Sunday, February 29, 2004


"They do talk with a little accent," I said of the people of Baraga County to the woman who interviewed me for an article in the L'Anse Sentinel.

"They're Finlanders," Nancy Besonen said, "you slam the first syllable and let the rest fall where they may." Nancy is a transplant to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a transplant from Chicago, one of two people I met who moved from Chicago to "God's Country." The other was Mike Jensen, the county Extension Director.

A pronunciation guide:
The "A" in "L'Anse" rhymes with the "o" in "on."
Baraga is pronounced BEAR - ah - gah.
Keweenaw is pronounced KEY - win - ah.

L'Anse is up there in the Land of Two Hundred Inches of Snow, as I call it. The only snowfall while I was up there was a few inches my first night in town. Otherwise the weather was lovely, temperatures in the 40s. I was at breakfast one morning at the Shabee Cafe when L'Anse's village manager, Roy Kampainen (CAMP - ah - nun) said to me: "You're getting to enjoy some of our typical February weather." He had finished his coffee and was leaving. The waitress said over her shoulder: "Roy, your nose is getting longer."

Throughout the coming week I'll run some excerpts here of my journal from last week's Vagabond visit to L'Anse and Baraga County. The first excerpt today is notes from my trip north last Sunday.


FEBRUARY 22, 2004

The start of any journey is usually familiar. You are leaving home ground, an area you know. As you move away from center, things become more and more strange to you - the landscape, the people, their customs. At some point you have to admit - gulp - I don't recognize this.

Some of us may be comfortable in this transition to a place that is new. Some of us, on the other hand, experience nausea at this unsettling. I wonder how much of our reaction is encoded in our genes - "nature" - and how much comes out of our experience - "nurture?"

I am somewhere between the extremes. I like to see new things, though they often discomfort me. And I sure enough like to get back home, home being that which fits us seamlessly.

We tolerate the change that we bring upon ourselves better than we handle that which is forced on us. Any changes makes most of us at least a little uncomfortable.

What I have been finding in my Vagabond travels is that the more places I go, the more any place looks like the other places I've been; that is, the less strange the new place seems, the more comfortably it seems to fit right off. Partly that's because wherever I go what I find truly is more like than different: we have more in common with what we encounter, than otherwise. Further, the more places I see, the more I've expanded what is familiar to me. Third, I seem to have begun conditioning myself to adapt.

The more you eat strangeness, the better it tastes. Which is something of an unusual statement coming from an Iowa farm boy who grew up with meat and potatoes, with having things the way they always were.


Northeast of Appleton on Highway 41 - oh, the stink. The rotten smell of paper-making. It looks like beautiful, rural Wisconsin but it stinks. So thick, it hangs like a haze. I'd almost rather smell hog manure.


What you see depends in part on where you look, on when you look, and on what you already know. What we have prepared ourselves to see, generally, is what we find.


I see the huge power-line running northeast out of Green Bay along Highway 41. Where power comes from and where it goes has always interested me, especially since traveling to Thompson and Lynn Lake, Manitoba, and Fort McMurray, Alberta, communities far off the beaten path.

And then the big power-line has disappeared and I don't know where it has gone.


I cannot see while I am recording what I have seen: that's the problem when making notes, keeping a journal, writing an essay. While one pauses to put it down in writing, life goes on.

This is a further problem: maybe what you've seen does not wish to be written down. The world is not ours simply because we've seen it. Is it any less invasive to write a paragraph about people you've seen than to take their photograph without permission?

I do it anyway, yes. I keep writing. But sometimes I get in trouble for it. As, I suppose, I should.


Another power-line where I cross the Oconto River on Highway 141 heading north. A mile farther, there is another big power-line criss-crossing the first. When they say electric grid here, that's what they mean.


North of Lena, Wisconsin: what a pretty name for a stream: Kelly Brook. A quarter mile farther along, an interesting name for a road: Goatsville. Then Little River passes under the road, and there's a sign for Kelly Lake. I don't see the lake.

When I enter Marinette County, I start noticing that the snow is considerably deeper in the plow banks and where it is piled at the end of driveways. Snow is starting to be serious business. Where I'm from, it's just a hobby. Up here, it's starting to look like it's their life work.

North of Pound, Wisconsin, the pine trees are heavy with a burden of snow: it bends their branches. Another big power-line. The plow-banks are another foot deeper than they were where I entered Marinette County. I cross Lost Foot Creek. I cross the Peshtigo River; it is not as big as its name makes me imagine.


When I travel I drive for long stretches with the radio turned off. The noise of it distracts me, even public radio, even music I like. I like the time alone. I like to think thoughts I wouldn't have otherwise: too often we fill our heads with noise because we are afraid to hear ourselves think, we are afraid to listen to silence.


At Amberg, Wisconsin, the piles of snow pushed up at the edge of several parking lots are six and seven feet deep. The branches of the pines are bent quite severely towards the ground, the snow in them like mountain glaciers. Mile after mile, one becomes accustomed to snow.

Pembine, Wisconsin: unincorporated. There are an awful lot of pine trees around here now. Like cops, that many of them in one place makes me nervous. It is three hours from home to this discomfort.

You'd also start to notice big chunks of the earth's underbelly exposed where the highway has cut through rock. Big rock. Snow-covered. Enduring.

Niagara, Wisconsin. Established 1914. Population 1999. The sky is steaming at a little paper-mill. I think it's a paper-mill: Stora-Enso. It is quite a climb out of the city as I head north. A cop has a pick-up pulled over; the pick-up is hitched to a trailer with snowmobiles on it. You see a lot of snowmobile trailers, a lot of snowmobiles being pulled south today.


The Menominee River is a wide one. We are in Michigan. All of a sudden, it's da U.P., the Upper Peninsula. It seems like there's a strip of stores and businesses three miles long, from the Michigan border into Iron Mountain proper. Then Iron Mountain seems to go on not quite forever.

I cross the Menominee River again on Highway 141 and I'm in Wisconsin once more: "Wisconsin Welcomes You."

Three crows big enough to be ravens are serious at a deer carcass along the road. I cross "Old 69 Highway." Florence, Wisconsin, is unincorporated. I believe there is no incorporated community in Florence County. Not much of anything is happening in downtown Florence today, it's Sunday. The Wild Rivers Interpretive Center is at the north edge of town.

I cross the Brule River, then I'm in Michigan again. There's not much but trees in the distance.

Now is it the woods I smell, a paper-mill, or myself? I got a whiff of something like rotten eggs again. I showered this morning. I don't see a paper-mill.

At Crystal Falls I'm starting to feel the sky close up. The jagged landscape. The tall pines.

I suppose the winter business up here is the snow-mobilers. There are trails being groomed, pick-ups pulling trailers with snowmobiles on them, and the occasional line of snow-mobilers coming at you, or waiting to cross the highway.

At one point all the pine trees are on the right-hand side of the road, birch trees on the left.

"Keep Right Except to Pass" says the road sign. The day is warm enough that there's moisture on the road; the tires make a sssst sound. I suppose it is thirty-five degrees out.

On my left, a small grey house with snow half-way to the roof all around it, a little wood smoke coming up its chimney.

At Casagranda Road it seems as though fire came through here many years back. When did the Conquistadors come through, leaving the Spanish name on the road?

Soon enough it's obvious that the other business here is logging. In a workyard along the road there is a great strength of trees cut up and piled like hot dogs in the butcher shop.

The road surface has turned reddish. It still looks like asphalt, but you wouldn't call it "black-top." The asphalt along the shoulders of the road is the "black"-top.

"Shhuh" say the tires, talking to the road like your dad talked to you on a Sunday afternoon when he wanted to take a nap. The snow is melting. But not to worry - there is plenty of it.

In this up-and-down landscape we now seem to be heading more down than up. Are we starting to descend towards Lake Superior, or is that just my wishful thinking? The lake is still too far off to tell. Nonetheless, I imagine I smell fish. I know it's only imagination. But now I have entered Baraga County. And I've crossed into the Eastern Time Zone. I am almost exactly straight north of Fairwater, which is Central Standard Time. Now the snow weighs heavier on the pine trees, the plow-banks along the road are even deeper, the rocks we cut through are bigger, and somehow everything seems more quiet. Is that possible? Do the trees and snow absorb the sound of everything? What surprises me most, I suppose, is that the snow is not as deep as I had imagined it would be. They've got snow here, yeah, but it's not deep enough to get lost in forever.

Just when I think we must be descending steeply towards Lake Superior, why a sign along the road says: "Lake Superior Watershed." We are just entering Covington, Michigan.

There are mixed pines and hardwoods along the edge of the road. The countryside does smell different than our part of Wisconsin.

I cross the Rock River. If it were rock, would it be river? Not a quarter-mile farther along, I cross Parent Creek.

There's another workyard where Highway 141 ends and I have to turn left onto Highway 41: most of a log cabin has been put together there. They will shape and assemble the logs here, take the house apart to ship it, re-assemble it on someone's home-site. I'm twelve miles to L'Anse.

I keep wanting to think I see the lake. It is only a change in the color of the clouds that I see, which might be lake-related perhaps, but it's not the lake.

I smell pine trees, I swear.


I stop at the Hilltop Restaurant for something to eat. I'd had breakfast at 6:00 a.m.; it's now 3:00 p.m. No, actually, it's 4:00 p.m. local time. The special at the Hilltop is a quarter of baked chicken. I order a hot pork sandwich - pork, white bread, gravy, mashed potatoes. Comfort food so far from home. Tanya is my waitress, she is young and sweet and attentive; when she is not taking care of me, she is cleaning off other tables. It's a big place, and though it's not full, a lot of people are eating here, they keep leaving, more people replace them. Hilltop Restaurant is famous for its sweet-roll, they tell us: it's a big cinnamon roll, I'll give you that, so big they need a Ford tractor to deliver it to your table. I have Tanya bring half of mine to the table, she puts the other half in a grocery bag for me. I'm exaggerating only a little bit about the Ford tractor. The menu says that the most they ever had to make of those sweet rolls was 204 dozen in a single, long day. If you have to be known for something, it is always better to be known for sweet rolls than for mass-murder.


Before I register at the L'Anse Motel, I drive through downtown L'Anse. The Keweenaw Bay of Lake Superior, just off the edge of Front Street, is frozen over. There are cities of fishing shanties set out on the ice.

I'm a little surprised at Main Street. Essentially the downtown is only a couple blocks long. I had imagined more. Yet, as with Fowler, Indiana, I know there will be so much pulsing beneath the surface of what you see. You just have to want to find it.



Why write about place?

To understand the place.
To understand the history and pre-history and natural history of the place.
To understand the geology and geography of the place.
To understand the people of the place and their culture.
To understand the condition of the place and its prospects for the future.
To understand ourselves.


FEBRUARY 24, 1998

This morning: this is not Wisconsin. It is much too thick and grey. The sky today has no magic. Everything has been beaded with moisture. The road is wet. If you'd set down your airship out of the greyness, you could be anywhere.

Yet even as I say that - my breath catches. The land rolling away - I belong to it. Where the hawk lives, I see the hawk find its perch. I almost taste it now, this morning, the musk of the earth enveloping me. If I had stayed in Iowa, would I have grown to love that place so well? Would it have shaped me differently? This place is as plain as the Iowa farmland I knew as a child, yet even in the day's greyness it now seems somehow more radiant. I will never be the same.

Look at me now, this strange man, writing this.


FEBRUARY 25, 1998

Traveling lets us see a landscape new to us, unfamiliar. We leave our home place for another, different, new land; other, different people. As a result, we see with new eyes. We could "travel" through our home country in a similar fashion if we could learn to see with new eyes. The same ol' same ol' piles up, though, and soon enough we don't even notice the most spectacular beauty just outside our doors.

I want to travel my home country, to see it every day freshly, not to let the familiar blind me to the beautiful right here, right now.

Perhaps it is our comfort which makes us blind. We know there are few dangers here - we don't have to watch so carefully. We are so familiar with our routes that when asked to give directions we realize we don't know the names of streets we drive every day. Instead we start to describe the landmarks we have been using unconsciously to guide us. It is a shock to recognize we are so blind among the familiar.

The very ground wants to explode with meaning. "Honest, Officer," I'd have to say, "I was not paying attention when it erupted, so I didn't see it happen. Then when I noticed it, it didn't seem like such a big deal so I didn't call anyone."


by Richard Shelton
The University of Arizona Press, 1992

Richard Shelton's Going Back to Bisbee won the 1992 Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. The frame of the book? Shelton is driving from his home in Tucson, Arizona, back to Bisbee, down in the extreme southeast corner of the state: Bisbee is an old (I should say "ex-") mining town where Shelton started his teaching career. Shelton takes us "back" to Bisbee in a lot of senses, both personal and historical.

Shelton drives literally across the Arizona landscape, he drives through some personal memories, he tells of us the history and pre-history and natural history of what he is seeing. And at one point he stops to plant his butt in the San Pedro River along the way, then sleeps briefly on its banks, dreaming "the dream I haven't had in a long time." In the dream he is at a picnic along the river, a huge red bull comes charging from the underbrush, Shelton picks up a four-year-old girl and runs from the bull. "The bull is inches behind us," Shelton writes. "I can hear him snorting and panting as he runs. There is a barbed wire fence in front of us, but I cannot make it. The bull is too close. I throw the child as far as I can. The picture freezes. The child is in the air, sailing over the fence. Her mouth is a round O screaming. Her hair is flying behind her. I am falling...."

Shelton recognizes that the landscape is invested with not only "natural history," but some personal history, the stories of the native people, those of settlers and miners who tried to wrest a living from the land. He recognizes, too, that the great wheel turns - that what made a prosperous mine no longer makes us prosperous, and those who choose to stay do so for reasons of their own. All those stories and memories and reasons, in Shelton's telling, make interesting reading.

Going Back to Bisbee is not exactly William Least-Heart Moon's Prairy Erth, but the two books have much in common. Shelton might not say he was doing the "deep history" that Least-Heat Moon talks about, yet what he achieves is similarly powerful. He has created one more book for me to refer to when I think about how local history ought to be written, when I think about how I am going to put together all the pieces of the puzzles that I have been playing with. His book is nothing if not a splendid and sterling example of what "local history" can be, throbbing with the fullness of one's own experiences mixed with the stories of those who still live on the land and of those who have come before, some of those "ghosts" who inhabit all landscapes.

And, in Shelton's hands, I have to say, the shape of the telling is as enjoyable as the story he has to tell.

Sunday, February 22, 2004




I got an e-mail this past week from the Bontasaurus over at Via Negativa; he noted that "it sounds like you've defined your project(s) in such a way that almost anything you do is research - good planning!" I laughed when I read it because it is such an apt and true description of where I've ended up. I still laugh at my good fortune, more good fortune than good planning.

As a young man I'd hoped to make my way in the world as a "writer," a poet and journalist; yet I have this constitutional inability to make any money at writing. (In fact, I may have a constitutional inability to make much money at anything. "If it starts to look successful, you'll abandon it," my wife notes. I do know that if you're using money to keep score, we didn't even get a score card.) We had daughters to feed and clothe back then, so I took a job in a printing plant where I worked until "retiring" at age 55 in October, 2002. Though I couldn't get going as a writer at the other end of my working career, I was determined to try it at this end.

I reassured my wife that we could "learn to live poor." Her reply: "You mean 'poorer'."

Fortunately, I do have Mary's support in this undertaking. Although I did have to sign a "retirement agreement" that gave me added responsibilities in the way of cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, etc. (By far, I'm the best at cooking, the worst at cleaning, admittedly.) "Signing an agreement" is metaophorical here, by the way - it's not really written, and every once in a while we have a discussion about responsibilities that look to me like they were added after the fact. I don't usually argue for long, however, because I soon enough remember how good I've got it. Mary keeps up payments on our medical insurance, she keeps us in groceries, she keeps the wolf away from the door. She continues going to work every day while I get to stay home and write, I get to head out to my Vagabond "focus communities" for a week or two every month. I have to make sure it doesn't look like I'm having too much fun.

And so if Mary takes up cross country skiing with a passion (she has) and I point out the intensity of her interest, she'll tell me "you have your obsessions, it's about time I have a few of my own."

"Almost everything you do is research...." That's the beauty of it. Poems and essays come out of this mysterious, inky reservoir and you're never sure what you're going to pull out when you reach into it. What's important is that I keep putting stuff into it (and pulling stuff out). I've got to keep having interesting experiences, meeting new people and revisiting old friends, seeing the middle west in all its weathers and seasons and scapes. That's harder to do if you're working a 45-hour week in some printing plant, even a place as good as Ripon Community Printers where I worked for twenty-four years. It's a question of what we have energy for, what we have to push off the table to do what we want to do.

Now everything I do belongs to what I'm doing. The other day I left a comment at Hoarded Ordinaries, then realized half an hour later that what I said might be a poem, I had to go retrieve it:

O, to listen so well
We hear the mountain speak.

Today is Sunday, February 22. I am heading up to L'Anse, Michigan, as you read this, there at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula on the bottom edge of Lake Superior in the Land of 200 Inches of Snow. I get to walk and talk and poke about and see what I see. When I go off, I never know what I'll find, but I always find something.

I'm so fortunate that I've ended up where almost anything I do is research, it fits, it's part of the wholecloth of my life and work. Sometimes, yes, I'm like a happy wandering monk, a little goofy, but getting to live and learn and live some more. I am witness to the universe. My promise to myself is that I will write down what I find as faithfully and accurately as any human can.

I know - it's a tough job - but somebody's got to do it.



Yes, Mary and I went shopping yesterday for cross-country skiing equipment. Turns out we couldn't find shoes for me that would work with the old-fashioned bindings on the old skis we already had. We ended up buying new skis, bindings, and shoes for each of us, at dinged-up, end of the season prices. We got home with enough light left that we could try them out in the hay field behind her mother's house at the edge of Fairwater.

I suppose you don't know that I've never skied before, cross-country or otherwise. It was a Zen experience. Like a good German Iowa farm boy, I wanted to be in control. Well, you can't be in control. You go where you're going and if you don't think about it, you get there. If you think about it, you fall down. I fell down three times. Mary tried to make me feel better: she said the snow conditions were not very good for cross-country skiing; she fell down a couple times herself. I told her that if I was paying her $3500 for the experience I was having, I'd really complain. She said that if I was paying $3500 for the experience, we'd be skiing someplace a lot nicer than that hayfield.

I knew I was in trouble the other day when I heard her bemoaning the fact that the snow was melting. I can pretty well figure where we'll be after our good March blizzard comes through. Mary is the reason I learned to swim at age 52: so I could scuba dive. Now - cross-country skiing. What we do for love, huh?



There has been a discussion going on at Ivy Is Here about poets inserting stories or explanations or other extraneous material before poems when reading them in public. Indeed, the discussion prompted Ivy to take a critical look at a recent reading she'd attended, given by poets Kerry Hardie and Joan McBreen at Poetry Ireland. Dave from Via Negativa weighed in on the topic and as usual had something interesting to say. Hannah at Awake at Dawn on Someone's Couch takes the discussion to another level by asking about the relationship between the poem and the prose we want to use to expand or explain the poetry. Ivy wonders if poetry is a distilled form of prose.

I got involved in the discussion, too, writing: "Well, I suppose some musicians do talk between songs in live shows. They don't get to talk between songs on the radio. The song is still the song. I think the talking between poems is part of the poet's attempt to establish a relationship with the audience. Do comics talk to the audience between bits? Or are their bits their talking? How hard can you push the audience before losing them?"

"Perhaps the argument I'll buy for inserting stories/preambles between poems," I added later, arguing the other side of my native position, "is that it helps to avoid the non-stop intensity of poem after poem. The alternative to the story/preamble would be a long pause, what a rest is in music. Well-timed pauses can relieve the intensity, I just don't know how many audiences are prepared for them."

On the relationship between poetry and prose, I said: "Poetry is not a distilled form of prose, in my experience. Poetry and prose are like maple syrup and dish soap. You don't get maple syrup from dish soap. Further, prose is linear, poetry leaps. Where prose explains, poetry points. Where prose needs the reassurance of the sentence, poetry brings the image."

Not that any of this would matter one bit to the fellows who have coffee at Bud's in West Point, Nebraska, every weekday morning - should you wish to sit down with them and talk about it. Yet it raises the question of poetry's place in the world, and how it inhabits that place. About how we connect poetry to the lives around us. Has the poem become like opera, a kind of relict from a previous age attracting only a small, precious, and fragile audience? Has the poem - at least the poem in English - lost its shamanistic qualities, its power to transform the world?

Dave at Via Negativa holds the opinion that: "Poets in particular can (must?) recapture to some extent the ancient intuition that language is more than mere sign and symbol - that it is in some way *alive*. This is almost a universal concept, lost only in Western Europe since the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Go to Latin America, go even among African-Americans or other minority communities in this country and one immediately encounters vastly more reverance for the poetic word than among contemporary Anglo-Germanic folks. We've lost a LOT."

As I say, this is not a discussion they would have over coffee at Bud's in West Point, nor should they; but it is a discussion we as poets should continue. Given the world as we've got it - where politicians think if they say it's so that makes it so - what is the role of poetry? Poetry's language should be where saying it's so makes it so. How do we reclaim that power?


FEBRUARY 19, 1998

A great web connects all things. Our season is the world's season. It may not be that the butterfly flapping its wings in the Central American jungle actually alters our weather, yet apparently warm water in the Pacific does. Some other time, it may be a polar bear's breath caught in the jet stream, changing our smiles to hard-faced shivering.

Still, today, this grey mildness. The plow banks continue to shrink. There is an April dirtiness to the snow: all the reasons you might have to run away reveal themselves. A layer of mud at the edge of things, as if we are unfit to play with others. The snow retreats.

In Ripon, at the corner of the house where the dog had tramped a circle in the snow, there is a circle in the grass. Some things are permanent. Some things are ugly to the bone.



by Don Olsen
Cross+Roads Press (PO Box 33, Ellison Bay, WI 54210), 2003, $10.00

Don't consider this in any sense a usual book review. The book I urge on you is not in any way a usual book. Nor was Don Olsen a usual man; even his short biographical note in the book gives that away: "I was born in 1931," he wrote. "Suddenly, another war was over and I was in college on the G.I. Bill and then came marriage and children and more school and 24 years a librarian at universities in Minnesota and Wisconsin and then a delicious early retirement to an abandoned dairy farm smack dab in the middle of the woods in north central Minnesota and now there are lazy winters on the Texas Gulf coast and never enough time to do nothing."

I don't use the term "saint" loosely. Yet I have to say that if a holy man lived among us, it was Don Olsen. His book is purportedly a reminiscence on his Ox Head Press "& Remarks on How its Demise Begins with Anguish & Grief that Rise from the Bewildering Complexities of a Suicide & other Ensuing Losses," but the subtext is about living the holy life.

Olsen kicks us in the gut right off in the "Prelude" of the book, speaking of the suicide: "No one is left untouched when there is a suicide in the family. Everything changes. I seem to go on, but I'm not sure of anything.... The loss is made worse by the awareness that we knew it was a possibility. Several months later we find a note in one of his books, a book about near-death experiences. After expressing love and gratitude for his life to us, and to his siblings and to Phoebe, his cat, Jon concluded with the statement, 'This is nobody's fault.'" The note was dated two years before the actual suicide.

"Albert Camus wrote that there is but one fundamental question: is life worth living or not?" Olsen said. "It is. It is good to be alive, but sometimes there is anguish that is more than a person should ever have to bear."

The rest of the book may look like it's about a man's devotion to words and to letterpress printing: that's only a metaphor for being a good man in today's world. You can read almost any passage and see and feel and taste the integrity of the man, the intensity of his passions, the purity of his pursuit.

No, I don't use the term "saint" lightly. I use it in reference to Don Olsen, however; I have to: he was a good man.

Sad to say, I believe that even before I got my copy of A Butterfly Sleeps on the Temple Bell in hand, Don had already gone too soon to that Great Pressroom in the Sky where every copy coming off his Adana Horizontal Platen Press is a perfect copy.

Saturday, February 21, 2004


from Blessings In Disguise, Viking, 1991
by David Clewell

So small there's barely room for the phone
to ring. Each time it does someone's trying
to save me. My frustration conjures
the worst: a bus curled up on the shoulder
of a road. The ticket man is brimming
with small town sense. He tells everyone
it'll be here when it gets here.
The woman on the other end
of my ticket doesn't hear.
She tosses her hair and heads home.

He puts a hand on my shoulder, the way
he's learned to comfort strangers. Whistles
a secret in my ear: I should learn
to be more patient; he believes
reincarnation. Snow inches up to the door.
A bus horn blares for the hundredth time
in my head, and he tells me how it is:
one fifty a week for changing bulbs
and quarters. Says he has a way of knowing
he can trust me, wants me to believe with him
the sky is full of spirits
on their way to new bodies.
I tell him I'll try to. He's anxious
to go on. I see myself in the station window,
thinking of explaining all this when
I get back. The ways we see ourselves through
when a bus breaks down or a life
goes broke, and waiting is the asking
of the prayer and the answer.

If the soul never dies, then some nights
it's close. No lights for miles and the sky
full of snow. Burning in another town
is a woman who turns in her sleep, who has
no way of knowing the ticket man is talking
in circles of lives that keep on going.
That I'm running my own story up and down
my tongue until I'm sure I'll be convincing.
No way of seeing the two of us going,
our separate ways, for broke.

Reprinted with permission of the author. David Clewell is the author of several books of poems, including Blessings in Disguise which was a National Poetry Series winner; Now We're Getting Somewhere, winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry; and most recently The Low End of Higher Things from the University of Wisconsin Press. He teaches writing and literature at Webster University in St. Louis.


I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About nineteen of them, by our current count.

Friday, February 20, 2004


I am a little later getting it done than I had planned - when do things go as planned? - but finally the new Vagabond newsletter will go out in today's mail. This is the eighth issue. It's hard for me to believe that I've already put out nearly 124,000 Vagabond words via newsletter in just over a year.

Vagabond #8 features on the front page a poem by Phil Hey of Sioux City, Iowa; it's partly about his dad's pool-playing, partly about his own handling of a chain saw, and partly about craft and devotion, I suppose: it's a poem from the stuff of the world. The usual features appear, too: Christina Abel's version of Ripon, Wisconsin; Linda Hanabarger's "Cemetery Walks" in Vandalia, Illinois; and one of Vandalia high school student John Zeman's "small-town" journal entries.

The bulk of the issue continues my first visit to Redfield, South Dakota. We start by finishing up our interview with mystery novelist Kathleen Taylor of Redfield, who sets her Tori Bauer stories in a small (yes, "fictional") South Dakota town. Avon Books hasn't continued to publish her, however, despite the fact that her mysteries always showed up among the Amazon mystery best-sellers. Which is unfortunate, I write, because Kathleen has three more books in mind to take Tori Bauer "to the end of a cycle." Perhaps partly she gets into trouble with editors for playing irreverently with the rules of the mystery genre; she keeps pushing the boundaries. Perhaps partly she gets into trouble because the mysteries are irredeemably small town and South Dakotan. "I have lived only in small towns. I have lived the past thirty-two years in South Dakota," Kathleen said. "You write what you know."

Betty Baloun had been the librarian at the Redfield Carnegie Library for twenty years when I interviewed her in the lovely old library, a quintessential Carnegie building. When the library board interviewed her for the job, they asked her: "Where do you see yourself in five years?" "Well," she'd responded, "if you hire me, five years from now I will be out at that desk checking books out." She got the job. In the years since, the library has been her passion. One Redfield resident, a frequent patron of the library, told me that Betty is the best thing that could happen to any small town library.

Peggy Morris is the director of the Redfield Senior Center. She came to the position after many years working as a teacher's aide in the Redfield schools, her last years with first graders. "That's quite a leap from first graders to senior citizens," I thought. "It's not so huge a leap as you might think," Peggy said. "Like the first graders, sometimes what the seniors need is a hug, sometimes they need help getting their coat on, sometimes I have to wipe away a tear, sometimes I have to break up a fight." She added that - while she is relatively uneducated - she has learned a lot about life from the way first graders handled their problems, and from the way senior citizens face the issues they encounter.

I had lunch with the Redfield Kiwanis Club and talked to them about my Vagabond project. I mentioned that a common theme across the communities I've visited so far is "If you need help, the people here will help you." Pastor Tim Fugman, a Kiwanis member, told me his theory of why South Dakotans are the way they are: "The pioneers who came here brought a 'survival' attitude; if they were going to survive, they'd have to help each other out in time of trouble. Times have stayed tough enough over the years that people today still continue to help one another."

As I prepared to leave Saks Restaurant where the Kiwanis meeting had been held, I bumped into the co-owners, Stan And Kari Schultz. I said to Stan: "You're The Foot!" He said, "Yes, I'm The Foot." Stan appeared as a cavalryman in the movie Dances with Wolves and his foot was filmed close up kicking out a campfire at one point, hence "The Foot." "People say, 'Oh, he was in Dances with Wolves,'" Stan told me, as if it's the only thing he's done, as if he hadn't appeared in a dozen other movies.

Francis "Bud" McNeely wasn't sure why I had selected him for an interview, he had just been a farmer all his life, what was special about that? I told him I'd seen a brightness in his eyes when I'd talked to him the day before, that I wanted to hear about his life as a farmer. We spent a long time talking. Among the challenges being faced? "You couldn't make it on a small farm, the small farmer left, the bigger farmers gobbled up the land the farmer was leaving, there were fewer people." He used to sell seeds - and "I could buy from a big dealer, retail, cheaper than I could buy wholesale direct from the company, because I was a small dealer. It's just unfair to the 'small people,' that's all there is to it."

In every community I am always surprised at all the wonderful people I meet. It's enough to recondition my essential pessimism. If you stop in Redfield, South Dakota, long enough, you'll hear that "Harry Eisele is a wonderful man." Harry Eisele is a wonderful man. I had lunch with him at the Senior Center one day and heard him play saxophone afterwards; I interviewed him the next day. As a youngster, Harry went to country schools, the family lived six miles from town, roads were bad. When it came time for Harry to go to high school, he made a deal with his father. He had always loved music. He told his father, "Get me a saxophone and I'll skip high school. I'll learn to play the saxophone." Which is what they did. If he'd gone on to high school, Harry would have had to live away from home in order to attend. He got a saxophone instead, took a few lessons, and got started playing the instrument. He led a big band in the Redfield area from 1933 til 1993. You do the math. Yeah, he's retired now, but he still plays out when he's invited. His fingers, I think, have forgotten more than most saxophone players ever learn. Some of the melodies I heard him play - he turned them inside out or upside down on the second or third time through the verse and chorus. His is a mournful sax, a happy sax. Harry could find the notes, he could make the sounds, he could pull out all the old stuff from his bag of tricks for the old standards. He could scoop out a whoop when he needed to on "Oh, Lonesome Me." I heard him play "Moon River." A 1950's rock tune. A country song. A ballad. Harry was comfortable with all of them. "I usually close my program with a hymn," Harry told us. "Today I have 'How Great Thou Art.'" If that didn't make you misty-eyed, you don't know anything about sevenths and flatted fifths and God and you might be deaf. Harry farmed all his life. How did he play music all night and farm all day? "Occasionally while driving tractor I'd get sleepy," he said. "I'd take it out of gear. If you just went to sleep for five minutes you could go again, you know. Once in a while I laid down on the ground beside the tractor and took a nap. I always kept going."

I report the start of my research about Redfield's Henry Baker. Henry had been a resident of the South Dakota Center for the Developmentally Disabled who'd moved from the Center into Redfield more than fifty years ago and made a life for himself in the community. People mention Henry to you, you see the "Henry Baker Memorial" sign where they collect aluminum cans in town. What about Henry? You'd call him developmentally disabled. Yet he mowed lawns, scooped snow, and did odd jobs for people in Redfield and when he died in February, 1998, his estate left a total of nearly $168,000 to various organizations in the community - the Lions Sight and Service Foundation, the United Church of Christ, and the Redfield High School Alumni Association each received $41,981.88; the Redfield Hospital Trust Fund and the Carnegie Library Trust Fund each received $20,990.94 from Henry. The community took care of Henry, it seems, and Henry took care of the community.

I'd heard from several people, "Oh, you have to talk to Walt." They meant Walt Williams, the only real estate agent in Redfield. He has his office in his home. Walt had been a musician as well. Walt's father, who came to South Dakota from Williams, Indiana, had left home when he was about twelve-years-old, Walt said. "He traveled around, he worked for circuses, he worked on farms, he came to the Redfield area about 1911, 1912, working the harvest, working for farmers. He always said when he hit South Dakota, that was the first breath of good fresh air he ever had." Yet today "Small towns are having a heck of a time keeping going," Walt said. "We've had merging of schools in the past. When the school goes, our town goes. Frankfort has become pretty much a bedroom community for people who work here." Walt foresees the day when county seats for several counties will be consolidated into one location. "It's already happening in South Dakota," he pointed out.

John Solheim is curator of the Spink County Museum in Redfield. He displayed a characteristic middle western modesty - he didn't want my interview with him to focus on him nor his family's history in the area. He wanted to make sure our discussion gave recognition not to him but to those "who did the real work and made it happen." During Prohibition, John remembered, "most moonshiners were respectable people. Selling moonshine was just a way to make a few extra nickels. There was one moonshiner who was supposedly set up by the Revenue people. They were in the process of arresting him. He was hiding in a barn east of town. As they came through the barn door, he let them have it with a shot gun. He wounded one seriously and I believe he killed one. He crawled into a straw pile and shot himself. He was a man of standing in the community, he paid his bills, he seemed like an honest, decent kind of fellow to me. I was quite young then, I was about seven years old." The grocery stores put their moonshine in vinegar jugs, John told me. "At Christmas time you walked down the street with a vinegar jug, a gallon of moonshine. Vinegar in December? No, no, no, no - moonshine. I remember this guy came out of the grocery store, our dad was standing there, it was kind of dark. The fellow said to my dad, 'Jake, would you like a little drink of my vinegar?' Old friends, of course. 'Sure, I'll take a little taste of your vinegar.'"

If you want to keep up with Tom Gallup, you'd better put on your running shoes. Tom is a busy man - he cooks for Redfield's senior center, he runs the theaters in town - indoor in winter, outdoor in summer - and he volunteers for a few things in the community. He's not afraid of hard work, and he doesn't know when to quit. When I asked about him about the challenge of maintaining an outdoor screen in the face of South Dakota's weather (they've got wind, you know), Tom said they'd lost a screen in 1981. "One morning about four o'clock we had 80 m.p.h. straight-line winds that took about two thirds of our tower down. That was a real hair-raising morning. The 3rd of August. I'll never forget it." They had pretty good insurance coverage, so about $23,000 and four weeks later, they were back in business. The new tower, Tom thinks, is a pretty good one. "The old tower was all wood. This one is all steel. I tell everybody it moans, it's crying for the old one. Just the way the wind blows through the metal, it moans a spooky, eerie moan like it's crying for the old tower. I hate to be out there working in the yard when the wind does that - after half an hour of it you feel like you should give up and go home. It really affects me."

My interview with Shirley Sanger of Zell, South Dakota, closes Vagabond #8. Zell is a little west of Redfield. Shirley came to South Dakota from Iowa was three years old and she has lived not much more than a stone's throw from Redfield ever since. She has been a school teacher, she has worked in Redfield's egg plant, and she has been a house-parent, Med-Aide, and teacher for the South Dakota Center for the Developmentally Disabled. She and her daughter collect tea pots and they give "entertainments" for groups in South Dakota, putting on teas and speaking about teas and their habit of collecting tea pots. Shirley has seen some of the world - the Phillipines, New Zealand, some of the United States and Canada, yet she stays in South Dakota. She likes wide openness spaces you can see in South Dakota, she likes the sunsets. She likes to go out to the Black Hills and visit, she told me, "but after a couple days I want to come back."
If you'd like to support Tom Montag's long-term exploration of the middle west, Vagabond In the Middle, send your contribution payable to Tom Montag at PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931. A donation of $20 or more gets you at least 100 pages of the hard copy version of the Vagabond newsletter. Any help you can provide towards the success of the undertaking will be appreciated.

Thursday, February 19, 2004


Grey sky. It was mid-October, 2002. The line of clouds looked almost like a bank of hills. Indeed there was enough Nebraska hill to require downshifting at least once on route from Sioux City, Iowa, to West Point, Nebraska, along Highway 35, Highway 9, then Highway 275 the last mile into town. I'd seen fields of corn and soybeans, of alfalfa and pasture, and feedlots full of cattle along the way.

Entering West Point from the north, I had a sense the community is prosperous: there was a warehouse foods store right off, and a big Ford dealership. On the wide street, a crow with one white feather in its right wing lifted itself off the roadway in front of me, lifted its feet only high enough to keep from dragging its toes. One white feather in the otherwise black bird seemed to be a metaphor for my Vagabond expedition to find what makes us who we are, those of us who inhabit the middle west.

Main Street in West Point's business district is cobble-stone, old-fashioned and well-kept. I saw only a couple empty storefronts downtown, suggesting West Point does better than some other towns you see where the buildings on Main Street are more vacant than occupied.

I paused briefly in a park near the Cuming County fairgrounds. An old man had also stopped there, to walk his little dog. The fellow circled the graveled area. The little dog led, followed, went astray, got straight. The walk, I suppose, was as much for the old man as for the dog.

Some of the leaves on the big old cottonwood at the edge of the park had already turned yellow; some were still green. There was a little wind in all of them. The trunk of the tree had grabbed the earth like a claw; the tree had a good hold on things.

There was water standing in a crease of gravel in the parking lot, grey water reflecting a grey sky. Wind rippled the surface of the water. Wind can't leave water alone.

The most extraordinary thing about the moment was how ordinary it was. This was my first moment in any of the twelve middle western communities I intend to dig into, yet there was nothing special about the day. There was nothing special about the sky - it was what it was. Still, that one white feather of crow I'd seen as I came into town suggested I'll have to poke and keep poking to find what I am looking for; and it suggested, too, perhaps I shall be rewarded.

My first contact with folks in West Point had come with a message on my answering machine a month earlier from Staci Jensen, director of the West Point Chamber of Commerce, who offered support for my project. Later I would find that Staci is always this helpful; she projects a West Point community that is open and inviting. Unfortunately, during this brief visit, Staci was out of town but she and Diane White at the Senior Center had arranged for me to deliver a short talk about my project for the seniors who eat at the center and for any other residents of West Point who could attend. I met Louis and Mabel Heineman there; they are both active in the Cuming County Historical Society. Mary Jo Mack of the John Stahl Library stopped to introduce herself and hear my talk. Bob Flittie of KTIC-AM/KWPN-FM invited me to the radio station to record an interview for his program on "The Arts in Northeast Nebraska." I got the names and phone numbers of several other people I met, intending to interview them on a subsequent visit.

When dishes were done and the seniors had scattered to the four winds, I went to the radio station. Bob thought we'd do a 15-minute interview. When we finally looked at the clock, we saw I'd talked for 25 minutes. I do lose track of time when it comes to talking about the middle west.

Interview done, Bob walked me from the studio to the front door of the station. I wished him good luck trying to get my rambling remarks to fit into his program's format. He wished me luck on my middle western adventure. Then I was out the door. I was driving south out of West Point on Highway 275, headed to a book-signing in Omaha. Yet I was also started down the Vagabond trail. The journey had begun.


FEBRUARY 18, 1998

How much different would it be were I to step out the back door of some remote cabin into a canoe, enter the small stream quietly, head off to check my traps. The smell of smoke would cling to my clothes, the stink would hang about me as about one who lives close to the land. I would have a rifle, ready for bear or deer, something for the larder. I would have my fish nets. How much different would it be, a morning like that compared to this? The path we choose chooses us.

You do what you have to and some days that's enough. Some days whatever you do is not enough.



by Tom Montag

The wind behind goes before.
Alone at dawn. As at dusk

Only the taste of dust. First light
The color of an old man's teeth.

These are the roads that own us.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004


One of the things I wanted to do during my February 6th visit to West Point, Nebraska was have coffee again with the boys at Bud's. Bud's is a bar and grill on Main Street with a big pot of coffee in the morning and good lunches at noon. I had met all the guys who have coffee at Bud's a couple times before, when I was in West Point this past October. Back then, on a Tuesday, they let me win the money in that game they play; then on Friday I had to give the money back when I ended up losing and was one of the guys who had to pay for coffee.

This time I wanted to talk to them about the nature of their group. I wanted to ask questions like: When and how did the group form? How does the group "accept" or "reject" members? How would you describe the usual topics of conversation? How does the group moderate disagreements or disputes? What would have to happen to make you stop coming to this group permanently?

The guys, however, were more interested in doing what they do than in illuminating me. "Why do you guys meet for coffee?" I asked.

"To get the news," one fellow said - and he meant it. They are talking about the death of an area school administrator who'd been killed in a car accident earlier in the week. "I found out who was driving the other car," someone said.

"To get the news" is one answer. "To hear the latest b.s." was another answer. "We all lie to each other," a fellow admitted.

"Why do they keep meeting?" I wondered.

"Habit," someone said.

"This is not a coffee club," someone else offered from down the table. "This is an information center."

"What if we'd call it an information technology center," another one asked. "With a name like that we could get a federal grant."

"What's your view on the gasoline tax," someone asked the group. The Nebraska legislature may be hiking the state tax on gasoline. One of the fellows whispered to me confidentially: "As long as those guys (he meant the Nebraska legislators) meet down there - you've got to hold your breath the whole time."

Over my shoulder I heard another man report: "They found that Florida girl who was kidnapped on video - she's dead."

That was news; that was enough news. The men ante'd up their quarters for the pot. First they played to see which three had to buy coffee for everyone. My host in West Point, Dick Lindberg, who ran the paper in town until he retired about twelve years ago, was one of the fellows who bought. Then they played to see who got the quarters in the pot. The winner was one of the other fellows who also had to pay for coffee, so most of the money went for a good cause.

No, I didn't get very much information for any essay on middle western coffee klatches. I neither won the pot nor had to buy. I came out even.

I suppose that's about where you want to end up with these guys, the half of them who are jokers, and the other half who set the jokers up.


FEBRUARY 17, 1998

Water seeks its own level. The path leads where it will. If you cannot believe what the morning light reveals, move on.

The world is round, not flat. We know, because the surveyors had to shave thin, sometimes, the western edges of township, the northern ones, to accommodate the shrinking distance as you go north. "To cross the continent more quickly," I tell people, "go to Canada where the world is not so wide." They don't believe me, of course.

Another damp morning. Water standing, water moving. "Unseasonably warm," they would say. "El Nino," again they would say. Moisture is beaded on the windshield of the pick-up. A grey, damp viewpoint of a day. This morning, the wood off the top of the pile would sizzle and sing all its way to flame.

In the country, the wind is bragging. "Huff and puff," I say, "and blow away the greyness. Otherwise, Brother Wind, you are nothing but a lot of air."

Thick and thicker the grey gets, as I head north towards Ripon. Thin and thinner the layer of snow on the fields. Green and greener the promise of spring. Girls should go home with who brung 'em.

On Watson Street in Ripon, I pass the house our friends used to live in. Their young daughter had been naughty. She's in college now - cripes! She had been naughty and was sent to her room. It was summer. The folks next door were having a party in their back yard. The grill was fired up. People were rattling the ice in their drinks, talking, waiting for burgers. The little girl stuck her head out of the window of her room: "Help me, neighbors," she shouted. "Get me out of here!"

Tuesday, February 17, 2004


Mary and went to Ripon early yesterday, taking in the new stray Kittle-cat to be spayed. We call her Pumpkin Seed. We have taken in a lot of cats during our twenty-seven years living in Fairwater. Nearly all of them were strays. We have never had more than seven at any one time, I assure you, and the current population - with the addition of the new stray - is three. Certainly, if we'd known then what we know now, we'd have invested a lot more in the kitty-litter industry. I think the stray cats in town use a code to mark the doors of all the houses hereabouts; the code on our door apparently means: "Hang out around here - these people will take you in."

Well, after we'd dropped Pumpkin Seed at the vet's yesterday, we stopped at K-Mart for a few items. I can't say that I've ever gone shopping at that time of day but we were in town already, what the heck. I don't remember ever being in a K-Mart at 8:05 a.m. so I didn't know that a woman's voice would come over the loudspeaker - you could hear her throughout the store: "Would someone turn on the God switch? The God switch - someone - please?"

Mary admits that's what she heard too, but she didn't believe her ears, she didn't think that could possibly be what the woman actually said.

I dunno - I'd washed my ears before we left for town, so I think what I heard is what I heard.

My question is - where is the God switch and how do I get one?

About the Kittle-cat. It had been ten degrees below zero for a week before we were finally able to convince Pumpkin Seed to let us pick her up and carry her into the house. She was a cold and hungry little critter. After she ate, she got up in the window and cried like she wanted to go back outside. I guess she didn't realize yet that she was in heaven.

After she got home from surgery yesterday, though, maybe she wasn't thinking our house was such a paradise. Maybe she was hoping they'd STOP IT, whoever was playing with her God switch, flipping it on and off, putting her in heaven for a week, then putting her through hell.



I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature. Send two or three of your best "poems of place" in the body of an e-mail addressed to Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use one of your poems or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that along with your poem. There's no payment involved when your work appears in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About fifteen of them, by our current count.


Moon on water -


a frog disturbs.


If not for
on the trees

where would be
the spring breeze?

Monday, February 16, 2004


Once again I am reminded that I am a slow learner. But I have learned three things, at least. Two of them come from the movie The Princess Bride, the third occurred at Lorianne Schaub's Hoarded Ordinaries.

If you have ever seen the movie, you know that the Princess Bride lessons are these: (1) Never go up against a Sicilian in a battle of wits when death is on the line; and (2) Don't get involved in a land war in Asia.

This is the lesson Lorianne taught me: (3) Don't engage the Zen mama in Dharma combat.

You've been warned: the Zen lady kicks butt.



I just received the most recent issue of the 25c ECHO ECHO from Ivan Burgess of Smith Center, Kansas. Smith Center is the Kansas "focus community" for my Vagabond project. I met Ivan last March when I visited his community.

Oh, I suppose it has been about fifteen years that Ivan has been publishing his weekly little 4-page newsletter-size summary of the REAL news in Smith Center. Some people might think that Ivan is a little peculiar (and some, I think, have told him so), and some might think his paper is a little peculiar, too. But don't let those folks fool you: Ivan gets it about right at least half the time. He is old enough to be retired from whatever he did for a job; he keeps doing the paper because he thinks it's fun.

He issues the Echo from Last Legs Publishing Co., 501 W. Third, #12, Smith Center, KS 66967. Each issue of my subscription costs me 25c plus another 37c for the stamp needed to mail it; that's what your subscription would cost, too.

Let me cite two examples of Ivan's perceant astuteness from the recent issue:

"Can you imagine," Ivan writes, "just how naive we were when we were kids. You wouldn't be pullin' this kinda stuff on the modern kids... When we were kids in school the over-achievers, the brains, the teacher's pets, got to be 'monitors.' That meant that they got to clean the easers, wash the blackboardboards, and do other menial tasks. Us under-achievers, when the last bell rang, we got to go home."

"Well," Ivan reports, "that Janet Jackson bare-breasted incident at the half-time of the Super Bowl was discussed at length at Paul's Cafe the other morning. All the participants in the discussion, with the exception of a female waitress, whose opinion didn't count, were virile members of the male specie. There was a definite line drawn between opinions - some were offended and some were titillated and some were non-commital. In other words the discussion was kinda tit for tat."

You can read more about Ivan on-line in my interview with him at the Vagabond newsletter.



by Michael Martone
University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia

Michael Martone's collection of fourteen middle western essays, The Flatness and Other Landscapes (University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia), invites the reader into the life of our region. Originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martone understands the flatness: "The geometry of the fields suggests a map as large as the thing it represents." He thinks of the middle west "as a web of tissue, a membrane, a skin." Staring back at the flatness, "We begin to disassemble the mechanisms of how we feel. We begin to feel."

Ha, poor Riverside, Iowa. It is the future birthplace of Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk. Kirk – "hardworking, honest, independent, loyal," and Iowan. Yet the TV series is no longer being made. How do you speak in the future tense of something that no longer is?

"I imagine that the windmills that look so natural on the farm today looked pretty silly when they were put up late in the last century, the newest item from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue," Martone says.

In the dairy barn, "All of a sudden the pipes are flushed with white, pulsing," Martone says. "A strange thing to say then, that nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe better to say it is consumed by it or consumes it."

Salesmen with their glossy aerial photographs "point out to the farmers how they have gotten the angle right to hide the trash pit behind the stand of trees."

"Every patch of ground has its stories," Martone says. "The world is old, and people, the animals who tell stories, have been everywhere on it now.... And now, you, like the recipient of a virus, know of another patch of ground because I have told you of the loess hills of Iowa, of Turin, a field called Cottonwood, a young man named Eric who at this moment is probably harvesting corn in that field, listening to the cab radio and remembering the time he went to help an awkward city slicker named Michael."

"It is a great drama," Martone says, "community and claustrophobia on the one hand, freedom and rootlessness on the other – my one grandfather moving north out of Kentucky hauling its flora with him, my other grandfather leaving Italy and landing on Brandruff Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana, never to move again. It is my story, of course, but America's as well."

"Iowa has that tended look of a train set," Martone says. "The buildings of the small towns and farms were pre-fabricated, shipped in parts, ordered from catalogues, giving the landscape a generic, standardized look. Barn. House. Windmill. Water tower. Tree, even. Assorted animals. Townspeople."

Martone remembers that when he was living in the Poagston Arms apartment building in Fort Wayne, "the city was still destroying itself to save itself."

"I know there are people riding above me who consider this place, the Midwest, and the people who inhabit it 'the Flyover,' meaning to dismiss it," Martone says. He wants to "let altitude then be the best defense and let the mid-westerner wear the mantle of 'the Flyover' as a kind of camouflage."

"In Fort Wayne," says Martone, "as in many midwestern industrial cities, the factories were all built on the east side of town. The prevailing winds are from the west, thus the location of a city's smokestack industry is downwind."

"I accepted the invitation," Martone says, "on the strength of that turn of phrase, 'walking beans,' which had conjured up in my mind the visual pun of me leading legumes around by a leash."

"I was always groggy," Martone says, "an occupational hazard of working nights, a condition Pete and Dave assured me would wear off after three or four years."

The midwest comes to us, Martone says, "with its own fractal geometry where the smallest of its parts replicates itself on ever larger scales. All the efforts of politicians and surveyors to net up the region in knowing has not begun to capture the spaces between the weave. To write about the Midwest is to cast a web in those spaces and then wait patiently for things to begin to stick."

This is a book for shopkeeper and field hand, mechanic and banker, truck driver, librarian, whoever breathes – not just in the middle west but all across our land. There is wisdom here for all of us. He sees the beauty we walk past.

Sunday, February 15, 2004


The Fairwater Lions Club Valentine Brunch is one of the rituals of this little community. Some years ago, after we'd attended the brunch (as we did again this morning), I made a journal entry about the experience. What I wrote then could pass almost word for word for our experience today:

We went to the Lions' Club Valentine's brunch, Mary and I did, and Mary's mother. We thought we were being so wise trying to get in just as the doors opened at 10:30 a.m. And we were only a few minutes later than that. Well, there were already forty or fifty cars parked around the Civic Center, a mob of people already eating, another mob in line to be served. We entered through the backdoor as required, into the back room of the lower level. If you didn't have your ticket yet, you could buy one here - "at the door" was a dollar more than "in advance." In one corner, a woman was slicing desserts to serve them. In another, drinks were being prepared behind a make-shift bar: Bloody Mary's seemed the order of the day. A sign on the wall: "Old Tables - Residents May Borrow." Twenty people, or twenty-five, were seated at the tables there in the backroom, cupping their drinks and talking and cupping their drinks, waiting for the line to shrink. The murmur of talk rose and fell, rose and fell. We got into the line right away.

Oh it was an Iowa picnic! Pea salad and macaroni salads and potato salad and apple salad and marshmallow salad. Scalloped potatoes - "Sir, would you care for some scalloped potatoes," says the owner of the lumber yard. Pancakes and french toast. Vegetables. Fried chicken, sausages, slices of ham. Orange juice and milk and coffee. Our plates full, we passed over the dessert table for the moment.

We found a place at a table. Tables set together ran the length of the room; lines of them parallel to each other, one and then another. And more. Chairs tightly spaced: "Elbow room! cried Daniel Boone." None of the tables was entirely full; and, in the great eternal cosmic dance of things, as people were done being served, carrying their heavy plates with two hands, other people were finished, leaving their table, making space for the new arrivals. The murmur of talk in the room rose and fell, rose and fell. Pass the syrup, please. Do you want some dessert? Which of the Stellmachers is that? Isn't this an interesting apple salad - carameled apple salad, sweet and nutty.

As if we might still be hungry, as if we needed them, we got desserts. I offer Mary a taste: "The sour cream frosting really makes that," she says of the rich chocolate bar.

Then we gather up our own trays and plates and silverware, in the great eternal cosmic dance, and leave them in their proper places. Like an Iowa picnic, you must clear up after yourself, leave the park in the same condition you found it. We are out the door, then, into the sunshine. We will not have to eat again for a very long time.



On January 31st I was at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, for the 10th Annual Marathon Benefit Reading. The event is a fund-raiser for an exceptional non-profit book store. Poets are invited to find benefactors to sponsor their five minute poetry reading and are expected to bring in at least $25, more if possible. I gave the standing-room-only audience five minutes from my newest book, The Big Book of Ben Zen, and I got back in return laughter at the appropriate times, and "Aha's" when they were supposed to. My wife and I saw about three hours of the readings, which continued for twelve hours total.

I'm told the benefit brought in a record amount this year, over $11,000. The average contribution for each of the 104 poets who read at the event was $55. I was able to turn in $354.91, however, thanks to the goodness of the people I strong-armed for contributions. I'd like to thank them publicly for their generous donations to a good cause:

Philip & Oma Montag, Hampton, IA
Justin Isherwood, Plover, WI
Bob & Mary Lane, Oshkosh, WI
Elaine Cavanaugh, Hartland, WI
Chris Halla, Appleton, WI
Fuller McBride, Fond du Lac, WI
Mike Abel, Weatherby, MO
Hansa & John Pistotnik, Westfield, WI
Bob & Kathy Schuster, Madison, WI
Philip Whitford, Columbus, OH
Phil Hey, Sioux City, IA
Mark Olson/Juniper Press, St. Paul, MN
Mike & Marjorie Gowdy, Ames, IA
Diane Wachdorf, Eldorado, WI
Chris Dart-Fashun, Fond du Lac, WI
Kathryn Whitford, Fairwater, WI
Mary Montag, Fairwater, WI
David Brostrum, Waukesha, WI

These are all people who make the world a better place to live!

Saturday, February 14, 2004

from The Sweet Bite of Morning
FEBRUARY 1, 2001

Originally published in Poetry Motel

The days lengthen: sunlight
rips and races early,
dawdles in the evening.
We have just enough hur-

rah of sky to cheer the
new month coming on. We
have such sharpness of air,
this frost tight to windshield.

Now my fingers are chunks
like the meat we forgot
to thaw for dinner. Red
house, chill wind, a far sun.

These could be the answer.
What would be the question?

Friday, February 13, 2004


Yesterday as I waited for the library in Ft. Atkinson to open, I had some time to read and think and write. (If you make a habit of rising at 4:30 a.m., you'll wake at that hour whether you need to or not. The library wouldn't open until 9:00 a.m.)

Some things got spun together.

On the one hand, I was asking myself in my journal: what is the difference between "blather" and real "essaying," between recording trivia and writing something that matters, between the daily news and "the news that stays new?"

On the other hand, I'd just finished reading a book of Zen poems translated by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, THE CRANE'S BILL. I started reflecting on the difference between "the moon" and "the finger pointing at the moon" and I recognized, then, that in some of my writing, I do manage to touch "the moon," but in other pieces I am still talking about "the finger." Is this the difference between blather and real essaying, that with the latter we actually reach "the moon?"

By nature I tend not to make logical arguments in my essays, as some writers do; rather, I seem to argue by image, one piling upon another. The wash of the images pushes the reader along. Success in doing this requires a personal and personable voice in the writing. How do I get "the moon," and at the same time retain the personal voice? The personal essay has always been driven by the personal, a real person. If potential readers are to read us, they need to trust us; if they are to trust us, they have to know us. To that extent we have to let ourselves be seen.

I also recognize already that I make two kinds of journal entries: (1) that trivia I need to write down for my own record, of little interest to anyone but my future self; and (2) project notes and entries that feel like the first draft of essays or poems, etc.

In going back to re-work pieces I am unhappy with because they seem taken up too much with the trivial, how do I edit out the pointing finger and get to the moon? Will anything at all be left to some of my essays if I take out the pointing finger? Isn't that scary to think about?

I'm sure there's an answer. And I'm sure the answer lies in: (1) always keeping my focus on the moon, not on myself, even when I'm part of the story, as in my Vagabond travels; and (2) developing and maintaining a steady voice that allows readers to know and trust me without needing from me too much talk about myself.

And I know that neither of these challenges is so simple as writing them down makes them seem. The journey starts with this first step and with recommitting, every day, to the path that has chosen me.

Thursday, February 12, 2004


For the past year I've given myself to a project I call "Vagabond in the Middle: An Expedition Into the Heart of the Middle West." It is an attempt to understand what makes us middle western, those of us who live here in the heartland. The project is an exploration of place on a wide scale, across the tall and mixed grass prairies from western Ohio to the eastern half of the Plains states. This column will report what I've been finding.

I have selected twelve communities for special study, one in each of the middle western states: Eaton, Ohio; Fowler, Indiana; L'Anse, Michigan; Ripon, Wisconsin; Vandalia, Illinois; Maysville, Missouri; Emmetsburg, Iowa; Alexandria, Minnesota; Rugby, North Dakota; Redfield, South Dakota; West Point, Nebraska; and Smith Center, Kansas. I will give these communities most of my attention.

Over the next several years I will attempt to learn the history of these communities and to assess their current conditions and future prospects, to understand the character of their people by way of interview and informal conversation and to join their lives and celebrations whenever possible. I'll "poke about," as I call it, finding and reporting the true stories of our lives, here. My effort will be a sustained one.

Who are we and what are the emblems common across our region, I want to ask. Landscape, environment, people, and history all factor into the definition of the middle west, all shape what we've become. I expect my reports of what I find to mix interview and personal experience, history and geology, essay and journal entry and meditation. I'll walk, I'll drive, I'll listen, I'll read, I'll listen some more, I'll watch for the stories that tell us what makes us who we are. There will necessarily be a peeling back of the surface sheen of the landscape to see what pulses beneath, to understand our region not in some generic, historical sense, but in terms of particular lives lived here. The truly local: these lives, in their times, in these places.

I believe you cannot know a place until you know its people, those who walked their tracks onto the landscape, those who have worked the fields and those who have stood watch in the lonely evening waiting for them to come in, to come home. To understand who we are, I think we need to find our essential and true images, humble as they may be.

I want to walk the middle west with love, to talk in the rain, to sit on a bench in the sun in front of the court house. I want everything I write of it to be true, hard-edged where it needs to be, bitter, sweet, bitter-sweet. Who are these people we meet in bus station and restaurant and coming out of the Dollar General store? Salt of the earth? Yes, I expect to meet men and women who are salt of the earth, plain as dirt, soft-spoken as an evening breeze. I shall meet some con men and hustlers, too, I suppose. Some sinners and some saints. I want to find them, tell their stories, let them represent us. I trust the world will reveal itself.

Life is not all fear and trembling. Life is not all a falling into the blackness of the void. Out here in the middle, we take joy in some simple things, don't we? Don't we have a practical stoicism, an aloofness to pain that allows us to get on with living? Yet isn't there in us a sweetness and innocence that sometimes goes bitter when we're taken advantage of? (I remember a woman at the Houston airport: "I'm from Minnesota, we're sweet people, but the next person who cuts in line ahead of me I'll pushing under a bus.") Is our tendency here to engage the world with our hands rather than with words? Don't we ask ourselves "Are we good enough?"

I want to tell those stories, true stories, and come to understanding: who are we, what are we made of, how are our lives shaped? I'm out there, looking; I'm listening; I'm waiting with patience to hear such stories. We learn patience here, waiting for the peas to bloom, for the corn to silk, for harvest to come, for the seasons to turn. As sure as harvest follows the fullness of summer, I will come to understand who we are; my task will be to report what I find as true as is humanly possible.

See the full Statement of Intent

Wednesday, February 11, 2004


Two lifetimes ago, when I was writing poems out of the journals of Lewis & Clark, I had Clark ask the question: "Lewis, why do we do this?" It is a line I have used often ever since.

It is bad enough that I have no visible (and few invisible) means of support, bad enough that I depend on the hard work of my wife to make my Vagabond project possible, but now I have taken to spending one morning a week helping an 80-year-old friend in Milwaukee get his life story on paper. From where I sit today, I don't see any money in that. Then for another day a week I have been going to the Dwight Foster Library in Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin, to thumb though books that had belonged to Wisconsin's foremost poet, Lorine Niedecker, to see what marginalia she might have left in them. As you can imagine, there is no money in this either, though there might be a little prestige: Lorine Niedecker is a world class poet, put in the same rank as Sappho and Emily Dickinson by Cid Corman, who said LN is one of three best women poets ever.

I will be able to make some presentations about what I've found in LN's books to those interested in Niedecker's life and work, yes: once for sure on June 4th at the Wisconsin Writers Conference (see my Schedule), then again possibly at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee sometime in fall. There is not much money in this kind of presentation, it is a labor of love. I have already spent 65 hours paging through her books (and still I think every time I open one of the books from her library I fall in love with her all over again).

"So," I say, "Lewis, why do we do this?"

I think one part of the answer lies in my need to give back something to the muses for what the muses have given me. Over the past four or five years, I have been immensely blessed; I cannot begin to remember what "writer's block" feels like. I have been productive as hell. Gratitude is one reason.

Second, I believe that you get what you give. Life is not something done to you, it is something you do. The world is not anything more than what we can see when we look at ourselves in the mirror. "I sweep my walk," Basho says, "and the whole world is clean." What goes around comes around; the great wheel turns. I think I am making my karma.

Third, to make wine, you have to squeeze the grapes. I find that I write the best and most when I am being squeezed, really squeezed. Put a few more tasks on the To Do list, and I will get even more done.

The fourth reason, and perhaps it should be first, is my sense of duty. Someday not far off I intended to write a little essay about middle western duty. If you aren't born with it, you soon develop it. That's why people from the middle west generally don't have a hard time find jobs when they go to Texas or New Jersey, Seattle or Atlanta: "You're from the midwest? You're hired. You people know how to work." What we don't know how to do, sometimes, is how to stop working.

So, Lewis, I suppose that's why we do this. That's where I'll be the next couple of days if you don't find me here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004


Last Wednesday and Thursday, February 7 and 8, I was heading west for Nebraska across Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. I intended to spend Friday in West Point, Nebraska, and Saturday at the Annual Gathering of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska. By the time I reached Gilmore City, Iowa, along Highway 3 on Thursday I had already tuned into West Point's "farmer-owned" radio station, WTIC.

I was hearing "winter storm watch." No, "winter storm warning." No, it was a blizzard. The station played its news, weather, farm reports, and two country songs per hour. Now the schools in West Point that had announced they would start two hours late were announcing that school was cancelled. The fields along both sides of Highway 3 in Iowa were fierce ocean swells. Snow was flying in the air.

I stopped for coffee in Remsen, Iowa, pulling into a convenience store through quite a plowbank at the edge of the road. I had to push through the heaped snow again on my way back onto the road. The snowfall had quickened. The roads were thick with snow in places. In other places, a snowplow led the way, throwing a white spray high into the air. To see the way forward, one stays back.

On the four-lane portion of Highway 75 between Le Mars, Iowa, and Sioux City, I was passed by several semis pulling loads: for a moment I lost sight of the road in the white-out the trucks spun up: you could close your eyes and shove forward blindly and do no worse. Then, just as suddenly, the way cleared.

Now WTIC radio was making it obvious that anything in West Point scheduled for Thursday was being re-scheduled. Including a woman's funeral! The bowling alley was closed, no league bowling tonight. The grocery store would close at 5:00 p.m. The library would close at 6:00 p.m. and the Technology Demonstration scheduled for 7:00 p.m. was cancelled. The community was battening down its hatches.

I stopped to visit a friend in Sioux City, conversation and coffee with the poet Phil Hey. It was snowing. It snowed. It had snowed. It would snow. It will have been snowing. When we finished our coffee and talk, I was in no hurry to rush out to the car and head down the road.

And when I got to the car, I was in no hurry to rush away. I took my time clearing snow off the windshield, the back window, the side windows. Before I could get in the car and latch my seatbelt, the windows were covered over with snow again.

I was not in any hurry traveling the "snow-covered and slippery" roads in Nebraska either; and I told myself I could get a motel room in mid-afternoon anytime road conditions got frightful and unsafe. As long as I didn't try to hurry, the roads were okay. As long as I maintained three times the usual distance from the car in front of me, as long as I could follow the open track worn into my side of the road, as long as I slowed to twenty miles per hour passing the groves to my left side, where snow was drifted in the lee of the trees, I was comfortable and safe and could move forward. If I lost confidence, as I say, I could get a motel room in the middle of the afternoon. How decadent!

I never lost confidence. It was a winter storm, but not the worst of winter storms. I didn't try to drive any faster than the conditions allowed. I gave myself to the situation, didn't push against it but went with it, and arrived in West Point about 4:15 p.m. My hosts, Dick and Gwen Lindberg, opened their home for me; I tromped some snow in on the carpet.

On Monday after I returned to Fairwater, Phil Hey e-mailed me that his wife Terry was concerned they hadn't offered me a place to stay, they'd let me go off into the storm. "You can assure Terry," I responded, "that if I had run into any problems getting out of Sioux City, I'd have checked with you whether there was a place for me to bed down. And if I'd gone part way to West Point and decided it wasn't worth battling the weather, I was prepared to get a motel room along the way." Maybe I'm The Middlewesterner, but I'm not crazy: I know when to go with and not against the forces of nature; and I know when to say whoa.

Monday, February 09, 2004


First, I suppose, the discipline of writing a little something in the public realm every day will be useful. I will be able to report immediately on the progress of my Vagabond In the Middle project; I will be able to weigh the value of my experiences on an on-going basis.

Second, the notion of reaching a few, good readers is attractive.

Third, writing sometimes seems like an awfully lonely undertaking. I like the idea of getting feedback, creating discussion.

I know this is not for everyone. I have said as much in a comment I made recently at Fragments from Floyd: "Just last week I tried to get a writer friend interested in blogs and in the communities that develop around them. I couldn't budge him. I told him that blogging allows one to address interested readers without reliance on any of the traditional means, e.g. established newspapers and magazines, big-time book publishers, and academic institutions. I couldn't budge him. I told him it might give one the opportunity to address your best, most loyal readers. I couldn't budge him. I told him you could get instant feedback from some perceptive people. Couldn't budge him."

I don't know if I'm up to the task, but I am a believer. I intend to give it my best effort. With the travel required for my project, I may not be able to post entries every day, but I will post frequently. I know that I won't be able to post everything I learn and experience but I'll try to post enough that readers feel they are taking this Vagabond journey with me. And beyond the Vagabond expedition, I will use this space to tramp about generally in the notion of "place" and our attachment to the places we love.

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