In ‘To the Stars,’ Kansas poets celebrate the state’s natural and cultural wonders

“To the Stars Through Difficulties: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices,” edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (Mammoth Publications, 170 pages, $18)

One of my favorite Kansas day trips is to travel north along Highway 177 on the Flint Hills scenic byway.

A flat, uneventful drive for much of its beginning, the road suddenly buckles upward — hewing to the undulations of the Earth that breed the expansive sea of hills in the middle distance.

No matter how many times I make the trip, it leaves me breathless. There is nothing like it in Kansas.

Much the same could be said about “To the Stars Through Difficulties,” a labor of love by Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg.

At its best, this collection of poems from 150 Kansas poets rises to the aesthetic heights of the Flint Hills — a chorus of voices celebrating the state’s natural and cultural heritage.

What sets this anthology apart from others of its kind is the way it follows an ancient Japanese poetic form called the “renga.” Based on the haiku, a renga is a collaborative poem — most often about nature — in which each poet writes a 10-line portion, building on an idea in the preceding poem.

Mirriam-Goldberg calls the result “a rich resonance with the land and sky, culture and spirit” of Kansas.

“To the Stars,” as most Kansans know, is the English translation of the first part of the state’s motto: Ad Astra Per Aspera. “To the stars through difficulties.”

The difficulties, in this case, stem from the disappearance of the Kansas Arts Commission from the state’s budget. For a year and a half, Mirriam-Goldberg and her colleagues were essentially homeless. Now, the poet laureate program has landed in the lap of the Kansas Humanities Council.

In the interim, Mirriam-Goldberg canvassed the state to recruit poets for the renga, a follow-up to her impressive anthology of 150 Kansas poems, “Begin Again,” that marked the state’s sesquicentennial in 2011. That book featured multiple poems from some of the state’s best poets, including its unofficial, permanent laureate, Hutchinson’s William Stafford.

Although it may be hard to imagine, “To the Stars” proves to be an even larger, more democratic undertaking, in which laureates rub shoulders with unpublished amateurs. Less difficult to imagine: The inevitable unevenness of the 150 parts cries out for editing.

Nevertheless, “To the Stars” aims high, and more often than not hits its target. It and “Begin Again” could easily be deemed the poetic counterparts to William Least Heat-Moon’s “PrairyErth,” his deep history of Chase County. Together, they provide the breadth and depth of a purely Kansas vision.

Whatever context the reader finally settles on, he or she will sense that the new anthology deftly demonstrates how all Kansans need their souls fed once they’ve put bread on their tables.

“To the Stars” helps keep the soul alive, testifying to the state’s cohesive community of poets, from Topeka to St. Francis, Ulysses to Lawrence. But a renga can be as much about dialogue as community, and if the entire project had been presented as one long poem, with the contributors listed solely in the end notes, the vitality of the form would jump off the page with even greater force.

Consider Amy Ash’s contribution:

Propelled by the power of loss, we drive

until black streets crossing green lawns

give way to open space,

to a place where the freshly bruised cheek

of the sky at dusk, swollen and pink,

presses against the grasslands. A scar

of lightning mars its face.

Awaiting the night’s arrival, we see

some movement in the field. The shaking of grass

like lashes, fluttering. Something taking flight.

Ash shows a rare mastery of the prosody (technical details) of poetry. She uses almost all of a poem’s essential tools: crisp diction, vivid imagery, alliteration, slant rhymes, assonance, powerful emotions — in 10 carefully controlled lines.

One word seems appropriate: Bravo.

Of course, the renga aims to celebrate a traditional poetic structure, not necessarily point out individual contributions. For good reason: Some transitions in “To the Stars” seem quite tenuous.

Although nature reigns as the traditional subject matter of a renga, a few sections focus on urban areas, where the overwhelming majority of Kansans lives.

A fine example is this excerpt from Wichitan Diane Wahto’s poem:

           In Michigan,

a man once asked me about the Kansas wheat

and the cattle. I, a child of asphalt and brick,

saw more cows in Kalamazoo than ever appeared

In my Kansas home town.

Another single-word response rises to the fore for this native Wichitan: Amen!

Likewise, Thank you sounds appropriate for Mirriam-Goldberg’s heroic efforts to guide us through this eventful journey across the Sunflower State, joining Japanese and Kansas traditions in an imaginative, diverse work of art.

Her own poems, Whitmanesque in scope, begin and end the volume with the same phrase, “No other way.”

Punchier than Ad Astra, it expresses the starward resilience of the Kansas poet’s soul. And that is something for all of us to celebrate.