Words of a Prairie Alchemist: The Art of Prairie Literature

May 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 18-4: Health and Healing, Media Reviews

Ice Cube Press (2006)
North Liberty, IA

Review by Jonathan Holden

One of the best and the most important poets of Kansas has always been Denise Low. Both the quality of Denise Low’s mind and the diversity of her interests are epitomized in her latest book.

It’s hard to know where to start in praising this collection, but I’ll take a chance: This book is the equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. First, its form is radical. It’s an “anatomy,” as fundamental as Northrop Frye’s famous, virtually encyclopedic classic The Anatomy of Criticism.

Prairie Alchemist is a mixed-genre book, containing poems, essays, stories, and interviews. It is both learned and profoundly eclectic.

Two themes emerge in this anatomy: the importance of Native-American tradition in Kansas literature and in the work of Low and other prairie folk such as William Stafford. Low is partly Native, and it turns out that Stafford is also partly Native.

This is a book that one can read and re-read endlessly and discover fresh pleasures. Possible the most fitting way to close this appreciation would be simply to quote some of the good stuff in this book, say from its final poem “Tulip Elegies”

November, season to aim
the spade and bear down hard.
Grass gives, rips open:
sod and black flesh.
From crumbled stone will rise
the new year. I bury
crisp buds into the breach
and press them further down.
Decay surrounds these children
all winter like memory surrounds
each moment. Next March

shining petals will carry
a core of darkness up . . .

Each stalk forms itself
with the symmetry of Bach,
pulls green blood up
into latticework of cells–
augers headfirst
into windy blast
and sun dazzle . . .

This shining in my chest–
familiar, painful, a yearning
to bust loose from skin . . .

My shape carries a heat within,
counted out in rhythms when we kiss
and when springtime, I see
a fresh tulip–scarlet, full-fired.

When to stop? This is superb poetry, reminiscent of my favorite poet Gerard Manley Hopkins or my favorite non-fiction author James Watson and his Nobel-prize-winning book Double Helix. Yet Denise Low is altogether unique.

Jonathan Holden is an English professor at Kansas State University and was Kansas’s first poet laureate.

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