Sunday, September 05, 2004


Steve Gehrke is my sister Nancy's older son. Steve is the award-winning poet in the family. His first book, The Resurrection Machine (BkMk Press, 2000), was selected by Miller Williams for the John Ciardi Prize. His second book, The Pyramids of Malpighi (Anhinga Press) which came out early this year, won the 2002 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. Steve earned an MFA at the University of Texas-Austin, where he studied on a Michener Fellowship. I am always amazed and pleased when I see that his poems are appearing in such magazines as Indiana Review, Mississippi Review, and Georgia Review. He is kindly astonished that I am listed as one of the "founding contributing editors" going back to the very first Pushcart Prize anthology and that early on I had a poem in that tome.

Steve married earlier this summer, at his home in Columbia, Missouri, where he is completing a doctorate at the University of Missouri in writing and literature. Nadine Meyer, his new bride, is also an accomplished poet and she's also studying at the University of Missouri. Mary and I met Nadine a few years ago when we visited Steve in Columbia; we really enjoyed her company, especially on a good hardy hike the four of us took on a fine autumn day and at supper that evening in an interesting restaurant downtown. We were unable to attend the wedding on June 5th, as you may remember I was delivering a couple of presentations at the Wisconsin Writers Conference that weekend in Baraboo. Steve's parents, my sister Nancy and her husband Gerry, are hosting a reception today (Sunday) for family unable to attend the ceremony and for Steve's friends from his hometown, North Mankato, Minnesota.

So that's where we'll be today, and tomorrow we'll be driving home, hoping to stop in La Crosse on our way back at Buzzard Billy's Flying Carp Cafe for some wonderful Cajun cooking. If it is open on Labor Day....

Back to blogging at Tuesday, September 7th!



About 10:45 a.m. yesterday, Mary and I took The Boopster to the veterinarian and had her put to sleep. It was time. She'd not been eating or drinking since we brought her home from the previous visit, she was obviously uncomfortable, trying to cough out that tumor from her throat. About 3:00 a.m. Friday night, she came up into bed with me and put her head on my chest and purred for twenty minutes, something she hadn't done for several nights. Then she had to try getting comfortable someplace else. But there was no comfortable place left.

She went gentle, like a sigh. Now all the elements of her will become the stuff of stars again. We're sad and we'll miss her. Sometimes, in my sadness, I have to say the "Lay Me Down" prayer from the end of my "Married to Prairie" series in Middle Ground. I say it again now, offering Boops back to the place she came from. Good-bye, you sweet thing.


Lord, lay me down to sleep. Let my eyes be closed, and
not be opened. The lone horse, pulling where two should,
must wish for death, for death. Lord, lay me down to sleep.

Lord, lay me down to sleep. I am grown world-weary,
tugged and tossed and turned about. Dried grass, its flesh made
wasted, cannot but snap. Lord, lay me down to sleep.

Lord, lay me down to sleep. Give me open fields which
don't need working, where I can run as free as
a horse come out of harness. Lord, lay me down to sleep.

Lord, lay me down to sleep. Let my days break quietly,
with bird-song, the timid caress of fresh, new sun.
What dew enjoys, let me. Lord, lay me down to sleep.

Lord, lay me down to sleep. Take this body, this breath.
Let the weight be lifted. Lord, lay me down to sleep.



Not two days after I learned that the Wisconsin Poet Laureate appointment was going to someone else, I got an e-mail inviting me to participate in "Marshall Festival 2005: A Celebration of Rural Writers and Writing and More," to be held at Minnesota State University, Marshall, Minnesota, in October, 2005.

On Tuesday, October 25, 2005, poet David Steingass and I will present "The News from Wisconsin." For my part of it, I'll say a few words about Wisconsin's premier poet, Lorine Niedecker, who has been dead now nearly thirty-five years and still is not well enough recognized; I will read some from my own poetry and prose; and I'll provide the thumbnail version of my Vagabond project.

On Wednesday, October 26, 2005, I'll sit on a panel discussing "Rural Literature" in a free-for-all conversation with such writers as Doug Unger, Bill Kloefkorn, Joe Bruchac, William Kittredge, David Lee, Dave Etter, Sonia Gernes, Phil Hey, Kathleen Norris, and David Steingass. They might have to break this group into two discussion sessions, if I'm to get a word in edgewise.

I am honored to be invited to take part in a celebration of rural writing, and to be included in the company of such a distinguished group. Makes it seem like I am on the right track. And I get paid for participating. Though - don't tell - you'd almost work for nothing if you got to sit in conversation with Bill Kloefkorn, Dave Etter, and Kathleen Norris, wouldn't you?


JUNE 17, 2004 continued

I think it was with urging from Ivan Burgess and some of the other fellows in town that Randy Nelson, chief of Smith Center Police Department, set aside for a few hours his policy of "No Riders in Squad Cars" and let me accompany him as he made his rounds of the city on a long-shadowed evening in June. This is the first part of a report about that experience.

Randy Nelson is chief of Smith Center's three-man police department. Smith County has a three-man sheriff's department, and the two units cooperate to help each other out. In the police department, the fellows rotate days and shifts; they'll work six days and get three days off, alternative the 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. shift with the 5:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. shift.

This week, the chief is working the 5:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. shift. And he's going to let me ride in the police cruiser for part of it.

What is the usual day of patrol like? It's a lot of driving and looking. "Boring," the chief says, "is successful."

"We're small-town America," he says, to explain why the town is generally so quiet. Although there was the fellow involved in a domestic dispute who came out of the house with a gun - "He was just seconds from getting killed."

Mostly, on patrol, you're watching for anything out of the ordinary, a door open at the school or a business. And "we get a few drunk drivers."

When Chief Nelson came to work in Smith Center in 1992, "we had lots of DUI's [Driving Under the Influence] then. There aren't near as many now. We've made people more aware. Now when they drink they get a ride or walk home. They can call us."

"We do bar checks," he said. "We're watching for under-age drinking, which is a problem at times."

"We have some methamphetamine problems, sure," he said when I asked. "We haven't yet busted a meth lab in town. One got hot and blew up in Kensington. It wasn't hard to find that one."

"Outside of homicides," he said, "we have everything a big city has, just on a smaller scale."

We'd been driving up and down the streets of Smith Center, back and forth, over and back. "This is pretty typical," he said. "You just drive around. On weekends we have two fellows out patrolling. We spend a little more time on Main Street."

Chief Nelson said he's got a good relationship with the fellow in town who owns both the bars. The fellow wants the police to come in, checking. "And people know we treat them fair."

We were out at the west edge of Smith Center again, driving through the little park there. There are semis and combines parked there, one of those migrant combining crews getting some down time, not a problem.

The John Deere dealer, Smith County Implement, is just farther west of the park. The chief told me there was a young guy from Australia working there as a mechanic, part of an exchange program.

Then I learn that Chief Nelson was raised in Lebanon, up near the cairn for the center of the lower forty-eight states; he went to school there. He spent a few years in Nebraska in law enforcement, then a few more years as officer in Phillipsburg. He has been in law enforcement, he said, since 1981.

Before that, he drove truck to the west coast, and he worked at Excel for a few years. He gave up the truck-driving because he "got tired of being away."

So a local fellow is chief of police. Sometimes that helps, "but sometimes it really makes it harder because you know everybody," he says. It's hard being a cop and having your kids grow up here, too, hard being The Cop and The Dad.

The airport, which is half a mile outside of town, is city property the department has to patrol. So is the golf course, three miles south of Smith Center.

There are two companies that do aerial spraying located at the airport. "All the hangars here are full," Chief Nelson said. "We could actually use more of them. This runway needs some repairs."

Smith Center expects to build a new airport in the next couple years. Excel flies people in and out of the current facility, the chief said; so does Brook Corporation, an insurance broker in town.

From the airport, we could look out over farmland. We'd seen a bit of rain during the week, and Chief Nelson thought "the rain will help the pastures. The pastures were really getting bad."

Smith Center, he said, "is a real good little town, a good place to raise kids. It has a good school system."

We were still driving up and down the streets of town, over and back and back and forth in a tightening then widening circle, regular but irregular. The driver of nearly every car waves when meeting the chief in the street; folks getting out of or into their cars downtown wave.

Is it true there hasn't been a homicide in Smith County since the 1800s? I asked.

"That's correct," Chief Nelson said. "I hope we can keep that record intact, too."

The numbers on Kansas license plates identify the owner's county of residence, so just by looking at a car you know if it's a local vehicle or from out of town. Kansas doesn't require front license plates, as Wisconsin does, and that doesn't present any problems, according to the chief.

"For the most part, the work is just boring," he said, repeating an earlier theme. "That makes for long shifts, but it's just part of the job."

He pointed out the home of Craig Marshall, a school principal I'd interviewed; pointed out the home of Troy Lorenzen of Smith County Implement, whom I'd interviewed too.

The jail is across the street from Craig Marshall's school. I had seen prisoners inside the fence area at the jail when I'd gone to the school to interview Marshall. "One person was released just today after being in for a year on a county conviction," the chief told me.

Soon we were out at the county yard, near the sale barn. The sale barn cafe is still open, however. You can tell how tough these people are by the way they hold on for so long, the way they hold out, hang in.

To be continued....



What is our true investment in our place, what is our true reason for being here, for remaining here? In the past, I've talked about how I got here, I've talked about why I've stayed. Perhaps we need to ask why and why again until we get deep into ourselves - it's not the money only, being able to make a living here; if we had to we could find money elsewhere. It's not for the sake of our daughters; our daughters are gone. It's not the house - it's a dear old house, to be sure, but we could live in a box and be happy if we wanted to. (Well, perhaps it is the house - I'd have a real hard time giving it up.) Who am I, still here now. Why do I stay. To answer that for myself may go some ways towards defining place overall, a man's relationship to it.

Sun, this morning, and moist air too. Autumn's rising. I head out of town via West Street, to get gasoline for the pick-up. I stop at the railroad tracks as required. A man is walking his dog on the tracks, coming back towards town. As I head towards Village Mart, I descend into a light layer of ground fog.

There is a light ground fog across the whole countryside. There are swatches where it is heavier, too. A morning beautifully made.

The corn is turning fast now, faster than the beans. You can smell the color of the corn.

In so beautiful a morning, I think of the Lake Superior shoreline at Grand Marais on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This is the day the Lord has made. I am so glad to be alive. I want to wrestle everything out of every minute that remains.

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