Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide

About the Book

Using the form of a guidebook and complicating definitions of flyover country and culture, this collection weaves themes of wilderness and ownership, the rhythms of nature with human design, juxtaposing idyllic tales of life on the Plains with cautionary ones to offer an alternate view of the enigmatic prairie. Leaving Tracks was a Semi-Finalist for the 2015 Black River Chapbook Competition, a Semi-Finalist for the 2015 Gold Line Press Chapbook Contest, and received Honorable Mention for the 2015 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Prize.


"Though Rand McNally may have chosen to exclude parts of the Dakotas from its atlas in the late 80's, Sarah Fawn Montgomery knows that there is, indeed, a there there, that 'the Plains are an altar' where people make 'hard offerings to this hard place' but also sink their roots deep into the soil and flourish. Like any good guide, Leaving Tracks 'makes(s) the myth of the land readable' and shows us that 'there need be no contradiction between utility and beauty.'" — Grace Bauer, author of Nowhere All At Once and The Women At The Well
"Sarah Fawn Montgomery's poems grapple with the complicated human tension between wilderness and domestication, between body and will: 'try to make something so untamed your own,' she challenges, and reminds us that there is '. . . only a membrane of grass separating you from the thrum that pumps beneath.' These extraordinary lyrics confront our ambivalent relationship with nature, and our persistent resistance to seeing ourselves as part of the earth we try to subdue. They offer abundant wisdom, and they offer true grace. They will stay with me for a very long time." — Corrinne Clegg Hales, author of To Make it Right
"The poems in Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s new collection, Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, are less 'a prairie lesson for survival,' than a celebration of and reverence for this brutal and beautiful landscape that refuses to be tamed. Each poem takes the small moments and actions of everyday life in the plains: canning peaches, finding cicada husks, bearing down in a storm, and speaks lovingly of the toil and sacrifice so many made to make a life in the 'flyover' states. Through vivid imagery, Montgomery shows readers though that this is not a place to flyover, but one to submit to, one that provides sustenance in body and soul in the form of a space to test resilience, one that provides fertility as 'a gift to those who don’t give up.'" — Sarah A. Chavez, author of All Day, Talking

Leaving Tracks

—after Don Gayton

When Daddy’s cement is sticky
he holds my wrists in his calloused hands
and presses my palms to leave a mark.

We are leaving impressions, he says,
to make sure the shape will hold.

He’s got my name, too, carved blocked
into the split posts holding up the line
between our farm and the prairie margin.

We make these marks, Daddy says,
so we remember how to get back home.

It’s like the slashes through these Dakotas—
great sweeps along ridges and river valleys,
trails where the buffalo walked heavy,

pushed their shaggy shoulders into the rock,
left their palms long across the land.

*Originally appeared in Midwestern Gothic


This place makes us leave bits of ourselves behind—the years of our youth,
a finger in the combine, even the farm when the crops won’t yield,
abandoned house overtaken by the wildness it was meant to settle,
prairie grass and the trees moving in, holding things upright.

A hardening happens here, work and weather making us tough and brittle
like cicadas, giving us all we can handle until we are just a shell.
When we think we’ve had enough we squeeze from the husk
and fly somewhere else, always returning to chirp the same song with the others.

Perhaps the Plains have earned it, the years, the house, our brittle bodies.
These are our hard offerings to this hard place. But we survive,
however marked. There are more years. The house still stands.
And up close, the fallen skeletons are delicate, amber and translucent.

*Originally appeared in Natural Bridge

Where the West Begins

There’s a place where the prairie—that flat expanse
of wheat and corn, that place where you forget
your feet on the ground, the rhythm of your step,
and focus instead on the big bowl of sky overturned
above you, the way it cups your existence
as far as you can see, farther than you fathom,
farther still, the way the world orients to it,
crops to the light that lasts late into the night,
ten o’clock summers and not dark yet,
the rain and the way a storm comes sudden,
darkens the air though it’s still warm out,
the way the wind can knock you clean over,
can whip into a dervish, pull things into its core—
gives way, margins out and begins to roll over and under
itself like a sleeping bag or hay in the fall,
where the topography rises up like braille
to make the myths of the land readable, to tell
the tales of the West, where it becomes rough,
more sudden than expected, mountains in range
and you realize you’ve moved your eyes from the skies
like the gopher you see in spring, the rabbit in winter,
outside their holes, staring up amazed at the world,
and you’re left instead gasping at craggy peaks,
ragged and blue and purple in the light, hard.
The place where the West begins begins to change you,
and you focus on how to succeed, overcome,
how to move up and over these mountains,
trample their strength with your will.
How to march Westward, Manifest Destiny,
the world not resting under the sky as before,
instead now cowering under your foot.

*Originally appeared in The Fourth River

Family Heirlooms

Inside hands closed like prayer
are the relics grandfather has unwrapped
from the handkerchief hidden
in the old tin tobacco box
that is dented but wiped clean of dust.
The seeds no bigger than a pinprick,
glossy brown teardrops,
ink dripped from the nib.
They burrow into his wrinkles
searching for soil, yearning to grow.
He holds up his palms like an offering.

These kernels straddle history,
plucked each harvest from the hardiest plants,
those that survived the harshness of seasons,
abundant despite the extremes,
stored away with the good silver,
the quilts growing thin with rot,
yellowing photos and a rusting kettle,
until the need for nostalgia,
for better times, climes, yields,
for survival compels their use.

Plant these to time travel
to grandmother’s longest winter
like the one that ended this June,
graduation indoors because of snow,
or the summer the neighbor boy
saw waves in the fields full of wheat,
went crazy from the oppressive heat,
or a famer suffocated in his grain bin
after falling in, drowned by his work,
mouth full of the crop he fought for.

The plant’s memory goes further
back still, to when the railroad came,
bisected the land, travelers and strangers
halfway between coming and going,
never intending to stay, what remained
was that here is not easy, not civil,
here is nothing, really, just flyover.

Like burning the prairie to take it back
to richness, growth from the ash,
feeling a storm behind the eyes
days before it announces its arrival,
knowing which woods burn slowest,
that swallows leaves as winter comes,
or that planting a dead perch next to the corn
means flowers feed from what’s lost,
the seeds are a prairie lesson for survival,
a gift to those who don’t give up,
move on, move West, to easier ground.

*Originally appeared in New Madrid