TWYLA M. HANSEN AND LINDA M. HASSELSTROM
"Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet"
The Backwaters Press
One of this year’s High Plains Book Awards finalists for poetry, "Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet," invites comparison between the voices of two Midwestern poets, Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom. They approach similar themes in their work — farming, country living, ecology, teaching and the politics that affect both the land and the people who live there.
Making their homes in Nebraska and South Dakota, respectively, these two poets focus their work on the troubles that beset the land. Hansen writes about the hazards of agribusiness, chemicals and failed farm policies; Hasselstrom describes roadside litter, contends with the bombings in Iraq and makes note of cyanide poisoned springs. Interspersed in the work of both writers are poems about memory and the interconnection between families and the place they inhabit.
Hansen sets the tone for this volume with “Morning Fog,” which begins and ends with breath. In between the first and last lines, she catalogs the greater influences on rural life in the northern plains: “In early fall I walk through Salt Creek ... taking in ... air that has arrived here from Canada/southward, the jet stream sagging, bringing particles/from the northern plains, sucking up dust off farmsteads/off feedlots and hog factories, the exhaust of giant equipment/working vast acreages, row crops to feed all those animals,/their waste collected in clay pits, leaking into lakes, streams,/into groundwater, rivers ripe with nitrates.” The poem goes on to describe “the sprawl and slow choke/of traffic,” crowded skylines and interstates. The speaker breathes in this world in the final lines of the poem, emphasizing the need to continue her relationship with a place unduly altered by forces beyond her control.
In these poems there are tensions between rural and urban environments, between government policy and the experience of living on the land, between cultures who have inhabited the plains for centuries and those who came later. Hasselstrom speaks often of teaching on and off the reservations, and of sharing the customs of her own Celtic background with skeptical Native American children.
She tackles other topics as well. In “Robbing the Poet,” Hasselstrom tells a story about a poet named Sylvia whose house has been broken into and who has lost everything except for the few things in her writing room — books and art, her desk and her poems. The thieves thought there was nothing of value there, and Sylvia seems content to inhabit her now-empty house and keep everyone out of her small studio. Here and elsewhere Hasselstrom celebrates an oddly bestowed blessing of isolation for the artist who needs, most of all, space to work without interruption.
Sometimes blunt and direct, sometimes lyrical, these poems portray rural life with its frustrations and rewards, its limitations and loss. These are poems that will resonate with readers who share a similar love of the northern plains.
Tami Haaland is the author of two books of poetry, "Breath in Every Room" and "When We Wake in the Night." She is a professor of English at Montana State University Billings.