The Autumn Prairie: Woman and Nature in Don Welch’s Selected Poems
By Steph Camerone
The relationship between a landscape and the people who inhabit that space is a constant theme in poetry of place. Bill Siverly and Michael McDowel, editors of the journal Windfall: A Journal of Poetry of Place, have defined place within poetry as “not only the geographical location and natural environment, but the history of human presence and before. “Place” includes the people living there now, and, as in all poetry, the voice of the speaker of the poem.” (McDowel 3) By defining place poetry as representation of the literal and historic qualities of a place, the cultural heritage of a space can be imagined through its representation in poetry. Don Welch, in following this poetic form, captures the essence of Nebraska by entangling images of the landscape with that of the female form.
People are defined by the place they inhabit; molded by the present image and the past heritage of a landscape, authors cannot escape their surroundings in their writing. The poetry of Don Welch, however, does not shy away from the culture of Nebraska’s land but makes it the central theme of his poems. In this form, Welch’s poetry is a plain on which nature and woman can meet. As discussed by Deborah Fink in Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska, 1880-1940 females were defined not as farmers, but adjunct to the labor done by their husbands and fathers. Women were considered volunteers that offered small assistance in working the farm and fields. Through the use of transformative imagery and reflections on time Welch’s poems “Indian Summer” and “October” represent the physical embodiment of nature in the female form and allow agrarian women to reclaim their connection to the land.
The period of warm, dry weather in late October known as Indian summer affects the central and northern regions of the United States. No one truly knows the origins behind the naming of this period as Indian summer. Some theories suggest that the American settlers named it for the Native American campfires; others argue that the name derives from the Native Americans’ practice of gathering winter stores during this pleasant period. (Old Farmer’s Almanac 134) No matter which definition is true by choosing to title his poem “Indian Summer” Welch is bringing the harsh, Midwestern weather to the reader’s forefront. In this poem, Welch is able to imagine the female form emerging from the natural icons of the season.
In October the moon, hanging,
always comes down a little,
and a woman almost forms,
then forms just below the hills.
As if she is holding out something,
as if what she holds smells
of fields, of sage and corn,
and she’s coming up toward the house.
Each fragment of this poem builds upon the previous line to construct a cohesive image of the personal and natural. The low hanging moon sags in the sky and as it comes down towards earth, “a woman almost forms, / then forms just below the hill.” The woman emerges from the image of the moon, but is only “almost” formed; she becomes concrete once among the “hills”, no longer representing the moon but mimicking its image on earth. By beginning the female form in the elusive celestial and then fully forming her body on the earth, Welch tests the fractions of nature that influences the human self.
With the formed woman Welch imagines her relationship to the land through the lens of a gatherer in the fields. The ethereal woman of nature is substantiated by action, “As if she is holding out something, / as if what she holds smells / of fields, of sage and corn,” and made even more material through sense perception. The repetition of “as if” at the beginning of lines four and five allows Welch’s woman to retain the mystic qualities of nature. It is not until the harvest that she is holding becomes real through the physical smell of “sage and corn” that the woman in wholly formed and is “coming up toward the house.” It is critical to note that woman in Welch’s poem are actively engaging in working and engaging with the land in a form of labor. As explored by Fink “some agrarians have discarded the image of the traditional wife and have characterized wives as equal partners with their husbands on the farm. According to this revisionist view, women’s power lies in doing the work formerly assigned to men.” (Fink 196) In developing the female character through her natural form and the traditional tilling of the land she is engaging in Welch’s poetry echoes the revisionist view of agrarian history. In “Indian Summer,” the woman first stood for nature, then centuries of gatherers who worked beneath the hanging moon, and then, as the poem gains physical sense, the woman comes into her own physical history of the plains.
Just as women are created by nature they are surrounded and defined against nature as well. Within “October” Welch once again develops the image of women during the autumn season. The poem opens with the image of two women walking “among the bronze / and russets of fall,” as they are remembering the routine of this habit over the years. Over the next two stanzas Welch lists questions guessing at what the women could be thinking. In questioning the landscape the female characters are also questioning their place within the rural landscape. While these women have formed a connection to their surroundings they question their place in that location because of their gender and that of their daughters. Are all of the agrarian elements of their soul lost if they are removed from their home? The last stanza brings us back from the abstract memories to the women placed within and contrasted against the landscape:
In the fall light the women walking together
look down. All around them is autumn,
the dropseed burning with orange,
the white sage ringing them with crowns.
In these final lines Welch places the landscape “all around them” and uses the active verbs “burning” and “ringing” to connect the women back to their present landscape. In doing so, the landscape of the prairie is both reminiscent with memory and vibrant in life.
Don Welch uses language to distill nature into an essence that determines a person’s habits therein attaching non-material memories and heritages to a place through the language of poetry. Within his foreword to Poets on Place David St. John poses the question “Poetry is forever looking to discover and then describe what we mean by a sense of “home.” Is such a place located in an actual place, in the imagination, in albums of memory, or in some combination of them all?” (Pfefferle xvi) Through these selected poems Welch has proven that within his poetry that the concept of home is a place that defies the confines of time, space, and individual spirits.
McDowel, Michael, and Bill Siverly. “Poetry of Place, Afterword.” Windfall: A Journal of Poetry of Place 1.1 (2002): 15–28. Print.
Fink, Deborah. Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska, 1880-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.