I just finished reading Out of the Dust, a novel in free verse published by Karen Hesse in 1997. I love the way this book’s sparse and rhythmic poetry evokes the bleakness of the Dust Bowl and the desperate longing for rain that must have characterized the daily moments of individuals experiencing this historical moment.
The book alternates between different kinds of poems: ones that develop the story and characterization; poems that evoke the protagonist Billie Joe’s changing relationship to her piano; and short lyric poems that poignantly evoke the daily moments of life in 1930s Oklahoma when literally everything—food included—was continually covered with dust.
I particularly like the poems in which the physical arrangement of lines on the page seem to mimic the black and white keys on the piano. For instance, early on, when Billie Jo can still play piano (later on, a tragic accident burns her hands), she shares her experience of playing in “On Stage”:
When I point my fingers at the keys,
springs straight out of me,
playing notes sharp as
telling stories while the
buttery rhythms back me up
on the left.
Later, however, in a poem called “The Dream,” Billie Jo transforms the piano into a medium through which she processes the loss of her mother and the use of her hands:
Piano, my silent
I can touch you,
you are cool
to stay with me
stay with me
talk to me
the cover to your keys
for all that I
Even though this poem narrates her inability to play, it still serves as a creative medium through which Billie Jo experiences her life. Here, the two columns of lines—which in the poem above represented black and white keys—become three columns. Perhaps the third column represents Billie Jo’s imaginative life, the part of her mother she has internalized and the silent music she creates as she ruminates on the musical instrument that is not being played—that instead represents the possibility of making music (and thus symbolizes other possibilities for Billie Jo’s life).
Other types of poems in the book, such as its short lyric poems, evoke the need for rain in a way that reminded me of how much the daily pleasures of my life depend on easy access to water, and how little I really appreciate that ease:
After seventy days
Of wind and sun,
Of wind and clouds,
Of wind and sand,
After seventy days,
Of wind and dust,
When rain does come, Hesse vividly captures the detail with which her characters appreciate it. In lines from the poem, “Hope in a Drizzle,” Billie Jo’s mother stands out in a long-awaited rain, pregnant and naked:
She was bare as a pear,
sliding down her skin,
leaving traces of mud on her face and her long back,
trickling dark and light paths,
slow tracks of wet dust down the bulge of her belly.
my dazzling ma, round and ripe and striped
like a melon.
While much of the book centers around the ubiquity of dust and the lack of rain, the book’s emotional center results from a household accident caused by human carelessness—though the pressure of daily dust surely contributes to the atmosphere in which such a mistake can pass. When Billie Jo’s mother mistakes a pail of kerosene for water and goes to make coffee with it, a fire burns Billie Jo’s hands and her mother’s pregnant body, ultimately resulting in the death of mother and baby during childbirth.
What’s so amazing about this section of the book, and what follows, is that the poetry becomes bleaker in a way that seems to parallel the worsening of weather conditions: dust storms blacken the sky, and kill children and animals; likewise, the lines of communication dry up between Billie Jo and her father, whose relationship and will to live languish in the desperate aftermath of the accident.
The book’s moral, if it has one, is that out of the seemingly endless trauma and guilt of loss, life can return; people survive as a result of small kindnesses, silently given and taken; but to emerge out of crisis, one must take care of oneself, and one must be willing to forgive others for the pain they have caused us.
The book’s title, Out of the Dust, perhaps refers to the dust of words that seem to fail people when tragedy hits; tragedy in this sense seems to rob language of the force of action. But survival involves finding words, music, or some kind of medium in which to rewrite, or reimagine, one’s experience:
Billie Jo captures this return to life in her poem, “Thanksgiving List,” in which she expresses thankfulness for:
Food without dust,
Daddy seeing to Ma’s piano,
Newly cleaned and tuned,
The days when my hands don’t hurt at all,
The thank-you note from Lucille in Moline, Kansas,
The sound of rain,
Daddy’s hole staying full of water
As the windmill turns,
The smell of green,
Of damp earth,
Of hope returning to our farm.
What I love about this list—the part of it I have quoted here—is how the healing that completes the book results from the steps Billie Jo and her father take to incorporate her mother’s unrealized dreams into their daily lives: they keep her mother alive through building the pond she had imagined would counter the dust’s destruction, by caring for her apple trees, cleaning and using her piano, and accepting someone new in their life. In the end, they come “out of the dust” by not letting her death kill them too.