I know no more than you
do what faces hide behind my face.
You see them coming on. I
see them years later in moons left over
after lunch. They come back
with dusty bedrolls of sunlight,
hands full of promises.
Choosing a first poem, especially from among forty years worth of poems, would be an impossible task, yet beginning a book with an attention to one's face certainly has a logic to it. A face, of course, serves as an introduction. Nonetheless, Till's introduction of himself remains mysterious, showing no face at all, only hinting that others, unseen, compose the one that is seen. From the beginning, then, this poem lets us know that Till seeks to discover what informs the self. A face may offer a version of oneself, but it can also fail to reveal who one fully is; and the possessor of a face, oddly enough, may be in no better position to understand this identity than an observer is. For Till, though, unlike T. S. Eliot, there isn't a prepared face to meet the faces others have prepared for us to meet; instead, there is only a face composed of ancestors, of past influences, of encounters with the land, and of "something beautiful/far out in the lake" that rises and falls but "will not come again." In other words, a face is continually discovered, even for the one behind the face.
This first poem also prepares us for the book's title poem, "Oval," placed near the book's close. In this poem, the speaker has been "looking for [his] father's face." The poem is an attempt to find a particular face--though "not the one with its little whiskers/rubbed against" before Till became old, and not the face in any photograph either. He's looking for the face which Till says he "surprised in the toolshed/before he knew I was there." In other words, he's searching for the unprepared face, the face that is not mindful of even being a face, the face that, unaware of an audience, waved "farewell to a random idea" and is "an oval/of dusky light the shape of a face that ha[s] gone/where the river goes." "That one," Till says, concluding the poem, leaving us with only that image, a face whose features we are no closer to knowing.
Everything holds a secret for Till, including faces, and this awareness provides a shared condition, an intimacy, between speaker and reader. "I know no more than you/do," Till states--his book's first claim--making no claim to authority, which is not to say that he has no authority. His voice is more like Stafford's voice, quietly assertive, tentative when it needs to be, and assuming there is still something overlooked. The condition we find ourselves in, the condition his first poem makes clear, is characterized by both "burden" and "promise." In fact, much in this collection explores these two poles of identity, perhaps, at times, revealing them to be the same thing, two sides of the same face.
For Till, our present condition, our present self, our present face, is preceded by "the ones who came first," as he shows us in "Thinking for Kansas." These early settlers, "burdened," prepared the way for us and made the present (and by extension our presence) possible. Till notes that someone "had to be first, had/to wait I don't know how long/for trees to grow." By their patience and sacrifice, people can now live with a buffer against the wind and without fear that "the fire will go out." Till's poems attempt to keep the fire going since, as the farmer in "Natural Fact" says only a few poems later, everyone may be "in the dark." Nevertheless, there is a "great song" in Till's presence, in his voice, and behind his face, and this presence "sings our longing/so we can be here." One can feel the weight of that longing, how behind our voices (and our desire to communicate ourselves to one another) something deep as Kansas stretches out behind us. In the face of such, how could anyone claim to know more than the next person? How could anyone not stand in wonder at the faces emerging from within?