Sunday, September 12, 2004


We are now blogging as The Middlewesterner at: .

Please come visit us there. It's a new address; it's a new format; it has additional features (especially "Categories!"); but it's the same old Tom and the same strands of material.

If you have The Middlewesterner included in your blog-roll, please re-link to the new URL at your convenience.

If you don't have The Middlewesterner included on your blog-roll, what are you waiting for?

See you there.

Saturday, September 11, 2004


by Charles P. Ries

In San Miguel de Allende
I drink tequila, look at the women,
sit in the churches and sip cafe el negro.
Angels whisper to me in Spanish,
but I don’t understand them.

The women here are godlike.
Glorious and bronze skinned.
They love their brown men, but don’t look my way -
Ghost boy is too white.
Pale face is too dumb to para hablar espanol, except
"Quiero una margarita por favor."

The Indians say San Miguel slew the serpent here.
In steel breast plates, girded loins and a silver sword.
Looking feminine, yet firm.

When Christ rode into town
the Indians didn’t throw their gods away.
Pagans make ambivalent Christians.
       Jesus chased the devil out of town one day.
       Seven gods saved them from Jesus the next.

Time to chase the devil from my mind,
"Quiero una margarita por favor?"
rocks, salt, and a cross to hang on please.

Charles P. Ries lives and writes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has completed a novel based on memory titled, The Fathers We Find: The Making of a Humble, Pleasant Boy. His second book of poetry titled Monje Malo Speaks English was published in January 2003 by Foursep Publications. Information about his third book, A Perfect Place, can be found at: . Ries is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. His work was nominated for a 2003 Pushcart Prize by Anthology. Also in 2003 his poetry won top honors in the 30th Annual Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest and the 2nd Annual Milwaukee.Com Poetry Contest. His poems, poetry reviews and short stories have appeared in over seventy print and electronic publications, including: Clark Street Review, Free Verse, Staplegun Press, Latino Stuff Review, Wordriot, Circle Magazine, Pearl, Philadelphia Poets, Pidjin, Thunder Sandwich, Wisconsin Review, Halfdrunk Muse, Remark, Pitchfork, Zygote in my Coffee, Pudding Magazine, TMPoetry, and Ink Pot. He can be reached at: and at .


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 twenty-seven of them, by our current count.

o Harriet Brown, "Speaking Midwestern" and "Where We Went" - July 10, 2004
o Robin Chapman, "By the Wisconsin River" - June 12, 2004
o Karl Elder, "In a Town Called Unincorporated" - August 28, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Bright Waterfall of Angels" - August 14, 2004
o R. Chris Halla, "My Prairie Wedding" - June 5, 2004
o Karla Huston, "Night Swim" and "Summer Storm" - July 31, 2004
o Loren Kleinman, "Formaggio" and "Jetsam" - July 24, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" - May 29, 2004
o John Rezmerski, "What I Am Trying to Tell You: Prairie in My Mouth" and "Some Good Things Left After the War With the Sioux" - August 21, 2004
o Robert Schuler, "Thaw, 2003, Stanton Township" and "The American Millenium" - June 26, 2004
o Shoshauna Shy, "Compensation for a Sun-burned Hiker" and "The Best Way to Read Lorine Niedecker's Poems" - September 4, 2004
o Judith Strasser, "Apostle Islands History" and "County Road" - July 17, 2004
o Marilyn Taylor, "Surveying the Damage" - June 19, 2004
o Complete index to poems here

Friday, September 10, 2004

JUNE 18, 2004

I'm in Red Cloud, Nebraska, looking for breakfast. The place says "This Is It" - it's got food and drink, and there about six vehicles parked in front. I enter by the wrong door and find a prayer meeting going on at a large table in a dining area. I walk up into another part of the building and surprise a woman at her work. There's a bar off in the far room.

"Can I get breakfast here?" I ask.

The woman laughs, a surprised kind of chuckle. "I suppose you could," she says. "There's no menu. I could fix you eggs and bacon or ham?"

"Ham and eggs would be great."

"And something to drink?"




She goes into the kitchen and I hear the sizzle of ham competing with the murmur of talk from the other room where I've already heard a fellow praying, leading prayer.

The woman brings me coffee. When she comes through a little later with coffee for the other fellows, she explains: "I'm not usually open this early. These fellows came in this morning for a special breakfast, or I wouldn't be here this early."

She brings me breakfast. There's a little paper cup with some jelly for the toast. The jelly is tasty.

Later she brings me a bowl of fruit salad. She glances towards the other room, her eyes pointing at those fellows as if she made fruit salad for them and they didn't eat it all.

She unlocks the back door of the bar and explains that in another ten minutes or so about eight old men will show up to drink coffee and shoot pool.

"They've got nothing to do," she says.

"And they do it here?" I ask.

"Yeah, they do it here."

Breakfast costs $4.75, cheap at any price - there's not another place in town that serves breakfast, at least that's what the woman has told me. I pay at the bar. As I leave, I find the front door is still locked, so I go out the way I came in. One of the fellows at the prayer table is talking. He's telling the others about efforts to start a Christian fishing club.

I go up the street and across, to wait for the Willa Cather Center to open, to make some notes while I'm waiting.


The Cather Center offers a tour of buildings in Red Cloud. I took the tour and it was lovely. I saw the opera house, the old bank building that now houses the Cather Museum, the house that Cather lived in when the family moved into town, the depot, the house that Anna/Antonia lived in after her father killed himself, a couple churches. The guide was knowledgeable. There were three of us on the tour. I was with a woman and her college-age niece who loves Cather's books; I saw that the niece had at least three Cather titles on the dash of their car. The community of Red Cloud works hard at preserving our memory of Cather, and those buildings, and objects associated with her and her writing.

Those of us who write - we should all be so cherished, and so well memorialized. Willa Cather may have died as a physical being, but something of her spirit lives on here in Red Cloud, and in her books, and in our appreciation of her. Would that I'd be one-tenth so well remembered.

Before the tour began, I got to watch a video about Cather in the Center's gallery. It was informative and fairly well put-together by Nebraska Public Television, I believe. Not schmaltzy, as you fear such efforts might get. At the end of the video, a quote from Cather that resonates with me:

"There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as if they had never occurred before, like the five notes of the lark."

There are only two or three human stories, and I'm trying to learn them all, to learn the stories and tell them before they are lost, before they're gone like bird-song blown away by the wind.


SEPTEMBER 10, 1998

Where is the still point in the turning universe. Where is the moment of quiet. I find it, these days, in my morning - as the sun comes up, the moment of peace is there for me; sometimes, too, I find it in the shower before work, a single, lucid instant which is mine. The quiet nature of the village is part of what makes it possible - no traffic, no sirens, no smell of death so immediate on the dirty wind. I cannot believe I would be the only one in the country looking for the still point? We are few, though, I'm sure, searchers for the quiet moment and the lessons it can teach. Does a farmer find it as he starts the cold diesel for the day's work? How many even want a moment of silence in their lives? How many run from silence as from a noxious odor?

There is bright sun in my eyes as I head east in Fairwater on Washington Street, head towards my day's work. Today the squirrels must cross the road in front of me. It's in their contract. They do. It is hazy again in the western sky, slightly. What shall the wind bring in off the Great American Desert?

The hawk! The hawk is in its tree. God is in his heaven, all is right with the world. The sun shines bright against the bird's pale breast! Hurrah!

Machines are picking snap beans from the field that had been planted after the pea harvest. A second crop from this ground. The air is green. The soybeans planted just south of Five Corners so late in the season are now on the verge of changing color. The season has been at least as long as it needs to be.

Two crows above the road at the edge of Ripon. Hey, crows! I say. Good morning!

Thursday, September 09, 2004

JUNE 19, 2004

I am sitting at the center of the continental United States.

I have just driven to this place near Lebanon, Kansas, from Smith Center. The sun was coming up on this clouded day; it broke through for a moment, like an egg freeing itself from the ovary, exactly like that. It broke through briefly, it shined, it has disappeared into the greyness, into the silence.

All the while I was driving over, I was thinking about place, about this place, about what makes us love a place, about what makes us angry when someone disparages our place.

A writer can blow through town, as John G. Mitchell did coming through Lebanon, Kansas, and writing about it in an article on the Great Plains for as prestigious a magazine as The National Geographic (May, 2004); such a writer can say some pretty narrow things from the local community's point of view: Lebanon "used to claim bragging rights" as the geographical center of the lower forty-eight states - "you won't hear folks boast about that anymore..." - Lebanon is just "one of many small rural communities that are fading away..." - "there's not much here in the way of commerce..." - storefronts "boarded up..." - bank and trust office is open, "possibly shuffling foreclosures..." - "brick skeleton of an abandoned building..." - sidewalks that "are empty...."

I've been guilty of the same crime Mitchell is; I've driven through towns, and made judgments in the blink of an eye. And I've been angry the way the residents of Smith County are angry, when someone stops for a few minutes or a few hours or a few days and leaves thinking his or she "knows" us. Hell, I've lived in the middle west all my life, and that's not long enough to know us very well.

It's a confrontation right at the heart of what I'm doing, for me to presume that I can step into twelve middle western communities and begin to understand these places, the people of them. Yet I am driven to it: if I don't do it, who will?

Murray D. Lull, president of the Smith County State Bank and Trust Company of Smith Center and Lebanon, Kansas, wrote the editor of National Geographic in response to the offending article, to correct "an unfortunate and disappointing portrayal your magazine made of us, our bank and our community...."

"You stated in your lead paragraph," Lull wrote, "that we are no longer proud of being the geographic center of the United States, that our bank is shuffling foreclosures, and that we've just dried up and blown away."

Such a portrayal, Lull said, "does a great disservice to our customers, our friends and neighbors, and ultimately to those of your readers who might actually believe what you print."

"We're still proud and comfortable that we're in the middle of America," he said. "But we're also tired of the media coming to us, taking pictures and getting quotes, and then in their publications and presentations making light of who we are and where we live."

"If you can't say something nice about us," Lull said, "just leave us alone."

"The people of the Lebanon community are great, hardworking, ethical people," he said.

"Foreclosures? Hasn't happened in twenty years!" he said. "And it may not in the NEXT twenty years."

"Your writer doesn't have a clue what we think, how we live, or how we love this part of the country we live in," he said.

"I'd do the traditional cancel-my-subscription thing," Lull said, "but Sears doesn't send us catalogs anymore and we need your magazine for the outhouse."

I think you can't begin to write knowingly of Lebanon until you've had lunch at La Dow's store, until you've shared bread with the people who live and love here, who tough it out in the face of some harsh conditions. I think you can't write knowingly about Smith County, Kansas, until you've sat five morning mornings at the Second Cup Cafe in Smith Center, sharing coffee and swapping stories with those old boys in the As the Bladder Fills Club. Hell, five mornings is not enough. Such experiences barely make us knowledgeable, barely make one qualified to begin speaking about the people here. I've known Smith County upclose for two weeks - once in March of 2003, again this past week - and the sum total of what I've learned is that I know nothing yet. I've talked to people, I've toured businesses, I've swapped stories, I've learned a few random facts. All across the middle west, I've done more than one hundred fifty interviews. Yet I cannot say that I've even begun to enter the heart and soul of these, my own people, and this, my own place. What is here is too immense for easy grasping, too hidden in the cavalcade of time to be seen all at once. It is presumptuous as hell for me to come in thinking I can "get it" in a week, in two weeks, in seven weeks spent in a place. The best I can hope is that I start to get it.

You cannot begin to imagine these lives unless you live this life. We are mere tourists passing through, even those of us who come here with a genuine desire to understand. When I write about Smith Country, Kansas, or any other community, I am doing more to illuminate my ignorance than to explain the lives of the people here. That's true for me; that's true for any National Geographic writer trying to speak of the Great Plains to distant strangers.

And I'm not sure that knowing how ignorant I am gives me any advantage when it comes to seeing and understanding this place. Oh, because I return again and again, because I will sit again and again with the As the Bladder Fills Club, perhaps I'll gain a little insight, perhaps I'll understand a little more than the fellow who just drives through. Yet I'll still be far from the heart of things.

If you want to know a place, to really know the place, you have to live there and die there and give your elements back to the soil there and let the stink of your decomposition lift to the sky there.

We are just tourists, that National Geographic writer and I - and we should be a little more courteous. Because we can write, because we can write about this place, that gives us no proprietary rights. In fact, all we are doing is borrowing, and what we are borrowing we ought to treat well.


The sun is lost in the grey overcast of water-color clouds, a study in shades of black paint and water, a smeared canvas of sky, a certain dimness.

Everything I've said about my ignorance here at Lebanon, Kansas, in Smith Center, in Smith County, applies to every other place I see. To my eleven other focus communities, to every community along the highways and by-ways, to Kinoosao, Saskatchewan, at the end of the road on Reindeer Lake. I cannot pretend to know any of these places the way one can living his life there, his whole life given to it.

The best I can do is to come to know myself, and to learn to see these places refracted through who I am. I can come without expectation. I can let the place change me, and being changed, see what I can of the place in that change.

It is 7:00 a.m. I am twenty miles south of Red Cloud, Nebraska. I'm going to stop there, to see how Willa Cather's place might change me.



Part of what makes this place what it is is what I bring to it - German background, Iowa farm boy, one who chooses not to farm. Should I want to farm, I see the place entirely different. My expectations allow me to see one kind of world around me. I am a transplant, too, so I don't see a hundred years of history everywhere I look in Fairwater. I don't have relatives at every turn - some good, some bad. If my grandfather had been born here, and my father, the land would look different to me. I cannot - as some Native Americans do - think of the seventh generation yet to come. I don't have that kind of "long" view of the land. Every day of our lives we are grinding and grinding the lens through which we view the world. My Fairwater certainly must be different from George Sanders' Fairwater - for just one example. He's an old man, a long-time citizen, with relation here, and friends that go back to the Depression and before. Those are things you cannot scrape off.

Sunlight, its heat, is turning condensed moisture on the roof of the neighbor's garage into a miniature bank of fog, rising and rolling away. This lasts for a few minutes only and disappears. It is a blue sky morning, moist and pungent and alive. The sunlight deepens the color of everything.

A semi full of vegetables turns out from the canning factory onto Highway E in front of me. I meet at the edge of town a semi coming back to Badger Mining for a load of sand. Another semi has lined up behind me. I am heading north.

The smell in the country is as pungent as old growth forest. Far to the east, clouds line up along Lake Michigan again. To the west, I'm imagining perhaps a slight, smoky haze coming this way. There is a slight haze, the question is whether it is smoke from the fires out west.

How wonderful a thing a road is - a firm, clear surface that frees us to travel; but it is, too, a pathway that limits where we think we can go.

An Iowa farm boy comes east to Wisconsin. There was a time when returning east was a mark of failure - you weren't able to succeed in the Dakotas or Montana, so you returned to something more green and certain in Iowa or Illinois or Wisconsin.

The road takes us both ways.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004


I was ready to post today at 5:10 a.m. but it was no go - constantly stuck at "Opening Page." It was repeatedly stuck and no go until 11:15 a.m. when I headed to Lakeland College to teach the first of my classes in Writing Creative Nonfiction. I sent Blogger's help desk a help note; when I got home just a few minutes ago, I found this e-mail response from them, so we'll give it a try now:

We apologize for the problems you have been experiencing with Blogger. We had a simultaneous failure across multiple machines responsible for the publishing of Blog*Spot blogs, but this issue has now been fixed. To prevent this type of outage in the future, we are performing a full systemaudit to ensure that proper redundancies are in place.

The first class Creative Nonfiction went well, by the way. As I figured, I'm already behind in what I want to cover.... Hey, Fred, do you have that problem?



Yesterday, Wisconsin's Governor Jim Doyle announced his appointment of Denise Sweet as Wisconsin's new Poet Laureate. Here is the text of the Governor's news release announcing the appointment. Congratulations, Denise!

Governor Jim Doyle announced today the appointment of Denise Sweet as the new Poet Laureate of Wisconsin.

"Denise is well-educated, published, and admired by Wisconsin’s community of poets and educators," Governor Doyle said. "She will be an important ambassador of poetry to people in all areas of our state. I am pleased to appoint someone with such great dedication to reaching out to both large and small communities and encouraging participation in the arts."

As Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate, Sweet will choose and lead one large-scale project that contributes to the growth of Wisconsin poetry. She will also plan and attend at least four statewide literary events each year and perform in at least four government, state, and civil events as requested by the Governor’s office, school systems, and literary organizations. Sweet will begin her four-year term immediately.

"For the next four years, it will be my job to share my love for poetry with the citizens of Wisconsin. Does it get any better than that?" Sweet said. "This appointment is so rich with opportunity to expose the general public to great literature - I can imagine poetry in public transit, at visitor information centers, on biking trail brochures, on community calendars. I'm eager to begin."

Denise Sweet is an Associate Professor of Humanistic Studies and advisor for the American Indian Studies minor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She has published five poetry books, a long list of individual poems, fictional writing, and essays in various periodicals. She was one of five U.S. writers sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to attend the First World Congress of Indigenous Literatures of the Americas in Guatemala City. Sweet’s poem "Constellations" is part of a permanent installation (etched in granite corridor walls) at the Midwest Express Center in Milwaukee.

Sweet’s Proposed Statewide Project is entitled, "Here @ Home: A Community Calendar Series," a traveling workshop of poetry and writing that would move from urban to rural settings encouraging people to write and then display their works in their community.

Wisconsin’s first Poet Laureate, Ellen Kort of Appleton, was appointed in December 2000.


JUNE 18, 2004

The fellows are all gathered at the usual table as I come into the Second Cup Cafe for coffee with them. Bruce and Bobbi Miles come in shortly behind me, and Ivan is trying to tell the same shipwreck joke he told yesterday. He thinks he can get away with it because Bobbi hasn't heard it yet. She groans when she does. That doesn't slow Ivan down much at all. He tells about one couple who ran out of Vaseline. Says they used 3-in-1 oil and had triplets.

"Don't write that down," Ivan says. So I don't.

"I didn't learn English very well in high school," Ivan says when we're talking about the former Smith Center pastor who is going to China to teach English. "I didn't learn English very well," he says. "I thought when a girl said No she meant No."

"When you write up your visit to Smith Center," Ivan says to me, "you send a copy down here. Address it to the As the Bladder Fills Club in care of the Second Cup Cafe."

"You're seeing poverty in its worst form," Ivan says. "Here I am, 80 years old, and I have to work. I don't want to work, but I have to."

Dick Stroup whispers in my ear that once when Ivan was complaining about being poor, the fellow sitting across the table from me, Casey Edell, the piano tuner, had said to him: "Ivan, at least you don't have too much longer to worry about it."

One of the fellows who knows I'm a writer asks if I'm the one who has been "feeding Bush all that misinformation."

"Ivan, it sounds like there's another Democrat in town," I say.

"No," says Ivan, "there are two Democrats - I'm one and my wife's the other."

The other fellow explained his remark: "There's some of us Republicans thinking of converting."

Somebody says the word "work."

Somebody else says "if you use that word one more time, Ivan's gonna break out in a rash."

Some young fellow clear down at the far end of the table says Ivan is "the Rodney Dangerfield of Smith County."

Somebody mentions the Bible. "What I know about the Bible," Ivan says, "is the husband is supposed to make coffee."

"It clearly says He-brews."

Stan Hooper is talking to me, but he's looking at Bobbi Miles, Smith Center's Director of Economic Development: "Jesse James had a hide-out north of Lebanon," Stan says. "That's where Smith Center got its start in Economic Development."

Ivan complains about all the pop-ups coming up on his computer. Someone asks if he's had any pornography pop up lately. "No," Ivans says, "and I don't think I'd recognize it if it did."

The guys say good-bye to me. I'll be leaving in the morning, and won't see them again. Ivan shakes my hand, and so does Jack Benn, so do some of the others. Jack says "Well, I hope I'm still here when you come back."

Dick Stroup shakes my hand and says good-bye. "I paid for your coffee," he adds.

"Thanks, Dick. You didn't have to do that."

But that's the kind of guys they are, all of them. Good guys. They look pretty formidable, the bunch of them sitting around the table, but they're good guys. If you're ever in Smith Center weekdays between 8-9 a.m., sit with them at the Second Cup. You'll hear some blarney, but you'll also get a picture of Smith Center that seems pretty true to my sense of it.

Thanks, guys!



One of the reasons we have become disconnected from the place around us is that we have moved our work indoors. On the farm, there is a ritual - the spring work, that of summer, the fall harvest, a winter of repair. Cooped in our factories and offices, every day is the same. It looks the same to us, and smells the same and tastes the same. The factory worker longs for deer hunting season, so he can go out and become part of a land ritual once again; longs to fish, the stink of fish on his hands, to feel connection to land and water and sky and the turn of the days and the seasons. Inside the beige, bland walls of an office, every day is the same day. Walking the corn ground, every day is not the same - there is a march forward, cyclical though it might be. The days are going somewhere, for a reason. Especially in autumn I feel the tug of the land - those nights after school harvesting corn, plowing til 10:00 p.m. or midnight. The crisp chill in the air, the roar of the tractor, smell of diesel, smell of darkness. Well, at this stage, for me, there is no going back. I'm not sure I want to work that hard. But - How to find appropriate rituals to replace those I knew on the farm? That, Tom, is the question you should ask yourself and should spend some time in answering.

Definitely it is no longer summer - the long lay of light this morning, the coolness of the early part of the day, the color of the soybeans. We will even see leaves start to turn - they will have to, with nights as cool as those we've had. My mother has said the signs in Iowa point to an early, severe winter. I have not seen anything here yet, to suggest that.

A blue sky. Trees pretty much solid green, still. Soybeans that have turned. Another field of sweet corn taken. A great hunk of moon rock in the western sky. Far to the east, clouds are lining up along Lake Michigan. In western Montana there have been a lot of fires and the sky there is very hazy; there is not evidence of that in our western sky. Yet.

It is a holiday weekend just completed - Labor Day. The adults driving to work, the young nubbins walking to school - all have on their serious faces. We are so German that, going back, we think we must look the part - glum and serious and sincere. Such a great morning to enjoy - damn them if they cannot. Damn me if I don't.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

JUNE 17, 2004 - continued

I have been riding with Smith Center Police Chief Randy Nelson as he patrolled the highways and byways of the community on a long-shadowed summer evening. Chief Nelson doesn't usually allow riders in the squad cars, but made an exception for me. We have been talking about what it's like to police a small town in north central Kansas.

"I don't know the kids turning 16 now as much as I used to," Chief Nelson said, "and with the Privacy Act you don't get a list of birthdays from the school."

The city shop is near the ball diamond, the fairgrounds, the Armory. The National Guard unit had just gotten back from camp at Fort Riley.

If the sheriff's department needs back up out in the county, "we're going," the chief said. "Sometimes we get there before the county officer if the situation warrants it."

There's a long evening's light in Smith Center in June. "If I weren't working," he said, "this time of night I'd be out golfing. I really enjoy the game, but it's frustrating."

I don't remember if I told him about my "zen golfing." I count the good strokes. If I get three or four in nine holes, that's a good round. When I tell this to real golfers, they just kinda look at me. I don't remember if I said anything to the chief about it.

Both the two other officers in the Smith Center Police Department are from the community, both of them went to school in town. You need about four hundred and sixty hours of training to get into law enforcement, ten to twelve weeks starting out, then forty hours per year of continuous education. "We usually end up having to drive some ways to get training," the chief said. "The sheriff's department just got hooked up to the satellite system, so now we can get some of our hours that way."

We drove past the office of one of Smith Center's veterinarians. "There are two veterinarians in town," Chief Nelson indicated. "They are busy men around here."

The chief made a special exemption to let me ride in the squad car. His usual policy is not to let people do that.

"We don't have that many break-ins," the chief said. "It kinda runs in spurts."

The number of out-of-town people coming into Smith Center to make trouble is minimal, he said. "We don't have that much trouble, really."

"Week days are really quiet," he said. "After 10 p.m. there aren't many cars on the street."

Over and back and up this street and down that and still people are as quick to wave at the chief as he is to wave at them.

"Public relations is ninety percent of this job," he said. "They know that we're not out hunting for them. Most of them recognize they've screwed up. I think we've been pretty fair to people over the years."

I asked him about the Excel Jamboree, and the Noise Parade on the last night of that. He said only a few people have complained about the noise. "A lot of people had a good time," he added. Of the Excel owners who come for the Jamboree, he said "we never have a problem with those people. They enjoy it when you sit down and talk with them."

I asked about the portion of Smith Center's streets that are brick, rather than concrete or asphalt. West Point, Nebraska, and Emmetsburg, Iowa, are other communities I visit which retain some brick streets. "They are part of Smith Center's identity," Chief Nelson said, "but they're about ten times as slick as regular streets."

When we drove past the community's swimming pool, the chief said: "Ah, I think that would be chilly."

Smith Center is fortunate to have an EMS [Emergency Medical Squad] that "helps tremendously - they are really a good crew," Chief Nelson said. "They're getting a new building out on the highway."

"A lot of good things are happening here for a little town," he said.

And still we were driving up and down and back and forth over and back. I doubt there was a street in town we hadn't patrolled. At this point we'd probably logged thirty miles riding together.

"Everything is in its place?" I suggested.

"So far, so good," the chief said.

Does he end up testifying in court very often?

"Not often," he said. "People usually pay the fine. Seems like what we go to court for is dogs running loose."

"If the arrest you make is good," he said, "if you write a good report, you won't go to court."

The department "goes on weather watch when we've got storms coming in," he said.

Chief Nelson is no longer driving truck, and we talked about that. He used to take loads to Los Angeles or Seattle every week. "I don't have the patience to drive to LA now," he admitted.

Then we were out checking over the golf course, three miles south of town. "The city took over the course about five years ago," the chief said. A "super guy" runs the operation. "The rain has really greened up the fairways."

There have been no gas station robberies since Chief Nelson has been in town. "Some were broken into, in the evening," he said. "They went after beer."

Tough situations?

"Taking guns off people - that gets the adrenaline going," he said. "Taking a knife away from a guy. Dealing with accidents - a real good friend of mine and his dad were killed in an accident; I had to notify the family. It was the toughest thing I've had to do. All those situations hurt, but not like this did."

We'd put on another ten miles already. We were passing in front of Hardware Hank downtown. All manner of merchandise gets left out in front of the store overnight. "That never gets stolen," the chief said.

All of a sudden, we had excitement. A 521, a missing dog in town, a Dalmatian named Pookie. Now we had to keep our eyes open for Pookie.

And the chief got philosophical. "Everybody knows you, pretty much," he said. "I don't know everyone, but everyone pretty much knows me. I haven't figured out if that's good or bad. I had kids in school here, one of them was a super athlete, so I suppose that helps."

I'd been riding with the chief for two hours or more. We'd been up and down and back and forth and over and back. An endless stream of drivers waved hello. We'd circled and re-circled. I'd seen every street in Smith Center, every house, every empty lot. Most of them more than once. I'd started to feel as if I'd been spinning in a washing machine, with only a missing Dalmatian to challenge us. We were driving towards Ingleboro Mansion again, where I was staying.

"Well?" said the chief. He knew what I was thinking.

"Yeah," I said. "Drop me off." I'd go get a late supper.

Boring is good, I told myself as I walked into house. Boring means you have a successful police department and a safe community. But I don't think I could be a cop, with the endless hours of boredom interspersed with random moments of sheer terror.

When I came out of the restaurant after I'd finished supper, there was Chief Nelson cruising Main Street yet again. I waved at him. He waved at me.


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

"Dennis Reinert is kinda like Rodney Dangerfield," Ivan said. "He don't get no respect. One morning last week, Dennis was sittin' at the front table at Paul's. Everyone who came in said to Dennis, 'How much rain did you get?' Dennis said, 'Forty hundreth.' Everybody who asked him said, 'I didn't get near that much. Are you sure you emptied your gauge?' Dennis just sat there and took it. While all this was going on, I just sat there and listened. But, you know, Dennis' reported rainfall amount was about what I had."

"All the years she was in school," Ivan said, "Arloa Barnes was always at the back of the line. They lined up in alphabetical order and since she was a Veh she was always last in line. She made up her mind that wasn't going to happen to her kids, so she married a Barnes. That's not the only reason - I don't think."

"One day last week I got upset with my computer," Ivan wrote. "So I used the names Depperschmidt, Schwertfeger, and Windscheffel all in the same sentence. Drove the spell checker nuts."

"My gosh," Ivan said. "did you see those skimpy outfits those beach volleyball players wore. I didn't at first, then someone called my attention to it."

"I can't reveal my source for this," Ivan said, "but Doc Gibson has the right idea. A usually reliable source said that Doc and Audrey would drive up to the high school track. Audrey would hop out and walk briskly around the track several times. Meanwhile, back in the vehicle, Doc would unfold a newspaper briskly, then sit there and read the paper without ever looking up to check on Audrey's progress. I don't know how many laps Audrey can make on one newspaper but if it is the Echo she would be hard-pressed to do a hundred yard dash."

"Mike Hughes tried to get into a ballet troupe but he couldn't wear a tu tu," Ivan said. "He required a three three."

"Last week was moving day for college students," Ivan noted. "Parents and grandparents were wondering where the years have up and went."

"It's getting to where you can't talk about anybody at the Barnes Aerobic group anymore," Ivan said. "With the Weltmers, the Meyerzzes, and the Ratliffs, every time you say something you are talking about somebody's relative."

"Remember," Ivan said, "Leonardo Da Vinci invented scissors and Stay Ahead of the Posse."

Sunday, September 05, 2004


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

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

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

Back to blogging at Tuesday, September 7th!



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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


JUNE 17, 2004 continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued....



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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 04, 2004


by Shoshauna Shy

Nobody talks
about the weather in Cheney
because picnics aren't soggy
and the jeans you forgot
on the line will stay dry
If you leave Solitaire
on the wicker chair
at the end of the verandah
no wind will take it
and the rustless Hudsons
like your great-uncle would drive
still prowl Cocolalla Street
What a relief
to not have to waste time
small-talkin' weather
when you get to Cheney



by Shoshauna Shy

First wander through Emerald Grove's antique store
amongst fishing nets and rusty kerosene lamps
for a spitbox in which to plant Queen Anne's lace.
Unpin dishtowels from a clothesline
and notice how the leaves
of the neighboring poplar
shimmy in the wind.
Enter a cabin that has been sitting empty
while its owners take a cross-country train
to New York.
With her book on your lap, cup the chin
of a cat as it sprawls beside you
on a windowsill, the breeze thick
with the scent of cherry blossoms.
Remember how your husband's former fiancée
whose pregnancy was terminated
asked to come visit, couldn't take her eyes
off your little boy.

"Compensation for a Sunburned Hiker" was published previously by Moon Journal Press (Winter 2001) and "The Best Way To Read Lorine Niedecker's Poems" by Wisconsin Academy Review (Fall 2003). Reprinted here by permission of the poet. Shoshauna Shy is a member of the Prairie Fire Poetry Quartet and the founder of Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, a program with the mission of placing poetry in public places where it is not expected. Her poems have been published on-line and in numerous journals and magazines, including Poetry Northwest, Cimarron Review, The Comstock Review, and Rosebud. One of her poems was selected for the Poetry 180 Library of Congress program, "A Poem a Day in American High Schools" launched by Billy Collins. She edited Lake Wingra Morning: Poems of the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood (2003).



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 thirty-two of them, by our current count.

o Harriet Brown, "Speaking Midwestern" and "Where We Went" - July 10, 2004

o Robin Chapman, "By the Wisconsin River" - June 12, 2004
o Karl Elder, "In a Town Called Unincorporated" - August 28, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Butterfly Graveyard" - May 22, 2004
o Susan Firer, "The Bright Waterfall of Angels" - August 14, 2004
o R. Chris Halla, "My Prairie Wedding" - June 5, 2004
o Karla Huston, "Night Swim" and "Summer Storm" - July 31, 2004
o Loren Kleinman, "Formaggio" and "Jetsam" - July 24, 2004
o Jim Reese, "Ritual" and "Willing and Ready" - May 29, 2004
o John Rezmerski, "What I Am Trying to Tell You: Prairie in My Mouth" and "Some Good Things Left After the War With the Sioux" - August 21, 2004
o Robert Schuler, "Thaw, 2003, Stanton Township" and "The American Millenium" - June 26, 2004
o Judith Strasser, "Apostle Islands History" and "County Road" - July 17, 2004
o Marilyn Taylor, "Surveying the Damage" - June 19, 2004
o Complete index to poems here

Friday, September 03, 2004

JUNE 17, 2004

It's the As The Bladder Fills Club again, another day, another installment. Ivan tells a joke, then says I shouldn't tell you what it takes to satisfy an Amish girl. He doesn't want it to sound like he insults everybody with his jokes.

And I suppose the fellows won't be too happy with me telling about the shipwreck they were talking of. What shipwreck? The boatload of Vaseline that sunk, headed for the Virgin Islands.

One of the fellows misses something that is said. Another of the guys shakes his head: "He don't know the score. He don't even know who's playing."

Linton Lull is talking about rain in Arizona, says "that's the driest rain you ever saw."

Bobbi Miles, my hostess at Ingleboro Mansion where I'm staying, comes in and sits down with us. Ivan says "That's Bobbi with one 'O.'"

He says, "Do you know that story?"

Bobbi says, "This fellow registered at Ingleboro. He said, 'My name is Bob, with one o.' I said, 'Well, my name is Bobbi, with one o.' How did this story get up here? Oh, it was you." She points at Dick Stroup, her neighbor.

Someone down at the other end of the table is telling a story. I don't hear all of it but I pick up the bones. Seems two prostitutes were driving around town advertising their services with a sign on their car. A cop stopped them and said "You can't be doing that. Get rid of that sign or I'll have to arrest you."

One of the prostitutes sees a car with a sign on it that says "Jesus Saves."

"What about that?" she asks the cop.

"That's okay," the cop says. "That's religious."

The next day the two prostitutes are driving around town with a sign on their car that says "Two fallen angels looking for Peter."

They're talking about rainfall again, and about reading rain gauges, and Ivan says "You've got to read the bottom of the meniscus, that's what you have to measure."

One of the other fellows says "that's the part that grows watermelon, and Ivan knows how to grow watermelon. A guy came in here one day. He had grown the largest watermelon in a three-state area and here's Ivan telling him how to grow watermelon. The damned-est part is the guy sits down and listens to him."

Tom asks: "Ivan, do you have to work today?"

Linton Lull answers me before Ivan can: "No - he's already worked this week."

I thought Linton was such a nice man. Here it was, Thursday, the fourth day I've had coffee with these fellows, and it's the first time I hear him take a poke at Ivan. Ivan draws an awful lot of fire, that's plain to see. I think it's probably because he gives back as good as he gets. But Linton has been pretty mild compared to the other fellows.

"Linton a nice guy?" one of the fellows asks with some exaggerated astonishment. "Why, when he was a banker, he re-possessed bees. He took a guy's bees away."



I left home early this morning, to take my wife into the hospital for tests. Now it is 6:25 a.m. and I sit in her car in a nearly empty parking lot at work, watching the sun come up. It is a "rosy-cheeked dawn." The picture should be in National Geographic - the sun above a dark line of trees in the distance, a layer of ground fog hunkered down low on the marsh across the road, a pale blue, slightly hazy sky. Morning is singing its song. If the day could sing, it would be saying Hallelujah. I go in to work - another day underway.

Thursday, September 02, 2004


Yesterday, at the end of a long stretch of being Tom and waiting to hear about which of the three finalists the Governor would appoint as Wisconsin's next Poet Laureate, I penned a tidy little blog entry that I was going to call "The Ship of Poetry in Wisconsin Has Been Without Its Captain For a Full Day Now." At that point we'd heard nothing about the Governor's choice. Yes, my paragraph was a bit cheeky and tongue in cheek - but this has been hanging for a couple of months so what the hey. Here's the text of that proposed entry:

"Yes, indeed, the Ship of Poetry in Wisconsin has been without its Captain for a full day. The term of the retiring Poet Laureate of Wisconsin expired on August 31st. The Governor has not yet (to my knowledge) named the incoming Poet Laureate, so the state has been without its Ombudsman for Poetry a full day. The Untoward Effects of this Lapse have so far been minimal - only a few Rough Iambic Pentameters heard in the Milwaukee area; a Haiku or two in which the Frog Failed to Jump up near Marshfield; some Moon/June Rhyming in the east central part of the state; and some Awfully Tilted Slant Rhymes in the Superior region. We are fortunate that No One has been Seriously Injured thus far. We would urge the Governor to make Expeditious Haste to the nearest microphone and appoint Our Captain, O Captain."


At 2:00 yesterday afternoon I had to get our eldest cat, Boops, to the vet. Mary met me there. We had taken Boops in last week, afraid it was time then to have her put to sleep. We took her back in today, uncertain whether her time was up now. She has been failing markedly.

Boops came to us during the Gulf War of Bush the First. Back then I called her Warthog, after the A-10 jet plane so popular with our ground forces; my wife and daughters called her Taboo. She's a "tortoise shell," the way some cats are calico and some are tiger-striped; she's a tortoise shell with a lovely black and bronze pattern. I've known a lot of cats over the years, and would testify that Boops is the sweetest of them. One vet has told us that tortoise shells tend to be sweetly disposed. Boops' other nickname is Purr Bucket.

Last week when the vet weighed this old lady of a cat, we saw that she had lost more than 35% of her body mass. She hadn't been eating. She was severely dehydrated because she hadn't been drinking either. She had a swelling in her throat that made it difficult to swallow apparently, an inflammation or a tumor. The vet was almost certain it is cancerous. We've had Boops on antibiotics for a week and the swelling has been reduced somewhat, but not half enough to say clear-sailing, not enough by a mile. Yet her fever is gone and she has gained back 6/10th of a pound, which means she is eating and drinking again. She hasn't become dehydrated again.

What to do? what to do? I couldn't make a decision. For several years Boops has been my cat, sleeping every night at the side of my head. I got her trained to situate herself just so, then she was comfortable and I was comfortable. Every night she'd come up and turn herself into position, put her head down on my chest and purr. She'd purr all night.

"Yes, let's give her another shot of antibiotic and the anti-inflammatory, and see how she responds," my wife said to the vet. "That's what I'd do if she were my cat," the vet said.

"I just want her to get better," I said to Mary out at the car. "But I suppose that's not one of the choices." No, clearly it's not. Mary took Boops home one more time. We know the prognosis isn't good - the swelling in Boops' throat is very likely cancer and very likely will soon become too painful to endure. She has three or four weeks at the short end, three or four months at the long end. And I'm thinking it'll be sooner rather than later; we're not going to let her suffer the pain of cancer in the bones.


Mary took Boops home. I had to go to Ripon Community Printers and help in the bindery. When I retired from the company a couple years ago, I told them that they could call me to come in and help out when they were busy. Well, they have been busy, last week and this week, and I've been working there a couple nights each week.

I was only at work fifteen minutes last night when I had a phone call. Mary was on the other end. There had been a message on our answering machine when she got home, from Cathryn Cofell-Mustchler, chair of the Poet Laureate Commission. I needed to call her back; when we went on break at 5:00 p.m., I did.

"This is the call you've been waiting for," Cathy said. "But I'm sorry to inform you that the governor will be naming someone else as the next Poet Laureate." She said some other things - praising my poetry, hoping I'll consider re-applying for the position in another four years, and so on. You don't really listen, you know what I mean? You've just been kicked in the solar plexus.

I'm not sure that everyone who needs to be informed has been informed, so I'll not offer any details yet, except to say that Wisconsin's next Poet Laureate won't be me.

Am I disappointed? Yeah, somewhat. But more than that, I'm relieved simply to know one way or the other. Now I can make plans. Now I have a clear sign that my efforts over the next four years are to be devoted to my Vagabond project, and that's an immensely pleasing prospect. Further, I am blessed that I won't have to search for another four or eight hours a day to give to Poet Laureate duties; I'm a Virgo, and you know I'd obsess about the perfection of it, you know I would.

Yeah, I guess I do have a little regret. I think I'd have made a terrific Poet Laureate and now we won't know. But mostly, as I say, I'm relieved just to know one way or the other. I have plenty of other work to do and won't have to be juggling priorities.

The sadness you may hear in my voice these days or see in my posts here or in comments I leave on other blogs, that sadness won't be unhappiness at missing the Poet Laureate appointment; no, it will be sorrow at the imminent loss of my long-time feline companion, Boops, The Boopster, the Purr Bucket herself. I'm trying to come to terms with that.

Yeah, yeah, I know - she's just a cat. I know, the Great Wheel turns and keeps turning. Yet I think we're entitled to grieve our small losses as well as the large ones. And it always takes me awhile to say good-bye.


June 16, 2004 - continued

I have been visiting the site of the log cabin several miles northwest of Smith Center where "Home on the Range" was written by Dr. Brewster Higley. This concludes the visit.

The place of historical importance has a gravel floor. The contents of the cabin are kept locked behind a wall of wire. We can see them, but cannot touch them. Not that our touching them could do them any damage - time and the elements have already done that. There are old chairs, a gun, hand tools, a tomahawk, arrowheads, a book shelf, a small highchair, a small fireplace, a rocking chair, a table with basin on it, a saddle, a seed planter, a Victrola, some chests, some crocks, some lanterns, a tea pot. Up in the rafters, bed springs. In the corner, a pane of glass broken out of the window. Everywhere, the smell of loss.

Moss on the wood shingles of the roof. Over there, a noisy blue jay. And, there, the sound of wind in the trees. The sound of trucks on the highway a mile distant. The black dog is sprawled on the driveway now.

The cabin doesn't sit out on the open range where the buffalo roam but down in the rough ground near Beaver Creek. Among scrappy trees. Wheat fields come right up to the edge of things at this farmstead. There's a small steel bin here, with "Eaton" on it. Tall grasses wave in the breeze. Life goes on. Matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed. The universe transforms itself constantly. It goes on expanding out here where the sky is not clouded all day. The soul is our molecules looking for each other.

I come up out of the low ground onto the highway and I'm imagining I see antelope at play - I can't help it, it's the wind moving the tawny wheat.

Not much more than a mile from the Higley cabin there's a big plot where old farm equipment comes to die. There are six or seven threshing machines standing along the edge of the place, all manner of other pieces behind them. Just the field of equipment and the sun and air and moisture and all that metal coming undone.

Oh, give me a home.... Give me a place to put down this sadness.

We are what we are, and most days that's enough.



A squall of rain rushed through last night, leaving water running in the streets briefly. This morning the chill in the air is definitely autumnal. Summer is over. I'm not saying it frosted - was not even close. Still, the air has changed. It has an edge to it. It says "Watch me, I'm going to paint the world" and soon we shall see the fall colors, I'm sure.

The darkness of 5:00 a.m. weighs on me - making it difficult, these days, to rise and face my writing chores. The cells all the way to my inner core seem to be screaming "Hibernate," yet when the alarm goes off I roll out. Rolling out of bed then I think is a testament to my love of this piece of ground, my Ouisconsin. I rise to work the Tangle with a sober morning soul.

A hazy sky above, this morning, but otherwise it is dry. A cloud of cancer hangs over a house downtown, though; one of the good ol' boys is being brought low by it. He is but a dry husk of his former self. You do not wish such an end for anyone.

The school bus stops at the Sina pig farm, far ahead of me, and picks up children, then turns east on Carter Road. The eternal dance continues.

Where are the old men this morning, where are they telling their stories? Shall I ever know enough?

A car parked in front of the new house north of Five Corners tells me someone is living there now. Near Union Street, it looks like a field of sweet corn is being taken. On Watson Street, a child with a back pack is running north; he doesn't look happy.

The sun glints off the window of a house suddenly and blinds me for a moment. Some might say I have been blind already.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

June 16, 2004 - continued

I stopped at the Wellness Center today to thank Starr Jacobs for the opportunity to ride the combine on Monday night. She told me what she'd forgotten to tell me - that I should go see the "Home on the Range" cabin north of Athol. She'd grown up in that area, she said, and her mother still lives out that way. The cabin is nine miles north of Highway 36 on Highway 8, then a mile west.

You think you're going to see an historical site and all of a sudden the road ends and you're driving into somebody's yard. The stone has fallen over, the one that says "Home on the Range Cabin <---." I turn in the driveway, pass the house, park alongside the cabin that's just a few steps down the hill.

"Home on the Range Cabin - 1872" a sign on the rough old building says. Some of the original logs of the cabin are showing. In some places there is more chinking between the logs than actual logs.

A plaque standing at the end of the building states: "On this site circa 1873 Dr. Brewster M. Higley wrote the words to 'Home on the Range' - Adopted as Official State Song of Kansas June 30, 1947 - Marked by Sarah Steward Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1997."

In marble, attached directly to the end of the cabin, another marker: "Panel by Stambachs" it says. "Erected 1954" it says. It says: "In 1873 Dr. Brewster Higley wrote the words, Dan Keley supplied the music, and the Harlan Brothers Orchestra started the new song 'Home on the Range' on its way from the heart of the nation to the nation's heart." Even the music is carved into the marble, in the key of 1-sharp, in 3/4 time, the words beneath the notes. The song title is "My Western Home." The words: "A home - a home - where the deer and the antelope play. Where never is heard a discouraging word, and the sky is not clouded all day."

The sky is clouded today. There is a Kansas wind blowing. A black dog comes down to the cabin from the house, to check me out. I'm not very interesting, so he wanders away. There's a jet plane rumbling overhead, 35,000 feet above where the deer and the antelope play and where we live out our lives.

I step into the cabin. There is a sign tacked to the wall: "Give the world the best you have and the best will come back to you." I wonder if this has been posted because someone believes it, or because it's the sign they had? I like to think it's the former; my sense of how the world is suggests it might be the latter. In either case, the call to excellence is appropriate here, now, in this place.

There's a book in which to register my visit, so I add my name and address to a very long list - a binderful of notebook paper half an inch thick. Just since May 1st the cabin has been visited by people from Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, California, Arizona, Washington, Connecticut, Rhode Island, North and South Carolina, and Alaska.

There's a box with pamphlets in it, 15 cents for the "Story of the Origin of Home on the Range." I leave a quarter and take one.

The pamphlet says Dr. Higley was an exceptionally talented surgeon. He had practiced in Michigan and Indiana before he came to Kansas in 1871.

Higley was married five times. The first three of his wives died, the fourth marriage was unhappy and reportedly "caused the doctor to take to drink and come to Kansas." Once that unhappiness had been dissolved, Higley married more happily in Smith Center.

Apparently Higley's words for the song had gotten tucked away in a book and were found when Higley was treating a gunshot wound. The fellow who brought the gunshot victim to Higley was paging through the doctor's books and the piece of foolscap with the words on fell out of one of them. "Why, Doc, this is plum good!" the fellow is quoted as saying.

The rest, as they say, is history. Dan Kelley set the words to a tune, the Harland Brothers Orchestra performed it, the song soon was sung far and wide. "Several other writers copied it," the pamphlet reports, "making slight changes in their versions. The song lost its identity with the county of its origin."

That President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it was his favorite song renewed interested in it, and soon enough it was played near and far. That came a halt, however. "The sudden success of the song, which was being played on every radio station in the land, caused William and Mary Goodwin of Tempe, Ariz., to bring suit for infringement of copyright.... They claimed that Goodwin had written the words of a song entitled 'My Arizona Home' and Mrs. Goodwin the melody and that the copyright had been registered on February 22, 1905."

Samuel Moanfeldt, a New York lawyer, was hired by the Music Publisher Protective Association to ascertain the truth of the matter. His investigation brought him to Smith County, Kansas, where he found printed versions of Higley's words in a Smith Center paper from 1873 and from the Kirwin Chief in 1874. He also found Clarence "Cal" Harlan, earlier of the Harlan Brothers Orchestra and now 86 years old and nearly blind. Could he still sing the song? "Mr. Harlan brought out his guitar and played and sang the song from memory," Mr. Moanfeldt reported.

"The result was that the Goodwins lost their lawsuit," the pamphlet states, "and the old cabin on Beaver Creek became a place of historical importance."

To be continued....



It is only partly about place, isn't it? The rest of it is about the beauty of the ordinary. It has taken me this long - now that I am fifty-one years old - to recognize what I am about. I look back and I see an effort to explore and celebrate the ordinary. It is not of great men making great falls that I would write, not the classical tragedy. It is not the obvious great themes I would explore - Truth, Justice. It is the ordinary - its beauty, its truth, its rightness. It doesn't have to be New York, you guys, it can be Wisconsin. It doesn't have to have great pain and suffering, the ordinary variety is plenty interesting enough. So that is my task, eh? In this journal, in my poetry, in my essays and other explorations, the chore is to celebrate the ordinary. To turn over the stone and find what shines bright and glittering on the other side. I am the Iowa farm boy, I am making fence, the wire I've just pulled taut wants to sing, the sun is warm against the back of my neck as I turn to hammer a staple into the post, to hold that fence forever. The posts are set straight and true, the wire is tight, the way it should be, the good job is done. Its beauty exists in that moment, exists as long as that fence stands, exists in my mind so long as I live, exists forever because it has changed the world irrevocably, if only in a small way. That's why I write.

It is a cool, moist morning. I should write hymns of praise, I should sing them from the roof tops. Let the blackbirds gather on the powerline, I don't care. A faint, grey haze, I don't care. Good morning, good morning, good morning. Good morning, you sea gulls in the field.

In a single day, the field corn turned tremendously. That day was yesterday. The change in the beans is considerable too. Just that quick, it is autumn. From one day to the next, the change is clear.

In one sense, of course, nothing has really changed - where it was is what brought it to where it is. In another sense, everything is different - these crops are no longer "growing."

Hosannah! I feel so good I could sit in the solace of my own shade.

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