I’ve long pondered the question, “What does it mean to be American?” As a native of the Midwest, my perspectives were quite different from the friends I met and lived with the first time I moved east, the ones whose experience of the rest of the continent happened when flying to California from New York City. There’s a lot in between! You need to get your feet on the ground.
And then, in the desert of the Pacific Northwest, everything twisted. Little I’d known was familiar. Once I adjusted, I never wanted to leave. But then, everything blew up, along with Mount St. Helens.
By degrees, I edged eastward, finally landing in New England. As for answers to that ongoing question, let me point you to my latest book release, the poetry collection Noble Blue Liberty. All we need is a field of stars.
Like the American bison that dominated the prairie, the continuous ocean of tall grasses, which long spread from a corner of Ohio into Montana and Colorado, has been decimated. Homesteaders – seized by a fever to possess farmland of their own – sowed apprehension in their furrows. Inhabitants and land itself now lay open to chronic infection. After each harvest, the Breadbasket of the World, the Interior States of the American Soul, is left vacant, a stubble desert awaiting rebirth. Descendants of those who made this band agriculturally productive bear both its blessing, in economic output, and curse, as if no one can entirely escape the desperation that prompted settlement in the first place. In the recesses of the psyche, inheritors of these spaces must likewise sense themselves to be buffalo-people, and then fear they, too, may be heir to this fate. Pushed to the fringes, the intrinsic beauty and spiritual potential of the heartland are easily overlooked, both by the remnant population and the world’s policy-makers. Today’s farmers are mechanics, first and foremost. Cry, then, for harmony and healing – a proper reentry into Canaan, a taste of balm in manna. Look, ultimately, to the surviving bison and tall grasses with their underlying lavender shadings. Respect the faint drumming, growing louder.
The poems of my newest collection, Noble Blue Liberty, include some of my earliest published literary work, along with some of my most recent. They range across the continent of my mind and heart to find home.
They revive the wonder of entering the wide cloudless skies of the Great Plains or youthful opportunity.
What opens with a dance tune here deflects into the reaction to a blow or injury, to a fly fisherman’s reel, the canisters of a movie, or even a soaring eagle. These poems span experiences of touch and coupling, however chaste at times, and of flight and emerging lightness. To be light on one’s feet, then, and lighthearted in the end, if not a little dizzy.
They could even be what poet John Haines has called “horses in the night.”
I often delight in a phrase or term that takes on a life of its own, apart from a particular content or meaning. The poet Jack Spicer, drawing on his training as a linguist, was a master at this.
Overhearing one conversation recently, my mind’s eye took the Black Joker who met the Red Herrings on a Non-Tour in a much different direction. My choir buddies, Mike and Kate, knew who they were talking about, and where. It was all about Morris dancing. For me, though, it was pure magic on its own.
Words can, after all, exist in their own sound and space. How short can a poem be, anyway? I have a few that weigh in at one word apiece, while two or three words can make for a nice verbal dance.
The title of my newest poetry collection, Noble Blue Liberty, is one of those. Years ago, I warned the mother of three children I’d run with her lofty impression, and I have. Actually, the title could stand as a poem all its own.
I have similar feelings about some of my other recent releases.
Belying its penchant for right-wing political rhetoric, the American Far West subsists largely on federal government services and facilities. Many of these necessitate large tracts – spaces reserved for logging, prospecting, and mining; hunting and trapping; open livestock grazing; the collection, storage, and distribution of water for agricultural irrigation and for varied metropolitan usage; hydroelectric production; military field operations; Native American enclaves; recreation and tourism. A largely unpopulated Interstate highway system links far distances, again with federal subsidy.
The innate tension between collective action and freewheeling – even reckless – impulsiveness animates this collection. Just as spectacular panoramas more than intricate particulars dominate a Far West vision in my poems, contemporary actions are cast against a vaster background of ancient understanding. An uneasy interplay permits the game herds to thrive within modern society while also celebrating timeless hunting rituals and practices. Traditional Native American and science-based thought systems stand in sharp contrast as they probe conflicts of sexuality, family, and age. Patronizing bureaucratic language addresses urban side-effects arising as visitors swarm over public lands. Like trendy restaurants, national parks post “Reservations Required” notices. Even so, as other pieces attest, a resourceful person can still hazard boundless mountains, rivers and lakes, free range, and clouds looming in solitude and release. Just watch out for the prospector’s stake. He’s likely to shoot before asking questions.
The attraction to powerful animals is universal, a response to the mystery of who we are, as humans, as well. To perceive and honor their presence – in the wild, especially – places us within an ecological harmony and health.
But what characteristics essentially define animal life, as distinct from plants? The reliance on oxygen, rather than carbon dioxide, for one, and self-locomotion, for another. At our core existence, each of us may proclaim: “I breathe; therefore, I am.” Thought and emotion come only later. To inhale, moreover, sparks an associative leap – from air to spirit, with its dimensions of inspiration, literally, “breathing in.” Or God, breathing into the muddy nostrils of the first human in Eden.
In general, the animals in these poems move through places where I’ve lived or visited repeatedly – sometimes surfacing through Native stories, sometimes as chance encounters, sometimes by evidence they’ve left behind. (Once, while handling what I thought was a large, striated rock on a friend’s fireplace mantel, I was told it was a mastodon tooth he’d found on a mountain many years earlier.) Who will regard these creatures intently and not marvel at their distinct intelligence and grace? (Let me confess some others, not included here, defy any admiration I can muster; who has heard wondrous tales of garden slugs, for instance?)
Bears and whales – giants of the forest and ocean – appear early in this sequence, along with the sense of awe they instill. In her book, Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore, Nancy Lord argues, based on her own neighbors, “The bear is like us yet is not us. Perhaps the bear is our connection back to something lost and still treasured, another way of knowing. The bear is nature and culture, together.” The whale, on the other hand, reminds us of deep mysteries we may never penetrate and places we cannot venture unassisted.
We cross over from a commonplace understanding of animal – “pertaining to the physical rather than the spiritual nature of man; carnal; sensual; animal appetites” – and move instead into meetings in which the other creatures sometimes enlighten humans. Here, then, nature fits both the heart and fundamental qualities of each sentient mobile organism. Observe their movement closely, and periods of play and even unrestrained exuberance, as well as caring, become evident. The word nature itself arises in the concept of “giving birth” or “being born,” and easily extends to the working of natural law as well.
We will recognize that animal nature is always complex, and always holds more to discover – around and within us.
Universally, people look to the larger animals – in some cases, not just as a food source but with recognition of greatness as well. Even the names of professional sports franchises reflect this reality. I believe the myths and tales of ancient peoples arise in this other way of knowing and soon lead us into an awareness of the abundant activity found in any healthy environment. In these poems are flashes from Amerindian, Biblical, and Buddhist voices – and hints that reach beyond my own observations in the American Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Eastern Seaboard, to touch Africa and Asia as well. Soon, even the smallest creatures we can see have a story, as do imaginary monsters, with their fabrication from living animals.
Sometimes we are affirmed and comforted by other creatures; at other times, vexed, as happens with household invaders. Some remind us of liberty and potential. Others produce essential food, hides, fabric, and more. Because each species requires specific and unique qualities for its environment, there’s no escaping an awareness of place, either. Particularities of water, air currents, soil and rock come into play, as do plants and fellow species.
In this alternative way of knowing, the dialogue turns from being simply about animals to our own interaction in their universe. Obviously, we have much to discover there, about ourselves as well as about them.
The brute – even the bestial human – may ultimately learn table manners that allow sharing in the feast of life.
Join in the circle of Bright Sweet Crude, my newest collection of poems.