The last time I visited the tallgrass my mother and I went looking for buffalo, our car windows flung open to better hear and smell them. But this morning my sister and I are skirting the prairie’s collection of bluestem and bison in search of a man. Or, rather, for the ghost of a writer we both love and admire.
Past the preserve
shifting gears for the ride
up a long, dusty road
the way there
a red earth path to his
version of Walden.
In my mind’s eye I see him stretched out before the fire reading, writing; his cement floor covered with bearskin rugs and deer hides. His crossed boot-clad legs going on forever. “He cut a wide swath,” our guide notes.
That old post oak
next to the well house
he painted in ledger art—
see how the trumpet vine
blankets the tree where bears
scratched their backsides?
Inside, we find his photograph propped up on the mantel. The words he chose to live by on his blackjack ridge (to hunt, to bathe, to play, to laugh) etched in Latin across the fireplace’s stone face.
Tucked in one corner of the living room, a taxidermist’s tableau—a prairie hen, her wings extended to shelter two offspring—settled on a makeshift table. And in the kitchen where his second wife roasted venison and bison, another fireplace. A stuffed bobcat resting on the cold hearthstone.
As we pass by the writer’s solitary grave on our way back to the car, a Carolina wren calls out. Come again, sweet heart, he seems to say. Come to me, come to me, he sings.
how many nights must he have
talking to the moon
in good times and bad
as if she were his lover?
After writing several kinds of short-form poems for a number of years, I discovered contemporary poet ai li’s six-line invention: the cherita. Its relative length seemed to allow more opportunity for telling a brief yet self-contained story than a standard three-line haiku might. I was excited to see where this new poetic form might take me.
That was four years ago—about the same time I received a magazine assignment to write a travel article on Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Born and raised in nearby Tulsa, I already was familiar with much of Pawhuska’s history, and I was eager to visit the Osage Nation and the surrounding tallgrass prairie again. When I learned that the Nature Conservancy had completed a renovation of Osage historian and writer John Joseph Mathew’s cabin, I couldn’t wait to see what else I might discover as my sister Sara and I set off for a weekend road trip to research my story.
Both Sara and I have long admired Mathews’ writing, particularly the brief collection of natural history observations he wrote from the cabin he built on an ancestral ridge overlooking the tallgrass. The seasonal meditations depicted in his masterpiece Talking to the Moon established Mathews’ career as an important writer. In fact, many readers consider him to be Oklahoma’s version of Thoreau. For us, visiting the cabin where he’d penned his short masterpiece was the equivalent of having backstage passes to our favorite rock star’s concert.
Reenter the cherita. On the drive back to Arkansas, I began writing dozens of cherita based on my Mathews’ pilgrimage. A happy ending, I thought, to my fan-based adventure. Once home, I wrote my newly hatched cherita down and put them away. Until now, when once again, I find myself in conversation with John Joseph. Those cherita (three of which I’ve included in “The Writer’s Cabin”) provided the foundation for my first attempt at writing a cheribun; many of them also provided the spine for the prose sections of my poem. But it’s Mathews who was my inspiration all along the way. I am so grateful for the chance to celebrate him here and now.
holds an MFA in the translation of poetry from the University of Arkansas.
A semi-finalist in Naugatuck River Review’s 13th annual Narrative Poetry
Contest, she had the privilege of editing and publishing a pandemic-themed anthology,
Behind the Mask: Haiku in the Time of Covid-19, through her small literary
press, Singing Moon, and received a Best of the Net nomination in 2020.
Her first book of poetry, Prayer for the Dead: Collected Haibun & Tanka
Prose, received a 2017 Merit Book Award from the Haiku Society of America.
Recent poems appear in The Ekphrastic Review, Lindenwood Review, MockingHeart
Review, and Red Earth Review, as well as in the tribute series for
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I Am Still Waiting, published by Silver Birch