Review by Alexa Mergen
DIRT SONGS: A PLAINS DUET
by Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom
The Backwaters Press
3502 N. 52nd Street
Omaha, NE 68104-3506
2011, 147 pp., $16.00
Birds, friends, plants, events from the newspaper, walks, labor and family populate the poems in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet. The two poets, Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom, compose harmonizing melodies. Mostly free verse, the poems flow sequentially and can also be dipped into at random.
The poets know the places they write of: Nebraska for Hansen in Part One, South Dakota for Hasselstrom in Part Two. The collection starts with Hansen’s “Morning Fog” pointing out that, amidst pollution ad sprawl, “we’re all here now, in early fall walking/over Salt Creek, breathing the collective air, right under our noses.” Hansen and Hasselstrom ask the reader to pay attention, to bluestem, red cedar, opossum, swallow, and old friends. Their poems are simply titled, naming the subject they address, as in “Lettuce,” “Egg,” and “Autumn” or summarizing the poem’s event: “Lost in the City Again,” “Visiting the Nursing Home,” and “Ice Skating on the Dam.” The apparent simplicity defies the depth of feeling achieved. When Hansen writes that “all day the house as if holding its breath” in “My Granddaughter Sick” the reader feels the apprehension surrounding the feverish child while “the moon, a heavy saucer, reclines/pale and cumbersome above the treeline,/this chilled horizon brittle with bare limbs.” In Hasselstrom’s “Making the Best of It,” loss pervades a widow’s move. “In this village where/no one speaks my language,” she writes, “I live in a single room.” Throughout her section of Dirt Song, Hasselstrom addresses the making of a poet’s life. This poem concludes
I watch and write
compact words that seem
to form themselves in lines.
Paragraphs scale the walls.
On the tawny cliff before me,
I witness each day live and die,
and never calculate its whole.
In Hasselstrom’s “I Ain’t Blind and This is What I Think I See,” the speaker is driving the Interstate to a poetry teaching gig. She notices roadkill and trash, the hawk among it, and remembers images, words her father said, and The New Yorker who told her she couldn’t be a poet. Her poems take the reader deep into the past. “Valentine for My Mother” alternates between a Safeway shopping trip and a mother’s last days. Time waves, dropping linearity.
Tomorrow all the blooms
that do not sell will pucker
in the dumpster
brown as the roses whipped
by the cemetery wind
the day after my mother’s burial.
Cut flowers don’t last
I muttered to the mound
above her heart.
In “Finding Mother’s Jewelry,” the speaker wonders about the onyx, opal, rhinestone and coral she finds in a tin while the woman who once wore the pieces is “lain beneath the only stone she owns,/where her name is carved in granite.” The speaker decides to take the “hoard” of jewelry to Goodwill.
Hasselstrom’s poems snag time by pinpointing lives among the passing news. In “On This Day,” a “ragged little dog” dies on December 20th and the speaker notes historical events that occurred the same day: Gershwin’s birthday, a coal mine explosion, a ship’s explosion. “Faces flicker through my mind,” the poet writes, “all the people I have loved/who are dead on this day–/millions I have never known,/lovers, husbands, parents, children,/all dead and remembered or forgotten.”
“When a Poet Dies” showcases the best of the time travel and reflection on writing; the speaker swings between a “lesser” poet passing time and the death of William Stafford, a poet she admires. The refrain “when a poet dies” beats like a heart through the poem.
When a poet dies, no one lowers a flag,
or beats a muffled drum to the cadence
of the poet’s best-known elegy.
When a poet dies, no one leads a riderless horse
down the avenue, spurred boots turned backward.
No one shoots the poet’s typewriter beside the open grave,
tells the bees, frames the family photograph in crape,
hangs a black wreath on the door. Somewhere,
a publisher may nod and think Collected Works.
She brings to the poem’s end a “a mule deer doe stepping off a shelf of ice.”
Read in order, Hansen’s elegies in Part One set the reader up for “When a Poet Dies,” in Part Two. Hansen’s “Work” recalls a time when “we took care of the land; the land took care of us” and reminds that “all honeybees need is pollen and nectar, an unspoiled spring-/fed creek, the occasional gentle hand to encourage them on.” In “Early Walk, Late October,” Hansen’s speaker finds a doe, “its rear legs wrenched beneath” as “the string of traffic swerves, does not slow down.” The poem continues
Pawing her front legs, she struggles to lift the sack
of her body out of harm’s way, her brown eyes
huge in the oncoming headlights. Nobody’s fault.
How many times before, I think, she must have
chanced this clash of nature and development,
survived by the sheer luck of numbers. Late
October, and soon enough, the night will swell
with witches and brooms, clowns and monsters,
the chatter of youth, chill of the unknown.
There’s nothing I can do: crush of tires,
her 200 pounds. I turn and run. Trailing me,
a human-like sound crying out from the wind.
How little and how much a poet can do to gentle the world–that’s what the poems in Dirt Songs show. Poets, the lesser and the great, look at each day and address it. We write of deer, dogs, grandmothers, fathers, lovers, wars, news and breakfast. Like Hansen’s child protagonist in “Small,” every poet is, in a sense, a “small fry in a small town, making small/talk about small-time lives into the small hours.” The poems in Dirt Songs are mugs of drip coffee shared over a scratched table; they are not not tiny cups of cappuccino in a wi-fi cafe. They ask you to roll up your sleeves, stay awake, pay attention, and grab a pen.
Alexa Mergen’s poems appear most recently in The Packinghouse Review, Quill & Parchment, and Verbatim. She lives in Sacramento and works with people locally and long-distance as a writing guide and creativity coach. Her website is: www.alexamergen.com.