Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Poetry Month Series: Leland Kinsey

{In honor of National Poetry Month, Godine and Black Sparrow poets will be periodically commenting upon their work, their writing process, and the art of poetry.}

"Into the Badlands"

The high plains were in late light,
but the bottom of the river-, wind-, and rain-torn
gorges below us lay dark. If I’d descended
the steep hand carved road at night,
I wouldn’t have realized the size
of the vestibule of hell I was entering.
The tops of crags and hills looked red,
as if moss-covered, but from the near slope I could see
it was all rusted rock, as though you’d taken
the peen of a hammer and busted
metallic stone to a pebble debris.
Here and there large pieces of the same rock
sat like birettas atop free-standing Wgures,
fat or thin, of rock like concrete.
Hoodoos. Minor gods to the Indians,
who, like me, hadn’t known the world was so old.
Smudges fumed by the camp as we arrived,
the men sat with nets on their heads,
mosquito season, a soft storm of insects.
Sternberg, the old man himself, said they’d exposed
so many bones they’d have to trust
I was any good. Said he’d dug here
for several years now, the best dinosaur hunting
in the world. A fellow named Barnum Brown
had been earlier, but others just ruined their Wnds.
The Sternbergs had been called in to get the fossils
out of the diYcult stone. “Barnum dug all over
my diggings in Wyoming,” he said,
“and then brought his tents and act up here.
He shipped to the great museums of the world,
and the Canadians decided to keep some bones
home, and brought us in.” First lessons.

The Wrst morning I drove a team far
up a creek bed. I headed for three perfectly rounded
hills, the tois tits I thought, each topped
with a small stony cap like a nipple.
Their lower sides looked like beech bark
deeply scarred by bear claws. I soon lost
sight of them in the ridges, hummocks, ledges,
tunnels, and outwashes, switchbacks,
small canyons, terraces, and lofty outcrops.
Sternberg would later lend me a book
detailing the tortures of early travelers
trying to Wnd their way across this tortuous land.
I found my way up to a ledge where a skull
lay half dug out. Teeth like bowie knives,
eye sockets the size of my head. One son
was already starting to plaster. Tissue paper
went on Wrst, to keep the plaster from sticking,
he said, when they Wnally cleaned the whole thing
in weeks or months of work. Then he laid
on strips of cloth soaked in plaster.
Once the top was done I waited hours
while they dug underneath with hand tools
and small brushes, turned the skull over
on the now hardened cast and did likewise
to the rest till it all was encased, and loaded it
on a small pallet-like skid. My work began,
to get the horses to drag that heavy
new-made mummy down with little jarring
and no breakage through a bad stretch
of badlands to the wagon landing
near where the scows were tethered
to the river shore.
There seemed an odd echo.
My grandfather had told how he worked
for several years in the century before
making "Mummy Paper."

{ed: "Mummy Paper" is the title of the next section of this longer piece, titled "Alberta Wheat Fields;" many of the poems in this collection are linked thusly.}

Traveling to do research for a poem may seem like an odd idea, but in the fall of 2004 that’s what I set out to do. A French-Canadian immigrant, whom I’d met as an old man had gone by rail from northern Vermont to the Alberta wheat fields to work horses in the nineteen-teens. Besides doing that, he’d wound up hauling bones out of the dinosaur badlands. I drove only during the day, to see what he’d seen. Twelve hours a day, 725 miles a day for three days, and I was in Medicine Hat. I camped in the badlands near where paleontologists camped as they dug the richest fossil beds in the world. Coyotes and mule deer moved past my tent in the night. Lightly colored prairie falcons whirling overhead during the day reminded me of standing under eastern pale chanting goshawks over the Serengeti, about which I written in my previous book, and the landscape had similarities as well. I hiked deep into the dry digging areas during the day. I happened to meet a man and his young daughter on a trail; I asked him about his family in the area. His grandparents had moved from Minnesota in 1914 as the wheat lands opened. We talked long past his daughter’s tolerance. I also stopped at local historical societies, and aged general stores to meet oldsters. I drove through lands owned by the Blackfoot and the Blood, Indians with whom the immigrant had had dealings. And I spent a good deal of time at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, one of the world’s great fossil collections, up the Red Deer River from the badlands. Then three more days driving home in late fall, the time the immigrant returned those years he went. Material from that trip wound up in ten pages in the long poem “Alberta Wheat Fields,” and its subsections “Into the Badlands,” and “City of Geese,” in my book The Immigrant's Contract. My trip gave my character’s voice veracity.

(This poem appears in Leland Kinsey's collection The Immigrant's Contract.)

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