Sunday, June 13, 2004


Saturday, June 12, 2004


by Robin Chapman

Walk the old logging trails
through the spring woods,
six miles out to the spine of the ridgeline,
walk the tractor paths overlooking the river
six miles back to the bluff and road.

Walk the deer trails through the underbrush,
walk through the aspens just showing their green
and the carpets of leaf mold,
walk through the red of the poison ivy leaflets,
the whiplash of raspberry canes.

Walk through the prairie’s first showing
of pussytoes, puccoon, and bird’s foot violets,
walk through the tick-ridden grasses,
walk through the wild phlox
and unfurling ferns of maidenhair.

Walk through the cloudshapes
moving on turned fields,
walk through the sunsoaked uplands,
the lilacs of old foundations,
the white light of wild plum at wood-edge.

Walk the river margin, sandhills calling,
walk through the morning, walk through afternoon–
return with empty hands to the city.
Dream into the long green well of walking
that opens now whenever your eyes close.

Robin Chapman's poems have appeared recently - or will soon - in The Hudson Review, OnEarth, Rosebud, Calyx, Earth's Daughters, and Wisconsin Trails, among other journals. Her poetry book The Way In (Tebot Bach) may be obtained through Small Press Distributors or, and her chapbook The Only Everglades in the World through Parallel Press, Memorial Library, 728 State St., Madison, WI 53706. Her earlier book Learning to Talk and CD Banff Dreaming may be obtained from Fireweed Press, PO Box 482, Madison, WI 53701. She co-teaches a poetry workshop at The Clearing with Judith Strasser and is the Lake Wingra watershed poet for the Wisconsin River of Words Poet-Educator-Naturalist demonstration project. She is a co-founder of the Epidemic Peace Imagery exhibit of over 85 poets' and visual artists' works now traveling around the state.


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 . 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.

o Dave Bonta, "The Morning Porch" - March 13, 2004
o David Clewell, "Depot: Beaver Dam, Wisconsin" - February 21, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" - May 22, 2004
o Fred First, "In Living Memory" - April 3, 2004
o R. Chris Halla, "My Prairie Wedding" - June 5, 2004
o Phil Hey, "Spare Tire" - March 6, 2004
o Tom Montag, "February 1, 2001" - February 14, 2004
o Mike O'Connell, "Flatlanders" and "A Farm and a Rainbow" - March 27, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" - May 15, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" - May 29, 2004
o Mark Vinz, "The Old Hometown" and "Midcontinent" - April 17, 2004

Friday, June 11, 2004

JUNE 13-19, 2004

On Sunday morning, bright and early, I'll be leaving for a week's visit to Smith Center, Kansas. The book says it's a 12 hr. 47 min. drive; last time I did it in 12 hr. 15 min. non-stop except for gasoline and bathroom; I had to drive steady, and sometimes fast, to cut the time by half a hour - I remember the 90 m.p.h. semis hurling themshelves from Omaha to Lincoln, Nebraska; I just climbed in the hammock between them and they carried me.

I will post "Saturday's Poem" for you tomorrow; then I'll post another "Saturday's Poem" on June 19 from Smith Center before I leave for home.

I will return to blog here either Sunday, June 20, or Monday, June 21st. See you then!


SEPTEMBER 13, 2003, cont'd

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meredians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is the sixth part of my report of the trip. Here I have just crossed the Missouri River on Highway 47 in South Dakota, just south of Fort Thompson. It is still Day One of the drive.

Sign: "Big Bend Dam - Corps of Engineers - US Army."

Sign: "Good Soldier Recreation Area."

Then I am rising away from the Missouri, climbing out of its chute. The hills are like women lying about immodestly, they don't care who sees what they've got. You cannot pay attention to both the road and the landscape. You have to pull over and take a look.

Sorghum and range-land and an abandoned house leaning thirty-five degrees towards its doom. You cannot hold onto the future if you cannot stand up straight. "All fall down," I remember from a children's game. The house "all fall down."

An old one-room school house going to its ruin on its little plot of nothing. The wind whistles as sad a song as any in the cemeteries.

I've driven into wheat country again. Off down a lane next to a field of stubble sits a semi, half a mile from the road.

I pass a little cemetery just north of Reliance, South Dakota; I blink at it and keep going.

The population of Reliance is 169. The community is losing its struggle. It is choking on its uncertain future.

Okay, people, these are not pronouncements. They are quick impressions, observations made at 60 m.p.h. I might have missed something important today. I might continue to miss things that are important. The point is: I'm out here looking. I'm trying to gauge, to understand. I'm not flying over at 35,000 feet. I'm here to see it up close.

I pass beneath I-90. All the drivers look so serious, so stern, so earnest. What's so great about the Interstate?

I feel as if I am a long ways from home. I always feel this way when I'm in South Dakota. I don't know why. Perhaps it was my mother's homesickness on our vacation to the Black Hills when I was a child; she had to get home to her chickens. Perhaps it was my grandmother's family, which tried South Dakota, but then retreated to Iowa. Perhaps it is the way the light lays on things.

I come over a rise and the view makes me admit that this doesn't look like the middle west any more; south of Reliance, it could be the west.

My left shoulder is sore form the day's long drive. Am I that much out of shape? What kind of Vagabond gets a sore shoulder from an easy day's drive?

I cross the White River. What water remains is mostly white. The river is mostly dry. It runs all the way from southwestern South Dakota and northwestern Nebraska, it passes Chimney Butte and the Badlands National Park, it forms the northern boundary of Mellette and Tripp Counties and it is nearly exhausted where it reaches the Missouri.

A pick-up with a stock trailer behind it pulls out of a lane ahead of me. I have to slow down. That driver leads me up the hill away from the White River. Another pick-up pulls out of the land behind me.

At the top of the hill, the first pick-up turns left into a field. I don't see where he is going to unload. In the rearview mirror, I see the pick-up behind me turn left too.

Corn is on my left again, to the east; hay and range is on my right. The metaphor holds.

A semi loaded with cars comes towards me; it is headed north on this lonely road. I don't quite imagine its story. Is he hauling used cars? Is he taking them from the back country to the city?

Another abandoned farmhouse falling face down in its sadness. I know I cannot answer all the questions. Sometimes I think I cannot answer any of the questions. Sometimes I think I am jousting at windmills. I am always a poet.

Circle CE Ranch.

Talsma Ranch.

A pick-up with a stock trailer comes at me. A minute behind him, another pick-up with stock trailer. Stock trailer. Cornfield. As is the case with most things at the margins, this is not clearly one thing nor the other. To my left, a Harverstore silo alone at the top of a hill, for instance; to my right, rangy grassland.

The woman behind me in the black car pulled out of a ranch driveway awhile back; she is gaining ground on me. I wonder if she ever muses about things the way I do; or does she just drive to get from A to B? The shortest distance between two points is the poem you write of the journey.

An International tractor sits in a farmyard, a middle western icon with a disk attached behind it. A little farther to the south, another disk and a drag are parked along a fence.

Bar H backwards J.

An abandoned house - well, abandoned except for the cattle rubbing up against it.

The North Star Saloon stands at the intersection of Highways 47 and 44. I am not thirsty. I have miles to go before I sleep.

To be continued....



thick sky

this morning.
The light

diffuse &

Grey as stone.


I cannot return
what I have not taken.

Thursday, June 10, 2004


I got home about 1:00 a.m. last night after a three and a half hour drive home from Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, at the far tip of Door County. Norb Blei had invited me to speak to the writing students in the sessions he is delivering at The Clearing. The Clearing is a marvelous place; if landscape can be magical, The Clearing is.

When I arrived, I had a glass of wine with a few folks gathered in Norb's room; we had supper in the common dining room - soup and a pita bread sandwich, home-made chips, bread pudding to die for, with cherry "raisins" baked on top.

Then more than thirty of us adjourned to "the Schoolhouse" where I talked longer than I was supposed to about "writing's rituals," those habits we need to get our work done. I suppose it sounded more like preaching than I wanted it to. I talked to them about:

o Understanding and harnessing one's obsessions. It is out of our obsessions, I think, that our best, most passionate writing will come.

o Having no expectations. As soon as we think we know what we'll find, invariably we exclude other wonderful and serendipitous possibilities.

o Writing
without purpose as well as writing with purpose. Unless one has a wonderful editor, it has been my experience, he or she seldom finds the breakthrough astonishments when writing "on assignment."

o Likewise, keeping journals in addition to working on projects. When it comes to journals, I am a true believer. Much of my published worked was orignally drafted in journal form. I think we can be our freest, truest, most authentic selves in our journals; we can write in them without pressure. There's no blank-page-writer's-block when writing in a journal; the journal is already underway, sailing of its own momementum. I told them to keep daybooks and project journals, dream journals, nature journals, walk journals, "wake up in the middle of the night" journals - however many they need of whatever kinds they wish. I told them to take their notesbooks with them always and everywhere - often we don't get a second chance. Admittedly, when I spoke about the "Morning Drive Journal" I kept for nearly five years each day on my way to work, one of the women quoted me the relevant Wisconsin traffic statute; I said I thought I could honestly testify that "I didn't drive while I was writing." Heh, heh, heh.

o Blogging. Putting up a blog, I said, is a kind of promise you make to your readers that you will stay at your work; that everyday you will show some of it to the world. Making that promise really can energize one to get work done. Writing is a loneliness task; keeping a blog also offers the possibility of community. But I warned, too, that we must stay focused on what our real work is; you already know, don't you, that you could spend way too much time blogging and reading other people's blogs, at the expense of your real work. Well, you could....

o Putting oneself in the situation where work is necessarily
squeezed out. "Do what the airlines do," I advised. "Overbook. Set yourself up so it's always end of the semester and you have to get your work done to graduate." I know that if I don't write while I'm out making Vagabond visits to my focus communities, I will come away empty, I will come back with nothing, and eventually - unless I record them at once - all the communities I visit, all the people I talk to, all the experiences I have will become a grey, undifferentiated mass. I know I have to come back with seventy-five or a hundred pages of journal entry. If I'm to have anything in the end, I know that my writing hand must be cramped and swollen from the task of keeping up with my notes.

There were some wonderful writers among the students, some of them already better writers than I am, some of them working at getting better than I am. They had wonderful questions; I'm still thinking about some of the questions, still revising some of the answers I gave. And, folks, they bought books! One woman alone wrote out a check for $58 worth of my books. A fellow joked afterwards that I should have writer's cramp what with all the books I had to sign. It hurts so good when you have to sign that many books.

It hurt so good all the way home, in the dark, in the rain. It hurts so good, even this morning, remembering the reading and the wonderful treatment. Thanks, folks, I want to tell them. You know how to treat a writer. Thanks, Norb.


SEPTEMBER 13, 2003, cont'd

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meredians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is the fifth part of my report of the trip. Here I am in the middle of South Dakota, having just entered Faulk County from the north.

These are such great long stretches. Your mind drifts. You could be headed into outer space. You'd have just the same isolation to occupy your mind.

Then: Seneca. "Watch your children," the sign instructs us. The grain elevator in Seneca is adding a building. There's not much else happening in town.

I turn east on Highway 212 to get back to Highway 47 headed south. Following Highway 212 to the east, eventually I'd come to Redfield, some fifty-three miles distant.

Headed south on Highway 47, I find soybeans on my left, range-land on my right. I am running the edge of the middle west.

Another farmstead gone to ruin; and with it, every piece of farm equipment and every vehicle the family ever owned. "Back at it, Tom," the wind says.

Round bales have been stacked into tidy pyramids in the fields. A line of windbreak. A decrepit grove where another farmstead is gone, only the barn remains, painted red. The color of hope or of the setting sun?

The land could smirk at me if it wanted: it rolls so far, it is so large; I am so small.

A deer dead along the road. The great wheel turns.

I wonder what a semi would be doing out on this lonely road, then I recognize it as a stock truck. It is here to haul some cattle.

Hyde County. Rocky exposures in the hillsides again, a hump of gravel, the occasional rock pile. Fields with grazing Angus.

What looks like a tree nursery in the middle of nowhere runs alongside the road. Three young hen pheasants on the roadway make me brake suddenly and almost come to a full stop.

The edge defines the center, I think. Rugby is everywhere middle western. Redfield is. This strip I'm seeing along the western edge of the middle west, this is what we all are.

Looking out across this land, I wonder how anyone can believe the earth is round - it's flat; it is quite obviously flat. I've been traveling all day and have not yet rolled over the curve of it.

Another dead deer.

Another dry slough.

Another farmstead gone. The empty house stares at nothing and nothing stares back.

The great wheel turns.

Corn and soybeans and grass and corn.

And here's a cop coming down the road at me - State Patrol, I think. He winks a finger in greeting. The fellow behind him doesn't dare pass. It's 3:20 p.m.

I don't know why: the sky is spitting rain at me again.

There is a Minnesota license plate on a van I meet. This isn't Minnesota, it isn't Iowa. And yet in a strange way, it is every middle western state, every middle western state of mind.

Just north of Highmore, South Dakota, I meet a school bus, its brightness an exclamation. Old threshing machines along the fence-line, three of them, for contrast.

Highmore is surviving; maybe it is doing better than surviving. You can't make a U-turn on Highway 47 as you pass through town. That's something. And the businesses seem to be thriving. There is no empty space where a vowel might have fallen out of the sign for VCLEK SUPERMARKET.

A few miles to the south of Highmore: rows of dead windbreak, dry sloughs. The land has gotten rougher. A big line of power-generating wind-mills to harvest that South Dakota wind. None of the wind-mills is spinning, not one of the twenty-five. Okay, one of them is moving, barely.

Another empty farmhouse and the abandoned barn - they look blindly to the past, not to any possible future.

A tower of rainfall ahead of me again. The sun shines on it brightly; the sheen of it is almost like a rainbow. From this distance, the tower of rain is about the width of my thumb held up at arm's length; it is but a small smudge on the wide sweep of the southern horizon; I suppose I will end up driving under it nonetheless.

Sign: "Crow Creek Reservation High School -->."

A farmer is chopping corn into a silage wagon. The corn looks too brown and dry to be any good for silage, but perhaps he has no choice.

A mess of transmission lines now; they all want to point in different directions. We are not far from the Missouri River. I am entering Buffalo County.

The spreads are calling themselves "ranches" along here now. I haven't seen much besides hayfields and pasture and several horses for some miles.

Here, a power substation. I suppose I'm looking across the Missouri ahead of me, I just can't see the water; I see the ridge on the other side.

A lonesome farm house on a hilltop sheds its tarred siding. Wind blows through its windows. Where would you go from here?

Fort Thompson. The Lewis and Clark Trail. Welcome to the Lode Star Casino. Fort Thompson is almost exactly due west of Fairwater, Wisconsin.

I pass Lake Sharp and cross the Missouri. There is no sign that says "Missouri River," but what else would it be?

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

SEPTEMBER 13, 2003, cont'd

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meredians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is the fourth part of my report of the trip.

Eureka, South Dakota, is holding its own. The newspaper in town is the Northwest Blade, its office just across the street from the Luncheonette Cafe. Post 186 is the American Legion. The Luncheonette has competition right next door - Jan's Cafe. The Eureka High School has a football season going, according to a sign in the cafe. The cars and pick-ups parked along Main Street are new, some of them. There's a big supermarket.

I'm making notes in my car and when I look up I see the windshield speckled with raindrops; I can see blue sky through the pattern they make.

I drive south out of town - here there's an implement dealer, there a hospital, a tire center, a park along the lake, a big "Eureka Information" building where Highway 47 turns south.

Blackbirds fly above a cornfield, a tube of them a quarter-mile long.

A bleak farmstead - the house and barn and outbuildings left unpainted and exposed to their disgrace. Trees are broken. Tall grass. Roughness.

Off to the southwest, a real cloudburst. It is not raining here, not any longer, but very distinctly it's raining there. The land here is so big that I can see the entire rainstorm and a big sweep of the horizon to the left of it, and to the right. I can see the wind rippling the downpour as if it were a curtain; I don't think I have ever seen something like this before. The sun brightens part of the rainfall, the other part is in shadow.

Now some rain slaps my windshield, but only for an instant. The day shall never come again.

Oh, now it's steady rain coming at me. The soybeans to my left are nearly ready for harvest. I haven't seen anyone out here for miles and miles. I am alone at the far edge of the middle west. The rain stops. And now the road is dry.

Ducks on a mucky pot-hole. Other pot-holes are dried out; one has cows asleep in it.

Here's another desolate farmstead - tower of an old wind-mill, rusting; a shed getting indistinct in its lines; a break of trees, broken.

Cattle fill a feedlot. You can smell them. I'd say it was a "large" feedlot, except I've been to West Point, Nebraska, and have a standard for comparison. On the other side of the road, a pasture with cattle in it.

Another power-line headed northwest to southeast.

Enough wind to push me sideways. I reach Bowdle, South Dakota, pop. 571, and take the county road south out of town to Tolstoy, so I don't have to go seven miles west on Highway 47, then the same seven miles back east a little later. I'll re-join 47 a little farther south.

In the two fields of corn that have been harvested, four rows have been left standing down the middle of each. For pheasants? For deer?

Sign before the driveway to a gravel pit: "Trucks Hauling."

Is it white cattle or large rocks on a distant hillside? They would be Charlois. I see Charlois in a nearer pasture, too.

The car could drive itself down this long, straight streak of asphalt headed south, and I could write a book. The road is straighter than the track of a rain drop blown by high wind. The country is as lonely as a fugitive. All the side-roads are gravel.

Another farmstead, headed for desolation: house and barn, outbuildings, a few trees, palpable sadness.

A hayfield with large round bales in it, and a hundred large boulders like giant tortoises, just dug out of the ground. They wait for a stone boat to haul them away. That will be heavy work for some farmer's son.

A stand of evergreen trees around a tidy farmstead. A gash of stones along a dry creek bed.

Tolstoy has already come undone. There is not much left. It still has the "Compassionate Hands Massage Center." New Age here at the far reach of the middle west? Can it be these farmers believe a massage will help defeat their troubles? Or is the massage for the farmer's wife - a softness of hands, instead of the callused touch of her husband; a lingering measure instead of slam bam thank you ma'am?

I jog east seven miles on Highway 20: a sign for "German Zion Congregational Cemetery." It's so far off down a lane that I can't see it. I don't stop.

Sign: "Entering Faulk County."

A slough has dried out; it is baked white. Now I can se rain to the north of me, wind blasting the sheets of it.

I turn south again on County Road 3, I'm heading for Seneca. Ducks on water and grass on range-land, then the stubble of wheat and more round bales again.

A barn falling down. A new modular home.

Soy beans. A slough, still wet on one side of the road, dried up on the other.

The few people coming towards me down these roads are invariably driving pick-ups. Invariably they wave at me.

The grassland is full of stones.

Yes, the people I meet along these roads wave in passing. Life hangs on out here. I suppose you say "Hello, I'm alive" whenever you can.



You want to
Pay attention,
Ben says.

Even the rocks

Tuesday, June 08, 2004


--His policies mortgaged our future and the futures of our children and grandchildren. Some people called it Reaganomics; others called it Voodoo Economics: in either case, we are still suffering its effects.

--He presided over the decimation of American agriculture.

--Henchmen in his employ, on his watch, and in his name committed criminal acts without shame.

--He made the skies a whole lot less safe by firing all the air traffic controllers.

--And didn't he, in 1947, appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to name groups within Hollywood that he believed were "following the tactics we associate with the Communist Party?" Or have we forgotten that?

May the Great Communicator rest in peace. And may we learn from our mistakes. Amen.



"US Not Bound by Torture Laws" - Why is this not a surprise? When will it end? I think there is no need to comment further, as it - unfortunately - speaks for itself.


SEPTEMBER 13, 2003, cont'd

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meridians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is the third part of my report of the trip.

At the edge of a wheatfield, in a little dish in the landscape, a clump of beehives.

A roughness of land off to the southwest, and to the south where I am heading now. Some corn, some wheat, then range-land on the ridge.

Three cars have been parked at intersections, sitting empty. Is this North Dakota's way of car pooling? "Come out to the hard road and I'll pick you up and take you to town."

Now and again the sun breaks through the clouds. The sound of the wind picks up.

Sign: "Landfill." Off to my left a half mile back, an artificial mound.

Anhydrous ammonia tanks are lined up in a work yard like bombs waiting to be loaded.

Sign: "Burstad."

Sign: "Wishek Welcomes You."

Wishek is holding its own anyway. I turn south with Highway 3. There's a big junkyard just off my turn.

Nearly to South Dakota on Highway 3, a field of soybeans as bright as a coward's streak. A pile of stones looks like an altar. What are these careless cairns? I leave Highway 3 for an unnumbered asphalt road headed directly for the state line.

Then all of a sudden I am headed west towards the Hundredth Meridian. I think I should be headed south, and as if in agreement the road turns south about halfway between the Ninety-Ninth and the Hundredth Meridians. A red-tail hawk sits on a round bale in the ditch watching me pass, watching everything.

Serious rock piles - several of them to a field. What gift were these? I will have to study some geology.

South Dakota State Line. McPherson County. Speed Limit Strictly Enforced. 55 m.p.h. instead of 65 m.p.h.

I will follow Highway 47 down through South Dakota, nearly as far west from Redfield as I can get while staying in the middle west.

A pasture with horses. Corn. Soybeans. Wheat stubble.

I look at the speedometer; oops: "Honest, officer, I didn't mean to speed, I just have to tear off some of these miles."

Just north of Eureka, South Dakota, the corn looks as if it made ears. Perhaps these farmers will have a crop. Across the road, the soybeans are turning. A deer runs across the road in front of me, in broad daylight.

I stop for lunch in Eureka at the Luncheonette Cafe - "Luncheonette since 1926" says a sign inside. A "German meal" is served every Wednesday. The two women tending business wear T-shirts for Eureka's 14th Annual Schmeckfest - Sept. 21-22. "The Place To Be In 2003." I order knoepfla soup and a double-cheeseburger, cherry pie and soft-serve ice cream. A man and his son and daughter were eating when I came in. An old woman was having coffee and a newspaper.

My waitress speaks a kind of English, but an English badly bent by another language; she isn't as old as I am, I'd say not more than fifty years of age.

Three older women come in; they seem well-dressed for farm country. They take a booth, get themselves coffee and cookies. A fourth woman wants to join them. They are expecting someone else and five women would be too many for the booth, so they pick up and move to the big booth behind me. I hear them talking.

They are talking about a woman who was picked up by the police yesterday. She was blonde, 5'2", 120 pounds. A fellow had found her along the highway, confused. He'd taken her to the motel in town. She had no place to stay, the old man had paid for a room for her for one night. A ministerial association paid for a room for two nights more. Still the woman had no place to go, so the owner of the motel called the cops to come and get her.

One of the women in the booth behind me isn't sure the woman was confused, so much as she was lying, telling different versions of her story. She'd apparently had "about ten suitcases and plastic bags" when she was brought to the motel. One of the women behind me speculates the woman must have had a car at some point, with that much baggage.

Another of the women behind me wonders if the troubled woman might be the missing woman they've read about, described as blonde, 5'2", about 130 pounds.

"She had nice hair, she was very clean, she had nice clothes," one of the women said.

To be continued....



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

Ivan got political right off; he said: "We might as well have casino gambling in Smith Center. Gambling takes place all the time right out in public. Just last week, Saturday and Sunday to be exact, we had two days of betting right in Paul's Cafe. Now you can expect it Monday through Friday, but on Saturday and Sunday? That kind of carrying on would indicate to me we are ready for casino gambling. It was on Saturday that Kendall Nichol and J.C. Chance bet a dollar on the location of Nichol's 800 acres of land in south Smith County. That's what you call bettin' a cinch. It was Nichols' land and he ought to know where the boundary is. And then on Sunday morning the same two combatants bet a dollar on if, when, and whether Don Rumsfeld would resign. The local people are always ringing their hands and saying gambling would ruin the town because of all the poor people it would make. Now there was some rampant gambling right there and I doubt if either of those guys will miss a meal or a car payment."

He said: "You know, there has been a strange silence out of Arizona this spring. It used to be that Claude Gripp wouldn't have let day one go by without quoting Rush Limbaugh. But his silence along these lines has been deafening this spring. Maybe I should have just left well enough alone on this front. But diplomacy has never been one of my strong suits."

"Fred and Martha Coon were in town last Tuesday," Ivan reported. "They came to get some pampas grass from the Linton Lull residence to take back to their acreage near Grinnell, Iowa. They showed up at the As the Bladder Fills Club looking for volunteer labor to help dig the pampas grass and load it on a trailer. Out of eight or ten people sitting there they didn't receive one solid commitment to help. There wasn't even a good solid 'maybe.' The reaction by the group was one of fear for their physical or emotional well-being. The reason Fred and Martha drove all the way to Kansas to get pampas grass was because it was some of the original plantings of Ruth Lull. Martha said the plantings had more sentimental value than they did intrinsic value. Fred didn't comment either way."

"Oh," Ivan said, "the milled asphalt has been laid at the Faith Congo parking lot. Looks good and I believe it is going to be all right. But it does take away one more excuse for not going to church. Can't use the old 'afraid of getting stuck in the parking lot' as an excuse for not going to church."

"I asked Bobbi Miles if the old bank building had any mold," Ivan said. "She said it did. So I said I won't be able to help on the work day because I'm allergic to it. She said 'the mold?' I said 'No, the work.'"

"Don't know if you have noticed it or not," Ivan said, "but Dick Stroup has gained two pounds. All thirty two ounces of it hangs over his belt buckle."

"Woke up on Thursday, May 13th, and it was 34 degrees," Ivan said. "Now that's cold. Probably be a run on the ASCS office with city folks turning in their tomato crop disasters."

"You know, I talked like the church building program was some of my business," he said. "It is none of my business. So why am I even talking about it? I'll tell you why - because it is getting close to when I've got to have this paper written. And if you are in the newspaper business you occasionally frequently all the time have to write about something that is really none of your business. Except if when it has to do with boosting Smith Center. I'll not take a back seat to anyone when it comes to boosting Smith Center - even though I think we are terminal - you still gotta be a booster."

"I don't know where it is all gonna end," Ivan concluded. "All I can tell you is: Stay Ahead Of The Posse."

Monday, June 07, 2004

SEPTEMBER 13, 2003, cont'd

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meredians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is the second part of my report of the trip.

A big power transmission line crosses the landscape from northwest to southeast. Swallows bank and turn above the road in front of me. The sky has clouded up now. I drive in shadow, in light, in shadow. Another mud-flat where recently there had been a pot-hole.

Another transmission line, a bit smaller than the first: it runs from west to east. A machine shed coming apart one sheet of tin at a time. Another transmission line, larger, running form northwest to southeast. Why have there been three transmission lines in the past thirty miles? Are there power-generation stations just west of here on the Missouri River? Where is the power headed?

A pot-hole has gone entirely dry; a crust of mud is the only surface of it. A pasture of Holsteins. It is not a Wisconsin pasture. They are not exactly Wisconsin Holsteins. It is not Wisconsin light laying on them.

Not five miles farther on, now I see another transmission line in the distance. We are back in wheat country. Grain bins. Sunflowers, fields of corn again.

I get gasoline at Steel, North Dakota. I get some orange juice. The sky has clouded over almost entirely, the day has darkened.

Highway 3 follows I-94 east for a few miles. It is 149 miles to Fargo from here. I was in Fargo a week ago.

I get off the interstate at Dawson, North Dakota. "South-central Therapeutic Massage" does business in a very old building that used to be a gas station with an overhang of roof out over the pumps. When you say "Massage Parlor" here, you get a very different image from what you might find in the city.

A barn on the ground like a crippled cow.

A yellow ribbon on the post of a mailbox.

Lake Isabel has cottages all the way around it. Yet off to the right side of the road, mud-flats in the slough.

As if to prove the dividing line between middle west and west falls right exactly here, there is corn on the east side of the road, there is range-land on the west side. Could it be any clearer what line I am straddling?

Another mailbox, another yellow ribbon on the post for it.

There is a sign in evidence that they raise polled Herefords out here. What I see is a pasture of Black Angus, a hundred white egrets settled among them.

A stand of trees. An old shed. Some rubble. You know it used to be a farmstead. Land, tell me your story!

Range-land on both sides of the road now. Another transmission line running from northwest to southeast. I'm chewing up all this country, spitting out quick impressions. I try to record everything. I can and yet I can't capture so much as the odor on the wind. All the stoney hillsides. Or hills made of stones. Rock piles. A field of corn. More rock piles. More stoney hillsides. One cone-shaped hill is topped with a rock pile like a nipple, a metaphor of nurture. This land sustains us.

Out beyond a wheatfield, a cone of sand; another cone, of gravel. Each of them is twenty feet tall.

Again there are wheatfields rolling away to the west. I'm approaching Napoleon, North Dakota, now; the community appears to be holding its own in this wind, in this economy, in this culture.

Just south of Napoleon, several hundred sheep fill a barnyard; they have made wool for winter.

Dammit. I hate myself always doing this: I passed a sign for "Historical Marker" yet half a mile down the road I turn around and head back to it. The marker says: "Oley T. Thompson. Born in Norway 1851. Homesteaded and buried one mile west. Froze to death February 6, 1887. In Logan County he was the first white man married, father of the first white child born, and the first white man buried." Most of us don't have any such claim to fame, most of us won't have a marker to remember us.

A rise and fall to the land. North Dakota is ruffled, it has ridges. Off to one side of the road a couple threshing machines have been set out where we are meant to see them, and to remember where we've come from. And perhaps we're meant to think about where we're going.

To be continued....



Presented by Tom Montag
at the Wisconsin Writers Conference
Baraboo, Wisconsin, June 4, 2004

I won't say that your library is your destiny. I will argue, however, that what we read shapes us to the degree that all of our experiences make us who we are. And when we have a dialog with the books we read, that tells even more about how we're being influenced. When we mark up our books and leave marginalia behind, we have a record of that dialog. You might say that our marginalia provides a little window into the soul. My look at her library offers a look in Lorine Niedecker's window.

At the Niedecker Centenary Celebration in Milwaukee in October of 2003, Amy Lutzke of the Dwight Foster Public Library in Fort Atkinson, WI, issued this challenge: She said someone should go through the books in Lorine Niedecker's personal library and check them for marginalia. The Dwight Foster Library has the bulk of Niedecker's library, a bequest from the Niedecker estate and a gift of Gail and Bonnie Roub. Gail Roub had been a close friend of Niedecker's. We know that some of Niedecker's books may also have been given to family at the time of her death.

Originally the books the Niedecker estate had given the library were put into circulation, but that misstep was soon rectified. Niedecker's books are now kept together under lock and key in the main area of the Dwight Foster Library, along with a display of some Niedecker memorabilia. This is one of the ways that Niedecker's home town continues to honor her. Bonnie Roub typed the list of the authors/titles that were in Niedecker's library into a database that is now available at the Dwight Foster Library web-site on a page title Lorine Niedecker's Personal Library ( ).

I'm the fool who took up Amy Lutzke's challenge to look at Niedecker's marginalia.

In December of 2003, I spent a week at the library examining Niedecker's books and recording the marginalia I found into the library's database. I returned several times between December 2003 and May 2004 for a day, or two, or three at a time. At this point I have been through all the books at least once.

As I say, I recorded my findings into the library's Niedecker database.

What did I find?

There are about 506 titles in Niedecker's library, books and issues of literary magazines which, it seems to me, is quite a few books for a woman who made her living scrubbing floors. There are sturdy hardcover books in the library, but there are also many very fragile paperbacks from the 1940s, '50s, and 60s.
294 of the titles, or 58% of them, are identifiable as "Literature."

Two textbooks from Niedecker's youth are particularly well-marked up: John William Cunliffe's Century Readings for a Course in English Literature (c 1910) and William D. Lewis's Practical English for High School (c 1916). These books and her marginalia in them give us a base-line image of her early literary education. They would be worthy of further study, I think.

From the evidence of her library, we might say that Niedecker was grounded in the classics. Twenty-seven books in her library are related to the Classical Greek and Roman world, including works by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sappho, Marcus Aurelius, Caesar's War Commentaries, the complete works of Horace and Tacitus, Plutarch's Lives, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, Ovid's The Art of Love and Metamorphoses, and Virgil's Aeneid and Pastoral Poems.

There are 11 books by or about Shakespeare in the library, including a copy of his Complete Works.

Niedecker seemed especially fond of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She had 8 books by or about him. Her copy of Basic Writings of America's Sage is extensively marked up. She seems to have learned vocabulary in Emerson – for instance: "vitiate" is underlined, with "corrupt, weaken" written in beside it; "depriving" is written next to "privative;" and "contemporaneous" is next to "coeval."

As you might expect, Niedecker owned Thoreau's Walden and also A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

You may recall that the late poet Cid Corman grouped Niedecker with Sappho and Emily Dickinson as the three greatest women poets. Niedecker owned 2 books of Sappho's poems; she owned 6 books by or about Dickinson.

What of other ground-breaking poets had she read? Niedecker had copies of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days. She had a selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems and prose, and John Pick's Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poet and Priest – in it she underlined Hopkin's phrase "... undo the very buttons of my being." She also owned copies of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell and Drunken Boat and Mallarme's Selected Poems; we remember that there's a surrealist strain in her work.

There are 16 books in the library by Objectivist poets, including 8 by Louis Zukofsky and Celia Zukofsky's biography of Louis.

Niedecker owned 12 books by or about Ezra Pound, including The Active Anthology, The Cantos, and Noel Stock's The Life of Ezra Pound.

She had 9 books by William Carlos Williams.

Two novelists who apparently interested Niedecker were Henry James (she had 11 books by or about him) and D.H. Lawrence (6 books by or about him).

She owned 3 books by Henry Miller, but curiously not his most famous: On Writing, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, The Wisdom of the Heart.

There were 14 books related to Asian thought and poetry in her collection, including The Book of Tao, Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, Arthur Waley's Madly Singing in the Mountains and a couple other collections of haiku, and Alan Watts' The Way of Zen.

Niedecker also owned John Cage's Silence and Louis Fischer's Gandhi (published in 1946).

Niedecker had 2 copies of the Bible in her collection, one a King James version, the other called Every Man's Bible. The King James is extensively marked up.

We know of Niedecker's interest in Thomas Jefferson. There are five books about Jefferson in her library, including his Autobiography.

She had the Journals of Lewis and Clark as edited by Bernard Devoto.

Edwin Honig knew Niedecker in the late 1930s and has made the statement that "It seemed pretty clear that most of Lorine's reading of poetry, science, political and music theory came directly from Zukofsky and Pound." Did it? Niedecker's library may help us to argue otherwise.

Niedecker owned 39 books related to science, including William Dampier's History of Science, three books by Loren Eisley (including The Immense Journey), Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne, Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us, Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee, Anne Dowden's The Secret Life of Flowers, and Glover Morill Allen's Birds and Their Attributes.

There are 11 books in the library about politics, more than half of them Marxist titles, which doesn't sound like Pound to me: Handbook of Marxism, a collection of writings by Marx and Engels, Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticisms, John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World, Those Who Built Stalingrad, and Anna Rochester's Rulers of America.

Niedecker owned 11 books about music, including Edwin C. Woolley's Handbook of Composition, Stravinsky's Poetics of Music, Elson's Pocket Music Dictionary, and biographies of Beethoven and Mozart.

There are 10 books about art in the library, including Wechsler's Pocket Book of the Old Masters, Winston Churchill's Painting as a Pastime, two books on Winslow Homer, a book about Picasso and one about Renoir.

Niedecker was not like the rest of us, putting books of philosophy on our shelves but never reading them. She read hers, and some of them she argued with. There are 49 books about philosophy in her library, including 3 books by Henri Bergson, Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy, Pascal's Pensees, Rousseau's Confessions, 7 titles by Bertrand Russell, 9 titles by Santayana, and 2 books by Alfred North Whitehead

There are some curious books in Niedecker's library, at least I think they are curious: The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson, The Scottsboro Boy by Haywood Patterson, Kurt Krueger's I Was Hitler's Doctor, and Perry Wolff's A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.

I think there are some "omissions" from Niedecker's library, too. I admit we could talk for a long time about books that aren't in her library, but these are ones I do find especially curious: no Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, no Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, no Ulysses by James Joyce, no books by the Objectivisit poet Carl Rakosi.

At the Centenary Celebration last October, it was obvious that feminists have embraced Niedecker. The feminist critics should take note, I think, that there seem to be no identifiably "feminist" texts in her library. In fact, I can recall only two passages she marked that might be possible evidence of a feminist outlook on her part.

Now – the marginalia itself. How did Niedecker mark her books?

Most often she would draw a line in the margin along a specific passage.

Sometimes she would underline words, sentences, or passages.

Sometimes, as I say, when she was underlining words, she was learning new vocabulary; the word's definition would be nearby.

Sometimes she would bracket a passage at the beginning and the end.

Sometimes she would write things in the margin, in response to the text, and occasionally she'd write in fresh thoughts of her own.

Niedecker marked a wide variety of books. The examples I present here are only a small sampling of the marginalia. The books I include are only some of those that were more extensively or more significantly marked. Among them were both the Holy Bible and the Handbook of Marxism; Jesus, a Myth by Georg Brandes; Robert Browning's Promegranates from an English Garden; Confucius' The Conduct of Life; Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; Robert M. LaFollette's Political Philosophy; Albert Schweitzer's Out of My Life and Thought; and Oscar Williams' A Pocket Book of Modern Verse.

She marked Francis Bacon's Essays and New Atlantis, including these passages:

"Revenge is a kind of wild justice."

"Life is ever a matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies.

"It is impossible to love and be wise."

In James Branch Cabell's Beyond Life, which is a discussion about realism, she noted the passage: "Facts must be kept in their proper place, outside of which they lose veracity."

Written out on a slip on paper tucked into John Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean? is a quote from Ciardi: "The act of producing a word involves breath and music, and various kinds of muscular activity tend to produce various kinds of feelings." On another slip of paper in the same book Niedecker notes a statement by I.A. Richards to the effect that "One talks about the subject of a poem when he does not know what to do with the poemness of the poem."

Niedecker marked with an exclamation point in the margin of Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy: "But what if we have knowledge whose truth is certain to us even before experience - a priori?"

In Lao Tzu's The Way of Life she marked "Live within yourself; do not exhaust yourself in the world as it is."

In Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathurstra Niedecker couldn't let pass a paragraph that begins: "As yet woman is not capable of friendship: women are still cats...."

There's a poem in Robert Payne's The White Pony with the line "The delight of a mountain hermit" in one poem; Niedecker has put a note behind that, reading: "or a bachelor lady?"

Nor could she let pass an entry in Donald C. Peattie's An Almanac for Moderns about how "there are no truly wild spots hereabouts unless they may be the marshes."

In S. A. Robbins' See America Free, she marked passages referring to communities in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Montanta.

This passage in Frank G. Slaughter's Your Body and Your Mind caught Niedecker's attention: "We know, too, that even such simple psychosomatic conflicts as the oral desires, which lead to so much gastrointestinal disturbance, are fundamentally sexual in nature."

In Harold Stewart's A Net of Fireflies she marked this quote by Takuboku: "Poetry must not be so-called poetry. It must be accurate reports, and honest diaries relating happenings in the author's emotional life."

This sentence was marked in J.W.N. Sullivan's The Limitations of Science: "If nature did not possess a harmony that was beautiful to contemplate, said Poincare, science would not be worth pursuing, and life would not be worth living."

On a slip of paper between cover and first page of Thoreau's Walden Niedecker has written out this quote from Emerson: "He chose to be rich by making his wants few."

Several noteworthy lines Niedecker marked in Marguerite Wilkinson's New Voices (c 1921), including:

"Poetry is often thought to be a painless twilight sleep out of which beauty is accidentally born."

The word "concise" is underlined, with a question mark in the margin, near: "He believes that poetry differs from prose partly in being more concise."

"When he has been published a poet may have inferiors, equals and superiors, but he has no rivals."

Niedecker made very extensively markings two particular books, that seem especially telling. She marked a total of 66 pages in Upton Sinclair's Mammonart (1924), including:

She wrote "Not so much!" next to a sentence that ended: "... and that in technical skills the modern work is superior."

There is an exclamation point near to this sentence: "Does a poet necessarily have to be appreciated by those of whom he writes?"

"Oh Help!" is written in margin and underlined twice next to this passage about Oscar Wilde: "He went back to London and wrote more plays, one of them, 'Salome,' assuredly the most cruel, cold, and disgusting piece of lewdness in the English language."

Next to the sentence "If poets saw things as they are they would write no more poetry" Niedecker wrote: "Nonsense!!"

The other book with extensive significant markings worth attention is Havelock Ellis' The Dance of Life, some as follows:

"We cannot remain consistent with the world save by growing inconsistent with our own past selves."

"I have never seen the same world twice."

"Science consists in knowing, Art consists in doing."

"Freud regards dreaming as fiction that helps us to sleep; thinking we may regard as fiction that helps us to live. Man lives by imagination."

Style in writing "is also defined – and, sometimes I think, supremely well defined – as 'grace seasoned with salt.'"

"To exalt pleasure is to exalt pain; and we cannot understand the meaning of pain unless we understand the place of pleasure in the art of life."

"... [A]rt must not be consciously pursued for any primary useful end outside itself."

And the single most remarkable passage in all of Niedecker's marginalia, a notation that makes the hundred hours of work worth the effort, is this: Niedecker wrote in ink at the top outside corner of the p. 348 of The Dance of Life:

"3 reasons for seclusion: 1. [to] cultivate a detached manner; 2. to watch the world; 3. to instill a faith and a feeling of aloneness" with an arrow pointing to text reading "without which no art is possible."


"Hawk at Evening"
from MIDDLE GROUND (1982)

that bird
that wild    wild
    edge of sky
bird    turns back

dusk on its wings
like wetness    turns
back on a breeze

riding its spine

turns    driving
splits the air

a fast attack
fur & feathers
on the ground

then filled that bird
off again    climbing
    into evening
against blood-red sky

Sunday, June 06, 2004

SEPTEMBER 13, 2003

In September, 2003, I drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, into Kansas; I drove from Rugby, North Dakota, site of the geographic center of the North American continent, to Smith County, Kansas, home of the geographic center of the lower 48 states; I drove along the western edge of the middle west, staying between the 99th and 100th Meredians. It was mostly backroads I drove, not the highways but the lowways, the by-ways. I wanted to see what the western spine of the middle west looks like. This is my report of the trip.

9:00 a.m. I'm set to leave Rugby, North Dakota, headed for Maysville, Missouri. I've been here a week, camping. I've got the tent and all my gear packed up now. It rained during the night and the tent is wet. It not as wet as it got on Wednesday night when I had to take a motel room but wet enough that I'll have to lay it out soon to let it dry so it doesn't mildew.

I'm heading to Maysville for a week there. I will be driving south along the farthest western edge of the middle west. I will take Highway 3 south through North Dakota, Highway 47 south through South Dakota, Highways 11 and 281 through Nebraska towards Lebanon, Kansas, in Smith County.

Leaving Rugby, I am leaving the geographic center of the North American continent. Passing through Smith County, Kansas, I'll touch the geographic center of the lower 48 states. Then I'll turn east on Highway 36 in Kansas, and head for Maysville.

I'll stop tonight where I feel comfortable. I don't know yet where that will be.

I didn't get to tell my friends Jim and Therese Rocheleau good-bye this morning. Neither of them had come over to the motel and campgrounds by the time I had packed up. I wanted to tell them how much I appreciate their hospitality. I will write to them when I get home.


The line I am driving is at the far edge of the middle west, the near edge of the west. The line is where something ends, something else begins. I know there is gradation, not dramatic demarcation here, yet I wonder whether I'll see any evidence that this is where the middle west ends.

South of Harvey, North Dakota, along Highway 3, there is a great openness like the west is open. Yet there is a middle western flatness, too. This isn't the west, obviously, but it's where the west begins.

At the turn for Fessenden, North Dakota, I can see a ridge looming ahead of me, not as impressive as the Turtle Mountains behind me, but a welt on the plains. A red-tail hawk has landed on a power-line, it is steel-eyed, looking west. There are wheatfields and hayfields here, corn and sunflowers, and where the land rises, range-land. I'm at the far eastern edge of this formation, this ridge. I have a long view to the east, of land and water and sky. I see a gnarled landscape to the west. When I've topped the rise I've been climbing, I have a long view to the south, too, a straight, long road ahead of me to the next ridge three miles distant. In the low ground before that next rise, standing water and a wave of rushes. Knobs of hills. Stands of trees. Baled grass. A dead skunk. "America, America," I think, looking out across this landscape. Here, a field of soybeans. There some grain bins. Light on everything.

Now, a small lake with a farmstead at one edge, a junkyard at the other.

I pass Hurdsfield, North Dakota. Dark water in the lake at the south end of town, like an omen. The highway turns west briefly, past a sign that says "Watch for water on road." There is only a dead skunk where water on road would be. And a dead turtle with a blood smear on the concrete near it.

Pot-hole. Pot-hole. Pot-hole. I didn't know there was this much water in North Dakota.

I look off to my right and see a coyote crossing hay stubble. It runs like a wild thing, side-wise, looking back over its shoulder. It runs, but you can see it's not in a hurry.

A cormorant stands atop a rock, watching the dark waters of a pot-hole. The wind is making white caps. The cormorant is steady as stone holding its place.

Ah, a weathered building - was that a schoolhouse once? It is unpainted and coming apart at every neil/nail. Its desolation is shouted Its desolation is shouted as loud as the wind through its boards.

At the top of the next rise, a sign that knows no irony: "School bus stop ahead."

A pot-hole lined with dead trees. Then all of a sudden it is range-land in all directions. I'm just entering Kidder County from the north.

There's a lone pick-up moving across an empty pasture. Okay, there is an occasional patch where wheat has been harvested. A dead jackrabbit on the road, long-limbed, bloated. There is a great large collection of large round bales. There is the occasional house left to ruination.

Here's a field of sunflowers. Except for that, you might think this was the west.

The stubble of wheatfield. Clumps of mud left on the road by tractors. Power poles standing in the water of a pot-hole that comes right to the edge of the road.

Here, a pot-hole that is nearly dried up serves as reminder that the west is defined by the moisture it receives, or rather by the moisture it doesn't receive.

Another empty house, hollow-eyed and gaunt as the wind.

To be continued....


"The Shed"
from MIDDLE GROUND (1982)

At night I hear its boards creaking in a steady
Unfit to house tools now, the shed has opened
to field mice & moonlight. The air within it moves.
An owl leaves the rafters.
                                          By day the shed
                                              sags &
leans toward the trees behind it. Sometimes
     a play of light
through the roof marks the age of this aging
     wood: cracked
& bent, tired as the farmer was, who built it,
     when he died;
the wood grows dark as soil.
                                          The old lumber's
                                              knotty ache
reverberates as, bowed, the shed falls so slowly
     - year
by year - back to the land. The green floor, here,
the patience of the earth, waiting to take
     the wood.

Saturday, June 05, 2004


by R. Chris Halla

For MK & TM: You’ve had your weddings,
now I’ll have mine

Crow, the speaker in "Prairie Wedding," is something of a character. His father was Coyote and his mother another shape changer, of whose true identity we aren't certain, but who happened to be in the shape of a crow when she fell for the old Trickster. And, as we all know, once you fall in love, you never know what shape you're going to be in from there on out. Crow's common involuntary changes into the shape of a man, as well as his desire to stay one, suggest that maybe, even probably, Mom was a human at heart and in her other parts. Or it could be that there's even more to it than that. Chances are you'll be seeing more of Crow in the not so distant future.

I want
to take a turn
with a pretty girl
at a prairie wedding

I want
to be
the handsome farmboy
the unmarried bridesmaids
lust after

I want
to break
their hearts
and leave them all
as I found them...

I want
for a prairie moment
at a prairie wedding
to be a man

not Crow

R. Chris Halla's poetry and nonfiction are well enough published in both the literary magazines and the "paying markets." Most of his more recent published work has been in the outdoors, travel, road trip observations and uncategorized fields. Although, rumor has it that he has been at work on a new collection of poetry, a journal/diary based memoir and a couple of longer works that cross pretty much all of the areas noted above. In his spare time, he's an award-winning producer of safety training videos. And he fishes. He fishes a lot. For a recent sample of his prose work, check out Dan Small Outdoors. Dog lovers, in particular, may find the piece amusing. Chris's Wisconsin Blue Ribbon Trout Streams and Everyone's Illustrated Guide to Trout On A Fly are both available in bookstores, fly shops and from the publisher at Amato Books.


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 . 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.

o Dave Bonta, "The Morning Porch" - March 13, 2004
o David Clewell, "Depot: Beaver Dam, Wisconsin" - February 21, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" - May 22, 2004
o Fred First, "In Living Memory" - April 3, 2004
o Phil Hey, "Spare Tire" - March 6, 2004
o Tom Montag, "February 1, 2001" - February 14, 2004
o Mike O'Connell, "Flatlanders" and "A Farm and a Rainbow" - March 27, 2004
o Colleen Redman, "Tincture Making" - May 15, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" - May 29, 2004
o Mark Vinz, "The Old Hometown" and "Midcontinent" - April 17, 2004

Thursday, June 03, 2004


This afternoon I leave for Baraboo, a day and a half at the Wisconsin Writers' Conference. On Friday morning I will be delivering two twenty-minute presentations. The first is called "Lorine's Library: The Books and Marginalia in the Library of Lorine Niedecker" and by the end of it I will have enumerated LN's "Three Reasons for Solitude" as recorded in the top outer margin of p. 348 of The Dance of Life by Havelock Ellis. Finding this bit of scribble made it all worthwhile, all the more than hundred hours spent poring over her books, examining them page by page.

The second presentation will be about my Vagabond project. Yes, I have only twenty minutes. Yes, I have prepared for twenty minutes. I have practiced for twenty minutes. Praise be, it'll be a miracle if I can hold myself to twenty minutes talking about the Vagabond Expedition.

The powers that be accepted two of my proposals for the conference, but they didn't invite me to read my poetry or prose. I offered. Damn them. Next year....

I will return home on Saturday afternoon and post this week's "Saturday's Poem" before the end of the day. Plan on it.


APRIL 24, 2004

I'm driving to Spencer for my book signing at Tuesdays Books and Coffee. Spencer is about twenty-five miles west of Emmetsburg on Highway 18. Only a few miles out of Emmetsburg, an eagle rises in front of me above the road. After I pass, I see it in the rear view mirror, settling on carrion back along the shoulder. An eagle, here, now.

It is good to be driving here, now. This morning the sunrise was first an orange wall to the east. Now the day is bright and blue, with some haziness along the edges of the world. Fields have been worked for planting. The black dirt looks refreshed. The ditches and the hayfields are greening up. Leaves on the trees are more than my imagination this morning.

It is supposed to rain today, but it won't come early. Farmers will get a few more hours of work done in the fields. The rain is needed, of course, so they won't complain when they get chased up to the house by it.

The book signing this afternoon. Ah, yes. I think Thomas Wolfe was wrong - you can go home again, if you ever loved the place you left. You can go home, and they will embrace you. Witness my visit to Emmetsburg. Witness the invitation to do this book signing in Spencer. They could ignore me. They haven't.

There is rough ground along here, wetlands. Old farm buildings falling in on themselves. Farm houses with empty eyes.

There is the swing of the seasons. There is the swing of the generations, of life and death and life. And I suppose there is the swing, too, of something larger, those greater processes we only see a small portion of, the breaking of the sod here, the building of farmsteads at one end, the wood becoming earth again at the other. The torn earth restoring itself. The come and go of the earth's great urges. The swing of star time, when we are but a cinder speck.

It is easy enough in this moment to want to lay oneself down in death and become part of the great phoenix cycle of things - birth and re-birth, Big Bang and Re-Bang. Now I feel this loneliness, yet so much a part of the cosmos.


4:30 p.m. I'm headed home. It's raining. So now it rains all the way home? Two blackbirds fly in the rain above the road. The farm fields are hung with water.


Wet black cows in the cold rain.

All the headlights coming at me.

Crows and seagulls hunkered down.

Miles to go, hours and hours.

I am as sad as farmers are hopeful.


The patter-rat-pat-pat of rain on the windshield takes away thought. Or is the dying of the day that takes it? I'm on I-90 headed east towards home. I feel as if this highway knifes straight on through the world. The keen edge of the cut leaves nothing for me to think about.


Dress your sadness in grey: they won't know how bad you feel. Is it that you want to be well-known, or that you want to tell these stories? Are you trying to bask in the glow of good men's lives?

I move on, and they stay here. Which fact is the source of my sadness? Is it that they go unrecognized, or that I do?


Can the rain outrun a fellow's sorrow?

Apparently not.

The rain lessens; my sadness does not.

The rain increases, decreases, my sadness stays steady.


Which is greater - the gathering darkness or my desire to write these stories?


Sadly, I find I have nothing to say now. My sadness wins this round. Sic transit gloria mundi.


Except a red-wing blackbird is poised on a stalk of weed in the ditch along the highway. Red wing between earth and sky, between mud and hope. Sometimes you have to let go: three crows in the wet air; one in the tree, unhappy.


Sometimes I want too much.


"Letters Home"
The Civil War Letters of George H. Cadman

I find
the more

a man
has here,

the worse
it is:

the more
he has

to pack:
it is

for us

to make

the mules.


JUNE 3, 1998

Preparing to leave this place for a ten day journey is more a mental task than a physical one. I will be leaving behind a landscape I know familiarly, that I observe closely, that I love. It is not that I fear strangers, for most of my neighbors are strangers to me. I am not a gregarious fellow and do not go out of my way to meet even those who live close to me. I am happy with silence. My Chinese birth chart says I will have only a few, deep friendships.

Partly, I will be leaving behind my familiar daily routine - rising early to work on the book, showering for work, the morning meditation on the drive north, the close look at the changeless/changing land, a good day's work, a walk after work, sweet sleep. A pleasant enough existence getting left behind. I will have to endure hours in the car, lines of people, rude behavior perhaps, a foreign language - these jerk my out of my comfort.

Still, it will be refreshing. I will see a landscape I have never seen. I will be able to come back and view this landscape with new eyes as a result of the experience.

The field of winter rye along Highway E north of Fairwater is starting to head out. A field of soybeans shows itself.

It's cool this morning. Clouds are blanked to the east, to the west; there is a layer of grey overhead.

All three of the baby donkeys are at pasture just south of Five Corners. They will watch my world for me while I am gone.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004


Monday, between storms, I saw a scarlet tanager in the one moment of sunlight. Everything shone green behind it, heavy with moisture. The bird itself held my attention. A splash of fresh blood on carpet. So red it took my breath away.



Some apprehend with their minds. These become the scholars.

Some apprehend with their hearts and hands and eyes, more directly. These become your middle western poets.


APRIL 23, 2004

This afternoon at 1:30 p.m. I went up to Iowa Lakes Community College on the northwest corner of town for a ground-breaking ceremony. Well - the talkin' part of it would be at the college, the gold shovels were out at the site where the Broin Companies' Voyager ethanol plant is to be built, a mile southeast of Emmetsburg, almost across the road from AGP's soybean processing plant.

Half the auditorium at the college was set up with coffee and cookies and such; the other half had the stage, and chairs for the couple hundred people in attendance.

Most of the folks knew each other. They stood in groups, talking. The din of their conversation died down as the program started getting underway and people took their seats.

Larry Ward of the Broin Companies em-cee'd the program. He is project manager for the venture.

John Bird, Emmetsburg's City Administrator, was the first of nine speakers. He said, "It's a great afternoon - the sun is shining, it's Friday, and we have the opportunity to welcome the Broin Companies." Factors that made Broin select Emmetsburg for the ethanol plant? "I believe they heard what great people lived in this county," Bird said, "and they said, 'let's build a plant there.'"

Larry Ward concurred. He said: "It's not the corn, it's the fantastic people in the area." And he introduced Lannie Miller, a Palo Alto County Supervisor.

Miller said: "We haven't even scratched the surface of what we can do with an ear of corn."

Jeff Broin spoke next. He is the CEO of the Broin Companies. He said Emmetsburg's Voyager plant is the Broin Companies' twentieth. Broin handles development, design, operation, and marketing for the plant, which is owned by a group of 12,000 private investors, including many Palo Alto County farmers. "This will be one of the most efficient ethanol plants in the country," Broin said. The project will cost $64 million, it'll create an annual payroll of $1.5 million, it will employ 40 people. It will process corn from 115,000 acres, to produce 50 million gallons of ethanol a year.

"The nation benefits as we produce more of our energy at home," Broin said.

Brian Jennings was the glad-hander of the bunch. He's with the American Coalition for Ethanol.

"Fantastic day for this community and the area," he said.

"Congratulations to the investors for putting their money to work in this effort producing clean energy," he said.

"I want to congratulate the farmer-investors, showing they can pulls themselves up by their bootstraps," he said.

"By the end of 2004, Iowa will produce more ethanol than any other state," he said. "Nine hundred million gallons. The equivalent of California's ethanol needs."

"We can expect the price of corn to increase 12 cents per bushel," he said.

"No better time to get into ethanol," Jennings said. "I want to assure you the market will continue to grow."

You would think Jennings sounded Republican, except when he talked about Iraq, about why we had troops there. He said that "another reason they're over there is oil. This facility will help create energy independence." I've never before heard a Republican actually admit we went to war for oil. So either he's not Republican, or he slipped up.

Matt Eide of the Iowa Ethanol Producers Association was more politic. He said: "We have a great friend of ethanol up here, Senator Kibbe." He said: "You have one heck of a company in the Broin Companies." This is the one you want in Palo Alto County."

Mike Jerke of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association said: "You will definite benefit from the impact of this plant. It will have a $481 million impact." I didn't catch whether that was for a year, for the life of the plant, or for the half-life of uranium.

Daryl Haack talked of the "special meaning for Iowa farmers" that the ground-breaking should have. He talked of the promise "for a better rural economy."

"Last year," he said, "a billion bushels of corn were used to produce ethanol."

"Corn worth $2.60 was used to create a product worth $4.75," he said.

"An increase of 12 cents per bushel of corn means an increase of $22 million per year for farmers in Palo Alto County," he said.

Ellen Huntoon got it. She was from US Senator Tom Harkin's office. "I'm a farm girl," she said, "so I drive like my dad, with my head to the side."

"From the Senator's point of view," she said, "we need to be aware of our consumption. Yesterday was Earth Day. What are we doing for the earth? Ethanol is a big step in the right direction."

Larry Ward again. "Many have pitched in to make this project happen," he said.

"We need to recognize Shirley Schmitt of the local office," he said. "Without her we probably wouldn't have a ground-breaking today."

"Well, how come she's not up on the dias," I wondered.

Then soon enough we were out at the site of the new plant, a mile southeast of Emmetsburg; we were standing around waiting for the intersection of cosmic forces that would allow the taking of a photograph of the actual "ground-breaking" itself. The planets not being quite in alignment yet, I had the opportunity to listen to a couple old men talking. It's not exactly the talk you expect to hear in a conservative Republican state. One of the fellows looked like a retired farmer wearing his years in his hands and eyes and face. The other fellow was probably a lawyer or retired lawyer, a white-mopped head, a green suit flapping on his bony frame. They stood next to each other, in each other's space even, as if they were old acquaintances, and they talked. I start my eavesdropping in mid-conversation; it was going like this: "... he has to get rid of bin Laden and deal with that other political problem and do something with the economy before he has a chance." The old farmer continued: "Just get out of there. I've always been a supporter of our military but he got us in some place we had no business going...."

The principals were lined up with hard hats and golden shovels, about nine of them. This used to be corn field. "On the count of three," the photographer said, "dig!"

"Awright!" went up the cheer. Everyone applauded. The sun shone on Republicans and Democrats alike.

"Everybody get enough pictures?" someone asked.

"Try another one," someone said.

"Dig deeper this time."


JUNE 2, 1998

Our peonies are playing themselves out. Everything is early. Heat in the waters of the Pacific Ocean affects us. Everything is connected, isn't it? We can think regional if we wish, but we cannot forget the global perspective. Air and water, winds and tides connect us. The dust of Dustbowl, Montana, sets down in Depression, Wisconsin.

Grey skies.

The radio says the Wisconsin travel season has started earlier than usual this year, due, it is suggested, to the warm El Nino spring. Everything is connected, isn't it?

The corn has grown amazing inches over the past week. Some of it is nearly a foot tall already.

A big blast of peonies at Five Corners - red and pink and white. They blaze in full glory, they wave in the wind.

What they want is choice, the radio says of high school students in their cafeterias. What they get is the same ol' fast food - hamburgers and tacos and pizza. Now Chinese, Thai, Indian, Afghani, Greek, German food, that would be the start of choice. Junk food for the tummy, junk for the mind. There are way too many overweight people in this country, victims of someone's desire to make a dollar. You have to work at it to eat healthy foods these days. Where was it that we went off track? Back in the Eisenhower 1950s, when we all thought we should be the same as our suburban others? And wear the same white whites? Buy the same kitchen appliances, the same dinette set? Spread the same Miracle Whip on the same Wonderbread? And our hair? A little dab'll do ya!

Is this enough of the Fat Man preaching? Yeah, I think so.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

APRIL 22, 2004, cont'd

I have been touring IEI in Emmetsburg with its president, Michael Webb. IEI makes countertops and cabinets, many of them for motorhomes made by Winnebago Industries. We are out in the plant along Highway 18 at the east edge of Emmetsburg.

We stopped so Michael could show me a "shipping container" used for sending out finished parts. Those table tops I'd seen get shipped standing on edge, between rubber covered posts that keep them standing up without damaging or marking them. "We deliver each of these carts for a specific workstation at Winnebago, so it will have all the parts it needs for a day's worth of production, and typically we ship it one day before they need it."

"We extract our order once a week from Winnebago and make parts based on that order," Michael said. "Every part we make for them has a serial number that corresponds to an RV they're building. Our software coincides with Winnebago's software. This cart is for Workstation 803B/3 at Winnebago, for production tomorrow."

"Responsiveness to our customers is critical," Michael said.

"We wrote our own software system to handle Winnebago's order, then to generate the code to make the specific parts needed."

Supervisors get a list of what needs to be done each day. Each workstation has a team leader and monitors its own progress. Overall, there's a production manager and an assistant production manager to see that work flows smoothly.

Now we're at the back of the building, where staining of pieces is done. Michael has been carrying a piece of wood with him all through the plant. It is the sample they have to match for Winnebago's new "light cherry" finish. He held it up to some stained pieces that had been hung up to dry. An exact match. He took it over and showed it to the fellow in the spray booth who puts the finish on the wood. "They dry right like the sample," Michael told the fellow, then he put the sample down on a work bench over to the side, for future reference.

Fumes from the spray booth get filtered out of the air and new air gets pulled into the work area to create a positive air pressure in the area where staining is done and the final finish coat applied. The positive pressure keeps sawdust and debris from coming into the work area and marring the surfaces being finished.

"The staining group here has to communicate closely with finishing, to push what is needed in finishing for shipment," Michael said.

Michael and I walked back through the storage area. "Those are pieces of Corian," Michael said, pointing to materials in storage. "They're 30 inches wide by 12 feet long." Farther on he saw something he didn't like, I think, and talked about it to the fellow who was helping get a semi unloaded. It would be taken care of.

We stood and talked for a bit, Michael and I, amongst the apparent chaos of work getting done on the shop floor.

"The company was sales only when we were founded," Michael said. "I grew up in the business. I grew up on job sites." His parents, Ken and Rose Webb, moved the business to Emmetsburg from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1982 when they needed to add the manufacturing element. Michael has a sister who is interested in running the company, and a brother who worked in the business until two years ago when he stepped out to establish a similar business of his own in another geographical area.

Michael is president of IEI; his parents retired three years ago and are supposed to be retired but they get pulled back into the business because of recent growing pains. "We need to get them back in retirement," Michael said.

Now that's a good problem to have, I thought.


The Emmetsburg Writers Club meets at the Lakeside Lutheran Home in Emmetsburg, in a room just inside the main entrance. I'd finished my tour at IEI in time to arrive for the meeting right on schedule. It was 4:00 p.m.

Soon enough several women gathered around the table and we shared our work and offered each other comments and suggestions. I read from The Big Book of Ben Zen as Myram Tunnicliff, who'd invited me, had requested, and I answered questions about that quirky fellow. Janice Kassel was working on another meditation for the religious radio program she speaks on, and she read from it. Liz Culligan offered some "Grandma's Musing." Cecilia Miller, whom I'd met at the Chamber of Commerce Dinner on Tuesday, talked of "Spring," and none too soon as the day had turned summer-like and we had to open windows in the meeting room to let a cool breeze blow through. Jovena Curran told of treasure-hunting in a thrift store with her sister. Mary Ellen Leners, former librarian at the Emmetsburg Public Library, spoke of family recipes, including one for cookies made by a strict teetotaler; the "secret" ingredient was whiskey. And Myram Tunnicliff read her piece about a mine explosion that had occurred when she and her family lived in Alaska: five of the Tunnicliffs' friends were killed in the accident. Her true telling of it sounded like good fiction but it was too true, ever sad word of it.

Ed Meyer of Emmetsburg's web site stopped by to tell members of the group how to post submissions to the local web page. Cecilia Miller has figured it out. She has several poems up that you can see by clicking on "Heartland View" at .



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

How old is Ivan Burgess? "I am so old," he said, "that if sex was an offensive football team I couldn't make a first and ten against tall grass."

"Here is a true story of Smith County wildlife," Ivan wrote. "John McDowell and Bob Kastle went mushroom hunting. While they were hunting mushrooms, they heard this growling and snarling and spitting and all them kind of noises. They looked up in a tree and saw a bobcat was after a coon. They said that while they were watching, the coon actually threw that bobcat out of the tree. When the bobcat landed, it decided it had all of Mr. Coon it wanted, and it took off."

"One of my favorite Smith Center stories," said Ivan, "is the time when power company manager Deke Divens looked at Ed McFadden's time card and it showed Ed had worked 25 hours one day. Deke said to Ed, 'how could you work 25 hours in one day?' Ed said, 'I skipped lunch.'"

"I wish I had some influence so I could peddle it," Ivan said. "About any place I am any more, the only claim to fame I have is that I am the oldest one in the group. Think about it - I have no accomplishments to parade before the group - just that I am the oldest one there. And I'll tell you, being honored because you are the oldest one there is a hollow victory at best."

"I went out and played golf last Thursday afternoon," Ivan reported. "I took an 8 on one and an 8 on two and an 8 on nine. Then I had trouble on the rest of the holes."

"Jim Fetters was telling about an old time judge down in eastern Kansas," Ivan said. "He told the guy who was appearing before him that he ought to be ostracized and that he himself would hold one leg while they done it."

"Things are moving slowly in Athol," according to Ivan. "Gerald Ratliff said that last week all he knew of that was going on was that the Co-op was spraying. And they had their inventory all counted up and were ready to do the adding up."

"Linton Lull didn't show up for the As the Bladder Fills Club meeting last Thursday," Ivan said. "Apparently his wintering in Arizona made him forget some of the ground rules governing the As the Bladder Fills Club. The age of the group makes it imperative that when you miss a meeting you are supposed to let someone know, because with the new Privacy Act we never know when someone is in the hospital. Friday morning Linton showed up and showed proper repentence for his oversight. No disciplinary action was taken."

"You notice I don't say 110%" said Ivan. "You can't do that. It is impossible to give more than 100%. That giving 110% is just like Mary having a little lamb. It is a biological impossibility."

"Got a coon up in my neighborhood," Ivan reported. "The first time I saw him/her, she was facing my cat eye-ball to eye-ball. I yelled at her/him and he/she took off. Last Thursday night he came back again. It was about eleven o'clock. I opened the door and Miss Kitty bolted in to safety. I yelled at the coon and he/she just sat there. I yelled several times but the coon never did act like he was 'fraid of me. After I yelled at him loud enough to wake up the whole neighborhood, he finally ambled off like he owned the place. I was in my shorts and no shoes, or I would have grabbed a rake and took after him/her. And it wasn't because I didn't have my brithces on. It was because I was bare-footed. If I'd had shoes on, the whole neighborhood would have been treated and greeted by me chasing the coon in my Fruit of the Looms."

"Stay ahead of the posse," Ivan said to end his report, as he always does.


JUNE 1, 1998

While we were out of town over the weekend, high winds - as heavy as 70 mph - moved through Wisconsin. The only damage in Fairwater seems to be the very large, very old, very punky silver maple that stood at the corner of Mary's mother's property. Fortunately when it blew down it fell into the empty lot between Mary's mother's house and the neighbor's. No one was injured. Power was out for the neighbor's for about 12 hours, however.

Some cornfields have water standing in them this morning. Some corn badly needs cultivating. The fields of peas are thick and green.

Between Five Corners and Union Street, the basement for the new house has been dug. A school kid rides his bike towards town in the wrong lane, then veers back into my lane right in front of me. I have to stand on the brakes to avoid hitting him. Life is short enough without such recklessness.

Or conversely, life is too short not to be reckless?

A bright sun, a fresh day, a new month - and no indication in the air that storms had rolled through here on the weekend.

The day throbs, innocent as the fair-skinned girl in white dress, in full sunlight, with mischief on her mind.

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