On “The Obstacle Poems”

On “The Obstacle Poems”

The serial poem that follows, “The Obstacle Poems,” by Karl Patten—who invokes the poet’s most ancient role, that of speaking something into being—was written specifically to stand as a real and material obstacle to the Keystone XL Pipeline. “The Obstacle Poems” thus have a quite audacious intention (at least, in these times): to be a full-throated protective spell for all species and entities that are found in the region through which the Pipeline would pass and which it would likely harm (such as the aquifer itself and the endangered Monarch butterflies). The series begins as folk tale in loose folk meter, takes us through historical and current events, calls out political corruption and corporate mendacity, mourns a beloved spouse and fellow activist, and ends in understanding and critical self-awareness. We are moved by the passionate and utterly, precisely candid writing: “I betrayed myself. / / Attacking made me ruthless / and violent . . . / I must now roll in dust / And pebbles, chew grass, drink / Cold water from a mountain / Spring [.]” As these lines suggest, Patten has an acute sense of irony about human nature. Although he is outraged by human greed and the potential degradation of a whole region, such strong emotion tempers and tunes the poem, but never overwhelms it.

Why these poems now, we might ask, and why this poet? Patten is the founding poetry editor of Bucknell University’s fine literary journal, West Branch. Author of four collections of poetry, he has had a long and distinguished career, and is now a professor emeritus. Classically trained (he reads Latin, Greek, Middle English, Old French, and modern Italian for fun), he is not only casual about his erudition, but he also, actually, balances his reading and writing with protesting the death penalty, the wars this last decade, and the Pipeline! He is a life-long cineaste (especially of French New Wave), a long-time volunteer for Poetry in the Prisons, a beloved teacher, a socialist and pacifist. He is the very definition of a poète engagé. Patten wrote “The Obstacle Poems” at 87. He is now 88. Always fiercely ethical, he has wanted to be on record with poems so carefully and brilliantly wrought that they would make manifest that of which they speak: “only by standing still / In the pipeline’s road can / We stop it, standing still.”

– Cynthia Hogue

The author extends his thanks to poet and doctoral candidate Sarah Grieve at Arizona State University, for typing up the electronic copy, because “The Obstacle Poems” wended their way into the world on a 50 year old typewriter.



By Karl Patten

n.b. These few poems are meant to be an obstacle to the Keystone Pipeline

Only in Nebraska

Four maidens of Nebraska
Waded in the North Platte.
A summersky wind swirled
Their dainty skirts high and dry.

The stones of the North Platte
Are smooth and flat and fit
The soles of the maidens’ feet
One would say elegantly
If it were a glossy magazine.
No cottonwoods adorn this scene.

The maidens of Nebraska dance
Sometimes upon the beachfront.
They treasure the sand between
Their toes and the silver splatter
Of the little water.

A stranger took from afar
The four maidens of Nebraska
For sandhill cranes, only in Nebraska.


The High Plains Indians

It is said of the Mandans:
They are not nomadic. “Let
Other tribes hunt and gather,
We will plant corn. We will
Welcome anyone who visits us.”
The Mandan know they live
At the heart of the world,
At the meeting of the Heart River
With the Missouri under blue skies.

After centuries, an exploration
Arrived in Mandan country
As winter fell upon the plains,
White men, Clark of yellow hair,
Lewis, pointed face, leaders,
With their followers and horses.
The Mandan gave the strangers
Food and comfort under the heavy
Snows and blustery winds.
In spring, the whites went west
To the sea. In time, the Mandan
Picked berries from their hedgerows.

A Mandan medicine man said:
“The heart of the world is serene,
Where we reconcile, a place of peace.
To drive a dagger into the heart
Would spill blood on the blue sky
And cause the rest of the world to die.”

Each March long lines of honkers
Are mirrored in the wide blue Missouri
Near the Heart—north, north, north,
To keep the world clean and balanced.

Voice and Place

“Red jean, red jean,” calling, calling.
But nothing happened. The circle
Went around again, again, again.

But now I think it’s “region, region”
That cracks the glistening air.
What bird can this be? If a bird.

Moving around, bird it must be,
What shape, feathering, colors?
Where’s its nest, its mate?

“Terrain, terrain, terrain” I hear
Now. A shifted voice—or is it?
My ear heard difference, but was it?

Looking, peering, squinting to see
Over the flat land, square land,
Dry land, horizon land, edge land

Nothing shows, but the bird goes on:
“Region, terrain, region, terrain.”
A celebration that could be a lament.

Maybe the nowhere bird was no bird.
Maybe the caller and the sounder of sound
Was the dirt, gravel, loam of the land,

The grass, the weeds, the infrequent trees,
The rivers, the streams, the deep pool
Underground, the whole region, the terrain.


A Newsphoto
In memoriam ICP
(Seen from behind her.)

A head of white hair
And arthritic fingers
Rise up to stop
A bulldozer intent
On entering her land,
The pipeline’s harbinger.

This woman’s had a longer
Wrong—years of twisting
Her fingers from a good
Shapeliness, taking away
Her viola for Haydn
Quartets, comfort in
Using them, cutting
With scissors or holding
A man’s hand firmly.

But arthritis cannot distort
The will or good sense.
This woman became inflamed
When she saw the yellow
Machine with caterpillar
Treads grind into her
Dooryard and used her hands
To banish the monster.

She was arrested “for
Impeding construction
On appointed property.”
Eminent domain speaks.



The News is Bad

In the bellyland of the continental USA
K prevails— north daKota
……………..south daKota
And a big metallic cock is heading their way.
It will ram at its industrial best
Through those no-longer virgin lands
Until it finally spurts at the Gulf
Tar sands crude oil, worst of the worst.

A mighty aquifer rests under those Ks
(The water-syllable has always been “aK”),
A body of water assuring health to the plains,
Pure because man’s hands have never touched it.

But Oyez, Oyez, Oyez! The news is bad.
Widespread fracking began in 2009
In Oklahoma. Now earthquaking is 40
Times more than the average of 30
Previous years, with a magnitude 4
Near Langston. Things are not OK in OK.

This upsurge of earthquakery is not
Limited to Oklahoma. It occurs in all states
Being fracked, even Texas, which exists
Without a K. The Fort Worth Basin had never
Experienced an earthquake before 2008.
Since 2009 more than 50 have rattled
The cojones of valiant cowboys.

Once laid, a pipeline needs to nestle
Tight and smooth on its lady land.
But what if she trembles, quakes, buckles?
An interruptus will paint the plains
With slimy spill, sending tar sands crude
To slip, slide, glide down, down deeper,
And deeper down into the pure pool below.

The news is bad.
You can’t deny it.


Varieties of Prairie Extinction
Thick high clouds above
A blue horizon—buffalo
Covering the ground, raising
Dust—no, ghosts of buffalo
Sharpshooting Yankee rifles
Sent to earth, one by one,
Until who knows how many
Million were killed—
Prairie extinction.

A buffalo’s now a butterfly,
The Monarch, something new
To destroy. Migrating,
They fill the plains with eggs
Laid in milkweed, ready to
Pollinate the fields. No,
Now the killing’s silent.
GMO crops and herbicides
Wipe out eggs and plants
To clear the way for corn
And soy, drink for thirsty
Engines. Prairie life dies.

That buffalo are big and
Butterflies small means
Nothing if they are in
Greed’s way. Now plainsfolk
Stand in against the new
Ravager. They can’t be shot
One by one but can be
Poisoned with money and lies,
Administered by banks
And slippery politicians.

So know your rights and
Know the rude truth about
Fossil fuels and life on earth,
Confront the pipeline’s
Masters and suited lackeys
As they slither around and
Dart to hide from an honest
Sun, their greasy fingers
And knotted minds reveal
Their evils—stomp them out!
Stomps 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13,
21, 34, 55, 89, 148…
Pipeliners defunct! Prairie extinction.

An Understanding
Oil is crude and perverse
And sullies all who touch it,
As it did me in the preceding
Poem when I attacked hated
Pipeliners, on destruction
Intent. Verse should cut clean
To the end of the furrow,
Never deviating, but brilliant
Fibonacci dazzled me aside,
Wanting to blast the heedless
Ones into the depths of a
Azure sky on his somersaulting
Numbers, and I betrayed myself.

Attacking made me ruthless
And violent, just like them.
I had more than gargled on
Their oil, I’d slimied myself
In it. I must now roll in dust
And pebbles, chew grass, drink
Cold water from a mountain
Spring, seeing it seep from
A crack in the stone—clarify,
Clarify, clarify—open to
Everything that accosts my eye
With “shame,” be vulnerable
To the wiles of this world
Know my impulse for violence,
Know that I can control it,
For only by standing still
In the pipeline’s road can
We stop it, standing still.


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