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Kansas Poets "Shoptalk" Series
Program 5 - Denise Low
November 7, 2006

 

Denise Low
 
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Denise LowDenise (Dotson) Low, Ph.D., is chair of the English Department at Haskell Indian Nations University, where she also teaches creative writing and American Indian Studies courses.

Her book, Words of a Prairie Alchemist, a collection of essays, was published by Ice Cube Press (2006).  A poem collection, Thailand Journal, was named a notable book of 2003 by the Kansas City Star, and her book, New & Selected Poems, 1980-1999, was published by Penthe Press.  She also edited Wakarusa Wetlands in Word & Image for the Lawrence Arts Centerís Imagination & Place Committee (2005).

Low was guest co-editor of Teaching Leslie Marmon Silkoís Ceremony, a special issue of American Indian Culture and Research Journal, UCLA, 28.1 (2004). Her articles, essays, and reviews of American Indian literature appear in Studies in American Indian Literature, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, American Indian Quarterly, Midwest Quarterly, Kansas City Star, and others.

She is a 5th generation Kansan of mixed German, Scots, Lenape (Delaware), English, French, and Cherokee heritage. She is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle of The Land Institute.

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 Kansas Poet Laureate, Jonathan Holden on Denise Low

 

One of the best and the most important poets of Kansas has always been Denise Low.  Both the quality of Denise Low's mind and the diversity of her interests are epitomized in her latest book WORDS OF A PRAIRIE ALCHEMIST:  THE ART OF PRAIRIE LITERATURE (Ice Cube Press, 2006).

 

It's hard to know where to start in praising this collection; but I'll take a chance:  this 127-page book is the equivalent to T.S. Eliot's THE WASTE LAND.  First, its form is radical.  It's an "anatomy," as radical and fundamental as Northrop Frye's famous, virtually encyclopedic classic THE ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.  PRAIRIE ALCHEMIST is a mixed-genre book, containing poems, essays, stories, interviews, and it is both learned and profoundly eclectic.

 

Two themes emerge in this anatomy: the importance of Native-American tradition in Kansas literature and in the work of Low (she is partly native) and in the work of other prairie folk, such as William Stafford who, it turns out, is also partly native.

 

This is a book which one can read and re-read endlessly and discover fresh pleasures.  Possible the most fitting way to close this appreciation would be simply to quote some of the good stuff in this book, say from its final poem "Tulip Elegies:"

    November, season to aim
    the spade and bear down hard.
    Grass gives, rips open:
    sod and black flesh.
    From crumbled stone will rise
    the new year.  I bury
    crisp buds into the breach
    and press them further down.
    Decay surrounds these children
    all winter like memory surrounds
    each moment.  Next March

    shining petals will carry
    a core of darkness up . . .

    IV.
    Each stalk forms itself
    with the symmetry of Bach,
    pulls green blood up
    into latticework of cells--
    augers headfirst
    into windy blast
    and sun dazzle . . .

    V.
    This shining in my chest--
    familiar, painful, a yearning
    to bust loose from skin . . .


    My shape carries a heat within,
    counted out in rhythms when we kiss
    and when springtime, I see
    a fresh tulip--scarlet, full-fired.

When to stop?  This is superb poetry, reminiscent of my favorite poet Gerard Manley Hopkins or my favorite non-fiction author James Watson, his Nobel-prize-winning book DOUBLE HELIX, yet altogether unique: Denise Low.

         
  Jonathan Holden