Friday, December 29, 2017

"DAKOTA BONES, GRASS, SKY" by Linda Hasselstrom (a review)

1973 was the last year I taught in Browning and it was partly because of an Arctic air vortex breaking out of the Polar Vortex that was even worse in consequences than this current one.  But it hasn’t even made the National Weather Service list.  That winter the Browning teachers who lived in East Glacier had to sleep in their classrooms because the road was closed for a week — it looked like Going-to-the-Sun Pass in the Spring and no regular plows could make a dent in it.  We finally got home on a train equipped with a huge fan-like thing on the front and several linked locomotives.  

In Valier this week the temps have been sub-zero and inches of new snow have been falling daily.  Things have slowed down, but mostly they still crawl along.  We watch the forecasts closely and stockpile what we need.  Cattlemen who can afford it have moved their animals to southern grazing.  Otherwise, one must have the grit and muscle to feed out the hay cut last summer when an air-conditioned cab was the only thing to save lungs from dust and heat.

Many youngsters learn about prairie blizzards by reading “Little House on the Prairie,Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of books about her childhood on the prairies.  Today you can go to Tony Bynum’s YouTube account and watch him clear out his East Glacier driveway last winter.  Tony’s career is as a photographer, and because he’s already in place on the rez, we get many more images of winter.  

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote to save the family farm and was commercially successful enough to finally pull the folks out of extreme hardships.  This is the archetype of women writers, that they write about their hardships so as to spin straw into commercial gold.  In the process their own character and abilities grow and they come into harmony with the land around them that could and did kill unlucky humans.

Linda Hasselstrom is a contemporary version of that pattern.  She’s easily found by googling, there on her South Dakota ranch where she grew up.  Sometimes her writing saved the ranch, sometimes the ranch saved the writing (partly by unrolling grand and challenging subjects), and then the whole complex comes in books to save us, just as LIW lent courage to girls everywhere, even in cities.  
Linda’s website/blog is at  There are many women writers in the West now.  Linda was a ground-breaker and has since established Windbreak House as a retreat for women writers who wish to share and grow their skills.  Some come as individuals and some travel there in friendship clusters.  The formal “title” of the blog is “Notes from a Western Life” but it’s much more than that. 

The most recent post is “O Holy Night on the Prairie” on Dec. 24, 2017, and includes photos.  It’s taken from an earlier book:  “Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land” (1991).  “Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal” is Linda’s most recent book.

Her Dec. 14, 2017, post is a review of Susan Wittig Albert’s “An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days”, published in 2010.  Day books, esp. now that people blog daily, are a classic and welcome genre.  Albert and Hasselstrom add a new dimension:  environmentalism.  That means politics.  It’s also a shift from Western women’s books based on surviving by escaping the oppression and drain of rural life, to books that celebrate “staying in place,” finding a nourishing connection to nature and culture where it is.

In 1993 a book of poetry was published:  “Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom”.  In 2017 the book is reprinted with new poems, funny, tragic, mystical, biological — it’s proof of being, evidence of fertile intercourse with place and ideas.  She’s far more generous than I am, because she believes in community (meaning she will write in partnerships and gather other writers into anthologies) and believes in commercial success (meaning she will do the many chores that comes from merchandizing one’s writing — the lectures, the proofing, the negotiations, and the working on one manuscript for years until the thing matures.  She accepts partnerships with a man, even taking the risk of grief when a beloved dies, and sings along with pop CD’s while endlessly driving over endless prairie roads.

Here’s a poem I don’t deserve, though I did teach English on the rez.  (Geraldine Butterfly just passed away, a beloved grandmother. In my mind she’s still a girl, not quite a teen, giggling merrily in her boarding school gang, a silk bandanna on her head in the classic cold-climate way.)

—for teachers who deserve it

You speak high and holy words;
you rant and rave, and read
poetic examples to us.
You assign us to face ourselves, 
to tear away our masks
in front of everyone,
to face the truth,
the terrors of our lives.

We offer you our throbbing hearts
in open hands.
“Is this right, teacher?” we ask
eyes wide open.

You nibble on each heart;
blood drools down your chin.

“Lacking in flavor,” you say,
licking your lips;
“Could be saltier.
But not bad.
Not too bad.”

Teacher, your heart 
is next on the altar.

I looked for a poem about feeding cows in winter, which I know Linda has done many times.  Today it’s a little different, since square 80# bales are obsolete.  Now one rolls the grass and alfalfa into huge wide wheels, using a winder on a tractor.  Then, to feed, one unrolls the wheels into long carpet runners on the snow and all the cows come running, steaming (as Linda says “at both ends”), jostling, to gobble shoulder to shoulder, then lie down in the remnants to ferment it through their stomach series.  I couldn’t find that poem.

Instead, here’s one about “The Successful Writer.”  Remember that this is only one “method,” one “way”, one genre.  There are others.  You don't have to confine yourself to one, but poetry begins here.

The poet’s words will sear the page like coals
in snow.  What he creates will sound of larks
rippling within the hushed dawn
as the coyote bitch relinquishes the night,
assume the shape of plains that sweep to some
remove and instant gasping rise of earth
in clannish snags around an ice-melt lake;
to frail symmetrical success;
taste of honey rolling in the throat;
prickle as do salt grains on the tongue;
sound a plaint in darkness where each beast
peers out in terror from his bone-strewn den.

Over the years I always bought the books of prairie women writers.  They still abide on my shelves.  They are a kind of community.  Sometimes I depart from them in savage ways.  But it would be hard to frighten off Linda.

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