Lithic Scatter and Other Poems

A Review of Karla Linn Merrifield's book

Lithic Scatter and Other Poems

By Beau Cutts

The majority of Americans live east of the Mississippi River, but the majority of America is west of the river and remains unknown to many easterners. Westerners tend to live in large cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix, Santa Fe, San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake City, etc., and in the green valleys of California and along the lush Pacific northwest coast. Some easterners have seen the high, dry American West by glancing out airplane windows on the way to L.A. and other coastal cities. The views from six miles high typically reveal some human activity. A game is trying to see a piece of the West from your jet's window and find no roads, houses, or other marks of man; at night, you'd look for electric lights and see none. East of the river, you're not likely ever to win this game. West of the river, especially west of the 100 degree of longitude that roughly connects Bismarck, Pierre, Topeka, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio, you're looking at dry land generally 2,000 feet or more above sea level until you pass the Sierra Nevada mountains. West of the 100th you most surely can scan thousands of acres at a glance and find sections with no sign of human beings. Does that surprise you? If so, then you are likely an easterner.

Yes, we easterners have broad ideas of the American West, largely from tv and films about Indians fighting the settlers and the U.S. Army. These ideas usually lack finesse in portraying the stubborn Red Man, who came first to this land. Many died fighting to keep it. Their struggles, their losing struggles, their societies, their civilizations are histories most Americans, born east or west of the Mississippi, don't know very well. Poet Karla Linn Merrifield doesn't teach traditional history in Lithic Scatter and Other Poems. However, you'll likely absorb a deeper and lasting understanding of our dry, high country, especially the land before settlers began crossing the Mississippi in large numbers, heading west.

Karla invites you to come down from your jetliner and camp like the settlers did. Join her on a boating expedition in high-end dories along a splashing, sloshing river of the West. Experience the sense of personal smallness when you look up the high canyon walls. Along the way of her western adventures, she says, "Stand here next to this 280-million-year-old rock, and I'll tell you a story." Soon, you'll be kneeling with her, your skin touching the soil, and maybe you'll pray if you are inclined or at least consider the spiritual beliefs of the ancient Anasazi at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in the Navaho country of Arizona. Later you'll be introduced to the Badlands on a rare day of rain where the poet's "feet sunk in gray clay

     that sucked at my sandals;
     water seeped in to fill footprints
     left by my rippled soles.

After absorbing Karla's poems, you will rise, somewhat stunned, and brush the sand from one knee, then the other. You are likely to be wiser.

She has accomplished a merger of science and spirituality without offending either. Often her language is piercingly clear. Her years of study are a comfortable backdrop for her poems. You trust her scholarship, her record-keeping, her enchanting lines as she observes and reports while reminding readers of the majesty of simple expressions, of sharing beauty:

     Black bear in cinnamon morning coat....
     Bald domes wake from violet sleep
     and begin to glow....
     Snowmelt has turned to white water;
     the river's emerald pools and turquoise
     eddies flash silver this mid-day
     and all that is green --
     lodgepole, sweat pine, Douglas fir,
     all lichen, starburst and rock posy alike-
     shimmers a rainbow as if
     a sudden summer thunderstorm
     has washed the mountains iridescent

You are probably familiar with the ancestral residences of cliff-dwelling Native Americans. (Aren't all of us who were born here native Americans?) The ancient people lived near the "four corners" of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. These people lived in pueblos and cliff dwellings where rope ladders could be lifted if enemies attacked. Lack of rain, in time, defeated these clever cliff dwellers. Karla implicitly invites you to visit the impressive remains and dig with her to learn how people once thrived here.

There's humor among the 59 poems of this 114-page book. Especially when our eagle-eyed Western Traveler seems stranded. In Las Vegas, she was swept away "in a torrent of yakking tourists."

     What terror to be tumbled around
     in flumes of racing taxi cabs,
     not a spume or spray to be seen.
     Suddenly, my eardrums burst
     from a thousand jangling slot machines.

Karla, 62, is a spiritual companion of talented spiders and old rocks and John Muir and tens of thousands of women who made baskets and kept families together centuries ago in the West. A native of West Virginia, she came to know mountains and rivers at a young age. She and her husband, Roger M. Weir, divide their time between homes in Brockport, New York, and North Fort Myers, Florida. They travel together extensively -- Antarctica, the Amazon (twice), Canada, east Africa, and obviously the American West (a dozen states, many times). She usually writes poems based on her travels and her beliefs that we Homo sapiens sapiens need to pay attention and protect wild animals and their habitat, and we must preserve ancient people's places. All this, please, before the wild animals, their habitat, and ancient places are destroyed by profit-minded folks who like to say they are creating jobs. She has a great sense of the passage of time. Her poems quietly yell.

Karla Linn Merrifield is a prodigious and profound poet. Some 500 of her poems have been published in journals and anthologies. A majority of the poems in Lithic Scatter and Other Poems or their earlier versions were published in journals and magazines; editors recognized merit. Karla has 10 poetry books to her credit. She has received the Dr. Sherwin Howard Award for best poetry published in Weber -- The Contemporary West in 2012. Nine times editors publishing her poems have nominated her for Pushcart Prizes. Her book Godwit: Poems of Canada received the Eiseman Award for Poetry. She has served as artist-in-residence for the National Park Service. I consider Karla a candidate for additional poetry awards; with her abilities of communicator, teacher, and lover of the power of poetry, she would be a wonderful poet laureate of the United States.

If her publishing record wasn't enough, she contributes uncounted hours as assistant editor and poetry book reviewer for The Centrifugral Eye ( Karla invites her readers and prospective book buyers to write to her at I was not lucky enough to be one of her students when she taught at Brockport College of the State University of New York. But I have learned much from her outside her classroom. As she has with many students, Karla has encouraged me to write, to complete poems, to publish, and in turn to urge others to write and publish as well. She is a sterling ambassador for the English language. And she loves the world. She will tell you about the natural world: regardless of megacities and other places Homo sapiens sapiens live and work, we all are natural, and so everywhere on Earth is the natural world.

However, we are not treated the same, not fairly. People in the Eastern United States occasionally know serious dry periods; farmers complain, and suburban lawns suffer temporarily. But, in the West, civilizations rise and fall based on the timing of water. As Karla explains:

     With the sun in its summer house,
     afternoon winds beat
     the sand's message of heat.
     Clouds assemble to drum
     thunderstorms. But no rains come.
     Where snake should swallow lizard,
     eagle swallow snake,
     time swallowed whole
     the golden bird and its people
     because no rains came.