The Scoria Lily
Paul Southworth Bliss was a remarkable man in two ways: because he wrote sublime poetry, much of it inspired by the North Dakota landscape, and because he built an extraordinary house, in Adams County, North Dakota. Both his poetry and his house are pretty much forgotten, but deserve to be discovered, preserved, and appreciated.
A directory of artists in North Dakota and an anthology of creative writing, both published in the 1930s, provide basic biography about Paul Southworth Bliss. Of his many books of poetry three deal substantially with North Dakota, the first of which, Spin Dance, is the best; I talked about it in a previous Plains Folk essay. Dr. Lawrence Moe of Metropolitan State University, St. Paul, has written elegantly about Bliss’s poetic works. And Jim Fuglie has written about Bliss with insight in his weblog, PrairieBlog.
Then, I got into touch with a woman of eclectic interests named Irene Hause, in Sheridan, Wyoming, who also has a blog, called Wyoming Woman. She offers particular insights, from an intriguing source, about the personal life of Bliss the poet.
Bliss was, in many ways, a success story and a renaissance man. A Minnesota boy, he was educated at Hamline and Harvard. His first career was as a newspaper reporter. He joined the army on American entry into the Great War, attained the rank of major, served with distinction, and after discharge, wrote the history of his regiment. Subsequently he entered the profession of social work, until in 1933 he was appointed a field representative of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, stationed in Williston, North Dakota. A promotion put him in the position of Director of Intake, that is, the man in charge of hiring, for the Works Progress Administration in North Dakota, an important and influential position.
It was said Bliss traveled 40,000 miles across North Dakota on public service, learning the landscape that inspired his poetry. On or near land his mother had acquired in 1910 in Adams County, northeast of Haynes, he built a country home, which he christened the Scoria Lily. This was a house and garage constructed in Moderne style, the walls built up with rammed earth. This is to say, the walls were composed of earth compacted in forms. The flat roof was poured concrete. The fireplace was laid up of petrified wood. The house stood atop a rise in the middle of a pasture. A subsequent owner added an immense embankment of scoria boulders that gives the site a fortified look. The house stands today in a state of dignified partial collapse.
What happened to Colonel Bliss, as he often was addressed? Irene Hause recounts that her mother, a German immigrant woman, was the care-giver for Mrs. Bliss—the mother of Paul, who never married. Paul seems to have been quite close to his mother until he went to work in North Dakota, leaving her in the care of Mrs. Hause. Mrs. Bliss wrote a mimeo memoir, much of which was devoted to her son.
What Mrs. Bliss does not recount is that Paul Bliss committed suicide in a YMCA in Kansas City in 1940. The family never told her this. They would write letters to her as if they were coming from Paul, and Mrs. Hause would have to read the letters to the old mother, maintaining a fiction that her son was still alive.
I do not know the details of the downfall of Paul Bliss. Someday I will discover them. For now, I have his poem, “Badlands Sunrise”: “Give me clay / For the building / Of valleys and buttes, / Not rock, / For rock cannot be made over, / And worked with.”