Cirrus From The West

The sky over Bismarck this morning was as beautiful as an 8 a.m. sky in September ever gets.  I took a picture and am trying to put it into this blog post. I hope it works. It is not a great picture because I am not a great photographer, but it gives you an idea of what I was looking at as I drank my coffee on the patio.

But the sky was big and blue and bright, and this lineup of high, semi-puffy clouds was moving across from west to east as I watched in fascination. I was reminded of a book title, “Cirrus From The West,” by Paul Southworth Bliss. I’ve shared some of Bliss’ poetry with you in the past. He’s a North Dakotan who published a number of books of poetry here in the 1930’s. I couldn’t remember if there was actually a poem entitled “Cirrus From The West” or not, so I went and dragged the little book off my shelf to find out.

The book has a hard cover and a dust jacket and was published in 1935 by Lakeside Press of Chicago. It’s only 50 pages, and it contains 38 of Bliss’ poems about North Dakota–none of which is titled “Cirrus From The West.”

But Bliss wrote a foreword to explain his title. It reads:

Undisturbed by surface turmoil, certain clouds of delicate and fibrous texture, softly white, may often be seen between the 9,000 and 46,000 foot levels, high above the other strata, moving almost always toward the east, since they are subject to the control of the great trans-continental air currents.

Though indicative of present weather stability, they herald changes generally from one to two days distant. Never as dramatic as cumulus, alto-cumulus, and nimbus, they are proof of the law-abiding nature of winds and weather, cool, shadowless portents of tranquility.

They are cirrus clouds from the west.

That’s it. While he  mentions cirrus clouds in the book, he offers no other explanation of why he chose the title. But there are some wonderful poems in the volume, starting with the one below. (You will note at the end of each of Bliss’ poems, he includes the date and the place he wrote it, as well as author’s notes, generally giving a little more information about the site.)


Under a Red Sky                            Wheat

Bones                                               Fevered

Of the Mandans                             With

Lie Strewn                                      Rust

Amidst                                            Burns

Thistle                                             Redly

And                                                 On the

Tipsin                                             Prairie.


Pigeon Grass.                               The sun

                                                       Tearing its way

Red Ants                                       Through

Pouring                                          Thin-textured

Endlessly                                       Cirrus,

From                                              Reaches

Earth-mines,                                 Red Fingers

Bring up                                         Toward

Bone-bits                                       The

Mixed                                             Earth’s

With                                               Parched

Red clay.                                       Throat

                                                                              July 21, 1935, Bismarck, N.D.

Tortured by mosquitoes, I walked, accompanied by former Governor and Mrs. Thomas H. Moodie, over Sleep Hill, ancient burial ground of the Mandan Indians. It is now cut asunder by the highway, has been desecrated by numerous souvenir hunters, and is honeycombed with red ants. The wheat fields under a pitiless sun were alive with rust.

I wasn’t sure if the clouds I was looking at this morning were cirrus clouds or not, so I came in and Googled “clouds.” I think what I learned is that these are actually cirrocumulus clouds, but I’m not sure. If there are any cloud experts out there, please let me know.

One last note on Paul Bliss: Some of his best poems are about North Dakota in winter, and I’ll share those with you when winter comes. They, like the one above, are some of the Best Things Ever Written About North Dakota. Right now, I’ve got to go cover my tomatoes. (If Bliss is right about cirrus clouds, we’ll have warmer weather by Thursday and my tomatoes will thrive again. Just have to get past tonight’s frost.)


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