Itinerary

By James McMichael b. 1939 James McMichael
The farmhouses north of Driggs,
silos for miles along the road saying
BUTLER or SIOUX. The light saying
rain coming on, the wind not up yet,
animals waiting as the front hits
everything on the high fiats, hailstones   
bouncing like rabbits under the sage.   
Nothing running off. Creeks clear.   
The river itself a shallow, straight
shoot to the north, its rocks mossy,   
slick above the few deep pockets.
On another drainage, the O-T-O.
Loose stands of aspen on the slopes.   
Dude cabins, their porches and split-log   
loveseats, dull yellow curtains
slapping over the open sills.
From Emigrant north to the Great Bend,   
loaves of haystacks, stud farms, charolais,   
steel flumes between the ditches.
Access to the river’s acreage
closed to its whole length, the county roads   
dusty, turning onto the high
shelves of side valleys. Scattered
shacks and corrals. An old homestead,   
the sod roof rotting out its timbers.   
Below the spurs from the higher range,
basins in the mountain pastures
fill with odd water. The henbane dries.   
Ruts cross in the grass at a schoolhouse.   
Each runnel mixing where it can   
the spring creeks deepen and go on   
easily, swelling to the larger
tributary with its pools and banks.
At any bend the willows bend too,
and gravel bars on the other shore   
flare into the shallows. An encampment.   
Ponies wade to their knees and drink,   
raising up now and then to look
out through the smoke to the near hills,   
the one plateau heading off beyond   
the Crazies and the Little Belts, north.   
It strikes the river at the Gates,
the water piling through its broad course,   
level, ridges and the vertical
faces of bluffs crowding to each side.   
This rock is of an excellent grit for   
whetstones, hard and sharp. There is here   
more timber than below the falls. A spring   
immensely clear and of a bluish cast   
boils up near its center with such force   
that its surface in that part is strangely   
higher than the surrounding earth.   
I heard today a noise resembling
the discharge of a piece of ordnance.   
Unless it be the bursting of the
rich mines of silver in these mountains,   
I am at a loss to account for it.
As the passages about the falls are   
narrow and steep, and as the buffalo   
travel to the river in great herds,
the hinder part presses those in front
out of their depth to the strong current.   
Their carcasses by the hundreds   
litter the shore below the cataracts.
We have made of the mast of the pirogue
two axletrees. Walked ahead to my first   
view of the falls, hearing them from afar.   
Their spray is scarcely formed when   
bodies of the same beaten water thrust   
over and down, concealing every shape,   
their whiteness alone visible.   
We will leave at this place all heavy   
baggage, the red pirogue, and whatever   
provisions we can do without. Needing
a cellar for the caching of our stores
we set hands to digging. More white bear.   
These fellows leave a formidable   
impression in the mud or sand. Goodrich,   
who is remarkably fond of fishing,
caught many trout of two different species.   
Came to in a handsome timbered bottom   
across from the entrance of a very   
considerable river. Its character   
is so precisely that of the one below   
that the party with few exceptions   
has pronounced it the Missouri.   
The fork to the south is perfectly   
transparent, runs rapidly with an even,   
unriffled surface. Its bed is composed
of round, smooth stones like those of rivers   
issuing from a mountainous country.
If this latter be the one we are to take
we should encounter within 50 miles   
a series of precipitous falls.   
There is now no timber on the hills.   
The black rock has given place to a
yellow and brown or black clay, brown and   
yellowish white sandstone and a hard, dark   
freestone. It rises from the water   
abruptly on both sides in varied walls.   
I could discover above their horizon   
only the most elevated points.   
The river retains both its whitish color   
and a proportion of its sediment,   
but it is much clearer than below.   
The banks afforded us good towing.   
This method of ascending the river   
is the safest and most expeditious.   
We pass a great number of dry streambeds.   
These plains being level and wholly   
destitute of timber, the wind blows   
violently with its loads of sand.   
Driftwood comes down as the water rises.   
The banks are falling in very fast   
and I wonder that our pirogues are not   
swallowed by them. Wild hyssop grows here.   
A few cottonwood along the verges.   
Undergrowths of rose and serviceberry,
and small-leafed willow on the sandbars.   
Met this evening the famous white bear.   
I had rather deal with several   
indians than with this gentleman.
Much less ice running in the river.
We make ready to set out, the party   
in general good health except for a few   
venereal complaints. A windy,   
blustering day. Our two pirogues still frozen.
I draw a connection of the country   
from the information of traders.
The falls are about 800 miles west.
Rose early and commenced roofing
the two wings of huts. Our situation
sandy. Cottonwood and elm, some small ash.   
We must now settle for the winter.   
Very cold. Hard frosts. The river falling.   
For several days we pass deserted
Mandan villages along both banks.
The beaver and otter are becoming more   
abundant. We put ashore at noon,   
setting fire to the prairies to signal   
that we wish council with the natives.
These Arikara much reduced by pox.
It is customary for their nation
to show its grief by pain, some cutting off   
two smaller fingers at the second joint.   
The earth of the plains is in many places   
opened in long crevices, its soil
indifferent and with a kind of timothy   
branching like flax from its main stalk.
Delayed here today so as to take
equal altitudes, the weights of the   
waters of the two rivers, their specific
gravities. As we near the great Platte,
the sandbars are more numerous, sawyers   
worse than they were below. Mulberry,   
oak and walnut. These prairies from the river   
have very much the appearance of farms.   
We continue to pole our way upstream.   
Nothwithstanding our precautions, we   
struck a bar and were near turning over.   
The sergeants are directed each to keep   
a journal of all passing occurrences   
and such other descriptions of the country   
as shall seem to them worthy of notice.   
Our hunters report deer in every copse.   
I got out and walked for one mile through a
rush bottom, nettles as high as my breast.   
All the forepart of the day we were   
arranging our company and taking on
those articles we will need. St. Charles.
The men spent their last night agreeably,   
dancing with the French ladies, &c.
My ride was on a road finely shaded,
with now and then a good farm. The corn
in tassel, its leaves of a deep rich green
bending at the ends by their own weight.
Wheat and oat stubble. A hilly country.   
I passed a toll-gate, and, looking back,   
had my last view of the town’s steeples.
From the state house cupola I could count         
the buildings, the number of which was   
ninety. A wooden bridge crosses the river   
just below the town. Men were engaged in   
racing their horses. I sought lodging   
and was shown to bed in a large barrack   
where a man and wife conversed with me   
until I feigned sleep. This is a post town,   
the mails arriving from both east and west   
on Wednesdays and Saturdays. A young woman   
gave me directions from an upstairs window.   
I descended the hill into Frankfort.   
There has lately been established a large   
manufactory for spinning hemp and flax.   
It is wrought by water and keeps in motion   
1200 spindles. The streets of Lexington   
cross at right angles, its stores filled both   
with imports and with local goods: fine   
cutlery, tin ware, muslins and nankeens.
I was so well put up that a man would be   
fastidious to a fault to have found
the least thing wanting. Approaching the city
the land changed steadily for the better,   
no longer broken, as to the eastward,   
but fine extensive levels and slopes,
the road very wide, with grazing parks,
meadows, and every spot cultivated.   
The farms hereabout have generally   
good and spacious stone barns, a few acres   
cleared but for those stumps or girdled trees   
still standing. The neighbors found last year   
a human jawbone, rough and honeycombed.   
My wagoner arrived this afternoon   
and went on, appointing to be in   
Louisville before me. I pass a house   
with small turrets at its corners, lawns,   
the whole needing only vineyards for the look
of villas in Provence and Languedoc.   
Noticed along the banks of the Holston
phlox with white flowers and phlox with pink flowers,
two different species, very small   
phlox with lance-shaped leaves. Where I   
come in from Abingdon, the Kentucky road   
divides, the other fork for Burke courthouse.   
With nothing to do I make ink from gall nuts.   
More opossum taken in the woods.   
This animal’s greatest peculiarity   
is the false belly of the female.
She can draw the slit so close that one must look   
narrowly to find it if she be virgin.   
The air clearing this morning, I was   
surprised with a full prospect of mountains.   
This river where we leave off is 240 miles   
distant in a straight line from Currituck   
Inlet. The turkey-cocks begin to gobble,   
which is the language wherein they make love.   
We have a dreamer of dreams among us
who warned me in the morning to take care   
that I not fall into the creek.
I thanked him and used what caution I could,   
but my horse made a false leap and laid me   
down in the water at my full length.   
The sky at sunset had a swept look.
There was risk of our dining with St. Anthony   
when one indian knocked down a fat bear.   
Of the stem of the silk-grass their women make   
small aprons which they wear for decency.   
They put these on with so much art
that their most negligent postures reveal   
nothing to our curiosity.
The ruffles of some of our fellows
were a little discolored by the bloodroot
which these ladies use to improve their charms.   
Bear, it would seem, is no diet for saints,   
for it is apt to make them too rampant.   
At night, the surveyors took advantage   
of a clear sky. This trial of our variance   
shows it still something less then 3 degrees,   
so it remains much as we had found it   
at the sea. We have now run the poles   
beyond those inhabitants most inland.   
There fell a sort of Scots mist all the way.   
I have learned how rattlesnakes take a squirrel.   
They ogle the poor beast till by force of charm   
it falls down stupefied and senseless.   
The snake approaches it and moistens first   
one ear and then the other with his spittle,
making the head all slippery. When that is done   
he draws this member into his mouth,   
and after it, by casual degrees,
all the rest of the body. I am not so
rigid an observer of the Sabbath
as to allow of no journeys to be
taken upon it. Nor would I care,
like a certain New England magistrate,   
to order a man to the whipping post
for daring to ride for a midwife on the
Lord’s Day. And yet we found plainly
that travelling on the Sunday had not
thriven with us in the least. The rain
was enlivened with loud thunder, and there is   
something in the woods that makes this sound   
more awful, the violence of the lightning   
more visible as the trees are shivered
quite to the root. This Great Dismal Swamp
is the source of five several rivers.
We run our line to its skirts, which begin with   
dwarf reeds, moist uneven ground. The season   
inclining us to aguish distempers,
we were suffered by the resident to
cut up wood for firing, drive away the damps.   
At the bottom of the account Mankind   
are great losers by the luxuries
of feather beds and warm apartments.   
We perceive our appetites to mend,
and though we have to drink only what   
Adam had in Paradise, that stream of life   
runs cool and peaceably in our veins.
The days are hard. Our slumbers sweeten, and   
if ever we dream of women they are kind.   
I delight to see the banks of the Inlet
adorned with myrtle, yet it must be owned   
that, sacred to Venus though it be, this plant   
grows commonly in very dirty soil.
Norfolk has most the air of a town
of any in Virginia. There are now
riding at her wharves near 20 brigantines.
The trade hither is engrossed by those   
saints of New England who every week
carry off a pretty deal of tobacco.
I have found that after my devotions
a walk in the garden can do much
to fill my heart with clear obedience.   
I repair me there that I might think   
deeply of the earth and how it will be
all too soon my sleeping-place. For I am told   
to fear such things as bring me to ill terms,   
told of those who seek congress with the earth   
that they shall have her in their time forever.   
That her places sing their love-songs for no man.   
That I am not the suitor whose betrothed   
awaits him, but some unwelcome third   
with God alone her lover. And yet I would   
look upon such country as will show me   
nature undressed, the strata of the land,   
her lays and beds and all her privacies.   
For my wonder tells me I should be
promiscuous, should learn by all the   
laws of bodies and by where they are
the joyful news out of the new found world.   
This walk is news. Its bodies point me always   
in and out along some newer course.
There have been divers days together
wherein alone I’ve watched these flowers   
buoyed on their stems and holding up the sun.   
Just now I catch them thinking on themselves,   
composing from their dark places the least   
passages for light, tendering how they look   
and how I look on them. It comes to me   
that the world is to the end of it
thinking on itself and how its parts
gather with one another for their time.
These are the light, and all the forms they show   
are lords of inns wherein the soul takes rest.   
If I could find it in myself to hide
the world within the world then there would be   
no place to which I could remove it, save   
that brightness wherein all things come to see.

James McMichael, “Itinerary” from The World At Large: New and Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by James L. McMichael. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: The World at Large: New and Selected Poems (The University of Chicago Press, 1996)

Biography

Born in Pasadena, California, poet James McMichael earned a BA at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a PhD at Stanford University, where he studied with Yvor Winters.
 
In his early work, McMichael frequently made use of long, sometimes paragraph-length, poetic lines; in more recent work, his lines and stanzas have followed a precise, variegated structure. Describing his invented form of varied stanza and line . . .

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