Adrienne Rich

For Julia in Nebraska

          Here on the divide between the Republican and the Little Blue lived some of 
the most courageous people of the frontier.  Their fortunes and their loves live 
again in the writings of Willa Cather, daughter of the plains and interpreter of 
man’s growth in these fields and in the valleys beyond.

          On this beautiful, ever-changing land, man fought to establish a home. In  
her vision of the plow against the sun, symbol of the beauty and importance of 
work, Willa Cather caught the eternal blending of earth and sky. . . .

In the Midwest of Willa Cather
the railroad looks like a braid of hair
a grandmother’s strong hands plaited 
straight down a grand-daughter’s back.
Out there last autumn the streets
dreamed copper-lustre, the fields 
of winter wheat whispered long snows yet to fall
we were talking of matrices

and now it’s spring again already.
This stormy Sunday lashed with rain
I call you in Nebraska
hear you’re planting your garden
sanding and oiling a burl of wood
hear in your voice the intention to
survive the long war between mind and body
and we make a promise to talk
this year, about growing older

and I think: we’re making a pledge.
Though not much in books of ritual
is useful between women
we still can make vows together
long distance, in electrical code:
Today you were promising me
to live, and I took your word,
Julia, as if it were my own:
we’ll live to grow old and talk about it too.

I’ve listened to your words
seen you stand by the caldron’s glare
rendering grammar by the heat
of your womanly wrath.
Brave linguist, bearing your double axe and shield
painfully honed and polished,
no word lies cool on your tongue
bent on restoring meaning to
our lesbian names, in quiet fury
weaving the chronicle so violently torn.

On this beautiful, ever-changing land
— the historical marker says —
man fought to establish a home
(fought whom? the marker is mute.)
They named this Catherland, for Willa Cather,
lesbian — the marker is mute,
the marker white men set on a soil
of broken treaties, Indian blood,
women wiped out in childbirth, massacres —
for Willa Cather, lesbian,
whose letters were burnt in shame.

Dear Julia, Willa knew at her death
that the very air was changing
that her Archbishop’s skies
would hardly survive his life
she knew as well that history
is neither your script nor mine
it is the pictograph
from which the young must learn
like Tom Outland, from people
discredited or dead
that it needs a telling as plain
as the prairie, as the tale
of a young girl or an old woman
told by tongues that loved them

And Willa who could not tell
her own story as it was
left us her stern and delicate 
respect for the lives she loved —
How are we going to do better?
for that’s the question that lies
beyond our excavations,
the question I ask of you
and myself, when our maps diverge,
when we miss signals, fail —

And if I’ve written in passion,
Live, Julia! what was I writing
but my own pledge to myself
where the love of women is rooted?
And what was I invoking
but the matrices we weave
web upon web, delicate rafters
flung in audacity to the prairie skies
nets of telepathy contrived
to outlast the iron road
laid out in blood across the land they called virgin —
nets, strands, a braid of hair
a grandmother’s strong hands plaited
straight down a grand-daughter’s back.

spoken = Karen Marek