24. To the Pilgrim Bard, in Gratitude

In honor of my great-great grandfather,

the poet Orange Scott Cummins (1846-1928)

I often see you wandering past buffalo wallows, across

black-willow swales, camped under cottonwoods on creek banks,

your mule cart full of bleached bison bones, the air alive

with whippoorwill calls, the ticking whir of rattlesnakes,

wings of wild turkeys rustling in river thickets. I imagine you

writing verse on stripped tree bark, crystallized gypsum,

and flat stones by fitful campfire light. In canyons, on hilltops,

or huddled in your dugout as a Kansas blizzard howls over,

you grip pen and paper with weathered hands under the pale wavering

of a kerosene lamp. In 1871, the Civil War still rattling in your ears,

a photographer’s magnesium flare caught that westward slant

in your eye, wide hat-brim circling above long, scout-style curls. Still,

your writing captured more. Poems about ghosts, buffalo herds, Indians,

cowboys, Scots-Irish ancestors, and sodbusters lie buried deep

in your descendants, colorful as the buttes and mesas of the Red Hills

where you settled at last. Fires, floods, family feuds – so much

gets lost. But because we have your words, the wonder holds.

Nothing, not even prairie cyclones, can whisk it all away.

—Kathleen Johnson

from Burn, Woodley Press, 2008

Kathleen Johnson is the editor and publisher of New Mexico Poetry Review. She received her BFA in history of art and MFA in creative writing from the University of Kansas.  As a freelance book critic specializing in poetry, she published over sixty book reviews in The Kansas City Star and other publications between 2002 and 2009. Her collection of poems Burn, published by Woodley Press in 2008, was selected as a 2009 Kansas Notable Book.  A fifth-generation New Mexican, she has divided her time between Kansas and New Mexico for many years. She became a full-time resident of Santa Fe in 2009.


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