Poetry Is Everywhere: Homesteading in Dakota

The honor of being named South Dakota’s first living Poet of Merit, by the South Dakota State Poetry Society, astonishes me because this state is full of poets, as well as of people who have not yet begun to write. Part of this job, I believe, is to encourage people to write their ideas, thoughts, observations, no matter what form they choose.

Poetry is everywhere in the world; make it your pleasure to read it and record it.

Homesteading in Dakota log cabin

Homesteading in Dakota

A few years ago, I received an email from a lecturer in the Humanities in Arizona who was teaching an American West literature and film class. The first poem of mine she encountered was “Homesteading in Dakota,” which her class was reading among other authors detailing women’s experiences in the West. She had read that my poetry in Dakota Bones was inspired by local history, and wanted to know if the story in the poem was true.

Here’s part of my response:

Homesteading in Dakota stories told by John Hasselstrom 1968“That’s one of many stories inspired by local history, with the names changed to protect the — guilty. And yes, “Homesteading in Dakota” is taken straight from one of the stories my father told me, with tight lips and in terse sentences, once when we were moving cattle near where the homestead stood. I believe he immediately regretted telling me, but once a writer has a story in her head, it may lodge and grow there. 

I even used some of his phrases in the poem, though they’re not in quotes: “walked for a month like he had cactus in his feet,” “the kids grew up wild as coyotes,” and “not his fault the dark spoiled his aim the first time.”
 
I was perhaps thirteen years old when I heard the story, and thus learned a lesson about the concept of justice in our community, and also something about how women were regarded. And, because I’d visited a homestead site very near where this story happened, and lived only about three miles away, I could even picture how the woman would have worked to grow a garden, how isolated she must have felt.

Homesteading in Dakota view from old home site

And those little hand-dug wells are everywhere around here: we have to watch carefully and fill them when we find them. We filled one last fall in my parents’ ranch yard, and there’s another slowly caving not a mile away: rock walls built by hand probably a hundred years ago.

The professor responded, “I so enjoy the details you shared, and can certainly see how your poetry truly brings these people, events and experiences to life.  My students discussed your work today, and loved the finality of the moment when you write

He shot once out the window, missed;
shot her and didn’t.

First there were quizzical looks, and then the reality was clear, and poignant.”

Homesteading in Dakota three Wind anthologies for contemporary stories

I also noted that the professor might find more experiences from contemporary Western women in the three anthologies I helped Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier edit: Leaning into the Wind, Woven on the Wind, and Crazy Women Creek.

The West has always been a place of rough, sometimes harsh, justice, and I didn’t want the students to think those judgments were all in the past.


 
Homesteading in Dakota

It was a typical prairie homestead:
a hundred sixty dusty acres
with not one tree.
Mr. Fisher put up a soddy for his wife, five kids,
and dug a well by hand the first month.
The kids and the woman worked the winch
after the well got below ten feet.
                                                                He cut logs
in the hills ten miles away for a solid barn,
log-roofed. Once they were settled he went
to the mines in Deadwood, seventy miles away,
for winter cash.
                                She stayed in the soddy,
milked the cow, dug out a little garden,
struggling with the sod laced together by buffalo grass
roots. Now and then she’d stop for breath, shade
her eyes, look at the horizon line
drawn smooth against the sun.

Mr. Fisher—she called him that—
came home when he could,
once or twice a month all summer. Neighbors
helped her catch the cow, fight fire, sit up
when the youngest child died.
                                                                Once
he got a late start, rode in at midnight.
Fumbling at the low door, he heard struggle inside.
The kids were all awake, pale blank faces
hanging in the dark.
                                                When he pushed aside
the curtain to the double bunk
he saw the window open,
a white-legged form running in the moonlight,
his wife’s screaming face.
He shot once out the window, missed;
shot her and didn’t.

The neighbors said Black Douglas, on the next claim,
walked for a month like he had cactus in his feet.
The kids grew up wild as coyotes.
                                                            He never went to trial.
He’d done the best he could;
not his fault the dark
spoiled his aim the first time.

Linda M. Hasselstrom © 2017

 

Many early homesteaders did as this man did: established their first home in a sod house on the prairie east of the Black Hills. When they had the time, the equipment and the energy, they would go to the nearest spot in the hills where they could cut logs, and haul them home for sturdy farm buildings. Sometimes they built the house first, but often the soddy was considered good enough for the family until the farm or ranch buildings were complete, because the welfare of the stock was paramount.

And a great many of the homesteaders in our neighborhood also went to Deadwood to mine gold for a cash income. My uncle often spoke of his own father’s mining days, and particularly of the horse he rode, and how quickly the horse could make the seventy-mile trip. “That was a horse!” he’d say.

Naturally, anyone in the neighborhood soon visited any new home to get acquainted, and in most cases, those who had been there first were generous and helpful with newcomers.

So it is logical that:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Neighbors
helped her catch the cow, fight fire, sit up
when the youngest child died.

I could never have verified the next part of the story, of course, but it, too, has a certain sad logic. And in the code of the west, the neighbors might talk about a man who walked as if his feet were sore, but since none of them had seen the incident, they could hardly be expected to testify. And legal authority was either nonexistent or distant. I can almost see the gossips shaking their heads over the rough justice.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Homesteading in Dakota poetry books

“Homesteading in Dakota” publishing history:

A Journal of Contemporary Literature, Vol. 5 #1; 1964.

Black Hills Monthly, Nov. 1981.

Caught By One Wing, published by Julie D. Holcomb, San Francisco, CA; 1984.

Caught by One Wing, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1990.

Dakota Bones: Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993.

The Western Women’s Reader, ed. Lillian Schlissel & Catherine Lavender (NY: HarperCollins, 2000; HarperPerennial edition), p. 173-4.

Literature of the American West, Ed. Greg Lyons. Longman, 2003; pp. 348-9.

Reflections of the West: Cowboy Painters and Poets, Published by CJ Hadley, 2015.

Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017.

 

 

Poetry Is Everywhere: Grandmother

The honor of being named South Dakota’s first living Poet of Merit, by the South Dakota State Poetry Society, astonishes me, because this state is full of poets, as well as of people who have not yet begun to write. Part of this job, I believe, is to encourage people to write their ideas, thoughts, observations, no matter what form they choose.

SD State Poetry Society website photo

I regard everything as possible material for writing: when I’m washing dishes, I may be thinking of the way silver shines through the suds, or how much I love the color of the plates. My pockets and purse always contain tiny notebooks so I can capture thoughts that might escape. No matter what I have done all morning, by noon I have a handful of ideas that might turn into finished poetry or prose.

So my advice to all who would be poets is always to have a means of recording your thoughts. I’m told that personal phones can accomplish this task these days, but that’s just a rumor to me since I have an ancient flip phone. But however you choose to do it, hang onto thoughts that might become poems, prose, or letters to your aged aunt by writing them down as soon as they arrive.

Poetry is everywhere in the world; make it your pleasure to read and record it.

Grandmother journal notes become ideas for poemsOne of the easiest ways to begin a poem is by describing an action or an event. This is another reason to keep a journal: many of my poems begin as notes in my journal, simply so I don’t forget a particular incident. Sometimes I immediately believe the notes might become a poem, and begin writing a draft right then, often on the computer. Just as often, however, I am simply recording the information, and only later do I begin to consider it as poetic material.

Remember, no poem is written down once and finished. No matter how wonderful you may think a poem is when you first commit the lines and images to paper, it is not finished.

William Wordsworth said, in Lyrical Ballads,

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

The tranquility is essential, and in order to have time for the recollection to occur, time must pass.

Here is an example, using my poem “Grandmother.”

Grandmother

I always see her hands first, turning
the handle of the Foley food mill.
The veins are knotted over old bones;
spicy tomato steam rises around
her white hair. A worn gold ring turns on
her finger but never will slide off
over the knuckle. Solid as a
young woman, she grew thin, forgot our
names. Hands that fed four daughters lay still.
She left us little: brown unlabeled pictures,
a dozen crocheted afghans, piles of patched jeans.
In the cellar, crowded shelves bear jars of beans,
peas, corn, meat.
Labels like white silent mouths
open and close in the dark.

© 1993, 2017  Linda M. Hasselstrom

~ ~ ~

The facts of the poem are in the first eight lines:

I always see her hands first, turning
the handle of the Foley food mill.
The veins are knotted over old bones;
spicy tomato steam rises around
her white hair. A worn gold ring turns on
her finger but never will slide off
over the knuckle. Solid as a
young woman, she grew thin,

Grandmother Foley Food Mill with tomatoes

Each time I read them, I am rewarded by being able to see my grandmother as if I’d seen her yesterday. She stands in the tiny kitchen area of her one-room house on the ranch, turning the handle of the Foley food mill which is fastened over a bowl which captures the tomato pulp and juice after the mill removes the seeds. The kitchen is hot; a pot of tomatoes steams on the wood stove. Occasionally she uses a lace-edged handkerchief to wipe sweat from her forehead or replaces one of her hair combs, holding the hair farther from her face. She smiles at me as she wipes steam from her glasses.

Grandmother sewing box and pin-holder penguinAfter this point, though, the poem took over the writing, and it was no longer strictly fact. I no longer remember how long this process took, but no doubt several revisions as I considered the poem, both consciously and unconsciously.

Grandmother grew somewhat forgetful, but she never forgot our names. Her children were not four daughters, but three sons and one daughter– but “four daughters” kept the number correct and fit the rhythm of the poem more closely.

“She left us little.” I have no idea if my grandmother had much savings or not; she lived with my mother briefly before she died. I have a tin box she kept sewing materials in, and an odd cloth-covered piece of cardboard in the shape of a penguin into which she put straight pins.

. . . . forgot our
names. Hands that fed four daughters lay still.
She left us little: brown unlabeled pictures,
a dozen crocheted afghans,

While I worked on the poem, other memories intruded, so the next few lines aren’t really about my grandmother:

. . . . piles of patched jeans.
In the cellar, crowded shelves bear jars of beans,
peas, corn, meat.

Grandmother home-canned produce with white mouth labelsInstead, memories of several of my aunts intruded: they were always patching jeans. And an aunt who will remain nameless here had at least three freezers in her basement full of preserved garden produce. The same aunt once took me to the cellar where rough wood shelves held hundreds of canning jars, some of which were so ancient that the contents couldn’t really be identified. After she died, we hauled them all to the dump.

And somewhere, in the darkness of the night perhaps, I found the last lines, which symbolize, for me, all the untold stories of those women who canned those thousands of jars of food before even country folk could routinely buy “fast food” and food preserved by others.

Labels like white silent mouths
open and close in the dark.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

My poem “Grandmother” may be found on page 10 of  Dakota: Bones Grass, Sky, (2017: Spoon River Poetry Press); this poem is also found in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (1993: Spoon River Poetry Press).

The photos of the hands writing in a journal and the sewing box with the pin-penguin are mine. Other photos are borrowed from the internet.

 

Library Secrets

Old library book stacks

The July/August issue of Poets & Writers, one of the best resources for writers I know, features an intriguing article, “Secrets Hidden in the Stacks” that is going to send me prowling through my local library.

The story concerns a University of Virginia professor who sent his class to the library to look at 19th century copies of work by a sentimental poet of the time, Felicia Hemans. What the students found was not just the books, but a wealth of information added to them by readers. Diary entries, quotes, pressed flowers and the readers’ attempts at poetry were scribbled in the margins or tucked inside the books.

Old library book poem
Written in a school geography book copyrighted 1898, 1907: “If this book goes astray, tie it up and feed it hay.” Hermosa Arts & History Association collection.


The professor, Andrew Stauffer, was so fascinated by the additional history furnished by these oddments that in 2014 he founded the Book Traces project (booktraces.org) to investigate what else might be hiding in the library. He invites anyone to submit photographs of the “traces” they find in library books published before 1923– meaning books that are in the public domain– in circulating collections.

With a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, he hired assistants to search thousands of books on the open shelves of UVA’s libraries and catalogue the information: “a collection within the collection.”

The project expanded, and today extends to schools from Arizona State University and Bryn Mawr College, and has documented more than 3000 such traces. One of his favorite finds was doll clothes pressed into an 1833 copy of a book by Sir Walter Scott. The photo furnishes the cover of the resulting book: Book Traces: Nineteenth Century Readers and the Future of the Library.

“We’re fighting against the idea that once you’ve digitized a single copy, then you don’t need others, says the professor.

Wally McRae 2016 from internetOn the day that I read this article, I received a call from poet Wally McRae, the reigning king of Cowboy Poetry. I’d sent him a copy of my collection Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 2017. I didn’t ask or expect a review from Wally. Still, I thought he might enjoy or be inspired by some of the poems, especially since Wally believes all poetry should rhyme, and most of mine do not.

And I thought that someday, when this virus is not the primary fact of daily life, we might have a conversation about poetry.

Wally called a couple of days ago, and I was delighted to learn that he has not only been reading Dakota, he’s been having a conversation with me in its pages: writing comments and questions as he reads!

“I am not a good judge of free verse,” he said. His favorite poem in the book is “Mulch”– a surprise to me. He liked the line “You will not find naked soil in the wilderness,” and he enjoyed knowing that when I mulched with magazines, “Robert Redford stared up/ between the rhubarb and the lettuce.”

His favorite poem in the bunch, though, was “Learning About Gates,” which led to him telling me about an alcoholic handyman who once worked for his father, and built gates that are still legendary throughout the county.

DBGS with grass and sky SMALLI could hear him turning pages as he spoke, and soon he mentioned more poems he liked: “Handbook to Ranching,” another poem dedicated to my father, beginning with one of his strongest rules: “Don’t spend any money.”

Another poem about fences, “Apologies to Frost’s Neighbor” likewise pleased him, and “Milliron Ranch” reminded him of a homesteading story from his own neighborhood.

Wally laughed at himself for admitting to me that he was scribbling in the book, but he wanted to remember things to say to me. He understood why “there are a lot of driving poems in the book,” since Westerners have to drive long distances to practically everywhere, and chuckled at “Speed Warning,” dedicated with gratitude to the Highway Patrolman who stopped me on one drive to the ranch from Cheyenne, and may have saved my life– or at least the life of an unwary antelope.

So that book of poetry has already fulfilled my highest hopes for it: As he read, Wally enjoyed, debated, questioned, and was stimulated by the words of another writer, recognizing the real voices of people he might have known in the words of the poet.

And on some future day, another reader may discover Wally’s notes and comments in the book and continue the conversation, and the inspiration, without ever having known either of us.

Look for secrets in book– in several ways.

(And please– write only in the books you OWN– some day they may make their way to a library; but please don’t write in library books.)

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Book Remarks: Healing the Divide

Book Healing the Divide anthology of poemsMy comp copy of Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection arrived yesterday, and I’ve gotten behind on the news (thank goodness!) because I keep picking it up to read another fine poem.

As Ted Kooser says in his Preface, “Unabashed enthusiasm is the glue that holds good anthologies together,” and this book overflows with enthusiasm, kindness, tenderness and beauty.

Here are the words of well-known poets like W. S. Merwin, William Stafford,  Naomi Shihab Nye and Jane Kenyon, but the book is also well-stocked with words from poets I’ve never heard of, and might never have encountered without this collection.

Ellery Akers in “The Word That is a Prayer,” reminds us of the power of “Please.” Connie Wanek shows us a Grandpa asking the sky “What’s next?” with a laugh. Carrie Shipers shows us a mother talking back to the monster under the bed. Molly Fisk celebrates “Winter Sun.”

But you need to get the book yourself, and find your own treasures within it. The world around us seems to be filled with hatred, greed, and antagonisms, and we must fight this idea in every way at our disposal, for our own health and survival.  One way to do it is to read this book, again and again and again. And please– buy it from your local bookstore, and help them stay in business during these difficult economic times.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection
Edited by James Crews
Green Writers Press, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-7327434-5-8
$19.95

My poem “Planting Peas” is included in this anthology. You can read more about this poem than you would think possible, on my website.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Coronavirus Spring clouds and blue sky (2)
Cattle graze, moving slowly over grass
that’s bronze and gold, with green just beginning
to show below like the skin of the earth.
. . .
Higher, the sky is heartbreakingly blue
forever.  . . .


During the first weeks of the nation’s slow awakening to the fact that Coronavirus is going to dominate our lives for an unpredictable length of time, I was not writing. Like most people, I was too stunned at the abrupt changes being demanded by this pernicious disease. I spent too much time on the Internet, looking for explanations and hope.

Meanwhile, the leaders of not only my nation but my own state declared that they were “not responsible” and declared they could do little to protect their citizens.

But anger is no more useful in a situation like this than reading the Internet babble. My response to every other crisis in my life– divorce, the death of my husband, and other deaths– has been to write. Writing helps me discover what I feel as well as what I believe. Moreover, concentrating on making the writing coherent— so that another reader could understand it— helps me quiet my own fear and panic as I slide into the habits of a lifetime of improving my skill at making my ideas clear in a creative way.

Computer hands - small copy for blog

Besides, this is National Poetry Month; as someone who has declared herself a poet, it’s my job to write poetry.

I set up a pattern, because choosing a pattern before I begin helps me structure my thoughts. And I hope it will keep me from blurting undisciplined lines all over the page as so many writers do when they write what they fondly believe is “free verse.” Any pattern can be instantly changed when you discover a better pattern.

I’d write four lines of ten syllables each, I decided. I like the rhythm: da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum, and rhythm helps give structure to lines that are not intended to rhyme.

Coronavirus Spring writing in notebookTo improve the experience, I took my notebook outside to write each day’s verse. So when I wrote on Sunday about the sun feeling hot on my face, I was sitting in a green plastic chair against the wall of the garage, facing west as the sun dropped toward the Black Hills. Three red-winged blackbirds were singing from three cedar trees in the shelterbelt on my left, south of the house.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Sunday:
Clouds coalesce under blue sky.        Sun lies
hot on my face. Three red-winged blackbirds sing
from three cedar trees, a liquid ripple:
a dozen tiny waterfalls chiming.

~~~

Every day for a week, I sat in the same chair late in the afternoon and wrote four lines with ten syllables per line. Knowing that, no matter how hectic my day was, I would take my pen and tablet and sit outside at 5:30 or 6 every afternoon helped me muddle through every day.

When I first sat down, I relished the fact that I had turned off my cell phone, and that my computer was inside the house, so no one demanding my attention could distract me. I faced the sinking sun and breathed deeply, enjoying the fresh air. First I’d notice that the highway traffic seemed diminished from its usual roar, since it didn’t feature carloads of people rushing from work home to the subdivision.

I might spend a few minutes digging dandelions out of my raised beds, and noticing that the sorrel I planted there last year was growing vigorously— except where a rabbit had trimmed it severely.

Sitting down, I’d begin to hear: the ducks splashing as they dived after insects or frogs on the dam, the robin on the gate flipping its wings in annoyance because I was sitting between it and its nest.

Each day I wrote a stanza. And some days, of course, I thought of ideas for the next day’s verse and jotted them down. On Friday, I recalled that morning’s walk on the hillside, and the discovery that a coyote had been hunting there the night before. When we let our dogs out in the dark, one or both of us goes with them, and they stay close to the house— but the knowledge that the wily hunter had dined twenty feet from the house made the hair rise on the back of my neck.

At some point in my week, I sent a few stanzas to several friends, who sent them to other friends. And this comment trickled back to me from a painter:

Oh, that takes my breath away. I do see Linda’s Facebook posts and love her photographs, of birds, grasses, flowers, a golden eagle breakfasting on a dead calf.  And then she goes and writes like this. And it’s everything. It has composition, color, touch, sound, soft rabbit fur and solid rock, up and down. “Clouds … bulging with rain.” Yes, they do bulge! And I can understand now that she was seeing words form as she framed those photos, seeing whatever strikes her being, like I see shapes in stark composition when I am really seeing. I am astounded that both birds I saw today on my walk in the woods appear to me again through her words. I can still hear the echo that remains after the red-winged blackbirds sing from cattails. So I find this poem to be a revelation into what one poet sees.  But more importantly, it moves me deeply.

And that is how writers can inspire one another, and work together, even when we are isolated.

You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy and benefit from this experience. Try it: write a few words about what you are thinking and feeling during this contradictory time, when spring is bursting with life, and the news is tolling with death.

Send your words out in some way— to friends on Facebook, on postcards, to strangers. And wait for what happens.

Here’s the complete poem that happened to me as I found inspiration in each day.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus
4/13/2020

Sunday:
Clouds coalesce under blue sky.        Sun lies
hot on my face. Three red-winged blackbirds sing
from three cedar trees, a liquid ripple:
a dozen tiny waterfalls chiming.

Monday:
Sorrel sprouts inch upward in sunshine; trucks
roar past on the highway, transporting all
we need to survive. Killdeer call, contend
over nesting space beside the stock dam.

Tuesday:
Cattle graze, moving slowly over grass
that’s bronze and gold, with green just beginning
to show below like the skin of the earth.
Trees grow, birds pull worms from the ground, wind blows.

Wednesday:
Overhead gray clouds rise into white fluff.
Higher, the sky is heartbreakingly blue
forever. Northeast, clouds are purple, black
and folding, piling up, bulging with rain.

Thursday:
The sweet high crane call draws our eyes upward,
up to long white fingers of cloud, china
blue sky: there, circling, whirling, spinning north.
Yesterday they left the Platte heading home

Friday:
Beside the hillside cairn we built of stone—
granite, schist, rose quartz and white, gneiss, mica
feldspar— lie puffs of rabbit fur gray white
where coyote caught her prey and dined last night.

Saturday:
The cow that lost her calf last night lies still
beside him. She hasn’t been to water.
The coyotes will be back, but she can wait.
The red-winged blackbird flips his tail and trills.

Sunday:
The earth is living normally for spring.
Going about the business of full life.
Only humans are confused, floundering.
Nature may never miss us, if we go.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

The Relatives Who Live in My Head

Thanksgiving dinner

The Relatives Who Live in My Head

show up just as I slide into memories

of grandmother’s smile as she basted the turkey.

They crowd into the kitchen

without invitation. They say

it’s just not Thanksgiving without

Milly’s broccoli and cheese casserole.

The truth is, none of them ate any of it.

Milly, my mother, elaborately ate one spoonful

that day, and we ate the rest for a week.

 

The relatives who live in my head say

it’s just not Thanksgiving without

Hazel’s oyster dressing. We all took that,

you bet, because Hazel would say,

“You missed the oyster dressing,”

and slap it on our plates herself.

 

The relatives who live in my head

are just like real relatives.

I don’t see them for months.

They don’t call, or write, or visit.

But come Thanksgiving, Christmas,

or Easter, here they are again.

 

The relatives who live in my head murmur,

“Only one kind of cranberry sauce?”

“Where are the green beans with slivered almonds?”

And what was that stuff on them–

cream of chicken soup?

“Sorry,” I say,

but I’m not. They’re muttering,

“No home-baked rolls? No sweet potatoes

with marshmallows and brown sugar?”

 

The relatives who live

in my head mumble, “That pie crust

doesn’t look home-made.” I hum as I

make a pasta salad. “What’s that stuff?”

say the relatives who live in my head.

“Where’s the Jell-O and marshmallows?”

 

“I love you all,” I tell them,

“But buzz off,” pouring

a wee dram of Scotch to sip

as I baste the turkey. My life mate

mashes the potatoes to creamy paste

swimming in butter. We seat ourselves,

brimming with thankfulness.

 

Poem © 2011, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Find this poem in my book Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, co-written with Twyla M. Hansen– 50 poems by each of us. (2011, The Backwaters Press, Omaha, NE)

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

 

Planting Peas and Writing Poems

planting-peas-in-dakota-bones-grass-sky.jpg

This poem happened precisely as it says: in early spring, I decided to plant some peas in the rich earth of my biggest garden.

The month may have been as early as March; I was probably thirty-five years old. Bundled against a cold wind and shivering, I hoed a furrow down to black earth beneath the melting snow. Then I began dropping peas into the broken ground, enjoying the way the green shriveled shapes slithered into crevices. Each time I finished a row, I straightened up and used my hoe to draw the soil gently back over the peas and tamp it down lightly.

As I planted, I began the poem in my mind, then stopped and began to write it down on the scrap paper I always carry. I didn’t spend much time revising or reflecting on the poem, which is rare for me; it felt right from the beginning.

This plot of land has been subject to spring floods that bring in earth as well as manure from the pastures upstream. In addition, I’ve buried compost there for years, to aid the fertility. Harvests have often been terrific.

 

Planting Peas

It’s not spring yet, but I can’t

wait anymore. I get the hoe,

pull back the snow from the old

furrows, expose the rich dark earth.

I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,

one by one.

 

As I shuffled along the row, bent over, I looked at my firm young hand and recalled my grandmother’s bony one, dropping the peas every two or three inches as she showed me how to do it. The soil of her ranch deep in a Black Hills canyon is gray gumbo. When it is shiny with rain, it is slippery underfoot, clinging to our rubber boots. Later, we’d have to chop and hose it off our boots, and we’d laugh, finding it on our coats, even in our hair.

 

I see my grandmother’s hand,

doing just this, dropping peas

into gray gumbo that clings like clay.

This moist earth is rich and dark

as chocolate cake.

 

As I saw her hand planting the peas, I could see my nine-year-old self squatting beside her in my tiny jeans, my blonde hair held back by a barrette she had placed in it that morning. While my mother supported me by working in town, coming to visit on weekends, I lived seventy miles away with grandmother in her one-room house, that had once been a bunkhouse. She kept me busy all week, walking with me all over that place, showing me how to live in the country— though neither of us may have realized that. I was too small to climb the ladder to the barn loft, so she’d climb it in her lace-up black shoes, and hand a squealing kitten down to me. Remembering now, I can see her flowered dress, her strong legs in their thick cotton stockings.

 

Her hands cradle

baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft

and hands them down to me, safe beside

the ladder leading up to darkness.

 

That memory, of course, led to others: the way she met me at the schoolhouse door in Rapid City, having left her beloved ranch to help my mother by taking care of me after school. How she piled her slowly-graying hair on top of her head in a bun that grew smaller every year as her hair thinned. Her “blue-eyed smile.” I’ve made gallons of biscuits and gravy, trying carefully to recall everything she did, but mine has never been as tasty.

 

I miss

her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,

but mostly her hands.

 

The final image, then, is one of pure joy that the experience of planting peas has recalled to me some memories of my grandmother that I had let slip away.

 

I push a pea into the earth,

feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,

she says, in long straight rows,

dancing in light green dresses.

 

I enjoyed choosing the word “light” to describe the green dress because it can mean either gauzy and see-through, or pale green. And “dresses”? All those pea plants, slender stalks filled with leaves, swaying in the wind made me think of multiple tiny grandmothers waltzing down the rows.

Of course, my grandmother never cavorted around the garden, and I never saw her dance, but I remember she mentioned how she loved dancing when she was young. The image made me laugh, and she would have enjoyed it; I could see again how her cheeks crinkled and her eyes sparkled.

Planting Peas - grandmother

Here’s a fine reason, if you need justification, for writing poems: to recapture memories that might have slid to the background of your busy mind. As you struggle to write what you remember to preserve your mental image, other memories will crowd in from your subconscious, memories you might have lost without the effort to write the poem. Like my images of grandmother, these memories will “come in May”: return to your mind.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Additional information:

The poem has a long history of publication. I probably wrote it in one of the workshops that I was giving for high school students for the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative in 1983 or 1984. That teaching coop published it a couple of times before it appeared in my first book of poems, Roadkill, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 1987. I didn’t publish it again until it appeared in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poetry of Linda Hasselstrom, also published by Spoon River, in 1994.

Doubtless I read from the book at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where my friend Teresa Jordan heard it, and picked it up for Graining the Mare: The Poetry of Ranch Women, published by Gibbs Smith the same year.

Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, writes a weekly poetry column, American Life in Poetry, sent to 3 million readers worldwide via newspapers and individual email subscriptions. In August, 2014 he shared my poem “Planting Peas” in his column #490. Find it here.

You can find the poem used as an illustration of the value and richness of memories in the Beltane chapter of The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, 2015, as well as in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River’s 2017 collection.

In 2018, I granted Educational Testing Service the non-exclusive right to use the poem in developing test questions for their K-12 Programs beginning in 2020. I’m especially thrilled to think of the poem being used in Braille recordings: imagine young fingers feeling my words tactilely!

Cowboy Poetry vs Free Verse

Cowboy Poetry Week text from poster

In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week (April 21-27, 2019), I am reprinting this blog, which was originally published July 30, 2012 on my website’s blog page.

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Recently [July, 2012] I presented a workshop at the combined annual meeting of the Dakota Cowboy Poets Association and the Western Writers Group, held at Slim McNaught’s house in New Underwood, South Dakota.

My workshop was With the Net Down: Do You Dare to Write Without Rhyme? Briefly, I discussed the differences between rhymed, metered poetry and free verse. Poets like myself, who don’t generally use rhyme, often hear Robert Frost’s statement that writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down. Many rhyming poets think that free verse just means the poetry doesn’t rhyme.

In fact, rhyme or the lack of it has nothing to do with defining free verse.

Free verse can be rhymed or unrhymed but its primary characteristic is that it has no set meter.

No set meter. That’s not the same as having no meter at all.

Here’s a fine and familiar free verse poem:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

Free verse. And when one person or a congregation is repeating those words, you can hear the rhythm.

I don’t want to repeat here everything I had to say at my workshop, let alone everything there is to say, about meter. The set acoustic pattern of a line of poetry is its meter or rhythm and may be measured in syllables, accented syllables, or both. Thus meter is often defined by the number of syllables in the line.

Most of us speak in iambic: collections of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable:

I’m GO-ing TO the GROcery STORE to-DAY.

That’s iambic pentameter: five iambic (da-DUM) feet.

Because we speak in iambics, we appreciate poetry that uses them. Blank verse is usually unrhymed iambic pentameter: five pairs of iambs. William Shakespeare and John Milton both favored this form.

Cowboy Poetry - Iambic Pentameter boots with label

But other kinds of feet exist: Pyrrhic is two unaccented syllables: da-da; Spondee two accented syllables: DUM-DUM; Trochee an accented and an unaccented (DUM-da) and so forth. Free verse has meter but not usually meter as regular as the conventional rhymed iambic pentameter pattern of cowboy poetry.

My favorite articles about cowboy poetry, including information about unrhymed poetry, appear at www.CowboyPoetry.com, written by cowboy poet Rod Miller. If you write poetry, rhymed or otherwise, you ought to read these. [link posted below]

As Rod Miller says, any good free verse poem uses the kinds of literary tools and techniques that elevate all good poetry to a level above ordinary writing:

“. . . tonal quality, word choice, allusion, onomatopoeia, metaphor, layered meanings, imagery, and such like. The lack of discipline offered by the absence of meter and the opportunity to cast aside rhyme do not give a poet free rein to be less than poetic, any more than strict adherence to rhyme and meter allow a poet to use otherwise ordinary language in creating verse.”

Most of us don’t live up to the high standards set by the best writers. I’ve never heard a rhyming cowboy poet better than Wally McRae or a free verse cowboy poet better than Paul Zarzyski. And plenty of bad poetry of every type finds its way into print.

We all want the same thing: to tell our stories and have people listen to and enjoy them.

In my workshop, I challenged the assembled cowboy poets and their spouses to write about a subject without trying to rhyme. Several people produced drafts that could turn into good poems of one kind or another.

The question and answer session turned into the most fascinating discussion I’ve had on the subject of poetry in years.

During the workshop, I’d read a couple of Paul Zarzyski poems as illustrations of fine free verse poetry.

Cowboy Poetry microphone -- pexels-photo-164829Cowboy Poet Robert Dennis of Red Owl, South Dakota, asked if all free verse poetry is meant to be read aloud.

“Because,” he said, “listening to what you just read, my brain just can’t keep up. I realize those are interesting words and lines, but there’s so much happening in the poem that I lose the meaning.”

I could see instantly what he meant.

Here’s a bit of Paul Zarzyski’s poem “On my Birthday, The Serpent–” that I read during the workshop. (I’m reproducing it here without his specific permission because it appears on his website and I think he’d approve of my using it in a teaching context and Paul refuses to use email so gaining his permission by mailing a letter to ask him could take weeks.)

disturbed from his moist coiled sleep in the cool
humus beneath the horse trough
triveted an inch off the ground
by mildewed boards–glides
between my feet. It has been
startled by water
hose thrashing the roof
over its head, brass nozzle
striking side-to-side
wildly under the sudden thrust–spigot
handle yanked up full.

Though I’d practiced reading those first lines many times, I still muffed “moist coiled.” The rest of the words are so filled with imagery, tone, alliteration and layered meanings that I had to read the poem several times to try to get the full meaning into my reading. The vivid, complex language had grown more fascinating with each reading.

But could someone hearing the poem for the first time understand it? Only after I’d read it several times did I really appreciate many of the nuances.

Cowboy Poetry reading a poem -- free-use-photo-unsplash-by-Cassidy-Kelley“So can it be,” Robert persisted, “that some free verse poetry should be read on the page and not performed?”

That idea had never occurred to me but I think he’s right. Some poetry that I’d call excellent would be extremely hard to understand if you only heard it once. Only after many readings and thoughtful pondering can the reader grasp the meaning.

Should such poetry be read aloud? Probably not if the poet’s primary aim is to be understood. Audiences who listen to Zarzyski, though they may not understand the entire meaning of a poem, are thoroughly entertained by the explosive, dynamic presentation.

Poetry is far older than writing. No one can be sure precisely where the art began but it probably arose as spells spoken or chanted in early societies to promote harmony and good harvests. Ancient societies such as those in Greece and Rome made poetry part of religious rites. Later it became the way to transmit and recall the stories of a civilization’s struggles and victories. Traveling troubadours in later societies were often singing or reciting news events; rhyme and meter helped everyone remember the stories.

So the cowboy poet who recites stories of his daily life is considerably closer to the true origins of this ancient art than the academician who lards his lines with italicized words and loads on footnotes to explain all the references.

Cowboy Poetry man at mic -- pexels-photo-2114760-by-Kevin-Bidwell

When I mentioned my discussion with Robert to publisher Nancy Curtis [High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyoming], she added another element.

Some poetry that sounds terrific when read or recited aloud is not well written; the images may be cliched or the rhythm rough. Part of the magic lies in the poet’s performance. Poets who regularly entertain audiences may be more interested in making the story entertaining than in making it conform to any “rules” of poetry.

Meanwhile, some poetry that is technically excellent isn’t enjoyable to listen to or is too complex to reveal its meaning when read or recited aloud. A solitary reader might appreciate the meaning but an audience just doesn’t have time during one hearing.

Logically, then, the poetry that has the best chance of resounding in the minds of audience members is that with strong rhythm and rhyme: those familiar elements that allow the audience to become part of the story. This is one reason cowboy poetry has become so popular.

Conversely, free verse poets who plan to recite their work before audiences should consider whether or not their work can be understood when recited. Rather than simply distributing gorgeous language and long lines across the page, we free verse poets need to spend more time studying those many methods of using meter in order to create poetry rhythmic enough to satisfy the audience’s love of regularity and make memorable lines.

Robert said in a later conversation, “I do enjoy the good stuff,” just as he enjoys the best rhymed poetry. And sometimes as he works on a poem, he added, he gets “caught up in the rush to share it before it’s at its best. Kind of like showing off your new baby instead of your college graduate!”

And perhaps we need to relax and allow poetry created to be performed to be judged by a different standard than poetry created for deeper study. I am not ready to trade flamboyant cowboy performers for fellows in three-piece suits reading footnoted masterpieces of obfuscation.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2012 and 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Cowboy Poetry Week poster by Shawn Cameron for www.CowboyPoetry.com

If you are at all interested in Cowboy Poetry, the website to visit is www.CowboyPoetry.com where you will find poems, blogs, history, stories, cds to purchase, and current events all relating to western poetry, new and old, rhymed and not– including webpages about the poetry of Slim McNaught, Paul Zarzyski, Robert Dennis, Rod Miller, Wally McRae, and Linda M. Hasselstrom (and many more).

This poster from CowboyPoetry.com celebrating Cowboy Poetry Week, features art by Shawn Cameron. Find more of her western art at her website www.ShawnCameron.com

The essays by Rod Miller about Cowboy Poetry, mentioned in my blog, may be found on the CowboyPoetry.com website by clicking here.

 

Learning to Breathe

Linda tea party with doll in Texas

 

Often I take a hot bath to soak the kinks out of sore and damaged body parts and ease my mind. Finally, after a long and complicated day, I have the kind of solitude and quiet that encourages and enables writing. If I’m too tired to think, I lean back and inhale. Recently, I realized that when I’m busy, I sometimes do not breathe.

Oh I breathe enough to sustain life: little sips of air between rushing here and there. But I do not inhale so that the air flows through my nostrils and throat and lungs and feels as though it is flowing into every vein in my body, clear to my fingertips and toes. This is the kind of breathing that is necessary for the calm that allows us to think, and to accomplish serious tasks.

Most of us, I think, scrabble all day long, like chickens scratching in the dust of the henyard. A friend calls it “putting out fires.” We can deal quickly with the daily emergencies, but we don’t have time to absorb them, to consider how each action fits into the whole of our lives, and make it part of a concentrated pattern of pleasant living.

This train of thought led my mind into the past, and I could hear again my mother and my biological father screaming at each other as I huddled in fear. I was probably in my crib in a bedroom with the door shut, but I could hear every word, hear glass breaking and doors slamming.  Suddenly, even though I was chin-deep in hot scented water in a cast iron tub in my own bathroom more than a thousand miles from that place and more than seventy years from that time, I was shivering in terror.

Gradually, I calmed myself, inhaling eucalyptus to clear my sinuses, reflecting on the good and privileged life I lead now, to clear my mind.

Early the next morning, I suddenly thought: Didn’t I write a poem about that incident? I couldn’t remember the title, only the final phrase: “This poem is me learning to breathe.”

In my study, I started looking at my books, starting with the earliest ones, Roadkill and Caught By One Wing. I looked through Bitter Creek Junction and Dakota Bones, and Dirt Songs, the collection I published with Nebraska State Poet Twyla Hansen, and then Land Circle, in which I included several poems. Finally, in the expanded collection Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky, I found the poem.

Poetry books by Linda M. Hasselstrom

I’m writing about this for several reasons. First, nothing you write is ever wasted. Somehow the writing sinks into your brain and may emerge as a poem, a story, a solution many years later. Second, no experience goes unrecorded in your mind, no matter how much time passes. And few of us perfect the ability to put these matters completely behind us and never think of them again. But if the pain of the past is accessible to your brain, so can the healing be.

Still, there’s another element that is important in this event. My mother made a number of mistakes in her life for all kinds of reasons, but she loved me and once I was part of her life— though I doubt she really wanted me— she did her best to raise me well. She was absolutely right to resist my biological father’s drinking in whatever way she could; breaking bottles in the sink wasn’t the most violent action she could have taken against him. Yet when I hear raised voices today, I have to fight hard not to enter an almost catatonic state during which I can’t talk or move or escape; I can hardly breathe. Terror freezes me. If you have children, try to remember that every single action of yours has consequences for them that you cannot foresee. Do your best to keep them away from violence that may be coming back to haunt them 70 years later.

And this thought leads me to another quote I’ve loved since I discovered it: Winston Churchill may or may not (authorities differ) have said:

Never give in– never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

So, with that introduction, here’s the poem.

Broken Glass

She found more whiskey.
That’s how it started every time.
When he came home
she screamed and
he yelled. I was three,
crouched under the table
holding my breath
as she broke bottles
in the kitchen sink.
I could see his ankles,
shoes set wide apart facing
her hose and high heels.
Smash. One. Scream. Two.
Sour whiskey fumes choked me.
Glass shards pierced air,
shrieked against the tile floor.
Three. Pop. Four. Bash.
Holding my breath, I counted.
His drinking, her spending.
How he left me alone while he bedded
the woman upstairs and now
she’s having a baby. If I
held my breath, they’d stop.

That night mother carried me
up steps that clanged
onto a chugging train.
I held my breath and counted
lighted cars uncoiling
behind us in the dark.
Mother divorced father,
found a job, married a good man.
When she slapped me,
I held my breath and counted.
Her good man died. She
shriveled away into eternity.

For sixty-five years I’ve
held my breath and counted.
This poem is me learning to breathe.

. . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Linda testing the new cast iron clawfoot tub 2017

 

“Broken Glass” was originally published in the anthology True Words from Real Women  (Story Circle Network, 2013).

The poem may be found in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky — Collected and New Poems by Linda M. Hasselstrom (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017).

Tiny Bouquets

April is National Poetry Month
This blog was originally published September 27, 2011 on my website.

*~*~*~*~*

Tiny Boquet 1This has been a busy week; I read and commented on a 140-page manuscript, planned three retreats, made 6 pots of tomato sauce, worked on a home page message, and read six mystery books as well as the usual three meals a day, watering the garden, writing a few letters and no doubt a few chores I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though the world keeps spinning faster and faster.

When I feel that happening, I often stop and walk out to one of the gardens or on the hillside with the dogs, deliberately looking for the materials for a tiny bouquet. I select a few small blooms, thinking of nothing but their color, texture, size. I put these in one of several small vases that I place directly above the kitchen sink where I will see it often during the day.

Small boquet of peonies 2017In creating the bouquet, I create a little island of calm in the middle of hurry. And every time I look at it, I recall choosing it, and I also take a moment to enjoy its uniqueness. Each one lasts only a few days, but each provides considerable balm. Once the flowers have finished blooming, I often make a little bouquet from dried weeds and leaves, with the same effect.

In the same way, when I’m too busy to write– which seems to happen much more often than it should– I sometimes take time to deliberately create a paragraph or so of writing. Most often I do this when I wake in the morning, many times around 4 a.m. I switch on my reading light and pick up my journal from the bedside table. If I can keep the dogs from leaping up and running downstairs for their first morning outing, I have a little island of calm in which to write. Sometimes the highway Small sunflower boquetnoises are quiet; I can hear nothing but the wind through the grass, perhaps the light tinkle of a wind chime from the deck.

What I write may become part of a longer piece or it may be just a little morning reflection that remains in my journal. Either way, it helps me begin the day in peace.

Here’s a reflection I first wrote on an April morning in 2005, when I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and four a.m. was the quietest time on our busy street. Though I’ve worked on it a couple of times since, it has never satisfied me as an entire poem. But it makes me recall a quiet spot that gave me comfort.

Fog
makes the street
fantastical.
Red tulips lift
bowls of mist.
Gold daffodils offer
sacred liqueur to finches.

Someone says,
“The fog will burn off
by noon.”
No. The sun
sips the fog
like absinthe.

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011

Even tiny pieces– one image, one line– can refresh your writing spirit the way a little bouquet refreshes your eye and your kitchen.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2011 / 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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