Last Refuge, 1880 (A Villanelle)

Cut through hard lands where cry the lowing beasts,track furrowed paths where hunger once had roamed broad plains expanse, last refuge of the least.

Bitter winds blew here where manumit-fleeced found lonely posts round russet red stone, who cut through hard lands where cry the lowing beasts.

Tennyson’s pilgrims, weary hearts, hope ceased, man red and black, sojourned here, new Shiloh: broad plains expanse, last refuge of the least.

Illusive freedom, manacle dreams, release these wild flowers, red buds, wheat, barley in loam. Cut these hard lands where cry the lowing beasts.

Tethered hope spills on brittle, needy chutes, feast. Wind-bent stilted spears in servitude shone on broad plains expanse, last refuge of the least.

Plight of desire - will dark struggles cease? Yearning yeoman, pilgrim, Beulah, home. Cut through hard lands where cry the lowing beasts, broad plains expanse, last refuge of the least.

 

About this poem:

From 1830 to the late 1800’s, outcasts converged upon no man’s  land. One group, a people desperate to lose forever the remnants of slavery and the other, stripped of their homeland and conscripted to reservations in Indian Territory. Oklahoma, like Kansas, was once destined to become an all-black state as many fled to seek a life unencumbered by white oppression. Also, at the close of the nineteenth century, a western epic was ending, the cattle trails were coming to a close under the assault of land ownership and barbed wire as drovers moved the last of the great migration of cattle northward. The unforgiving red clay of Oklahoma was cut by the hooves of hardy stock, preceded by the etched footpaths that comprised the Trail of Tears and eventually graced by freedmen. These paths, carved by cattle, horses and wagons, African Americans and Native Americans, were a result of the commingling of thousands of travelers, refugees of a heartbreaking epic in American History.

This poem is a villanelle, a purposeful repetition of recurring phrases and a style of a poem that “refuses to tell a story. It circles around and around, refusing to go forward in any kind of linear development, and  so suggesting at the deepest level, powerful recurrences of mood and emotion and memory”[1]. The villanelle seemed a fitting form to express the plight of the persecuted and downtrodden, it “has been called ‘an acoustic chamber for words’ and a structure that lends itself to ‘duality, dichotomy, and debate’.” [2]

[1] The Making of a Poem, a Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms [2] The Ode Less Traveled, Stephen Fry