Plains Folk

Garden of Yesterday


I got myself a first edition of this book of poetry by James W. Foley, published by a prominent New York house in 1916: The Voices of Song. In the front is one of those photographs protected by a tissue insert, with the bespectacled Mr. Foley peering out at us quizzically. Hair neatly parted and slicked, exhibiting a starched collar along with his coat and tie, he has come a long way since his rough and ready days in Medora, where his father had entertained that bookish and yet virile dude from New York named Roosevelt.


That same dude, writing from Sagamore Hill, contributes an introductory note to the book, recounting an anecdote wherein “the Foley boy” takes “a certain Eastern college professor” on a wagon excursion with an unruly team into the badlands, with unfortunate results. As for the poet the Foley boy grew up to be, Roosevelt says, “as an old friend of the Little Missouri days I wish him well.”


Mr. Foley was the poet laureate of North Dakota and the author of our state song, “The North Dakota Hymn.” At the NDSU Institute for Regional Studies I have seen the original text of the song, handwritten on stationery of the Park Hotel, Watford City, North Dakota. “North Dakota, North Dakota / With thy prairies wide and free / All thy sons and daughters love thee / Fairest state from sea to sea.” Yes, this stuff is easy to parody, and from our perch here in the twenty-first century, we look back on Mr. Foley as a little bit of an embarrassment, his verse a rustic artifact of our bucolic past.


I am here to urge us all to think differently about Mr. Foley and to take another look at his poetry. In the first place, he was really a Bismarck boy. His mother kept the household in the capital city. Young James visited his father in Medora, then spent a year with him there after graduating from Bismarck High in 1888.


Mr. Foley became a newspaper reporter, starting with the Bismarck Tribune, and published popular works of poetry. He served as private secretary to Governor Louis B. Hanna. He loved North Dakota, and he loved his fellow man, in a spirit of charity that perceived the better angels hovering over human foibles, even when those foibles proved discouraging.


Studying clippings and manuscripts in the institute reading room, I learn that Mr. Foley ultimately left North Dakota for California, and did so with some distress. He evidently felt unappreciated in North Dakota, considered himself the object of jealousy and envy. Which is why his poem, “The Place that Is Home,” is so poignant. He describes how whereas a sailor may be comfortable at sea, and a forest-dweller among the trees, a plainsman finds comfort only in prairie landscapes.


In my opinion, the greatest of all Foley poems is “The Garden of Yesterday.” As preparation for reading it, google up the name Walter Benjamin, that Jewish martyr to Nazi tyranny who is adjudged a profound philosopher of History. I’m not saying Mr. Foley was another Walter Benjamin, I’m just saying he has a sense of the past redolent of that of Benjamin.


In “The Garden of Yesterday,” the poet stands with a multitude of mourners gathered at the garden gate, excluded by Time, the gatekeeper, with whom they plead for access in order to search for what they have lost. Mr. Foley writes, “All day I stood beside the gate from dawn to dusk, and saw them wait / To plead with him to clear the way, that they might search in Yesterday / But to them all he shook his head: ‘The way is forever closed,’ he said.”


Mr. Foley knows how it is to stand at that gate, he knows what it is to be an expatriate, he sees, with Benjamin, the Angel of History. And that angel possesses not the charitable spirit of Mr. Foley. Mr. Foley thinks we should know that.


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