Natural History as Family History: William Kloefkorn’s Bioregionalism
By Daniel Clausen
Reading William Kloefkorn’s poetry can be something like visiting a grandparent’s homeplace on the Great Plains. The barn stands full of everything another generation thought was worth saving. The landscape holds traces of sweaty summer days’ labor, slowly sinking back into the earth or renewed year after year. Looking at such a place, we can bring to mind someone we have only known in old age and try to see them in youth. We find ourselves drawn out of the self and into the chain of generations that has created the homestead. Kloefkorn often looks back to his own grandparents and his own childhood and youth. By this interlocking of generational memory, we are carried back into the past, and at the same time reminded of the timelessness of fundamental human experiences.
How is it that Kloefkorn achieves this effect? One way is through his “menagerie of nouns” (Klinkenborg 63) and the way it places the poems in a very particular setting. The Great Plains bioregion shapes Kloefkorn’s poems by populating them with particular living things. Natural features, rather than artificial ones define bioregions (ecology and geology instead of political boundaries, for example). The ecosystem is a network of relationships between specific plants, animals, and the landscape. Bioregional poetry, as explored by scholars like Tom Lynch, Cheryl Glotfelty, and Karla Arbruster, is attuned to this network, and makes it visible and meaningful within the poem. So, by looking at the names of things that show up in Kloefkorn’s poetry, we both know where were are and have our attention drawn toward the particularities of the bioregion.
Kloefkorn’s poems point outward. They are concerned with the traditional topics of lyrics: love, desire, death, grief, birth, and wonder. But they also insist that these emotions and events are not isolated within the self, but come from the interaction of particular individuals and a particular and solid world. Kloefkorn’s world is the bioregion of the central Great Plains in what is now politically Kansas and Nebraska. This bioregion has been altered by agriculture and settlement into a patchwork matrix of farmland, town, and remnant patches of wild.
One example we can use to uncover this bioregionalism is Kloefkorn’s use of the plant name ‘lespedeza.’ Lespedeza is more commonly known as bush clover, and it isn’t actually a species, but a genus. Nowadays, there is an invasive weed in the genus that is probably what comes to mind to those who know Latin plant names. But there is also a native species, and this is more likely what Kloefkorn means, since the invasive lespedeza was only introduced in 1974 a year after Kloekforn’s first mention of lespedeza in a poem. Roundheaded lespedeza or roundhead bush clover (Lespedeza capitata, fig. 1) is tall forb in the bean and pea family that occurs in the central plains. Lespedeza has several important ecological qualities: because it’s a legume, it is nitrogen fixing, and also a fairly good source of protein for grazing animals. This makes it attractive for Great Plains farmers and ranchers. Of course, the exotic and rhythmic sounds of the word ‘lespedeza’ also make it attractive for a Great Plains bioregional poet.
Lespedeza occurs three times in the collected poems of Swallowing the Soap. The first occurrence is in Kloefkorn’s very first book of poetry, Alvin Turner as Farmer, published in 1973:
I am a dirt farmer
Who dreams of poetry.
Is that so strange? Is anything?
I have bent myself thankfully
Over the heat of cowchips.
When the lespedeza flowers
I breathe its blooms. (Swallowing the Soap 53)
Then, eight years later, in Platte Valley Homestead another farmer thinks of lespedeza. He has been staking out the boundaries of the property and the location of a future cabin (also bioregional, it is “of ash and oak and hackberry”):
Meanwhile, Anna mixes the drinks,
in her eyes the glint of a full moon
overlooking row on row of maize
and of lespedeza,
the hands of children. (Swallowing Soap 163)
Then, in his second to last book Still Life Moving, published in 2006, Kloefkorn remembers lespedeza again, and again his grandfather (who formed the model for Alvin Turner) is present:
and when we ask him to explain
he does, and we are impressed
with his knowledge and awed
by the greenness in his eyes as
he speaks, a greenness I believe
neither of us had ever seen before
as likewise we had not yet seen
the greenness in a field of ripening
lespedeza, Grandfather standing
at it’s edge with his hands in the
back pockets of his overalls, Father
beside him listening, maybe as
intently as we listened, my brother
and I… (Swallowing the Soap 426)
So we have these three instances of this plant, in three poems spanning Kloefkorn’s long career. Just like when we look at plants in the wild, it makes sense to look at their surroundings, their associations, the meanings and usages.
In the first poem, from Alvin Turner, the lespedeza is surrounding by reflections about the purpose and strangeness of poetry. Why should a dirt farmer bother with something like poems? But then, the poet reminds us, what isn’t strange? To breathe the blooms of flowers, to be warmed by a fire—to find pleasure in the solid and recognized world—surely that is a good enough reason for poetry.
Then we have the image of Anna, the beloved wife of the homesteader Jacob, in whose voice the poem is written. Here lespedeza is in the glint of Anna’s eyes—in the future that holds a farm (“row on row of maize”), and pasture, and children. The corn is connected to the pasture by the sound of the words, and both are connected to the marriage and the marriage to the place by the unclear syntax. Is “hands of children” an addition to the list of what is glinting in Anna’s eyes? Or is the lespedeza itself “the hands of children” by metaphor, and by extension of the energy provided by these plants to the animals. It is this larger economy of energy and life that this young couple enters with their love.
And finally, the poet as an old man remembers being young, remembers his own father (in the memory much younger than the poet who speaks now, but old to the child he was then). In this poem, the boys are in a junkyard, and ask about a singletree. His father explains its purpose and opens up in a way that is unusual, that brings out the greenness in his eyes and in turn opens up a possibility for the old poet looking back. Now the poet can imagine his own father a boy, with his grandfather as a man, and the greenness of the eye is now the greenness of the lespedeza. That lespedeza is now the object of knowledge, occupying the same place as the singletree for the boys, and as poem for the poet, where we are able to “find more than we are looking for.”
So lespedeza for Kloefkorn is closely related to eyes and to breath. With both the eyes and with our breath we take in the world. But we can do so ignorantly, or we can do so with recognition. The naming of lespedeza seems to suggest that recognition of the life around us is worthy of knowledge. And that knowledge comes from generational contact, from learning from those who have come before and who know the names of things and the uses. In this way, the bioregion and the family are brought together: the family is located in a place full of life. And that life is made meaningful, made known, through the delicate and inevitable mechanisms of family. Kloefkorn’s poetry itself can play that role, extending the family tie outward, generalizing it and making it communal. Now we too have learned about the world—about lespedeza—from the father in the poem. We enter into the generational knowledge of place, of the bioregion around us. And so poetry, perhaps, can help us all belong.
Many thanks go to Aubrey Streit Krug and Daniel Uden, both Graduate Fellows at the Center for Great Plains Studies at UNL, for their invaluable and enthusiastic help in tracking down and providing knowledge of the Lespedeza species. —Daniel Clausen
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Several Short Sentences About Writing. New York: Vintage, 2013.
Kloefkorn, William. Swallowing the Soap: New and Selected Poems. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2010.
Lynch, Tom, Cheryl Glotfelty, and Karla Armbruster. The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2012.