>the river, the column, the shawl and the sheep


(This post was first posted in April, but after reading this tremendous interview of Laura Bell here, I knew I needed to share the interview and this post. Laura Bell is someone you’ll want to know.)
For the past few years, when I have given a book as a gift, this has been the book. Spragg’s feet touch the ground and yet the way he embraces life with his observations and wisdom, you’d think he was soaring, all the while in pain and conflict, in joy and angst.  
 “I knew the horses as I knew my family. . . When I was separated from them I felt wrong in the world. When I was separated from them I took no comfort in the sound of the creek. I felt chilled without the heat of them. In the short lulls between rides I leaned against the corrals, watching them roil like some captured pod of smallish whales, multi-colored, snorting at their handicapped buoyancy. When I stepped in among them, they would turn to me, roll their eyes until the whites showed, flick their ears. They were used to the sight and sound of me. I was the boy who straddled their hearts.”
Not too long ago (shhhh) I snuck out of my day job to hear Spragg talk about his latest book. I fired off an email to my assistant (my sister) who also works for the same company, albeit in a different part of town. I had an 11:30 appointment, I wrote. Be back as soon as possible.
The library here is in an old warehouse. The reading was on the third floor~one empty cavernous room with columns scattered about, supporting the ceiling. I settled in, against the column closest to where Spragg would be speaking. A small woman with such spirit appeared and sat two seats away from me. I watched her straighten her clothes and gather herself. She reminded me of a poem I had written eighteen months ago:
A woman standing by the stone wall

traces her finger along the grout, thinking
she could change her name
to something like Yori Shinobu. Maybe then
she’d find ancient grace, seventh century
trust, the blessing in every fifth wind

to write poetry about one time
when, yes, he admitted to wandering.
But no, he never strayed. The Season
of Tall Grass would speak of sheep
in high plain meadows, three octaves

of bells with their bonging comfort
soothing her, telling her in which fields
they foraged, at which stream they
balked. Her heart would beat

in cadence, thunderclouds from the sea
would wait, crossing divides and skimming
ridges to find her near the unlatched gate,
before clapping out a rain burst. In this way

she might become wise and giving. Maybe
loosen her shawl and turn
back to her hearth.

(Previously published by Soundzine)

While writing the poem, I workshopped it with other poets. At the time, the woman in the poem determined to turn back to her hearth after tightening her shawl. Afterall, that is so pioneerish, right?  Buck up. Square your shoulders, pull your boots back on. Head down, long strides, bear up. Be strong.

But in workshopping the poem, two poets challenged me. What would life be like were one to loosen the shawl? What would happen if we chose to bear up by opening and embracing life, rather than tightening one’s shawl so as to keep everything out?

The reason I remember this poem was written eighteen months ago is that my own shawl was loosened as a result of this workshop experience. From that point on, I’ve been moving through my own life, boots pulled on, yes. But shawl pulled tight? No. Shawl opened. It’s a rather vulnerable position.

And now, here was a woman sitting near me, shawl wide open.

Turned out, she was Laura Bell, the author of Claiming Ground and would be reading with Spragg. Here’s a touch of her words:

The sheepwagon door stands open to the early dawn. There are times when sleeping inside feels little different than sleeping out like the dogs curled in their scratched beds or the sheep planted against one another across the rise. There’s a blanket, a curve of metal roof, a shelf of books above the bed. From up in the McCullough Peaks a lone coyote yips, sharp and high. There comes an answer, closer, the voices halting at first, then unraveling slowly into a mad chorus of wavering howls. Through the doorway, I see the dogs appear and settle their haunches into the dirt. They watch out over the land, their ears shifting to the cries like antennae. When silence returns, they lower themselves to the ground, still listening.

Under the covers, my hands are still against my bones, the edge of longing too great to name or call up. I wish for a fire to be lit in the iron stove by the door. I wish for the smell of coffee, a cup warm in my hands, a voice to say my name.

A dawn wind rustles loose tin and whispers through stiff sprigs of sage, their seedheads quivering against the wind for as far as I can see into the murky light and beyond, into the empty miles. East, across the Big Horn Basin, the horizon of mountains bears up the salmon wash of morning.

I was captivated by both Bell and Spragg. I lingered afterwards to speak to both of them and to buy their books. Such spirit and presence! I asked Bell to sign the book for my sister, explaining that between my sister and I, when we really want something for ourselves because it touches us so deeply, we give it to our sister instead. As much as I wanted Bell’s book to call my own, I wanted my sister to have it more.

I was not getting back to work “as soon as possible”. Yikes! It was hard to leave, but in the end I ran down the three flights of stairs, whistled for my trusty steed to meet me at the side door. Ha! Derby is my one-of-a-kind vehicle. Only been in one accident and sports a punched left forehead. So to speak. He didn’t come when I called, and so I weaved my way through the parking lot, alarmed that there was a note on my windshield. Parking ticket?

No. A note from my sister.  She, too, had snuck away for an appointment. Hadn’t seen me at the reading, but when she came out, she noticed Derby in the parking lot and knew where I was and why. She bought Bell’s book for her mother-in-law (a sheepherder for 80plus years), wanting the book for herself, but knew the best gifts happen when you give them away.


About redmitten

author of Cracking Geodes Open, Making Good Use of August, and The Peppermint Bottle. poetry editor for IthacaLit. website: https://toomuchaugust.wordpress.com

4 responses to “>the river, the column, the shawl and the sheep

  1. >Hi Sherry, thanks for the comment on my blog…I have now been introduced to you and have my curiosity peeked at the two books mentioned…You've got some great stories to tell yourself by the looks of it! Cheers…Kerry

  2. >Nice blog, and congrats on your Finishing Line Press book! I just heard a poem about Montana last night at the Willow Review release reading. A man and his daughter got lost in their car searching for the Missouri…but they found it.

  3. >@kerry- good to hear from you. from what i've read in your blog, i imagine both books would appeal to you. landscape and rural life, the exploration of small questions, with large answers! @kathleen- oh i would have enjoyed that reading. willow review is an appealing journal. i'll track down the man with the lost/found story, as well as your own poetry. thanks for the encouragement and good to hear from you.cheers, ladies~sherry

  4. >The parts here remind me not to assume – what we cannot possibly know about the lives of others, about their experiences. I have to go back and read the Laura Bell interview. But it comes down to what we make of what we have, doesn't it? And the difference between wearing the shawl open or drawn tight. The agreement you have with your sister about gifts feels like O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." Love coming here, thank you.

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