Monday, April 26, 2004

HOME FROM EMMETSBURG

Yes, I am safely home from my Vagabond trip to Emmetsburg, Iowa. It was another lovely visit. As usual I stayed with Sally Jordan, a classmate from grade school days. If ever you should visit Sally, be sure to take your appetite; she will feed you well. I teased her about running a B&B, pet kennel, and writers' retreat. Her hospitality was wonderful.

I did a few interviews, including one with Dick and Anne Marie Nelson, parents of Bruce Nelson, the nicest young fellow ever to play for the Carolina Panthers of National Football League. Just ask anyone who knows him. Bruce was a walk-on at the University of Iowa; his success shows what hard work and determination can do. He got his good manners, obviously, from his lovely parents, who farm a mile north of Emmetsburg. Eventually I will report on my interview with the Nelson's in my Vagabond newsletter. In coming days, however, I will recount my visit to that couple's retreat just north of their farmstead, known locally as "Nelsons' Cabin."

I toured four places while I was in Emmetsburg - Horizons Unlimited; Sky Jack; SNC; and IEI. I will report on these tours in coming days, too.

On Tuesday night, April 20, I attended the Emmetsburg Chamber of Commerce annual banquet at the invitation of Chamber Director Kathy Fank; and on Friday, April 23, I was in the crowd at the ground-breaking ceremonies for the Broin Companies' Voyager ethanol plant being built a mile southeast of Emmetsburg. Expect to hear reports of these events as well.

I will be here blogging this week but please note that Mary and I will be flying out bright and early on Saturday morning, May 1, to spend a week visiting our daughter and son-in-law in Montana and to be with Jessica when she presents her dissertation on May 7. We hope our presence actually provides support for her, rather than making her life more stressful. But you just don't know how things will shake out in the last days leading up to defense of the dissertation, so it is possible we just might have to go for some long walks in the mountains to help alleviate stress. Tough work, but someone has to do it. We'll fly back to Wisconsin on May 8th and thereafter I will return to blogging on May 9th, perhaps, or certainly by May 10th.


--------------------

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS
APRIL 17, 2004
THE DRIVE TO IOWA


It's a lovely morning. The sun is on the still surface of the pond. A flower in the bed along our garage bloomed this morning, confident that winter is over. The weeping willow at the steep west edge of our property is letting down its green hair.

My mother doesn't like weeping willows. She thinks they're "dirty trees." And they do leave a lot of debris, no argument there. Yet hers is a farmer's view, I think - we want to grow what we want to grow and anything else is weeds. A weed being any plant growing where you don't want it.

In terms of evolution, I suppose the weeping willow's dirtiness is a successful ploy. I don't understand exactly why it would need to be a dirty tree to survive, but then I don't understand a lot of things. I do like weeping willows, however. I like how they let down their green hair, a sign of spring before any of the other trees make much note of it.

My parents, when they farmed, did not practice a monolithic mono-culture, that's not what I mean to suggest. They rotated corn, beans, oats, and alfalfa. We had beef, pigs, and chickens. Our egg money bought groceries. When my brothers and sisters and I walked the neighbors' bean fields, cutting out the corn and pulling the cockleburrs, we earned the money for our fall school clothes, new shoes. Our walking beanfields and my sisters' baby-sitting meant we got new blue jeans at the start of every school year. I say that with pride, that we contributed.

April 17th. It's high spring. I am headed west across Wisconsin and Minnesota, down into Iowa. High spring in the upper middle west, a lovely time to be driving, a lovely time to be alive.

There are clouds enough to make dark patches on the corn rubble in the fields. Along the horizon is hazy sky. The sun will win its battle, I suppose, but has its work cut out for it.

You go, crow, flying west, from hope to happiness.

Either everything I need is here, or it's nowhere. If you can't love what you've got, you can't love anything.

I see an old man's face. The land's dream. The endurance of the long distance wind. I see that man in an on-coming car, I can imagine everything else.

Some people say "tree huggers" as if that's bad. Trees give us oxygen. The day we cut down the last tree, we'll gasp for breath. Perhaps that's the plan. Perhaps Halliburton will make billions overcharging us for oxygen on a no-bid contract with the government.

We think of this land as a great flat accumulation. In fact there are river banks and bluffs, coulees and crowns, sandhills and blue hills and unnamed prominences, ravines. There is all manner of variety in this sameness; we just have to stoop to see it sometimes. Because we're not given to grand statements, the worn beauty of our smoothness suits us.

As I proceed in my investigation of what makes us middle western, I'm finding some confirmation of my notion that immigrants settled where the land looked like home to them. I have had people say that grandfather or great-grandfather settled where he did because it looked like the place he'd left behind.

What makes us great sometimes breaks us.

I suppose some folks see the sunrise as where we've come from, the sunset as where we're headed. The day itself becomes a metaphor for the nation's hopes.

Here in the middle west, we're high noon. White heat. No shadows.

No place to hide and no deception.

There's a silly, bald-headed, grey-edged old man in a red sports convertible coming down the road towards me. He is making a grand statement and I'm laughing at it as someone will laugh at my grand statements. They should laugh at my big pronouncements. Like the blizzard or the tornado, laughter helps to keep us humble. Humility is simply clear vision. Laughter is a soap that washes off pretension.

We could learn something from the crow in the ditch tugging at an old deer carcass: you do what you have to. Middle western duty and resilience.

In the sandflats west of Oxford, Wisconsin, the fields are soaking up sun. This past week's rain is evaporating. The wind carries as much as the rivers.

I've got everything I need. Why am I so fortunate?

Isn't that a middle western question, to question one's blessedness? To ask: why has this been given to me. We expect it to be tougher than it sometimes is; sometimes that's even what we want. It's good that life is good, we think, but it shouldn't be too good.

I drive across the bridge over the Wisconsin River. I'm hoping to see eagles where I've seen then them before, but I don't. I'm not disappointed because - God - we've got the river. That we see eagles here sometimes - that's the surprise of grace. Too much grace, no surprise.

To be continued.....

--------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
APRIL 20, 1998


Well - once this was prairie, open ground as far as the eye could see. North of here were the woods, the pineries. If there were trees here then, it was small clusters of oak. Those days are gone.

The geese seem to have gone north. There are not many of them around now. The skies are quiet except for the occasional sandhill crane and its raucous cries.

A blue sky today. The two daffodils near the garage have recovered from their bout with wind and rain; they are standing straight again, or nearly so. Windflowers are low and bright along the house.

The Grand River is less fierce coming through town. Weeds are taking hold of the plowed fields north of town. A haze in the distance, then clouds. If we had a mountain, we would not be able to see it today perhaps.

The water in the ditches near Five Corners has slowed considerably. No reason to speak of it again, I think.

*

APRIL 21, 1998
The reassuring sound of a mourning dove taking flight from our driveway. Praise Allah, some things are constant.

I have nothing much to say this morning, so perhaps I shall be brief. Well, actually, I've never been known to let having nothing to say slow me down. So hold on.

At a neighbors' the grandma has been staying with them while she waits to move into a new place. She parks her car on the street overnight. It is a church-mobile. The back bumper is a sermon. I am reminded of the Pharisees.

The fields are being worked, some of them. Some are still too wet.

The day is overcast, and cool enough that the bird on the wire is plumping its feathers. It is a blackbird, I think.

I put bird watchers in the same class as fly fishermen.

Black-headed gulls float in standing water in fields along the road, as they have for the past few days. I do not know which gull they are.

I don't fly fish, either.

A young man walks the railroad track to school. There is a metaphor in that, perhaps.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

GONE TO VAGABOND
IN EMMETSBURG, IOWA


I'll return to blog here about April 26th.


-------------------


SATURDAY'S POEMS
-----------------------
THE OLD HOMETOWN

by Mark Vinz

for Mark Strand
Rugby, North Dakota



There used to be elms, I'm sure of it--
that dark, safe canopy above me as I
walked each summer day to the post office
when the mail train came through town.
Streets were wider, too, houses bigger--
a porch that isn't there, a greenhouse
disappeared, the fairgrounds shrunk to
one small racetrack. Every person I stop
is from somewhere else; every child
smiles shyly as I pass and stares, amazed
to see me photograph these tidy,
blank-faced houses where they live.

All that remains is the long drive back
through golden stubble fields and sunflowers
that turn from light--I always thought
it was the other way. The prairie sloughs
are drying up this year but still a great
blue heron rises, dips across the road
and veers toward storm clouds massing
in the west--the sound of one small engine,
tires on pavement, turning wheels.


*


MIDCONTINENT
by Mark Vinz


Something holds us here--
call it the madness of phone lines,
the pride of blizzards,
the love of wheels and wind.

Something holds us here,
where roads don't ever seem to end.
Our maps are letters home
we don't know where to send.


"The Old Hometown" is from Mark Vinz's Affinities. "Midcontinent" is from Climbing the Stairs. Reprinted by permission of the poet. Mark was born in Rugby, North Dakota, and is a true son of the prairie. Since 1968 he has taught at Moorhead State University. His poems and stories have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies and he is the author of such books as The Weird Kid, Climbing the Stairs, Mixed Blessings, Late Night Calls, Minnesota Gothic, and Affinities. With Thom Tammaro, he co-edited Imagining Home: Writing from the Midwest, which was discussed in these pages in my "Reflections on Books." I interviewed Mark for my Vagabond project on March 20, 2004, at his home in Moorhead, Minnesota.

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A NOTE TO THE POETS OUT THERE
I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to tmmontag@dotnet.com . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About seventeen of them, by our current count.

Friday, April 16, 2004

TO EMMETSBURG, IOWA, APRIL 18-24TH

I expect to post Saturday's Poem tomorrow, then I'll leave for Iowa. I'll stay with my parents overnight Saturday, I'll take them for biscuits and gravy at the Seven Stars Restaurant in Hampton, Iowa, on Sunday morning, and I'll head for Emmetsburg for a week of poking about and interviewing. On Wednesday I'll do some reading from Curlew:Home at the Emmetsburg Public Library, some talking about how folks might go about writing their own life stories or family histories, and some explaining of my Vagabond project. I have two hours, which will be enough time if I talk fast and they listen hard. On the Saturday following, I'll be at Tuesdays Coffee & Books at Southpark Mall in Spencer, Iowa, doing a book signing. Some writers don't like book signings but I don't mind: I've never had to sign so many autographs that my hand cramps up. Besides, you meet some interesting people in bookstores, and hear some interesting stories. At least I do.

I suppose I'll be back to blogging on Monday, April 26th.


--------------------

A SMALL, INTIMATE GROUP FOR
WAUPACA POETRY READING


It was, once again, a small, intimate group who heard me read in Waupaca last night. I gave one of my better readings. One of the fellows in the audience was a "semi-retired" farmer. "If a farmer retires entirely," he said, "he's got no reason to get up in the morning." Said he had two ewes drop lambs yesterday, said he's had nearly eighteen so far this spring. I could tell he was enjoying the farm poems I read, "Making Hay," "A Neighbor Hailed Out," and such.

I read from the "Married to Prairie" poems, too, about the woman widowed on the tall-grass prairie in the 1880s. A woman came up and talked to me afterwards; those poems astonished her: her grandmother had been widowed on the prairie in South Dakota in the 1880s, some fifty miles or so from Redfield, my Vagabond community out there.

About half-way through the reading, a dozen or fifteen high school students came in; they had been busy elsewhere until then. I am glad to see young people at poetry readings, I just wish I'd see a few more males showing up. I guess the way we teach poetry is scaring the guys away. Though the farmer in the audience said I'd read a lot of stuff that fellows could relate to.

One of the high school girls asked if I'd been interested in poetry all my life. Yeah, I said, I'd written my own version of "Snow Bound" during an Iowa blizzard when I was in the sixth grade, I'd written a poem in high school about the loneliness and longing I felt, called "End of th World." Fortunately both of those poems have been lost.

We had cookies and coffee afterwards, then made the drive home in a slow, steady rain that will be good for the farmers' fields.

---------------------

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
FEBRAURY 3, 2003


I arrived at the weekly Evergreen Outreach get-together at the big meeting room in Vandalia's United Methodist Church just before the wave crested, which is to say I was there fifteen minutes early, about 12:45 p.m. I had time to meet Phyllis Rames and a few other people, then took a seat among the crowd of a hundred. The afternoon program opened with a rendition of the Outreach song, new words put to a familiar tune; followed by another song, again new words to a familiar tune. Evergreen Outreach is twenty-three years old, it brings together old folks from assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and the hospital's long term facilities, along with a group of Vandalia's handicapped.

"Inclusion," Phyllis Rames would say, is the theme of her life; and those who come to Evergreen Outreach seem to appreciate being included.

Phyllis is an original brick in the Evergreen edifice. She has a Master's degree in English and has taught part-time at St. Elmo High School, Greenville College, and Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, Illinois, but never let her job get in the way of her Monday appointment at Evergreen Outreach. Her first business has always been family, she said, then Evergreen Outreach, then teaching English part-time.

Phyllis's husband was a family practitioner in Vandalia from the 1950s until he retired just this past December. He was a practicing family doctor in a world headed more and more towards managed care medical clinics and medical specialization. I arranged an interview for Wednesday with Phyllis and her husband when we'll talk about Evergreen Outreach and the career of a family doctor in a small town in rural America.

I also set up interviews with some of the people I met. One is tomorrow with Mary Peyton Meyer, 93, at the Hospital's Long Term Care facility. She said she would have to miss her exercises to talk with me. She is from St. Peter originally, she has lived in the country all her life.

Delbert Cothern played a couple of songs on harmonica for the Evergreen group. A lot of people have told me to talk to Delbert. He has been paralyzed since he was a young man. On a dare he had dived into the river without putting his arms out in front of him on the dive, and his collision with the river bottom paralyzed his legs for life. He sat in a wheel chair dressed in blue overalls, the microphone in front of him, he said "I'm gonna play an old fiddle tune here called 'Silver Bells,'" and his harmonica took off like an accordion, as lively as a fiddle would be. Then he said: "Now here's a waltz," and it's 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Where did he learn his songs? Was he interested in music before he was paralyzed, or did that come later? What has sustained him over the years? When I asked Delbert if I could interview him tomorrow, there was a playful dance of light in his eyes as if to say, "Silly boy," but he said yes.

I set interviews with Pauline ("I'm the last of the Sampson family") Hicks and Beulah ("Every hour is spoken for") Brown, a very busy volunteer. I took down the names and phone numbers of a few other people I'll want to talk to - Beverly Hood, who sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth" to a room that could not be silent; people had to share the sense of community by talking or they had to sing along, they could not contain themselves.

I'll want to talk to Floyd Meseke. He had been a farmer in the area. When he'd heard a radio program about the Evergreen Outreach program, Phyllis told me, he had called her and said: "When I retire, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to volunteer on transportation at Evergreen Outreach." And so he has.

And Joan Kelly, from London, with quite a British accent still. She has lived in London, she lived three years in Los Angeles, she came to Vandalia, and "I would never leave Vandalia."

Inge Compton, one of the piano players for the program, came here from Austria and stayed even when she divorced.

I was sitting next to Mary Peyton Meyer at the program, and when they came around handing out bells for the songs with bell-orchestra accompaniment, she made sure I got one of them. She didn't want to play it herself, she was sure I'd understand the instructions and would do just fine. There was really no arguing with her, she'd made up her mind. Phyllis Rames was up on stage, and when she held up a card that had the same color on it as my bell, that's when I was to ring the bell. The first song she had selected for the bell orchestra today was "Let There Be Peace on Earth," which Beverly Hood had sung earlier. "Bev and I must be thinking of the same thing - peace in the world," Phyllis said. She started the tape recorder, she held up the cards in time to the music, the bells rang out "Let There Be Peace on Earth." Then we did "Amazing Grace." By the third song I was having such a good time with the bell I don't remember the name of the song. My bell was red; whenever I rang it, a "C" note pealed out, joining the notes of two or three other bells to form a chord.

When it was my turn to speak to the folks gathered for Evergreen Outreach, I told them I couldn't help recognizing the sense of community in the room. The lively conversation. Singing, ringing of bells. Applause for those with birthdays, for the winners from the Olympic Corner of the room. Paintings proudly displayed on the stage. Everyone was welcome, they all seemed to feel included.

I told them about my Vagabond project, that I was already setting up interviews with people in the room. There was a glow in the crowd, pride that the people of Vandalia were being included. When I finished, a few people took the microphone on the pretext of asking a question. One of them led us through a version of "God Bless America," ragged but right. Others offered suggestions of people in Vandalia I should interview.

Even when the program was over, even as those in wheel chairs were being lifted hydraulically up into the Operation OUTING bus, I had a hard time leaving. Phyllis and I were talking, Phyllis was pointing out some of the volunteers without whom the Evergreen Outreach program could not operate.

Finally I walked out into a rainy mid-afternoon.

---------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
APRIL 16, 1998


Rain did come yesterday. I walked in it to go to lunch at noon, walked in it again at quitting time. Water in the ditches on the way home was running fiercely as a result. The world goes on re-making itself, whatever we think or do. It is still grey and wet this morning, and somewhat chilly, too.

I often say what we get is a reflection of what we give. We create our reality to some extent. We are about as happy as we choose to be. Shall I curse these wet streets or praise Allah for the moisture. Knee-jerk response is not enough but often it is all we muster.

Not fifty miles north of here, they got three to five inches of snow; that will slow their lawns some.

One of our daffodils is entirely beaten to the ground. The forsythia is half nekked - her yellow dress gathered in a heap 'round her feet.

A red-wing blackbird sitting on a fence. Now that sounds like the start of a child's rhyme. What rhymes with fence?

Hence, thence, whence. Dense, pence, tense.

Tents, cents, dents. Gents, rents, vents.

Is it true the search for clarity is a search for truth?

The bare fields look slick and greasy this morning. The windshield wipers, all the way to Ripon. The wind, all the way to Ripon. At Five Corners, the ditches run heavy with water. The world falls all over itself trying to keep up with itself.

This life is too good a show to want to leave it behind. See the girl with the puzzled look. Give me another day like this.

*

APRIL 17, 1998
Blue sky. A bright day. O spring. Hope is eternal. We march forward, another day. On a day like this, one cannot despair.

The river through Fairwater still runs high.

What we call prairies - Round Prairie just north and east of Fairwater, Mackford Prairie south and west. Why do we call them that? I assume our fathers saw these swells of land as flat and grassy plains like prairies.

Three geese against the blue of sky. They are heading north. Three sea gulls, heading east.

People died in storms across the south yesterday. Today, here, the sky looks so innocent. We know it can turn on us in a moment, though.

New and tiny leaves on the trees are now staining them their pale green. It is as if the sky behind the trees is tinted.

Water continues to run in the ditches at Five Corners. It is chilly enough that where the water is calm a skin of ice has formed.

Even so, on a day like this, one cannot despair.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

POETRY READING IN WAUPACA

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.


and

What a man is
is

not
what he has.


and

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


and

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.

--------------------

VAGABOND COLUMN: #8
"MR. MAYSVILLE" – MIKE SOUTHER


"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."

---------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
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?

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

POET IN THE WATER

Trey at Only Connect recently wrote about the experience of learning to scuba dive.

I learned to swim at age 53 so that I could learn to scuba dive. As Trey notes, to be certified for diving you have to swim two hundred yards and tread water for ten minutes. Admittedly there is a bit of terror and trembling involved in learning to scuba dive. The moments of incredible beauty come later.

Here are excerpts about my own experiences learning to dive, from my essay "Poet In the Water" in Kissing Poetry's Sister, reprinted for Trey's amusement.

Trey, it's all worth it!



There must be other poets who scuba dive and I just don't know them. Scuba diving and poetry seem to belong to one another. There is nothing so regular in poetry as breath, and nothing so regular in diving.

For sheer terror for the Iowa-farm-boy-poet-at-age-53 there is nothing like putting his face into the water and taking that first deep breath; breathing in water is not natural! I struggled to do it. I was having a good stout argument with myself: my head was saying "Go ahead, go ahead" while my heart cried "No, no, no!" My instructor watched me wrestling with myself; he said to the other students: "Look at Tom, he's doing a Zen thing." I was. By sheer force of will I was going to take my first breath underwater.

Growing up I was not well acquainted with water, let's put it that way. My grandparents had a creek running through their farm, one not deep enough to drown in. Our own farm didn't have much water, not creek, nor pond, not even any big puddles. Rush Lake was four miles from us, you wouldn't swim in it. The summer I was supposed to learn to swim - in fact I took lessons at the swimming pool in Laurens, Iowa - it snowed; well, maybe it didn't actually snow but it was cold enough to snow and I'll tell you a farm boy who turns blue with cold is not going to learn anything. I didn't even learn how to float.

We did get to see water at the midpoint between summer solstice and the fall equinox - August 15 was a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into Heaven. We went to our landlord's cottage on Lake Okoboji on the Feast of the Assumption for many years. The landlord's family was Catholic, and so were we. I didn't swim in Lake Okoboji, I put worms on a hook and drowned them. I was a little older when I tried diving head first into some Iowa pond in a little park at a family picnic. I scratched my nose on the gravel bottom and when I surfaced someone told me Marilyn Monroe had killed herself.

These are not the kinds of experience that make you want to spend much time in the water.

So how did I come to scuba diving? Well, my wife, Mary, had cheerfully put up with me as I covered a thousand miles of gravel road in southwestern Saskatchewan a year and a half ago - I called that a vacation; she just smiled. She smiled and said: "No, go on, drive to your heart's content, we can buy more tires if we need to." We needed to; we bought a pair of Canadian tires to replace ours when the steel belts started showing through. I drove on; and I said: "You've earned a trip to some warm tropical island."

This past fall Mary called in the chit. Our sister-in-law Karen had died of cancer in September. Karen's husband and their daughter, Mary's brother and our niece, Philip and Kirstina, were going to Cozumel after Christmas, scuba diving, part of a reef ecology class that Philip has been involved with for several years. Philip and Kirstina would continue living in joy at the memory of Karen's life, rather than wallowing in the loss of her. We could too.

Karen never wallowed in the unfairness of it all.

Mary took firm grip of the front of my shirt and pulled me up close to her and she said: "We are going to Cozumel with Philip and Kirstina, we are going to scuba dive, and you're not going to screw this up." I got the impression we were going to Cozumel, diving. She may deny this is how it happened, but that's the way I remember it.

If I'm going to scuba dive, I figured, I'll probably have to tread water at least, so I decided to spend three or four nights a week during November teaching myself to swim. Some evenings my wife joined me and offered support. I told her: "You know when a three-toed sloth comes down out of the tree and swims across the river? That's what it looks like when I swim." She gazed at me full steady and said: "Except the sloth is graceful." She'd been watching me.

I spent enough time in the water during November that I was no longer entirely panicked when I got wet. Then soon enough I could swim two hundred yards, three hundred, four hundred, and I could tread water indefinitely; sometimes, admittedly, it was hard to tell my treading water from my swimming. It turns out that to get Open Water Certification, you must be able to tread water ten minutes and swim two hundred yards (no time limit); you will be tested. When our class took the swimming test, I got done a full ten minutes after everyone else was out of the water. They had dried themselves off, packed up their equipment, and were heading out the door; I was still swimming my two hundred yards. But I passed. It wasn't pretty but I passed. Our scuba instructor thought the farm boy who'd taught himself to swim like a sloth did a pretty good job of it. Of course my wife is a fish so the swimming test was little more than a sneeze for her.

Perhaps I have not said enough about the immensity of this achievement, learning to swim. I am flushed with pride. The farm boy who had never gotten sun on his legs his whole long life has learned to swim! I had never been "terrified" of water, yet I was never comfortable with it either and was terribly deficient in experience. At the age of 53, I remedied that. I took hold of myself and made myself do it. I learned to swim, then I learned to scuba dive. I amazed friends and co-workers. A much younger and much fitter acquaintance who already snorkels said: "Oh, I could never do that, scuba diving is too scary."

I said: "If I can do it, anyone can."

Mary and I took our classroom and our confined water training in Wisconsin in December. We wanted to take our open water training in warm water, hence we would get certified when we got to Cozumel. Anything else would be crazy, wouldn't it? Although we had already practiced our skills in a swimming pool twelve feet deep, I had a moment of panic the first time I needed to demonstrate "a controlled emergency swimming ascent" with one breath from the depth of a full 33 feet. To be certified, you must do it, there's no choice. And you must be blowing out small bubbles the whole way up. (The first law of scuba diving is never hold your breath.) On my first attempt, within a couple feet of the air above me, I was sure I had run out of breath and I aborted the attempt; I sucked on my regulator. If this had been an actual emergency, as they used to say on the radio, I suppose I would have exploded out of the water. I succeeded on my second try....

Scuba diving may be as close as humankind will come to the sensation of bird flight, to the climb and roll and pitch of it, the tilt and swoop and sweep, the stoke and dive and hoot of it. We are mostly water; underwater the wetness seems an extension of us. Or are we an extension of the water? Is it the dancer or the dance? Why oh why did we ever come out of the sea? Why did we ever choose to become clumsy land beasts when water is our essence and feels so much like home?

And the colors underwater! The psychedelic aura of everything. The shine and color and shake. Well below the surface, a large fish swims past, close to me, very close, it looks as if it has been drawn and colored by a small child, it looks like a cartoon of a fish come to life. I laugh, and laughing I nearly lose the regulator from my mouth.

We are at Palancar Reef, the outer wall at the edge of open ocean. We are swimming at 55 feet amongst the coral heads there, then the wall of the reef falls away and we fall into a blue ocean, into an infinite midnight blueness of outer space receding forever, there are little blue fishes winking on and off like stars twinkling, the Yucatan channel is 2600 feet deep, it is a great blue abyss and looking into it takes my breath away. I am not seeing God, but it's like seeing God. Looking into the abyss, I have to remind myself to breathe. We cannot speak the name of God and now I know why. I have to remind myself again - breathe! I have never been so alive.

---------------------

APRIL 20, 2001
from THE SWEET BITE OF MORNING


It's a grey, wet morning.
This pale light has been
used already at some dim
street corner in a small
town along Maine's coast;
beneath the yard light
of any farm in upstate
New York; or a steel mill
in Indiana,
the fire in it. It is
light as seen through water
the way a fish's eye sees.
A used-up brightness
but good enough for us,
we're middle western,
we don't have to have
the best of things.


---------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
APRIL 14, 1998


It rained yesterday. This morning, broken clouds and blue sky above. A dark front seems to be moving in from the west. There is a pattern to all this - to the weather, to the roll of our days, to the turn of the season - though sometimes I do not discern it. It seems, sometimes, simply a roiling, grey mass around me. I know that's not true, but often I'm not able to find the end of the string and tug out what is special. It would be even worse, I suppose, in a climate less given to extremes, less blessed with the color of its changes. The tropical fellows would likely say "No problem, mon!" but I wonder. Lethargy is the fruit of sameness. When we come through a tough blizzard, at least we can feel blessed that we have survived.

Smug midwesterner, no?

"Yeah, mon."

Very Canadian clouds this morning. Daffodils bent low by yesterday's rain. A wind. The call of a goose overhead.

Still a high, hurried river coming through Fairwater. Still wild geese in the farm yard. Still fierce water in the ditches.

The farmers have been making progress in the fields - corn stalks are being disked into the soil.

When did they disappear, those piles of snow that had been heaped up in the park in Ripon? I do not know. You think you've been paying close attention and all of a sudden you recognize how much you miss.

"Yeah, mon."


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
JANUARY 18, 2003


It was a cold January afternoon in Rugby, North Dakota. At the Cornerstone Cafe, I ordered an open-faced roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy and dressing. That's "comfort food" and a fellow needs some comfort when the weather forecasters are promising temperatures of 20 below zero, winds approaching 50 m.p.h., and a little snow mixed in just to make everybody nervous.

As I ate, I could see the wind shaking the traffic signs, I could see snow blowing and drifting across the highways, I could see the light disappearing from the western sky and a grey pall of darkness approaching like sadness.

What do you come to Rugby in January for? For this, a Great Plains blizzard. The wind slapped me hard as I walked out to the car after my meal, it slapped me like it meant business. Yet all that wind turned out to be a lot of empty bluster that wouldn't amount to much.

On my way back to my room at the Oakwood Inn I stopped at the office and was talking with Therese Rocheleau, who runs the place, and Teddy, the maintenance man, when Big Jim's truck rolled into the parking lot. Big Jim Rocheleau was just back from his run to Nebraska and Iowa hauling rocks. "In Nebraska, they've got to get their rocks from Montana," he would tell me. "Nebraska rocks aren't good enough. In Montana, they haul their rocks from Nebraska. That's job security for me."

You might talk to Jim Rocheleau only five minutes before you recognize you'll need a bull-dozer if you're going to keep yourself dug out from under his stories. He hadn't even kissed his wife hello yet and already he'd told three jokes. He did kiss his wife, we did get introduced, I got invited to a surprise party Jim's mother would be throwing on Sunday for Jim's uncle's 81st birthday. "It'll be lunch and supper," Jim predicted, "there'll be plenty of food. On the farm my mom cooked for four big hungry farm boys and all the hired help and she hasn't learned to make small recipes yet."

Characteristics of middle westerners? I didn't ask, but Jim offered this: "My mother is so tight she can squeeze a nickel and end up with a dime."

Jim and Teddy started talking about the work they'd done tearing out a piece of concrete in the Rocheleau's house across the street from the motel, a place where Jim bumped his head when going to the basement. "The fellow who had the house before us started tearing it out," Jim said, "but he stopped when he ran into the concrete re-inforcement." Jim and Teddy wanted me to see that it was a great adventure getting that concrete out of there; Therese wanted me to know how much grey dust settled onto everything on the first and second floors of the house while Jim and Teddy were banging on the concrete. I think she wanted me to know how much dust they stirred up and wanted to make Big Jim feel guilty about it, but I don't think he did.

Jim and I talked about making hay and about hauling hay. In Iowa when I was growing up, we put up high quality alfalfa for our cattle. Here in North Dakota, they harvest grass out of the sloughs and feed that all winter. One slough that Jim and his father and brothers harvested was fifteen miles from the home farm. Another - harvested only once, during a drought - was thirty miles away. "When we were working in the fields," Jim recalled, "my mother would bring meals out to us, otherwise we'd waste half an hour driving back and forth."

Jim told me about the custom-built truck his father bought to haul the loads of hay home. "The fellow who built it spent $200 on telephone calls just to get all the transmission and gear ratios exactly right," Jim said. You could engage the PTO to start the chain that pulled the load of hay onto the tilted flat-bed and at the same time put the truck in reverse: the truck would back under the load of hay at the same speed the hay was being pulled onto the truck. The Rocheleaus could haul a lot more hay with this truck than their neighbors could with their rigs for tractors, so they hauled hay for the neighbors, too. "The driver's seat in that rig was sweet," Jim remembered. "The passenger seat was just a foam pad and the front end suspension was real tight like it was in trucks back in those days. When we hauled hay for the neighbors, they'd want to ride along. There I'd be driving along just as nice as you please and in the passenger seat the fellow would be bouncing up and down, up and down. It got so they'd just ride out and show us where their hay was and when we got the first load home they'd jump out of the truck and let us haul the rest of the hay on our own. They'd had all the bouncing around they could stand."

"I really loved that truck," Jim said. "I really hated it when it caught fire and burned up on us."

--------------------

THE TUESDAY REPORT
ON IVAN BURGESS'S ECHO ECHO

(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"The Lambert-Conaway potato wars continue," Ivan Burgess reports. "Last Friday morning at Paul's Cafe Gene Conaway said to Joe Lambert, 'Got your potatoes planted yet?' He asked the question knowing full well the answer would be no. Joe said, 'I got a few planted.' Conaway was visibly shook at this revoltin' development. But he recovered quickly. He said, 'I don't like to plant mine too early because they stool out.' Whatever that means."

"We had fog on March 26," Ivan says. "That means somewhere around the Fourth of July we will have a rain. And that rain will come during harvest."

"I was sittin' tween Judy Hall and Mary Jean Heater last Thursday morning when it thundered," Ivan writes. "They both looked at me like it was me. I think they are both too young to know about thunderstorms."

"Every spring I am always reminded of John Bonecutter's old saying," says Ivan. "John used to say that Mother Nature could fool anything but buffalo grass and osage orange trees. John said that when buffalo grass turned green and the osage orange trees started to leaf out, spring was definitely here. John also said that the time to plant corn was when the osage orange leaves were the size of squirrel ears. Of course that was back in the old open-pollinated corn days."

--------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
APRIL 13, 1998


Grey clouds this morning, like rolled oats. Yesterday was a holy day. Today is not. Well, perhaps we should ask the birds; they sing as if it is; they call and call. You could not run away from the sound of their calling even if you wanted to.

The daffodils are bright, bold strokes of yellow, opened to contrast with the greyness overhead. The forsythia is set against the redness of our house. Without such color, we'd be overwhelmed with sadness, wouldn't we?

There is a red cast to the silver maples in this light, their swollen buds. The world is full of adolescent urgency. Still the river runs high.

Yesterday at noon in full brightness the land looked more desolate than it does this morning in the diffused light of morning. Farmers have been working the high ground. Low areas are still wet. Water is still standing. Water is still running in the ditches. Has the water been running harder and longer this year than in the past? I do not know. I am tempted to say yes, but I have no facts to base that on.

On Watson Street in Ripon, spring clippings are piled at the curb for city pick-up. Even those of us who are not farmers must do something in this season.

--------------------

I'M NOT VERY POLITICAL POLITICAL BUT...

"I am satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America - at a time and a place, an attack." That's what the New York Times has reported that President W said. I'm not very political but... I think all anyone should need to do to win election is say: "If ever I should obtain information such as the August 6th PDB that Bush received, I pledge to the American people I will not to sit on my hands until after we are attacked - I will act."

Monday, April 12, 2004

WE'RE BACK FROM COLUMBUS, OHIO,
AND CINCINNATI, AND JUNGLE JIM'S


Any middle westerner will tell you that it doesn't take much excuse by April to get headed south a few degrees of latitude. We're ready for spring but spring is not yet ready for us. In Columbus, Ohio, one sees the magnolias blooming, daffodils in great bright splashes. In Cincinnati, the trees are showing their leaves. All this is promise to those of us who live a little farther north: spring is coming; spring is coming.

All weekend the weather had been so lovely - shirt sleeves were sufficient. Back in Wisconsin, nearly home last night, we thought we saw insects flying in the headlights. After such a weekend, that's what you'd think. Then was the sudden horrible moment of recognition: those were not insects, those were snow flakes. Fortunately the snow didn't amount to anything at all; it was just enough to remind us that this is Wisconsin.

*

Columbus has some interesting restaurants, with kinds of food we don't find in Fairwater or Ripon or even Fond du Lac. That's part of the reason for such a trip. We enjoyed a Cuban lunch at the Starlight Diner at noon on Friday; the place was packed full when we arrived, except they had saved a table for us. Oh, it was good food. I love fried plantain. Sometimes I think I was born fifteen degrees of latitude too far north; then I realize I'm wa-a-a-ay too middle western to survive the torpor of the tropics for long. In the evening we had a Vietnamese meal, as we frequently do when we're in Columbus, at a little place in a strip mall; it serves incredible food. Saturday we wanted to take supper at a West African restaurant we'd eaten at a couple times before, but it was - inexplicably - closed for the evening at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night. We tried to console ourselves with some "East Coast Subs" and home-made fries from Penn Station, and nearly succeeded, for the place makes awfully good sandwiches, and the fries are cut from huge potatoes while you watch.

*

Okay, Jungle Jim's. It's a grocery store. It's an "international market." It's four acres of food under one roof. There's a sushi counter right at the front where you come into the store, if you can imagine that. The wine section alone is as large as many grocery stores. The several shelves of hot sauces are nearly half a mile long (perhaps I exaggerate, but only a bit). There are cheeses from every country in the world that makes cheese, I think. The Asian food section covers half an acre alone. All through the store samples have been set out for you to try. You don't know what treat you'll find around the next aisle.

We spent more than two hours walking the place dazed and astounded and still we didn't see everything. I thought we behaved ourselves very nicely, spending only $167 when all was said and done and the register tape was totaled. We got some wonderful cheeses and I extended by three bottles my on-going Quest to Find the World's Best Cheap Merlot; the only rules of the Best Cheap Merlot Game are that you can't spend more than $6 a bottle and when you do your at-home-taste-testing, you have to let your spouse enjoy at least a glass or two of each bottle. This time I found merlots costing $3.99, $4.99, and $5.99 a bottle, from Chili, Australia, and California, respectively.

Cincinnati is undeniably a middle western city, however: the hourly wine-tasting sessions would start at noon but not a moment before. Out here we don't drink before noon, you know. At least not in public. (I'm reminded of what my friend says when the clerk at the liquor store asks if he wants a bag for his purchase: "No," he says, "the neighbors know we drink.")

*

On the drive home, we routed ourselves so I could give Mary very quick tours of Eaton, Ohio, my Vagabond focus community at the western edge of the state, and Fowler, Indiana, my focus community in Indiana. We filled our gas tank in Fowler before we left town. I figure every dollar helps. And small town America needs all the help it can get.

--------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
APRIL 8, 1998


April rain and bluster, like the short, skinny kid bragging how good he is. He might beat you once or twice but eventually you wear him down. He simply doesn't have the mass to back up his swagger.

It's not raining exactly, but the wind is wet. The clouds are streaky, like dirty windows. Almost like snow clouds, in the distance. The day is not yet as raw as it looks.

There are wild geese, still, in the water standing in the farmyard. A noisy wind in the open country. The land wants to shake itself like a wet dog, to dry off. There is a light mist on the windshield, however, and you can almost smell the rain in the distance. Within the mile, I drive into it.

Geese circle, looking for a place to set down. It is serious water running in the ditches at Five Corners. Wipers on the windshield sound like a sleeping man grinding his teeth.

Count this as another day.

APRIL 9, 1998
It is that kind of morning. Chilly. Wet. Wisconsin in April. Nothing should surprise us.

Does one have nothing to say because one is empty, or because he hasn't explored what he thinks? Is it a wasteland because there is nothing there or because in our greed we haven't yet figured out how to exploit it?

It is very dark to the east. The clouds look heavy as sadness. The farmyard is thick with wild geese today. My pick-up bucks the same wind as this morning's sea gulls - all of us are going nowhere fast. The plowed fields have a sheen of mud on them, like a salesman's slicked back hair. Still the water runs heavy in the ditches - will it never cease?

If I didn't have the geese as companions for this morning's ride, what would I have?

APRIL 10, 1998
The birds were making a hell of a racket this morning as the sun came up. What was that a sign of? What promise were they making? What do they know that I do not? It is Good Friday. This is the day the Lord has made.

I walk out the door to the pick-up. A mourning dove calls - woo-woo-woo. It sits high in the tree at the southeast corner of our property. Flowers are showing their colors. The sky is blue. Life goes on.

The sky is blue above. In the distance in all directions, there are clouds. Downtown, the Grand River is running higher than it has all spring. The rush of water makes and re-makes the earth.

The morning's shadows are moveable stains. There is swift water in the ditches. There is a goose at the edge of the road. There may be a thin glaze of ice where water is standing. It does not seem so chilly as that - I am in shirt sleeves.

Then as I sit writing in the parking lot of the plant before going into work, as I sit facing east, the sun through the windshield of the pick-up is hot on my face. It is good to be alive.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

GONE AWAY FOR A LONG WEEKEND
BACK TO BLOGGING ON APRIL 12th


--------------------

SLIDELL, LOUISIANA. 1969.
THE BEST "COMMENT" I THINK I'VE SEEN


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.

----------------------

DON'T MISS VIA NEGATIVA'S SERIES
ON THE ORIGINS OF EASTER


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.

----------------------

SAY HOORAY!

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 http://www.fort.lib.wi.us/lorine/niedecker.htm. 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.

----------------------

VAGABOND COLUMN: #7
DRIVING TOWARDS SMITH CENTER, KANSAS


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.

----------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
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.


Monday, April 05, 2004

THE MIDDLEWESTERNER'S SCHEDULE

Sorry, folks. This week you'll have to survive on this post and another one on Thursday. Today I leave for three more days of research on the marginalia in the personal library of Wisconsin's world-class poet, Lorine Niedecker. I'll be back here on Thursday. Mary and I will leave on Thursday night or early Friday morning for a long weekend in Columbus, Ohio, with her brother and our niece.

I've got a busy couple of months coming up, which means that some weeks I won't be posting every day, and some weeks I won't be posting at all. You can measure your loss by taking a look at The Middlewesterner's Schedule. (That's a little joke, heh-heh.)

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THE HOT CLUB OF SAN FRANCISCO

The Hot Club of San Francisco was at the Weidner Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin, yesterday, 2:00 p.m. We went with friends who already had their tickets. I walked up to the window at the ticket office and said "I need two tickets to the Hot Cafe." At least they thought I was funny.

The group consists of Paul Mehling on melody guitar, Olivier Manchon on violin, Ari Munkres on bass, and Josh Workman & Dave Ricketts on rhythm guitars. Mehling fronts the group and said their mission, insofar as a group of musicians can have a mission, is to preserve the memory of guitarist Django Reinhardt, his brand of "gypsy jazz," and the repertoire of Reinhardt's group, the Hot Club of France.

What a lovely afternoon. The audience ranged from old "Deadheads" to blue-haired ladies with fox-skin stoles. The music was hot, truly a conversation among instruments - between guitar and fiddle, between lead instruments and rhythm section. You could close your eyes and be transported to a stuffy club in Paris, the 1920s, the whole century busted wide open ahead of you.

The Weidner Center is a large complex, but I think those five musicians lifted it off the ground several times.

The fellows deserved a far larger audience than the audience they had. It was a "small, intimate group," as we say in the poetry business. I suppose the marketing of "gypsy jazz" suffers the same as marketing of poetry does, being of special interest and somewhat esoteric, and only those who need it take the trouble to find it. The rest of the world goes on doing whatever the rest of the world does, while we have some few minutes to indulge our passions. Some of us need only salt on meat and potatoes, and some of us need so much more.

Even as great as The Hot Club of San Francisco was, I have to confess, I will stand by my notion that music is like sex, in that it is so much more fun to do than to watch. See the Hot Club when they are in your area, and play some music yourself when they are not.

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BLOGGER NEWS

Lorianne at Hoarded Ordinaries defends her dissertation today. If you've visited her blog, you already know that she has spent the past month finishing up her version of a project she named "Bill." Lorianne, when you walk into the room, just remember that you know more about your subject than anyone in the world!

Tonio at savoradin.com has put his blog through some changes. Stop by to see the new look.

Bartender Kathleen at ~ Unsettled ~ writes a rant, er, I mean an "Open Letter to My Customers" for her April 4th post. It's a good reminder for us when we start to take our bartenders and waitstaff for granted.

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THE TUESDAY REPORT
ON IVAN BURGESS'S ECHO ECHO

(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"A week or so ago," Ivan writes, "I was going to a place where there were going to be several people. So when I got there I noticed a parking spot by the front door. So I says to myself, self, I said, why not leave that spot for some old person. When I went into the meting I discovered that I was the oldest one there and the youngest one there had parked closest to the front door. That's it - no more Mister Nice Guy for me."

"Ol Bennie Smith has got the right idea," Ivan says. "Bennie said they used to have a neighbor lady that when she vacuumed she always went over the same spot seven times. Bennie says when he vacuums if he gets the cracker crumbs and the potato chips that is good enough for him."

"And it was Dick Stroup," Ivan indicates, "who identified a couple of high school girls when they came into the Second Cup last Friday morning. I asked Dick who those two girls were and Dick said, 'One of them is what's her name and the other is a friend of hers.'"

"I'm getting my order in early," Ivan writes. "If you have any home-grown tomatoes to give away, look no further. I can't remember ever having too many."

--------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
APRIL 3, 1998


Am I so a like farmer because my father was a farmer? I am stamped by the farm experience, certainly, but I left the farm. It was too hard a life for me.

Are the farmers hereabout farmers because their fathers were? There are not many, I think, who choose farming without having grown up in it. On the other hand, there may be middle western farmers trapped in the bodies of California surf boys, California surf boys trapped in the bodies of middle western farmers. I know - that's not likely; but admit that it's possible.

Certainly I am stamped indelibly by the farm experience. Look at my poetry, at my prose. See the concerns in my writing. Feel the rhythms. A special kind of mark is not unique to the farm experience - it is the result of any relatively differentiated experience. We are branded as different, all those of us who have not grown up in generic, white-bread America.

This morning the drive to work is empty: I am in it, I am mindful, I am quiet. Silence, too, is a feature of the landscape, of this drive today, of life, and it should be included. Here it is, some of it.





Sunday, April 04, 2004

WHY HOW WRITE WHAT?

Well, on the back of one of my books, my "selected" poems which came out twenty-two years ago, Middle Ground, it says "he writes because he can't not-write." There's something to that.

I am both poet and essayist because the poet and the essayist each write, sometimes, to explain the world to himself, herself. Ask my wife. She will roll her eyes and start to explain how immense is that part of the world I don't understand; or at least I don't understand it in the way that she and many others do.

Dave from Via Negativa brought all this to mind recently, when he left a comment here about a facet of my work, saying "this is indeed an honorable and enviable task for a poet, to validate 'ordinary' people's lives in this way." I've said it before, a lot, and you'll get sick of hearing me say it: I want to write so that aliens a thousand years from now can read what I've written and know who we were.

Near the end of my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm, Curlew:Home, I put it this way:

I think I write so family and neighbors shall not have lived in vain. I want to speak for them, to tell their stories, I want them to be represented in the gallery of humankind. We are not famous yet we should not be forgotten. Though I can make no good argument for why they must be remembered, I live with the conviction that it is important. Why ask why the meadlowlark sings?

And at the conclusion of the title essay of Kissing Poetry's Sister, this is how I put it:

Why? you may wonder, why does one choose to spend himself writing little essays? The simple answer is that I can't behave otherwise. Talent or grace - the gift of writing ought not be squandered. I want to leave behind some image or mark, not for myself alone but for all of us gathered here, as moving as the cave paintings in France, powerful as the images at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta, on the sandstone bluffs there overlooking the Milk River, right next to the surprise of rattlesnakes buzzing at your feet. I want to scratch such marks, eternal as stone, a clear sense of who and what we have been, those of us who have traveled here. I like beauty with dirt still attached to its roots: a primitive yet powerful kind of mark, a moving imaging left for an astonished future.

Left to my own devices, my mind is a couple pounds of pretty unremarkable electric protein. However, when I look outward to observe the world around me, to absorb what I can of the people and the places in the real and physical world, then I have something of which to write. I have to be close to the dirt and goo and stuff of things, right up close, so I can see it, can feel it in my bones, can taste it clear down in my belly. "No ideas but in THINGS," William Carlos Williams said (emphasis mine), and I have to agree. I remember learning that some people think in words and some people think in pictures. Some people (like Dave at Via Negativa) can write about ideas; I cannot. About the best I can do is take my stick and scratch a few figures in the sand; the best I can do is paint some word salad pictures, make some collages out of pieces I've torn from the real world around me. One way is not better than the other way.

I don't read fiction, at least not very often. Ask me why, and I'll tell you life is too short for fiction; and life is too short to get into an argument about my position, so let's not even go there. I have too many true stories I want to tell, stories of real protangonists in the real world. Hard-working and ordinary people who shouldn't be forgotten.

People like Steve Engelhart, the owner of Wisner Rendering in northeastern Nebraska, who does the dirty job of picking up dead animals and hauling them to the rendering plant. I rode with him for a day last year. I've written of that experience in an essay called "Riding With the Local Used Cow Dealer." The piece opens:

I arrived at Steve and Cindy Engelharts' home right on time for breakfast this morning, May 1, Feast of St. Joseph the Workman, 8:00 a.m., in a grey rain. It would be a cool day, which is always good in the rendering business. Dead animals can get awfully ripe in the heat of full sun by the time Steve gets to the farm to pick them up. A dull, grey day helps hold down the stink.

Cindy was making pancakes when I arrived, and "fresh-squeezed eggs," bacon. After we all got introduced, Steve fed the cat, Cindy went on making breakfast, I found a chair at the kitchen table, we talked. Steve is a big bear of a man, you wouldn't want to have to tackle him, or break his tackle. He wears a fierce mustache on a jagged face, he's got enough muscle he could swat me down any time he wished. You could tell he wouldn't, though; he has interesting and interested eyes, this look of curiosity that comes across his face now and again. He likes to talk and has something to say. Cindy runs "Cindy's Sewing" out of the home - there's a sign for her business out by the road. Steve said she drives truck for him, too, when she has to, in the busiest times. The Engelharts rent the place they live on, they have some horses, the landlord feeds cattle across the yard from the house, Steve keeps his rendering trucks parked in front of the garage. After we'd eaten, Steve suited up - coveralls, his tall rubber boots, gloves. It was 8:50 a.m. when we climbed in the truck. The door of the truck is painted with the company's name, Wisner Rendering; and I saw that I'd be riding with "Your Local Used Cow Dealer."

"First, we pick up some pigs," Steve said.

Steve might look like a bear of a man, yes, and you wonder how interested he might be in things beyond the job. Well, you'd be surprised. Certainly he is interested in history; his great-grandfather homesteaded some miles north of where Steve and Cindy now live.

"I really like the people," Steve said as he swept a view of all the Wisner and West Point area with a turn of his head. "They are friendly, godly, they are always willing to help. I can guarantee, if you stop your car along the highway, someone will pull up in five minutes to see if they can help you. It can be an out-of-state car, people will stop. People here are hard-working, they have to work for everything they've got. Life is not easy out here...."


Life is not easy, certainly not the life of a rendering truck driver. This is what I wrote about the smell associated with the work:

Two dead black beef cattle have been pulled out of the feedlots for Steve to pick up. One of them is bloated more than the other one, its legs poking out like the legs of a balloon cow, its bung-hole bulging hugely, its belly bloated in an arc. "I don't know how your stomach is," Steve said by way of warning. "I let the air out of them." He poked the dead animal's great bloated belly with his butcher knife, you could hear the air coming out, a stream of liquid squirted out like a lazy geyser, you could smell it. "That's the smell you don't get used to," Steve said. He lets the air out of most of the bloated animals, he said, "that way I can get more of them in the truck...."

The smell of this work? You have to talk about it, you can't ignore it. The stink accumulates. Imagine a pan of bacon grease left sitting out for a week or two, the house closed up, a mustiness already risen from the basement where clothes have mildewed, mixing with the greasy rancidness. Now add the sickly sweetness that comes up your throat when you've eaten way, way too much candy. Underneath, there's always the smell you smell when you stick a finger to the back of your throat, just before you puke. I think it might help to rest my forearm on my belly when I'm about to gag, but it doesn't help much.

"You breathe out of your mouth a lot," Steve said. "You make sure you know which way the wind is blowing. I always warn everybody what I'm doing before I do it." Steve has seen even old, grizzled farmers vomit at the smell when he stuck an animal before loading it....


Steve makes an honest living, it is necessary and honorable work he does. If you want to be able to eat beef, people like Steve have got to pick up and haul away the dead ones. We don't need for feel bad for Steve - he likes his work as well as any of us like our jobs. So many people get on a plane in New York and fly to Los Angeles, or get on a plane in Los Angeles and fly to New York, and never see, never know, never understand what happens here where the heart beats.

I want to write so those folks flying at 35,000 feet will know what the hell we do, and what it means. If I can get their attention, I will hold up my portrait of Steve Engelhart for them to see, and say: "Okay, go ahead, try to show me a better, finer man than Steve, if you can."

Is it important that I do this? Yes. The great wheel turns: we are here; we are dust, blown away. In the turning moment, our lives mean something. I want us to know what our lives mean, what they will have meant when we are gone.

Will the people flying at 35,000 feet care? Will I succeed? I don't know. But I will have tried.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

SATURDAY'S POEM
-------------------------
IN LIVING MEMORY
June 2003

by Fred First


Declare these things, and testify
See each memory with insight and speak its name
touched and known, harvested
by word and form, preserved
by points of colored light
in clear glass and stored
drying in synapses that hang like raisins
on tangled wires.

Preserve the night of summer light and
Pollen round sifted like fine flour when
Fireflies warmed heavy air with cold light
And moon shadows sailed over pasture grass
Coursed dark like liquid ships
in shades of gray the size of meadows, surged
from behind you spilled under your feet
Poured into creeks and lifted
without effort up mountains
under ground under oaks
To the top of the ridge and were gone. Yet
This too remains.

Sing the wind in winter,
Dense and gray, heavier than air that sinks
into the valley like a glacier of broken glass,
That pushes hard on frozen earth, unrelenting.
Recall dreams of Old Man Winter from children's books
Cheeks bloated lips pursed brow furrowed,
Exhaling a malevolent blast below
On frail pink children in wet mittens.
You have seen this in your time, and more.

Hold fast to leaves in Autumn,
That wait frail and finished--
beech and spicebush, poplar, oak, elm--
For a time to fall. Recall:
You lay on your back in dappled sun
And counted above the maples
winged wisps pulled west
Monarchs of air
You told the signatures of trees
by traces of their leaves, dying.

These things I declare are real as bare toes
among stoneflies in torrents of cold.
Bear witness to them, for
you will come back and visit when you are old.

Claim by memory these moments
And clutch meaning from stones
and reason from under bark and barn boards
Redeem purpose and beauty from under your feet,
wrestle them to the ground
And plant them here in the good Earth
while there is time.
Plant seeds of memory here
So others may shelter in this forest.
Declare these things and you will be long among friends
When days become short.


Fred First is proprietor and perpetrator of the photo-lovely, text-rich, and well-read blog-site called Fragments from Floyd. He lives in Floyd County, Virginia (or, should we say, his Blue Ridge Mountain Home). He is finishing up a book about the turn and pull of seasons there, tentatively titled Here's Home: Belonging In the Blue Ridge.

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A NOTE TO THE POETS OUT THERE
I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to tmmontag@dotnet.com . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About sixteen of them, by our current count.


Friday, April 02, 2004

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
MARCH 24, 2004


On my way home from Alexandria, I pulled off for something to eat at a truck-stop in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. I had taken a place at the counter; a couple truckers sat off to my right around a bend, seated so I could see them. When I returned to my place with a plate of food from the buffet, a waitress who had been talking to one of those truckers turned and looked at me. I looked back at her with a question mark. She said, "I'm sorry, I just don't want to have sex with you." She sounded genuinely sorry.

"I suppose not," I said. The trucker she'd been talking to pointed vaguely at me and then at the trucker to his right and kinda shrugged his shoulders; it looked as if he'd been trying to set her up with one or the other of us. The waitress would have none of it, she just wanted "to be friends."

The trucker trying to direct that waitress's sex life was also trying to figure out how he was going to get past the weigh station on I-90 at Eau Claire. He knew he was about 4000 pounds overweight. Sometimes you can get away with being a thousand or fifteen hundred pounds over the limit, but they won't overlook that you're 4000 pounds over. When it was obvious that the other trucker, the waitress, and I were not going to solve his dilemma, he said "Well, fine, it's my dispatcher's problem" and he dialed his cell phone.

I paid my tab and went on down the road towards home.

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OPENING PARAGRAPHS OF
"WHAT THE DISTANCE KNOWS"
from CURLEW:HOME


A man reaches the age where his astonishment trumps his certainty. Old men spend a lot of time sitting on benches and thinking. I was more than fifty years old before I started to understand why. There's a lot for old men to think about. The more you think about it, the more astonished you become: how does a fellow get to where a fellow is?

The middle west was the bottom of an ocean, wasn't it? It is a great, flat accumulation. It is home for me, because I need trees and a great humming greenness, I need the turn of seasons, I need the ice. I was born here in the middle of it, in Iowa, in our only truly middle western state.

Ohio is too much Pennsylvania and West Virginia to be middle western. Indiana is too southern. Michigan has too much water. Wisconsin and Minnesota have too many lakes, too much forest, and these states might be partly Canadian, ey? Kansas and Nebraska, South Dakota and North - half of each of these is western. Missouri is too much like Arkansas.

That leaves Illinois and Iowa, doesn't it, yet Illinois has Chicago at one end and Cairo at the other, so what remains as the only true middle western state is Iowa. Of course it has taken more than fifty years for me to appreciate this. All our lives we want to run from that which we should be embracing....


---------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
APRIL 2, 1998


The drive from my house to Five Corners is about five miles; from Five Corners to the printing plant where I work is another five miles, nearly. I have worked there for almost twenty years; I have made the drive five days a week, fifty weeks a year: 20 x 50 x 5 x 20 = approaching 120,000 miles spent driving to and from work these past twenty years. It takes me about fifteen minutes each way: 20 x 50 x 5 x 15 = 75,000 minutes div. by 60 = 1250 hours div. by an 8-hour day = more than 156 8-hour days spent driving to and from work. 156 days is more than 22 weeks. What do I have to show for that time?

Another front came through yesterday, bringing more rain. The sky is grey this morning but the streets are dry. Leaf buds are swollen. The daffodils next to our garage will want to bloom soon if it warms up. Yet it is a cool wind still that ripples the surface of the pond down the hill.

Wild geese sit in pooled water in a farmyard just north of town. What have they to fear? What have I to fear?

At the edge of Ripon a crow eats at a deer long dead in the ditch. It flaps its wings with satisfaction. Unless we are making something new, we too are feeding on carrion.


Thursday, April 01, 2004

NOTES FROM THE VAGABOND JOURNALS:
ALEXANDRIA, MINNESOTA
MARCH 23, 2004


At 6:00 p.m. I entered the United Methodist Church on the far east side of Alexandria. I was there to make a presentation after supper about the Vagabond project, to the fellowship group that my hosts, Paul and Carolyn Peterson, belong to. This was Paul and Carolyn's last time with these Alexandria friends. Once they move, they'll have to find fellowship in New Jersey.

My presentation to the group of twenty-five men and women was the typical explanation of the Vagabond project - how the idea originated, my definitions of the middle west's boundaries, how I selected the twelve focus communities, and the kinds of questions I ask during my interviews. Then I read from my Vagabond journals, featuring selections about "the talk you hear" and "the people you meet," especially the people I've met in Alexandria.

After my talk, there was excitement in the room, almost as if these people recognized that the middle west can be the stuff of literature, that the people of the region can be the heroes in their own stories. There were lots of good questions, questions that made me talk about how one writes truthfully of those he loves, how one writes of the ugliness as well as the beauty.

There was also an opportunity for me to pull my car keys out of my pocket - and, with them, the key to the Petersons' house: "As I left last May," I told the group, "Paul and Carolyn gave me this key, in case I was passing by and needed a place to stay and they weren't at home." I held the key up in the direction of Paul and Carolyn; the audience applauded them, as much for all of the Petersons' kindnesses over the years, I think, as for this one.

Afterwards, as I was gathering my things and rolling up the laminated map of the United States whereon I've marked out the boundaries of the middle west, a woman came forward and gave me what I consider to be the ultimate compliment: "Every time you paused to collect your thoughts, I'd hold my breath waiting to hear what you'd say next. It was that interesting."

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VAGABOND COLUMN: #6
OL' DELBERT COTHERN AND HIS MUSIC


Delbert Cothern of Vandalia, Illinois, faces another day every day. He was paralyzed when he was sixteen years old, diving into Ramsey Creek on a family outing. He and a cousin kept challenging each other to dive into the river with hands at the back of the head instead of extended in front of them as they entered the water. Once too often Delbert dove in that way and his head hit bottom, he broke his neck, he has been paralyzed since.

That was back in the late 1930s. Before the accident Delbert was a typical farm kid who'd rather be outdoors than anywhere. After the accident he lay motionless in bed for months on end.

His folks had to move off the farm and into town because Delbert's sweat glands shut down, he needed to remain in front of an electric fan to stay cool, and the farm didn't have electricity. His father opened a garage in town and went into the car repair business. His mother worked at the hospital.

With effort, Delbert eventually started getting around on crutches and could move well enough that he did most of the housekeeping for his parents. Out of the money his mother paid him for keeping house, Delbert saved enough to buy two acres out in the country. His parents put a trailer house on the property. Delbert and his folks lived there for many years.

Delbert kept a large garden on the acreage. Though he couldn't walk, he could stand without support. He would hoe as much as he could reach from one place, he'd use the hoe as a crutch and move forward, he'd hoe some more. Through the years, he kept the freezer and cupboards stocked with food from his garden.

Delbert's mother died some twenty-five years ago, his father lived until 1997. Delbert moved into the Cherrywood facility in Vandalia in 1996.

Delbert is a harmonica player. He came from a musical family and had taught himself mandolin as a youngster. He was a little guy for his age, he told me, so the mandolin was just the right size for him. He learned his licks listening to Roy Acuff's mandolin player on the Grand Ole Opry, but says he didn't copy the fellow exactly.

After the accident that crippled him, Delbert could no longer play mandolin. If he were to continue playing music, he had to learn an instrument he could play with one hand. So he took up harmonica, learning fiddle tunes and traditional bluegrass, and transferring them to his new instrument.

Delbert had always been something of a shy country boy who didn't think he could play out in front of people, but - bit by bit - playing in front of bigger and bigger audiences, he lost his shyness and now, he said, he would just as soon play for a hundred as for ten.

Delbert has played in the Illinois Old Time Music Harmonica Championships, coming in as high as second. He won a national championship in 1988 at Avoca, Iowa, tearing off renditions of "Soldier's Joy" and "Silver Bells" and a waltz. He has also competed at a contest in Tennessee but that championship draws a lot of great harmonica players from Nashville, Delbert said, "and they are tough to beat."

Delbert has a four-track recorder set up in his room at the nursing home and stays busy learning new songs, writing songs of his own, and recording them. He has released a 13-song tape, Just an Old Man and His Old Music: Old Timey Type Music No. 1, and on it refers himself "Ol' Delbert." There's harmonica on the tape, of course, and Delbert's singing and talking and whistling. Many of the songs are his own compositions. He introduces them with his Ol' Delbert drawl. He makes copies of the tapes to sell as the need arises and earns enough, he said, "for a little pocket money." He's not so much interested in the money as in the music, I think. It's telling that he's got a four-track recorder in his room, and no television - "I always gotta be doing something," he said, "and I'd rather be making music than anything else."

Does Delbert think he's an inspiration to others? "Well, I hope so, but I don't know if I am." He's not one to brag, not about his music, not about the example he sets for the rest of us.

Ol' Delbert just keeps on making music.

---------------------

from
MORNING DRIVE JOURNAL
APRIL 1, 1998 - APRIL FOOL'S


The writing life is the life lived. The life lived is the writing life. I can no longer distinguish between them. The edges have blurred. What I do and what I write about have come together and it makes no sense trying to keep them separate any longer. I suppose many writers come to this point.

Yes, it is difficult to find publishable chunks of material, if publishable chunks is what one's after. For myself, for now, I am finding it difficult to distinguish between what is journal, what is essay, what is poem, what is history, what is life. The silken web vibrates everywhere as I write here, now. How can our weekend trip to Chicago be disconnected from the Hargrave farm journals I'm working with, from this morning drive, from my next poem. In the wonder of this sense of oneness, my challenge will be not to get lost; my challenge will be to remember where I am going.

Sometimes, when it suits me, I can fabricate reality from nothing. This morning, being April Fool's, would be the perfect opportunity to play, with a vengeance. Yet I find the prospect doesn't attract me. Perhaps because it is expected today. It comes at no cost today. Anyone can do it today and get away with it. I'd much rather fabricate on the off days, the rest of the year.

Today is strange in other ways. After two days of rain, the ground is soaked. The sky is soaked, sloppy with clouds still, except to the far west where some clouds seem to be catching light from the sun; they look pink and gold like a sunrise in the wrong direction.

It has been a sloppy sky. Likely we tell ourselves it cannot possibly snow again. Hell, it could snow tonight. Never say never in Wisconsin. Never say never on April Fool's Day or Halloween. If you can't take a joke, move to Los Angeles.

The streets are still wet. Children wait for the school bus in front of Leahy's Tap. The Grand River is running high and hard this morning. There is a definite break in the clouds to the west, as if it is a new front coming in. A red-wing blackbird, geese, a robin. The trees are setting buds, definitely setting buds. Water is moving in the ditches.

All the nameless faces. Sometimes I think I shall know them in another context. Sometimes I think I shall know them another day.

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