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Poets who know their place

Column by George Sibley

Poetry – October 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Knowing your place” used to be a kind of snobbish putdown. Certain kinds of people said of certain other kinds of people, “Don’t they know their place?” — which presumably indicated some kind of uppity social status on the part of the speaker.

But today, in post-modern, post-industrial and post-urban Central Colorado, to “know your place” has a different connotation. In this case, I think we’d rather have people here who “know their place.”

Wallace Stegner said that “no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry.” And Central Colorado, this “headwaters region,” seems to be increasingly blessed with poets who are learning their place.

This summer marked the publication of individual collections from two of the region’s strongest poets, collections that enrich everyone’s sense of these mountain-and-valley places.

One poet is Aaron Abeyta, a native of the San Luis Valley. He left the valley to go to college — pursuing the somewhat unusual combination of football and poetry. But now he is back in the valley, having completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry, and he is commuting from his home town of Antonito to teach at Adams State.

This year, University Press of Colorado published Abeyta’s first book of poetry, Colcha. The title refers to a kind of embroidery done in the Valley, of scenes embroidered from the artist’s memory that eventually grow into a kind of quilt of his or her life. “Colcha” is also the title of one of the poems in Abeyta’s collection, a poem about his abuelita — his grandmother — that won a Grand Prize from the Academy of American Poets.

The title is apt; Colcha is Abeyta’s embroidery on his memories of friends and relatives living and dead, and the Chicano culture in which they lived, cast in images from the San Luis llano. It reminds the reader of another thing Stegner said: “no place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monument.”

— Or in poems woven into colcha. Abeyta embraces the poet’s responsibility to create the place by learning it in all its lights and darks.

The other poet is Mark Todd of Gunnison. Todd also teaches, at Western State College, but unlike Abeyta, he is not a native of the region. Todd came from New Mexico about thirteen years ago, but he was not yet a poet when he came to the Upper Gunnison valley. This valley and this place made him a poet — rather than the other way around.

This summer, Conundrum Press of Crested Butte — the lovechild of David Rothman, a fine poet himself — put out Wire Song, a collection of Todd’s poetry that shows how well he has been learning his place since coming to the Upper Gunnison valley.

THE TITLE OF THIS BOOK is taken from the title of one of the poems, a poem claiming that the stories of this valley are “told in wire,” and that fences are “singing the lines of place.” A lot of the poems reflect Todd’s growing fascination with horses, which he and his wife Kym raise on a piece of land so far from Gunnison that they’re almost closer to Saguache. But the poems I like best are the ones that are just him telling about the daily trudge of chores, or retelling the stories he has been told about the Tomichi Creek valley.

There are two pretty obvious differences between these two poets: one is their cultural heritage, and the other is their time in this place.

Abeyta is deeply immersed in the multi-generational continuity (and he stresses that continuity) of a place-based Chicano culture. Todd is — or at least has been — a typical enough Anglo-American: a placeless person who, by his own admission, had to leave his home region in New Mexico before he could go back and begin to see what was really there.

Abeyta often grapples with the problem of those who try to fight their way out of the Chicano culture. Whereas Todd is often looking, more or less unapologetically, through the eyes of a newcomer seeking a way to break into the local culture. Neither finds it easy, but the old eyes and the new eyes both find something they are looking for. And both perspectives — new and old, placebound and place-seeking — seem validated in the quality and honesty of good poetry.

Abeyta and Todd will join Sage Douglas Remington of the Southern Utes on November 3, at Western’s 12th Headwaters Conference in Gunnison, in a “trialogue” about how their respective cultures manage, through poetry, memory, and whatever else they can stitch together, to make a place a place in Stegner’s sense. “Senses of Place” is the focus of the gathering.

Writer, teacher, and journalist George Sibley “knows his place” in Gunnison.

Post Script: The annual Headwater’s Conference in Gunnison is November 2 – 4; for more information see the ad in this issue.

bones of my people

i am here

where the faces become a two lane road

one whispers east

to the testimonial light of new day

the other tugs me west

toward the dying red sun of our past

bleached and forgotten

the marrow of my people’s bones

has become a map to the mesmerized romantics

who do not listen to the whisper

of their hollow voiceless stare

they ask

when we began running

as a means

to slim our souls

when it was

that we became

so like the red sun that sets

upon our walls

how it was

that we sold

what had just been stolen

and they ask

that we not love the new

more than we hate the old

they whisper

of the oldest bones

that are my people

they say

that these bones are reminders of life

life that was or will never be again

this is what the bones say

they remind us

that we are as flesh to them

as they are marrow to our souls

they beg

that we never forget

who we are

–Aaron Abeyta

The Doyleville Schoolhouse

squats against foothills,

a tiny solitary block of salt

to the eye that travels

the straight-across mile

from the highway.

Its paint skin, snow-weary

and cracked, tells of years

since anyone learned, or lived

cubbyholed beneath the roof.

But those who live ranch-distant

still feel its rituals — its pie

socials and Halloween apple bobs.

It connects homes too often

separated by calving, haying,

by winter wind and snow-drifted fields.

Some traditions run

deeper than concrete.

This morning the old schoolhouse

wears the full moon like a bonnet,

weathered but proud, and a reminder:

the where can sometimes

tell us who we are.

— Mark Todd