Saturday, July 3, 2021

The #Midwessay: Denise Low, Not Missing Kansas


 Not Missing Kansas

Denise Low


After decades in Kansas I moved away, but it was too late. My bone and teeth structures are made of Kansas plants and animals, leeched from my digestive system. Folk wisdom says it takes seven years to replace all the elements in the body, but I know from constant repairs that my teeth have not been replaced since they appeared at age ten. Each one is a Kansan. I chew with grinders formed, indirectly, from Flint Hills limestone.
     My memories spiral constantly, filled with people and sunsets, streets, and thunderstorms—set in Kansas. Yes, I miss friends and relatives, but they were with me so often, they still seem close at hand. 
Body and soul, I am made from the central geography of Kansas. Inside my brain, some magnetic orientation aligns me with a different homing beam, like a migrating bird. I look for the rising sun on a broad horizon. 
     So away from the region this second year, in California, there is little I miss. I carry Kansas within me. I am a solid hologram composed of many forgotten meals and filled with images of the past. My corporality and memories are portable—an asset of our roving species heritage.
     Odd things, though, arise. I miss lilacs. I miss rows of lilac bushes in the country that delineate old farm households. I miss spring’s profligate eruptions of French lilacs, white lilacs, and the standard purple-laden bushes with their heart-shaped leaves. In my new town, few people grow lilac bushes, and those that do complain that they only bloom once in the year, not continuously like crepe myrtle and oleander. 
     I miss the spring cacophony of birdsong. In northern California, a few quail call plaintively in the early morning as males entice mates. A kettle of buzzards circles our house silently every afternoon about four o’clock. A small clique of golden crested sparrows pecks nervously in the garden at twilight. The crows—well, the crows are always crows. No one ever misses them because they never depart.
     Lance Henson, a Southern Cheyenne poet, once told Joseph Bruchac how the intangible energy of a place interacts with a person, intermingles. Here I experience how skin is indeed a permeable boundary. Fog rising off the river today leaves a film of water everywhere, until the sun burns it away. I inhale the atomized blend of river and air, like in Kansas I inhaled the aroma of sweetgrass carried on the same circling winds. Not much is left behind.


Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-09, is winner of a Red Mountain Press Award for Shadow Light, poems. Other recent publications are Jackalope (fiction, Red Mountain, available through the author) and a memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (U. of Nebraska Press), a finalist for the Hefner Heitz Award. At Haskell Indian Nations University she founded the creative writing program. Currently she teaches for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. 

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 LowKansas Coordinator.

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

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