Friday, July 16, 2004


One of my projects this spring and summer has been preparing a volume of Phil Hey's new and selected poems for publication. How It Seems to Me has been a wonderful undertaking from the start. Phil is one of those poets who labors with quiet diligence, more concerned with substance than flash; I think he wants to be a good man and a good teacher first, and if his poems get published or they don't, so be it. The kind of man with the kind of work I'm proud to publish.

I met Phil in Sioux City, where he lives, when I was on book tour in support of my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm, Curlew: Home. He gathered a group of fellow faculty members and students and brought them to hear me read at a local coffee shop. God bless him, he still sends me the occasional e-mail expressing his pleasure with some of the prose in my memoir.

The common rap against poets is that they tend towards "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." That's not the case with this book, folks. Phil doesn't have much to offer me except his friendship and possibly a reading at Briar Cliff University where he teaches. I'm not going to let friendship get in the way of publishing this book; and, for the record, I haven't done a reading at Briar Cliff. I don't have much to offer him except friendship and - one hopes - a few readers for his good poetry.

In the interest of complete honesty, I suppose I should confess also that when I e-mailed him the other day about when copies of the book would be arriving at his humble abode, he did state that if he wins the lottery, MWPH Books, my imprint, would receive "a huge endowment." To tell the truth, I don't think he plays the lottery.

I am not the only one who loves Phil's work. God rest her soul, Gwendolyn Brooks said of it, "These poems are so good, so bready!" James Autry, author of Love and Profit and Life After Mississippi, said "by all the Gods of poetry, if this isn't an authentic voice, we're never going to find one." Vivian Shipley said the poems "take flight at every moment's crossroad in order to preserve the hard daily lives of men and women who are living scant, but like the farmer's wife who buys day lilies with egg money learn to flower in the midst of such neglect." Jeanne Emmons, author of Rootbound and winner of the Minnesota Voices Award, wrote that "in his hands conversations overheard, places discovered on the road, found objects, and the events of everyday life become gifts and graces."

I've included a sample from the poems, below, "Route 39 south of Pittsville," which won a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3 magazine.

Phil Hey's How It Seems To Me: New & Selected Poems (96 pp., trade paper) is available for $12.50 per copy plus $2.00 for shipping and handling; order from: Tom Montag, PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931. Make check payable to Tom Montag. You'll be glad you did.

Route 39 south of Pittsville
by Phil Hey

For years she had dreams of getting
a bait and fried chicken place,
nothing fancy, one of those
little bungalows like you see with
white painted clapboard and green trim,
not new when she got it and not
likely to get any newer either,
and out front a screened-in entryway
with those enamel metal signs
of Nehi and Mission Black Cherry,
and inside, some used glass cases
full of reels and lures gathering dust,
and on the wall shelves of those red
cedar curios they don't make within
two hundred miles of the place.
And those cards and signs you wouldn't
laugh at anymore if you ever did,
though one in particular sticks in my mind:
if you're so smart, why ain't you rich?
And in the air hangs a certain scent
of cigarettes and fried fish,
specially over by where they eat
at old Chromecraft tables
but wooden chairs, and all around
near the ceiling are these pictures
of folks and the big fish they caught.
That's the place she got, too,
so well known in those parts
she never even named it,
though they call it Myrt's
after her. She ain't smart,
doesn't care much about money,
wouldn't trade.



This is part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently in the house and on the farm her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I've been asked what Pearl looks like, and this is how I responded: "Pearl is white-headed, fairly thin, of a medium woman's height - neither short nor tall. Her face has seen some years, but her eyes still have some fire in them. She was wearing a long, dark house dress when I interviewed her, she walks with a walker, she wears a built-up shoe and brace on the foot and ankle most damaged by the polio." I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.

"So what'll I do with the sheep?" Pearl continued. "I'll take care of them. They're good mowers, and I learned what to do with them. Sure enough, lambs began to appear in the morning before school, and so forth. One morning I went to the barn to take care of the sheep and here stood a little lamb, back in the corner, helpless, of course born during the night. And the mother was not taking care of it. She was standing off some place else. Well, I was prepared. I had condensed milk, very rich, and the ewe's milk is very rich. And I had all the equipment to feed the lamb with a bottle. That little lamb would not be alive when I came home from school because it hasn't had anything to eat. What'll I do? What'll I do?"

"I came to the house and had my breakfast," Pearl said, "and I got a bushel basket and lined it with newspapers. The last thing I did before starting to school was to talk in the barn and pick up that lamb and put it in the back seat of the car. I took along the milk and things I'd need to take care of it at school. It was winter-time, but lambs come pretty warmly dressed, you know. It'd be alright in my car because the car was warm. With the sun out, it would be well taken care of in the bushel basket."

"I got to the school building with the lamb in the basket," Pearl said. "I had everything taken care of, the bottle and everything to take care of it. And I even had a leash, a little leash that I had on my puppy. In my room at school, the encyclopedias were in a little case that had legs. But I thought I'd leave it in the car, it'd be okay, I'd go out at noon to feed it. I parked my car; I went into the office; I told the principal, I said: 'I have brought that lamb in my car - it'll be alright out there - I'll go out at noon to feed it.' She said, 'Bring that lamb in.'"

"I had the leash on it already," she said, "so I went out and brought the little lamb in, laid down some newspaper, tied the end of the leash to the Britannica stand. I had it all ready for the children when they came in. Their eyes popped, you know. City school. Little lamb walking around up there in the front of the room. It got taken care of really well."

"During the day," she said, "I let the children, three by three, take the lamb, the bottle, and the paper towels to the kindergarten, the first grade, and so forth. The little lamb was taken care of. I fed it on the bottle and it grew up."

Pearl said: "Often at the end of the year, the last week of school, I'd tell the children, 'Now we've had a lot of fun and we've worked hard and we've done a lot of things. I wonder if you wouldn't take a piece of paper and write an evaluation of your fifth grade. Rather like writing me a letter, and I'll read it this summer when I'm not with you."

"Dear Miss Mt. Castle," the letters would start, Pearl indicated, and they would talk about the things the students liked during the year, "the poems that we learned, the fun that we had one way or another. I had been to South America that one year and I had pictures I'd shown them on the screen. They talked about different things we'd done, and how much they think they had learned that year, and some of them liked the teacher and some of them didn't say whether they did or not. They wrote what they thought was a good evaluation. And many of them wrote, 'The best day of school was the day you brought the lamb.'"

Pearl laughs at the memory. "Oh, I had a lot of fun with my teaching, a lot of fun."

"That was in 1954," Pearl said. "In 1988, we had a drought - no pasture, and nobody would sell me hay. My pasture was just like straw. I couldn't buy hay. I didn't have any way to them the sheep. I had to give them up, which was like a funeral. I'd had sheep all those years, raised top-notch lambs, went to lamb school when professors from Ohio State came down to Eaton and collected the sheep people of Preble County for classwork on how to feed lambs, how to have healthy sheep, how to shear them, that sort of thing."

Pearl also kept a garden all those years - "green beans and peas and tomatoes, sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes, enough onions to last me the winter."

"Once I wrote down on a card what I canned one year," Pearl said. "I had about two hundred quarts of green beans and peas, peaches, all kinds of fruits. When my dad was living, we always had peaches - that was his favorite fruit. He'd go to the orchard and come back with a bushel of peaches and say 'Here, Pearl, here are the peaches.' That'd be twenty quarts of peaches."

"Through the years we had fruit trees here," Pearl said, "apples, pears, and cherries, but they're gone now. There's one apple tree left, up near the barn."

To be continued....


JULY 6, 1998

We are coming off a three-day weekend celebrating our independence from Great Britain. How much different would this place be had we not won our independence? Would this be a French land, or at least bordering on a French land? Thomas Jefferson would never have made the Louisiana Purchase without our war of independence, would he? Wisconsin and Michigan would be very much like Ontario, wouldn't they? Our government would be different, our schools would be different, our landscape would be marked differently. We'd be more Canadian, eh?

It has not been so hot. It is overcast and humid this morning. There is a sticky summer sweetness in the air. In the country, a fierce greenness today, in farm fields and scrub land alike. A flock of sea gulls is set down in the field of alfalfa recently harvested, a study in green and white.

White morning glories cling to a rare stand of fence.

Corn is five to six feet tall in places; tassels are, all of a sudden, very much in evidence. Elsewhere along Highway E, the corn is only six inches high.

North of Five Corners, the sour smell of pea vines left on the ground after harvest. The rip of that odor is part of the cost of doing a business in peas, I guess.

In Ripon, an ambulance screams, turns toward the hospital. A quiet summer day is broken by the siren. A quiet summer day, and someone lays dying.


JULY 7, 1998
Our friend who moved to California in May for a new job has quit the job and headed back east. He lasted about three weeks. He is visiting a friend in South Carolina and looking for a job in that area. He is a Massachusetts boy and when he told me he was going to California, I laughed. I laughed and laughed, over the phone, talking with him, and he may have been offended. He wanted to know why I was laughing. I said the California gestalt would not fit his Massachusetts psyche. He lasted three weeks. He e-mailed me saying he was quitting the job and going back east, admitting that I had been right. He said the job didn't allow him an ounce of creativity and "Los Angeles was too weird." So - it's true that some things are eternal and one of them is you can't easily transplant a sardonic Massachusetts fellow into a show-place California setting. What formed us holds us. We ignore this fact at our own risk.

A cool, grey morning. A riffled surface to the pond (where it's free of algae). A mourning dove's call. The trees are quiet. This is very much, today, like waking in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, except I have to go in to work now, and later fly to Grand Rapids, MI. A fat robin in the back yard shows me the way to peacefulness. If only we, too, could accept what we need to accept. But NO! we think we should be happy and then we don't know what happiness is. Whoa, Tom! Now you're goin'.

Along Highway E, the beans are growing by leaps, wide leaves turned to the morning. Three crows eat at a raccoon killed on the road; they hop out of the way of traffic then return to the feast. The grey overcast above is air-brushed in place. A woman drives a big rig south-bound towards Fairwater, secure at the wheel, rolling.

A goat trims the farm yard grass just south of Five Corners. He is kept in place with a rope tied to a tire filled with cement. Every couple of days, the tire gets moved and the goat trims another area. If only we could learn to accept what we need to accept.

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