Review: Harley Elliott’s Creature Way

by Angela Williamson Emmert

Harley Elliott is a Kansas poet, and in his collection Creature Way (Spartan Press, 2020), the prairie is both subject and source. Animals, land, rivers, sky, fields, food, and stones share space with people, both the original, indigenous inhabitants and the settler populations, including those encountered through story and art. They move about within the compact lines of these alert poems, where they find ample space to reflect, discover, squabble, and love.

Elliott will run out of patience, however, with pretense, especially his own, affording opportunities for self-deprecation and humor. In “Halfway Across The Arkansas River,” for example, a man standing in the river contemplates the water, its journey, and his own reflection. Asked “how he feels,” the man declares, “I feel like an old man / up to his ass/ in the middle / of a cold river.” The effect is bracing. Another poem, “Any Day Now,” includes the more aggressive pretense-busting lines “and here you are again / telling us what’s what / with your drunken uncle / smile like you’ve just been / face-humped by an angel.” More somberly, the poem concludes, “on / this sob story of a day / we should stop talking now.”

Any mysticism Elliott allows is grounded. “A Spontaneous Race At The Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty Pageant” recounts a footrace between two runners, equally difficult to identify; one runner, though, may be “Northern Cheyenne or / maybe Arapaho hard to tell / from the dark middle of the / football field.” The race, Elliott writes, “has / become its own creature / raises every voice in praise / of the symmetry of their / effort.” The race ends without a clear winner. Elliott further challenges certainty in “How To Not Ride A Coyote.”  He warns, “choose any coyote / saddle it with mystery / and ride off beside the point.” The “old ones,” Elliott reports, “say in those days / not riding a coyote was / an honorable pursuit,” and recommends, “if you think you see other / people riding coyotes / leave town.”

Elliott is most memorable when he turns his attention to love. “Prairie Courtship,” another how-to poem, is both sweet and poignant while maintaining Elliott’s self-deprecating humor. “A gentleman will / refrain from staring / at her bended ass” as she passes through the strands of barbwire he holds for her, Elliott says. He leaves the reader with a simple and indisputable (from a rural standpoint) bit if wisdom: “If she turns and / parts the wires for you / call the preacher.” In “He Wonders,” perhaps the most moving poem in the collection, an old man asks himself “if he remembered / to wash his feet / the nights his children / were conceived. / He thought it would / certainly be best / if he had.” In “Hyena Love,” a jewel of a line encapsulates the values Elliott brings to these poems: “we will / always be each others / beautiful laughing scavenger.” Who could refuse this strange but generous offer?


Angela Williamson Emmert lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband and sons.