Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lee Ann Roripaugh—Heritage Speaks to South Dakota Poet Laureate

Lee Ann Roripaugh

Most states now have poet laureates.  It usually starts off when some local scribe get some national attention for verse and the state politicos, most of whom would not know a poem if they tripped over it, decide to lay claim to him/her with less ceremony than the selection of a new state bird, mineral, insect, or hat.  Many brilliant poets have been so honored, and so have a few hacks whose sing-song rhymes appeal to sentimentality and state vanity.
Last year South Dakota Republican Governor Gov. Dennis Daugaard had to fill the Laureate chair in that state after the twelve-year incumbent David Allan Evans retired.  It may have been loyalty to his own undergraduate alma mater that caused him to turn to a University of South Dakota professor and the editor of the highly regarded South Dakota Review, but Lee Ann Roripaugh is a gifted and award winning poet with a national reputation.
South Dakota is a somewhat schizophrenic state. Much of the eastern half of the state is farm landcorn and soy beans giving way to dry land wheat farming.  This half of the state celebrates hardy pioneer sodbuster and Homesteaders—think Laura Ingles Wilder, whose itinerant hard luck father brought to the Territory for part of her storied childhood.  In the west the High Plains dry out and then give way to the Bad Lands and Black Hills.  It was the wild wild west of cowboys, prospectors, gun slingers, card sharps, whores and Indian Wars.  The literature of the state, like its politics, reflects that cultural division.
But Roripaugh does not fit neatly into either camp and her work reflects that. 
She was born in 1955 in Laramie, Wyoming, the daughter of Robert Roripaugh, a poet in his own right who was Wyoming Poet Laureate from 1995-2002.  After graduating from the University of Wyoming in 1953, Robert was drafted and posted by the Army to Japan where he met Yoshiko Horikoshi.   After his discharge the couple settled in Laramie where he taught and began a prolific career as a poet, short story writer, and novelist. 
Young Lee Ann grew up in cultivated academic community.  She absorbed as much as she could from her mother’s culture as well as her father’s background coming of age on a Wyoming ranch in the Wind River country.  Artistic expression was naturally encouraged.  She began writing poetry in high school, but aimed for a musical career.
Roripaugh attended the University of Indiana where she got her bachelor’s degree in piano performance and a master’s in music history.  But the lure of writing was too strong.  She switched gears and got a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

The desolate Heart Mountain internment camp inspired Roripaugh's first poetry collection.

Before completing her education, Roripaugh was establishing a career as a writer.  She had already won an AWP Intro Award in Poetry for her work as a student and the Randall Jarrell International Poetry Prize in 1995.  Then in 1998 Ishmael Reed selected her first poetry collection, Beyond Heart Mountain for publication in the National Poetry Series.  For that book she drew on her mother’s Japanese culture and her father’s deep understanding of the West to touch on the lives on of the internees at the infamous Hart Mountain Relocation Center—concentration camp—for Japanese Americans during World War II.
Her subsequent collections include Year of the Snake in 2004, which explored mixed-race identity, myths, Japanese fairy tales, and transition; On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year in 2009 on the lives of contemporary women with a nod to mythic archetypes; and Danderins in 2014.

Roripaugh's second poetry collection.
In the process Roripaugh won a Bush Foundation Fellowship in the Arts in 2003 and the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in 2004. 
She is an academic star at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion where she is a professor of English, Director of Creative Writing, and editor of the South Dakota Review.  Her work reveals her wide interests from queer identity to science fiction, space travel, and cyborgs. 
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Spasmed jerk and gutter of Hiroshima newsreels unwinding inside a movie set in Hiroshima, where the actress in the movie plays an actress making a movie about Hiroshima and peace. A movie about (re)membering the (dis)membered.  A movie about the horror of forgetfulness.

It is here, inside this movie, where I will walk tonight, along black and white streets of borrowed time, framed within the movie set of a movie set; where brazen neon flickers numinous promises, fictional lovers first illuminated, then dowsed, like a candle pinched between thumb and forefinger.  Can you see me?  Will you follow?

(You’re destroying me / You’re good for me.)

Late-night cafe. Crisp pale beer. Shadows of moths small black hearts charred by the sudden flash and immolation of rice-paper lanterns. Insatiable koi mouthing the surface of the garden’s pond: like an agitation of insects against a lit window; like your face, illuminated by the quiet electric glow of your computer screen as you read; like my face, lit by my words as I write them to you.

Here, on the other side of your screen, inside the movie taking place within a movie about Hiroshima, about the illusion of love, about the illusion of not forgetting, I will fabricate this story rising like wild iris from a cancerous gourd of ash. I will tell you I love you.  I will promise never to forget. Here, at ground zero, it will all be true.

(She: Hiroshima was blanketed with flowers. There were cornflowers and gladiolas everywhere, and morning glories and day lilies that rose again from the ashes with an extraordinary vigor, quite unheard of for flowers till then. I didn’t make anything up.

He: You made it all up.)

Here, on the other side of your screen, by the River called Ota, which runs by the city of my Japanese ancestors, near the American occupation camp where my Japanese mother met my American father while typing like the sound of rain dropping, where clouds are slung low and dark like bruised sulky pansies, and glimpses of the sky behind are a surreal, too-bright Dali blue I will walk deeper, and deeper still, into the black-and-white interior of the narrative’s narrative.    

—Lee Ann Roripaugh
Happy Hour
I always forget the name,
even though it was the flower

the hummingbirds
loved best. They came in pairs—sleek,

heads, the clockwork machinery
of their blurred wings
thrumming swift, menacing engines.

They slipped their beaks.
as if they were swizzle sticks, deep
into the blue

throat of delphinium and sucked
dry the nectar-
chilled hearts like goblets full of sweet,

frozen daiquiri.
I liked to sit on the back porch
in the evenings,

watching them and eating Spanish
peanuts, rolling
each nut between thumb and forefinger

to rub away
the red salty skin like brittle
tissue paper,

until the meat emerged gleaming,
yellow like old
ivory, smooth as polished bone.

And late August,
after exclamations of gold
flowers, tiny

and bitter, the caragana
trees let down their
beans to ripen, dry, and rupture—

at first there was
the soft drum of popcorn, slick with oil,
puttering some-

where in between seed, heat, and cloud.
Then sharp cracks like cap
gun or diminutive fireworks,

peas catapulting skyward like
pellet missiles.

Sometimes a meadowlark would lace
the night air with
its elaborate melody,

rippling and sleek
as a black satin ribbon. Some-
times there would be

a falling star. And because
this happened in
Wyoming, and because this was

my parents’ house,
and because I’m never happy
with anything,

at any time, I always wished
that I was some-
where, anywhere else, but here.
—Lee Ann Roripaugh
Dream Carp

People traveled from miles away to see
my paintings of fish—
the jeweled armor of their scales, the beadlike

set of their eyes in
rubbery socket rings, the glimmering
swish of fin and tail

so real it seemed that you could almost dip
a net deep into
the paper and pull up the arching wet

weight of a golden carp,
a shiny trout, or the dark muscular
heft of a bass with

its mouth stretched into the surprised, wiry
“oh” of a child’s wind
sock. I captured my models from the sea,

lake, and goldfish pond
in the back garden, so careful not to
let their mouths be torn

by the hook, their scales chipped, or the silky
tissue of their tails
ripped by a clumsy hand. I kept them in

large glass bowls, fed them
mosquito wings or dry silkworm pupas
offered from chopsticks,

and when I was finished making sketches,
I quickly took them
back and set them free again. Every

night I dream I swim
with these fish as a golden carp—black spots
on cloisonné scales,

pulled to the surface by the deceptive
creamy luster of
the moon or the sizzle of firefly lights

across the water.
And every night I am tempted once
again by the smell

of the baited hook, by my predictable
hunger for earthly
things, and each time I am surprised again

by the stinging hook
in my lip that pulls me mercilessly
into the bright air,

setting my gills on fire, the sharp, silver
pain of the knife that
slits me open so easily from tail

to throat to reveal
the scarlet elastic of my raw gills,
the translucent film

of my air sac, the milky rise of my
stomach, and the gray
marbled coil of my intestines. I rise

late each day, and work
in brighter light. When I die, I will
have my paintings brought

down to the lake and slipped into the water.
First the edges of
ink will blur, and then there will be a great

flurry as the fins,
tails, and bodies begin blossoming in-
to life again, each

fish detaching from its canvas of silk
or rice paper—a
swirl of color, motion, swimming away.

—Lee Ann Roripaugh

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