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The Kansas Poems of Kenneth Wiggins Porter

with introductions by Thomas Fox Averill and Lorrin Leland

Table of Contents
(Page numbers refer to the paperback edition published
by the Center for Kansas Studies, © 1992)

Preface.....................................................i
Kenneth Wiggins Porter....................................iii
Kenneth Porter and Kansas Poetry............................x

AD ASTRA PER ASPERA


Address to Kansans..........................................1
The Land of the Crippled Snake.......................2
The Years of the Locust...................................5
The Ghosts of the Buffalo.................................9
The Laying of the Ghosts................................15
Harvest: June 1938....................................... 18
This Was the Summer.................................... 21
Jackrabbit...................................................... 23
Coyote............................................................ 24
Two Horses Running............................... ...... 25
Lonely Plowman............................................. 26
Hawk and Junco............................................. 27
Epitome........................................................... 28
Catalpas in Kansas......................................... 29
Drought........................................................... 30
Kansas and Massachusetts............................. 31
Grandfather.................................................... 32
Nosegay for Nancy......................................... 34
Pauline............................................................ 35
Fireflies on the Cottonwood............................37
The Ghosts of the Glaciers..............................38
The Happy Farmer...........................................40
Dark Saying.....................................................41
Thistle, Yarrow, Clover...................................42

Credits


PREFACE

Kenneth Wiggins Porter: The Kansas Poems, grew out of a desire to teach poems by Kenneth Porter that had been out of print for a number of years. They are some of the best ever written by a Kansan, and no study of Kansas poetry could be complete without them. I wrote to Kenneth Porter, and he chose, from his two published volumes, The High Plains and No Rain From These Clouds, and from small magazine publications, those poems he felt most represented his work as it pertained to Kansas. He, then, is the actual editor of this book, having made the final selections
included here in the months before his unexpected death in July of 1981.

Lorrin Leland, editor of The Kansas Experience in Poetry, and author of a biographical article on Porter for The Kansas Art Reader (ed. Jonathan Wesley Bell), wrote the biographical introduction to these poems, evoking Porter's life and work with generous quotations from the poet's letters. Lorrin Leland is responsible for the continuing exposure of Kansans to Kenneth Porter. His The Kansas Experience in Poetry features Porter, and his interest has spurred other Kansans to read and study Porter's work. I am indebted to Lorrin for my first reading of this poetry. In my introduction, I have tried to put Porter's work in perspective as it relates to Kansas Poetry as a whole.

I want to thank Annette Porter for permission to reprint these poems, especially those from No Rain From These Clouds. Other poems have been reprinted from The High Plains, Northwest Review, Kansas Renaissance and Quindaro. I have obtained
permission to reprint wherever possible. Kenneth Porter's brother, R. Russell Porter, gave me good advice for the book. Sally Dyke, English Department secretary at Washburn Univeristy, typed the copy. From 1982 to 1992, the Washburn University Bookstore acted as publisher of Kenneth Wiggins Porter: The Kansas Poems. With
this new edition, the Washburn University Center for Kansas Studies acts as publisher. Without these fine individuals and institutions, another fine Kansas literary resource would be available only in used book stores, special collections and small
magazines, read only by those interested in studying the past. Now, Kenneth Perter's poetry can be discovered fresh by a new public.

Thomas Fox Averill
Professor of English
Writer-in-residence
Washburn University of Topeka

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KENNETH WIGGINS PORTER
by Lorrin Leland

…I was born in 1905 on a small farm just north of Sterling, son of a photographer and part-time farmer and of a former country-school teacher. Both parents were Scotch-Irish, United Presbyterian, and Prohibitionist, and had come to Western Kansas, separately, from Iowa in the mid-1880's—my mother by covered wagon.

Kenneth Porter's description of his background reveals his awareness of the influence of his parents upon him. He singles out as important their religion, their support of Prohibition, and the fact that they were true pioneers. Perhaps most notable of his many achievements is that Kenneth Porter retained and found sustenance in his Kansas heritage, drawing from it the themes that run through his work as a poet and historian. An attachment to the land, an awareness of the workings of historical processes on the individual, and a profound commitment to humanity are the center of that heritage.

It was during his college years that Porter began to form his own political and social views, views evolved from those of his parents:

During my last couple of years as an undergraduate …I did experience a couple of developments which later indirectly influenced my poetry—an interest in the "human condition," which, except in racial matters, had
not previously much concerned me, and a reconstruction of my hitherto extremely orthodox religious views. Sterling College, although extremely conservative in almost every conceivable respect, nevertheless did subscribe to The Nation, The New Republic, and The World Tomorrow, and these publications, plus my parents' Populist-Prohibitionist background, prepared me to become involved in 1924 in William Allen White's anti-KKK campaign for the governorship and Robert M. LaFollette's campaign for the presidency.

Concurrent with his involvement with political and social issues was Porter's discovery of modern poetry. He had read Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Longfellow, Scott, Kipling, Browning, and Whitman, as well as many minor poets. Despite this familiarity with poetry, he did not fully understand its viability as a contemporary form of expression until a neighbor showed him a copy of Louis Untermeyer's anthology, Modern American Poetry (1920):

I …discovered that poetry could be written not only today but about Midwestern scenes. It set me to scribbling like mad but, oddly, instead of …using familiar Midwestern scenes and themes, I imitated the romantic poets of my earlier reading. Characteristically, the earliest written (1923) of my published "poems" were set in 17th century Scotland and on the West Coast of Africa!

Porter would eventually write about the midwest of his youth, but only after further growth as a poet and scholar. After earning a master's degree at the University of Minnesota, and successfully placing his romantic poems of Scotland and Africa with
magazines, he went to Harvard for advanced study in history and business history. There he continued to write poetry, at first in seclusion, then cooperatively with other poets whose political, religious, and artistic beliefs were akin to his own:

Through my association with an organization of self- styled "rebel poets" of whom the leading spirit was the "proletarian novelist" Jack Conroy, I came into touch with the belated "renaissance man," Seymour Gordon Link, who had just arrived at Harvard …and who immediately set about organizing what came to be known as The Poetry Forum (Cambridge), an organization which, whatever its original intention, came to be devoted to the reading and criticism of the members' poems —criticism rigorous and unsparing but usually intelligent and rarely if ever malicious. …Unofficial products of the Forum were a collection of "Christian social-vision" poems, on which Seymour Link, Harry Hurd, and I collaborated, and which actually went into two editions and was at least mildly profitable (Christ in the Breadline, 1932, 1933), and Pilate before Jesus: Biblical and Legendary Poems, published in 1936 in Jack Wheelwright's Poems for a Dime, also known as Vanguard Verse. Perhaps the principal value of the latter publication …was that it got the impulse to depend heavily on Biblical themes out of my system!

Although unrelated to his involvement with poetry, Porter's scholarly achievements at the time were considerable. In 1931, the Harvard University Press published Porter's two-volume John Jacob Astor, Businessman, now considered a classic in business history and business biography. By this time Porter had become, through intense effort, an accomplished poet and historian, but his interests had not narrowed; his political life was equally active:

I formalized my radical tendencies in 1932 by joining the Socialist Party and engaging in soap-boxing and organizing. …Depression in the U.S., rising fascism abroad, the destruction of the agricultural environment, and the lack of any commensurate economic reward to those most intimately involved in agriculture caused me to turn to Social Symbolism.

At this point, when Porter's careers in poetry and history were at a crucial stage, he personally experienced the disruptive effect of the Depression. Unable to secure either a job or the means to continue his studies, he was left "with no recourse except to take refuge in my parents' home in Kansas." During that summer of 1933, Porter's strong socio-political and religious beliefs and his immersion in the turbulent events of the time began to connect to the familiar Kansas landscape, and the symbolism that profoundly marked his poetry over the next decade was formed.

In my case, the Kansas vegetation, whether natural (buffalo grass) or introduced (wheat) came to symbolize both the life force in general and the indestructible human spirit in particular, whether coping with destructive natural forces or with dictatorships.

Porter was soon able to return to Harvard, and his last years there resulted in The Jacksons and the Lees: Two Generations of Massachusetts Merchants 1765-1844 (Harvard University Press, 1937). By the time The Jacksons and the Lees was printed, Porter had again returned to Kansas, this time to teach at Southwestern College. His tenure there was brief, but the year of his departure (to teach at Vassar) saw the publication of his first collection of poetry, The High Plains (John Day, 1938). The poems in The High Plains were written largely between 1933 and 1938, and while some of them show the effect of the Kansas-based symbolism first conceived in that Depression summer of 1933, it is in his second collection, No Rain From These Clouds (John Day, 1946), that this symbolism is most fully realized. Two poems in particular epitomize Porter's use of this symbolism, expressing his personal credo and also dealing sensitively with Kansas material—"Harvest: June, 1938," and "Ad Astra Per Aspera." In "Harvest," written in honor of the Kansans who fought fascism in Spain, Porter links Kansas radicalism with the conflict in Europe by evoking the name and spirit of John Brown. "Ad Astra Per Aspera," subtitled "A Celebration of the struggle of the people of Kansas with the forces of Nature," was considered by Porter to be perhaps his best work:

In retrospect it seems to me that "Ad Astra Per Aspera," the long poem which, at William Allen White's suggestion, I wrote for the dedication of the municipal auditorium at Emporia, was more important than The High Plains. I had never before written a poem "to order," but this poem, into which … I interwove numerous poems which had been written earlier, and in some cases published, seemed to come as easily as if I had been preparing for it for the previous fifteen years at least—as in a sense, no doubt, I had. It included a "sense of the past," a Biblical tradition, anti-
fascism, a concern for the soil, as well as a combination of the traditional rhymed verse and a looser blank verse or free verse. I doubt that I have written anything for which I had rather be known, although some portions stand up to the test of time better than others.

No Rain From These Clouds was, however, less successful than The High Plains. The style and subjects of the poems were not suited to the taste of most post-war Americans. Reviewers greeted the book with little or no enthusiasm. For Porter, whose interest in writing poetry had diminished since about 1940, the response to
No Rain From These Clouds was decisive; he would henceforth concentrate his energy and talent to the writing and teaching of history. No Rain From These Clouds was his last sustained poetic effort. His career as a historian flourished; he taught briefly at
the University of Illinois, then for twenty-five years at the University of Oregon, and in that time span wrote The History of Humble Oil and Refining Company with Henrietta M. Larson (Harper and Row, 1959), and The Negro on the American Frontier (Arno Press, 1971). His retirement from teaching seemed to intensify rather than diminish his desire to write and research. After some of his poems were reprinted in The Kansas Art Reader (University of Kansas, Independent Study, 1976), and The Kansas Experience in Poetry (University of Kansas, Independent Study, 1978), Porter's interest in poetry was revived, and he planned to collect his later poems, but other projects claimed most of his time until his death in 1981.

I do have vague plans to bring together a volume of poems published since 1946, or too long for periodical publications. However, I have three volumes of history and biography on the fire--one at a publisher's, one experiencing final revision, the third still calling for drastic rewriting—and until they are completed I doubt that I shall find time for attention to poetry publishing. Whether I shall ever write any poems I think worth publishing I don't know. I remember that, about 1940, Robert Frost asked me about how my poetry was going and I replied in effect, "Not so good. I haven't written anything for several months." "Oh you will, you will!" said Frost. "Why once I didn't write a thing for a year—then wrote better than ever!" But this is 1976, not 1940.

It is difficult to assess Kenneth Porter. His interests, as reflect by his published writings, were broad, but perhaps his two most abiding interests were poetry and Kansas. Whenever he wrote about the causes he felt deeply about—religion, politics, the welfare of mankind—he often chose to compose a poem using Kansas, its history, its landscape, and always its people, to express his emotion in the most cogent and powerful way. By doing so, he linked the past—his past—to the problems of the present and his hopes for the future. For Kenneth Porter, Kansas was a touchstone.

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KENNETH PORTER AND KANSAS POETRY
by Thomas Fox Averill

Kenneth Wiggins Porter is one of Kansas' finest poets. He is also a pivotal figure in the development of Kansas poetry, and his poetry either caused, or indicates, an important shift in how Kansas poets write about the land that is Kansas. Before the drought and Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and before Kenneth Porter, Kansas poetry largely concerned the 19th century pioneering experience. Poems tended to either celebrate victory over the Kansas land, or lament temporary defeat at the hands of
such natural forces as drought, blizzard, grasshopper or cinch bug. Here is some poetry of defeat:

[They must] abandon their prairie home,
For the antelope and buffalo to roam,
Owners of all. They had thought it grand,
This smoothly-lying prairie land,
And had planned what beautiful homes they'd make,
And how much comfort and ease they would take.

Now, the bustle and stir of ambition all hushed
Through the quiet and desolation rushed
Visions of once happy homes;
And ever and again there comes,
To overstrained and weary heart
The longing to return; and so depart

Many, for their former home--
Glad to be gone--. . .

--from "The Drought," Sounds of the Prairie, by Celeste
May, 1886.

Here, defeated settlers are returning proprietorship of the land to the antelope and buffalo. Their own dominion has been temporary; they have lost the battle with the land. It has defeated them simply by not living up to their dreams. Nineteenth Century poetry of celebration does just the opposite of the poetry of defeat--it celebrates victory over the land. Take this example from the poetry of Eugene Fitch Ware:

Sturdy are the Saxon faces
As they move along in line;
Bright the rolling-cutters shine,
Charging up the State's incline,
As an army storms a glacis.
. . .
We have made the State of Kansas,
And to-day she stands complete--
First in freedom, first in wheat;
And her future years will meet
Ripened hope and richer stanzas.

--from "Quivera--Kansas," Selections from Ironquill, 1899.

This poem forecasts progress, prosperity, ultimate victory in the battle to conquer the land. One of the most important aspects of 19th century Kansas poetry, then, is the implied relationship between human beings and the land. That relationship is one of conqueror to slave in poems celebrating the victory of successful crops, grand homes, sleek cattle. When there is no victory, it is because the slave has become temperamental, surly, unyielding. The farmer and rancher vow to try again, sure that the land will yield the next year. Early pioneers of the plains, in fact, believed that continued occupation and battle would subjugate the land. They built a mythology of a changed land: rain would follow the plow, because plowing released moisture that would rain back down on the Plains; the iron of railroad tracks, also representative of civilization, would attract lightning, and thus rain; the Plains would be forested, the trees attracting lightning, thunder, rain. So, in 19th century Kansas poetry, the land is to be conquered, forced to yield its riches, even to change itself to suit the conquering settler. This is a poetry that celebrates exploitation, an exploitation that began in the 1870s with the slaughter of the buffalo to make money and rid the land of competitors (foraging animal and Indian), and that continued into the 20th century when ample rainfall and high wheat prices during World War I caused farmers in Western Kansas to plow up land that had been fallow for years. This exploitation of the land sets the scene for the 1930s--for tremendous drought and dust--and for the
poetry of Kenneth Porter. Porter's poetry seems a direct response to most 19th century Kansas poetry, and perhaps it is a response to 19th century Kansas
history, as well. One of his most complex and interesting poems, "The Ghosts of the Buffalo," demonstrates his differences from 19th century Kansas poetry, and suggests how different Kansas poetry after the 1930s will be in its attitudes about the land. The poem uses the buffalo as a symbol of the whole natural world that has been exploited by Eugene Ware's "Saxon race." We Kansans quite literally slaughtered the buffalo. We ripped the buffalo grass from the land with the plow. We did not let land lie fallow long enough to replenish itself. And, like Fate, the land, the dust, the dead buffalo rise up against us, teaching us the folly of ever trying to conquer this environment. The last stanzas are a description of the Dust Bowl and its meaning:

In the whine and drone of the wind it seemed that the prairie spoke:
For two generations the dust of the buffalo lay
quietly under the buffalo-grass, under sod
which fed on the dust of their bones, as once they
had cropped the long sun-cured unharvested hay
of winter or succulent grasses of spring, in the day
when over the plains of a continent proudly they trod--
dark shaggy wandering stars in a cloudless night--
before between river and mountain the prairie went white
with the skulls and bones of their slaughter. But now
restless, they stir; as once the knife, the plow
has ripped again their matted hide away:
the plains lie flayed and blackened; the grass is gone.
. . .
Once with arrow and lance, with cliff and with pound,
Sharps rifle, Colt pistol, the stalk and surround--
with all such devices their enemies thinned
their sod-shaking ranks; now they run on the wind
and, like a raw hide which a warrior might lay
on a signal-fire, smudge out the sun from the day.
The sons of their slayers curse, weep, even pray
to an alien god for his conquering bullets of rain,
dream of cottonwood palisades; weapons are vain.
Phantom bison from mountains to river destroying will pass
until they lie down once again under buffalo-grass.

--from "The Ghosts of the Buffalo," No Rain From These
Clouds
, 1946.

The poem is, of course, a warning: if we Kansans do not respect the natural world, if we exploit it, then the land will rise against us and destroy us. The poetry of Kenneth Porter is important to Kansas because it changed drastically the way Kansas literary artists saw the land and interpreted Kansas history in their poetry. Many of his poems
celebrate the landscape as it is, as it was, and as it will be. Many of his poems provide brief, but insightful, lessons in the meaning and interpretation of Kansas history. Porter may not be solely responsible for how Kansas poetry changed after him, but in
the 1950s and '60s, the Kansas land is seen much more as a force to be respected, learned about, lived with. It becomes a partner rather than a slave. In a way, the contemporary Kansas poet is returning to the sense of the land held by the American Indian, who had no concept of ownership, who found in the land a partner in
identity and being. Poet William Stafford, born in Hutchinson, writes in his poem "Earth Dweller":

Now I know why people worship, carry around
magic emblems, wake up talking dreams
they teach to their children: the world speaks.
The world speaks everything to us.
It is our only friend.

—from "Earth Dweller," Allegiances, 1970.

Contemporary Kansas poetry is so far from the idea of conquering the land that the prime symbol of conquest, Coronado, the first man to try to exploit the wealth of the region, is invariably shown as misguided, myopic, a buffoon. "O Coronado,"
writes Ashland poet Ronald Johnson, "all country/ is round to/ those who lose sight of the/ ground." Contemporary Kansas poetry is an environmental poetry, telling Kansans that the lesson of the 1930s is that we should not exploit the land but live with it, let it guide us. Contemporary poetry tells us that we should realize the land is stronger than we are. Poet William Stafford writes: "Wherever we looked the land
would hold us up." Contemporary poetry tells us that anytime we are greedy, try to milk the land, try to exceed some natural profit, we destroy the life of the land, and our own lives as well. If exploited, the land will rise up against us, and, as sure as
some Fate, will seal our doom. In large part, this is Kenneth Porter's vision. It is still
alive in his poetry, and in the poetry of the best of Kansas' contemporary poets. Porter did much for Kansas poetry to affect this change, to shape this vision. He did this not only intellectually, but as a craftsman as well. His command of poetic
techniques, his use of a wide variety of poetic forms, his attempt to capture a distinct Kansas voice, all changed the standard by which Kansas poetry would be judged. Kansas poetry after Porter is much the better for him, and the Kansas poems in this volume are a tribute to his craftsmanship and intelligence. Both combine to make his work pivotal, to make Kenneth Porter a turning point in Kansas poetry.

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AD ASTRA PER ASPERA

("To the Stars through Flints and Briars")

The Motto of the State of Kansas

A CELEBRATION OF THE STRUGGLE OF THE PEOPLE OF KANSAS WITH THE FORCES OF NATURE

FOR MY UNCLE DAVID LINCOLN WIGGINS, 1867-1945, KANSAN, WHOSE GENEROUS CONCERN FOR MY EDUCATION MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE

ADDRESS TO KANSANS

Here was no 'stern and rockbound coast,'
no 'forest primeval,'
no 'rocks and rills' nor 'woods and templed hills'
to love;
but an ocean of grass to the stirrups;
rivers 'half a mile wide and half an inch deep'—
or five miles by twenty feet
at the time of spring rains in the mountains;
hills were outcroppings of rock—
knobs on the backs of great saurians.
Here no romantic tradition-hallowed forest-dangers—
the tall dark brooding trees
leaning soul-crushingly inward;
the panther on the bough;
snuffle of wolves at the door-cranny:
instead
the horizon dragging outward at the heart-walls;
the land drought-crucified;
the hosts of tiny vicious flying dragons;
the screaming down-rush of the white-hooded three-day blizzard;
the ocean of grass a stormy sea of flame.
Many came to this land
and some stayed.
As for those who did not,
God grant that they found greener pastures.
As for those who dug in and survived,
their names are familiar to you,
are your own, in whole or in part,
the names of your children.

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THE LAND OF THE CRIPPLED SNAKE

The geographers have thrown a loop
north and south across the Great Plains,
a crippled snake—
tail at Lake Winnipeg,
crushed head near the mouth of the Rio Grande,
belly dragging
southwest across the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas,
south and southeast through Oklahoma, Texas,
by way of both Panhandles—
or maybe a length of discarded lariat,
dropped carelessly in the dust of a vast corral;
the geographers call it
"The Line of Semi-Aridity"—
which means that east there's usually enough rain for a crop
and west there usually isn't.
But you can't depend on either.
Let a thrill of awakening life
run through the snake's broken body,
let someone twitch idly at the frayed rope-end—
and farms west of the line are east;
again—
and farms that were east are west—
a game of skip-the-rope
in which a stumble is ruin….

These are the High Plains,
the buffalo-lands once matted with close curling grass
shaggy as the fell of the great beast
that grazed it and gave it a name—
shaggy beard mingling with the crisp grass,
drifting north or south with the grass in their thousands
till it seemed that the plain itself moved;
and on their flanks the naked hunters
feeding on the buffalo
as the buffalo
on the grass….

From the east….
the west.….
rapidly growing metal points
probing the continent's interior;
men in faded coats of blue or gray,
overalled Irish,
wide-straw-hatted Chinks—
their bodies going indistinguishably to iron
by chemistry of toil.
A grid of metal spanned the continent,
pushing apart the tribes,
the herds,
and along the bars
rushed hooting, puffing black monsters.
Buffalo, hunter,
alarmed by the smoke and the thunder,
stung by the Winchester-hail,
drifted north,
drifted south,
drifted west,
and across the horizon of time….

But the grass did not long cure ungrazed.
Rattle of hooves,
snorting of thirst-reddened nostrils,
creak of leather,
yells and sons--
'Whoopee-ti-yi-yo! Get along little dogies!…'
'With my feet in the stirrups and my seat in the saddle
I go ridin' around these god-dam cattle--
Ti-yi-yippy-you-ya-ay! Ti-yi-yippy-you-yay!'—
the long horns,
the Texans,
surging north to Abilene, Ellsworth, Newton,
Wichita, Dodge City,
north and north to Ogallala and Cheyenne…
and from the east the covered-wagons,
the immigrant-trains—
the 'nesters' with their plows,
following a rainbow—
the promise of rain.

Burrows in the hillside
beside the dens of coyote and badger;
oxen and horses moving
under the immense unbroken sky
slitting long thongs from the shaggy hide of the plain,
turning raw side up to cure under the sun.
A new green—
of sod-corn, of wheat;
grain heaped on the ground,
grain shoveled into stoves in blizzard-wrapped soddies,
covered wagons flaunting the slogan
"Kansas or Bust"
rolling-immense immigrating boulders,
schooners with canvas furled—
onto the plains
over which the belly of the crippled snake has twitched,
the lariat idly swung,
westward.

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THE YEARS OF THE LOCUST

The Israelites knew, and the Egyptians,
that high whirling cloud too menacing-bright for rain
('They shall blot out the sun and cast a shadow on
the face of the day.' Joel 2: 2,10);
they knew that roar
'as . . . of chariots . . . running to battle' (Rev. 9:9; Joel 2:5)—
to Kansan and Israelite
the sound of their wings and their jaws
('They covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened.' Ex. 10:5)
was that of a prairie-fire (Joel 2:5).

Egyptian, Israelite, Kansan
knew that voracity
as of some satanic spirit of destruction
('There arose a smoke out of the bottomless pit, …and there
came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth.' Rev. 9:2-3)
with which these hordes
('They had breastplates, as it were of iron …and their teeth
were as the teeth of lions.' Rev. 9:7-9; Joel 1:6)
devoured whatsoever possessed life
or the similitude of life:
the leaves of the corn
and the stalks of the corn
and the pith of the cornstalks
even into the ground;
the leaves of the trees
and the bark of the trees
('They have laid my vine waste, and barked my fig tree…; the
branches thereof are made white.' Joel 1:7)
and the paint of the new-bought wagon they have consumed
('There remained not any green thing.' Ex. 10:15).

Not only the crops—
product of labor—
but the sweat of man and beast—
symbol of labor—
was sweet in their mouths
(smooth-worn pitchfork-handle splinter-bristling,
dark-stained shoulder-pad chewed to the lining);
had they but ridden an east wind
farmers might have believed them
the spirits of Wall Street money-sharks,
re-incarnate from the bellies of bigger sharks,
come for the last licking of a bare platter
as a coyote cracks old bones in which the marrow has dried.
('They pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor.'
Amos 2:6-7).

Colt pistol for Comanche;
magic circle of broken or burnt sod against prairie-fires—
but what weapon suffices for this foe?
('They shall climb the wall like men of war; …they shall not
break their ranks: …and when they fall upon the sword,
they shall not be wounded.' Joel 2: 7-8).
Steel blades ply
reaping the half-grown corn
piling it pyramid-wise
that the outmost stalks may protect the inner
(peasant-mother tossing child after child from the sleigh
in ghastly barter with the wolf-pack;
woman in a besieged city
scraping the crumbs from the bread-box corners,
the last loaf of chopped bark, leaves, and straw stolen;
but no great wind of the Lord
raised by the fan of His thresher
drives these pests onward like chaff;
no besom of destruction
sweeps them into the Pit whence they came;
no full-winged angels
such as those that flew down to relieve
Brigham Young's Mormon Saints by the Great Salt Lake.
('The land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them
a desolate wilderness; yea, …nothing shall escape them.' Joel 2:3).

No arms, no armor—
save the hard shell of fortitude
enclosing the spirits, not the flesh, of the people;
the small smooth stone of grim humor
that smote down Despair—
fiercer ogre than him slain by David.
When streets were a living carpet of six-inch pile
and locomotive-wheels spun helplessly
in the grease of smashed bodies
a small-town editor put into print
in Local News
a single line:
"A grasshopper was seen on the courthouse steps this morning."
And a farmer—
dredging up bucket after bucket of drowned bodies
from his only well--
hailed a neighbor:
"D'ye know
yesterday I tied my team to the fence
while I got out to see if the ground
was too hard to plow
and when I got back
a big grasshopper had eaten my horses
and was picking his teeth with the wagon-tongue!"
"Hell! That's nothin'!
I left my team to go down to the spring
and when I got back
two grasshoppers had eaten the team--
and were pitchin' horse-shoes to see who'd eat the wagon!"
(So men winter-trapped in the mountains
scrape their boot-tops
and the inner bark of trees,
cut new holes in their belts
and win through to the spring.)
Covered wagons creaked eastward,
the earlier slogan:
"Kansas or Bust"
altered to
"Busted, by God!"
But old clothes and beans rolled in from the east.
The rains came
('Be glad then, . . . and rejoice in the Lord…for…he will
cause to come down for you the rain, …and the floors
shall be full of wheat.' Joel 2:23-24);
pastures and volunteer-wheat sprang green.
There was milk and a little bread;
the jackrabbit was a savior.
There were other years—
some of them with crops…
some of them with prices:
('He that endureth unto the end shall be saved.' Matt. 10:22).
('And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten…
And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the
name of the Lord your God.' Joel 2:25-26).
…For a year…and years….

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THE GHOSTS OF THE BUFFALO

No windbreak but the North Star—
and the few strands of barbed-wire strung against the long-horns;
across the great blue prairie of the sky
rages the sun—
a lonely buffalo-bull of brazen fire.
Clouds heave to volcanic mountain ranges—
vanish.
And a fine gray snow drifts over the harrowed fields,
between discouraged rows of stunted corn.
Earth cracks, dust rises,
beneath the dint of unseen fiery hooves
that stamp their brand on fields untimely golden.
(`Because the ground is chapt, for there was no rain in the earth,
the plowmen were ashamed, they covered their heads.' Jer. 14:4).
The drying clothes are dingy;
a scurf on the water in the barrel;
a metallic taste in the mouth;
grit beneath the fingers, between the teeth.
The snake has squirmed, the lariat swung—eastward.
And eastward groan the schooners,
slogans changed:
"In God We Trusted, In Kansas We Busted;"
"Gone Back to Live with the Wife's Folks!"—
nothing remains of the hope that drew them forth
save that ironic humor which sustains
their yet unconquered comrades.
Patched knees of overalls crunch stone-hard clods,
hands moulded to the plow-stilts clasp in prayer:
"O God, give us rain!
And when I say rain, O Lord,
I don't mean none of your gentle sizzle-sozzlers,
but a sod-soaker, O Lord,
A gully-washer!";
rain-makers (fee prepaid) send up balloons
and shoot off cannon—
and sometimes it rains—
more likely not.
But I shall treasure
drawling colloquies at the fence-corners:
"Well, Jim, what d'ye know?"
"Not a dam' thing. And you?"
"About the same. D'ye think it'll rain?"
"Can't say. But if it don't
it sure is gonna be a long dry spell!"
"Say, Jim, you know, there's bullfrogs down my way—
full-grown ones, too—with calluses on their feet
from trampin' from creek to creek for water.
Them bullfrogs have me worried.
If it should rain they'd every one be drowned—
never havin' learned to swim."
"Well, Bill, you know, so far as I'm concerned
I don't much care whether it rains or not.
I'm over fifty—so I've seen it rain—
Yeh, more than once--but there's my little grandson.
He's five years old and if he don't see it rain
within a year or two, I'm mighty scared
he'll have conniption fits when he does see it."

Men lived on somehow. There was always grass for cattle.
And some years the corn or wheat made half a crop—or even more.
(An unseen wrist
twisting the rope—
the snake
writhing slowly.)
There were good crops—and no prices;
high prices—and no wheat;
occasionally a crop
at a saving price.

II

Then Europe went mad,
tearing her face with envenomed nails of flame and steel
as one smitten with a loathsome disease
frantically seeks to claw away the infection.
"Wheat for war-torn Europe!" was the cry;
(Gold in exchange for the Life-Blood of the Plains!),
and in contagious lunacy the plainsmen
fev'rishly set in motion phalanxed blades
to flay the remaining pelt of grass away
from the buffalo-plains,
the land of the longhorn-cattle,
until all the plain was one great bleeding wound—
pate of the victim of a Cheyenne knife—
naked to heavens of turquoise and brass.
`Killing the goose that laid the golden egg'
was stale and tasteless to the memory's palate;
`Skinning the sheep that bore the Golden Fleece'—
a bitter morsel yet to be rolled on the tongue.

The conflict faded.
Rope--and snake--squirmed eastward;
but westward moved the period in the price
of wheat per bushel:
$3.00 $.03

Here once was prairie-sod in places hollowed
by floundering of humped beasts with shaggy manes;
here was the buffalo-grass, here bison wallowed
before the plow and windmill took the plains.

The railroad came; the Indian and the reckless
plainsman in passing saw the bison pass;
and rainfilled pools became a broken necklace
of loosely-strung flat beads, dropped on the grass.

The bison came no more; the final pillage
of their bleached bones and dung was swept away.
Only a prairie-dog and ground-owl village
remained to call to mind a younger day.

But in mid-row farm-boys would stop their harrows
to watch the barking dive, the low brown flight,
perhaps to find the heads of Indian arrows,
dropped, it would seem, by passers in the night.

And from the plaza of that prairie-village
on misty mornings, one could sense the way
the country looked ere plains were drowned by tillage,
before there was a trail to Santa Fe.

Was it good thrift this untamed sod should know
thraldom of tractor and of barbed-wire fence
that here a bankrupt farmer now might grow
low-grade eight-bushel-wheat at thirty cents?

III

Great winds blew across the plains—
physical counterpart of delirious doctrines
blasting the Old World;
the dust from the despoiled prairies
rose in a great sky-clutching, earth-hugging cloud—
The Ninth Plague of Egypt.

Darkness at noonday; packed are noses, ears,
the hair, the skin; and clogged the laboring lungs;
men's eyes are running thick and smoky tears;
the cattle's pelts gray plastered, caked their tongues.

The lights are on: but through each separate shroud
few rays can pierce to render less profound
the darkness of this dry and driving cloud
that like a harrow scrapes and stirs the ground.

And now we know why once in Egypt-land
for three days Pharaoh's people dumbly knelt
beneath the crushing pall of silt and sand—
a grinding mirk--`darkness which might be felt.'
(Ex. 10: 21)

In the whine and drone of the wind it seemed
that the prairie spoke:
For two generations the dust of the buffalo lay
quietly under the buffalo-grass, under sod
which fed on the dust of their bones, as once they
had cropped the long sun-cured unharvested hay
of winter or succulent grasses of spring, in the day
when over the plains of a continent proudly they trod—
dark shaggy wandering stars in a cloudless night—
before between river and mountains the prairie went white
with the skulls and bones of their slaughter. But now
restless, they stir; as once the knife, the plow
has ripped again their matted hide away:
the plains lie flayed and blackened; the grass is gone.

And the ghosts of the buffalo rise; with a moan
of wind from the west, blowing dust becomes bone and the bone
as in dream shifts to join phantom bone--so they stand
in the shade of the Rockies, incredible numberless band.
Through the dusky wind of the noonday their eyes dully smoulder,
they lower their ponderous heads and nose in the sand
where no grass is nor stubble; from chin and from shoulder
hangs the long shredding fleece of beard and mane
which mingles and mats with dry smoke rolling up from the plain.
Now they raise angry nostrils and sniff for brown water, for green
grass and leaves. Flinty arrows are stinging their flanks
as the wind from the west, like a Sioux on his lean
hunting-pony, rides yelling; the brown shaggy ranks
sway and mill, shuffle, surge. Is it rain
to the east? And at first like a lava-flow, landslide, or mass
of dark water when floods leave the peaks for the plain
the spectral horde moves; then, a hairy and hooved hurricane,
they stampede in a frenzied pursuit of the vanishing grass!

A chaotic chimaera, they trample and horn one another
as they rush through the land, over watered fields planted to wheat
or alfalfa; the towns and their people are lost in the smother
and choke of parched panting breath, shedding hair, flinty feet.
Behind is a desert; plantation and street
are swept by brown fire which no breaking can stay….

Once with arrow and lance, with cliff and with pound,
Sharps rifle, Colt pistol, the stalk and surround--
with all such devices their enemies thinned
their sod-shaking ranks; now they run on the wind
and, like a raw hide which a warrior might lay
on a signal-fire, smudge out the sun from the day.
The sons of their slayers curse, weep, even pray
to an alien god for his conquering bullets of rain,
dream of cottonwood palisades; weapons are vain.
Phantom bison from mountains to river destroying will pass
until they lie down once again under buffalo-grass.

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THE LAYING OF THE GHOSTS

Grasshoppers…drought…now dust….
Again dry throats
emit ironic humor:
"A drop of water
hit a man and they had to throw
a bucket of dirt in his face to bring him to." …
"Bill Smith ought to be along pretty soon."
"How so?"
"His farm went by about ten minutes ago." …
"Yeah, I saw a ground-squirrel twenty feet up in the air—
burrowin' away for dear life!"

But there was a new note
in the grim humorous hopelessness:
We know what's wrong…
we know the reasons…
we ought to be able
to do something…
Hesitant, bunglingly, half-scoffing,
at last they did:
dark buffalo-ghosts
check at the trees once alien to the plains;
swerve, confused, lose speed, amid the maze of winding furrows;
pause, bewildered, in the midst of lakes
(not: `a lake for every county,'
pledged by Doc Brinkley,
but many lakes, in every furrow!);
groaning, they sink down at last beneath strange grasses;
slowly the buffalo-ghost is being laid.

II

Comrades of ruined lands in Asia, Europe,…:
Salud!
We have known the dictatorship of the drought,
the sun's brazen knuckles, the dark-shirted dust-storm,
the shrapnel of hail, and the gnawing of borers
like Fascist Fifth Column;
the dust swirls in a gas-cloud, heads fall under guillotine-jaws,
lie shattered beneath aerial bombardment;
but the lines hold—
the parapets of irrigation-ditches notch the sky-line,
palisades of trees rise high and green.
The wheat will crack the blizzard's manacles
(your fetters, too, shall split),
shake off the gagging dust
like the hempen sack of a Fascist murder-gang….

And travelers from soft, green lands who gaze
from Pullman windows and lament to see
black blizzards joining with the white Blitzkrieg
of winter over fields where wheat was sown
six months before—O pitying pilgrims, know
that still, beneath the smothering pall of dust
and rigid mail of sterile ice and snow,
the young wheat stiffens for an upward thrust.

Cornstalks were bleached and slender bones;
the pasture-grass, sparse hair upon a skull
long-baked by sun; field-clods were stones.
The river crawled but quarter-full
of water thick like sluggish blood
between wound-lips of rotten mud
sucking the bottom of our boat
which the creek-ooze could hardly float.
The sun sank in a sullen smoulder
half-hidden by a bluff's gaunt shoulder;
the sickly rays shed off from it
seemed pale flames from a charnel-pit.

Then from the reeking rim of night
the flash of pinions in strong flight!
From a bush aflower with fierce white fire
we saw a heron tower and spire.
Against the sky we saw him loom
phoenix-like; a hieroglyph
etched in the wall of a Pharoah's tomb
cut from some grey Nilotic cliff--
symbol of immortality,
itself endowed with that stern gift,
crying "Life is, was, and shall be!"
Above the earth's miasmic drift,
here in this world of death and dying,
Life lives for us in a great bird flying!

Oh curving breast, strong slender legs,
proud arching neck and poniard-bill,
your wings lift up from smoking dregs
the soul of beauty and the will!
Mount to the stars, Oh strong, alive!
Tell Heaven--and us--we still survive!

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HARVEST: JUNE, 1938

For Donald Henry (Dodge City, pre-medic, University of Kansas), first-aid man, mortally wounded, Belchite, Sept. 2, 1937; Ray Jackson, Jr. (Syracuse), missing, Gandesa, Apr, 1, 1938; also: James Cleveland Hill (ex-U.S. soldier; Ness City oilworker), lieutenant, killed in action, Corbera, Sept. 9, 1938; Kenneth Graeber (Lawrence, student of journalism, University of Kansas), ambulance-driver, honorably discharged; Paul O'Dell (Wichita, worker and student), infantry and engineers, honorably discharged;
for all Jayhawkers of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, in the body or out of the body.

Half-waking in the day-coach east from Denver
an elevator named the town. A month
before my low-keyed mind might momently
have drifted down associative pathways:
"…Sicilian city, Athens' great misfortune. . . .
town in New York where once I spent a month
slapping the dust from documents century-old…"
as well, of course, as: "…western Kansas village—
home of the Negro who answered instructor's compliments
on his Spanish accent by reference to the doubly
fortunate presence in town of a Mexican barber…."
A month ago….
But now
Syracuse is a name:
Ray Jackson….
The wheatfields were a heliograph. The porter passed through the
car with his warning.
" …twenty-five minutes…."
Till the zero-hour? No, time allowed for breakfast.
What did I think of, leaving the train a year ago? Boot Hill and
Wyatt Earp….
the heaps of buffalo-hides in the 1870's—
bones in the decade after….
a college-girl who named this town as hers….
But now
forever
Dodge City is
Don Henry….

O prairie-village,
your houses hiding among the wheatfields—
prairie-chickens in bunch-grass—
only your grain-elevator against the sky,
a giant metallic gopher;
O prairie-towns
insulated by ocean and 2,000 miles of complacency—
blubber of wood-pulp, of celluloid-reels, and of air waves—
against the fierce currents of death that are crackling through
Europe,
what voice pierced deliberate static and ear-plugs to call
your sons from these plains to the fight on the Spanish meseta?

Young men, with their minds sharpened pitch-forks, tore through the
foul tangle
of lies, sheathing bales of horstpapers heaved off at the stations,
as threshers strip off the tough mildew from wheatstacks to come
at the last to the good central grain of the truth.

These men were Americans—blood of America's heart—
their names say "America":
1776
the long Decherd rifle
Donald Henry
Ray Jackson
They were Kansans
their schoolbooks had not yet forgotten
John Brown
They were men from the wheatfields
Spain was a furious sun which drew them along paths of light
as the water ascends from the trickle through sand, from the
buffalo-wallow,
to swoop like a billion bright chatos which speed to relief
of the drought-besieged fields.
Theirs too was a lean and stubborn land.
For five years it had known
the dictatorship of the drought, the black-shirted dust-storm….
the dust still swirls in a gas-cloud,
heads have fallen….
but the lines hold… .
irrigation-canals have brought up reinforcements….
No pasaran!

Life which lay seemingly buried has broken the darkness
(the stones of their prisons shall split) and the germs which today
still hide underground shall next season leap forth with a shout—
or, dying, enrich with their spirit the soil for their comrades….
Pasaremos!

Trucks in continuous caravan are rushing
the new combines to the fields of the west, and wheat
pours into Dodge City and Syracuse bins (but O where
are the bullets, the guns, and the planes for the wheatfields of
Spain?);
at Valencia the comrades
feet on the earth are shouldering the sky….

If a Spanish trench gashes a ripened wheatfield with gigantic and
sterile furrow
there are men who are rubbing the heads between powder-black palms
men who winnow the kernels with battle-hot breath, and who wonder
about the Three A's, the FU, and about yields per acre,
weight per bushel, and protein-content--above all, the price—
of wheat at the Dodge City co-ops….

John Brown of Kansas still goes marching on—
his tread is on the plains of Aragon!

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THIS WAS THE SUMMER…

This was the summer when the county's last
scant range of buffalo-sod succumbed and passed
beneath the breaking-plow, lurched and went under
as once the hump'd and shaggy beasts who bore
that name sank down in blood with moaning roar
to Sharps' brief lightning and staccato thunder.

This was the summer, too, when August rain
was more than memory; the pot-sherd plain
was moisten'd just so deeply that the share
could penetrate the long-untroubled layer
of earth where inextricably mingled dust
of tepee-fires and buffalo-dung, the rust
of Spanish armor, and of horse-shoe nails
lost on the Santa Fe and Texas trails.

This was the summer, walking in a furrow
behind the threshing-engine, I bent down
to dig from earth the snapp'd point of an arrow
chipped from strange blood-hued stone, just as my brother
a hundred feet ahead picked up another,
larger but worked in flint of yellow-brown.

This was the summer, seeking small round stones
to sling at turtle-dove and cottontail,
two boys—the corn laid by—picked up one day
amid the scattered dice of crumbled bones
some pebbles, strangely heavy, dully gray,
they found would scar beneath a finger-nail.

This was the summer when, as young Steve Burroughs
turned the back-pasture into even furrows,
the plow struck something hard—
a frontier-model Colt revolving-pistol
holstered in rust and with a big bull-thistle
grown through the trigger-guard.

And this the summer that Montana Bowes—
escaped a boy from Quantrell's bloodly raid,
lived half a decade with the Mountain Crows,
scouted for Custer, fought the Arapahoes,
but left the army after Wounded Knee—
who limped from a chewed bullet through the thigh
and bore a flint point near his shoulder-blade,
died at the age of eighty and was laid
upon the extra-deep and wide clay shelf
which he had dug and panelled for himself,
trusting no other hand; "although," said he,
"I wish, when death counts coup on me, that I
"could stretch out in the forks of a cottonwood-tree."

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JACKRABBIT

Through skeleton-trees the roadway-rivers run
draped with metallic vines; great masks of flames—
golden, brown-eyed—stare straitly at the sun;
oil-derricks are abandoned tepee-frames.

A tall hare rising from a stubble-patch
takes two gigantic leaps, and then on lean
haunches like taut bow-cord sits back to watch
the gasoline-blooded, rubber-hooved machine.

And as he watches now these roaring dragons
he watched the antelope—as fleet as they;
the mules with ears like his who dragged the wagons
that creaked along the trail to Santa Fe.

Like eagle-feathers in a chief's war-bonnet
his black-tipped ears defiantly uprose
near to the Pawnee war-trail when upon it
the warriors rode with lances and with bows.

Antelope, Indian, bison—all are gone;
coyote and rattlesnake grown shy and few.
The jackrabbit remains, the only one
barbed-wire and gasoline could not subdue.

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COYOTE

We check our ponies. "Look!" says he
"A coyote!" "Where?" my strained eyes
ask vainly. And then the feral mask,
slit eyes and lolling tongue, I see

of that lean prairie-wolf, the one
fit genius of the desert-land,
with pelt as yellow as the sand
and eyes as golden as the sun.

And still across the barren plain,
the dust and dazzle of the years,
his pointed muzzle and prick-ears
are etched fang-sharp upon my brain.

With brush held low, a swift gray-brown
wind-shadow in the faded grass,
he vanishes--none sees him pass—
on feet of steel and thistle-down.

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TWO HORSES RUNNING

Stagnant the land as the poison-green that
coiled in the dead water-courses;
over fields flint-baked or abraded to powder
the cattle and horses
wandered heads low tails lax or stood under
winter-bare trees
and searched the horizon in quest of the
ghost of a breeze—
and the breeze came at last, stealthy, sudden,
and curt—the breeze came
like a lash from a quirt that is knotted with
pebbles of flame.

And then from a hill in a pasture where
cattle lay panting and hoping
without hope for the sting of rain in dust
by bone-bleached water-tanks
two young horses heads high side by side
swept down at a gallop—came loping
with the sun in their manes and aflame on
their free-swinging shoulders and flanks.

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LONELY PLOWMAN

Up and down the furrows
a lonely man was I;
the mice were in their burrows,
the birds were in the sky,
the hares went scudding by.

Round and round the ridges
the horses plodded on
stung by the whining midges;
even my dog had gone,
and I was left alone.

O but I was lonely
from my head down to my feet!
A fat old gopher only
strolled through the stubble-wheat.
—I killed him with a wrench
I threw from my lister-seat.

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HAWK AND JUNCO

Breathless we watched a high hawk wheel,
slip down the whistling air to lay
something among the stubble-hay,
then strike and stamp with beak and heel;
at last he rose and soared away.

Laying a course across the brown
meadow we found the plundered prize—
the little tuft of blood-stained down,
the pink skull void of brain and eyes;
we knew a song had left the skies.

But gazing upward at the strong
fierce wings we understood the fuel
of beauty's flame, however cruel,
still must be beauty's self and song:
sorrow and solace were not long.

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EPITOME

Here in this world of oppression and hatred is many a thing
to trouble my rest,
but none like the lean lame cat and the golden flicker with wing
half torm from the breast.

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CATALPAS IN KANSAS

You do not seem at home here by our corn-rows—
you with your showy, strange-shaped, odorous white flowers.
You should companion palms near dim seraglios
and scent the air which steals through curtained bowers.

Peacocks should scream and pathers prowl around you—
here in the wheat is not your place at all.
How did it chance that in our land they found you—
shaped like some pasha's pompous parasol?

You should shade turbaned men with tasseled spears
guarding some rajah's window, laced with bars—
you with your great fan-leaves like elephants' ears,
you with your pods like green-sheathed scimitars!

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DROUGHT

The rivers are veins in the hand of a mummied chief;
the unplowed earth—a prone derisive wall;
the sky, a bitter-blue catalpa leaf
crimped and crisping toward an untimely fall.

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KANSAS AND MASSACHUSETTS

Now Kansas leaves assume a meagre brilliance:
few elms—more cottonwoods—are windy lamps;
New England oaks and maples in their millions
fling frosty rainbows over woods and swamps.

The very sumacs here are lower, duller—
slow flame which creeps along the grassy ground;
or molten iron--not the antlered color
that lifts and lightens like a trumpet-sound!

And yet this chariness--the sullen, sudden
flash of infrequent gold and flame--now thrills
me more than lavish hues which flare and madden
in sunset-sunrise on the Berkshire hills!

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GRANDFATHER

Grandfather's beard was flowing white
though, very privily, he chewed;
I sometimes used to think he might
resemble God's most genial mood.

Grandfather's room was attic and barn,
long chains of seed-corn hung from the ceiling;
his army coat was well brushed and worn;
he could read strange things in an apple peeling.

He knew the old corn-planting rhymes,
the Negro tales of crow and jay,
stories and songs of far off times,
the knee games and the finger play.

Grandfather's old black-handled knife,
its two blades worn to thin bright moons,
had lived with him over half his life;
his whistles piped the Spring's own tunes.

With pokeberry juice and a turkey feather
he'd draw on a slab of sycamore bark
a gaunt horse running hell-for-leather—
a fugitive from Noah's Ark!

Spring afternoons, in rocking chair,
he'd sit beneath our walnut tree
whittling another cane to spare
weight from his Minie-stiffened knee.

Grandfather went to sleep one day
stretched on the couch, while his eldest son
read the morning Chapter and knelt to pray
and the maple sap was beginning to run.
I was five and had never seen death. I threw
myself on the rough back porch and cried
in breathless sobs. Somehow I knew
more than one man had died.

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NOSEGAY FOR NANCY
(Who Asked Me For a Wedding Poem)

I wandered out on the lone high plain
of my mind to seek in a sudden fancy
fairings woven of sun and rain
for a gift to Nancy:
a sunflower's mask, a lark's brown feather,
leaves minted of the autumn weather,
close-curled grass from a buffalo-meadow;
then deftly snatched, to help complete
my trophies, a hawk's astounding shadow,
the sheen of the not-quite ripened wheat
when over it the south wind passes,
the sharp frost on the blue-stem grasses.

A hundred precious trivial things
thrifty memory plucks and brings….
and would gather more, but bewildering sands
begin to rise, and I hear the organ…

This nosegay I'm bringing in both my hands
while you still are Nancy Morgan.

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PAULINE

The brown girl came to our first freshman party.
No one had thought she would come, or, indeed, that she wouldn't—
no one had thought of her at all.
But, since Central Kansas was not Missouri or Leavenworth,
no one showed her the door,
though there were sidelong glances and whisperings.

Indeed, since the boys outnumbered the girls,
she was even handed a number for supper partner.
The lot, somehow, fell on a shy farm-boy
who sat, arms folded, a terrible agonized grin
frozen upon his face—
thinking no doubt of Monday morning's
"Vernon is mad and I am glad and I know what will please him…."
As a reputedly girl-shy extra boy
I had, with apologies, been omitted from the lottery.
Innocence can be a substitute for courage.
There was a vacant chair next to the brown girl:
I took it--looking straight ahead.

Before "refreshments," though, there was a contest.
Each boy was given a sheet of garden flowers,
in colors, cut from old seed-catalogues,
which (with his partner's help) he should identify.
(Such an idea could only have come from girls!)
My knowledge hardly went beyond sweet peas, nasturtiums and
hollyhocks,
but, as I scowled at the others, a slim brown finger
touched the sheet, and a soft voice said:
"That's Joseph's-coat. And that one's lion's mouth…."
She knew them all! …So I won--whatever it was.
After ice-cream-and-cake we all went home.

The flu banned any more parties for that term
and before the year was over the girl was gone—
perhaps to Hutchinson or Wichita
which afforded more opportunities than our small town
to kitchen help and house maids.

But still
sometimes when I see a plot of brilliant flowers
I also hear a low soft voice
calling their names.

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FIREFLIES ON THE COTTONWOOD RIVER

Lights flash and fade like sparks from smitten steel,
water and clouds are ruffled by the breeze,
till eyes which seek for actual stars must reel,
searching the sky, the river, and the trees.

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THE GHOSTS OF THE GLACIERS

Draining my second cup, I heard Fred say,
"No hurry, boys; we'll thresh no wheat today!
"Look at the sky! Did ever you set eyes on
"clouds like that bank that covers the horizon
"there to the north?" I closed the cookshack door
and leap'd to earth to join the three or four
hoboes and students who, their morning meal
consumed, sat on the grass and watched the wall
of clouds which moved upon us. We could feel
a chill like early autumn. "There'll fall
"no rain from those clouds, I'u'd like to bet,
"but chunks of ice as big as a baseball,"
said Bill. We gazed in silence. Never yet,
we all agreed, had we seen clouds like those.
We neither grumbled that we'd lose a day
nor played the changes on the harvest-jest—
dear to the weary—of "More rain, more rest,"
but watched uneasily, and some arose
and climbed on racks to view their southward way,
and as I gazed I heard one lookout say,
"I never saw a cloud-bank look so strange—
"more like some icy Rocky Mountain range."
Said Jim, with awe-struck wonder in his tone,
"They look as hard and smooth as polished stone!"
On top the bank gleamed white as mountain-snow,
with icy green and steely blue below
shading to purple-black of mountain-tarns.
"If that wall there should ever hit my barns,"
the farmer said, "you'd almost think they'd splinter
"just like a stepped-on match-box. Winter and winter
"I've gone through blizzards, and I know what twisters
"are like, but what this means, by the Seven Sisters
"I swear I haven't a guess. But--well, it's here
"at last!" he ended, for the bank was seen
right at the pasture-hedge, and seemed to rear
nigh halfway to the zenith. Sudden, keen,
just as we braced ourselves for hail or rain,
a stroke as from an icy whetted blade
seemed to split through our beings, bone and brain,
and when at last our eyes came to our aid …
the sky was like a bowl of blue and gold.
Only … some aspects of the scene, unrolled
before us now, seemed for a moment strange.
We thought we saw brown shaggy haystacks range
grazing the pasture with prehensile noses;
and huge dead crooked trees took curious poses,
their bark assumed the guise of flinty scales
while twigless limbs had hints of jaws and tails…
a moment … yet it was enough. My eyes
fell on a flat smooth boulder near the shack
and read the message graved thereon, moved back
and met a gaze which held no faint surprise
but calm conviction. For we poets knew
that history had flipped, if but for two
whose minds were rightly tuned, a ream of pages
upon a glimpse of grim fantastic ages.
If only for a moment, we had been
among ghost-glaciers from the Pliocene! …
The boss flung streaming dregs from a coffee-cup.
"We've lost a quarter-day. Let's belt'er up!"

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THE HAPPY FARMER
For Oscar Ameringer, 1870-1943

The fields are tangled gold; the bins are crowded to the crown,
yards heaped with wheat at a price so low that it would hardly pay
for seed and wages, interest, and hauling into town
(not to mention the farmer's labor), and dropping day by day.

And on each bank-owned piffle-page
the editors give voice:
"The bumper wheat-crop of the age!—
Let farmers all rejoice!"

A farmer sits in choking dust on a bumping mowing-machine
to rend the withered stalk at the root and salvage the shriveled seed,
hoping that he from his summer's toil may yet contrive to glean
some pitiful shrunken bushels to use for chicken-feed.

And on each bank-owned swindle-sheet
The market-writers say:
"An end to farmers' whines!—for wheat
is ninety cents today!"

—Summer, 1933

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DARK SAYING

In Kansas the farmers have raised so much wheat
that in some of their homes is nothing to eat.
Rest easy, food-gamblers, for you have not seen,
as have I, the dark corners where Winchesters lean.

—1930

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THISTLE, YARROW, CLOVER

I cross a weedy meadow
casting my sunset shadow

on thistle, yarrow, clover:
I name them over and over.

I hear a bobwhite's whistle
in clover, yarrow, thistle,

and pass a rusty harrow
in thistle, clover, yarrow.

My twilight vision follows
the twisting flight of swallows,

the nighthawk's swoop and hover
above the fields whose cover

is all a fading bristle
of yarrow, clover, thistle.

My dimming sight shall narrow
on clover, thistle, yarrow:

thistle, yarrow, clover--
I name them over and over.

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Electronic edition © 1992 by the Washburn University Center for Kansas Studies.

Print edition, Cover and book design by Thomas Fox Averill.
Print edition, Cover photo courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society.
Print edition, Photographs courtesy of Anita Miller and Annette M. Porter.
Print edition, Typesetting by Sally Dyke and Thomas Fox Averill.
Print edition, Printing by TK Printing, Topeka, Kansas.

This electronic book would not be possible without the generous support of Sue
VanSickle and the rest of the Washburn University Academic Computer
Center staff.  


This electronic book is published by the Washburn University Center for Kansas Studies, as part of its mission to print and reprint important literary test either by Kansans, or about Kansas, for educational purposes.

For information about this book, or aboaut the Washburn Center for Kansas Studies, write Center for Kansas Studies, Washburn University of Topeka, Topeka, Kansas 66621.

Also available from the Washburn Center for Kansas Studies:

THAT TRICK OF SILENCE
poems of the Flint Hills
by Steven Hind, $5.00

DUST and SHORT WORKS
a novel and short stories of Southeast Kansas
by Marcet and Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, $12.00

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