. Industry shoved to the continent’s center. But men with jobs in towns, in offices where the heaviest thing to lift is an ink bottle, these men will not return to walls with posters about proper lifting techniques, exhortations from hawkish men to move faster, pound steel, rivet seams, deafen themselves and their neighbors in blasting tedium. The two ghosts try to sniff the wind, to catch the scent of money, the shower of coin. The women of the city stream past them, some in dresses, kerchiefs knotted high to catch hair, keep it safe. This will be good, John says at last. Mary moves past him. 40 Response to William Jennings Bryan A young man, new beard curling invokes fire on the prairie: Give me the scourges, give me the frontier of spirit pour for me the devil rum and let me bed the harlot of Babylon bring on the queers and mannish women the strange black people with their secret dances and perfumed smoke send me foreigners with strange languages I will parade in their pageants, wear their costumes, and breathe their smells let me keep what I already have: opium and heroin invite the Beats and Reds to stop to open up Das Kapital and Kama Sutra O Mohammedans O Buddhists O Jews open up your words to me let the fire be a fever let me reach into the burning let me save the books and LP records send your revolutions and magic words to me in plain brown wrappers The wind is up over the prairie and I’m young enough to want it all. 41 The Parks Are Closed At least they have their own place to meet John Prey says, and Standing Bear turns his back. If only I had my voice, he says, watching black GIs head down the alley to the Peacock Inn. Twenty years earlier the KKK stalked the campus, and Jim Crow kept the lines clear for decades after. You could take the family to “colored people” nights at either of the Y’s in town, but relatives who were driving through or riding in the separate train car would have to stay in your house. The ground doesn’t care where you bury your dead, but the caretakers do. The city wants to do better. The city says, I didn’t mean to keep you out it was a cold night, I know, but I just thought maybe you’d learn…. Across all those nights of difference and anger summers of high heat and neighborhoods packed tight with passion and rejection never a riot. Never a riot. 42 Starkweather Do you remember how many days? Police in their black boxes booming their warnings not to leave home. Every car, every backfire, every teen boy with a James Dean cut— the shock could stop your heart. Cold nights for sleeping in the basement, but cellar bogeymen stayed in town and vanished when the lights went on. Could you really have sex and then kill people? Could you ask that in junior high? Could you pick up a gun and disappear? Each day on the paper route, the headlines howl out of the bag, scorch the air and porches where they land. And as a child you wonder if your parents could withstand that rage and its shotgun. 43 After Quartets and Before Shampoo Think of the hair, the barber says to his son, hands on the back of the vinyl chair, the ball players, the fraternity brothers who will want a trim and a close shave for the dances, the young men from good families who understand the importance of grooming. And professors, too. All of this is waiting for you. Silently, the two men contemplate hair, the scholarly fields of hair pushed up by brains, a continuous harvest free from weather, a guaranteed crop of fashionable youth preening for mates, an accounting job, a Nash Rambler. The mirror doubles everything: the captain’s wheel, the black electric clippers on their hook, the boxy foam machine, the scissors with their guides and guards, long, soft-bristled brushes, racks of pomade tins and tonic bottles. The future in its white cotton tunic. 44 Images of Native America -The Cornhusker Hotel Teepee and Pow Wow Rooms On the napkins of the restaurants you can see have the natives pictured: braves in loincloths waving feathers squaws in short, deer-leather dresses. Naughty pictures for the white men drinking whiskey by the quart: Red men, yes, should be on rezzes. They’re not fit to live inside. We can give them lots more liquor. Who cares if they stand or fall? And they say this land was their land. Well, let’s see them take it back! We all love that sidekick, Tonto, working for the wise Lone Ranger, talking funny injun talk. Why is anybody angry? Those Indians are goddam funny staggering around the town. We give cash to keep the missions going on the reservations. Keep them far away from our place but bring us back some buckskin pictures for our autumn dress-up contests. That’s good fun. Don’t you agree? 45 Candy Cane Cookies Over the holiday break, the boy seems to look farther out the front window than he used to. One afternoon he helps his mother by pulling out shortening and butter while she sifts confectioner’s sugar. She sends him next door for an egg. He’s distracted, but he goes. Something has happened while he was at school something his mother knows might be harder for father than for her. The two talk about vanilla, flour, salt. He mentions his chemistry class. History. She pulls down food coloring and almond extract. He talks about books she’s never heard of. She goes through steps, creaming and beating ingredients, dividing the result and staining one half red. He leans against the countertop as she twists the different colors together. He asks, “What if I bring a girl home over the next school break?” They both know his father won’t be home for hours. While she puts the cookies in the oven, her son asks, “What if she’s not what you expect?” 46 Cowboy Culture Moving pictures arrive in homes just as cowboys start roping culture Calamity Kate in her fringed jacket welcoming kids into her studio on KOLN Gunsmoke, Bonanza— a new history with long guns and horses a white world maybe a little gray for shadows such a strong sun erases sin, blanks the prairie the black frontier, Mexicans, women in tomboy costume men desperate with desire, desperate with fear of famine Civil War veterans shell-shocked and addicted riding the grassland shooting anything not like themselves the cowboys and natives without telegraphs, trains Howdy Doody’s boots, jeans, a freckle for each state of the union the stories we’ll tell ourselves: a history of good people, hearts of gold all one, all the same all our ponies pounding westward 47 Birds Crows wake— obsidian in a coal sky. We wake to the cries of crows, rough calls sectioning a sealed sky. Songbird twitters torn by crows’ colonial calls. Birdcall a net a grid a shape of territory— building and desire. Crows wake from roosted sleep, owl fears before them. They stretch and bark: Which of us survived the night? 48 Boosalis Three weeks before the mayor’s race after sixteen years on the city council and it’s time for coffee cake. The rest of the house, husband and daughter, still asleep, and her decision is her own for a moment. She may well have learned the practice of baking at her parents’ restaurant, or not. That was so long ago now. Her huge glasses reflect careful movements, eyebrows arched in the way that means death to those who cross her in council meetings, but now she’s blending shortening, sugar, and vanilla, adding eggs one at a time. Flour, baking powder, and soda sifted. A half-smile, maybe, as she savors the metaphor of cooking and politics. Half the batter goes into the pan before she creams butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nuts, and dots the batter. A cover of batter and more dots. The oven door creaks. She sets the timer, turns to the coffee machine. Soon. Soon. It’s the right thing to do for a family in the morning. 49 Arise and Carry Trains clatter and screech in their reshuffling, and so wheat comes, and corn. Black towers of dust distort the sun, the day, but harvests come. Who asks for all of this? These pachyderm herds on eighteen and more wheels, grey and heavy from west coast seaport to Great Lakes, the grain fires and elevator explosions, who asks? Generations kept here by the Jupiter of population. We labor here, shirts stuck to skin, or backs bent over actuarial tables, the will of a mass of wills pressing inward. This city sinks into the world by days and ways: foundations, utility poles, a rhizome of sewer pipes and water lines like a buried net, and the dead leave us further behind. We have sunk gardens into yards to remind us of all the plants that will not grow here. But Saturday breakfast must rattle down into the bowl for children in footed pajamas distracted by early light, their hair wild with long sleep. They know hunger but understand the silence of morning and wanting. We return their fierce love of internal combustion, so we stay here, lifting and turning. 50 Late Immigration John Prey made his way from Scotland, and Mary from the young country’s east coast, Standing Bear grew resolute just to the north and says that the world is a shallow river that here a strong eddy turns into a pool. No peace in that water. The cold war brings refugees from Cuba and southeast Asia. The trio drift, argue about the intentions of Catholic ministries, about the resettlement of people stripped of choice. How long can conversation last? The weather shifts and shifts again. Will demographic change tilt the plate? Mary says she wants to smell the cooking, food speared, baked, tossed into wide pans. She wants to understand the colors of flags hidden behind doors, static in such a windy place. She wants to join these people at their holidays, their festivals, the rituals that anchor memory and family. 51 Repercussion and Birthright he taught his wife to make his mother’s candy cane cookies before they sent their oldest son to the university a mile and a half away and their son reported that it was a trackless wilderness formed by centuries of human thought that made no sense during a jungle war and the girls he knew from Omaha complained about the dormitories about being turned back into childhood princesses Kent State almost a thousand miles away shots ricochet only so far but May can be a dense month as it moves into the youth of June passion rises and is as trackless as any wilderness so the father splits a beer with the boy and asks if anyone might find a path 52 Judges 9:45 “Then [Abimelech] destroyed the city and scattered salt over it.” -New International Version Plants of the salt marsh defy god and grow where the city walls have been torn down, stones scattered like broken teeth where the bullocks are yoked and the women walk before them singing and sowing salt. Marshelder—salt drinker, faithless opportunist—appears next year, weedy and almost tall. Marshelder ignores imprecations, goes to seed. The sin of generation, goddess of earth adding life to life surviving beneath the angered sky. In the bold Midwest of America, military dams catch city runoff, turn salt less salty. Where to go when god gets reversed? Saltwort withers, saltgrass fades, tiger beetle can’t wing away. Floods have stopped. Army answers prayer. 53 Ghosts in the City Mary Monell, Standing Bear, and John Prey watch bell bottoms and paisley and tie-dye saunter and shuffle into and out of Dirt Cheap, new record albums and cigarette papers dropped into the crease of slim paper bags. All the color and blood swarms around the trio like thick wind. It’s so familiar, Standing Bear says, these must be the children of the children we watched pull eggs from the henhouses down in Dogtown. Mary nods, Life will push its way along, but how many more have filled the prairie? John kicks back his head and almost laughs, Look at those limbs that move them over the earth! Look at the money in their pockets, the heat in their hearts! He drags the cold breeze of his fingers through the long, loose hair of a bearded man. This is the power of a strong dream, and we are gods to see this future. Men with wide ties over plaid shirts cycle in and out of the typewriter supply store, men who don’t respond to the smell of incense and Mexican food. No, John, says Standing Bear, we’re still ghosts, listening to echoes. The sun might howl above us, but we are shadows that don’t move, like the shadows of cloud over the face of the city. 54 Urban Forest Trees trimmed in cloud-filtered yellow cut the early morning sky, sharp as an edge of tall bone: sycamores’ smoothness, oak’s wrinkle of bark, catalpa’s veiny height. Three storms in three nights and the trees effortlessly stay up. Each storm like every storm they’ve bent to in a hundred years. Trees are blind to stories, mark sun slowly— dawn goes uncelebrated, sunset unmourned. So many trees planted—for windbreak, firebreak, for shade in a shadeless place. Each tree carefully placed but now tilting sidewalks, lifting stones, growing against design. Sighs and whispers the thin echo of their voice. 55 Legacy learning to read against the recipe the “turn out well” the “slow oven” the many uses of vinegar how to manipulate the stomach of men and mothers-in-law the practice of food can calm the mind and grandmother smoothes her apron with link-sausage fingers and her lips set, setting the furrows around her mouth deeper as she looks out or just at the wall with its cloth calendar and you, a poppet, with undershirt and coded underwear simply stand hands floured, and another code stands before your eyes but the lesson won’t be clear for years 56 O Salt Creek Tiger Beetle crystal glitter on the creekbank turning moonlight into frozen stars as if the earth were invisible Lewis and Clark’s salt experts followed animals to licks and springs marshes and soughs but the frontier’s over springs re-channeled marshes drained and sloughs paved still, a small female beetle crawls ridden by her mate ovipositor set for stream edge where to go? in a flood the beetle just lifts but how to live on concrete? the city’s salt pillars lift a myth of righteousness salt rattle by the stove, on the table a lifetimer emptying slowly an entire species disappearing into deeper channels, drainage salt the demon of preservation destruction glazes the ceramic jug Lewis and Clark balance eggs at the continent’s edge beetles wasting in a shrinking basin 57 Chrysopoeia It spans generations, the alchemical practice of transmuting the base ingredients of potatoes, onions, flour, sour cream, butter, a little salt and pepper. And golden cheese to fix the separate parts together, unite them. In the church basement, grandmothers pull hot casserole pans out of ovens. In the sanctuary, an assistant minister presides over another death, reads to pews of dry-faced men and women in their darkest best. The girl who steps carefully downstairs is much younger than the man in the casket and won’t remember his late-life doting on her. She has resisted the smell of cheesy potatoes as long as she could, but patience develops late. One of the grandmothers pulls a stool to the pass-through and spoons up a small dish. Conversation circulates: family, new loves and old, the wild hairs of widowhood, ovens with thermostats, American cheese and its properties, the mysteries of frozen hash browns and Campbell’s cream soups. Boys thud downstairs into the room, coil their ways through chairs and tables, followed by a spill of families. Mothers head to the kitchen and lift aprons over the heads of the older women, bend over the casseroles, salads, and pies. The smell of open air fades. The great work of food the enduring practice. 58 Local Flocks This middle of spring morning first time this year to hear the peacock in the petting zoo five blocks away A bird at the feeder bears a fledgling’s dull colors, doesn’t fight with the sparrows, doves, grackles, flits down, rustles back to branch, a farther branch, and is gone out over the tarmac, the Sears mail order bungalows. Grid lines of streets smudged from above by catalpa, oak and ash. Mixed grass prairie turned to lawn so long ago no one alive remembers deep sod low hills banked with clover and moss. The dense points of bird life convergence slips off from ours as they gather at our dumpsters, the outdoor feeders of houses, nests and flocking trees a sprightly sparrow flight from the picnic grounds. Standing Bear says: I will arrange a meeting with one of the crows who sculls the skies above the neighborhood. 59 I LET DOWN MY ANCHOR IN THE LAND AROUND ME 60 Rising Sign Crescent moon stabs up from the black slant of the neighbor’s roofline— sky a bright cobalt just before dawn. She seems close, tangled in the empty net of early spring ash branches. The sky pales orange and pink across the eastern stretch and the moon shakes loose, withdraws. Houselights come on. A scumble of high clouds sails in, catches red beneath lavender. The chorus that swelled an hour ago has twittered off as the sun erases stars, stirs children in their rooms, carves street and sidewalk. 61 December Ghosts in the City How these winter holidays have changed, says Mary while John and Standing Bear nod, Just grass and snow under short solstice sun, but in six generations—colored lights that blink and run, white-wire-frame deer that nod incessantly, inflatable Santas that blossom beside front doors. The downtown shop windows once framed fantasies of elves and reindeer, piles of bright, empty packages, but now, deprived of their holiday dioramas, the glass bays are filled with embarrassing views into grey cubicles, and the grey people, hunched over keyboards, peer into screens in which they might see, reflected, the red and white cap they brought from home. 62 Four Houses Framed in a Window Pale lemon, white, mustard, tan stucco— they anchor spaces for a Harley, a minivan, a compact, a black hatchback. Four framed windows in the lemon house. A bat and a playground ball get knocked around between families, used rudely. The houses step downhill between hedges. Behind trees, the minivan hatch opens, loads and unloads churchgoers. Broken chairs and boxes tip at the curb. Monsters, then hay bales line porches. Then Christmas lights and glowing wise men. A garden appears out of lawn, a flowerbed seeds over. City workers chainsaw limbs near wires. Lemonade, chilled white wine, mustard for the bratwursts on the grill, the pop staccato of rock drums. A birthday at the stucco house and a porch corner gets torched. A pink “girl” sign gets draped next door. Final carseat bases removed, first steps, the wild bike ride into the van, and a slide downhill toward the high school. House colors change: green, champagne, flax. Another sequence of neighbors: Czech national garb, suspended piñatas. A new sedan, a minivan that will not rock, a Ninja cycle, the ping of bicycle bells, another family of mourning doves, of attic bats. 63 What Connects You to the Fly-over States? Beneath your comfortable traveling shoes, a rumble, and literal tons of emptiness above grassland that doesn’t care if you eat from it or plunge to meet it. So fly over, move through. You’ll never step on the same prairie twice. Fly over the metal insect miracle of the combine, harvest guided by a satellite staring down to the edge of the oceanic fields. Pumped circles scale the land with green, a bread-basket dragon drinking from deep wells. Shapes you see from the plane are invisible at the level of fences, road signs, dead towns buried by the curled and lifted turf of the dust bowl. Nomads migrate through, stop, eat, make their way West or, like you, back East. They cross you going north, going south make their connection, depart. Movie stars, prostitutes, milk, all come from somewhere. Flyover because untouristed, because empty. Flyover because full of black flies and soy and sky. 64 Greetings from Hendersonville, NC Early 1980s, a school project sent me to my father’s coworker’s rented house. No mansion, that place. Dark, and I don’t remember the assignment. I admit to you now that I hadn’t thought much about Nebraska. I remember the harmonica, the quiet guitar, slowly phrased melodies. That day, our conversation covered revolutions that lit up the Sixties and early Seventies. But we were in Reagan’s America, Born in the USA just released. It takes a while to replace gospels and I was hungry for a different epistemology. Still the low voice, the space that was almost folk, almost a myth. The man I interviewed gave me a leather jacket once thumped by police batons. I asked about the album we’d been listening to. “Nebraska,” he said and showed me a stark cover heavy with weather, dashboard riding along a road disappearing into field and fence. 65 The Neighborly Business of Shoveling Snow Wind scrubs his face, the shovel’s handle doesn’t feel like wood under his gloves, the walk behind him is dusted thick as he reaches the choiceless street corner. Alone on the sidewalk, he knows neighbors should be out, too, dragging resentment behind them with the smell of soup and beer. Birds dart from pine to ash, shake loft loose. Traces of summer garden are lost. Paths appear, fill in, reappear with tracks of red squirrels, next door’s pumpkin cat, and nighttime sneaks. Snow continues to fall like snow. Farther south, where sandhill cranes winter, ice builds up in thin, bright layers. It’s a big storm. The air hurts his lungs. Windblown ice pebbles sting like lava sparks. If he were younger, he’d test the snow for packing. Older, and he might collapse soon, all this lifting unstitching his labor from life’s foundation. Bison would stand into the blow. He scoops again. 66 At 27th and Capitol Parkway It’s spring and all and I dream of dying things, a bad dream for a day when young people strip to light cotton, loft Frisbees into budded thickets. The cube in the park roughs out with rust, the koi pond thickens with algae beards. Mated pairs hunt the hatched offspring of other mated pairs. Worms and insects flood to the surface, are seized by thrushes, grackles. Hearts and stomachs stack the atmosphere miles high, and I’m swimming in birdlife, a sea of blood and fluid. I am a spine angled toward a flat screen among spines outdoors and following a certain lively tilt toward sun. A line of tiny purple flowers blooms above the waistband of a biker’s nylon shorts. 67 Postage Stamp Suburb A twig-limb and bird’s nest man leans down to the willow girl’s cornsilk hair and squashflower ear as they amble past the bluestem on the sun shot corner lot, the tall grass spit-rain happy: heat and sun mean sleep— blue roots sip deep water, hold to dark joys as men unspool difficult hoses wrestle threads together for a god’s storm of hiss and tick, sprinklers showering sidewalks and a shallow patch of lawn. Women with strollers pause children charge and slop, tumble into weeds, flowers, their throats warbling like birds’. Bluegrass and fescue blades rise weakly, transplants tricked into this dry bowl, these shallow valleys plowed up, packed down under the weight of all that moans in passing. 68 Angel Problem Her cigarette smoke winds through the wire bodies of gold tinsel angels pinned to the porch wall, wings shuddering in a wind that catches the screen door, slams it back into the frame, the “no smoking” sign nailed strong, though it rattles. Almost a year ago, in deep winter and near zero the sheets tacked up for curtains blew over the mudded-flat yard. Through the window shouts stamped out, obscure with rage. Not her voice. We never heard her voice. She moves one direction and the devil moves to square her back in. Today, her sister, front teeth gone, sips from a Pepsi bottle. Two plastic frogs hump together on the railing. A boy and girl in puffy coats and toy-themed gloves flow past them into the day, out to the bus stop, returning late to this low spot where the city grid warps. The sister flicks an ash and their coals dance. In other hands, the hot red would flare into a snare of flame. A nest can be abandoned, but this box she lives in— Her sister says it’s not a game she’s playing, this angel and devil shit, and it sure as hell ain’t adventure. But she doesn’t have the power or the money to escape, doesn’t know if there’s a strategy. 69 Jealousy Babies with greedy palms will grip autumn leaves every year after I’m dead. Toddlers on square shoes will waddle through a hundred seasons I’ll never see. Is it so much to ask to have them write? Even a quick note: Hi there, it would start, letters reversed, awkward, the future is great. Wish you were here! We stopped using fossil fuels fifteen minutes after you died, and just after that we stabilized earth’s population. Within a year, we banished poverty and executive salaries. It took us a while, but now every ball team ends the season above .500. Tuck the note in the urn with my ashes. And drop in my glasses so I can read. 70 Storm Runoff I announce to the sleeping house that sunrise will be delayed. Spring rain puddles gurgle to each other that they look a little jaundiced this morning. They spill over and run down past sleeping raccoons who pulled themselves higher in the storm drain system as dawn and thunder neared. The water merges larger now, dusty and rusted, and jets into the concrete streambed, rearranging rocks, reshuffling crayfish beds, tumbling the eggs and nests of insects. Ducks have taken to the modest cover of park trees, and the stream rambles on past disappointed children holding playground balls. They look up at their young mothers, pastel bathrobes held closed at the yoke, who search for some way to redeem the day. Far away, the river rises imperceptibly. Lightning stalks sharply away, thunder grumbles quietly into regret. Mid-morning, the sun will appear like satori, picnic plans will be repacked, and fishing trips re-strung. Every end takes me to another beginning. 71 Heirloom Produce in a city almost ringed with grain elevators the agricultural cycle lives mostly in rain gauges and a deep obsession with weather gardens and containers sprout out of mud as the earth wobbles toward longer days Monsanto keeps its interests at the edge of town the cows from the early days of the university banished, but chickens—up to two at a time— can cluck around any house with a coop and on abandoned lots city residents share their rototillers, tools, and ideas about how to group vegetables and culinary herbs they try to recall their families’ practices when the cellar served as cooler and shelter— when earth was all that anybody knew 72 Flights of July The man with wasps under his eaves pauses at the top of a tall step ladder putty knife and bug spray in hand and considers the meaning of balance the wasp tending the nest returns, circles the man, pats its load of mud onto the organ pipe and looks back dark eyes, the man thinks, like that girl back in high school, his steady date for three years, he asks himself how does it happen that you get so attached to the smell of that one skin, its freckles the scent of a perfume he knows now is cheap but still effective he feels the stirring in his shorts— the insect has left and he stands propped balanced with putty knife and spray his wife has sent him up here but his hand won’t move even when the wasp returns again with mud from some close neighbor’s yard she’s so dark, he thinks, and such a shine like a beat poet description of a jazz player in an after hours club some young poet from a better background than he admits to spending summers between college years in Italy zooming around on an ancient Vespa continued, stanza break 73 gritty and soulful when he returns to the United States, a young man looking for balance who might one day be standing near the top of a ladder wondering when his wife will come back from shopping, how she’ll react to live wasps zooming around her husband still balanced at the top of the ladder like the guy who died at the Met on opening night, balanced, suddenly silent, falling to the stage, dead already, the opera a story about extending life badly, the point that life is defined by death becoming literal and absurd but the man with the wasps thinks maybe I can let this wasp live, let her offspring continue this spiral of seasons, and he steps down, folds the ladder, puts the instruments away 74 Autumn Saturday, Home Game -University of Nebraska’s “Sea of Red” football Cool, cloudy, a bit of drizzle and my wife and I were off with an early rum start we walked our steady way to campus past the governor and the capitol into the small city center joined a growing flow a freshet fed by autumn football and we join the superfans gather with the casual fans fall in to step with young men in body paint with grandmothers holding red blankets around themselves and lugging stadium seats and eager husbands who can reel off wins by the ancient coaches Stiehm and Bible and we walk through cigar smoke the sweet and oily smell of popcorn all of us stopping at O Street where a red and white truck with a horn section charges past us trailing the fight song straightens us all up even the girl with a red and white Mohawk and we’re all thinking of the coffee and cocoa that we’ll buy to warm us but mostly we miss the brandy and beer we have back at our homes and as we cross the street we reach in our minds for first downs for goal-line stands and defensive stops we reach for submersion in single-throated desire that is the tradition in any rural and lonely state. 75 Pests tricksters at the cat food tonight ambling up the concrete parking pad after dark for the cheap kibble my wife feeds the mackerel cats, some masked, some pale as a full moon— bandits born here, too small to be tracked by a masked ranger or the dry gulch posse the neighbor to the east tells me of a scourge of mice he’s trying to poison—they should leave his house alone we talk while his Chihuahua trots within the fence squirrels chatter at us and he glares at them before we turn away, I to my birdseed and he to his traps at dusk, rabbits lollop out of their hideouts deer ghost through the golf course and the man’s wife throws corn into the alley 76 Reversing Houses The ambulance, the estate sale and auction, the moving vans, the wooden house emptied except for a roll of toilet paper, a cord, a leaf of paper freed from a sheaf meant for shredding. A life collecting books and manuscripts dispersed. The dregs of it—holiday gifts from distant relatives, or desperate purchases in gift shops to stave off boredom, to trick despair—these last paperbacks shoved into the box marked “free” that appears each evening at the second-hand bookshop. The books picked up, carried farther out, like last ashes, now scattered by strangers, as one memory flickers out and another begins. 77 War Poem children gather onto the yellow bus in this dead neighborhood birds dead on dead branches mice at the sharp ends of cats streets should be red with death sidewalks red the air a red chemical bath dead things held us in their dark imaginations thought us into existence the frog end of winged death lights up nerves strung brain to toe like a Chicago street reaching from the Gold Coast out to Iowa the sun tilts past the pine tree and floods the window plants and the go board on the recovered chest two glasses of dark wine breathing death fills the door 78 Food Culture, Tradition Loaf, loaves. My nephew leaps into the room, his body soft and wigglesome with childhood. He transports his stomach carefully, points to it, holds it, says, “I want some bread.” Like blond children several hours earlier, a thousand in each time zone, each one saying “please.” And each one pointed to their stomach, also carried carefully, also surrounded by soft bones and pulsing tissue. And what I assume, he has not assumed. A vague teacher forms above his head, struggling. “We should make squaw bread,” my nephew says. As if. Above the pale pergo floor, between taupe walls, under a plaster ceiling, in the middle of a cold snap near Lake Michigan, as if. Just a word. Not by bread alone, but joined. A loaf. Soft and shaped like that soft shape. Which one? A woman shape? Pick. Over the couch. The same nephew, thick through the hips, clutches his arms to his breast, folds at the waist over the back of the dark upholstery. Folds. What else to say? He’s a kid. It’s from school. The teacher appears above his head, and the boy unfolds. Another time zone, another thousand hungry blond boys. “Just pick something!” the mothers yell, hoarse with rich food and children in socks, “Entertain yourselves!” Snow snakes. Stick games. We can make squaw bread. As if. A redheaded woodpecker hammers outside, and outside it’s headache weather. Inside it’s headache weather. Coffee in shallow cups. Screaming toddlers. A circus. Soft in the hips. Heavy, but he wants to fry bread. “You shape it like this,” he says, hands forming a shape in space. An assignment takes shape above his head. A teacher’s voice falls silent, snakes along the floor, goes. “Squaw,” he says again. “Ojibwe,” his mother says, tired, “Ojibwe. Ojibwe bread.” The afternoon vanishes into dinner time. More hungry children in this zone, in the one before and the one that follows us into our small future. On the table, venison, squash, wild rice. 79 Merchants and Students No natives to this Nebraska city. Migratory we cross like sandhill cranes, cedar waxwings, bison. We roll through like Russian thistle, shed seeds that root, snap off low, surrender to beliefs about sunlight and wind. After ghost days and rainsheets, shopkeepers blink open windows, step out tentative as housecats, lean into their buildings to watch high-waisted women stilt unsteady on heels, their long hair grown in a landscape caked to muck boots tucked in closets’ dark draws. Hips search for strides learned stalking wheat, corn, pulling calves from cows—not city steps. Late at night, their stories spread, meet other anxious and uncertain stories, drift through classrooms, train stations, yarn shops. We have all stopped here and bring dreams with us onto these broad streets. Like any immigrant with a strange hat and accent, our expectations rise like a sun, follow the east-west path we all know. 80 Waking Prairie Spring shoulders across the plains. Northern cold and southern light jostle like a blue ox under a miles-wide yoke, the ox staggering like a butterfly, the lines it leaves all spike and curve. Flowers burst and leaves unfurl, the planet tips and clouds rush between earth and universe with love and death, with wind with rain, tornado and flood, and light drives life into frenzy. Let me take you in my arms and breathe while our little girl lifts her chubby feet into her mouth. Flowers drop into our Muscat, drift down the yellow wine to settle in the season’s throat. 81 Easement on South Twenty-third Street The cats have sunbeam, chair, window. Enlightened, they know each other wholly. What is this wanting? This day one month into spring, broad boulevards the same as yesterday, but mind wanders. Where to build a nest? a den? The cats curl in laundry— in drawers or scattered— joy follows familiar scent. Same sunlight and I struggle to fold and order clothes, add like to like, find sense. By the backyard’s old shed, feral kittens tumble like the offspring of a comedy goddess. I hold my wife’s thickening belly, smell her evening hair. In the morning, sheets night-tumbled, she yawns in parting. She feeds the lanky neighborhood cats. In winter we will have our own brood. Next spring new kittens will roll like balled socks mewling like every mammal for milk, for touch, for nothing more. 82 Exotica Housecat stalks through fescue around behind the lilac and forsythia English sparrows drop sharply bounce back up to bob on vines Our neighbor walks her Scottie dogs along the same loop three times a day Someone east of us trains Dobermans takes a brace out for a sharp-eared circuit Last winter, a pheasant ringed the bird feeder tree for two days Starlings flutter around the loosestrife, ignore dandelion seeds My own introduction? Lively as any pigeon. 83 Walking to School Deep in autumn’s roasted leaves my daughter shuffles to the warm school where early morning sun makes paper glow and the rigid walls are rounded smooth with smells of uncapped pens, of crayons left too long in soft, moist hands. A teacher with milky coffee breath pins up ancient presidents and turkeys and the scent of her boyfriend’s favorite perfume clings to her like mittens clipped to her pupils’ sleeves as they arrive, and shrug into their dreary desks out of the joyful air. 84 A Whirlwind Comes I’m letting go of wakefulness stretched on autumn’s short grass couch I’m letting go of sleep the burning burr of waking buzz my wife curled softly on her side I’m letting go of waste, of zoning of districts of municipalities I confetti the contact information of all useless positions after a timeless rattle, I’m letting go of a bucket of red dice with white pips of a dark breath I bust, I go over, I flout the flop, the river I drop the cards I refuse to do business in the rain and in the dark I let go of keys and keep myself in the dark, in the rain out of what and where I want I let go 85 Works Consulted A Book of Favorite Recipes: Compiled by Members and Friends of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church. Shawnee Mission, KS: Circulation Service, 1981. Print. Abbot, C.E. (Teddy Blue) and Helena Huntington Smith. We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1939. Print. American Legion Auxiliary. Favorite Recipes. North Platte, NE: n.p., 1979. Print. Bouc, Ken, ed. The Cellars of Time: Paleontology and Archaeology in Nebraska. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 1994. Print. Copple, Neale. Tower on the Plains: Lincoln’s Centennial History 1859-1959. Lincoln, NE: Lincoln Centennial Commissin Publishers, 1959. Print. Darnell, Don. Born, Raised, Lived, Learned and Loved in Dogtown: The Memories of an Educator from the Right Side of the Tracks. Lincoln, NE: Augstums Printing, 1993. Print. Evertsen, Justin et al. “Guide to Woody Plants of Nebraska.” Lincoln, NE: Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, n.d. Print. Hayes, A.B. and Sam D. Cox. History of the City of Linocoln, Nebraska. Lincoln, NE: State Journal Company, 1889. Web. Jennings, Bob, Ted T. Cable, and Roger Burrows. Birds of the Great Plains. Auburn, WA: Lone Pine Publishing International, 2005. Print. Johnsgard, Paul A. A Guide to the Tallgrass Prairie of Eastern Nebraska and Adjacent States. University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Lincoln, NE: n.p., 2007. Web. Keister, Douglas, and Edward Zimmer. Lincoln in Black and White: 1910-1925. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Print. 86 Knoll, Robert. Prairie University. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1995. Print. Ladies Aid Cook Book. Waterville, KS: Telegraph Print, 1938. McKee, James L. Lincoln, the Prairie Capital. Northridge, CA: Windsor Publications, 1984. Print. ---. Visions of Lincoln: Nebraska's Capital City in the Present, Past and Future. Lincoln, NE: TankWorks, 2007. Print. Miller, J.E. The Prairie Capital: 1880-1930. Lincoln, NE: Miller & Paine, 1930. Print. Nielsen, Mary Jane and Jonathan Roth. When I Was a Kid. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska Printing Center, 2009. Print. ---. Lincoln Looks Back. Lincoln: Nebraska Printing Center, 2009. Print. Pages from History. Lincoln, NE: Journal Star Printing Co, 1993. Print. Plains Humanities Alliance. Gilded Age Plains City: The Great Sheedy Murder Trial and the Booster Ethos of LIncoln, Nebraska. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. Lincoln, 2007. Web. Pound, Louise. Nebraska Folklore: New Edition. 1947. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2006. Print. Runkel, Sylvan T., and Dean Roosa. Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest. Second Edition. A Bur Oak Guide. Iowa City, IA: U of Iowa P, 2009. Print. Seymour, Margaret R. The First 100 Years...1898-1998: The Unitarian Church of Lincoln, NE. Lincoln, NE: Unitarian Church of LIncoln, 1998. Print. Starita, Joe. "I Am a Man": Chief Standing Bear's Journey for Justice. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008. Print. 87 Works Project Administration. Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State. New York: Viking Press, 1939. Print. Young, Kay. Wild Seasons: Gathering and Cooking Wild Plants of the Great Plains. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 1993. Print. Your Household Guide. Marceline, MO: Walsworth Brothers, 1951. Print.