I wasn't sure what to expect when I opened Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet. How could two poets make a "duet" of their poetry? It turns out it isn't a book of poems for two voices, or a back and forth statement and response. Instead, the poems are separated by poet, with Twyla M. Hansen's making up the first part of the book, and Linda M. Hasselstrom's comprising the second half.
I began, as most people do, to read the book from the beginning. Hansen's poetry immediately brought me in and held me tight, her stories of family, land and the wonder and hard work of every day living painting a picture of life on the plains that was familiar to me, with my Midwestern upbringing.
Speaking of bread, a subject close to my heart, she writes,
An act of faith, plunging into the dough, giving it life
the magic of yeast, sacrament of earth. The laying
of hands over the rising and plump, hands that later—
take, eat—will surely quicken other pliable mounds.
The blessedness of the every day, in its ordinariness and extraordinariness and its sometimes dirty and unglorious essence.
I had almost finished the section of Hansen's poems when, by accident, I picked the book up after my three-year-old had been "reading" it. I didn't realize it at first, but she had put it face down, open to a different page than I had been reading. As I began to read, though, I knew I was hearing a different voice: the second half of this plains duet, Linda M. Hasselstrom.
Hasselstrom writes of many of the same subjects as Hansen, but brings them a grittiness, a sense of things lost, and found—or not—that resonates in my heart, fostering that feeling of timelessness that comes of lying in a mown hayfield feeling the wind of ages brush across face and fingertips.
She, too, writes of the everyday—snapping beans, making Thanksgiving dinner, life, and death:
Though I can't hear her voice,
the land and river
know where she's gone.
But just in case,
I say goodbye for her
to big bluestem and redtop,
buffalo grass and grama—
standing up to the west wind.
The engine rumbles as I top the slope,
still heading east.
Then I found a bit more magic in what was already magical. I began reading one poem from each poet, alternating between them, randomly. Then, sometimes, stanza by stanza. It was here I found the true duet, the blending of two distinct voices, two very different women.
Duet, perhaps, yes. But even more, both poets bring to life the every day of countless women, past and present, who have a connection to family, to home and to place, making this the work of many, spoken for by two.
Twyla M. Hansen is the author of five books of poetry, and is a creative writing presented through the Nebraska Humanities Council. She grew up in northeast Nebraska and currently lives, works, and writes in Lincoln.
Linda M. Hasselstrom is also the author of five books of poetry, and conducts writing retreats at Windbreak House on her South Dakota ranch. Visit her website. Check out our interview with Linda.
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