Friday, March 26, 2010

Walt McDonald poems

A cozy New Hampshire village and the wide-open plains of West Texas may seem like an incongruous pairing, but one segued naturally into the other in my mind recently.

I began reading May Sarton's, Plant Dreaming Deep, a 1968 memoir of living in Nelson, New Hampshire. I got as far as page 21, when I came across the following:
When I made the first of many lecture trips, in 1939-1940, I was unknown, the former director of an off-broadway theater that had failed during the Depression, the author of a slim volume of poems and of one novel... I set out alone on an autumn, winter, spring of unhurried exploration... The whole trip was not at all what a lecture trip usually is, a hurried kaleidoscope of places and people, but rather a leisurely odyssey, the discovery of my America. I was always looking for the humanizing and illuminating perception of writers and poets about these landscapes I was seeing for the first time, and was amazed at how much has not been celebrated. Where is the poet of the secret wild Arkansas valleys? Of the great golden empty Texas plains? Of the Delta?

I don't know about the Arkansas Valley or the Delta, but the poet of the great golden empty Texas plains made an eager leap from my subconscious to the front lines of cognizance. That poet is Texas' former Poet Laureate, Walt McDonald.

At the time of May Sarton's lecture travel, McDonald was 5 or 6 years old. Perhaps the landscape of his environment was already composting and fertilizing his young mind for sowing the rich poems that would come later in life in a region known at times for its unyielding soil.

Several years ago, I did a book show in Fort Worth and met the former director of the Texas Tech University Press, Noel R. Parsons, who was also exhibiting there with a representative sampling of the university's publications. Among the books on the tables, I saw some Walt McDonald collections of poetry and bought a couple of the press' recently published titles:
Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains, Poems by Walt McDonald, Photographs by Wyman Meinzer (2003)

Whatever the Wind Delivers: Celebrating Texas and the Near Southwest, New and Selected Poems by Walt McDonald, with Photographs of the Southwest Collection Selected by Janet Neugebauer, Foreword by Laura Bush (1999)
I spoke to Mr. Parsons of my admiration for McDonald's writing and he was kind enough to extend the offer of obtaining McDonald's signature on each of the books when he returned to Lubbock. As McDonald still had an office at the university, Parsons would see him when he came in and get the autographs. I received the books in the mail a few weeks later, signed as promised. That was very thoughtful and very much appreciated from both Parsons and McDonald.

When I read May Sarton's passage above, I knew instantly I would share some of McDonald's writing here. His poetry celebrates the relationship of the vast land and sky of the Texas Plains and its inhabitants, man and beast alike. Themes of survival, aging, death and the inherent paradox of beauty and struggle that we are given each day on this earth comprise the artistry of McDonald's writing.

Laura Bush, a West Texas native, writes eloquently in her Foreword for Whatever the Wind Delivers:
Despite its paradoxical nature, or perhaps because of it, the region commands the respect of its inhabitants. If one thing could be said of those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around the place, it is that they don't simply live on or off the land; they live with it--and thrive.

To survive, every day is a negotiation, an agreement, an acceptance of terms that the soil and the sky outline without the slightest bit of consideration. And yet, even at its worst--at its dustiest, hottest, and driest--the region is rich with anticipation and hope for a merciful change. And it does change.

This is the paradox of West Texas and the mighty Southwest. It is at once dull and unpredictable; subtle and grand.
She could have been writing about the substance of McDonald's poems instead of the region he inhabits. Perhaps she was in a metaphorical sense. McDonald has "lived with the land" and his talent for observation from the ground as well as from a pilot's wide perspective in the sky has inspired his poetic art for capturing the essence of it all. Examples of that art follow.

First up, a few poems from Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains:

A Round Horizon Without a Town

The prairie on any day is endless,
too much to take in between blinks.
My wife and I aren't Atlas
toting the world. We carry the cosmos,
not a globe but stars and rocks

in a billion different directions,
if we could track them, like canoeing
the Brazos River after a rain,
ripples and flow forever changing.
Horizon is fragile on the Plains.

Grazing cattle shift, the buzzards glide,
vast details that don't match. Boots
and horses' hooves turn the globe,
and skyline rolls. We raised four babies
on the Plains. They toddled off and fell,

shoved up and now they're gone.
Explorers learned the signs,
established trails highways bypass.
Step any direction and pastures shift,
a herd of antelopes galloping

while binoculars change hands,
strap quickly off and my wife
lifting them with a twist to fit
her eyes, counting four pronghorns
or five, not the ten I claimed I saw.
Leaving Sixty

Riding flat, hardscrabble plains,
we hold the reins of geldings
with fingers stiff in leather gloves.
The sun burns mirages blue as oceans:
Shanghaied, we're trapped in a fleet
of boats, these creaky bones.

Charming Columbus, his scrolls
rolled into a globe, his tales of gold
and spice enticing. Look ahoy,
they're dropping off the horizon,
old friends once young as Columbus.
The world is flat: Isabella's fool

proved that by dying, leaving a skull,
the only gold of a dunce.
Columbus found the edge of the earth
years later, and no charts
or spinning globe could save him.
Only his nurse saw the old man vanish.

Far from port, my wife and I
wave semaphores of love
like Santa Maria scrolls:
We're headed west, loaded with gold
and spice, stiff riggings locked,
no way to shift the sails.
And from Whatever the Wind Delivers, here is the title poem about the negotiation and acceptance Mrs. Bush wrote about and the struggle to take what comes and thrive:

Whatever the Wind Delivers

This is the rage for order on the plains,
barbed wire clenched tight from post to post.
Acres of land each year go back to sand

and disappear. Nothing not tied down
stays home. Canadian geese fly over us
each fall, each spring, and never stay.

Our steers two times a year trudge up
board ramps to slatted walls of trucks
from the slaughterhouse. Even our children

rise up like owls and fly away. Nights,
you turn for me to hold you. We pretend
we go away by writing French love notes

in dust on the headboard. At dawn,
you smooth oiled cloths over all we wrote
the night before. By dusk, the film is back,

the earth we live on, the dust our fingers
string new fences on, holding each other
one more night with loving words.