In the opening poem of her 1946 collection New Goose, Lorine Niedecker pulls her readers into the marsh and situates us in a very specific position that of the tourist hunter: 

Don't shoot the rail!
Let your grandfather rest!
Tho he sees your wild eyes
he's falling asleep,
his long-billed pipe
on his red-brown vest.1

Rails are notoriously secretive marsh birds. As always, Niedecker pays "particular attention": her image perfectly captures the color and shape of a Virginia rail, with its long bill and reddish brown chest.2 Wildness, here, is not linked to the bird but to the would-be hunter whom the poem addresses. In a pair of exclamation-pointed commands, the poem casts its readers as white elites in a settler colonial country and tells us not to shoot the rail, but to slow down and see it.

In urging settlers whose ancestors are not from this place to understand the rail as their "grandfather," moreover, Niedecker seems to turn the rail into a settler grandfather reclining in an easy chair with his pipe resting on his knit sweater vest. Unless we are to imagine this grandfather as Indigenous, with a long pipe and leather vest? As usual with Niedecker, the indeterminacy of the image brings us right up against a problem: in this case, that of imagining and enacting kinship with the more-than-human world in the context of both ongoing settler colonial violence and industrial speed-up. The poem shows us as readers that we may well be this inept tourist hunter, quick to drive off a shy bird with a bad shot.

Niedecker sent her New Goose collection to press in 1944; due to war-related delays, it appeared in early 1946.3 Its publication history straddling the '45 in post-45, this collection gives us a glimpse of Niedecker thinking at the crucial historical moment of the midcentury, poised just at the start of what we now understand as the Great Acceleration.4 Niedecker writes from the experience of scraping by in the Depression-era small town of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, but also questions the very premise that land can be bought and sold.5 Here I suggest that New Goose, which continually asks "How to keep the earth,"6 can also see the Great Acceleration coming the exponential "speed-up," as Niedecker puts it,7 across domains such as production, consumption, urbanization, and population growth that resulted in the postwar economic boom and its rising greenhouse gas emissions and environmental devastation.8

New Goose returns again and again to homes: to owning or losing houses, to living in inadequate dwellings, and to shelters that shield people from violence and the violence that secures such shelters. In the poems set in Wisconsin, these themes are often intertwined with the possession of land or its loss, sale, or theft. Niedecker details, with nuanced irony, the attempts of more or less poor white settlers to keep homes. New Goose was the first book Niedecker published and one of the few she published in her lifetime. For that reason alone, it is worth reading this collection as such and with one exception, I restrict my focus here to the poems in the published 1946 book itself rather than Niedecker's broader New Goose project, which includes many poems that remained unpublished in any venue in her lifetime.9 My reading reveals Niedecker's criticism of settler colonial home-making and its bumpy acceleration into the consumerism that would speed up even more after the end of World War II. Niedecker does not romanticize rural life, but documents it and she does not exempt herself from her critique, interrogating her own participation in both settler colonialism and the "speed-up."

Black Hawk on Columbus Day

Let us turn first to a pair of back-to-back poems that frame the relationship between settler colonialism and the Great Acceleration that Niedecker's 1946 New Goose collection evokes. "On Columbus Day" is about consumerism as a colonial enterprise; "Black Hawk held," on the following page, is one of the most forthright indictments of settler colonialism in Niedecker's whole New Goose project.10 The first poem mocks a man who "set out," possibly for the northwoods, and returned home with a long and quixotic list of things:

On Columbus Day he set out for the north
to inspect his forty acres,
brought back a plaster of Paris deer-head
and food from the grocers and bakers,

a wall-thermometer to tell if he's cold,
a new kind of paring knife,
and painted in red, a bluebottle gentian
for the queen, his wife.11

It is, of course, no accident that it is "Columbus Day" and that the man returns to "the queen." As a mock epic, the poem's humor lies precisely in collapsing the distance between early colonialism Columbus claiming the Americas for the queen of Spain and this doofus who goes for a jaunt to look at his (second) property and returns with an assortment of tacky purchases.

His shopping list may sound quaint to us, almost eighty years into the consumer explosion that started in earnest after World War II. We now have all these things (and so many more) available for nearly instant delivery, including smart thermostats that prevent us from ever getting cold in the first place. But for Niedecker, who lived in "straitened" circumstances, this list screams excess.12 These objects also differ starkly from the everyday folk things that show up in New Goose, like the useful and beautiful "granite pail" that "got away,"13 or "Pa's spitbox," a possessed possession that keeps coming back.14

In tying mid-1940s consumerism to the founding moment of European colonialism in the Americas, "On Columbus Day" collapses two start dates for the much-debated beginning of the Anthropocene. The poem mocks the man's grand gesture of "set[ting] out for the north" and the spoils of his expedition, but it also points to a real continuity of theft and exploitation. "Forty acres" refers to US laws that guided the surveying and colonization of western land, beginning with the area covered by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (now Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and northeastern Minnesota): the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Homestead Act of 1862. These latter two laws laid out guidelines for settling stolen Indigenous land by marking it off into six-mile-square townships that were then divided into 640-acre sections. Sections were further divided into "quarter-sections" of 160 acres each; the quarter-section is still a common unit of property ownership in midwestern rural areas. A quarter-section can be divided by 4 again to yield 40 acres, giving rise to the idiomatic expression "the back forty," or the remote part of a farm.15

By referring to the man's "forty acres," Niedecker both simply uses a common measurement of land ownership in Wisconsin and also alludes to the legal and administrative procedures that facilitated the expropriation of Indigenous people. As if to underscore the common thread of land theft, the first stanza of the next poem in the collection reads:

Black Hawk held: In reason
land cannot be sold,
only things to be carried away,
and I am old.16

This poem's tone is mournful rather than humorous, retrospectively adding to the hidden sting of "On Columbus Day." If the "forty acres" in the previous poem refers to the metrics by which US law made settlement of stolen land seem orderly and reasonable, this poem turns around and critiques that legalistic rationalism by condensing a famous passage from Black Hawk's autobiography: "My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold. . . . Nothing can be sold except such things as can be carried away."17 Land is not a possession, but indeed what carries us and myriad other beings, as the poem's sixth line, "pawpaw in bloom," reminds us.18 Concluding the poem, the poet replies, "to this day, Black Hawk, / reason has small room," conceding that his reason is more sensible than settler common sense.19

Reason also "has small room" in the consumerism of "On Columbus Day." The man who adventurously "sets out" like Columbus does not return from his "forty acres" of carved-up wilderness with a prize buck he shot, but with "a plaster of Paris deer-head / and food from the grocers and bakers." Together, the two poems needle us into seeing that all of the violent destruction of human and more-than-human life in the Americas from 1492 to 1945 has been for what? This plaster "deer-head"? A "bluebottle gentian," presumably ceramic, "painted in red"? For the ability to purchase kitschy representations of animals and wildflowers in place of their living referents?

"our break in the thick"

Most of the folk speakers and characters who populate New Goose, however, are unable to buy such baubles; indeed, these rural white settlers struggle to hold onto what little they have. After a global detour following the opening poem, the fourth poem in New Goose, "Ash woods, willow," returns to Niedecker's nearby landscape and to another "grandfather." This one has just died; now his "Heirs rush in" and snatch everything, including the "birdhouse," leaving a "wornout roof hanging there / nothing underneath."

If he could come back and see his place
fought over that he'd held apart
he'd say: all my life I saved
now twitter, my heart.20

Here it's the grandfather who, twittering mournfully, becomes a bird. The roof "hanging" over "nothing" figures the doubly unstable ground. In this flood-prone area of "overflow," not only is the land itself unstable, but settlers' abilities to keep land are in constant doubt often, as here, because of conflict among themselves.21

This grandfather does not to live to see his "place" torn apart; other grandfathers in New Goose are not so lucky. In "Gen. Radimstev's story (Stalingrad)," the book's first poem set in the Soviet Union, "Four of us lived off half an acre / till grandfather traded it / for a gallon of liquor."22 The poem "Pioneers" depicts colonial land theft achieved by means of alcohol: "agency men got chiefs drunk / then let them stand" that is, representatives of the US government let Indigenous leaders' drunken decision to cede land stand.23 Though the poem refers to "Winnebagoes" (that is, the Ho-Chunk), Niedecker may well be alluding instead to an infamous 1804 land cession from the Sauk and Fox that William Henry Harrison extracted by getting minor leaders drunk.

If some grandfathers were tricked or coerced into selling land, others killed each other over it. The poem "Du Bay" is about the sensational 1857 trial of John Baptiste Du Bay, a successful fur trader who "shot a man for claiming his land, enough / the possession of real estate."24 Niedecker alludes, in that last phrase, to the fact that this was a fight over squatters' rights. The Preemption Act of 1841 allowed settlers who possessed land (by building on it, for example) right of first refusal to buy up to 160 acres (a quarter-section) at a minimum price before the federal government auctioned the land to speculators.

In this three-quartet-long poem, Niedecker puts the accent on Du Bay's possessions. The first two, "his wife" and "his land," appear in the second quartet, and the poem closes this way:

Witnesses judged him as good as the average
for humanity, honesty, peace.
The court sent him home to his children,
his dogs, his gun, and his geese.25

The poem lands on its insistent repetition of the possessive pronoun "his" in those final two lines. The last line rhymes with and rhythmically echoes "humanity, honesty, peace." Du Bay's "average" level of these abstract virtues functions as an excuse for sending him back to what is "his." All of his possessions wife, land, children, dogs, and geese are alive, with the one exception of "his gun," presumably the same one he used to kill a man.

Du Bay, as a nineteenth-century American fur trader of French-Canadian and Menominee descent, represents a historical inflection point in the upper Great Lakes region: a shift from an earlier French form of colonialism focused on extraction of goods to US land expropriation, logging, and settlement.26 An exchange between lawyers at the beginning of the poem gestures to that transition: "He kept a grog shop, this fur trader killer? / Defense: Any fur trader would / to make merchandise go."27 New Goose's other references to liquor's expropriative function reveal the capitalist effort to increase sales as a cover for ensnaring Indigenous people in debt to coerce them into ceding land. 

Moreover, the movement of the poem charts Du Bay's transformation from a fur trader of the French colonial era to an American settled squarely among his possessions. The first quartet is focused on his buying and selling of furs, liquor, and merchandise; the reference to his marriage to "Chief Oshkosh's daughter" underscores the cross-cultural social world that French colonialism required. In the second quartet, by shooting a man over preemption rights, Du Bay violently enacts US land laws. In the final quartet, the mistrials that send him home to his litany of belongings settle him fully in this new American identity. His "average" virtues of "humanity, honesty, peace" barely hide violence: it is "his gun," nestled in the middle of the line between "his dogs" and "his geese," that enables his possession of land and living beings.

Perhaps surprisingly, the two poems that most clearly connect Niedecker's take on settler colonialism with the fragile homes that run through New Goose are (like this funny one) in folk voices, not Niedecker's own voice. Their misogynist assessments of women who scheme to acquire property reveal her critique of settler colonial land theft. The first, "That woman! eyeing houses," is spoken by one woman about another. From Niedecker's compressed lines, we can gather that the speaker is complaining that the other woman has gotten "my own poor guy" to sell their house "She held his hand and told him where to sign" by promising to pay the "costs" of "insurance."28 Apparently she then rents their house back to them:

Because look! How can she keep it?
to hold a house has to rent it out
            and spend her life on the street.29

The last line also implies, of course, that a woman who owns property is a prostitute.

However, tucked inside this screed is a one-line lament: "home itself, was our break in the thick."30 The word "thick" is puzzling; it could mean "thicket," evoking the tangle of second-growth frontier land. Or it could allude to "the thick of it": in the middle of things, in the heat of the action. Calling home "our break in the thick of it" would make it not so much shelter from the storm as a shelter amid a storm, like a windbreak. Home becomes, not a place "apart" as in "Ash woods, willow," but a (flimsy) obstacle to cower beneath, as the preceding line's list of insured risks "wind, fire, falling aircraft, riots" emphasizes. If we hear "thicket" and "thick of it" at once, the storm from which the speaker seeks shelter seems to be that of ongoing settler colonialism itself.

The other New Goose poem organized around a similar misogynist conceit, the five-line "What a woman!," reads:

What a woman! hooks men like rugs,
clips as she hooks, prefers old wool, but all
childlike, lost, houseowning or pensioned men
her prey. She covets the gold in her husband's teeth.
She'd sell dirt, she'd sell your eyes fried in deep grief.31

The folk speaker of the poem clearly sees this woman who preys on "houseowning" men as nefarious: the phrase "clips as she hooks" implies that she offs these men, cutting short their threads of life like one of the Fates. But "sell dirt" also evokes selling land, which, as we have seen, comes up across New Goose. "Sell your eyes" sounds like "sell your I's," your selves that is, sell people. In short, Niedecker displaces slavery and the treatment of land as property the key practices of US racial capitalism and settler colonialism onto a woman, using the misogynist voice of the poem's speaker to enable her implied folk reader to see those practices as evil.

Though Niedecker's New Goose poems sometimes speak in folk voices that should not be conflated with her voice, she does not shy away from examining her own participation in settler colonialism, racism, or consumerism, as the poem that mentions her family name makes clear. Here it is in full:

The clothesline post is set
yet no totem-carvings distinguish the Niedecker tribe
from the rest; every seventh day they wash:
worship sun; fear rain, their neighbors' eyes;
raise their hands from ground to sky,
and hang or fall by the whiteness of their all.32

While the poem's first five lines depict this settler family as a generic Native American "tribe" complete with geographically inaccurate "totem-carvings," the final line transforms the poem into a critique of belonging via conformity to whiteness. This "whiteness" clearly entails antiblack racism routed through US consumer culture: "their all" may indeed be a reference to All, the detergent brand.33 Through its deliberately clunky extended analogy in which the clothesline post becomes a totem pole and the gestures of doing the wash translate into stereotyped images of a geographically unmoored Native group the poem both engages in and criticizes common settler modes of "playing Indian" to co-opt Indigenous authenticity.34 In the last line, Niedecker indicts this appropriative whitewashing of histories of indigeneity as bound up with antiblack racism.

"Speed up"

Perhaps self-satirization is the thread that connects "The clothesline post" with the very next poem in New Goose. Though puzzlingly oblique, this poem is one of two in Niedecker's broader New Goose project that I suggest proleptically evokes the Great Acceleration:

I said to my head, Write something.
It looked me dead in the face.
Look around, dear head, you've never read
of the ground that takes you away.
Speed up, speed up, the frosted windshield's
                                  a fern spray.35

Niedecker gently satirizes her own ambition as a poet in that first line, and the imperative to "speed up" here may refer both to such personal ambition and to industrial progress, which also appears in "Pioneers." "I said to my head," however, is not about settlers stealing land, but about "the ground that takes you away." On a literal level, this "ground" may be the road when you're in a car. The poet-speaker has "never read" of it because speeding along in a car is not yet a typical subject for poetry. But the speaker urges herself to "Look around": to pay attention to the "speed" of modern petroculture as well as the "fern spray." Moreover, contra the mainstream nature poetry associated with Robert Frost whose name we hear in the word "frosted" this poem suggests that the fern spray is inseparable from the automobile.36 Frost on a windshield can make fern-frond patterns. At the same time, windshields can shatter in a fern-like pattern, shadowing this image with the potential violence of speed.

This poem sees the Great Acceleration coming: it feels the "speed up" through the "ground" and the oil that comes out of it. As usual, Niedecker does not exempt herself. By widening the frame to include the would-be poet speeding along in a car, she repositions the work of a nature poet like Frost as part of petroculture. The poet-speaker's strange self-address, "dear head," also points us back to the tacky "plaster of Paris deer-head" in "On Columbus Day." The line "It looked me dead in the face" gives a dark streak to the possibly shattered windshield, suggesting that the capitalist compulsion to make the self into a commodity may, like speeding down an icy road, end badly.

While "speed up" is an imperative in this poem, it becomes a noun "the speed-up" in a  poem from her broader New Goose project that also senses the Great Acceleration taking off in the mid-1940s. This poem, unlike all the others I've analyzed here, does not appear in the 1946 New Goose, but instead in another manuscript named "New Goose" and dated 1945. It is also about a grandmother rather than a grandfather. Here it is in full:

Just before she died
my little grandma with her long, long hair
put her hand on mine: I'm nearly there.

What'll I do all my life,
I cried, my work's cut short; I've a share
in the speed-up; a long, long race to spare.37

In this well-constructed poem, lines 2, 3, 5, and 6 all rhyme, and lines 1 and 4 end with the conceptually rhyming "died" and "life." The speaker's "long, long race" echoes her grandma's "long, long hair," while the fact that her work is "cut short" contrasts with it.

When the speaker's grandma says "I'm nearly there," she seems to mean that she's nearly finished with life, evoking the expression that someone's race is almost run. In the second tercet, the speaker responds to her grandma with the sense that she herself has a long but difficult time left: "What'll I do all my life." Her "work's cut short," but she has "a share / in the speed-up": care-work like her grandma's is cut off in favor of industrial labor.

The poem really turns, however, on that final rhyme of "share" and "spare." The closing phrase "a long, long race to spare" has an exhausted tone the speaker has far left to go. But "spare" also evokes excess: the long race is extra, too much, going spare. A "share / in the speed-up" seems to simply mean that the speaker has a part in industrial acceleration, until we remember the particular stock-market sense of "share." The New Goose project emphasizes this pun by playing on the word "stock" in the senses of stock market, livestock, and stockings.38 A share in the speed-up is a share in the profits of modern progress as well as the difficult work that industrialization requires. The closing rhyme of "share" with "spare" of participation and profit with abundance and disposability conveys a sense of simultaneous excess and exhaustion that evokes the Great Acceleration and histories of settlement and colonialism. In New Goose, settler colonialism is a never-ending effort that continually fails even those who benefit from it, and that Niedecker saw beginning to fail spectacularly through its hyper-successful speed-up into global capitalism after 1945.

Michelle Niemann (Twitter: @mlniemann4; Instagram and Facebook: is a poet, scholar, and academic writing coach who earned her PhD at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Her article on Lorine Niedecker's food and farming poems of the 1930s and 1940s appeared in Modernism/modernity and received an honorable mention from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature in 2019. Michelle's scholarly work on ecopoetics, organic form in poetry, and the organic farming movement has been published in the Journal of Modern LiteratureVictorian PoetryEdge Effects, and edited collections. Her poems have appeared in RHINOafter hours, and CANNOT EXIST


  1. Lorine Niedecker, "Don't shoot the rail!" Collected Works, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 92. Throughout I cite page numbers from Collected Works, which reprints the 1946 New Goose poems in the order in which they appeared in the original collection. For untitled poems, I use the first line or the first few words of the first line as the title.[]
  2. Niedecker, "Asa Gray wrote Increase Lapham," 105.[]
  3. Jenny Penberthy, "Notes," in Collected Works, by Lorine Niedecker, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 373.[]
  4. J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014). See also Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill, "The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature." AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 36, no. 8 (Dec. 2007): 614-21,[614:TAAHNO]2.0.CO;2; see especially p. 617-18. On midcentury literature, see Claire Seiler, Midcentury Suspension: Literature and Feeling in the Wake of World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).[]
  5. Niedecker, "Black Hawk held," 99.[]
  6. Niedecker, "Pioneers," 105.[]
  7. Niedecker, "Just before she died," 112. Niedecker also uses "speed up" as an imperative verb in "I said to my head," 100.[]
  8. Will Steffen, et al., "The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration," The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (2015): 81-98,[]
  9. For Penberthy's notes on the publication history of Niedecker's work in the 1930s and 40s, see Niedecker, Collected Works, 372-78.[]
  10. These poems are back-to-back in the original edition: Lorine Niedecker, New Goose (Prairie City, IL: The Press of James A. Decker, 1946), 25, 26.[]
  11. Niedecker, "On Columbus Day," 98.[]
  12. Jenny Penberthy, "Life and Writing," in Collected Works, by Lorine Niedecker, ed. Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 6.[]
  13. Niedecker, "Remember my little granite pail?," 96.[]
  14. Niedecker, "Grampa's got," 100; "The museum man!," 101.[]
  15. The infamous "forty acres and a mule" promised by Union General Sherman to a group of formerly enslaved people in the southeast during the Civil War and quickly revoked also likely refers to these measurements.[]
  16. Niedecker, "Black Hawk held," 99.[]
  17. Black Hawk, Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk, ed. J. B. Patterson (Boston: Russell, Odiorne & Metcalf, 1834), 88.[]
  18. Niedecker, "Black Hawk held," 99.[]
  19. Mark Rifkin, Settler Common Sense: Queerness and Everyday Colonialism in the American Renaissance (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). For a fuller reading of this poem and "Pioneers," see Michelle Niemann, "Towards an Ecopoetics of Food: Plants, Agricultural Politics, and Colonized Landscapes in Lorine Niedecker's Condensery," Modernism/modernity 25, no. 1 (2018): 135-160, doi:10.1353/mod.2018.0006.[]
  20. Niedecker, "Ash woods, willow" 93.[]
  21. For an extended reading of this poem, see Jeffrey Westover, "'My sense of property's / adrift': Attitudes toward Land, Property, and Nation in the Poetry of Lorine Niedecker," Paideuma 37 (2010): 293-320,[]
  22. Niedecker, "Gen. Radimstev's story (Stalingrad)," 104.[]
  23. Niedecker, "Pioneers," 105.[]
  24. Niedecker, "Du Bay," 97. See G. C. Sellery, "Book Notes: review of DuBay: Son-in-Law of Oshkosh, by Merton. E Krug," Wisconsin Magazine of History 29, no. 4 (1946): 461-63.[]
  25. Niedecker, "Du Bay," 97.[]
  26. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2011).[]
  27. Niedecker, "Du Bay," 97.[]
  28. Niedecker, "That woman! eyeing houses," 101.[]
  29. Niedecker, "That woman! eyeing houses," 102.[]
  30. Niedecker, "That woman! eyeing houses," 101.[]
  31. Niedecker, "What a woman!," 108.[]
  32. Niedecker, "The clothesline post," 100.[]
  33. Elizabeth Savage, "'Bleach[ed] Brotherhood': Race, Consumer Advertising, and Lorine Niedecker's Lyric," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 28, no. 2 (2009): 291-313,, see 296.[]
  34. See Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).[]
  35. Niedecker, "I said to my head," 100.[]
  36. This is not the only reference to Frost in New Goose; see "The broad-leaved Arrow head," 109.[]
  37. Niedecker, "Just before she died," 112.[]
  38. See Niedecker, "I doubt I'll get" and "To see the man," 103.[]