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Boomtown: A prairie capital

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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.
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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
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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.
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NE: Lincoln Centennial Commissin Publishers, 1959. Print.
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