In this hardscrabble, heartfelt collection, Notter captures a deep connection to the land, as well as the connection between Midwestern people who live with nature’s unpredictability.
“Morning News in the Big Horn Mountains” starts with the news that makes the papers - celebrity impropriety, global warming, and war - then shifts to local news of a different sort, revealing the speaker’s keen observance of nature’s wildness even as he tries to influence it.
In Wyoming, just below timberline,
meteors and lightning storms
keep us entertained at night. Last week,
a squirrel wrecked the mountain bluebirds' nest.
I swatted handfuls of moths in the cabin
and set them on a stump each day,
but the birds would not come back to feed.
As the poem moves toward the closing lines, this intertwining of human and natural world continues, sparking reflection about the cyclic, ephemeral quality of both.
Flakes of obsidian and red flint
knapped from arrowheads hundreds of years ago
appear in the trails each day,
and the big fish fossil in the limestone cliff
dissolves a little more with every rain.
In “The Ranch Woman's Secret,” it is the rancher’s actions the woman undoes. As he obsesses over coyotes that she knows haven't killed their cattle in years, she muses... "He'll start to wonder / where he put his seven-millimeter shells / and how his traps get sprung while he's in town / or hauling a load of hay to from Nebraska."
While coyotes limit the geography where readers could imagine the ranch woman listening for the coyotes' wailing, the kids the speaker addresses in “Directions in the Nebraska Sandhills” could represent kids in any rural place with dwindling options for making ends meet.
Ahead of them are shotguns, pheasant,
deer from groves along the Platte.
Then clumsiness with girls, the monotony
of tractors, raking hay. They will hate Lakeside.
They will buy a pickup or souped-up car,
rumble off to Rapid City, Denver, anywhere
After this passage, Notter hones the poem's sense of place as the speaker praises the wide, stubborn beauty of the plains, a landscape he predicts will follow the kids to that anywhere.
In mountains they will wish for sunset
the way it looks past Alliance, nothing
but orange sky over all their families work for,
ponds like sheets of Depression glass,
trill of a fencepost meadowlark,
Angus in silhouette, more space
than anyone can stand until he leaves.
Other poems available online include “High Plains Farming,” “Jubilate,” and “Demolition Derby.” Some poems startled me, like the short series whose speaker is "the dead guy" who picks up dead animals from farms. Others unsettled me, like "The Trailer House on Bethel Road" in which a couple encounters tracings of the last family who lived there, evidence that makes them wonder "if rage could live on in a house."
Read Holding Everything Down for the memories it may stir and for the barren, gritty, and ruggedly beautiful places it takes you. Read it for the vivid, textured quality of Notter's precise diction and imagery. Share his poems with students, friends, or cousins who may find themselves in its dusty, grease-stained lines.