Childhood homes are great fodder for reminiscences and poetry, especially when it is so different from your adult life. It is this difference that Twyla Hansen, former Nebraska State Poet, writes about in her collections of poems, Potato Soup. Writing from the distance of time and place, Hansen remembers the good and bad of growing up on a rural Nebraska farm, contrasting it with her current life in Lincoln.
Whether it is peeling potatoes with her mother or watching hummingbirds on the front porch, Hansen captures the simple things that encapsulate the joys of rural life. Her knowledge of agriculture and ecology come to bear on the everyday occurrences – how sunlight powers the entire environment, meditating on the Ice Age as winter approaches, or comparing a heron to its Jurassic ancestor. But despite how much science can inform us of our world, there are still mysteries in soil and the human subconscious.
History is also preserved on the unchanging prairies. Hansen reflects on watching a television program on Wounded Knee and the irony of history as drama. She also thinks about the history of the land before man set foot on it. The plants and animals, hills and streams still reenact their own historical dramas without our knowledge, human hubris giving historical credence only to those events we enact. At the same time, the cities encroach on the wilderness or crumble from abandonment, changing and obscuring the history once displayed as in a museum, and Hansen laments the farm she can’t return to outside of her individual memory of the place.
At her most elemental, Hansen breaks down nature into sounds and sights, focusing completely on the eternal present of nature. The sandhill cranes return to the Platte in Mid-March and a flock of blackbirds congregate in a tree. Hansen returns often to the theme of birds, reflecting on their migratory habits and the patterns of seasonal change in nature and her own life.
While these poems focus on the impersonal land of rural Nebraska, they are all colored by Hansen’s experience and her personal past. She recalls collecting rocks as a child as an act that was to her a type of poetry before she began writing. Just like her poems, each rock has a unique memory and emotion attached to it, recalling the land and the history that rests upon it. Painful memories of her mother’s mastectomy scar and her father’s death are intricately and unavoidably bound with her recollections of the open prairie or a sunrise.
Hansen also includes allusions to her life lived in Lincoln, contrasting the pastures with parking lots, a dead deer with a hit and run victim, what she calls “the worn story – man and nature – the odds.” Throughout the collection, Hansen pulls no punches, relating tales and images both horrific and serene, often within the same stanza. Life lived growing up on a farm, where death is an everyday occurrence, has given her the ability to look at the harsh facts of nature, both in the country and the city, alongside the wonders they can provide, and is able to find value, even beauty, in it all.
While nature is a beauty to behold, it is made even greater through the lens of memory and experience, facets of human life that can bring pleasure or pain, but either way carry a value that only we can create if we just take a moment to reflect on the wider world and our own interiors.
Potato Soup is available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.