Irma Wassell

Irma Wasall

Irma Wasall

Poems by Irma Wassall

In April of 2001, at the age of 93, Irma Wassall received the Kansas Governor’s Award for individual artistic achievement in the literary arts at a ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Wichita. Governor Bill Graves presented the award on behalf of the State of Kansas and the Kansas Art Commission.

This award came after a long series of achievements, dating back to the 1920s. Not only had Irma become the unofficial poet laureate of Kansas in that time, but she had contributed to the arts of the dance and the classical guitar as well, and had helped and encouraged generations of young artists and poets in their careers.

As recently as 2000, her poetry had been the focal point of a month-long CityArts exhibition curated by Curt Clonts. In the exhibit, more than twenty-five artists each took one of her poems and produced a sculpture or painting based on the work. Clonts described the show as “a tribute from the local cultural community”.

Irma was part of the circle of avant garde writers and artists that formed in Wichita in the 1930s. Earl Davis, Birger Sandzen, David Otto, Blackbear Bosin, Zona Wheeler, Bill and Betty Dickerson, Mary Jane Teall, Ross Taylor, Enrique Riveron, and her surrealist artist husband, Fred, were all her friends, mentors, and peers during the early years.

In an article on Irma in The Wichita Eagle in 1999, reporter Bud Norman wrote:

“By the 1950s, the Wassalls were established figures on Wichita’s cultural scene, but comfortable with the anti-establishment sentiments of the younger artists who were beginning to appear.“Irma Wassall published reviews and news in the jazz bible Downbeat, rubbed shoulders with the artists and musicians of Wichita’s African-American community, and recited her poetry at the coffeehouses where the city’s most notorious bohemians hung out.

“Her young fans included a soon-to-be-noted counterculture poet named Michael McClure.

“’He brought me a whole notebook of poems and wanted my opinion, and I read the first page and told him he was going to be famous. He laughed, but he is,’ Wassall said.”

Irma has published in a wide variety of magazines and newspapers and her work has been selected for a number of anthologies. Among others, these include The Kansas Magazine, The Kapustkan, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Poetry Dial, Orphic Lute, World of Poetry, Alentour, Berkeley, Commonweal, American Lyric Poetry, Antioch Review, Arizona Quarterly, Phylon, The Archer, Kaleidograph, Experiment, Blue Moon, Vers Libre, Kansas Poets, The New Mexico Quarterly Review, Hippocrene, and Dalhousie Review. Some of her books are: Loonshadow, Along the River, Fred and Irma Wassall: Drawings and Poems, The Fading Year, The Ruby-Emerald Jungles, and Richard’s Choice.

Today, Irma says her own favorite poet is Garcia Lorca, though many would name her as their favorite poet. Her influence on the Wichita scene has indeed been remarkable, and for many years she has been the unifying bridge from Wichita’s literary and artistic past to its present. One friend of hers described her as “a quiet force all her own in Wichita.” It is an accurate assessment of the vitality of her contribution over the many decades.


from Loonshadow

Azotea

Heat rippled along the tarred flat roof in waves
under a grayed turquoise sky, while clouds
rolled upward white as paper. A summer tree
was filled with bird calls and the flash of wings—
one bird sailing like a little hawk,
a strange note deep as any bullfrog sings,
the dusty elm shaken by sparrow talk.
There was a wind that sprang up suddenly,
driving, while the birds screamed, the brown elm seeds
with a dry, rattling sound like autumn leaves.

Lamento Mexicano

Still the acacias preen their yellow plumes
Beside the chartreuse fountains of mesquite;
Still bougainvillaeas drip their purple fronds
Down ruined walls . . . . And I not there to see.

Still dogs at Taxco bark in orchestration,
Old bells ring out beneath the Southern Cross;
And still the hoofs of weighted burros click
Down cobbled streets . . . . And I not there to hear.

Mad quivering rhythm still insinuates
Beneath the eager skin its pagan urge;
Still pulses throb with drums, and dark blood sings
With sweet guitars . . . . And I not there to dance.

Here I, darkened by the sun of Mexico,
Walk with nostalgia through the falling snow.

from Kansas Magazine

Spring Thunder

There was a love like a dark young princess
from a far land, who, seeing snow for the first time,
went walking in a night
filled with the white enchantment
of whirling stars and floating plumes;
and vanished like a snowflake on the water.

The first spring thunder brought up from the depths
the bodies of those who had drowned in the winter,
among them the dark love once beautiful,
now distorted, having been long dead
under the cold deep water.

from The Ruby-Emerald Jungle

Fertility Dance

Before the first rains they of

the Ivory Coast

center a field with drums, and

young men dance

with covered loins and rattles in

their hands.

And to the dancers’ and spectators’

chants

old men with cymbals and whistles

pantomime
the mating of beasts and birds,

and a little girl

emerges from each compass point,

her apron

filled with red seeds to scatter as

from ancient time.

Totem Dance
(Javara, Upper Volta)

We went among the Nounas, he said,
who live in flat-roofed houses of mud
patterned after the Moors, with the acacia
surrounding them. There walked among them the red
albinos; and every group had its totem,
an animal, each with a mask and a master
white with dust.

We heard the thin round

drums and the flutes; we watched the masks dance
until they fell upon the ground.

from Along the River

(Haiku)

Birds St. Francis loved

let fall their droppings
on his sculptured head . . .

Fish in the river – –
…….the same kinds,
………….as when only Indians . . .

White petals floating

in the pool: Which are the petals
and which the ripples?

From an old disc – –

Sweet voice of a girl long dead,
still singing in the past.

Beautiful city

of familiar streets and towers
blurred by the night rain . .

from The Fading Year

Phoenix Flame

In the autumn, I saw the sumac, in a single file low
as prairie grass along the ground, burst into running fire.
I saw it slowly die, each day becoming thinner, sinking lower,
each day the burning leaves fading and falling to ashes.

After the season of cold earth, next spring I shall see a row
of tulips burst into scarlet flame running along the ground
in this same place, rise phoenix-like from the dead ashes
of this once-burning sumac. I have seen it happen. I know.

The Minnow Trough

The canyon was loud with water rushing under the bridge
from the gleaming lake that stretched and filled the valley;
the surrounding mountains were covered with pines and piñones
perfuming the air of the Upper Rio Grande.
There was chartreuse moss on the dark and ancient rocks,
and lizards ran among the scattered stones;
there were wild red currants fallen on the path.

But most clearly I remember the minnow trough
under the primitive wood of the sheltering roof,
with the sapphire minnows brilliant as star-flecked jewels,
and some with eyes like gems in precious metal;
and the dead ones floated inert and silver,
while the other tiny living fish
swam restlessly in their crowded little space.

Inland Lake, September

As afternoon turned toward the evening,
The dusty road through buffalo and bluestem grass
Swerved toward the silver water fringed with green—
Dense thickets of wild plum, grapevine and cottonwood;
Elm, Osage, oak and willow; and the sumac,
With brown and wedge-shaped pods and brightening leaves.

Sunflowers taller than a man dripped yellow petals
Beside the wild sky-colored salvia, tatters
From heaven’s skirt the ragweed caught and tore.
A black cat darted in and out among the strange
snow-on-the-mountain. (Once I saw a cross of it
Atop a wooden coffin in New Mexico.)

A rabbit fled with a white flash of tail;
And at the water’s edge pink swampweed blended
With the reflected sky aflame with sunset
That flared the bluestem crimson as flamingo legs.
Evening was still but for the calling of the crows
Across the water lapping at the willow-darkened shore.

That Yellow Tree

The sight
Of that lonely yellow tree
Beside the roadway
Hurts my heart.
For I remember
Another yellow tree
Standing alone
Beside another roadway,
A tree golden as this
Against the cool mauve curtain
Of another sky.
Another yellow tree
Beside another roadway,
A roadway
We went down together
In another autumn twilight,
Long ago.

White Night

I never saw a moon so luminous
as that silvering the leafless mulberry branches,
sending an almost-tactile beam of light
in through the window to awaken me.

And though I draw the curtain and close my eyes,
the darkness underneath each lid is mottled
with a myriad dancing moons not much less bright
than the electric brilliance I closed out.

No bird or insect breaks the winter hush,
no animal stirs; even the wind is sleeping.
No car roars through the incandescent night,
or through the ringing stillness in my ears.

Then a familiar loon flies out of other time,
and comes crying of the locust-eaten years
with sorrow. And my heart beats loud with fright,
long after cry and dancing moons are gone.

Zebra Sky

Skylong stripes of white cloudfur
and black velvet showered with starglitter
make of the night sky
an incredibly enormous circus animal
towering above the earth,
filling all the night.
O overwhelming beast of loneliness,
whose vast underside
flattens the curving arch above my head,
extends from east to west and north to south,
lining the tremendous night
with a canopy of zebra’s hide:
I am alone and small indeed:
There is nearby
no one I love who loves me,
to whom I can cry,
“Come and look at the sky!”

from Richard’s Choice

Not the Song Alone

You, who are new to me, sang an old song,
And the unwilling tears ran down my face.
Yet it was not the song alone that moved me,
Nor you, nor even the beauty of your voice.
It was a fleeting something in your face —
And as the lovely last-held high note faded,
I heard another song, another voice;
I saw the face of one who broke my heart.

Promise

Then
I promised myself
There shall be no regrets
For this, my grand adventure.
All the rest of my life
I shall have the memory
To hold against my heart;
Even when I am old
I shall remember and be glad.
I shall fling my thoughts
Back across the years,
And it will be like stretching cold hands
Toward a red fire
To warm them.

Now, when my grand adventure is ended,
I cannot keep my promise.
All the rest of my life
There will be regret,
Like an unhealing wound in my heart.
Even when I am old
I shall remember and be sad.
Against my will
My thoughts will fling themselves
Back across the years,
And it will be like stretching cold hands
Toward a dead fire
To warm them.

Sketches from Two Lives

I hold in my hands
The book we created together, you and I.
The times, the days and nights we spent together;
The settings, dawns and sunsets we watched together.
Our own conversations and dialogues,
And the secret music behind the words,
In the lines of the designs,
The dreamy songs we heard as we danced together.
Twitterings of drowsy night-birds,
Breeze through cool leaves —
The melody of our hours together.
And as a final illustration —
A black and white moonset — our last farewell.

 

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