Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet. By Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom. (2011. The Backwaters Press, 3502 N. 52nd Street, Omaha, Nebraska 68104-3506) 146 pp. $16.
I must admit to some reservations as I eased slowly into this collection of poetry, skeptical that the voices of two contemporary female poets from the mid-west might actually harmonize well enough to think: duet. I didn’t know Twyla Hansen’s work, but being fairly familiar with Linda’s no-nonsense poetry (“Instead of a Death Wish” and “My Uncle Harold Makes Up His Mind” included in this online issue of Dry Crik Review, also appear in this collection), made ‘songs’ in the book’s title somewhat of a stretch for me. But I was wrong.
With this duet dedicated to William Kloefkorn, I have instead become a devout fan of Twyla Hansen’s lines that resonate truthfully and personally:
there in a tangle of leaves, in a land of feast and famine,
among pears and feeder calves, pines and manure,
sweet clover and silage, under the indifferent farmyard sun
where for a brief lifetime my brother and I were one.
reminding of that ‘brief lifetime’ shared by my sister and I as children with no one but ourselves to create adventures and wild imaginings. Her titles and subject matter may seem simple and rural, perhaps basic and commonplace compared to what I read from other places, but Hansen’s wide range of consideration, of feeling and a thorough understanding of these basic things celebrates and invigorates the seemingly more mundane aspects of farm life into rich and captivating poetry.
Even though each word has found its place, her language well chosen and consistently real throughout this collection, in her poem “Perfection”, I am so pleased that Hansen concludes:
As in trees and in language, a beautiful thing is never perfect.
Surely the Neanderthals adapted, related tales of their own survival.
The long-ago storyteller in me twitches: I am tireless but to try.
Besides, isn’t perfection overrated? Let’s get it roughly right.
But one of many examples of their harmony in this collection, Linda Hasselstrom uses some apt advice from William Stafford in her poem “When a Poet Dies”: When poetry comes hard,/ lower your standards and keep writing, a common chord from a stingy landscape, from rigid folks determined to make a living from the dirt—these are sisters singing “A Plains Duet”.
That I’ve been an advocate for Linda Hasselstrom’s poetry for a long time is probably no secret in my small circle, but the imagery in one of her longer poems, “1971: Across From the Packing Plant”, juxtaposed with those of an unfaithful husband, quakes to darker depths:
The knocking of the hammer has begun
delivering its metered message.
Tonight my husband sings the songs
he used to sing to me, but I hear death
across the street. Another steer
begins to moan, I step outside the door.
Soon the butchers will come out to smoke.
They’ll hang their gory aprons
by the door and wipe the fresh blood from their shoes.
And all night long I’ll hear the hammer beat
its rhythm, and the howl of blood and death.
There is no false romanticism, no floaty nature poetry, no weak pieces here from either poet, each one a study and delight for me to read, reassured now that “Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet” will be heard for a long time. Thank-you both, we are so blessed.
Acorns and Abalone. By Sylvia Ross. (2011. Bentley Avenue Books, P.O. Box 44040, Lemon Cove, CA 93244) 99 pp. $10.
By reading her poetry and prose, one doesn’t need Sylvia Ross’ family tree to tell she’s native, that she’s Chukchansi, a sub-tribe of the Yokuts that solely occupied the ground around Yosemite, California. And one doesn’t need to study society today to see that the majority is missing some basic understandings about the earth that has sustained us all. Her poetry offers natural windows to her life, without squeamishness or contemporary judgment, where she can hold back witness/ that a broken shell is no more/ beautiful than a beach sand feather. (“THE SEAGULLS’ BANQUET”) At once the reader realizes how we tend to sort our natural surroundings into a hierarchy, and only then to endure its consternation, whether to favor predator or prey. The poet diffuses this baseless order of importance, suggesting she might be both—not unlike comparing children, she would love who they were—by offering the beauty and satisfaction of a much bigger picture in this poem.
A former illustrator for Walt Disney and author of several children’s books, Ross sees herself and her sister as ‘bear women’ with ‘great bear women arms’:
We have the power
To crash through brush, to smash
The clouds and pluck down stars
And make a meal.
Sister, tonight your voice
Brings our mother back to us.
Her great bear woman presence
Fills all the space
Of this room.
So often disconnected from family, few today would see themselves and be so wholly remembered in the form of an animal, but such identities can pack long-lasting power that can trigger memory and presence. Instead we tend to see ourselves in the form of actors or athletes—but for the most part, nothing very permanent.
I also enjoyed the vernacular, the ‘pigeon-English’, because of its plain and simple way of getting things said, a minimalism of sorts appearing in some of the prose and poems that rings truly. There are varied pieces with varied styles, but all with the theme of family and a native culture that endures. This book is dedicated to the resilience of the early women of the West—and to the present women of her family who continue to thrive in its rugged landscape.
She says the best knitters of any were her own ancestors
Back in Ireland. Her granddaughter Denine works down at the
Taco Bell since summer. I ask her if Denine knows how
To knit them fine fishermen sweaters. She says kids today
Just don’t want to learn nothing what takes time.
A delightful read with depth and force, this collection of work refreshes the senses
to help us suppose:
Would it be so difficult to cope
with being an ant?
It might be nice to be
an ant or roach or scorpion,
often social, ever industrious.
One might hope
thoughts more relevant
would arise from neurons safely
inside an exoskeleton,
that ideas, grand and illustrious,
would find firing there superior—
unimpeded by a bony interior.
WE DROVE ALL NIGHT. By Red Shuttleworth. (Finishing Line Press, P.O. Box 1506, Georgetown, Kentucky 40324) 25 pp. $12.
Red Shuttleworth covers a lot of ground with this little chapbook of 22 poems. His vistas are varied and wide between lines that look in, as well as out, upon the unique West that we’ve inherited and occupy with the time-clash of ‘kettle-bang thunder’ as each image bucks and runs into the next. With bright and incisive eye, he stirs paradoxes with some tenderness by offering seductive glimpses of real people and places—only barely different from ourselves. ‘Champion roper at twelve,’ “Barbara Moffett (1940)” strips at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens:
…orchidaceous. But next spring,
road money earned, she hopes to win the Saugus Rodeo,
have a beer, go shirttail to the frisky wind.
Or the conversation between prizefighters Stanley Ketchel and “Jack Johnson (1909)”:
When I think about God,
Ketchel says, it makes me cry.
Nail holes never heal. Johnson grins,
Circle God to his left, unload a right.
Each snapshop colorful, Shuttleworth can either ride through town on a gust or make a study of human nature
with a jar of Kessler’s whiskey and water
in yet one more deadfall groggery
with some ruddy, pocked, half-starved
barn dog claiming direct decent
from Bat Masterson or Pearl Starr.
With the hard facts, his poetry is almost always sensual, and sometimes voyeuristic as he reasonably ignores his father’s advice in “Tip Fogarty (1963)”:
But I love how she poses in the midnight center
of her daddy’s pasture, the robe untied, quarter smile,
smackin’ hot in the thick white headlight beams
of my Dodge pick-up, like a special picnic treat,
not one flaw from God, no silly teasing,
like I’m some Swedish film director
at the high noon of his heart’s requirements.
Our native correspondent, only Red Shuttleworth offers this mirror to, of and from the West we might not otherwise see. “We Drove All Night” is a delightful ride to sip and take slowly, to enjoy and digest.
By Sylvia Ross. (2011 Bentley Avenue Books. P.O. Box 44040, Lemon Cove, CA 93244. 390 pp. $15.)