Category Archives: Letters to a Poet

Return at High Summer

time poet/to put aside what you came to/leaving all else/behind
Andrew Suknaski, “Western Prayer,” Wood Mountain Poems

Andy,

You would have been 75 today. Seventy-five revolutions around the sun, it should be, but you stopped just short of 70.

It was no surprise to discover your solar return to be at high summer when the sun is at its full strength here in these southern hills, in this western land, when it seems fit to swallow the land whole. More than anything else it’s the sun that makes this place what it is, grows us into who we are, the sun that scorches away all that is unnecessary, the sun that both gives and takes.

I cast your chart, Andy. That’s something I do for people who matter to me, both theliving and dead.  A child of the sun but also a son of Neptune. Fire and water. An uneasy, smouldering combination, two elements at odds but which come together in their mutual obeisance at the altar of emotion. Inwardly watery, outwardly spitting sparks – am I right to deconstruct your character so? Did you ever feel like your inner self was drowning, Andy? Even as your words scorched pages with their searing honesty. Another thing common to water and fire – the ability to purge, cleanse, purify. Burn down to the bone and wash away all trace of any artifice. Getting at the truth, even if it burns you alive, or drowns you from the inside.

It was hot today, Andy. The sun was everything and everywhere until it finally dropped down into the horizon in a glory of magenta. Even it seemed glad to be gone, to relinquish itself to the brief  respite of a hot and windy summer night. We know now that the sun never really leaves, that it’s always shining somewhere. But the ancients did not know that; what they knew was that the sun departed before the night. It gave way to the wisdom of the moon and stars. It rested as we mortals rest.

And they knew, too, that the sun returns every year to the same places and shines in the same kind of way and imbues those born at that particular time with a certain set of traits, predilections, capacities, potentials. Of course you were born when you were, with the sun like it always is on July 30th in this particular intersection of latitude and longitude. Son of the sun, borne of the highest heat and driest dry, a true child of this place.

As the sun rests at night, so do I hope you rest now.

 

 

to find a ghost

Andy — today I went looking for your ghost in Wood Mountain. Rounding the last curve on Highway 18 heading east, it appears suddenly. But without three elevators, without even one to announce itself, it must be content with an oversized sign.  A grand introduction, as if to challenge the assumptions of the uninitiated that this tiny place might be unimportant.

Wood Mountain – the overlarge sign proclaims, hinting at a grandeur not immediately obvious. But, with only a smidgen of curiosity, hints of its grandiosity can be found.

First – the land itself. It was one of those days, Andy, when the sky is weighted with scattered, puffy clouds, and the wind is strong enough (stronger than enough) to send them scudding hither and thither, so that their shadows sweep up and down the hills.         It’s the time of year when the grass is maturing, ripening into yellow. Even with the abundance of rain this year, the hills mellow to burnished gold. And on them the cattle work at their eternal grazing, as tatanka once did.

The town itself is quiet and I do not linger overlong. I find nothing of you there, except echoes of bits of remembered lines. The closed up Trail’s End with the tree growing right where people used to lounge and smoke and fistfight. The tree is big enough to suggest how long it’s been since a rye and Coke or a Pilsner were last served behind the wall it now leans against.

But just south, where the land drops down into heavily bushed coulee, revealing why the place is named what it is, there is more life, and more whispers that contain your name.     The park, with its boughs of browning poplar piled atop the stands – green a few weeks ago when they shaded spectators of the Sports. Yes, Andy, the rodeo continues, when so much else does not.

People are camping in their big trailers tucked awkwardly into niches carved out of the trees. There is a brand new swimming pool, its chlorinated water a startling blue contrast to the yellowing hills and dusty green trees surrounding it. I wonder idly at the volume of water contained within its concrete walls – such a precious thing that people paddle around in. Its newness, and the money it took to build it, seem boastful compared to the aging museum beside it.

That is where I finally find you, Andy. In the Rodeo Ranch Museum. They have some of your poems in stock this time – a glossy reprint with a stylized Sitting Bull on the cover. I’m very glad to see it, though I do prefer my own dogeared copy, the one I tracked down with some effort, a retired library book sold online. The Sitting Bull on my copy is faded, like an old photograph. It seems more fitting, somehow. But if people are going to discover your poetry behind a slick, updated cover, there’s no harm in that.

I find you in a few other places, too. But more poignantly, I find the folks who peopled your poems scattered throughout the place, their names as familiar as old friends. Like Vasile Tonita, and some of the other Romanians. I find intimate details about them, like their dates of birth and the number of children they had.

And outside the wind blew through the grass and for all that has changed, I guess that one thing at least has remained the same. I did not find your ghost in Wood Mountain today, Andy.

But I was only passing through. Perhaps if I stayed awhile, let the place seep into me and I into it for a time, I would find your ghost, or it would find me. Or maybe your ghost haunts some other place, Wood Mountain too full of restless spirits already to accommodate another one, even that of a poet.

 

 

 

To a Wood Mountain Poet

Suknaski –

or can I call you Andy?

Not Andrew, but Andy as they still

call you back in Wood Mountain where

I first heard of you at the Ranch Rodeo Museum

But I could not buy your poetry there –

out of print.

Andy —

You were already a year dead by that time

though I didn’t know that of course,

knew nothing about you at all.

Just a name that I remembered.

It was still some time before I actually read your poems

and found I had known them all along, somehow.

Andy —

You were closer to all this history than I was,

could speak to them at the Trail’s End

where the blue smoke hung heavy and the

stream of bullshit flowed smooth.

But sprinkled in bullshit there is always truth

spoken outright, or to be gleaned.

Andy —

You could speak to Soparlo and Lecaine,

and the Rumanians with the Old Country still

on their tongues, and the Lakota who remembered

Sitting Bull as if they’d starved next to him themselves

that winter in 1879-80, when they had to eat the horses

and still starved anyway.

Suknaski —

 You could tell the stories of people and places

in a way I never can, for it was closer then, more immediate.

Now it recedes, further and further.

Wood Mountain is deader than you remember

though alive still.

I am left only with ghosts, summoned from your stanzas,

their whispers more faint with each passing year.

Your ghost knows I am poor, as I know it.