I loved his long lines, his casual-sounding chattiness and his use of repetition to build hypnotic rhythms that suddenly made you realise he was deadly serious all along. I also loved what he wrote about: being stuck in traffic, lying, not being good at mathematics and the wind:
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.
Like Les Murray and Pablo Neruda, he seems to have written a poem about absolutely everything. One day (I have been promising myself to get round to this for about twenty years) I will copy out each of his poems from the Voices and Junior Voices series into my own private anthology.
‘Buffalo Dusk’ is a short poem of epic regret and deep mourning. You can read it once and get it straight away; you can read it a thousand times, as Robert Frost said you should, and still have your breath taken away by the suddenness of its closing, a bookend of its opening.
Most of the poem does indeed seem to be made of repetition. A child once remarked to me that the effect of this was ‘like the hooves of the buffaloes thundering’ across the prairie. And I am unable to resist the assonantal chiming of ‘dusk’ and ‘dust’, ‘prairie’ and ‘pawing’, ‘great’ and ‘pageant’, ‘sod’ and ‘pawed’.
It is a great poem of witness. The key line seems to me ‘And those who saw the buffaloes are gone’. The poem is a lament for the passing of a mythological and actual beast, at the same time as it is the telling of that passing. Reading it we become complicit in the process of how this came about, as we are challenged to keep the myth alive in future tellings.
It is about buffaloes, of course. But walk into an empty room in your house, or a classroom, or a hospital ward, or a disused factory and say it into the silence and it will change the complexion of your day completely. Suddenly anything you have loved and do not want to lose seems to be here.
Read Carl Sandburg’s poems here