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Tag: Poet Laureate

South Dakota’s Prairie Poet Laureate, Part II: More Poems

April 20, 2024

NOTE: This piece was written by Julianne Hanson, PhD, of Spearfish. With her permission, SDHC is sharing it in honor of National Poetry Month. In the first installment, South Dakota Poet Laureate Bruce Roseland shared one of his best-known poems, “A Prairie Prayer,” and described his inspiration for the poem and its impact. Part II continues with four more of Roseland’s best-received poems and his commentary on them.  

In Our Hearts

What connects us to the scent of rain on the earth,
to the last sight of geese in the fall,
to the first sight of geese in the spring,
to the first gasping breath of the newborn calf,
to the warmth of our homes when winter winds blow?
We are the sum of our senses and more,
we who grow a living from the land
cannot live without being connected
to this sky and to this earth,
to feel life in our very steps as we stride through our days.
Still, we lie awake at night
worrying whether ends will meet,
whether the path we have taken will work out,
whether the rain will come,
whether the sun will shine,
whether our will and physical core
shall weaken or stay the course.
We have found the good, while dealing with the bad.
We have stayed, when others have left.
Such is the power
of our land’s beating heart.

Roseland’s Commentary: “In Our Hearts” is my reflection on the choice I made to return to the family ranch. I found it was hard, but I liked it. Then the 80s came, with the farm crisis. Many had to leave, just couldn’t make it, and the ones who did stay had to work extremely hard. Things got a little better in the 90s, and better in the 2000s.

I thought about why folks tried so hard to stay here. I realized it had to do with connections, not with how much money you could or could not make off the land, but the connection to the land, to the life around you, the lifestyle. It’s something that’s hard to put into words because the answer is found in our hearts. I tried to express this feeling in words.

Those of us who’ve stayed often lie awake at night, wondering if we can make ends meet, if our will and physical core can stand the stress, whether or not we’ve got what it takes. But we find we do, because in the end, the land itself is in our beating hearts. We are a part of something alive, something primeval. We need that connection to all that the land can give us.

People relate to “In Our Hearts” because it speaks to our commonalities, to what keeps us here. My words are things folks here have inside them. We grew up with the change of seasons, with geese flying over every spring, flying back every fall. If we were plopped down in Florida, we’d miss it, we’d miss what has become our internal rhythm.

A hundred years from now, God willing, I hope the geese still fly overhead, the sun still rises and sets upon a place called South Dakota. It’ll be different, but I hope there’ll be enough of the same elements to give folks that familiarity, that connection. Those who stay here will stay because what is in this land, is in their hearts.

Moonshine

There is always something mystical
about a sky lighted by moonshine.
Stars are present,
but gentler;
clouds floating
across the night sky are a translucent white.
The moonlighted Earth
can be traveled about
without need of any additional light.
I have stood in the middle of my yard
and read a newspaper by moonshine.
When was it that we became afraid
of the dark, like death,
hiding in our cities of light?
In doing so we lost
that half of the night
that is moonshine.
With the full moon upon the countryside,
it’s easy to imagine
walking out, striding over the land,
disappearing into the shadows to find
the mystery that you know has
always been on the very edge of your life.
Find a road.
Follow the moonshine.

Roseland’s Commentary: “Moonshine” just popped into my head around the early 2000s. I thought it was a good poem, but my editors didn’t think it fit with my other poems, so it wasn’t published until years later. I wrote it because one of the things we have here in the wide open is getting to see our night sky. Many in more populated areas with more lights no longer have that.

I was always appreciative of the night sky, even as a child, especially when there was a full moon. Something about it felt mystical. I’d like others to appreciate this unique gift of ours.

When I was a kid, I used to take a flashlight and wander around. I realized I feared anything outside that beam of light. Once I turned the flashlight off, I saw there was still light, that I could see pretty good. I realized I’d just been afraid of the dark. Once you lose that fear, you get your night sight. On a full moon, you can see well. The ordinary things have a different look to them. It’s a mystical feeling. I think we have this fear of being outside the comfort of our homes, of engaging with things that aren’t familiar.

When I wrote “Follow the Moonshine,” I was saying maybe that’s a road we should all take. It’s not the road that’s obvious, but it’s the one in our hearts. We all want to take a little chance, step out of our ordinary and see what’s there, step out of that beam of light and let our eyes begin to see what has been there all our lives.

Every time I read “Moonshine” publicly, I get the same feeling. Don’t hide in your cities of light. Step out into the unknown, into the moonshine. We hide within the known. Once we allow ourselves to step out, the unknown is no longer frightening, it becomes intriguing. Take a chance. Follow the moonshine.

A Funeral Lament

As I shut a pasture gate, miles away from home,
a neighbor pulls up.
After exchanging the usual greetings, I ask him what
brings him down this particular road,
a road neither he nor anyone else lives on.
He says he’s coming back from a funeral in town,
and has heard that the pasture land across this road
has been sold and is going to be broken up, big time.
He thought he would take a look if they have gotten started.
I know the previous owner of this land.
He had said a while back he would never sell.
“Well,” says my neighbor, “if you had been offered
the price they were offered, you might have sold, too.”
I look across the road as he talks:
acres of rising and falling
swells of grass
soon to be put to the plow.
The grubs, the bugs, the living sod
and all the wildflowers alive
in this continuous grass, this fragment of what
once was a never-ending carpet called The Great Plains,
will soon be dead.
“Oh well,” says my neighbor,
“can’t blame ’em for breaking good pasture.
The way economics are, cows won’t pay
what that land cost.”
I know that corn and wheat will feed many people.
People, by and large, are a good cause.
Still, I wonder as I drive home
on a dusty country lane,
who will pay to keep
the crickets and the bumblebees,
the prairie’s food chain
few ever get to see from disappearing?

Roseland’s Commentary: I wrote “A Funeral Lament” after visiting some pasture land I was renting. A neighbor I know stopped by. He’d just attended a funeral in town, where gossip said this land was going to be broken up. The sons of the deceased grandfather who first owned the land told me they’d never sell. The poem is about grassland conversion and how it affects things.

It all boils down to economics. If you can make an extra $5 or so an acre by breaking up pasture for crop land, that’s what many folks find it necessary to do. It’s pretty relentless. Technological advances both in crops and machinery, down to the genetics of the crops we’re planting now, have made the big difference in valuing crop land over pasture.

I don’t have any real answers to it, other than we put money into what we value, or perhaps it’s the other way around, we don’t cash in on the things we value, we keep them. For a lot of the birds, bees, wildflowers, and trees out there in the grasslands, they don’t have anybody to speak for them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

We take a lot of things for granted. We have great hindsight. We look back and say to ourselves, maybe if we’d made a little more effort, or changed a few things, or directed our tax dollars a bit differently, we could have saved some of these things.

Any ecosystem is complex. If you shrink it down to where there’s not much left, it doesn’t take a lot to tip what is left into oblivion. A hundred years from now, we might look back and say, “Gee, it might have been nice to have a few more butterflies around.” But we make our decisions now. I’m trying to build awareness. We put our money and effort into what we value.

Celebrate: We Want to Know

Sing to me of South Dakota, tell it
like Carl Sandburg did about Chicago’s big shoulders.
Tell me about the workers
of infinite variety within this state.
How goes their day?

Tell me the what, tell me the why,
tell me about a day in your life.
Did Spring creep up on you one fine morning
on cats’ feet as you beheld your first crocus
with the snow of winter barely gone?

Who has not had a night of the dark soul
that broke on through to the other side?
Did you light your candle on both ends
with a flame oh so bright and now, years later,
are you ever more wise?

Have you climbed the former Harney’s Peak
and from that vantage point seen five different states?
Standing on the dome, did you hear Black Elk speak?
Were the words whispered? Did they roar?
Tell me.

Tell me if Sioux Falls is the best little city,
on a summer Friday evening’s air,
as the young and the restless,
arm in arm, slow dance down the sculpture walk
on Phillips Avenue.

Tell me about the endless prairie,
quarter sectioned, row cropped and drilled.
Tell me of short grass, cattle and small-town bars,
blue skies and red tail hawks,
until you reach the distant Hills.

Then sing to me of Rapid City’s
Main Street Square popping
to sounds of music
mingling with the sunset colors rainbowing
from the pulsing water fountain’s spray.

Sing me all of South Dakota,
sing me your life,
for the good of poetry
is the celebrating, the telling
of the Golden Age of We.

All that is blessed, all that is struggle, tell me your heart.
Sing of yourself, sing South Dakota.
I want to hear the voices of angels,
I want to hear Walt Whitman’s barbaric yelps
singing through you.

Roseland’s Commentary: I wanted to write a poem that encompasses the state of South Dakota, kind of do a little trip around it. I‘ve always felt that if we don’t talk about South Dakota, who will?

That’s why I bring up Carl Sandberg’s “Chicago.” I wanted to give my poem the feel of that. I want people to celebrate living in South Dakota. What we have here is just as great as any place. We need to talk about it, celebrate it, record it.

When I thought about what my mission should be as Poet Laureate, I wanted “Celebrate” to be my flagship poem. It says what I want to say, that there’s so much to talk about here. I want to hear about what other South Dakotans value. I want to hear your stories.

I want as many people as possible to talk about what we value, to communicate about our lives here. It doesn’t have to be all positive; there’s a lot of struggle here, so let’s write about that, too. For me, the heartache of the economic need to turn prairie into crop land I describe in “A Funeral Lament” goes hand-in-hand with the gratitude I feel for the variety of life available in South Dakota detailed in “Celebrate.” We need to fully appreciate what we have before we’re willing to take steps to preserve it.

From anyplace in South Dakota, you can look around and see a long way. That long look, and all this space, gives us the ability to think a long thought. I want to see as many people as possible write down those long thoughts. Tell me your story. Let’s celebrate.

 I think a lot of folks have never heard anything like this. I hope it sinks in, that rather than saying “listen to my story,” I want them to tell me their stories. If at the end of my term as Poet Laureate, more people are writing and sharing their work, I’ll have been successful.

Roseland offers poets opportunities to share their stories.

“When I was appointed Poet Laureate, I asked the South Dakota Humanities Council to include a new program in their Speakers Bureau, Storytelling as Poetry. Any group can ask me to come to them, hear some of my work and share their own. I’ll have a mic and give folks a chance to practice reading in public, so they can have confidence to participate in any open mic reading. I want to encourage more people to write, to read their work publicly, to share their poems with other writers and their communities. I hope to make more open mic opportunities available across our state.”

 Roseland is delighted with the positive response to the South Dakota State Poetry Society’s Poetry on the Road program. “I enjoy hearing each person share their poems in every town we visit. We have a lot of talented writers in South Dakota. Come join in. Tell me your stories.”


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