My wife, daughter and I recently went to see my family for the holidays. As we were spending time with my family, my dad pulled out some documents of family history. Personally, family history is not that big of an interest for me, but my ears quickly perked up when my dad told me I had a not-so-distant relative who was also poet, and she was published. Her name was Irene Grace Duffield from Nebraska. And the book she published was entitled “Cosmic Dust: Views of a Lifetime, in Poetry”.
I thought this was pretty cool and wanted to see if the book was available on Amazon. To be honest, I had grave doubts the book would be available. Its an old book, published in 1956 by a little known poet. So you can imagine my surprise when I found a copy available by an independent seller on Amazon. I immediately bought the copy. After I told my dad, he asked if I could buy him a few copies. I went back on Amazon and there were literally no copies available. I had just bought the last copy!
I’ve since tried to track down any additional copies and cannot find a single one. I’m hard pressed to think of this as a coincidence. I was fated to find this book or something like that.
Here’s what I know about Irene. Irene was born Irene Grace Taylor March 22nd, 1878. Her dad was a Civil War Vet. In 1879 her family moved to a farm in Tecumseh, Nebraska. A major part of growing up in the Tecumseh community were parties and recitations of poetry and readings. Irene was rather gifted at recitations and memorized many passages and readings which she could perform at any time. In 1898 Irene married Archie Roger Knowles, but sadly after 3 years and two kids (a boy and a girl) Archie died. She would marry again to a man named Andrew Lewis Duffield. After getting married they moved to Illinois and eventually returned to Southeast Nebraska. According to the biography in the front of her book, the biographer noted “All her life Irene has loved to read the Bible, poetry and history, and to write poems whenever she could find the time.”
Not only was I intrigued by Irene, I had a growing sense of connection with her. She was the younger sister of my great grandmother, making me her great nephew. This feeling grew after receiving her book in the mail and reading her poems. Her earliest poem in the book was written in 1919 and her latest in 1956, the year of the book’s publishing. Her poems ranged in Iambic pentameter to free verse. The poems are mostly about life in the prairie, on a farmland, the Nebraska landscape, and settlers. To name a few titles: “Midwinter Morn”, “High Noon”, “Call of Spring” and so on. However, there are many that are a bit more metaphysical/philosophical, with titles like “To Think Is To Do”, “Meditations of a Convalescent”, “What Is Reality?”, “Oneness” and “Time, An Unresting”.
Irene was no simple farmgirl to say the least. In her work she quotes Shakespeare, references the Bible, personifies Death for a poetic interview, and writes about the current political context in the US. In other words, I am absolutely blown away by Irene by the depth and range of subject matter of her work. But, I’ll let you be the judge.
There are many of her poems I would like to share with you, but in order to give you a sample of her work, I will only rewrite one of my favorites of her’s below:
O’er The Prairie TrailWe rode o’er the lonely prairie In the calm, sweet summer night; We marked how the winding valleys With curling mists were white. One by one in the far heavens The stars paled and grew dim, As on the distant horizon Rose the late Moon’s sliver rim. Slowly we rode and in silence ‘Neath the witching spell of night, While over the waves of the prairie Came flooding the soft moonlight. Down from each ridge and hilltop We watched it ripple and gleam, With the silvery mists of the valleys Mingling its silent stream. Through the mist-filled valley, our horses Followed the well-worn trail; With a musical plashing of waters We forded the shallow swale. We watched the silver moon dist Float higher in the sky From some far-off, lonely covert, Came the Coyote’s mournful cry. We rode o’er the lonely prairie In the calm, sweet summer night, Through an enchanted region Of mists and pale moonlight. Gone now are youth, and its fancies, Yet my heart will strangely thrill, Recalling that ride in the midnight O’er the prairie, lone and still.
I think you can see why I love Irene’s work. She communicates a depth of thought and insight using beautiful language and literary devices. She paints pictures in your mind with gorgeous descriptions of landscapes, memory and nostalgia.
In addition to appreciating her work, I see aspects of her writing in mine. And that is one reason why she is so special to me. Aside from the excitement of discovering Irene, the family connection, that she was a poet, and published; I also feel a kind of kinship with her. She loved the Bible, poetry and history. Although, I may not love history, the Bible and poetry are incredibly important to me. Furthermore, learning about her biography and reading her work, I feel like I know her. I feel like if we had both lived in the same era we would have been fast friends. I imagine us discussing our work, reciting a new favorite poem, giving feedback to each other and simply sharing life. She is a friend from beyond the grave. Sadly Irene passed away in 1968, however, my dad told me he had the chance to meet her in 1960.
I am honored to be her family member, and I feel all the more motivated to continue in her lineage of deep reflection on life through the craft of poetry.