"This Ground Owns Me" by Trudy Wischemann
Page #7: The Geography of Home, Part Two
Notes on books that help us know we're home.
"Do you know John Dofflemyer?" I asked my friend Rob last week, pulling John's new book of poetry out of my bag. Rob and his beautiful wife Sissy Morton of Lemon Cove live on the opposite side of the Kaweah from John and his beautiful wife Robbin. Sharing that geography, I thought there might be a connection. "Yeah," said Rob, "but I didn't know he wrote."
It turns out that Rob and Sissy had been a part of the Dry Creek Citizens Coalition with John and Robbin and many others a few years back, a community pulled together to try to protect the remaining integrity - a sycamore woodland - of that part of our watershed. It struct me that many here in this part of the world may know John as more of an activist and rancher than a writer and publisher. I hope that's about to change.
I got to know John first on the page. I was living at Davis at the time, working on a Humanities project in the Valley bringing poets and photographers together in small events in our rural towns. Someone told me about Dry Crik Review, so I contacted them. "Them" turned out to be him.
He sent me several copies of that lovely journal, which published cowboy and cowgirl poets from all over the western states, work that earned him the Wilbur S. Shepperson Award from the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. Eventually, he also started sending me small chapbooks of his own poems, which I loved immediately. Here's one from Cattails (1993), "a true story" John adds every time I mention it.
In Rust We Trust
Unwrapping the Great Blue Heron
from a trout line
of twenty #4 Eagle Claws
took two men and a boy
to wrestle still
to snip the monofilament
disappearing somewhere deep
down his reptilian gullet
that Iron-Eating water
of the Kaweah
This new book, Poems from Dry Creek: New and Selected Work (published by Starhaven in London with next year's date) is a collection of some of his best work, old and new together. Many of the poems are set in the foothills along Dry Creek where he's lived most of his adult life, and they speak of the glories and hardships (often bound together) derived from ranch life. See this beauty:
Ides of August
Coyotes are circling around our truth.
- William Stafford ("Outside")
Time before the calves come
to fill the canyon
with the scent
of limp placentas,
wet hides licked
to stand and suck
for the wobbly first time -
time to smell milk
on their faces.
Time to find the rifle,
oil the dust away,
locate that brutal place
and stow it
with a box of shells
in the pickup
until they're big enough
to fend for themselves.
But some of his poems are also from his childhood on the Valley floor. Reading them altogether shows us so much more the connection between these two sub-regions of our watershed. Hear this one from Exeter:
I Owe My Soul
Few secrets in a little town, kids
brooming sidewalks after school,
fat-tired Schwinn's slung with bags
of county history we thought was news.
No one felt anonymous, not even
the lean Okie kids from Tuleville
that rode the bus with the rest of us
they hated. The older girls claimed
the long black seat and brayed
gospel songs as the bus filled-up -
but then someone behind me
would always start it to rocking:
erupting with Tennessee Ernie Ford's
"Sixteen Tons". Lyrics you could see
as they got off at the company store,
three dirt streets of clapboard shacks
with broke-down wrecks looking-out
so helplessly that we all sang along.
What I love most about reading John's poetry is feeling the tenderness of this poet's heart as we look through his eyes. That tenderness makes him (and me) laugh and cry sometimes, and sometimes it makes us both rage. But it is a heart that has come to know over time that loving a place is the only way to truly live in it.
And the result is worth the price. In the notes at the back of the book, he ends with this clear statement:
"I have been blessed, despite battles, by investing my life on Dry Creek, being spiritually and physically dependent on its well-being. This ground owns me; the poetry has offered other eyes by which to see it."
This collection allows many more of us to bear witness to that kind of life. Here's to the hope that more of us will become so owned.
-Trudy Wischemann is a landless but not homeless poet and writer who works at the Book Garden in Exeter. (Sun-Gazette, December 5, 2007)