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.