Prairie Wolves in Print: Where to Start

By Samuel Stenger Renken (’01)

85 pages | Logan House Press, 2011 | $16

—We reprint here, with the author’s permission, William Kloefkorn’s foreword to Sam Stenger Renken’s book of poems, Where to Start.

Sam Renken earned his spurs as he was growing up in the Nebraska Sandhills. Not many folks, including Nebraskans, know much, if anything, about those Sandhills. I am reasonably ignorant of them myself, though on several occasions I have tried to make their acquaintance; but the more I learned the more I realized I had more to learn than time to learn it. They are vast. They comprise more than 18,000 square miles of vegetated sand dunes, the largest expanse of its type in the western hemisphere. Under it lies an aquifer that stretches all the way from Ogallala in the Cornhusker State, to Texas—and back. Horses and cattle and big and little bluestem and blowouts and penstemon and sky and ranch homes separated by enough space to lose an astronaut in. And in each home a family, and one of the families was the Renkens. And one of the Renkens was Sam Renken, earning his spurs.

Now, after more than a few years away from his early home in the Nebraska Sandhills, Sam has put together his first book-length collection of poems, and it pleases me that so many of them, in a variety of ways and degrees, reveal connections to the writer’s upbringing. I do not mean to suggest that the poems are limited to a single influence, however vast that influence might be. Not at all. They cover an impressive range of subjects and forms, of perceptions and attitudes, of people and places. But the tie that consistently and blessedly binds them is the poet’s knowledge of, and gut feeling for, the Sandhills. And always—that is, always—he is willing to learn. In “Trail Riding,” for example, as he and his fellow rider are navigating through yucca and dust, he is advised not to guide his horse with reins, but

“instead to
think about moving with four legs
you never had but wanted, think about weaving
around the prairie dog holes and outcroppings
of sandstone,
think turn,
think wait,
think each hoof back to the barn.”

There is mystery in those lines, and an implicit definition of faith that lifts the poem above and beyond the literal. The reader moves over the lines and is compelled to think. Sam listens to them and, though he knows one hell of a lot about horses, and probably knows a little something about himself, he seems willing to listen and to learn something more. Call it a fortunate union of curiosity and humility. Many individual lines in Renken’s poems struck me with their freshness:

“…the height so great, falling meant death with time to think about it.”

“She was the woman choir-wright who reminded me of a grizzly when she sang.” (But she’s a grizzly with a peculiar concern for the spiritual; she says, “If only God would just come down and let us measure him.”)

“You have to start
where you want
to finish.”

And after summer break, returning to classes, Renken anticipates a change of season with this remarkable personification:

“Did you feel fall walk across town
from the snow-capped range,
wearing a backpack and looking virginal?”

His poems surprise and illuminate, and once in a while he allows himself to indulge a modicum of philosophy:

“And the more I thought about it, life is a
force and a direction one
second and then another,
wearing all of us thin, quantifiably.”

Or he gives us a striking image of a blue heron as it

“traced the steaming
top of your river,
past willow trees surrounded by wild
rye grass, sagebrush,”

a river with its

“…alpine pennycress
and cattails
who are just starting to wear their weighty
tutus with just enough fluff down low
to know the wind will strip
them naked soon.”

Or a prose poem that clearly and relentlessly, and with gentle mercy, recounts the destruction of a starving horse that was beyond redemption….

Or, finally, the poems that reflect Sam’s concern for his extended families, such as . . . the college buddies with whom he stays in contact, but also his blood family—parents, grandparents, and most essentially his day-into-day family, his wife, Maggie, and their two young daughters. In a truly splendid poem titled “619 S 6th,” he writes of anticipating a move from one place to another, writes of “What I won’t remember about this place… ,” then gives the reader a specific and compelling and wonderfully thoughtful list of what he’ll not remember.

“I won’t remember,” he concludes,
“…how these days were perfect,
how the air between us was glowing like something here watched
our daily maneuvers in wonder and wanted us to keep going.”

Seems to me that for Sam Renken home is that place where he and those with and beside him choose finally to go. And those places go with him and with Maggie, and by familial osmosis they go with their daughters—the Nebraska Sandhills, 619 S 6th, and all the other places where already he has hung his hat, and all those other uncharted trails that lie ahead.

— William Kloefkorn
Nebraska State Poet

In Memoriam
William Kloefkorn, August 12, 1932-May 19, 2011