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Mark Todd is the New West incarnate. A working rancher and a professor of English, his poetry embodies local knowledge of his Colorado home as much as it does the great traditions of English and American poetry. His craft covers the range from the ballad and the sonnet, to the free verse lyric and his subjects range from meditations on nature worthy of Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Robinson Jeffers, to reflections on ranching worthy of Baxter Black.
In Wire Song, Todd’s first collection, each poem brings another element of contemporary life in the rural West into focus. Many poems detail the difficult, sometimes comical, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking work of ranching, telling stories of everything from the death of a foal to the arrival of spring, from what kind of hat to wear on the job to the traditional work of a farrier day. In his longer narrative poems, Todd recounts a present in which dirt bikers and ranchers collide (guess who wins), and a past in which he reimagines one of his own notorious forebears, John Wesley Hardin, at the moment he decides to take the path of crime and violence.
Throughout Todd’s work there is a delicate balance between the facts of nature and the domesticating work of man, in which something as ordinary as barbed wire comes to embody an entire way of life. As he writes in the poem “Wire Song”:
It smoothes the sense of harsh
And unforgiving land,
The stumble through pastured
Grasses fed by stone-fast
Roots, by tangles of brush.
Taut and strong in the wind,
Wire strings tales from steel yarn,
Singing the lines of place
Through rusted, untold words.
In his own wire song, Todd makes sure that some of those words are in fact told, that some of those lines of place are sweetly sung, and that some of our history therefore becomes articulate.
I couldn’t tell you the numbered times I’ve seen
The moon’s arc, its flat medallion a traced
Path across the canopy-sky, its face
In two dimensions, like a spotlight-beam;
Or the thoughtless times I’ve assumed that its scheme
Of things was merely a bright plate that effaced
The stars, a celestial disk too long encased
In the time-weary lines of a lover’s theme.
But that still night, when the earth’s shadow licked
Away the moon’s full milk-veneer, I stood
On the dark deck, and through a reddish trick
Of light, it seemed a suspended world I could
Almost touch, suddenly a solid place,
A sphere that hung int he deep room of space.
The Doyleville Schoolhouse
squats against foothills,
a tiny solitary block of salt
to the eye that travels
the straight-across mile
from the highway.
Its paint skin, snow-weary
and cracked, tells of years
since anyone learned, or lived
cubbyholed beneath the roof.
But those who live ranch-distant
still feel its rituals—its pie
socials and Halloween apple bobs.
It connects homes too often
separated by calving, haying, by winter
wind and snow-drifted fields.
Some traditions run
deeper than concete.
Thsi morning the old schoolhouse
wears the full moon like a bonnet,
weathered but proud, and a reminder:
the were can sometimes
tell us who we are.
From the Forward by Dana Gioia
“Mark Todd’s . . . verse gives memorable expression to a particular place—the high plains and mountain valleys of the Colorado Rockies. There is nothing homespun about his deft and sophisticated work, but it could not have been written anywhere else. Not only his subjects, but his imagery, style, and tone originate in the geography of his home. He is passionately local without ever being parochial, and his work reminds us of how many great poets—Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, E.A. Robinson, Robinson Jeffers, to name only a few—have purposely situated their verse in a particular place.”
Praise for Wire Song
“He paints some dead on pictures and feelings.” —Baxter Black
“These poems from the back roads of the west are a triumph of place, of sweetness, and of form.” —James Tipton
“[Todd] was not yet a poet when he came to the Upper Gunnison valley. This valley and this place made him a poet—rather than the other way around…The title of the book is taken from …a poem claiming that the stories of this valley are “told in Wire” and that fences are “singing the lines of place. [His] perspective seems validated in the quality and honesty of good poetry.” —George Sibley, Colorado Central Magazine
“In Wire Song Mark Todd crafts viable, sensual metaphors of the Southwestern landscape — its earth, its sky, and its creatures, including man. Just as importantly, he demonstrates a sensitive control of the music of his lines that is quite extraordinary. Wire Song is a significant work, well worthy of its subject.” —Keith Wilson
“[Todd] writes in a manner that chronicles and respects the geographical region. At the same time, his verse is so powerful that he transcends region and speaks to the heart, regardless of where you live.” —MikeNobles, Tulsa World
“Mark Todd’s often lyrical poems…have an innate appeal to those of us who recognize both the romance and the tough reality of a life in [these] parts of the West.” —Marion Conger Stewart, High Country News
About the author
Born in Texas, raised in New Mexico, and now settled in Colorado, Mark Todd has been a professional musher, a mortician, a mountaineer, and is currently a professor of English at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado.
He also runs a small ranch in the nearby Cochetopa Hills, thirty miles south of Gunnison, where he lives with his wife, Kym. Todd descends from a family that claims, on one side, Mary Todd Lincoln and, on the other, the outlaw John Wesley Hardin.
When he’s not teaching journalism and creative writing, he spends his time mending fences, raising horses, and trying to separate the romance from the reality of life in the rural West.