My first experience with the Ozark Mountains was virtual – a novel called The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks by the late Donald Harington. It was published in 1975; I read it about 1980 and thought it was hilarious. A few years later, we spent a long weekend in Branson, before it was discovered by all the big name entertainers and when Silver Dollar City and the duck boats were the big attractions.
It was then that I learned about The Shepherd of the Hills and the Bald Knobbers, a group of vigilantes who were still fighting the Civil War for the North in the 1880s, their enemy being the Anti-Bald Knobbers, who sided with the south. I also discovered that St. Louis is considered to be in the foothills of the Ozarks, surprising, since the Ozarks are about 100 miles away. And we’ve spent several long weekends at Lake of the Ozarks, created way-back-when by a dam and today a heavy tourist draw from Missouri.
So my knowledge of the Ozarks was essentially limited to what any observant tourist might know. And I didn’t consider the movie Winter’s Bone to present an accurate portrayal of life in the Ozarks, either.
I’ve had a different picture of life in the Ozarks, and it’s thanks to Dave Malone’s poetry: View from the North Ten; Under the Sycamore; Seasons of Love; and Poems to Love, and the Body. His latest collection, O: Love Poems from the Ozarks, includes some of the most vivid love poetry I think I’ve read.
What kept coming to mind as I read it was The Song of Solomon. Malone uses a similar kind of imagery, imagery that is both candid and subtle. It is imagery that tells you this is a man deeply and profoundly in love. Consider his poem “Language, ” which is ostensibly about poets and writing:
locked between two chopped gates
as they slide down onto barebacks
of impossible broncs bent in shocking
iron and man. Language bucks the same
in starts and end stops, promises no forgiveness
to two bards, dropped into knee-high mud,
arms and legs tangled as if one corpse,
quarters dull our eyes, and lips only a solid line
save the glimmer of your bicuspid
(or perhaps mine) in fading rodeo lights.
A lot is happening here, not the least of which is using the imagery of the rodeo cowboy to describe both the writing of language and a love between two poets. Notice what would happen if the very first line was changed to read “We poets try to wrangle language”; the entire meaning would be lost.
That’s how Malone plays with words in O. He says in the introduction that “Many of the poems in this volume were ones I originally sent to Jenni [his wife]. Often, I was the courier, delivering them in shadowy, Ozark night. Other times, my biking messenger, James … brought them to her workplace. Sometimes, a poem rested on our bedside table, ready for us to read together at night.”
The poems of Dave Malone are constructions of beauty, turning the images of the everyday into something wonderful shared between two people, and shared between poet and reader. The poems become part of Malone’s Ozark landscape, not only the local geography but also the geography of passion. The Ozarks must be one interesting place to live.
Early morning, the earth is nothing.
The sprawling mocha wood sleeps,
the blond fescue still.
Then, the golden prairie flames,
the timber plain consumed.
Lovers Disappear Inside Devil’s Backbone
Love, let’s go ahead and take time out of the equation.
It’s just a featureless t anyway—little more than x
and even more self-conscious.
Let’s put you and me together in a room—
in a black room, and we’ll be brown and areolaed
and landscapey and long and sinewy and humped.
Let’s go ahead and take the world out of the equation.
It’s just a small w on the cosmos line of infinity anyway.
There’s still time to order O for Valentine’s Day.