Thursday, April 24, 2014

National Poetry Month—Poetry from the End of the Plains



I must be homesick today for the wide open spaces—“Way out west where the states are square,” as Thomas Wolfe said.  I grew up, as some of you might know, in Wyoming.  That’s Lenape word meaning roughly “where the plains end.”  And so they do, running smack to range upon rugged range from the Snowy Range in the southeast to the Grand Tetons in the northwest.  Beautiful country, uncluttered by many people.  So I thought I might dig out some Wyoming poetry.
All native peoples had their own oral poetry traditions.  Not much was preserved as they were conquered and government policy encouraged the eradication of traditional language and culture.  But some survives, of at least is passed off as traditional—there is sometimes doubt about what is authentic and what is the flight of fancy of white writers passed off as traditional.  Some of both exist.  The Shoshone were once a powerful people who ranged along both slopes of the Rocky Mountains.  The main bands occupy the Wind River Reservation.  This poem is widely attributed to them.
Shoshone Love Song

Fair is the white star of twilight, and the sky clearer
At the day’s end; but she is fairer, and she is dearer,
She, my heart’s friend.
Far stars and fair in the night blending,
Low stars of hearth fires and wood smoke ascending,
The meadow larks nested,
The night hawk is winging,
Home through the star-shine the hunter comes singing
Fair is the white star of twilight, and the moon roving
To the sky’s end; but she is fairer, better worth loving,
She, my heart’s friend.

Peggy Simson Curry was born in Scotland in 1911 and migrated to the U.S. with her family as a child.  Her father was employed by the Big Horn Cattle Company in Colorado for his expertise with Herefords and Angus cattle then relatively new to the range.  By the age of 12, she learned to drive a hay rake and helped her mother cook for a 20-man haying crew.  After marriage she moved to a home on Casper Mountain and her husband became a teacher at the local community college and served in the Legislature.  She became a prolific writer of short stories, young adult fiction, and poetry.  Two of her stories won Spur Awards for western fiction.  Before her death in 1987 she was named Wyoming’s first Poet Lauriat.  She was inducted posthumously into the Western Writers Hall of Fame.

Lupine Ridge

Long after we are gone,
Summer will stroke this ridge in blue;
The hawk still flies above the flowers,
Thinking, perhaps, the sky has fallen
And back and forth forever he may trace
His shadow on its azure face.

Long after we are gone,
Evening wind will languish here
Between the lupine and the sage
To die a little death upon the earth,
As though over the sundown prairies fell
A requiem from a bronze-tongued bell.

Long after we are gone,
This ridge will shape the night,
Lifting the wine-streaked west,
Shouldering the stars.  And always here
Lovers will walk under the summer skies
Through flowers the color of your eyes.

—Peggy Simson Curry
Wyoming can foster unexpected voices.  Take Lee Ann Roripaugh who was born and raised in Laramie in a Japanese-American home.  She was muti-talented and received degrees in Piano performance and creative writing from Indiana University.  Her highly acclaimed first book of poetry, Heart Mountain, 1943 dealt with World War II internment camps in Wyoming.  She has published two more collections and is a professor of English at the University of South Dakota.

Kimono Ozawa from Heart Mountain, 1943

Oka-san keeps stuffing rags under
the barracks door, around cracks
in the window, to keep out smells
of snow, sage and cattle,
families pressed around us.
My feet, my mind, become numb
from standing in line all day --
lines to eat, shower, shit
in the dirty outdoor benjos.
Evenings I sweep my anger
off the barracks floor,
but the next morning it’s coated
with dust, corners filled again.
Shikata ga nai, my parents keep
chanting. There is nothing
to be done. I watch
my father grow thin. Nights
he plays his shakuhachi flute,
the sound not unlike the cries
outside the barracks. The wind,
he says, takes everything.
I think this must be true.
I have taken walks inside
the barbed-wire fences,
and all the words
are pulled from my mouth.
My brothers, too, scattered
like dust. Ken fights
in the all-Nisei combat unit,
and Toji, who said No once,
No again, taken to Tule Lake.
My scalp itches and flakes, my lips,
my hand, chapped and cracked.
Sometimes I use a drop of cooking oil
to keep from blowing away. 

—Lee Ann Roripaugh
Robert Penn Warren, first Poet Lauriat of the United States, is remembered as a Southern writer.  And so he was through several outstanding poetry collections and his memorable novel All the King’s Men.  He spent much of his later life, however in New England during which his poetic style changed and his views morphed from southern conservatism to liberalism.  He traveled widely in the country and was always eager to share his experiences, like this one from Wyoming.

Mortal Limit

I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
Of dream-spectral light above the lazy purity of snow-snags.

There—west—were the Tetons. Snow-peaks would soon be
In dark profile to break constellations.  Beyond what height
Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?

Or, having tasted that atmosphere’s thinness, does it
Hang motionless in dying vision before
It knows it will accept the mortal limit,
And swing into the great circular downwardness that will restore

The breath of earth? Of rock? Of rot? Of other such
Items, and the darkness of whatever dream we clutch.

—Robert Penn Warren


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