A poet recently asked me if I’ve written a “signature poem,” one that’s my personal favorite, or one that in technical terms best demonstrates my voice and aesthetic. For me, that poem must be “Open Range.” The poem was first published in Raven Chronicles (Vol. 25, 2017), and later in my full length collection Don’t Sing to Me of Electric Fences (Cherry Grove Collections, 2021).
Not only is “Open Range” the poem from which I took the title of my full length collection but, looking at it now, six years or more after it was written, I see several ways in which it represents my personal philosophy and artistic aesthetic.
From the first lines, the poem engages with landscape, because landscape inspires me. I get lost in landscape. The poem is set in the Great Basin Desert, on the road from Boise Idaho to the Duck Valley Reservation. The cover photo of Don’t Sing to Me of Electric Fences is one I took on this very route.
The reason I was on the road? The poem touches on my career in the field of environmental protection, referring to mining scars, with the phrase “I hope wild horses mean it’s not too late” representing my hope that mining scars can be remedied in such a way that life in the Great Basin Desert can recover.
The poem refers to my own disconnection from family, from heritage, in the lines “having grown up myself roaming, my own heritage fading into each move.” I also refer to the plight of Native populations. Without trying to appropriate their plight I try to shed light on what I have learned. I see the fate of Native human populations and wild horses as interconnected.
The poem also shows my sense of wonderment about other life forms: I scare “ a few sage grouse into sight” and “watch their low flight with the longing if a city kid uncaged’”
Finally, the last lines embrace an environmental ethic of “do no harm,” an idea symbolized in the steer standing in the middle of the roadway. The roadway is part of his ecosystem, that of open range, the disappearing unfenced portions of the western United States. The human species likes cars, and speed, and prefers not to be inconvenienced by a steer standing in the middle of the highway, but in this poem I side with the steer, and ask the reader not to think me crazy for doing so. Here's the poem.
This otherwise calm basin ringed with hills
was once a caldera, inactive now, but capable of fire
that could melt the fakery of this car, bold
in appearance but with a weak heart that whines.
At altitude, it can’t handle this hundred-degree heat.
On the way out of Boise the sound of my approach
scares a few sage grouse into sight and I watch
their low flight with the longing of a city kid uncaged.
Driving across the Snake River to deal with mining scars
and meet with tribal councils, I hope wild horses mean it’s not
too late. Reflexively I wonder about the meaning of home,
what it would be like, fighting for a way of life, told
where to go to live, having grown up myself roaming,
my own heritage fading into each move. I slow
for a steer—he stares me down—meets me in the middle—
this ribbon of roadway. The car seethes standing still
so I pull to the shoulder, switch off the ignition, admire
the steer so comfortable in its hide. Who will win
the day, this open range? If I say he smiles, call me crazy,
but do no harm and don’t sing, to me, of electric fences.