Saturday, March 6, 2021

The #Midwessay: Diane Glancy, A Failure to Register Significance

Fire season in Kansas begins in late winter, when frozen ground thaws and its dampness retards the pace of a creeping fire line. Ranchers set fire to pasture’s dry grasses and seedlings on the most calm day possible. Winds are a threat, sweeping from the Colorado Rockies across foothills, through the high plains, and across—and downward from—the high country. The scent of fired grasses blows east to the more populated towns, the sweet smell of grasses burning, an incense. This process, learned from Indigenous friends and relatives (before they were sold out to railroad companies and real estate brokers), sustains the pastureland for bison, cattle, horses, and deer who sometimes graze with cattle herds.
     In this season no person, writer or not, cannot help but be moved by the epic scale of the landscape. I am reminded of this as the season turns to this mode, particular to the grasslands. Once I drove through the Flint Hills after dark when fires still burned, snaking under a full moon, and then a spring snowstorm began. The gleam of blue moonlight on snow streaked with dendritic fire rivulets stunned me. How could I ever imagine my small life as central to the cosmos?
     All the writers’ works that represent Kansas essays in this collection live with this simple fact—the seasons and its weather will overwhelm any human enterprise, and even egos. Many of these writers’ work is new to me, and without question, I know there will be an underlying humility, even from those not born and raised in the Sunflower State. Survive a few ice storms, snow, high winds, and burning heat—and you are a member of the Kansas club. August and September are the months when fields of “weeds” are yellow with wild and a few cultivated sunflower crops. That is another marker of seasons that proceeds outside of people’s management.
     Other factors encourage the Kansas writers. A slower pace leaves time for reflection, reading, book clubs (High Plains Radio’s ambitious series, for example) and literary communities. I would guess there are more writers per capita than most places. Isolation leaves time for individuals to write, without distractions or traffic-filled commutes.
     No, the state is not all flat, nor all black-and-white as in The Wizard of Oz. But what if it were? Even more occasion for a good story.  —Denise Low, Kansas Coordinator.


A Failure to Register Significance

Diane Glancy

Writing a story about Kansas. A contiguity of section lines. 400 miles east to west. 200 miles north to south. State in 1861. Crossed by Coronado in 1541. 

In 2009, I received a Kansas Arts Commission grant to travel Kansas for the land to make an independent film of a traveling gospel musician I never have made. When Everett Was Still Dancing. What does that mean? The story is still traveling. 

But bordering on or being in direct contact with Kansas. Everett still is with me.

During the grant, I drive I-70 from the eastern border of Kansas to the Arikaree Breaks of the badlands in the northwest corner of Kansas—the rough terrain near the Republican River basin. Ravines and gullies intrude on the flat land of the plains. 

I drive south to Mount Sunflower, highest point in Kansas, 4039 feet, where the land begins to raise toward the Rockies. It is indistinguishable from the flatness of Kansas. But there are mementos left at the sight— by those who climbed the summit.

There is the Tallgrass Prairie. Monument Rocks.

Land vacated by the Indians—Kansa, Missouria, Pawnee, Delaware, Otoe, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, Shawnee, Sac, Fox.

Memory is a large part of Kansas.

Even the name of the state means the blue smoke from their campfires and the prairie fires they set. It also means Southwind or People of the Wind.

Samuel Seymour's 1819 illustration of a Kansa lodge and dance is the oldest drawing known to be done in Kansas.

It was dancing that started it.

Kansas was part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

Fort Leavenworth in 1827 was the first settlement in Kansas.

Kansas Territory was organized in 1854.

Fort Larned was established in 1858 to protect the Santa Fe Trail.

Kansas became a state in 1861. Crossed also by the Oregon Trail.

When I drive south to Texas on I-35, I cross Coronado’s path. I pass Council Grove where treaties were signed. Treaties and treaties. Ceding land and ceding land.

And the cattle trails north from Texas to the stockyards in Kansas City where my father went in 1928. In 1951 there was a Great Flood when the Kaw and Missouri Rivers passed over one another, which I was alive to remember and to receive a tetanus shot.

Taking field notes. Taking the haphazard migrations of the wind. Being with the land. Translating it into useable parts. Everett regrets the backroads he has to travel until he realizes Jesus traveled those same kinds of roads.

But when had Everett been dancing? Why is he no longer dancing? Has he been around too many council fires within himself? His wife? His other travel companions? The ministers he runs into who only want their kind of music? His own brother-in-law, Bill Glue, who wants to play wrote and not the improvisational that Everett plays on his guitar when he feels the spirit breaking through the roof of a rural church? The salt lick he passes in the field? The small square white church toward which cars gather as cows around the salt lick?

There is a lot of continuation of images. But where is the story? 

My memory begins in Kansas with trips to my grandfather’s farm 69 miles south from Kansas City on highway 69 until his death in the early 1950’s.

My travels continue. When I need to travel. To be on different parts of the same land. The interruptions of weather. Of heat. Of storm. And always, always, the presence of the wind. I remember wearing a headscarf on the farm as a child to keep from earaches. I remember the cellar as a place to go in storms.
Between the past in what seems crossing the nothingness of sky and land, I comfort the gaps. I step across the precarious tracts of history across the land. The barn in the distance. The herds scattered on the land. Air and land and barn and space and place collaged on a Mark Rothko blaze of blue turning to blue. #17 in particular— the cobalt, royal and azure bleeding into one another as rain falling from distant clouds on the horizon.

The horizon always visible in Kansas. 

I was reading “The Archi-texture of the City as a Network of Translation,” Chris Campanioni, American Poetry Review, November/December 2020, Vol. 49/No. 6, as he reviews Brent Armendinger’s “The Operating System”—
I have taken so many ‘field notes’…a mobile text that re-members itself upon every peregrination, becoming a polyphonic, meta-textual archive—
Armendinger has traveled in Kansas, I thought. Or maybe he is from Kansas—I believe. He has the language of the spatial, “the networks of phatic communion”—which is what Everett plays on his guitar. He talks about traces, visages, and I see the prairie, the plainness, the tribes that roamed and warred.

By 1853 eastern Kansas was opened to American settlers. Reservations moved farther west. 
During travel for the Kansas Art Commission grant, I take shots of the tallgrasses moving in waves across the land. With my SONY Handycam that has since broken and none of the new cameras use the cassettes I have from that early trip to map sites and places that would show where Everett traveled.
I travel over the sameness of roads until I see the differences in the plainness. 

Everett’s sister’s-in-law brother, Krause Mueller, travels to ravines and gullies on backroads in the brush if there is any brush mainly along rivers, if there are any rivers or creeks or rivulets—maybe after a rain storm that would give Sasquatch a drink of water. As God blessed the wide land of Kansas, he must have been interrupted by some other place, and forgot to place water on the plains. That would in the heat of summer need it. To raise the settler’s repeated hopes of raising crops in the arid sameness. How moving across the land there is restoration and at the same time dislocation that is not enormous because it is on the same kind of land. The same stretch. 

And the characters in Hays, Kansas. Everett and Fedelia Glue Fulton. Bill and Oscarita Mueller Glue and their daughter, Julynne. Sam and Lexine Zerter Crews. Howard Zerter, Lexine’s father, who plays the saw. Lilith, his sister, who howls with her craziness until they lock her in the barn. Krause Mueller, Oscarita’s brother, the Sasquatch hunter who stands in for Fedelia in her fabric store when she travels with Everett. Everyone in Kansas in first-person— 
A woman came into the Yard Goods about a purfle. I asked her what that was. An ornamental border, she said. She wanted metallic thread for the purfle. I said I didn’t think we had metallic thread, or a purfle, but Julynne overheard the woman, and showed her where the thread was. 
On a hunting trip, I saw the creek edge was ornamented with the small brown roots of bushes and saplings that overhung the eroded creek-bank, and I remembered the purfle. I was by myself. Where I wanted to be. No one wanting to arrange my life. No one interrupting my thoughts when I was in the middle of them. If only a deer would be my wife.
Laterally, Kansas was divided into 6-mile squares called townships, which are numbered from 1 to 35, going south from the Nebraska border. Each township is further divided into 36 sections that are one mile square. (Some irregular townships have been created to correct for the Earth’s curvature and survey errors.)— Wikipedia 

I sign a treaty with When Everett Was Still Dancing. I will leave it alone when it (and Kansas) leaves me alone.


Diane Glancy is professor emerita at Macalester College. Currently she teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Carlow University. Her latest book, Island of the Innocent, a Consideration of the Book of Job, is from Turtle Point Press, 2020. Forthcoming are A Line of Driftwood, a Story of Ada Blackjack, and Still Moving, How the Road, the Land and the Sacred Shape a Life. Among her awards are two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Minnesota Book Award, an Oklahoma Book Award, an American Book Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas.

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful overview, microview, personal view of Kansas. Thanks, Diane