Even if you’re born, bred and live in the Cities (here in Minnesota that means the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/Saint Paul), you have a very good chance of being seduced by prairies. Heading out of the western suburbs, the prairies begin to undulate almost immediately. The sky is huge; you can see for miles. Small towns speed by (that is, if you’re smart enough to avoid the slam/dunk speed of interstate 94), each town dotted by its farming temples of grain elevators. There’ll be a cafe or two, a feed store, grocery emporia, several steeples–one likely Catholic, the other Lutheran–and tidy two-story houses with flower and vegetable plots plowed into rectangles.
My experience with prairies began as a girl when my North Dakota mother brought my sister and me “north” by train from South Carolina to visit her father whom we called Papa Max. When I came to live in the Twin Cities in my 20s–purely by chance, yet drawn by an invisible force I now recognize as fate–I walked Twin Cities neighborhoods and felt strangely at home because the architecture resembled Papa Max’s “gingerbread” house with its huge third-story attic, and gables high above each side, its front porch with pebble foundation, and its big “Palladian” window at the front.
But it was my years as a writer-in-the-schools that truly taught me prairies and the small towns that sustain far-flung farmers. Don’t let anyone kid you: there are two distinct cultures in Minnesota (or more, but that’s another story): farm and city. Now we get to the poets. When I taught in small town or rural schools–Roseau, Blue Earth, Hallock, Swanville (oh, the beauty of that name), even the bigger towns like Worthington, Alexandria, Bemidji, and Red Wing–I eventually discovered the rich heritage of soil and weather, crops and quirky characters and the complex heritage of Native Americans and various immigrant groups–all part of the students’ lives. This is the heritage that made its way into the students’ poems, and of course into the poetry of adults who just happened to live near the prairie.
Now we have a beautifully compiled, designed and printed anthology of many poets from the prairie (and some from the city): Scott King’s Perfect Dragonfly. Scott King and his Red Dragonfly Press, housed in The Anderson Center, Red Wing, have been steadily publishing letterpress books (small, beautifully designed and often illustrated “fine-art” books) and larger more standard collections of poetry for a decade and a half. Scott himself grew up on the prairie and many poets he’s published represent this amazingly rich prairie culture.
Take Nancy Paddock’s poem “The Splendor of Music” whose first lines go like this:
In a small Minnesota town where life is reasonable
though cropped at both ends of its intensity…
Listening to Nancy read this at the Birchbark Reading Series Wednesday night hosted by Michael Kiesow Moore, I laughed out loud, picturing immediately the way you can see from one end of main street to the other, and know that prairie wind is waiting to grab you outside. Though Nancy made me laugh, I also realized what the town (Litchfield in her case) protects against: that intense, often frightening blow. When the land itself is so huge and powerful, town needs to be a haven.
Joe Paddock’s long poem “The Big Snapper” puts us in a rowboat with boy and poacher who snags a huge snapper:
it hit the boat’s bottom, legs and tail and neck thrashing
like a knotted bunch of angry, heavy-bodied snakes.
Its neck lashed out fifteen inches, its razor beak
snapped at the air, me sitting there barefoot.
Again, there’s humor, and that tension between the fierceness of nature versus the minimal chance of the human. We root for the boy and are very very glad when the poacher swings the snapper back where it belongs.
Not all prairie poets stay on the prairie: Lyle Daggert’s poem “guantanamera” is a kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives:
this man when did you
first meet this man do you
know this man being
transferred to another facility effective
huge flashes of light explosions
dropping from the sky along
the tigris the night
a dream of shattered glass
(Sorry, Lyle, my computer formatting won’t let your spacing stay.)
By the time it’s done, the horror of the Iraq war, its shifting untruths, and the hidden holding of unknown men have unhinged us.
Finally a note about Diane Jarvenpa’s “Ancient Wonders, the Modern World,” originally published as a letterpress book with illustrations. This skillful blend of modern and ancient humanoid life washes back and forth like an ancient sea:
We reach from our sleep to take the day,
legs emerge from the whipped foam of sheets
and there we are–
like that pair walking together in Laetoli
3.6 million years before
On the cover of Perfect Dragonfly, Scott King has inscribed his version of Leonardo da Vinci’s archtypal “Vitruvian Man.” Instead of da Vinci’s man with two sets of arms and legs inscribed with a square and a circle, Scott King has put a dragonfly, its four wings like the arms and legs of the human. Just as da Vinci suggested that the human is the measure of all architecture, i.e. of all things, so King suggests that his dragonfly (he studies them) and his press likewise provide a measure. The humor is gentle; the art is diverse and wonderful.