Voices on the Prairie









We came first over that broken ridgeline on the wind

and the sun moved ahead of us day after day.

The moon made streaks in the night grass

where our wheels had passed.

Clouds gathered in the dark

and we went on,

leaving our gravestones behind us

like cast off pots.

We came finally

to the prairies and hills we felt were good.

In the end there was no one's hand above us, pointing.

In the end we had to choose what was there

and convince God we were satisfied,

that we expected no more.

We stopped there and planted our seed

and bent our hands and faith to make it grow.



In time we came to be heavy in the land,

giving birth, working and dying,

content in the day's labor and the year's harvest,

the little trees we planted in our dooryards

gaining growth and giving shade.


Our towns sprang up

like shrubs along the riverbank,

giving us contact with ourselves over again

and a place where a man could slake his thirst

after the first snows.

Our girth in the land

a day's ride now to cover it,

our trails turning to roads at the town's edge.



All this in how many generations?

Some of the first of us saw the last

coming of fences,

rails spanning our fields, leaping canyons,

and gasbuggies grinding ruts

over our wagon trails.




It wasn't like the East.

In Kansas you could begin to feel it.

Coming around the lakes,

down past the canals at night

with barge lights flashing on the water,

wet highways black and slick.

In a day and a night and another day

you could cross the river at Hannibal

or drop on down to St. Louis

heading for Tulsa. Paved all the way.

By the third night

you could begin to feel the difference.


The change usually came after dark.

Something in the air.

Not a smell, but a thinning,

the lights and the towns growing farther apart,

the night settling in clear and dry.





And the cabin you stopped at

would have a gas grate for heat,

red and white ceramic fingers

glowing like coals behind the flame,

and the hot water coming from a central heater,

taking all night to get there.

All of the water tasting strange,

the highway noises different,

louder but coming from farther away.


A rattler would bang through in the false dawn,

turning sleep fitful,

and then in the first light,

after a breakfast of damp pancakes

and coffee thick with chicory,

throwing things into the car,

leaving the cabin cold and unpossessed as before,

turning again to the thin ribbon of road.



Tires over tarlines,

the sky open and already dust in the air.

Abandoned casings on the shoulders,

patches of thin weeds and hitchhikers here and there.

Nehi bottles between the telephone poles,

trucks full of Oakies going west,

mattresses and wheels roped to the tailgate.

Already in this third day the people

leaving the land.

House doors open to the wind,

windows shattered

and curtains shredding slowly to lint.


. . .

Hear us,

the women

who curtained these windows with blue cloth

to beat apart finally thread by thread.

Even then the skies

were vacant as far as the eye could see

and a buzzard high in the air

could blot out the sun.

A woman then meant something:

tubs of clean suds in the lean-to

and doilies on the sideboard,

pickles and crockery

and china in the pantry,

and eyes dying slowly

hiding from the wind.


We slept,

and when we woke

it was to road crews pouring concrete slabs

where the ruts had been.

. . .



We were always for business as usual.

In the beginning it was nails and tools,

barbed wire, window glass,

cistern pumps and oil lamps.

Then trade in notions and fabrics improved

and our hardware line continued solid but steady.

When the first Model T came to town

we sold gasoline out of drums, and later

we put up a pump in front

and the kids would hang around

to pump the glass full.


When the dust came we had a lot out on credit,

and some of the families who pulled up stakes

made it good,

but most of them didn't,

and sometimes we got a piece after the mortgage,

but mostly nothing was left that was worth anything.

In the end we had to turn back a lot at a loss

and we came near to folding.


But then they paved through from the east.

We put up a second pump

and hired a regular mechanic,

though we had different ones

at different times as they'd drift on west.

And later we put on a lean-to

with four stools at a bar and three tables

and some of the truckers would stop

and a few tourists.

We stayed open most of the night most nights.






I sing you the song the wind sang to me,

moving through my mother's trellises

as I lay in my cradle.

That song, a sound in my ears

and in my hands when they grasped a plow,

the handles solid and hot from the sun.


That soil – there in the houseyard

swallowed my sweat and turned salty.

Oh, if it could speak

it would tell you, stranger.



. . .


Then the last of us turned from the fields

and plowed around our friends' foundations

and turned up the earth of dooryards

left behind by dusty children.

The eyes of their houses were blind and reproachful.

Their shade trees, veiled in dust, cried out softly

and lay restless on our grates

as we banked our night fires with eyes averted.


Now it is ended.

The lights on the prairie are gone,

carried off on dusty days

by voices in passing.

And who will know again

the sound of the wind in fencelines,

the snow, gathering,


where night feet paused in passing,

toward the lantern ahead,

a star.