Reviews of From Hell to Jackson Hole: A Poetic History of the American West

Michael L. Johnson Elevates Cowboy Poetry to High Art

Headed back east,
they said they just
flat couldn’t stand
any more wind.

“Those four lines, pardners, constitute an entire poem called “Failed Plains Homesteaders” in Johnson’s new verse collection . . .

“Take another look at it: “Failed Plains Homesteaders” contains just 16 words, and that includes the title. In his brevity, though, Johnson has lassoed an entire American century — the 19th, to be exact — in which several generations of people headed west and found a world wilder, harsher, richer, stranger and “just flat” crazier than anything they’d ever imagined.

“Johnson . . . has taken what many consider to be a humble subgenre of American verse — so called “cowboy poetry” — and turned it into literature of the highest order.

“He has also written, in a series of poems instead of prose, one of the most illuminating histories of the American West you’ll ever read, a text that . . . occasionally pokes fun at the cowboy myth even as it accepts the power our almost-vanished frontier still holds over our imaginations.

“All the names in Johnson’s book . . . are real names, actual people who populated the Old West. His research here is as impressive as his verse . . .

“Johnson’s Western history, though, is not just the history of the white people who came to dominate the region. His collection is multicultural, not because that’s the politically correct thing to do these days but because it makes the book complete . . . Especially haunting is (his) portrait of “Sacagawea,” the young “Shoshone wife” used by the Lewis and Clark expedition . . .

“The best thing about From Hell to Jackson Hole, though, might be how Johnson keeps changing the mood. Just when he’s got you all choked up, or right after he has made you mad, he softens it all with a laugh, in a flow of emotions as fickle as — well, as the weather he describes via “A Farmwife Tells About Tornados in Kansas”:

The last time
one blew through

here and came
way too close,

something in
my old man

snapped like a
pot-metal

hex wrench. Damn
funnel tore

the tires right
off his new

tractor, and
he’s not come

up from the basement since.

“Johnson’s poems blow through you, disturbing you, amusing you, changing you. Like that tornado, they’re unpredictable and powerful. You just flat can’t resist them.”

Kansas City Star, November 2001

“Myth and history shot to life by a dead-eye bard.”

Kansas City Star

From Hell to Jackson Hole: A Poetic History of the American West
by Michael L. Johnson
ISBN: 0965348776
$10.44 or FREE with purchase of 2 other BHB books
144 pages; trade paper; full-color illustrations; endnotes

Updated May 14, 2010