Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Schoonering Through Nebraska

A Blog of Sorts

Kwame Dawes and Marianne Kunkel are embarking on a goodwill tour across Nebraska, from public library to public library to connect people with the journal and to celebrate the value of the literary arts in the states. Along the way, they are blogging about their journey. This is Kwame’s fourth blog entry after his visit to Alliance, Nebraska.

Alliance, NE
Pop. 8,431

The public library in Alliance is a grand, high-ceilinged hall with massive balls of soft light hanging in clusters of the room of wood paneling of a warm, yellowing oak. At the point where the two steeply sloping sides of the ceiling meet is a skylight that stretches along the full length of the massive hall. It is a beautiful and welcoming space and when we meet the Adult Services Librarian, Steve Gerth, and some of the staff, and find them so full of enthusiasm and hopefulness about the evening’s readings and talk, we want to warn Steve that we are used to small audiences, and we are used to people in small towns and medium-sized towns and large towns to have things other than poetry to do on a Thursday night. But he is optimistic and expects a good audience. It is endearing. It is even flattering. And he is so prepared for us. There is a carefully arranged display of Prairie Schooner issues around a replica Prairie Schooner on a display table in the center of the library. It is decidedly generous of him.

We arrived in Alliance after a four-hour drive from Broken Bow, heading first northwest and then due west across the great Sandhills with the occasional crater filled with gleaming water along the highway. The landscape is varied, but the variation is subtle, and if you are not driving, and sleeping for the duration of the trip, if you happen to wake up every now and then, you could be forgiven for wondering if you are in some kind of twilight zone of repeating landscapes.

For the third day, the weather was kind to us. It was a little more overcast today, and because we were heading west, a strange and often dizzying haze settled over the two-lane highway.

We arrived in Alliance with enough time to make our way to Carhenge. I was skeptical about Carhenge. I expected it would be curious, and I expected it would be quirky and interesting. But it is quite a stunning thing. I am convinced that its charm lies in its relationship to the wide-open landscape. The cars, painted in a military gray paint, rise up in pillars and cross beams in a circle that effectively echoes Stonehenge. But the fact that these are cars, some of quite vintage makes and years, makes the homage whimsical—almost funny. But not funny enough to completely overshadow the quality of a monument that strikes you as you stand in the center of the phenomenon. I was taken by what I saw. And I was taken even more by the fact that no matter where I stood and how I pointed my camera, there was always something appearing in my viewfinder. With the sun falling in the west in the way it does at around three o’clock in the day during these winter months, we could enjoy the serenity and occasion of the site. Marianne told me that the monument was a tribute by sons to their father.

From there, we headed to the library to announce our arrival and then we made our way across the small city to our hotel. Our dinner was a very delicious Chinese meal at Wonderful Kitchen. Still committed to our collective vegetarian diets, we ordered broccoli dishes. The food was delicious. The vegetable fried rice was done the way I love it—suitably grainy and delectably seasoned. It was a good meal.

So we arrived at the Alliance library in good spirits and with hopes that our good friend Steve would not be disappointed. He has been working hard over the past year to make the library even more of a hub for human interaction with a series of events with music, story-telling, and now literature. There were cookies, hot chocolate, and Christmas music—some of it quite hip—piped into the library. We got our best audience for the trip. About 20 people gathered and listened attentively to our talk about Prairie Schooner and to our poems. They asked questions about submissions, about how we made choices, and they happily commented on themes and ideas that emerged in the poems.

It was good to head out after a long post-reading socializing with a “standing invitation” from the library to return when we can. No doubt, Alliance will be one of those places that will see us again.

My wife, Lorna, and I are tempted to trick our children into making a serious road trip across the state to check out Carhenge. Of course, driving for six hours to see this strange monument may be a hard sell. But there is much else that one can see on the trek across this state.

A woman at the reading told us that she was from Alliance and had been there all her life. She said her grandparents had settled there in the 19th century. They were homesteaders and frontier people. She reminded us that the Sandhills were once completely covered with water. And more recently, that landscape including North Bluff was once covered with buffalo. “My grandmother told me that they would stand on the upper ground and it would take the buffalo an entire hour to move across our land,” she said.

As she says this, I realize that much of what I have been thinking about on this turn in the west has been around the idea of home. Many of the people we met were transplants—uprooted people seeking to replant in this new landscape. But others were people who have a more intensely rooted connection to the land. These are the people whose clans have lived on this land for generations. They came, they did battle, they acted bravely and brutally, and they stayed through droughts, blizzards, poverty, and success and made lives in this landscape. For this woman, the land is not a place to lease. It is a place with memory that goes as deep as those people in her family go into this earth. Even now, without a hint of buffalo on the horizon, one has the sense that the image of buffalo moving across the Sandhills in massive droves is intensely real for her. It is part of how she understands herself.

For my part, this brief journey across the state is almost whimsical compared to this kind of groundedness, and I imagine that for the Pawnee, Arepaho, Comanche, and Cheyenne people, the idea of home is even more rooted than this, and the consequent sense of dislocation and loss is no doubt a rupture of monumental proportions.