The Unexplored Prairie


poem by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish


the flies & musquitoes abound in summer–in the spring the streams are high & the mud deep—and later in the fall the immense praries are on fire, to destroy both man & beast

—Henry Leavitt Ellsworth
Washington Irving on the Prairie:
Or, a Narrative of a Tour of the Southwest in the Year 1832


safe on my grandparents’ farm
no cannabals, no broken furniture.
Indulgent imaginings that my
mother wasn’t crying silently
into her 7 & 7 by 8 o’clock.
No need to dodge science
teacher’s groping hands—
entire days spent roaming
the farm, dreaming of
boarding school, of leaving.
A girl mesmerized by
gnat clouds, their morphing
flight, flies brushed
away by horse’s tail.
Musquitoes whining buzz
punctuated by the scream
of the last cougar
in Seminole County.

Prairie fires a distant
memory signaled on humid
nights by dying
fireflies’ last messages.
Return to school and sorrow,
escapes limited to rare
weekends. The beast is the man
my mother married. All
of us destroyed, my brother first.
I became a desperate
romantic, lying awake at
midnight in my room
at the farm, wishing my soul
into the great horned owl
eating june bugs
under the vapor lamp,
wishing on the first faint
star that I’d never have to
go back home.

brought a week of respite
ruined by Easter
Sunday egg hunt,
stained by my stepfathers’
angry barking and cigarette
smoke rings—by my brother’s
tears, until he moved in
with our grandparents and I, bereft,
having then no partner in resistance,
stared out my window
into interminable gray sheets
of rain, measuring the rising
streams against my fear
and all of us, human and animal
alike trapped in the season
of diseases, the season of red
mud thick enough
to suck the boots off
your wandering feet.

Ellsworth, no romantic
like Irving, instead a practical
man who deemed early
winter the best season
for crossing unexplored
prairies, riding through
knife-edged crosstimbers
bare and black against
stark faded sky.
No bugs, no fires, no rain,
only the dark and the beasts
and you. But I cannot
go in winter, can not
make myself explore
mother’s broken jaw,
brother’s humiliation, the
hours we were locked out,
quivering on the front porch
in the snow, the monstrous voice
behind the door telling
us to run away. Winter
is no time for exploring
the prairie, not this
prairie, not this immense
forsaken prarie where
even now my heart
pounds like that of the young
duke in Ellsworth’s company.
who, lost after a buffalo hunt,
climbed a tree to escape
the night and the howling wolves.
Found the next morning
by his companions, alive and whole.
My brother drank and died
young. I was found alive.



Jeanetta Calhoun Mish