Morphing into Nezahualcoyotl

In a poem entitled “Bowing to Skies in a Hat,†which involves memories of the Vietnam War and of old vets now in boots and Stetsons who “wait / by the windmill grinding its clatter,†McDonald says that they and he are “killing nothing / but time, riding home to our wives after dark.†The facing photo of a half-moon yellow against the horizon, next to a solitary windmill, and with a sky full of clouds tinted an autumn orange reflects perfectly the poem’s evening setting when such vets have grown “calm†and “mellow / after steaks and biscuits, ready to patch barbed wires / and brand, to break strange colts with words, / easy, easy.†Contrary to what the poet says, he has certainly not been killing time, for poems like this piece of penetrating sound and sight have been flowing from his pen or through his computer keyboard for decades, until today he has amassed a publication record of 20 books of poetry, many the winners of prestigious prizes in and outside the state.

At first it may not be clear how the photos in Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains relate to the writing, but there is always some parallel between the two. In “The Waltz He Was Born For,†McDonald writes that “What matters / is timeless, dazzling devotion …not just moons of deep sleep, not sunlight or stars, / not the blue, but the darkness beyond.†The photo illustrates such thoughts through its depiction of a stone monument “of unknown origin†in Foard County and through the bluish, violet, pinkish evening sky and the suggestion both of something “timeless†and of “the darkness beyond.†The source of each photo is supplied unobtrusively at the back of the book, which allows the reader to discover the connections between poem and photo before searching out the exact location of a Meinzer image.

Perhaps my favorite complementary pairing of poem and photo comes with the opening selections for the third section, subtitled “Prairie Was a Tableland of Praise.†Here McDonald’s poem concerns, as the title declares, “Finding My Father’s Hands in Midlife.†The facing photo does not include the hands of the photographer’s own father, but rather his Stetson hat, orange-yellow cowboy shirt with pearl buttons, a rope hanging on the wall behind him, and the man’s creased, sunny skin and slightly watered, piercing eyes. This is a classic photo, and although not a one-for-one illustration of the poem, it somewhat mirrors the poet’s own portrait: “I see his blood in veins here / and here, like dry Texas streams / that flow and disappear in limestone. / When I make a fist, I see his …a picture of family …of his thumb something we closed on, / muscle we loved.â€

The title of this entire volume derives from a line—“great lonely places of the Plainsâ€â€”in a poem whose own title is taken from a traditional cowboy song, “Home on the Range.†Just as McDonald has “prowled†the same old Plains landscape, he also has revisited in a number of poems the lines of this famous song, with one of his books titled after the line “Where skies are not cloudy.†One of his poems that I have long admired is titled after part of another line in this song, “Where seldom is heard,†which concerns not “a discouraging word†but the idea that on the Plains sounds are “seldom heard†because they are so soft or subtle, as suggested in Great Lonely Places by the “deep bumps†of a horse’s heart and rattlesnakes that can “hear the skin of cactus stretch / and squeak like leather.â€

In “Home on the Range,†we find the poet and his wife in the front porch swing (a frequent scene in the book), rocking as he watches “the moonlight in her eyes, the haze / of silver in her hair. Windmills whir the same / old songs, roar of tires on the highway, / headlights of neighbors coming home.†McDonald repeatedly discovers connections between the local and other worlds, as here with the sound of the windmill and the allusion to an “old song.†Meanwhile, the haunting sunset photo on the facing page contains an empty highway reflecting the moonlight, with cloud formations once again a natural work of art captured by Meinzer’s camera.

Often the photographer’s cloudscapes remind me of abstract paintings, especially the one that accompanies “Let Thunder Rattle the Glass.†Here again is a characteristic sound heard on the Plains, and a welcome one too. As the poem says, “Call the bank, / even that cautious banker’s awake, / enough rain to plant sorghum.†This poem also paints a typical scene in which “Lightning gashes the night / like lake ice shattered,†just as the facing photo displays a lightning crack straight down from the top of the frame to the black horizon, with above it layers of orange-yellow sky and dark, threatening clouds whose thunder “bashes†husband and wife “both to silence / beside the blinds raised high.â€

Meinzer’s compositional artistry can especially be seen at work in the image paired with “Under Blue Skiesâ€â€”a foreground of green and yellow wildflowers with cactus in between, and the layers of reddish sandstone of a triangular rise against a pure blue sky. Another magnificent composition faces the poem entitled “Two Years After World War II,†with Meinzer’s image of green and white wildflowers, shocks of dead, straw-like shoots, and angular sandstone buttes jutting into a brewing storm. The eye of the photographer has once again revealed the natural art of the Plains, just as in the poem on a wedding of two veterans “Uncle Carl / lifted her veil with his only hand / and saw how beautiful a marine could be.â€

The variety of settings and scenery in this book is greater than a short review can hope to suggest, but it should be noted that even though the poetry focuses on a limited number of situations and scenes, it still manages to convey a variety of images and emotions. Both the poems and photos range widely in terms of their visual imagery. Taken together, the two media broaden the book’s theme of the ironic vastness of a “lonely,†seemingly desolate place, causing the reader/viewer to discover unsuspected significance in the work of poet and photographer. In the poetry, religious motifs abound, as in the title of “Windmills Like Cathedral Windows,†in references to prayer, Quakers, faith, and God, and in such lines as those on “windmills / spinning on massive posts, / foursquare gospel of water power / bolted to hold the blades / and rudders, to aim the ranch / toward God’s almighty gales, / to face whatever blows.†There are also repeated allusions to time and its effects (imagery of rusting machinery, paintless houses falling in, granite turning to sand); an emphasis on the importance of home and family (“Prairie never lets us / forget we live on a hill called hereâ€); and perhaps above all the revelation of the endless reward of looking closely at the Plains environment. Each poem contributes, in conjunction with the photographic imagery, to making this volume more than a coffee-table book—though it can serve that end as well, since it is so deliciously gorgeous to look at. But in reading the poetry alongside the photography, one comes to an awareness of the spiritual in West Texas life, as seen through the eyes of these two master artists, to a profundity that is far from a mere luxurious publication meant to impress.

The poetry in Great Lonely Places most often presents a realistic view of the red-in-tooth-and-claw existence of a habitat where buzzards’ “whirling funnel of wings†wheels “a slow blessing / of flesh†and a mouse squeals “when an owl grabs it and flaps away.†But there is humor as well, as in “The Perks of Being a Greenhorn,†which describes high school girls enamored of horses and a neophyte cowboy. The poems also lovingly portray the habits of Plains people, as they drink coffee, smoke (or not: “I kicked the habit / four years ago after the last grassfire / some trucker startedâ€), rock in the porch swing, or care for their animals (“the oldest mare on the Plains, / drools when I rub her ear …slobbering oats from my gloveâ€). Always both McDonald and Meinzer clearly revel in the close observation of the little (or much) that the landscape has to offer. As the poet says and the photographer illustrates, they are never “alone, / here with dry wind to amaze,†watching as the “bluebonnets / and Indian blankets dazzle the roadside†and “windmills… spin their rapture.â€

Dave Oliphant is a writer in Austin.

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