Plains Folk

Spin Dance


Here comes the Fedex man up the drive, and I know what’s in the package: a sheaf of sensual delights, punctuated by tragedy. My inscribed first edition of Spin Dance, by Paul Southworth Bliss, has arrived.

I came to know the Paul Southworth Bliss of history, often addressed in his day as Colonel Bliss, on account of his house, or country retreat, in Adams County, North Dakota. He named it the Scoria Lily. And here, in Spin Dance, is Bliss’s poem, “Scoria Lily,” with a footnote explaining how in 1934, when the poet first encountered the night-blooming flower, he took it to O. A. Stevens, the great plantsman at North Dakota Agricultural College, for identification.

Which sends me to my copy of the Handbook of North Dakota Plants, by Stevens, where I read the entry for Mentzelia decapetala, common name Evening Star, also known as Scoria Lily; to be found, Stevens notes, “On buttes in burned, crumpled clay (‘scoria’), or on clay slopes, Missouri River westward. . . . Flowers open in evening and resemble a cactus flower.”

Call me a dork, but I say, how cool is this, to imagine Col. Bliss, on his first venture into the West River Country, stopping his car in McKenzie County at dusk to examine and smell–because Bliss refers to the “fragrant nectar” of the blossom–this strange flower, a poem forming in his mind, but what should he call the thing? And passing through Fargo on his way back east, wilted blossoms in hand, seeking out Stevens, him of the great herbarium, to name the flower, and then after a few years, on building his country home in Adams County, naming it for the sensuous lily.

I am transported, specifically to that pasture in Adams County where the Scoria Lily ranch house still stands. Actually, the garage was built first, because Bliss set his workmen building with an unfamiliar construction technique: rammed earth. They built up the walls with earth packed in layers into forms, put a flat roof on top, and thereafter, when Col. Bliss might come by to check on the progress of his house, at least he had a place to park his car.

That remarkable ranch house of rammed earth, and the tragedy of Col. Bliss’s suicide in 1940, I’ll have to tell those stories some other time, because today I have in hand this lovely collection of poems, Spin Dance. Although Col. Bliss remained a historical stranger to me at the time, he became a literary acquaintance some years ago, by virtue of an introduction by the inveterate bibliophile, the late David Martinson, who commended Spin Dance to me on account of Bliss’s sense of nature and place.

Between two meadows that I know / I walked today as in a trance . . . / I saw the April wind bend low / And ask the fallow field to dance. / Was there ever a dance / Like the spin dance, / Of the wind / And the April earth!

That title poem by Bliss originated on April 18, 1934, in a field near Stanley, North Dakota. There followed another great poem of prairie farming beginning, “Sing me a song of the coltered plow,” that I cannot help not merely reading, but singing.

Best of all for me, though, is the poem with the one-word title, “Scoria.”

And the roads are pink ribbons / On the breasts of the hills. / At sunset the sky is scoria, too: / And the earth and the heavens / And the people– / Are all scoria!

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