Great Plains Series Book Review: Magpie Rising by Merrill Gilfillan

You’re driving on the plains. You don’t know if you are going to get a room for the night, or if you’ll settle for your tent, or the back of your car or truck. You quit the radio, about seven o’clock that evening. With the windows down, on the right highway, you’re able to tell when the asphalt of the highway was laid down by the whine of your tires. You drive in the middle of the road, because the distance to either side seems to balance you there, it’s not because you’re showy or seizing an opportunity some city hasn’t offered you. The Great Plains doesn’t have you thinking of opposites like that, the binary of June isn’t December out here. But it is June, the first chapter of a book on the American West is usually going to be June. The Great Plains arrive like June, you come out of some creek valley around Downs, KS and you are there, everything you thought March was or last October was is over now. It’s June, it’s blue grama, curlews, pulling out of a gas station slow, it’s the smallness of 250 miles. I’ll be there before noon.

Driving on the Great Plains like that will have you feeling steady enough to try your hand at autopsie sometimes. Merill Gilfillan’s writing can get you to that point too, but soon enough you’ll slow down for some cattle crossing the road or brake hard for a mule deer and haMagpie Risingve to jam your vehicle down into first again. Not as upset as you might have been if you weren’t already in the middle of the plains, maybe somewhere around the Arickaree Fork of the Republican where you look forward to slowing down for animals at twilight. Gilfillan’s book, Magpie Rising, about what he encounters and sees while driving (some 50,000 miles according to him) on the Great Plains includes wild metaphors that you will swing and miss at. But you’ll connect with some if you keep your receptors open like the body language of a pronghorn. It’s not to be read dreamily, unless you want to read it two or three times over.

For the relatively small length of Gilfillan’s book the writing is not sharp or terse, which is a deception the reader will have to conquer by the fourth or fifth section in order to get through the rest of it. It doesn’t resemble essays much like the plains don’t resemble the idea of a plain landscape once you walk into them, or in the case of Gilfillan, mostly driving.

“Entered from any direction they are new air, a joy to behold, a combination of large-scale intimidation and primordial inner acoustics.” Gilfillan writes this line in the first chapter of his book called Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains. The month of this first chapter is September, but it still feels like June. Anything that begins in the Great Plains is going to have a connotation of June. This book is for the mover, but also for the driver who can stop just as easily for every roadside marker available.

The chapters in this book aren’t exactly chapters as they are vignettes or “sketches.” Gilfillan, an accomplished poet, who has written over a dozen books of poetry, including six books of poetry before this collection of essays was writ down, uses the poetic idea of notes to drive this book. Some sections are a page, and others on the Nebraska Sandhills or the Llano Estacado may reach out to six or seven pages. This was his first book of writing resembling essays or sketches, and I find myself preferring his later style in collections of essays like Chokecherry Places.¬†All the same the lure Gilfillan uses in this book is the forgot-ness of the places he goes to. Trying to answer the question of “why aren’t these stories of the plains known?” by layering history with little searches of his own. He tracks down a lot of birds in this book, including lesser prairie chickens and scaled quail in the Cimarron National Grasslands of southeast Kansas.

There is not an advertising quality to the writing. He doesn’t promote these places; he uses the natural magnetism of poetics to do the work for him. His grasp on linguistics and etymology can reach an incomprehensible place at times, and he’s almost telling metaphoric code to himself instead of the reader at times. But I’d rather have that than be talked down to.

I’ll stand by the following statement on this book and this author:

Gilfillan writes better about cottonwood trees than any writer I’ve come across. It’s such a small thing, but if you’ve been to the plains you know cottonwood trees are miracles. If the Great Plains could send letters, cottonwood trees would sign them. Writing about a region doesn’t have to answer to all the biology of the region, but it must address the major players. And Gilfillan answers the call. “Where there is human life on the plains there are cottonwoods. Where there is any hope at all, there are cottonwoods on the horizon….they are fuel and shelter; a place to hide…stabilizing familiar groves for eastern tree-people, a cool psychological harbor.”

I don’t think this book is necessarily for people who don’t already have a love of the plains, or at least more than a starter level of curiosity for them. It’s not a gateway book for the plains reader like a Plainsong or a Where the Sky Began. It’s much more in the category of a PrairyErth or Wolf Willow. The reason I feel this way is because the book seems to be purposefully dubious or concealing a good twenty-five percent of the time. There are sections I passed over, similar to every time I drive through Alliance, NE. It just warrants passing through. But it’s a small part of the plains, and the book will reward the driver or walker who is always telling themselves “just to that next rise.”

If you consider yourself a reader of Great Plains literature, southwest literature, American west literature, or just travelogue stuff in general then you’ve got to read Gilfillan at some point. I maybe would start someplace else other than Magpie Rising for your first foray though.

Late Night Book Review: Chokecherry Places by Merrill Gilfillan

Chokecherry Places¬†by Merrill Gilfillan reaffirms so much of what I feel about the Great Plains, and makes me realize I am missing so much out there. It’s the best collection of essays I’ve read this year, and not just because it details the approximate 500 x 500 mile area where I live. It’s because there is an undeniable love for a landscape that goes beyond the descriptions of birds and rivers (which are fantastic). He loves the history, the back roads, reservations, the losses, the native creation stories, the glimpses of truth that jut out from mythical tales like a plains’ butte, the simple chokecherry and plum brambles. It’s about all of these places, constantly, and he’s usually by himself. And yet he seems to keep himself in the background, but not so far as he can’t pop in and tell the reader this is what his life means. I’m jealous of his ramblings and his deftness with the etymology of the plains. If you pair this book with Great Plains by Frazier I wouldn’t be able to choose between the two of them. I’m going to read everything by Gilfillan.

Chokecherry Places
Cover Design by Debra Topping: Cover Illustration by Robert Penn

The essays in this book take place in Colorado (chiefly northeast and southeast), Wyoming (north central), South Dakota (east and north of the Black Hills), North Dakota (one essay about the Hidatsa details pretty much the entire western half of the state), and Montana (eastern two-thirds of the state). These essays should remind anyone that you have to walk out into the grasses and under the sky to get what the plains are.

I think there are three types of writers (I really think there are more than that but maybe I believe in just three tonight). The ones who are great at overarching metaphor but lesser on the line, the ones who are fantastic on the line but maybe lack in overall direction, and then the ones who can do both. This book scores extremely high on the line writing end of things. He can describe a butte or cottonwood tree in four different ways on the same page using a meticulous vocabulary and a honed ear for poetics. But the description is never just about saying “I shall now describe a tree and end with that,” he will tie the object in with the region at hand, and will tie the region in with a larger area, and then he will tie that larger area into the Great Plains. Doing this makes the Great Plains seem small, and maybe that’s what a good writer can do: flip the perceived image of a landscape. I don’t know. I know I will read this book multiple times in the future.