Part I. Bill Kloefkorn, poet
Bill Kloefkorn, the poet laureate of Nebraska, died at age 78 on May 19, after struggling for two years against an immune-deficiency illness. Doctors could name no specific cause of his illness, and find no cure.
The day I heard the news, I drove to Hermosa for the mail, feeling gloomy under a sky curdled with gray clouds. We’d already had three days of rain, a fine thing in this arid climate, but the lack of sun had made everyone glum. Discovering Bill’s poems soon after I returned to South Dakota after escaping from the narrow poetic confines of graduate school gave me the courage to write my own poems. I learned, in part from Bill’s writing, to tell my own poetic stories in clear language; to tell some of the complicated, funny stories that characterize real life. So I was feeling down because Bill was no longer part of the world, no longer writing.
Then the sun came out, and Roy Orbison belted out “Pretty Woman” from my car radio, and I pounded my hand on the steering wheel and sang along as usual and I could almost see Bill smile. I was still considering going to his funeral and memorial, to be held in Lincoln, NE, where he lived. Somehow, though, a thousand-mile drive to a funeral thronged with people who have known him for years didn’t seem right. I come from a long line of people uncomfortable showing emotion in public, and though I’ve worked against that in many ways by writing and by reading my work to audiences, some of the reticence prevails. I’m more comfortable writing about what he meant to me.
Describing Bill’s poetry in a way that would convey its joys to someone who has never read it is beyond my skills. But I can quote him and perhaps give a hint.
“Connections: A Toast” begins with “Here’s to the bur oak” beyond his office window, and works its way through toasts to books, to saints, to fine individual moments in his life and a few mentions of baseball, to Rosa Parks and a quotation from ee cummings to Crazy Horse and his supposed last words and Bach and Louis Armstrong and the bird perched in the bur oak:
“trilling with its unsplit tongue, one
steady and diverse and universal song.”
You’ll have to read the poem to get the full effect: pages 96-97, Fielding Imaginary Grounders, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1994. The theme of how, as the Lakota say, “we are all related,” may be universal to poets. (I’ve been working on my own “connections” poem.)
I bought Bill’s Alvin Turner as Farmer in 1974 when it was published by Ted Kooser’s Windflower Press. I probably met Bill and heard him read several years later. The poems I marked in the book concern the difficulties of farming; I was just beginning to write about ranching.
In poem 9 from that book, Alvin Turner tells of shooting rabbits to make nourishing food for his sick baby. After the child dies, he keeps shooting:
“The chamber of my .12 gauge
Like a little throat, coughing.”
In poem 11, he writes that the granary is full, and “the baby is solid as a tractor lug.” In 58, “I snag the strutted leg/ Of the most unmindful chicken,” Bill wrote.
“Now the manure is in bloom,” Alvin says, and “I roam my acreage like a sweet spy.” In 36 he speaks of his wife with her masher, “humbling the potatoes.”
And then in 14, “I love the boys like they were fanbelts. . . And brand new.” These were images I could feel, touch, taste, because they were part of my world too.
In 21, “I watched my father die,
Said yes to his request, and in that single word
Sent all my sinews, like a measurement,’
Around this quarter section.”
My own father made no such request, refusing to leave the ranch to me. But, as Bill wrote in 24:
“I stand alone at the foot
Of my father’s grave,
Trembling to tell:
The door to the granary is open,
Sir, And someone lost the bucket
To the well.”
I’ve often stood at the foot of my own father’s grave and given him reports on the condition of the ranch.
Lately, I’ve appreciated Bill writing about aging as he recorded with brilliance and sensitivity what age feels like. Here’s one of the results:
It's a slow dance, all right,
this business of slipping
from the quick to the numb,
but to be honest with you
it isn't as slow
as I believed forty years ago
it was going to be. I'll confess
what I know of history
is somewhat less than
voluminous-- but I think it was
Jefferson who said that
God shows his mercy
by taking away, one by one,
those passions we stake
our own and others' lives on,
so that when the time comes
we'll not have so much to let
From We Don't Get Around Much Any More by Bill Kloefkorn, published in The Laurel Review, vol. 30, no. 2 (Summer, 1996).
In the week since Bill died, I’ve been conducting a private memorial, collecting from the retreat house all of his books that I own-- maybe half of the 31 books he wrote and published-- and reading and re-reading, discovering poems I hadn’t remembered, and greeting old friends.
Here’s a fact that may encourage writers who are beginning later in their lives: Bill didn’t start writing poetry until he was 37 years old.
Part II. Highland Park Cemetery
The Sunday after Bill died, Jerry came with me to the Hermosa cemetery to do the annual cleanup, traditionally done the week before Memorial Day. I’ve written about this annual labor for the dead in my poem “Memorial Day,” saying, “They’re just bones to me.” Hoeing at the stubborn alfalfa growing on my grandfather Charles’s grave mound, though, I felt the shock moving up my arm, down the hoe:
“drumming to bones I’ll never see, deep
in the earth, deep inside my flesh.”
I’m now the last of our family to wear the name Hasselstrom, so the upkeep of these graves is my responsibility. Besides the Hasselstrom graves where my grandmother and grandfather lie, I need to care for the graves of their ancestors, and my grandmother’s first husband. In another part of the cemetery lie my mother and father, John and Mildred Hasselstrom, and my husband George Snell. Then there are the graves of Harold and Josephine Hasselstrom, my dad’s childless brother and his wife, buried in Buffalo Gap. My uncle and cousins still care for the grave of my mother’s mother, Cora Belle Hey, in Edgemont, and several uncles and aunts on my mother’s side of the family.
But on Sunday, I focused on the Hermosa dead. At some time, one of the Hasselstrom survivors was moved by inspiration to plant hardy lilacs on the sizable plot; the resilient bushes might survive in the yellow gumbo soil. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the lilacs have inundated not only most of the Hasselstrom grave but also a couple of Kimballs. My father knew the Kimballs, but while we do the right thing, hacking the lilacs away to expose their graves, I don’t remember a single anecdote.
The Hasselstroms weren’t the only ones to underestimate the vigor and buoyancy of lilacs: everywhere in the cemetery the bushes are thriving, washing like a green wave over older graves. Just below the Hasselstroms and the Kimballs, lilac stumps surround a homemade tombstone decorated with chunks of native rock like quartz, bearing the single name DOWNIE, lost for a generation.
My father, when we came to do this work on what he always called Decoration Day, used to say he was “exploring his future.” I’m starting to think about the practicalities of cremation.
Part III. The Rapture
Someone predicted that Saturday, May 21, would be the end of man’s days on earth, the end of the world, the day of what was called “The Rapture.” Wondering what Bill might have written about it, I could see his eyes sparkling at the challenge, the beginnings of a grin. I made a few notes, but nothing that resolved itself into coherency.
Then my brain was flooded with lines from an irreverent chant I first learned on the playground at Hermosa grade school, probably about 1954.
“Did you ever think when a hearse goes by
That you might be the next to die?”
The jingle rattles in my brain for days, the way mindless doggerel always does when you don’t want to remember it at all.
“They wrap you up in a bloody sheet
and bury you about six feet deep.”
The harder I try not to think about the lines, the more of them return to my mind. I can hear the shrill voices of my classmates as we screamed the words at each other.
“You’re okay for about a week
and then your coffin springs a leak.”
I don’t want to remember but I can’t seem to stop myself.
“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.”
The chorus bubbles along in my brain when I’m visiting the cemetery with my inlaws, when we’re having lunch, when I’m trying to sleep.
“The worms play pinochle on your snout.”
When I wake up in the middle of the night, I can hear those ten-year-old voices warbling,
“They eat your eyes, they eat your nose.”
When I try to say something meaningful about the historic tombstones or the sunny, breezy day, my tongue tries to sabotage me.
“They eat the jelly between your toes.”
Why can’t I rid my brain of that silly rhyme? I sit up in the dark at 2 in the morning, thinking back over the past few days, searching for a reason that I can’t rid myself of the curse. Sometimes this works; once I figure out why I’m sleepless, I can decide on an action, and then sleep.
“A big green worm with rolling eyes
crawls in your stomach and out your eyes.”
The song gets worse. Much worse.
And finally I realize that Bill Kloefkorn is the master of the playground poem, the childhood memory turned into a story that can make the reader laugh or cry.
Though his memories of what he did as a boy in a small town in the middle of the nation differs considerably from what I did as a girl growing up in a rural community and going to school in a town of 100 residents, there are parallels. In his blasphemous, funny way, he memorialized the truth about playgrounds. I don’t recall ever encountering the worm song in any of his poems, but it wouldn’t surprise me to.
In the poem “Prove It” from his book Swallowing the Soap, Bill writes about seeing Bubba Barnes steal a comic book from the rack in the Rexall drugstore. The next day at recess, Bill confronts Bubba with the crime. When Bubba denies it, Bill clearly delighted in the opportunity to write these perfect playground lines:
I don’t have to
prove it, I say.
I know you did it
and you know you
did it. So, he
says, prove it, ass-
eyes. Just prove it.
What a poetic challenge recalling that little ditty has created for me as a writer! And making use of the rhythm of the worm song would add a lilt and a zip to any poem that began with its inspiration.
Part IV. And Rapture
I spent a few-- too few-- evenings with Bill and an assembled company of people interested in words, talking about writing, but I’ve heard him speak and read his poems enough so that I can call up his voice when I read his work. I doubt I will ever forget that voice, that ability to deliver a poem. If Bill Kloefkorn were here this Sunday morning, we might talk about the rapture that didn’t occur yesterday, explore the meaning of the word “rapture,” the ironies of that forecast and its result.
Thinking about rapture without Bill’s help, I turn to my American Heritage Dictionary.
“1. The state of being transported by a lofty emotion,” it says. “Ecstasy.”
And furthermore: “2. An expression of ecstatic feeling. Often used in the plural.”
And finally, “3. The transporting of a person from one place to another, especially to heaven.”
Rapture, 1: ecstacy:
Outside the window, rain falls lightly, and the prairie grass is as green as it ever gets. Twenty black cows graze below the hill, their heads staying down for long minutes as they fill themselves with the vibrant grass, driving winter’s cold out of their bodies. In my garden at Homestead House, the Alaska and Early Perfection peas are four inches tall. The leaves of the Yukon Gold potatoes are just breaking earth. My mouth waters, thinking how, in July or August, I will serve a bowl of new potatoes and peas with lunch.
Rapture, 2: expression of ecstatic feeling:
Star lilies are blooming, their white petals flaring out of the ground, tiny fountains of white silk. Yellow Nuttall’s violets-- my mother called them Johnny Jump-Ups-- wink among the curly buffalograss. Bluebells hang among the stems of the taller redtop, ringing gently with each breeze. Pale blue sky shimmers with sun and birdcalls.
Rapture, 3: transporting, especially to heaven
The air is filled with wings. Common snipes, redwing blackbirds, meadowlarks, sparrows, killdeer-- all are flying, zipping, diving, zooming, snatching bugs out of the air and whizzing back to their nests to feed the demanding nestlings. The bugs fly through the cool spring air, lifted up on gossamer wings to become part of the ecstacy and nourishment of spring surrounding us, raptured as life goes on.
# # #
For more information:
Linda's poem "Memorial Day" may be found in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom,
Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993.
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