Poetry Classroom: Iowa Tocatta

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet and professor David Wright. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of David and each other, and write your own poems along the way.

Iowa (Toccata)

Variable clouds, modulating hills,
          Lakota language for prairie grasses:
          not cattail, not undulant sea.
Utopia in the fields—colony of furniture,
          gathering of kitsch and handiwork.
Loss sounds like a native translation of a hymn:
          Oh God, in a rabbit skin,
          Oh God who is a hawk coming to rest
                    on a moraine above a scored
                    and crosshatched silver field.

Photo by cwwycoff1, via Flickr. Poem by David Wright, author of A Liturgy for Stones.


Discussion Questions:

1. A toccata is a fast-moving piece of music. Is this poem in any way like a toccata?

2. The poem begins in a way that almost sounds like a weather report. If Iowa was a weather report in this poem, what would it forecast?

3. Is Iowa something you would generally associate with classical music? What comes of making such an association in this poem?

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  1. says

    Love this line: “Loss sounds like a native translation of a hymn”. It contains what is both universal and particular.

    I also like, again, the wordplay, as in that use of the term “toccata” with its additional aspect of the virtuosic, here applied to Iowa, which the poem defines after three lines as “Utopia in the fields” and then quickly negates with “colony of furniture, / gathering of kitsch and handiwork”. Something transformative is occurring.

    That use of the comma after the first “Oh God” and its absence in the second mention I also note.

  2. says

    The poem seems nothing like a toccata. The use of not back to back seems, among other word combinations, to put the breaks on, to drag the pace.” “Loss sounds” does not flow quickly from the reading lips of the mind.

    If Iowa were a weather report it would call for a weather patterns of sameness thought he poem starts with the word variable. And there would be storms, as indicated by the word loss. The writer may or may not intend that linkage but I as a reader link loss and death and storms.

    There is the same juxtaposing of opposites in using a toccata in the title of a downbeat and slowly unfolding poem as using Classical in association with Iowa. Nothing against Iowa ( JDL et al) but my mind doesn’t do rapid linking between those two words.

    Additionally using a hawk, bird of prey, gives me another glimpse of loss of death. And rocks (moraine) I associate with “life-lessness”.

    Beautifully crafted piece.

  3. says

    Thanks, Maureen and Elizabeth, for these reactions to the poem. A bit of context may add to the conversation. This is one section of a longer meditation on Bach and driving called “Tocatta, Adagio & Fugue for the Prairie States,” part of the manuscript all these poems have come from.

    It is hard, I think, to hear how Bach fits in a place like the midwest, like rural Iowa. But there you are, driving down the road and he’s there on your radio (or in your head).


    • says

      Thank you DW. I would be interested in reading the longer piece from which this comes. I have read this poem maybe 10 times to glean intended meaning. I may be over or under reaching. My apologies if I missed the mark entirely.

  4. Sarah Murray says

    I’m mostly just a poetry enthusiast, but I love this piece. It strikes me as very freestyle reminiscint and then suddenly, bypasses the expected into a complicated rhythm condensed into two sentences. “Oh God, in a rabbit skin..” and ends with a slow resolve, that paints a picture that sounds like a hard earned love of home.

    Thank you for this.

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