Kwame Dawes is not a poet of the American Great Plains, though the landscape and its seasons serve as the space for the poets latest room for meditation. Unlike his colleague at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Ted Kooser, Dawes is a transplant to the American Midwest. In his latest poetry collection, Nebraska (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Dawes’s obsession is fixated on ideas of place and the feeling of displacement this landscape so foreign to his own has conjured.
In “The Chronicler of Sorrows” he writes, “Were I better at this, I would study almanacs, / chart the seasons, visit Ted Kooser on his farm / in midwinter, without invitation.” With few exceptions, when Dawes writes about Nebraska, the state seems to be in a permanent winter, which a reader can certainly imagine as being a significant trope representing the state’s recent history of flooding due to excessive rain. Just like much of the world outside of Nebraska, the state, too, is experiencing a climate crisis that echoes throughout the backdrop of these poems, creating a sense of never-ceasing gloom for the land and its people, which is inescapable from the poet’s perception. Such a cycle of seasons is rich with opportunity for reflection amid expansive whiteness, a type of washing that can be overwhelming at times, scattered across the seemingly never-ending terrain. Winter is a time where the poet must lament his exile from home.
This collection’s epigraph is taken from the recently adopted Nebraska state slogan. In 2018, the new state motto was unveiled—“Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” In “The Enemy of Memory,” Dawes responds directly to the motto, writing that this is “only funny if you are not an alien arriving for / the first time / in midsummer, shocked by the long day, the blank inertia of the faces – not/for everyone.” For the poet, to be an outsider, an immigrant, a person of color in this land with a slogan like this can be unnerving, though fear is not wholly a response to be avoided. This is to say that Nebraska, the state, seems to be a quant, polite place that at times lulls the excitement away from life.
In the middle of one of the earlier poems, “Advent,” Dawes writes:
Here in Nebraska I have learned the art
of restraint – hoarding lamentations and complaints;
how to hold my tongue until it is clear
that those around me have unlearned
the rituals of compassion; they cannot see
the despair in my eyes.
Here, and throughout the collection, we come to understand Nebraska as a battle land for the poet, sometimes in terms of the physical and at others, the spiritual. In a poem like “Advent,” the poet has to continue fighting against a place that seems holy in its own right, bordering on sacrilege at a church that chooses to abstain from playing Christmas music in favor of “the radio songs–good, clean Jesus / of Chick-fil-A and Texas charm.” Or, like in the poem “Transplant,” where Dawes likens the open landscape of the Great Plains to the Garden of Eden, “It grows dark quickly here, / and God no longer strolls/ the gardens…”
In the first poem of the collection, “How I Became an Apostle,” Dawes begins:
Now that I have my thorn in the flesh,
I can write epistles, holy writs. It’s winter.
I limp out just after the delicate chaos
of flurries covers the driveway and I shovel.
This is a ritual of sin: after clearing a long
path, behind me the pox of snow returns.
Though this new place is a fixture in the life of these poems and the poet, it is still imperative to Dawes that he have the opportunity to look back to when home meant something very different for him. When he writes in “Longing for the Hall of the Dead” that “remembering can be an incantation / for light,” it is because memory and imagination take up an all-consuming passion that soothes even in the midst of crisis or displacement. In “The Immigrant Contemplates Death,” Dawes thinks back to Accra and to Jamaica, to soils he knows so well and so soft. Soils for burial, because an intimacy of that nature, with the land, seems more freeing than the current landscape of cold, unflinching solidity. It seems that the poet’s inability to imagine in this landscape is the fear that occupies much of the his writing. In “The Midwestern Sky,” Dawes writes that he feels like “I am an alien / in this wide-open country” then later:
In time, I fear, I too,
will turn this questioning into silence,
and I will welcome death as one
welcomes the winds from the west,
deep in winter–with resignation,
and with nothing of the pulsing
delight that fear can fill our hearts with.
Still, beauty remains in this expanse, as the poet contemplates the wealth of opportunity that seems innate—now, as well as when the plains people first saw the land, concluding in “Prairie” that the wide-ranging opportunity must be home to imagination and continual new beginnings. This is where Nebraska meets the poet most intimately, as a place of riches and with a history of new beginnings.