Thursday, April 15, 2004


I have always loved to read my work in public. I like to feel the rolling thunder of it all the way from my core. Our daughters attended a lot of poetry readings in their time. The elder of them was only a little girl when she asked me: "Dad, why do they call it free verse when you tap your foot?" I don't call it free verse and I tap my foot to mark the rolling beat of it. It doesn't have meter and rhyme, but it's measured. Some of you, maybe, could even dance to it.

It's National Poetry Month here in the USA, and to celebrate it I have been invited to do an hour-long session at the Waupaca Public Library tonight. I'll open with a poem from as far back as 1971, "Lecturing My Daughter in Her First Fall Rain." And then I'll read from all my voices:

- The Civil War soldier, his Letters Home. George Cadman was my wife's great-great-grandfather: Man is very like a dog....

- The farmer, his Notebook & Manifesto. He perhaps is the farmer I would have become, had I wanted to work that hard: To be dying still is to be alive....

- The pioneer woman widowed on the tall grass prairie, her Married To Prairie. I don't know where she came from but some of the poems affect me to an extent that I still can't read them in public: Not even God could turn this sod....

- And, yes, there's Ben Zen, gentle Ben:

Trees are at least

As intelligent
As elephants,

Ben says, and they have
Longer memories.

- And, of course, there are the other poems, those in my "own" voice:

we will dream the day all night; making hay in our sleep,
we will not tire. we will breath clean wind. it will/
touch us, touch our blood,
can taste it
in our sleep/
against us as blood moves:
as the sun moves
& more slowly: as fire.


What a man is

what he has.


A simple stone,
grey, weathered, hard, as if
something has been settled.


Love what you must
because we come so

soon to energy again,
raw, naked, waiting

for the next big bang
as the next big bang

waits for us.

Come to think of it, perhaps it's good that I don't do a lot of poetry readings because when I do them, I have a hard time keeping it in the building. The thunder of the poems lifts me. I want that thunder to lift everyone.



"Sure," Mike Souther said, "I'll talk to you." He has a hard time saying "No" to anybody; that's why he won the Chamber of Commerce's "Mr. Volunteer" award in 2002; that's why he is sometimes known around DeKalb County, Missouri, as "Mr. Maysville;" that's why folks in the area think he is "involved in everything."

Sure, Mike was willing to talk to me, but he was an insurance agent then, and he collected taxes for the town, and his office had a revolving door. "You're harder to catch than the mumps," I heard someone say to him.

Since I interviewed him, Mike has handed the insurance business over to another agent and he now works as Maysville's City Planner.

"Just as soon as I deal with this rental property, we can talk," Mike said as I waited for him. He went off to see about cleaning up a property he rents out, I went to the Maysville Library. My wife was there at the library. She told me that news of our visit to Maysville was making it around town. One volunteer at the library had apparently told another one who told a patron. Soon everyone in town will know I'm coming before I ever get there, I thought. That's the blessing and the curse of small towns: everyone knows your business.

Soon I was back at Mike Souther's office and Mike got back. We went behind closed doors. "I'm with a customer and can't be disturbed," he told the woman who would be answering the phone.

We talked. Mike is young, six or seven years out of Maysville High School, a few years out of college. He can talk. "Some people think I'm opinionated," he said. "Yeah, I've got opinions. If you listen to mine, I'll listen to yours." He's wiry, he wears a goatee and a flat-top, he's got a ready smile and a quick wink and, yeah, I suppose he has opinions.

Seven years earlier someone had asked Mike to help with the Country Harvest Festival in Maysville. He has been chairman ever since. "One thing I've found," he said, "you just ask someone for help, they'll help you. It takes a lot of hard work by a lot of good people to make the Country Harvest Festival a success."

One of the contentious issues in DeKalb County then was 4-H and Missouri's Extension Service which sponsored it. "I don't know enough about it to have an opinion," Mike said mildly. "I do know the world has changed since the days when 4-H was first established."

Mike ends up in charge of things. I wondered why.

"When my dad got sick," Mike said, "I asked my parents if they had a will. My mother cried, my dad asked 'Why do you always do that?' but they made a will. I have an older brother and sister and a younger brother but they put my name first in the will. "That's so they'll know you're in charge handling things," his parents told Mike. "I realized right then that I am kind of bossy. I guess I like to be in charge. It started a long time ago. I was class president from seventh grade through my junior year of high school. My senior year I was student body president."

"I chose to return to Maysville after college," Mike said. "I choose to live here. I like to live in a place where you know everyone. I live in a house only a few hundred feet from where I was raised. I know the genealogy of everyone in town, who's related to whom, why stuff happens as it does. A couple that had graduated from Maysville left and came back for a visit. 'Mike Souther, are you still here?' they said. I nearly went through their windshield to get at them. 'I'm here because I choose to be here,' I told them. 'Okay, okay,' they said. 'We didn't mean anything by it...' 'Just so we're on the same page...' I said, and after that we had a pleasant conversation."

"I've thought about it," Mike said. "I don't really know why I feel so strongly that I have to live here, but I do. I'm here. I'm doing what I can to help make Maysville a better place for us to live."

And Mike made me an offer: "As you go along, if you think somebody in Maysville is feeding you a line, you come back and talk to me."


APRIL 15, 1998

OK, so I do need a weatherman to tell me which way the wind blows!

The dark front I saw to the west yesterday missed us. It was blue sky that blew in, it was a beautiful spring day we got, all the way to evening. This morning, by contrast, looks grey and moist.

A calm morning, as if the gods partied late last night and they are still sleeping fitfully. They will not disturb us, perhaps, if we do not disturb them. Ah, but rain is predicted, my wife has said. Perhaps if we don't disturb them, they will leave us the hell alone.

Forsythia blossoms have been falling on our lawn. They make a yellowed lace in the grass.

No wild geese in the farmyard today. The air looks misty with distance.

The knobs in some of the fields - high points that are not cultivated - are green with grasses now. The bride gets dressed at her own pace. She is lovely. She will be lovelier still.

Water runs in the ditches yet; the ditches are like creeks.

A blast of flowers brightens the corner of Barlow Park as I come into Ripon.

Sometimes we are touched by angels. Who rides shot-gun with me?

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