Thursday, April 08, 2004




Wally left the following comment in response to Beth's April 4th post over at Switched at Birth. This is the kind of writing, so real, so well-written, so much about the world, that gives me goosebumps. Thanks, Wally and Beth, for allowing me to reprint it here

Slidell, Louisiana. 1969.

My bride of about a year and I were bound for the dry country of West Texas from the dripping wet humidity that is central Florida. A Chevy II station wagon stuffed with all our worldy possessions. A reckless driver pulled suddenly in front of us. I tried to swerve into a driveway but the loose gravel sent us toward a ditch. The chassis of the car hit the edge of the drop-off and everything came to an immediate halt. Everything, that is, except a loose ironing board which had become a cruise missile smashing into the inside of the front windshield between us.

We were shaken, but unhurt. A dilemma. How to get this car back on the road on a Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of Slidell, Louisiana in a time before cell phones and on-board emergency computer doo-dads?

The driveway we had skid across led to a cattle auction barn. I explored, hoping to find a pay phone. Voices and shouts from the back brought me face to face with a group of gentlemen engaged in a game of chance and enjoying what must have been a beverage made from a secret recipe since they were all wrapped in small brown paper bags.

After politely declining to roll the dice or share the beverages, I explained my problem. Six large men converged on my already shaken bride and began cogitating on the best way to extricate a Chevy II station wagon from its perch atop a mound of dirt when only two wheels were touching the ground. At that moment, one of the gentlemen rounded the corner of the barn with a tractor and a chain and our journey resumed without further incident.

Loose gravel, a flying ironing board, craps, moonshine, a hot-wired tractor, a group of large men who could have been threatening in other circumstances.

We remember with fondness our unscheduled rest stop in Slidell, Louisiana.



Dave at Via Negativa has been doing his usual interesting job this week exploring the origins of Easter. He calls the pieces of his posts "fun facts." I call them cultural excavations. In either case, they should not be missed.



At the Lorine Niedecker Centenary Celebration in October, 2003, Amy Lutzke of the Dwight Foster Public Library in Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin, issued a general challenge for anyone willing to accept it: someone, she said, should go through the books of Lorine Niedecker's personal library and check them for marginalia. I was the fellow who accepted that challenge and I have spent about 120 hours examining the books and recording my findings into the DFPL's LN data base, which will all be posted to the library's web page for access by Niedecker scholars at Now I have completed my first pass through all 505 books in Niedecker's library. This involved examining every page of every book. This part of the task is done. Say hooray!

Is it useful work? I think a review of the contents of LN's library and of the marginalia and other intentional marks she made in her books reveals her bent of mind. Writers like Edwin Honig, who think LN's reading of science "came directly from Pound and Zukofsky," might be surprised to learn which books about science were actually in her library. Those who know of her Marxist leanings might be interested to see which passages she underlined or questioned in The Handbook of Marxism. And anyone who knows of her quiet life along the Rock River will be excited to learn LN's "3 reasons for seclusion," scribbled into a margin of The Nature of Things by Havelock Ellis. My examination of LN's library and her marginalia affords, I think, a new way of knowing one of Wisconsin's finest and most reclusive poets in her unguarded moments.

The task has been time-consuming, but Phase I of it is done.

Phase II involves writing up what I've found and presenting it at the Wisconsin Writers Conference to be held at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County in June, so that Niedecker scholars will know what is available in the way of marginalia.

Phase III will involve going back, as time permits, to record the marginalia from some of the books with even greater detail for the Dwight Foster Library data base.

This might seem like niggling work; and in ways it is. Yet it is also a way for me to honor the memory of one of our finest poets.

Though I can't dispell the image of her standing off at the window of her cottage along the Rock River, shaking her head at me, embarrassed by the attention. She was also the most reclusive of poets.



In March last year I left Fairwater's below zero temperatures and snow cover and zig-zagged across Wisconsin and Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, to Highway 81 down into Kansas. I was headed for Smith Center. The book says it's a twelve hour and forty-seven minute drive from Fairwater.

Did I see the heart of the heartland? I saw crow and sun and field and snow. I saw the shadow of crow fly into me. The hills between Des Moines and Omaha looked something like Wyoming, which surprised me. Something like Wyoming, except there were a few too many trees and the occasional cornfield, there was the roadside sign advertising "The Cornstalk Restaurant."

South from York, Nebraska, cornfields stretched to the far horizon; the land was laid flat as if some great weight had been set on it.

Then I was driving west on Highway 36 in Kansas, the great Highway 36, once the main east-west corridor across America. Ahead of me, a ridge in the distance. Wheat stubble in the fields. More trees than I'd imagined on the scruffy ground. The lay of hills reminded me of the Penny Hills around Rugby, North Dakota, except these seemed more sharply-formed, more severe, flat on top like little buttes. I had never imagined such hills in Kansas.

I saw hawks perched on posts not a half mile apart – were they a pair? I saw twenty great round bales in one bunch. Where the road had been cut through a rise, great chunks of sandstone were exposed, thick pieces, tawny as the landscape. Only the occasional remnant of snow remained here and there. The ponds had ice on them, but also open water. In Wisconsin we were still walking on our lakes.

I had entered a world where the guys driving pick-up trucks wore cowboy hats.

I saw a sadness of house with its porch slumped in final despair. The western sky was painted with long light and vapor trails; that clotted, honey-colored light fell on a landscape climbing and falling and climbing towards Smith Center.

At another farmstead, a couple buildings were calling out to the earth, "We're coming, we're coming;" they leaned towards darkness. In two places, threshing machines had been set on rises along the highway - lest we forget where we came from. On other rises I saw large, new houses belonging to people with money.

More great round bales, a hundred of them together. Cattle in nearby feedlots.

A skunk lay dead along the road. Something about it was not what I'm used to, but it still smelled like skunk.

I could see the sun through the boards of a swayback barn ahead of me.

Windmill. Elevator. Water tower. "We're here," these wanted to say of the people.

I imagined huge jackrabbits.

I wondered why I'm so moved by this landscape, by these scenes, that old farmhouse with windows boarded up? What previous life did I live that I have this intense connection to this stretch of road? All the old cottonwoods talked to me like old friends. Was I once a cottonwood? I didn't know where the side-roads went but felt an urge to take them.

It felt as if I had come so far yet was still at home. All day the land spoke to me as I drove, this land of which I'd write. Every grove of trees wanted to whisper its story, every old house invited me inside to meet its ghosts. I worry that they lock up people who think every old, bent cottonwood speaks to them, every abandoned house, every swayback barn.

What hope is there for a man who has to go down every middle western road to see where it leads; who has to eavesdrop in every cafe to hear what the people are thinking; who has to touch old, grey barn boards that hum with what they know?

Symbols that rise above the line of earth - the windbreak, the water tower, the elevator, the church steeple – suggest that while we are mere mortals we are also little gods of the earth, each with his local habitation. We set out our markers that say: "Mine." Yet how these earth-bound symbols reach for the sky! How they fashion the light that swaddles them.

As I drove west, the land was rolling up and down and up. The sun set, revealed itself, set again. It was a big ol' red ball of sun setting right over Smith Center as the town came into view.


APRIL 6, 1998

The cycle of things - life and death. Birth and rebirth. Today it is so close to home. A sister-in-law was diagnosed over the weekend with cancer already metatisized to the bone. Seed put in the ground, seedling taking nourishment, driving towards light, driving towards leaving something of itself behind, for the future. It is the cycle of life. We are sad with our loss. You can say it's not fair. You can say "That's life." We are sad and we go on. Waste your breath with cursing and you are short of breath. Still, I want to say to the dark-shrouded figure, "Go away from our door."

A different light this morning - we have changed to daylight savings time. It is 7:30 a.m now but the sky is still 6:30 a.m. The pond is as smooth as a mirror. Reflections in it are still and exact. I almost hate to say it: I like this time of day.

The Grand River is still high and fast.

The hawk is perched atop a tree in the middle of its field. It is looking for breakfast. Its feast is always the death of something else.

Water is still running in the ditches. Water is standing in the fields.

We shall live for awhile in the house of death.


APRIL 7, 1998
Our daylight makes a difference. Now 5:00 a.m. is dark again and it is harder for me to rise in the dark. At the other end of the day, I have more time for a walk in the country. The body clock does not "spring ahead" so easily as the clock on the wall, however. Yet we submit ourselves to this every year. I confess I do like longer light in the evening. And once the sun finds 5:00 a.m. again, it's not so tough getting up in the morning.

Sometimes I think there is irony in the fact that I drive to work in suit and tie at the same time I am thinking about this piece of land, of fields, of farmers. The suit and tie is not a farmer's attire, not the finery of the greening land. Well, the farm boy can put on his disguise and enter the house of business.

It is definitely spring. Red-breasted robin on the green carpet of lawn in the long lay of morning light. The sounds of birds. A bright sky today. Geese in the fields, feeding. The fields are trying to dry - though there is still a lot of moisture in places. Water still runs fast in the ditches near Five Corners. Green, lush, moist spring. Sweet, like a young love you know will never last.

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