Book Review   

What I Learned in Kansas by Liz Rhodebeck, Port Yonder Press, 2010. $7.95

Reviewed by Elmae Passineau

Unlike weathermen and statisticians, who tend to lump together the Midwest as one entity, Liz Rhodebeck knows the difference between Kansas and Iowa and Wisconsin.  In Kansas, “…coastal breezes / travel inland to taunt the wheat / into rolling whitecaps”; in Iowa, “The white empty sky / scrapes the bleached, stubbled / fields upon fields / like tightly stretched skins”; in Wisconsin, “…bony fingered trees/ (are) pulling the gauzy blanket / close to their roots, / clacking in frozen stillness.”  In her 2010 chapbook, What I Learned in Kansas, Rhodebeck captures the nuances that differentiate acres and acres of flat empty winter space with compelling personification and metaphor.

Rhodebeck presents us with a travelogue unlike the tourist-oriented handbook we
peruse before a trip.  In 26 short narrative and free verse poems, she speaks of places and people, yes, but also of learning and love and strength and wisdom gleaned.
Simple pleasures and simple beauty are presented over and over in haunting imagery  that we can  recall from our own lives.  In “Why I Don’t Have Air-Conditioning, Cable TV, and Other Oddities,” she writes “…what’s a night sky for / anyway if you can’t / lie in the grass / waiting for the show / to begin.”  And in “What I Learned in Kansas,” she says, “…I learned the stillness / of the vast night sky, / broad as here to here, / crammed with stars /  and silent, flickering lightning…”   In “June Night,” she continues her sweet soft evenings with “…the slap-slap of sandaled feet / a train whistle lifting into / the barely tinted sky…still and peaceful as / rocking in the porch glider / slowly slowly.”

A city girl in the country may be conflicted, which Rhodebeck illustrates in “She  Runs with Horses.”  “Don’t you get lonely out there / in your quiet pastures?” the city  woman asks.  The country woman responds, “Don’t you get tired of  / all the noise of  being on a city street?”  The poet concludes, “I have life at my doorstep. / Though  sometimes I wish I could hear only / the pounding of hooves, / and she sometimes longs  for a face at the door.”

The journey to Kansas, it seems, let “…the Kansas wind / strip away every rag of pretense, / loose every curl of style in my hair / leaving only me-- / and that was enough.” The poem “Restful” captures the contentment and peace that came with the Kansas sojourn.  But also the passion and creativity and life that can spring from “…the quiet of surrender…until, one by one, emerald shoots / pierce the burnt debris…as the earth bursts me into fecundity, / fires my dreams anew,”  as presented in “Prairie Baptism.”

The story of Kansas continues with the anticipation of a dear friend’s death.  In “Request Denied,” Rhodebeck writes, “…already I feel the keening / like distant thunder  / quivering the ground / beneath my feet…the breaking asunder / I know I will face…”  Her words call forth aching memories for anyone who has waited, knowing and not wanting to know, for a loved one’s death.  And “On Hearing of the Death of Ruth,” she says, “I will hear her voice again…say she loves me…like the words, the / poems she wrote, or rather / caught, as she once said: / Just hold out your hand.”

The reader feels like she, too, has traveled to Kansas, freed herself of encumbrances,  met Ruth, and grown in grace and wisdom because of the experience. Beautiful imagery, evocative word choices, rich personification, thought-provoking lines, and clear declarative sentences all contribute to a memorable journey to Kansas and back, whether it’s real or imagined for the reader.

Elmae Passineau, Wausau, Wisconsin, is a former English teacher, principal, and private pilot. Currently, she is a thinker, reader, friend, helper, feminist, and writer.