OK, if you came here looking for that sappy poem “Billy Peeble’s Christmas” that I usually put on my annual Christmas poetry blog, you’re going to be disappointed.
Even Lillian rolled her eyes when I headed for my office to start writing. She didn’t say much, but I got the hint — aren’t you tired of that by now? Isn’t James Foley passe’ yet?
Well, OK then. I am going to just use a couple of Paul Bliss’s winter poems as my Prairie Blog Christmas card this year. No one makes me feel as good about winter as Bliss does.
First, because we’re packing up some food and wine and sleeping bags and headed for the Bad Lands tomorrow for a couple of days of solitude with mostly critters for company, I’m going to share my favorite Bliss Bad Lands poem.
Give me clay
For the building
of valleys and buttes,
For rock cannot be made over,
And worked with.
Who made the Badlands,
Modeled a clay dream of Heaven,
Then he modeled
A dream of Hell . . .
Then he slept–and dreamed again.
He awoke–and modeled
A dream of Hell-Heaven . . .
And men call it the Badlands.
This morning the Artist
Ordered his model cast;
And Master Workman Sun
Yawned a great yawn,
And stretched himself,
And got up,
and fell to work!
He poured red and gold
On the shelves of the buttes,
And the red gold ran down
Into the vales,
And splashed up,
And all around . . .
And some of it fell
On distant peaks
That became icebergs
In a sea of wine.
In my humble way
I commended the Artist
And I said
Bliss says in a note he wrote that on Jan. 6, 1935,at Williston, N.D. “I came to Roosevelt Park, where the Little Missouri River is crossed by a silver bridge on Highway No. 85, 13 miles south of Watford City, N.D. The time was Jan. 3, at sunrise. The temperature was 10 degrees below and the air was so clear that on coming to the EDGE I felt I could hurl a pebble into the CC Camp more than two miles away, on the bank of the river. I can only say of this sunrise that after seeing the Badlands at this point in all weathers and moods and lights, I knew at last the work was perfect.”
I hope we see one of those perfect sunrises on Christmas morning this year in the Bad Lands — note Bliss spells it as one word and I spell it as two, but at least he capitalizes both words — although I hope it is a few degrees warmer than that January 1935 morning. Meanwhile, here’s a couple of more of his fine winter poems.
Out of the oakland,
Out of the pineland,
Near the time of sunset,
I came to the un-treed plains.
On the frost-struck air
There lay two segments
Of a mighty wheel,
sunk to the sun-hub
in the glistening prairie
The inner ring was rose,
The middle maize,
And the two segments
Were awesome arches
Between the snow-clad earth
And the blue zenith!
I have lived through wars,
I have lived through floods,
And storms and droughts …
I have seen at last
That miracle of miracles,
The winter rainbow.
Bliss noted he wrote the poem Dec. 28, 1934, in Fargo, N.D. and explained it in a footnote, as he often did:
“The phenomenon of sundogs is relatively common, but until today, I had never seen them expanded into sections of a winter rainbow. This marvel of the plains appeared at about 3:50 p.m. today, and continued for nearly 15 minutes. I had emerged from the gloom of the oak and pine lands of Minnesota and burst onto the prairie in air that, due to the low temperature (at least zero), glittered with billions of frost particles.”
Four million acres
of yellow stubble
Anchor the sun
To the white snow
of the Slope country.
Two townships distant,
Like baled ermine
To the crisp blue
Of a January sky.
Of the heavens
A long bar
Of gray-purple cloud,
As an unhammered shard
Of the west.
Jan. 19, 1936.
“Adams County to Bismarck on a still day of high barometer with lofty shadowless cirrus clouds; the thermometer at 15 below.”
And here’s my favorite:
Under the torture
of 47 degrees below
The air of McKenzie County
As the soul
The long road
Leads over the hills
LIke the track
Of an endless
Into a white valley …
The car snaps upward,
at 65 miles an hour
Jan. 23, 1935, McKenzie County, N.D.
Authors note: “Arriving at Watford City from Williston, I was told that farmstead thermometers in the valley of Cherry Creek registered 47 degrees below this morning. Cleansed by this pain-spasm, the air was utterly clear; and the blue of the sky was worth the wait of a lifetime. The car leaped at the scurrying hills with uncommon zest and when it pointed upward, revealing an ocean of blue at the hilltop road’s end, I would have been content to go hurtling on into the stratosphere.”
Well, there’s your winter poetry treat, courtesy of Col. Paul Southworth Bliss, arguably North Dakota’s best-ever poet (and I know a couple of my friends who will argue). None of that sappy James Foley stuff this year.
Merry Christmas from Lillian and Jim, resident managers at Red Oak House, and from The Prairie Blog.
Oh, What the heck. Billy Peebles. If you don’t like it, quit reading right now and get on with your daily business.
BILLY PEEBLE’S CHRISTMAS
By James W. Foley
From The Book of Boys and Girls)
Billy Peeble he ain’t got no parents — never had none ‘cause
When he was borned he was an orfunt; an’ he said ‘at Santa Claus
Never didn’t leave him nothin’, ‘cause he was a county charge
An’ the overseer told him that his fambly was too large
To remember orfunt children; so I ast Ma couldn’t we
Have Bill Peeble up to our house, so’s to see our Christmas tree.
An she ast me if he’s dirty; an’ I said I guessed he was,
But I didn’t think it makes no difference with Santa Claus.
My his clo’es was awful ragged! Ma, she put him in a tub
An’ she poured it full of water, an’ she gave him such a scrub
‘At he ‘ist sit there an’ shivered; and he tol’ me afterwurds
‘At he never washed all over out to Overseer Bird’s!
‘An she burned his ragged trousies an’ she gave him some of mine;
My! She rubbed him an’ she scrubbed him till she almost made him shine,
Nen he ‘ist looked all around him like he’s scairt for quite a w’ile
An’ even when Ma’d pat his head he wouldn’t hardly smile.
“En after w’ile Ma took some flour-sacks an’ ‘en she laid
“Em right down at the fireplace, ‘ist ‘cause she is afraid
Santa Claus’ll soil the carpet when he comes down there, you know
An’ Billy Peeble watcher her, an’ his eyes stuck out — ‘ist so!
“En Ma said ‘at in the mornin’ if we’d look down on the sacks
‘At they’d be ‘ist full of soot where Santa Claus had made his tracks;
Billy Peeble stood there lookin’! An’ he told me afterwurds
He was scairt he’d wake up an’ be back at Overseer Bird’s.
Well, ‘en she hung our stockin’s up and after w’ile she said:
“Now you and’ Billy Peeble better get right off to bed,
An’ if you hear a noise tonight, don’t you boys make a sound,
‘Cause Santa Claus don’t never come with little boys around!”
So me an’ Billy went to bed, and Billy Peeble, he
Could hardly go to sleep at all — ist tossed an’ tossed. You see
We had such w’ite sheets on the bed an’ he said afterwurds
They never had no sheets at all at Overseer Bird’s.
So we ‘ist laid and talked an’ talked. An’ Billy ast me who
Was Santa Claus. An’I said I don’t know if it’s all true,
But people say he’s some old man who ‘ist loves little boys
An’ keeps a store at the North Pole with heaps an’ heaps of toys
W’ich he brings down in a big sleigh, with reindeers for his steeds,
An’ comes right down the chimbly flue an’ leaves ‘ist what you needs.
My! He’s excited w’en I tell him that! An’ afterwurds
He said that they never had no toys at Overseer Bird’s.
I’m fallin’ pretty near asleep w’en Billy Peeble said:
“Sh-sh! What’s that noise?” An’ w’en he spoke I sat right up in bed
Till sure enough I heard it in the parlor down below,
An’ Billy Peeble, he set up an’ ‘en he said: “Let’s go!”
So we got up an’ sneaked down stairs, an’ both of us could see
‘At it was surely Santa Claus, ‘ist like Ma said he’d be;
But he must have heard us comin’ down, because he stopped an’ said:
“You, Henry Blake and William Peeble, go right back to bed!”
My goodness, we was awful scairt! An’ both of us was pale,
An’ Billy Peeble said upstairs: “My! Ain’t he ‘ist a whale?”
We didn’t hardly dare to talk and got back into bed
An’ Billy pulled the counterpane clear up above his head,
An’ in the mornin’ w’en we looked down on the flour-sacks,
W’y sure enough we saw the soot where he had made his tracks.
An’ Billy got a suit of clothes, a drum, an’ sled an’ books
Till he ‘ist never said a word, but my, how glad he looks!
An’ after w’ile it’s dinner time an Billy Peeble set
Right next to Pa, an’ my! how he ‘ist et an’ et an’ et!
Till he ‘ist puffed an’ had to leave his second piece of pie
Because he couldn’t eat no more, an’ after dinner, w’y
Ma dressed him up in his new clo’es, an Billy Peeble said
He’s sorry he’s an orfunt, an’ Ma Patted Billy’s head.
W’ich made him cry a little bit, an’ he said afterwurds
Nobody ever pats his head at Overseer Bird’s.
An’ all day long Pa looked at Ma, an’ Ma she looked at him,
Because Pa said ‘at Billy looked a little bit like Jim
‘At was my brother, but he died oncet, years ago,
An’ ‘at’s why Billy Peeble makes my mother like him so.
She says ‘at Santa brought him as a present, ‘ist instead
Of little Jim ‘at died oncet. So she ‘ist put him to bed
On Christmas Night an’ tucked him in an’ told me afterwurds
‘At he ain’t never going back to Overseer Bird’s.
Amy Phillips December 24, 2018 at 1:26 pm
I’m in San Francisco with family over the holidays and it’s beautiful here, but there is nothing like a North Dakota winter. Thank you, through the poems, for making it available to me. Happy holidays, and I look forward to your and Lillian’s posts in 2019.Reply