c.;1 AT LONE LV H. A \(: s of rho. FXAS PLAINS BOOKS Ei THE CULTURE Prowling the Same Old Haunts BY DAVE OLIPHANT CC Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains By Walt McDonald Texas Tech University Press 184 pages, $34.95. Since the appearance in 1976 of Walt McDonald’s Caliban in Blue, Texas Tech University Press has promoted the work of the Lubbock native, a nationally known poet and now retired Tech professor, with some half-dozen collections of his writings. In 2002 Texas Tech published a collection of essays by writers from across the nation in celebration of McDonald’s poems, a volume entitled The Waltz He Was Born For, named for one of his poems. But the Press has outdone itself in issuing in spectacular color Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains, a volume of McDonald’s poems paired with facing photos by Wyman Meinzer, the official photographer of the state of Texas. This is not a novel idea. In 1989, Texas Christian University psychology professor and photographer Richard Fenker, Jr. teamed up with East Texas poet Sandra Lynn for their own volume of poems and photos, Where Rainbows Wait For Rain: The Big Bend Country. Although Lynn’s descriptions of such scenes as a moonrise over Alamo Creek and a morning in Laguna Meadow are matched by Fenker’s black-and-white photos of these same Big Bend sites, and the photographer offers an almost epic shot of storm clouds over a lone windmill at Chinati Peak, their combination of poems and photos cannot compare with the drama of Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains. This is partly because Meinzer’s photographic compositions are so breathtaking in their rendering of the surprisingly rich palette and the naturally aesthetic contrasts of the Texas Plains, but also because McDonald’s poems capture in words the same juxtapositions of the stark and vivid, not only of the landscape but in the mindset of a West Texas life. Some people see the flatness of the Plains and become depressed, but McDonald and Meinzer seem never to have tired of prowl[ing] the same / old haunts,” and in doing so have revealed the depths of beauty and insight in the simplest West Texas scene. 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 halfmoon 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, orangeyellow 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 / 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/23/04
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