"A woman who loved nature, language," article by Lisa Slavin in "Library Line," The Ottawa Herald, January 17, 2012.

We at the Ottawa Library are pleased to play host to local author Lora K. Reiter at 2 p. m. January 26 at the library, 105 S. Hickory Street.  Reiter plans to showcase her book, Poppies in the Wheat, a compilation of her mother's poetry.

Her mother, Lora Daugherty Reiter, lived in the Simpson area of Kansas and graduated from Simpson High School in 1922.  She and her husband, Loren, raised Hereford cattle and wheat on their farms in Jewell and Mitchell counties.

Reiter remembers her mother sitting at the dining room table late at night after the day's work was done and everyone else was in bed.  That was her time, time to reflect and put words together.  It was a true love.

Of her mother, Reiter writes, "Her children learned that when their mother sat alone at the dining room table, surrounded by jar-lid ashtrays, Pall Mall cigarettes, number two pencils and the paring knife she used to sharpen them to a keen point, their mother was writing.  They learned that she was not to be disturbed because this was her time, the only time she could find after long work days. . . .   How  she managed to turn out so many fine poems is a bit of a mystery, too, because she was completely self-taught."

Reiter describes her mother as having a powerful sense of nature.  She studied plant and animal life and was able to illustrate the forces of nature, wildlife, weather, and survival struggles in her writing.  She also loved language and was an avid reader.  She used the Port Library in Beloit as her source for literature, and she was particularly interested in the poetry of Robert Frost, Joseph Auslander, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Donne and Spenser.

Reiter's mother kept scrapbooks and collected her own anthologies of what was then contemporary poetry. She also wrote a weekly newspaper column, "Medley,"  for more than thirty years.  She won awards from the Crowell Publishing Company and The National Organization of Presswomen.  In 1961, she wrote the prize-winning Kansas Centennial Poem--which appears in this book.

I'm sure ;you will enjoy hearing about this talented, hardworking woman who became a fine writer.

"Lora D. Reiter and Her Poetry,"  Afterword to Poppies in the Wheat, The Complete Poems of Lora D. Reiter.

 Lora (Daugherty) Reiter  (1904-1991) was known, primarily, as an essayist because for thirty years she wrote "Medley," a newspaper column.  But unbeknownst to most and encouraged by practically no one, she wrote poetry for more than sixty years.

A country woman, wife and mother, she had precious little time for writing and few people with whom she could talk about poetry.  She shared as much as she could, but local writing groups tended to provide more friendship than literature, and when, in one case, she recognized overt plagiarism, she understood that she would have to persist by herself, without the honest or probing conversations she longed for.

Persist she did.

Her children learned that when their mother sat alone at the dining room table, surrounded by jar-lid ash trays, Pall Mall cigarettes, number two pencils and the paring knife she used to sharpen them to a keen point; by paper she made from unused rolls of wall-paper or the blank pages of The Congressional Record; rendered diminuitive by her shadow flickering huge on the wall and ceiling, cast there by the flames from the old kerosene lamp, their mother was writing.  They learned that she was not to be disturbed because this was her time--the only time she could find after long work days.

She would already have spent at lest twelve hours fixing meals, cleaning, gardening, canning, baking gorgeous breads and pies with heads of wheat etched in the top crust, raising, slaughtering, dressing chickens taking care of her children.  She did all that--and without electricity or running water until her early 40s.

But she also wrote.  How she managed to turn out so many poems under those conditions is a minor miracle.

How she managed to turn out so many fine poems is a bit of a mystery, too, because she was completely self-0taught.  She graduated from high school, then married at nineteen, began her family, and lived a generally isolated life on the farm, first in Jewell County, then in Mitchell.

At the same time, however, she read.

She read every book she could get from the Port Library in Beloit, Kansas, and she read every poem she ever saw.  Her scrapbooks (which seem to be her own collections of modern poetry gleaned from whatever sources she might have had access to) indicate that she was particularly interested in work by Robert Frost, Joseph Auslander, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, and Conrad Aiken.  She read Hopkins and Thomas.  She read Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and Spenser, and she came to love the sonnet more than any other poetic form.  He could not have had bettor mentors.

She mastered the sonnet form.  Her sense of its structural requirements became exact and exacting, and she found the sonnet tradition comfortable for her sensitivities and interests.

Those sensitivities and interests were, first, her sense of nature as a ravishing and powerful drama, seeming, in a way, to have been created as her reservoir of images; and, second, her sense of language, which she savored the way many of us savor foods.  Both nourished and sustained her.

She was firmly rooted in the romantic tradition.  Her primary access to the spiritual and moral was through the natural.  No less than Wordsworth, she found that world an opening to otherwise unimaginable power and inspiration.  She studied the details of plants and animals, landscapes and seasons, reflecting on them, connecting them to the ideas and passions which then entered her poetry in the images she created from her observations.  She found awe, mystery, and comfort in nature.  She seems to have been able to conceptualize it as an infinite stage play in which change, extravagance, ferocity, order, and beauty met in endless struggles which instructed her as human characters might have about the most complex threatening, fierce, orderly and beautiful.

And language....

On her death bed, when daughter Bev, who had maintained vigil durng the night, pointed out the morning to her:  "Look, Mama!  The sun is rising, and the skyh is lavender," she responded, "Magenta.  It is magenta."  Even at such a moment the word had to be precise.  Otherwise the fleeting beauty could not be perceived or conveyed.

Words made her laugh.  Words made her weep.  Words made her care.

"They're interesting," she said, and her old dictionary has loos pages of strange words she'd written in her small, neat, always up-hill hand.  Here's part of her list of antelope:  admi, doudad, bibatag, nabung, tahr, addax, chital, barasingha. . . ."

That passion for language, that implacable urge toward the perfect, probably can't be learned.  It is too primal, too compelling, too natural.  And it led her to description which, it seems to me, a professor literature, is equaled by few others--well, maybe D. H. Lawrence.

In one of her sonnets, "Fantasia," she writes with delight about a frozen , snow-covered landscape.  The sestet begins:  " This is enchantment.  It were small surprise/To see a pale snow-maid on yonder knoll/And watch her emerald hair stream as she tries/Her crystal unicorn in capriole...."

Read it again, aloud, and think about these words:  "tries/Her crystal unicorn in capriole."  Think about the meanings.  Think about the sounds, the repeated "i" and "c," softened by the "o" and "l" and "n."  It's strange, mystical.  It's a gorgeous vision.  It's muscular and graceful.  It's delectable.

It reminds me of Keats in "The Eve of St. Agnes":  "With jellies soother than the creamy curd,/And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon, Manna and dates. . . ."

You have to slow down and use your mouth muscles to say those words out loud.  I can imagine both poets smacking their lips at such sounds, such delicious and luscious sounds.

Of course, Mrs. Reiter was never confined to the sonnet.  She uses a variety of forms, and she can achieve marvelous energy as well as the leanest statement.  For an instance of the first, consider "Coyotes":  "On late fall nights when the moon is high/And the wind is a weird and witless cry,/And bat-black shadows haunt leafless trees,/The hills are gripped by a strange unease./The grey grass quivers and comes alive/And turns to shadows that leap and strive/As eerie of form and phantom of feet,The coyotes range in their search for meat."

The poem continues to describe the coyotes frightening the domestic animals while the farmer curses the hungers and covers his ears.  It's a strenuous, animated, aggressive narrative, and the couplets with their insistent rhymes and the four strong beats of the lines take us directly to the heart of the physical menace the coyotes are.

Or consider the little poem, a relatively late one, which is untitled by included here as "Courage."  The first quatrain is: "The courage that my mother had/Went with her and is with her still,/Rock from New England quarried,/Now granite in a granite hill."

We are in a radically different linguistic mode here, angular, direct, short, unresonating.  Further, it is in a hymn-like verse form, clear, specific, simple.  This poem has nothing of Keats in it.  Rather, it feels like much of Dickinson's work, resolute, unelevated, and stern.  Mrs. Reiter was as comfortable in these pieces as in the sonnet.

And one of my favorite examples of language growing out of the image in a marvelously apt and energetic synthesis of sound and vision is one very unexpected modifier late in  "Truant Spring."  Here, Spring is late, and the whole cycle of seasons is thrown out of kilter.  Reiter says that the wild fowl are confused until spring comes to release them, shooting them on their course the way an archer shoots an arrow.  But she doesn't actually state that comparison.  Here is her far more subtle version:  {The wild fowl are] "Aimless until the "Spring's release/Should send them twanging across the skies."

Lora D. Reiter was dedicated to language.  But, like Virginia Woolf or Margaret Fuller or Charlotte Perkins Gilman before her, she had to room of her own, and nobody much cared that she had to fight her way to it and through it, arranging words against the darkness at that dining room table when everyone else was asleep.

Her voice--her language and its imagery--is from the country, from the Solomon Valley which she knew intimately and adored.  All her life, from what seem to be her earliest poems in which she is finding her themes and images to her later and last poems in which she is secure and often bold, she writes about the country and natural world she cherished.  Because we do not know the dates of hardly any of these poems, we cannot arrange them chronologically and thereby demonstrate her growth as a poet.  But over time, her voice becomes an exquisite marriage of form and matter.  She becomes an artist who learned to mortar the words in until they couldn't budge, even when they seemed delicate as snowflakes.  She built edifices in language strong enough to capture Kansas droughts and spring storms, language as enduring as our flinted hills, tender as our plum blossoms.

She loved it all.

In many of these poems, she catches and holds it for us in writing as exact and evocative as the world it represents.

I have had great pleasure in this undertaking, bringing out a book I think Mother would have appreciated; learning so much about the fine qualities of her mind and talent; being privileged to imagine the profound satisfaction she must have felt when a word like "twanging" leaped out to secure the image, when the rhythm held to support the line, when she knew in her innards that she'd discovered the essence, when the poem clicked together and what had not been on this earth was now conceived and delivered:  a fresh new creation she was responsible for--whether anyone else ever knew about it.

And the title:  Mother was always moved by seeing orange poppies in wheat fields.  "They are both necessary," she said, "the bread for our bodies, the beauty for our spirits."

I'm proud to present this volume of soul food:  Poppies in the Wheat.

                                                          Editor:  Lora K. Reiter, Ph. D.