Prairie Schooner 77.4 (2003) 188-192
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J. V. Brummels, Cheyenne Line and Other Poems, The Backwaters Press
Marjorie Saiser, Lost in Seward County, The Backwaters Press
The Backwaters Press contributes two excellent collections to Plains literature by Nebraska poets J.V. Brummels and Marjorie Saiser. Each year, the small Omaha press publishes two or three titles by Heartland writers, bringing the often stunning but sometimes forgotten voices of the Midwest to the literary world. The editor works with a laudable set of advisors: Nebraska writers Jonis Agee, Richard Dooling, Greg Kuzma, and Brent Spencer. In a region where geography often determines destiny, these poets' disparate styles and concerns energize classic Plains themes of place and mortality. Brummels writes from a cowboy's perspective, interested in the creation and demise of people, places, and culture. Saiser, a sensualist, focuses on the physicality of place as well as the immediacy of the body.
Also the author of poetry collection Sunday's Child (1994), J.V. Brummels, in Cheyenne Line and Other Poems, utilizes unadorned language to capture a rural voice, which represents his rancher's life in Winside, Nebraska. [End Page 188] Even as the opening poem, "Fine Arts," makes use of anaphora, alliteration, word repetition, onomatopoeia, and simile, the figurative language does not overwhelm the narrative:
I am drinking beer
standing in the door of the barn
listening to jazz, listening
to the colts whinny and snort
like a heavenly host.
I am looking up at stars
bright as new dimes.
Brummels' subtle poetics establishes a bucolic setting and a thoughtful mood. Throughout, Brummels offers a conversational voice and lucid, straightforward diction.
As an instructor of creative writing and English at Wayne State College, Brummels struggles between his incongruent identities of academic and cowboy; his poems favor the latter. In "Dead Man's Hand: A Primer," the speaker conveys impatience with newfangled ideas:
I can tell by your outfit that you are a cowboy, -
while he dealt a hand or two of stud or draw,
straight poker with a rogue joker
played aces, straights and flushes.
Tonight it's the same fifty-three card deck,
still the same straight poker - no baseball
or Dr. Pepper, chase the queen or low-hole,
those professors' games, or worse -
guts-and-challenge, in-between or high-low, that
morass of match-the-pots where a nickel ante
can cost a hundred bucks on a solid call
if a hand just goes plain wrong.
This poem suggests that cowboys play games the correct way - straight, solid, and conventional - while academics play them the wrong way - allowing the stakes to become too high. Unabashedly masculinist, Brummels' speaker calls poker the "private game of men." His speakers admire the Grand Tetons as breast-images to "a sex-starved French trapper," and position women as Other with lines such as "Confused / by the solo girl so plain among us." At times, Brummels trades on stereotypes, exhibiting a machismo that alienates readers sensitive to sexist language and stereotypes. Indeed, the title poem features WWII soldiers lining up outside a Cheyenne brothel: "Maybe / on that day in that mountain town / where all the army'd seem to come / she was simply pleased to do her part." Such lines condescend to a feminist reader. However, Brummels also deals with weightier issues, including paternity: "to smell smoke and come right up [End Page 189] in bed and down the hall / to find kids and stove fine" ("Presence"). In the end, Brummels' cowboy persona offers a thought-provoking new character to readers of poetry.
Thematically, Brummels' poems intertwine place and mortality, and midwestern weather repeatedly takes on a human quality. In "Dead Man's Hand Revisited," Brummels uses a snowstorm to evoke approaching death:
The maps show storms milling in the Rockies,
gathered by a crew of winds, those ghost riders
who'll tomorrow yip up a Plains blizzard.
Dynamic verbs and evocative language give power to the personified storm, yet the speaker eventually triumphs over this representation of mortality:
and sure as the snow'll come
and the wind...