William Stafford, “Across Kansas”

Across Kansas (from Poetry)
William Stafford

My family slept those level miles
but like a bell rung deep till dawn
I drove down an aisle of sound,
nothing real but in the bell,
past the town where I was born.

Once you cross a land like that
you own your face more: what the light
struck told a self; every rock
denied all the rest of the world.
We stopped at Sharon Springs and ate –

My state still dark, my dream too long to tell.


Are car trips really this much of an existential crisis? I remember just getting annoyed with my family during them.

This poem: not so much about car trips, more about “why go anywhere?” One carries one’s family within one, so to speak, even when trying to escape them. “Why go anywhere?” marks the first stanza as about self-discovery, but this is a haunted process. Self-discovery requires a point of origin. That point of origin might as well be a bell, continually ringing in darkness. It isn’t clear one is awake (“like a bell rung deep till dawn”). One is hearing things, not articulate things, and certainly not seeing. There is “nothing real” but in the bell itself. As to that last point, the origin is simply past.

So why go anywhere or do anything? More specifically, is self-discovery a crock? (Incidentally: Stafford is famous for going to a poetry conference where attendees were told to find their own voice and saying that they already had voices and didn’t need to find any). The second stanza offers some affirmation of self-discovery. The process (“cross a land like that”) is that of becoming (“you own your face more”). You grow into the origin. What the “light struck told a self:” relief from the bell is possible, one can see one’s face and the world around oneself. It is a blessing that someone who wants to discover herself need not feel that necessity always or make any discernible progress toward it. Time does not have to reveal more to us, and we don’t always need it to.

Rather, what is essential is place. “Every rock denied all the rest of the world” – the place around one has elements peculiar to it, you have elements peculiar to yourself. The second stanza sees the fact of possession as relief (“you own your face,” ” every rock denied…”). Not mindlessly getting stuff, but being mindful that one can declare things one’s own and in fact have them. It’s like the world is a puzzle, not contingent on some declaration “I am X,” but rather where some things belong to some selves, other things belong to other things, and you can slowly discover what is yours by some process of elimination. Hearing and seeing gave way to this speech. No wonder it is a dream too long to tell.

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