At the Governor's Mansion in Madison
the sun was just setting over the lake, the end of the last lovely day of autumn. The forecast was for cold and ugly. You relished that fading beauty. When we entered the mansion, you could see that sunset out the picture window overlooking the lake.
When Mary and I entered, we were greeted by Jessica Doyle, Wisconsin's First Lady, who congratulated me on being a finalist for the appointment. I have to say, that felt good.
We got our name tags - "Tom Montag - Poet Laureate Finalist," mine said - and had time to talk with David Brostrum and Cathryn Cofell, both members of the Poet Laureate Commission; with the other finalist, John Lehman; with Wisconsin poets Robin Chapman and Shoshauna Shy (both of whom have had poems here in the "Saturday's Poem" feature), and a few other people. There was a little bar set up in the front corner of the room where you could get wine; or - this is Wisconsin - beer; or - for designated drivers such as myself - a diet cola. Yes, there was Wisconsin cheese to be had in the other room with the nibblies - three kinds, Swiss and brick and cheddar. There was a tray holding little pieces of bread with chunks of steak on them, the steak rare in the center and lovely. There were stuffed mushrooms, bacon-wrapped shrimp and - oh - other tasty morsels, whatever they were, I am not a food columnist.
I was just about up to my elbows in the stuffed mushrooms and the bacon-wrapped shrimp when the staff started shooing us into "the drawing room" where Jessica Doyle gave us a formal welcome. Barbara Lawton, the Lieutenant Governor, spoke of Wisconsin's commitment to the arts, of the power of poetry to lift us. Cathryn Cofell thanked out-going Poet Laureate Ellen Kort for her service to poetry these past four years, and Ellen spoke and read a few poems. It was magic watching the setting sun and hearing Ellen's words.
Somewhere in there Cathryn also introduced the two finalists for the appointment, John Lehman and myself. I knew just what to do, I've seen it on TV. You wave and smile. I stepped forward from my little church mouse corner and waved and smiled.
And finally Cathryn introduced Governor Jim Doyle, who introduced Denise Sweet.
Denise talked about the challenges that face her as Poet Laureate. She read from her work. She too worked the magic of the setting sun.
It took only a few moments, as I listened to Denise, and I was convinced that the Poet Laureate Commission had made the right recommendation to the Governor and the Governor had made the right decision in naming Denise Sweet as our new Poet Laureate. She will be wonderful in the position. She will be the kind of Poet Laureate I cannnot imagine myself ever becoming: the issue is not an issue of poems, but of charm; Denise is so wonderfully charmed and charming. I was proud just to be in the same room with her. She glows with a kind of magic.
She knows she'll need support in carrying out her duties as Poet Laureate, Denise said, so she made very clear that she would be calling on John Lehman and myself for assistance during her term of service. As with any creature of three heads and six arms, many hands make lighter work and they have fun. All poetry, after all, is one great poem, with different faces - sometimes it wears Denise's face, sometimes mine, sometimes any myriad of others.
After the program ended, I assured Denise I would answer her call to help. It feels good to be asked.
And I have to say it also felt good when the Governor Doyle came up and congratulated me on being a finalist and then thanked me for what I've done for Wisconsin poetry.
Yeah, it was dark by the time we stepped back outside to head for home afterwards. Yet it was not a darkness to be feared; not a darkness to make one sad. In that moment and that place, all seemed to be quite right with the world. Which seems a good portent for Denise as she walks into her next four years.
Good luck, Denise. Fair winds, I say. Fair water. Fare well on this journey.