Thursday, April 29, 2004


It's nearly two hours from here and there's no pay, so why am I doing a poetry reading in Green Bay? Well, there are some things we do simply because we want our names on the roster. My poetry reading tonight is at the Neville Museum, which has been sponsoring a series of monthly poetry readings for some time, with an "open mic" reading for the first twenty-five minutes, followed by a "featured poet" who reads for thirty to forty minutes. I am the featured guest. I like that.

The museum's gift shop will make my books available for sale. That's a plus. It is still April, still the cruelest month, still National Poetry Month, that's another reason.

And I really like museums, both those that are professionally curated such as the Neville and those that are homier and more hand-made such as the Fairwater Museum. The objects to be found in museums have been smoothed and shined with the oil of human endeavor, and such objects speak powerfully, to me at least. In the museum at Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada, some years ago, I touched a railing that led to the upstairs loft in an old house; the railing had been worn smooth by many hands. A charge like electricity nearly put me on my knees when I touched that wood: I was touching all those who had ever touched it. "Even in an empty house," I wrote, "you may be surprised at what you startle."

I like museums, yes, and I like reading my work. This time, I shall be doing something a little different by including some newer pieces I haven't read much in public. I'll read "Half the Afternoon in Fairwater," wherein "the cottonwoods are having public sex again." I'll read "Chicago, Be Gone," wherein I cast the city out of the middle west. "Chicago, you sow," I say. I've had it with the traffic there. I'll read my poem that is posted on the Poets Against the War site, "Of Weather and War and Love;" I wrote it on a Thursday and Friday before we went to war against Iraq, suggesting that we need more disasters to keep us from war, and on Saturday the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas. That didn't keep us from war. I wrote that:

... bad things keep happening to good
People and politicians go right on
Making laws like saying so makes it so.
Someone somewhere will do something and some
Republican president will have to
Start a war....

I have never been very political, but these days I am angry. I am angry that they lie. I am angry that they steal from us. I am angry that they get away with it. I am angry that 51% of the American people are blind to it.

Did you hear the one about the Secret Service questioning a Washington state high school student about drawings he'd made in a portfolio his art teacher made him keep? I am angry that they have lost their perspective.

Oh, yes, sorry... I'm talking about a poetry reading here. I will wrap up my portion of the reading as I often do, with some poems from The Big Book of Ben Zen. Ben says:

You cannot see
What you've come to see.

What you've come to see
Changes with your coming.


APRIL 18, 2004

I saw my brother Flip and his wife Vickie at supper last night with my parents. I saw my sister Colleen and her husband Dean at breakfast with my parents this morning. My mother had a stroke a month ago and rather than taking breakfast at Seven Stars Restaurant as I'd planned, we ate at home. My mother says she's "not good enough to eat in public yet."

The night was a dark storm. Clouds blew in, and they're dripping a little rain. The wind is a freight train in the trees. I'm packed and ready to head to Emmetsburg. It's about 10:15 a.m.

The trees in Hampton are much closer to spring than those I left behind. Some leaves have already started to open here; that's the difference a few degrees of latitude make in the middle west, I guess.

The wind is blowing hard from the south. It's a grey hang-down day. I'm headed west out of Hampton on Highway 3.

My mother has had a stroke. She says she doesn't know what the future holds. My parents may move to Minnesota, to live closer to three of my sisters, in a place with everything on one level. My dad worries about not having an Iowa address. We are all stay-put people. None of us likes to move after we've set ourselves down. My mother used to get "home-sick for the chickens" and I'm kinda that way myself. I like to go away, but even better I like to come home. I can't help it.

When I want to go deep inside myself, I align myself with the road and drive straight into it. Sometimes I find what I'm looking for; sometimes I take what I get. It is always better to have no expectations, to break through to whatever is here for me. I find that the more I have expectations, the more I miss.

Today I am just bumming. I told Sally Jo I wouldn't show up at her door until 7:00 p.m. I have much of a day to drive and dream and meander the hundred-some miles from Hampton to Emmetsburg, to see Mallard and Curlew and my brother's grave between them, the old farmstead. I can visit my Uncle Larry and Aunt Pat this afternoon if I choose to. The only thing pushing me is the wind.

This is Iowa, where they can build a pole building, put three thousand hogs in it, and call it a farm; where they can build a pole building, put a steeple on it, and call it a church.

Here at the intersection of Highways 3 and 69, this is where my niece's boyfriend was killed some years ago in a car accident, driving her car. He was hit by a drunk driver, the car exploded in flames, he died. So did the drunk driver. You feel the shadow of it as you pass.

The Security Bank in Clarion says it's 10:41 a.m., 68 degrees. I stop for the three stoplights in town: Sunday morning, you wonder why you need to.

A high wind is dragging a blanket of dust across the flat openness of these fields. Pieces of corn rubble scuttle across the road like small furry animals. A handful of sand is tossed against my windshield. And the world smells like pigshit.

The stink of these days is different than when I was growing up. The aroma of 200 pigs in a farmyard versus 10,000 pigs in a factory operation. The smell of money versus the smell of greed.

Out in a field, a big John Deere is pulling a disk half as wide as Kansas, stirring up dust, turning up the smell of earth. Ah, refreshment. Half a mile down the road I see a smaller John Deere pulling a planter, putting hope in the ground.

Sometimes I feel like such a cranky old man, talking about the way things used to be.

Now I pull off into Goldfield, a town I've always driven through, never into. I find Main Street and sit to make some notes. Not that there's much here to make note of. As with many small communities, time has not been kind here. The churches have cars parked in all directions around them. There is a post office, the fire station, the phone company, Goldfield Family Hair, a bank. A log cabin stands near the downtown, built by the Boy Scouts in 1926, restored by the community in 1976. What we have is what we have and we'll honor it. You might think I'm "making fun" of this characteristic of making do. It is part of our charm and part of our steadiness and it is to be admired. Like every virtue, its flip-side is a vice: too much "making do" can lead to immobility in some, disgruntlement in others. That is true here, and anywhere. There are a couple gas stations with convenience stores along Highway 3, and a couple restaurants. One of them calls itself a steakhouse, what in Wisconsin we'd call a "supper club." There's Campbell's High Pressure Washers, Becky's Consignments, Thrivent Financial. It could be worse.

West of Goldfield there's a red-tailed hawk atop a fence post, pointed into the wind like a weather vane. It's staying low for the time being, not so hungry that it has to try to fly in this wind.

It's just another day on the great flatness. The sun breaks through the cloud cover and heats the stink of pigs to another intensity. You can run but you can't hide from it; the stink permeates everything. How did the world get to this sorry state?

It is the stink of efficiency. Like school districts, I suppose. There are about 375 school districts in Iowa now. Those in charge of such matters want to see the number reduced to one hundred over the next twenty years. One school district per county, you might say. You can curse it, but still the wheel turns, grinding up everything in its path, as if greed has co-opted the great mandala.

To be continued....



This continues our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

McGregor quotes Margaret Atwood as saying: "Canadians show a marked preference for the negative."

Middle westerners are not negative, I think; rather they exhibit a quiet acceptance of "this is the way things are." I do not mean this as resignation, for resignation is darker than I intend. Nor do I mean ours is joyful acceptance, for sometimes one simply bites his lip and endures. Rather, you put your head down and do what you must: this is what one does.

McGregor talks of "that oh-so-Canadian syndrome that Northrop Frye called the garrison mentality," also referred to as "the fort in the wilderness."

We had our forts in the wilderness, when the middle west was the wilderness. Rather than being "surrounded" by wilderness on all sides, as settlers moved into the middle west they felt that wilderness lay just to the west of them, that civilization was off to the east, and that the building up of each community pushed the frontier farther towards the sunset. There was the sense here, I think, that civilization was sweeping westward. And when the frontier did move west beyond our boundaries, the settled middle westerners became middlemen: innkeepers and bartenders and provisioners for those chosing to go farther on. Admittedly, some of those frontiersmen who pushed farther west were middle westerners who wanted more than what they found in Indiana and Illinois and Iowa. On the other hand, it is somewhat sobering to realize that Daniel Boone died a middle westerner (or damn near) in Defiance, Missouri, and may be buried with his wife Rebecca near Marthasville.


APRIL 28, 1998

The year's very first daffodils, the two of them, are spent. They have closed for the last time; they have crumpled, we might say. Sring has come and gone for them. For the rest of us, a cool morning, a still pond, a hazy cloud cover.

Kweek kweek kweek goes the speedometer cable of the pick-up, singing like a bird.

The drivers of two on-coming vehicles in succession look sad or angry or ungodly serious - why even bother to get up, ladies, if things are so bad?

In the low spot where we saw the Bonaparte gulls, the water is receding remarkably now. Overnight, it seems, it has moved back from the edge twelve feet or more. At Five Corners there is still a small rivulet in the ditch, only a faint memory of its former self.

To the northwest, vaguely, there is a low cloud like smoke, dissipating.


APRIL 29, 1998
I saw egrets last night, and herons.

A very little black paint,
some water, white paper - clouds
painted on the morning sky.

Along the garage, one tulip thinks about opening.

The Grand River still runs higher than usual, though not so fiercely as earlier this spring.

There is a raccoon dead on the road. As a species, I think, raccoons have the reaction time of rocks. I like raccoons, they may be intelligent, but they have no common sense. Well, I suppose that's not entirely fair - squirrels aren't much smarter about roads. Crows have about the most road sense of any creature I've seen.

I have said that, in the rain, Ripon looks like an old town. In this gray light, this morning, she looks like an old lady.

Although it is somewhat cool this morning, the young nubbins walking to school have bared their legs. Obviously, then, it cannot snow again this season.



My thanks goes out to the following for her recent contribution to the Vagabond Expedition:

#88 Sally Jordan, Iowa

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