Poem of the Week | February 06, 2011

This week we are delighted to feature Steven Lance’s poem “South Dakota.”  The poem is previously unpublished.  Steven Lance graduated from UC Berkeley in 2009.  Since then, he has been driving around the country, teaching creative writing and ESL, writing press releases for an art gallery, and busking at the farmer’s market.  His poems have appeared in Berkeley Poetry Review, CLAM, Art House Riot, and Vertebrae Journal.

Author’s Note:

In this series I was trying out an old method of writing significance into spaces: by connecting them with prominent men.  In classical applications of the technique, these men get their faces on road signs and fill the function of municipal hearth-god, grand marshal.  “Calvin Coolidge slept here.”  “St. Cyprian’s relics beneath the cathedral.”  I wanted to write an alternative America of accidental patronages.  I made a rule for the project that each state would be associated with one saint and one president; something arbitrary, such as alliteration, would decide the matches.  I thought of Tolstoy, and knew I would need his help.  So he appeared in every state, especially this one.  When I think of South Dakota, I’m intrigued by the contrast between the Badlands’ inhuman beauty and the monumental anthropomorphism of the Black Hills.  Bringing Sebastian and Harry Truman together here led the poem to consider unintelligible violence and its origins, and to end on a larger scale than the others.

South Dakota

When St. Sebastian was buried they made sure the coffin

was mostly transparent so you could look in and see all the

arrows and wonder what that must have felt like. “Here lies Jack Williams.

He done his damnedest.” I always thought that was the best epitaph that a

man could have, Harry S. Truman said, and with tears in his eyes. The S

stood for nothing, he later admitted to LIFE. The patron saint of archery

inherited Roosevelt’s nuclear program and none of his cigarette holders.

Later, as the clouds rose higher, and the arrows and their silvery wingtips

reflected a wonderful orange. “What is the cause of historical events?

Power. What is Power? Power is the accumulated will of the masses

transferred to a given personage.” Even Tolstoy couldn’t stop himself

from humming along, and with tears in his eyes, when the chorus of angels

appeared behind him, singing The White Cliffs of Dover.