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Plains Song

By Wright Morris

Original Publisher: Harper & Row
Current Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Patricia Smith writes:

It is a curse in this family that the women bear only daughters, if anything at all.--from “Plains Song: For Female Voices” by Wright Morris.

I. Cora.

The ground here smells of spit and iron, the scarlet dust
clings like cloth to old ankles. I stomp this landscape,
hurtling forward with a childbearer’s hips, dreaming
of sons, freckle and muscle, sons to work this dry horizon
into bloom. But the elders claw with calluses along
the sweet road of my belly, say “It’s a girl, praise be,”
and my shoulders sink a little. It will be a fight, blood
and squalling in the fallow, another woman cursed
beneath a damn-it-all sun. I will clench my broken teeth,
holding back for now the howling lessons of daughter.
All flailing fist and heart-knot, she battles through me,
refusing to gulp the air I offer. Already she’s a prairie girl.
Praying smooth the wounded leather of my hands,
I clutch Madge---yes, Madge---to my breast and nurse
her on scalding milk threaded with dust. While I rock
and whimper alphabet songs, my husband stands
just outside the circle of any light, considering his two
failures, wondering what Madge and I could possibly
be good for. Emerson is shamed by the wriggling evidence
of his weak seed, forgetting that, on my wedding night,
I bit my own hand through to bone to keep him away
from my body. God makes the hand throb now.

In the shadowed room, watching her feed, his breath
rattles and he says nothing while we rock and rock.

I will teach my daughter songs from my own throat,
songs rumbling with man-bass and prayer, and every
note we learn together will be like a scraping slap,
or a first kiss, across the stubbled, stubborn cheek
of the man who will expect to be called father

II. Madge

I was born to be porcelain, a wife. I was born
to be shaped and shattered and shaped. I was born
to mingle with dust, to have flat and functional feet.
I was born with only one horizon. My first borders
were the hips of my mother. I was born knowing
my place, my only soundtrack is a slowly ticking
clock. I was born in a dust bowl, in the kitchen,
in the shadowy niche of a barn. I was born at the
altar with him, at the stove tending a cast iron skillet.
I was born to be shattered and shaped and
shattered. I was born and given a name with one
hard syllable. My heart is my mother’s knuckle.
I was born with this damn state in my throat.
I was born despite my father. Despite my mother.
I was born to mingle with the dust, to become that
same blistered brown, to never leave the land where I am.

III. Sharon

Say it sweet, like slow jazz and something fried, Chi ca go,
say it like it’s not Nebraska. Say it like it’s anywhere else.
Look at my slow swivel, listen to the way words dance
when they leave my city mouth, and tell me where I belong
I never want dust on my shoes, never want to bend and pull
some dead, crackling plant from the soil, never want to say
I do to some hick with a flat face, overalls and a hat.
Can’t you hear the blue note on the other side of this,
can’t you feel that sugar wind blasting through open doors?
Say my name once in awhile, and just tell ‘em I’ve gone
to find where else and what else, what for and why not,
tell ‘em I left a little bit of here for a whole lotta there,
tell ‘em I left ol’ lady Cora and Madge with their feet buried
in this earth, tell everybody I tried. Maybe when the nights are
slow and that killing silent, you’ll hear a piece of my song
Chi ca go, Chi ca go, riding the wind like a train whistle. 

Patricia Smith is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Blood Dazzler, which was a 2008 National Book Award finalist.


ISBN: 9780803282674

Fiction (Hardcover) Finalists that Year:

  • Shirley Hazzard for The Transit of Venus
  • William Maxwell for So Long, See You Tomorrow
  • Walker Percy for The Second Coming
  • Eudora Welty for The Collected Stories

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:

  • A Confederacy of Dunces by the late John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • Morris was known for his portrayals of life in the Great Plains, specifically in his home state of Nebraska.
  • Photographs of Morris’ uncle’s farm, as well as the real-life characters of Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara, appear in his books.
  • Wright Morris won his first National Book Award for The Field of Vision in 1957. This second win, for Plains Song, came more than twenty years later.

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