Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel (1918-2007) was many things in her life—daughter, sister, aunt; lay Franciscan, Okie poet, friend. She was also the poet laureate of Tulare, and during the pandemic was honored with the designation as a “literary landmark.” There will be an unveiling of the plaque to commemorate this honor this coming Saturday, Nov. 19, at the Tulare City Historical Museum. I am one of the people who encircled her during the last, most productive and rewarded decade of her life, and several of us have been asked to share a few thoughts at the event.

“Worman?” she would croak in her fake rural accent when I answered the phone, adding the Okie “r” for neighborly effect. Then would come whatever thought had prompted her to call, usually just news or a request for help. When she signed off a note, often attached to a stack of handwritten poems she was sending for me to type, she would end “TNB,” her shorthand for “take no bribes,” followed by her initials WEM or a pretend title like “Sister Inferiorata” from her imaginary “peculiar Order of Religious.” It was clear to me that her creativity knew no bounds, and that having people to share it with was pure joy and a stimulant.

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel

I was drawn to her like the proverbial moth. My awe began the moment I read three of her poems in California Heartland (1978), the first Haslam/Houston anthology of Valley writers. It wasn’t just her spare, bare-branch lines pruned as if for winter. It was the softer-focus view of hard lives living fully, neighborly, and respectfully, regardless of circumstances. It was an interior view of previously landed, placed people put out on the road. Her poems made me want to know them.

In fact, her poems informed me that I did know them, that they were us and I was one of them even though I’ve never been to Oklahoma or worked a share-crop farm or been one of 13 children. I find myself in her poems over and over. Initially it was a self-discovery experience; now, when one of her lines comes to me, like one did at the clothesline last March or in the kitchen a couple of nights ago, it’s a reaffirmation of my humanity.

I don’t know if she considered herself sent—or brought—here by the Creator. But I have come to see her now as a kind of missionary, a monk brought to the San Joaquin Valley by the wind that blows where it will, not just the wind that blew her family here and myriad others from the Dust Bowl states. Every word that flowed from her pen, every line and sentence scratched down on paper, was on behalf of another reality than the one dominating this Valley when the Okies arrived (and seemingly flourishes still.) Her poems are windows on that eternal, other reality, and we may look through them, get glimpses of it if we wish.

Here’s a new Wilma favorite of mine, titled “The Cook”:

Jenny Pool / did more with what she had / than anyone I ever knew / she cooked beans with / only a meat rind / when things / were really low / and was famous for hope soup when / everyone else / was flat out of that ingredient.

We’ve all known a Jenny Pool if we’ve suffered at all. They’re our Gospel representatives planted among us like wild oats. They spring up in response to the rain of need and revive our beleaguered spirits to wave in the wind once more.

So come join us in Tulare for a bit of refreshment. The event will run from 12 to 2:30 p.m., and includes a free lunch, music by Juni Fisher, some fantastic speakers, and a viewing of the documentary film made by Redwood HS students. The museum is located at 444 W. Tulare Ave. in Tulare. You can get directions and more information at www.tularehistoricalmuseum.org or call 686-2074.

Trudy Wischemann is a rural advocate who writes. You can send her your Wilma sightings c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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