George Keithley's "The Donner Party" ($16.95 in paperback from George Braziller), first published in 1972, is a "lean, taut, narrative poem" (to quote the New York Times). The Chico poet produced an American masterwork, a haunting eulogy for the company, led by George Donner, bound for California in April of 1846. More than half would not survive.
Lyon Books in Chico is honoring Keithley at a book signing and reading Tuesday at 7:00 p.m.
"I am George Donner a dirt farmer," the poem begins, "who left the snowy fields / around Springfield, Illinois / in the fullness of my life // and abandoned the land / where we had been successful / and prosperous people // and brought a party of eighty men / women and children / west by wagon."
Along the route most everything except food is left behind. It's not the "established trail," and weeks are wasted hacking a path. One might wonder if the land was abandoning them.
"Jacob's oldest son / let the sweat run // from his blond beard / as he halted there / in a trance. He left // his hand on the haft / of his ax and stood / staring up the slope // where he was to cut / but his mind was gone-- / a man may see a valley // overgrown with trees / or a simple stream / struck by sunlight // and in the cave of his chest / his heart falls / because he loves // the land too much with his eyes / and he feels unneeded / he is jealous // of the generous nature / of all things, whether / they are large or small // vegetable or mineral / and the wild life / and the long lights of space // so he cannot / move on nor come / deep into the place."
Bad timing and bad directions prove their undoing. Earlier, Donner remembers, "we were still bemused / by the myths of maps. ... But that was before / we came // to feel / the slow intelligence of the snow / groping over the ground. ..." Grisly events mingle with dreams of a better land.
The immense sadness here encompasses us all.