Connecting People and Landscape: The Local Characters of Twyla Hansen and Don Welch
By Steph Camerone
There is a connection between the land, harsh, ever-changing weather and eclectic growth and vegetation of the Midwest to its writers that allow this terrain to be the focus, not merely the background setting, of place poetry. Don Welch and Twyla Hansen are two Nebraskan poets whose writing follows this idea. At the forefront of their poetry the local characteristics of their native home are explored through the people who inhabit its space.
In 1920, just as an American Literature was beginning to develop, John Dewy printed a short article in the Dial entitled “Americanism and Localism”. Within this article Dewy argues that for a true American Literature to develop, authors must focus on the local because individual, inerrant characteristics of a place are what define a people. Dewy continues to state that “a locality exists in three dimensions. It has a background and also extensions;” in their poetry, Welch and Hansen answer Dewy’s call and explore people as extensions of a local.
Within his poetry Don Welch captures the character of a person through their connection to the land. In “Steel-Worker” Welch depicts an old man who has been drained by his labor but is again given a purpose through nature.
There was nothing eloquent about his fatigue.
The great biceps of his arms sagged,
the hernia was a fist of pain in his scrotum.
Beside him another man worked in a dream,
or seemed to stand, rather, in a place
of white grass where the sky was cool.
And as he watched, he seemed to see this man kneel,
placing his hands in the grass, then stand up.
But somehow, without reason, it was not enough
until one by one he saw them, too,
other men sipping out of their clothes,
their scars, their shoes.
This short, four stanza, poem is filled with intense imagery that contrasts the harsh life of produced labor to that of a time when Nebraskan’s worked the open land. This is a man of the local, he has worked in the steel mill his whole life and now his body wears the scars of work indicative to his home. The first stanza shows us a man made haggard by his work; Welch illustrates his body as “sagged”, in pain and fatigued. The diction is dense and heavy; this image portrays his body as a replication of the steel he has always worked. The rugged man is then immediately contrasted to an image of another worker however the image of this person is surreal and the diction used in the next two stanzas is light and airy. Welch describes his landscape as “a place / of white grass where the sky was cool” and the man’s first action is to “kneel, / placing his hands in the grass,” instead of being sagged this man has the mobility to kneel and freely move in connection with nature. The contrast of the two men show one burdened by the land he lived and another who has gained release from his part in the production of natural resources and is now finding peace by connecting to the simplest forms of nature: the air and grass.
In the final stanza, Welch moves from the dream state he depicted earlier into an image of the afterlife. All of these men have released themselves from their earthly tethers and marks, “their scars, their shoes,” are reconnected with a pure sense of nature; the nature that man was meant to interact with. By ending the poem in such a manner Welch contrasts the way in which people now work their land and resources instead of taking the time to bask in its simplistic beauty.
Unlike Welch, Twyla Hansen does not include many surreal or ethereal images within her poetry. Hansen’s work is dedicated to exploring the extensions of local as imagined through the manners of different generations as affected by qualities of the terrain. Within the poem “Greasy Spoon” Hansen explores the differences in generations in a space that identifies with the hometown. Hansen begins the poem by setting the scene, “In a small town, in a dark-paneled café called Harold’s /at a plastic-topped table, I sit with my mother and her sisters.” This is a critical beginning to the poem because Hansen continues from here with an internal rumination of this place, these people, and how the hardships or lack of hardships has defined their character.
The reader is informed that the sisters lived through the Great Depression. During that time Nebraska was plunged, like the rest of the country, in a catastrophic period of debt. In his article “Nebraska was on the Edge of the Dust Bowl” Jim McKee states that “In Nebraska from 1936 to 1939, farmers were said to have lost $112 million in crops to the drought and more than $30 million to the grasshoppers. Populations decreased in many rural areas, the number of farms plummeted by as much as 50 percent and marriage and birth rates dropped to their lowest levels in decades.” (McKee 3) Had Hansen’s family not lived in Nebraska during this time, who knows if her aunts and mother would have the exact habits they do. Their zeal for dinners that “arrive on oval platters: meat, potatoes, a layer of gravy, / rolls and over-cooked vegetables” would not have developed without living through this experience. However, that is their history and behind this seemingly lighthearted poem of family and food lays a story of women scarred by the tough terrain they were forced to live on. Though these scars are not apparent to the eye, as are the scars of the man portrayed by Welch in “Steel Worker”, Hansen shows an internal change in manners and decision making.
Hansen continues the light tone of the poem by ending with the waitress returning to ask “Pie, anyone?” but it is the line before that leaves the reader contemplating the true meaning of the poem. Hansen tells the reader that “these sisters don’t dwell on the past,” what her poem portrays instead is a past that has altered the persona of her elders. Though these women are not consciously dwelling on the past however their actions, such as Hansen’s mother lugging an “electric range, since 1952 / from farm to city”, illustrates that the past does influence their present day lives. Thinned by the drought and dust of Nebraska’s past and girthed with the abundance of their present, this landscape has done more than just alter their physical appearances; it has changed the behavior of their person.
Whether it is through generational habits or the timeless ethereal connection to nature Hansen and Welch both portray the influence of a land on the people who inhabit it. When Dewy spoke of the extensions of the local he had to be identifying people as one of those extensions and a critical component of what he imagined American Literature to be. In 1920 John Dewy ended his essay by stating that “We [Americans] have been too anxious to get away from home,” that anxiety has since vanished from the American mind and poets such as Don Welch and Twyla Hansen explore the intricate influences that the nature of a home have on the people who inhabit it.
Dewey, John. “Americanism and Localism“. Chicago: Jansen, McClurg, 1920. The Dial, Volume 68. Web.
McKee, Jim. “Nebraska Was on the Edge of the Dust Bowl”. Lincoln. Lincoln Journal Star 16 Dec. 2012. Print.