The endowments and the foundations won't, but you can help support my long-term exploration of the middle west, Vagabond In the Middle. Any donation to help defray expenses will be appreciated. Send to Tom Montag at: PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931.
a bright winter day. We have returned from Edmonton and Missoula. The image of the Sweetgrass Hills just south of the Canadian border, off to the righthand of I-15 as we headed north. Something is mighty attractive about those Sweetgrass Hills. What?
They make a bold statement on an open plain. They speak of vision and healing. What speaks to me here in the same fashion? I don't know. And I don't know why the Sweetgrass Hills tug at me so mightily.
A small frost on the windshield of the car this morning. The driveway is pretty much clear of snow. There are some small sheets of ice where we have been parking, yet otherwise not much to worry us. The snow banks have moved back a small bit from the edges. I can see where water has run in the gutters, wearing at the ice there.
The wind blows west to east.
I do like the roll and sweep of Wisconsin, there's no denying that this morning. Even the morning's cold kiss is familiar and comforting. Maybe we like to complain, but we don't go away.
meeting of the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Center for the Book in Madison. As I reported here, I started a three-year term on the board at the beginning of January. This meeting will be my first introduction to the Board's work, and an orientation to ways for me to contribute to the Center's sucess. I'm looking forward to the challenge.
I cancelled my trip to Milwaukee yesterday to see Peter for more work on Peter's Story. We had gotten about 16" of snow on the weekend, and it was snowing again yesterday morning. The session with Peter last week might have looked like it didn't accomplish much. For instance, we didn't revise or approve any of the chapters, so I can't consider any more pages D-O-N-E. However, we did review a complete list of the incidents or scenes in the book, and this revealed several short omissions, additions which I have written up and have been weaving into the existing chapters. I didn't want to come to the end of the project and find that we'd left out something important. Last week's session helps ensure we're including everything we need to include, even if doing so doesn't look like the straight push of progress.
Yesterday I agreed to co-teach a week-long Elderhostel at the Green Lake Conference Center at the end of April. I'll be one of four writers working together during the week. The other three have had some experience together with this Elderhostel, and my addition will be an expansion of the program. I will be trying to fit into the existing scheme of things while at the same time bringing to the sessions whatever it is that I bring. Which is what? At the least, a great deal of enthusiasm for my obsessions.
I opened my e-mail this morning and found an invitation to speak in April to the Rotary Club in Ripon about my various projects. While we were shopping for groceries a few weeks ago, Mary and I had bumped into a woman I used to work with at Ripon Community Printers, and her husband, and when they asked what I'd been doing with myself, I'd given them a thumb-nail version of Peter's Story and the other projects. This morning's e-mail suggests that they think a report about my projects would make an interesting program for a Rotary lunch meeting. Well, it so happens I'm free for lunch that day, so I will be accepting this offer. You know it's darn near impossible for me to pass up an opportunity to talk about my writing.
Ivan said, "it was just too nasty to go out. Except if you were female and you had a hair appointment. Momma had a hair appointment. I drove by Ron Shellito's place. Whipped in and asked Ron if he had any cancellations and could he work me in. He said, 'I can do you right now.' He got the family car serviced. I took Momma to the hair appointment place. Now you got to get the picture. Here was a bunch of rugged, outdoor kind of men who cancelled car appointments. But at the hair appointment place there was Momma, a senior citizen from Kensington, and a high-school-age girl. Then the next wave of hair appointments started coming. And the telephone started ringing, asking for hair appointments. Neither rain, nor snow, nor heat, nor gloom of night will stay a female from the swift completion of her getting to her hair appointment. But I must tell you - it would have been much too bad to get out for church."
"Kendall Nichols had a guest at Paul's Cafe last Thursday morning," Ivan reported. "It was a banker from Alma, Nebr. I didn't catch his name. There is just something about being around bankers that makes me nervous and almost inarticulate."
"Kendall Nichols hit it lucky," Ivan said. "The pond back of his house went dry, so he had no lake effect snow."
"One of those real cold mornings last week," Ivan said, "I heard the fire whistle blow. I sniffed and didn't smell any smoke. So I cuddled up to Momma, gave her a mammogram test, and went back to sleep knowing that things were in the good hands of the Smith Center Voluneer fire department."
"It won't be long til March," Ivan said, "and then we will turn our clocks an hour forward and with that extra hour of daylight the snow will melt quicker."
"One thing we had when I was a kid," Ivan said, "was home-baked bread. And was it good. I remember one time when the freight train stopped here and the bums came looking for a hand-out. There was one young kid came to our back door and said he was hungry. My mother had just taken bread out of the oven. She told him that all she had was bread and butter. He wasn't particular, he was hungry. Back then when you bought margarine it was white like paraffin wax. In the package was a small envelope of powdery coloring. You would mix the coloring with the white stuff until it turned yellow like butter. This particular day my mother hadn't gotten around to mixing the color, so this kid ate bread and white waxy butter. You knew he was hungry from the way he ate that bread and white butter. Wonder what ever happened to that kid."
of the morning sun drilling into everything. The village shimmers.
Is "acceptance" a middle western trait. We'll take what the rain brings us? The seasons go 'round in due course and you'll get what's coming to you? In a sense, yes. At least this is a rural middle western trait. We pray for rain - a little's a lot, a lot, oh Lord, when nothing's what you've got.
Do we accept what comes to us, or do we endure it? That's a question that might take a whole book to explore.
A cold day, yet only the barest frost on the windshield. A stinky smell of dead fish rides the morning air as I walk to the car. Where does that come from?
Smoke from the neighbor's chimney is a pale dream as shadow on the roof of our house, almost like the swoop of a bird's soul.
We have so much snow in heaps along the streets yet. Nothing wants to disappear, or everything does.
Wind, brisk from west to east. The shine of snow gives the sunlight back to the universe. Spring is on her knees saying "Please, please, please." We're there with her, "Please, please, please."
Fine crystals of snow blew across the prairie north of Fairwater last evening, making fresh drifts at the snowbanks along Highway E, drifting onto the road in places. Soft shapes, yet hard and bitterly cold. Once again, beauty deceives.
---------------------------------- Morning Drive Journal will resume a week from today.
at the As the Bladder Fills Club stays at the As the Bladder Fills Club," Ivan said. "And there is a darn good reason. The As the Bladder Fills Club breaks up at nine o'clock and by ten o'clock the members have forgotten everything that was said or done."
"I told you last week," Ivan said, "that Kendall Nichols is an artist of major talent in the pencil medium. Last Monday he took the ticket that Martin Gretchel laid beside his plate. Borrowed a pen from me. And drew a caricature of Martin Gretchel. It was perfect in every detail. Why can't I have some talent of some kind?"
"According to Chief Ron Griffith, the local Firemen were pleased with the turnout at their pancake and sausage supper last Saturday," Ivan reported. "Just about the time they were starting to serve, a sudden snow flurry came crawling in, like Sandburg's fog, on little cat feet. But it didn't deter too many people. Griffith said they served 198 civilians, plus all the Firemen and the Catholic young ladies that done the serving. Griffith said the money would be used to buy equipment and for incurred expenses."
"It was 51 degrees at ten thirty on Tuesday morning," Ivan said. "Tim Bartley's advice was: don't put up your winter coat because you will still need it."
"Kendall Nichols gave Martin Gretchel some sage advice," Ivan said. "Advice that I'm gonna take to heart. Kendall told Martin to never bring boxing gloves to a gunfight."
"Got a letter from Alberta Kirkemdall last Wednesday," Ivan said, "and Alberta said we would be celebrating, maybe observing would be a better word at our age, our 65th class reunion. I thought to myself, that can't be. So I got me a piece of scratch paper, sharpened my pencil, touched the end of the lead to my tongue, and started doing my take aways. I distracted nineteen forty two from two thousand ought seven, and by golly she's right. The Gold Medal Class of 1942 left the hallowed hall of higher learning sixty five years ago."
"Had a woman referee at the basketball game last Tuesday night," Ivan said. "She was all right. Done a good job. Her judgment was good and her mechanics were perfect. Mechanics in a referee are the signals you make for the type of foul. Who the foul was on. If there was a violation, you knew what she had called and why."
Ivan said: "Blonde goes into the library and says, 'Give me a hamburger, fries and a malt.' The lady says, 'This is a library.' The blonde says, 'Oh, I'm sorry. Give me a hamburger, fries and a malt.'"
"I heard a saying that I had never heard before," Ivan reported. "I think I heard it on Matlock or some TV program with a southern locale. The guy said, 'A wink and a nod, it don't make no difference to a blind mule.' I just can't wait to get an opportunity to work that into a conversation."
"Had a first at Paul's Cafe last Friday morning," Ivan said. "Someone said to Martin Gretchell, 'I didn't hear what you said.' Martin said that was the first time anyone ever told him they hadn't heard what he said."
"Martin Gretchel asked, 'Do you know the difference between an outlaw and an inlaw?'" Ivan said. "None of us did. Martin said the difference between an outlaw and an inlaw was - an outlaw is wanted."
it is cold out there. Winter is a dog guarding its bone; you cannot shake it loose today.
We'll go north and west later in the week, to get an education along other winter highways, with other kinds of chill. It will be interesting to see Edmonton in a cold month. How will it compare? Will I keep a day book of the experience?
There is frost on the windshield of the car, of course. I clear it without gloves on, my fingers getting cold yet not frozen. There is some moderation to the day, well below freezing but not, I think, below zero.
The wind blows west to east. Trees in the distance are like mist, soft, ethereal. Snow hides the earth's edges. Where is the end of the field, where the start of the ditch, where the truth of the hawk's shadow?
in Milwaukee, at the home of Anne Kingsbury and Karl Gartung, the heroic caretakers of Woodland Pattern Book Center. Anne and Karl were hosting two writers who would be presenting at the book center on Sunday, Elizabeth Robinson and Eric Lorberer. Their other guests were Chuck Stebelton, Woodland Pattern's Literary Program Manager, and myself, The Middlewesterner. We were served the most wonderful chicken on rice with peanut sauce, a terrific salad, and some lovely green beans. There was champagne; there was beer. For dessert, there was the mother of all cherry pies, with ice cream on top, two scoops for those who wished.
We ended the evening sitting in something of a circle in the living room. Eric was examining books on Karl's bookshelf, the lovely well-made books and chapbooks Karl has collected over thirty years. When Eric encountered a particularly lovely and well-made and important book, he handed it to Elizabeth, who examined it lovingly and handed it to me, and once I had examined it, I handed it to Chuck.
We talked about poets and poetry, about life and living, and the books we touched were handled with reverence. These were not commodities, but art objects in themselves. The words on the page were not the only significant element of the book. The tooth of the paper attracted our fingers; the combination of paper and ink and color attracted our eyes; even the way a book laid open could draw my attention. The book as book invited us to lounge with the words on the page.
The book is a tool for communicating information, yes; yet it can be an art canvas as well. The medium is the message and it is still a Gutenberg universe in terms of our senses. These books were not only pieces to be read: you wished to hold them in the great embrace of your total perception. Yes, one can have an almost erotic relationship with paper; even the smell of it excites.
Books matter because we are sensual beings and because holding a good book in your hand is a sensual experience. Reading such a book can be as satisfying as the finest massage. O, we were a strange, lovely circle, those of us touching books in Anne and Karl's living room Saturday evening.
In a well-made book, the loveliness of what the author has to say is lifted up by the loveliness of what the maker of the book has created. And, Saturday night, those books were lifting us as well.
an all-points bulletin yesterday, e-mailing everyone (or nearly everyone) this message:
This brown oxford business is a mystery that we need to solve so we can move on with our lives. If you have any recollection of the seminal incident or, better still, if you have documentation, please, please contact Tom or myself.
In less than four hours, class valedictorian Dick Drey responded:
Look no farther! The reference goes back to the 1965 Trinity Prep Newsletter graduation edition. The first paragraph of the article regarding the Class of '65 written by the Class of '65 goes as follows:
"The Class of '65 assembled for the first time on a cold, windy day in the autumn of 1961. We appeared to be a very unlikely combination for success, to say the least. We had all sorts of personalities floating around the school for the first few days. Some were fresh from the farm with their blue suits and brown oxfords; some were city-bred know-it-alls. In fact, there was any type of character you might expect to find, plus a few that you wouldn't."
There you have it; the "brown oxford" reference. Now sleep easy.
Sleep easy? That's easy for you to say if you're not obsessive the way I'm obsessive. If this is the passage I'm remembering, the question now becomes: who wrote it? Tim Schmaltz denies that he did. Doc Abbick thinks Tom Davis wrote it. Tom Davis hasn't weighed in yet.
In my memory, Doc Abbick still owns the "brown oxfords." Why would I so strongly connect them to him, if he weren't somehow responsible for them?
I'm not even sure this passage is the one I'm remembering, although "brown oxfords" certainly is a magical detail.
And I might have written that paragraph, or at least had something to do with it, for it has within it some of my trademark flaws as a writer, to say the least. Whoever wrote it, I'm sure we can cut him some slack; I mean, we were still in high school.
Yesterday I penned the final pages, the final paragraph, the final word of a complete draft of Peter's Story. It makes quite a pile of manuscript - 262 pages of text, 74,902 words. It has been a long tramp to get to this point.
Yet having a completed draft is a long way from being done, although I now have in hand what is pretty much the final draft of the Foreword and Chapters 1-6, all approved with Peter's blessing. These are in the hands of my never-flagging and ever-vigilant personal editor-proofreader-and-lover, who is still finding things to question. (Sorry, no gossip here, folks - that editor-proofreader-lover is my wife, Mary. Not only is she a great wife, she is my best reader. She knows my many faults and loves me anyway and is courageous enough to point out my questionable prose.) Yes, we're far from being done. When I write fast, which is how I write, the paragraphs and the sentences can get kind of ugly. I still need to smooth Chapters 9-13 and the Epilogue, and massage them and smooth them again.
Yet now I have a first complete draft to work with.
Winter is a pure thought. An old woman, untouched. It is not that she is unloveable, she just keeps to herself.
Give her and hug and tell her good-bye. You can almost smell the randy muskiness of spring, the young wench (oh, don't we hope).
It is a crisp morning, yet there are birds saying "So whattt," saying "Cheap cheep," saying "teet teat teet." The sunlight speaks through the birds; it has no other voice; it has voice today, after what seems like long silence.
A strong wind, west to east. A creamy sheen of sunlight on the snow. The long shadows are all that remains of darkness running away.
Crow has found breakfast out on a stretch of the whiteness, the snow. I wonder what he's eating. Crow's teeth chatter in the cold. Crow's black heart, his loneliness.
writing about it as time goes on, so we might as well start now.
I graduated in 1965 from Trinity Prep in Sioux City, Iowa. Trinity was a Roman Catholic "minor seminary" for high school age boys who thought perhaps God had touched them for the priesthood. If you've read my memoir, Curlew: Home, you perhaps noticed I concluded that what I thought was the touch of God was actually a case of indigestion. Which was my way of saying, No, I didn't become a priest.
This summer, the weekend of June 8-10, many of Trinity's graduates will be coming together for a school reunion, including the Class of '65. In anticipation of that get-together, members of my class have been trying to locate one another. Which means I have an Inbox full of e-mail messages from those former classmates, and I've had extensive correspondence with some of them.
Yes, of course, I am going to the reunion. No. I haven't yet made my room reservations because one of our number is going to see if he can arrange for a block of rooms all together for our class, and I'd like to reserve one of those.
Most of my classmates came from Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas; one of the original freshman class was even from Texas, as I remember. Accordingly, when we graduated, we scattered. And - scattering - we lost touch. The school closed its doors and its dorms some few years after we graduated, so there was no focal point for keeping in touch, and as the universe is wont to do, things fly apart.
Well, we are now back in contact, many of us.
There was one bit of shocking news in all this. All of my writing life, at least forty years now, I have held the biographical note of one of my classmates up as the standard I aspire to as a writer. It was Marion Abbick's biographical note, and I remember that it appeared in the graduation issue of the school magazine. Somehow he had incorporated his "brown oxrfords" into that piece of writing, and ever since I have tried to put Marion Abbick's brown oxfords into everything I write.
So now I am in contact with Marion Abbick. People call him "Doc Abbick." He is a dentist. He rides a Harley. He has released a CD called Sing to Live... Live to Sing, available here. He has in his possession a copy of that 1965 graduation issue of the school magazine and, he says, there are no brown oxfords in it, not his, not anybody's. Indeed, he reminds me, we didn't write our own biographical notes for that issue. Our classmates wrote each other's. He remembers that Dean Schechinger wrote his. And he has no memory of any mention anywhere of his brown oxfords.
Was I pulling his leg, he wondered?
No. Marion Abbick's brown oxfords were there somewhere, a magical detail that transformed an ordinary writing assignment into something wonderful. It was a striking example to me of what a good writer could do, and something I have aspired to ever since. I'll be terribly disappointed if we don't eventually find that passage and if Marion Abbick didn't write it. Turns my world on its head, in a way.
No, I tell you, I'm not making it up. Where are Doc Abbick's brown oxfords? Where?
Folks, you can expect to hear more from me about the Trinity Class of 1965 getting together in June. This will be like plugging in a lamp and lighting a corner that hasn't been illuminated in quite some while, and I'm looking forward to it. And I'm also looking forward to watching my reactions to the experience. And reporting some of that here, perhaps.
You rise each morning, the dawn is like a new question. You choose to answer the question or not.
Which questions, I wonder, have I left unanswered over the years. Either I didn't notice them, or I growled and turned away. How much we lose to inattention or surliness.
Sometimes were left saying "huh? - wondering.
I re-commit myself to paying attention, to being in this place, in this moment, now.
Frost hard on the windshield. Cold fingers.
Desire is like a dream of wildflowers in a gentle breeze. You wake, the flowers have so quickly vanished. The cold nights make our truth truer.
The flag at the cemetery blows east to west. Last night it was blowing north to south. The sky to the north wears a see-through dress this morning.
Salt stains the roadway. I miss the ocean. I miss the smell of it. I miss the taste of salt water.
I can have it both ways: winter here, the ocean in Cozumel; I just can't have it both ways today. And I don't want to lose either, so I am patient. I go in to my day's work today. I'll go away to the ocean next January, and I'll be ready to soak it in through my very skin.
Partly it must be the power of the land acting on me. The turn of the seasons turning a farm boy who is somewhat articulate. The emblems from a place and a time that have tugged at me all these years. The power of specific memories. The very strong rhythms inherent in those memories. A modest talent that came to me as grace. The land humming in me and through me. I cannot do other than sing what I know. The land hums in me and through me.
A spit of sleet and snow during the night. A mess frozen on the windshield this morning. Greyness above. The streets very well may be slick. Another winter trick from another tricky winter. I'm holding out for spring.
The flag at the cemetery blows west to east. The day knows where it is headed. In the country there is a crust of snow and frozen rain on everything.
The power of the images I grew up with, these images grew into poems. Some dealt with the images by becoming hikers. Some became hunters. Some stayed to farm. I wrote poems. Many of us, perhaps, had the same urge, each of us manifested it differently. The power of the land coursed through all of us, an electric juice, we simply reacted differently. My notion that the poet is like the blacksmith stays true. The poet is a kind of blacksmith, working a different kind of steel. A common urge, yes. Then the poet is not so different.
to having a complete draft of Peter's Story. So close that I can taste it.
I finished a draft of Chapter 11 this past Friday. I finished a draft of Chapter 12 on Sunday. On Sunday as well I massaged and finalized the last chapter, which had already been drafted, Chapter 13. Admittedly, I moved some material out of the body of the book in order to finish what I've finished, and it will have to be dealt with in the "Epilogue." That is the work which remains, writing the additional material for the epilogue.
The end is in sight.
Yesterday I went to Milwaukee and reviewed Chapters 4, 5, and 6 with Peter. This involves having me read him the draft and he offers corrections and additions as needed, and - in the end - his approval. At this point we have reviewed and approved the Foreword and Chapters 1 through 6.
I'll meet Peter again next Monday with Chapters 7, 8, and 9 in hand.
I have been keeping my nose pretty close to the grinestone these past weeks - that uncomfortable position - and I haven't done much blog-reading and not much in the way of keeping up with my e-mail, I'm afraid. The push is on. The push is really on. Once I have a complete and final manuscript for Peter's Story in hand, I'll turn my attention to my collection of essays, The Idea of the Local, which will be published at the same time as Peter's Story, on the theory that I can do publicity for both books at the same time. The idea being that I might sell those interested in my writing about place on Peter's story, and those interested in Peter's story on my writing about place.
I have never before had two books come out at the same time, so this will be a new experience for me. I trust that I'll survive it.
"Sharon Brown was buying groceries for the Head Start lunches. She bought a couple loaves of bread and a package of buns. Set em down behind the car, put the rest of the groceries in the trunk. Got in the car. Backed out. When she got to Head Start, she was missing two loaves of bread and a package of buns. Called the store. Where she discovered she had backed over her bread. Flattened one loaf. Jim Buckley's question was, 'Does a flattened loaf contain just half the calories?'"
"Last week I said I sure would like to have somebody cross-reference the Kansas high schools so we would know which town they were located in," Ivan said. "Well, last Wednesday morning, I was either going to work, going to the doctor, or going to get my mail, I can't remember which, but it was one of those three things, when Judy Hall said to me, 'I got something for you.' There right on her neat, well-organized desk, was a copy of a Senior High School Cross Reference Index. It told me, for example that Central Heights High School was in the town of Richmond. Fairfield High School was in Landon. And Royal Valley was in Hoyt. Kevin Rippe had given it to Judy Hall to give to me. And I do appreciate it. Did you know that Northern Heights High School was in the town of Allen?"
"If you have been listening to the Smith Center basketball games on Channel 10," Ivan said, "you might want to know just who the two young fellows are who are doing the play-by-play and the color. They are two talented seventh graders, Kale Terrell and Alex Hobelmann. Those boys are doing a nice job. Kale is the son of John and Amy Terrell and Alex is the son of Greg and Peggy Hobelmann."
"The only way I can figger it," Ivan said, "is that I'm being punished by God. I hate cold weather and wind. So where does God put me? In Smith Center, Kansas. And what do they have in Smith Center, Kansas? Cold weather and wind. And to further compound the problem, He doesn't give me enough money to get out of Smith Center."
"That little red-haired gal from Kensington who works in the First National Bank," Ivan said, "she is a pistol. I like her. One day last week she asked me what time I started drinking coffee and gathering news. I said, 'Six o'clock in the morning.' She said, 'SIX O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING!' She said, 'I'm just dragging my old tush out of bed at six o'clock in the morning.' That's what she said."
"I decided," Ivan said, "against advertising Echo on the Super Bowl game this year."
"I remember one time when I and Gabby Davis were refereeing a basketball game somewhere," Ivan said. "Before the game, I overheard some old guy telling another old guy, 'We got the two best officials in the country tonight.' The other guy said, 'Who are they?' The first guy said, 'I can't remember their names, but they call em Goob and Gab.'"
"Had a doctor's appointment one day last week," Ivan said. "Everything that is wrong with me is the result of either age or weight. If they could give me a pill that would make me fifty years younger and fifty pounds lighter and they would grade me like beef, I would grade out prime."
"I was listening to a song on the radio the other day," Ivan said. "I think it was Jo Stafford who was singing it. I'm almost sure it was Jo Stafford. The name of the song was 'Feuding and a Fighting.' One of the lines in the song said moonshine whiskey tasted better with your shoes off. That is true."
"Who," Ivan asked, "was that old guy who was so dumb and unimaginative that he got a pet zebra and named him Spot?"
"I was the only member of the As the Bladder Fills Club who showed up last Friday morning," Ivan said. ""I made several motions, but they all died for lack of a second."
"This," Ivan said, "could be one of your safest times of the year. Because I think the posse is holed up somewhere. But, nevertheless, stay ahead of the posse."
at Curlew - it is gone - there is an ache of sadness. Yet I don't want the sadness of the loss to be what is remembered. I want to remember the joy of those years - family and land, the circle of life and love. Something is born and something dies. What is new grows in the decaying mass of the old. A few tears water it, then it is time to put away sorrow, grab hold and go on. Every year there is winter and summer, spring and fall. Every life there is. Every family, every generation of families has its seasons. Nothing is lost, the alchemy of time transforms it. Go back as you can go back, yes, but you cannot stay and - truthfully - we don't want to stay. Sometimes it seems as if we are trudging forward too slowly, but indeed we are going forward. We have got to make the world our children will come back to, their children will come back to.
Just because you don't recognize it doesn't mean it's not there.
It is a mild, sweet morning: winter, yes, but a softened, grey day, not the least harshness to the air. Almost a wetness to the streets. No wind in the flag at the cemetery. The white distance, far away. Starlings huddling in a naked tree, filling it like buds waiting to open.
he can take pride in having completed it. It has been a large job, writing of my home at Curlew, the sweep of the land and the lay of my emotions about that place. One closes the book with a bit of nostalgia, sentiment for a glittering that never really existed. Yet more than that, one walks away with a true and real sadness for the loss of a true and real world that is gone now. You can never go home again because you can never again be who you were. Yet you could not be who you are without walking that land, those fields. The days that shaped us help us shape our days. I need a Darwin to chart the evolution of my successive selves - what has come forward, what has receded. What I am more of, what less. And he should chart, too, that essential sacred core I brought from the farm to this place, to my writing, to every poem. In some strange way, the farther you go the closer you get to where you were. Every day the sun comes around. Every life goes round too. You may end as you began. You may lay dying, whispering "Curlew, home."
We had more snow and ice Friday and Saturday. Today is warmer, cloudy with blue sky breaking through here and there. The elevator downtown is soaking in the greyness, it is deeper and darker this morning.
In the country I see a large patch blue sky to the northwest, with dark clouds behind it.
At the first crossroad north of Fairwater, where the corn crib stands now, I'm told there used to be a baseball diamond.
Snow is heaped once again in our ditches, deep. In places the road is icy. The county has put salt down, you can see the scattered crystals, you can see the orange truck half a mile ahead.
Yesterday is so much smoke. We get a whiff of what is gone. So much is gone.
Some little rain. KER-PLUNK, KER-PLUNK in the downspouts. An icy coating on the crust of snow, the smallest branches.
We meld into the landscape we've grown accustomed to; it melds into our dreams. It creates our picture of how the world is, how it will be. How else to explain the longing to get back home after time away? A certain lay of light we've grown accustomed to. A familiar pattern, our usual routine. We make our world and our world makes us. Does the container shape the water or does the water hold the container to its shape?
The driveway this morning is not fun. I have put down salt to eat away at its slipperiness. The sky still spits a cold, occasional rain. Water runs along the edge of the snow on Washington Street. Trees bend heavy with the weight of ice; the glitter will be deadly if there is wind. Far off, probably there is wind.
Going back to Curlew to see what is there is a way of saying good-bye to what used to be. Perhaps I have said good-bye to what is, too. The world changes and I may not see the farm again.
Rain and freezing rain all the way to work today - a crunchy road, sheets of water running in Ripon's streets.
Bill Stobb's audio-essay, "Hegelian Shuffle - Part 1 - Thesis," in which he places my remarks in my essay "Who Is Poetry For?" at one end of a continuum of possibilities, making them the "thesis" in his Shuffle. His is a lovely and relaxed weighing of ideas. Bill was sitting on his winter porch in his stocking cap and fingerless gloves, musing about poetry and my position on poetry. I recommend that you give him a listen.
He does think that my farm boy in the essay is a "composite," and I'd like to correct that notion. I was reporting the real experience of a single, real farm boy, myself remembering that moment; albeit then I was holding the experience up as a emblem, so that one might see it as "mythologizing," as Bill does.
Bill's discussion is interrupted twice, serendipitiously. First, by sundogs on the cold, bright day he made his recording. Yet is it pure coincidence he saw those sundogs during a discussion of my recognition of "the sun's loneliness?" I don't think so. Or at least we shouldn't take the coincidence for granted.
On the other end of the continuum, as Bill might see it, is a "post-modern" poetry, an aesthetic which questions the very basis of our knowing, perhaps, or at least it questions the basis of our telling. A "crazy poetry," as Bill puts it to his four-year-old son when the child comes out onto the porch for some attention during the recording session. This was the second interruption. Bill posed for the boy a choice between "crazy poetry" and "poetry about farms," these extremes of the continuum: which does he like?
The wisdom of the four-year-old? "I like nice poetry."
So do I, son, so do I.
In "Part 2 - Antithesis," Bill will examine an aesthetic in marked contrast to mine, the aesthetic of a "crazy poetry" which he appreciates as much as he does my regionalism. And then, I assume, in "Part 3 - Synthesis," he will resolve the tensions between Thesis and Antithesis and will stake out a position of his own.
In an e-mail follow-up, Bill wondered if I might want to record an audio response to his remarks, which I have done, and which he will try to incorporate into his continuing discussion. I appreciate Bill's kindness in his handling of my position, which I assure you could draw bile from one less sweetly disposed. My essay is a polemic; it does stake out a position on one side of the question.
I think that at the horns of this Thesis-Antithesis you will find, on the one horn, poets like myself who believe the stuff of poetry is the world; and, on the other horn, poets who believe the stuff of poetry is language or the poem itself. Between those of us who see poets as shaman-like creatures and those who believe the poet's task is to play poetry as an elaborate self-referential word game.
Admittedly, I simplify, as if you can really force a choice between "crazy poetry" and "poetry about farms."
I did get off one good bon mot in my audio response, I think. Listen for it:
When all is said and done in this post-modernist world, I take some solace in the fact that if a bus hits a post-modern poet, he's just as dead as the rest of us would be.
I closed my audio response by saying: "This is Tom Montag, signing off from my end of the continuum." Bill thinks "My End of the Continuum" would be a great name for a column. Hmmm.
--------------------------- There is a discussion of Bill's "Hegelian Shuffle" taking place here. If you want to access it, you'll have to register at Facebook, which was relatively painless.
not near so much as weather watchers had feared, not enough to bring out the village snow plow nor to lure me outside with my snowblower.
Going back to Curlew, Iowa, last October, I stopped for breakfast in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. The lilt of the talk in the restaurant, the sound of silverware on the table, of thick plates set down heavy. I was going to Iowa, I was headed back to my Curlew home, the restaurant in Dodgeville was not my destination yet it us like my destination. Ordinary folks at an ordinary breakfast in an ordinary place. Common people, common place. There are commonplaces that are holy, they reveal themselves in flashes, Dodgeville is not unlike Curlew. The sacred moments wink at me. I make note of them, it is my duty, I cannot do otherwise. It is a serious obsession, my vigilance, my need to write, my desire to speak for so many who may otherwise be lost in the fog of the mundane. My obsession does not mark me special; it is a gift, yes; it is also a burden, a duty I take seriously. You eat your breakfast; you leave your waitress a tip; you go on doing what you have to do.
The night's snow is very wet, ending slick like freezing rain. The air is mild by comparison. The village is very quiet, as if the world has ended. There is not telling where and when the hand of God will reach out for you. One's goodness must be a way of life.
The flag at the cemetery blows east to west, somewhat gently. Tires on the road sound like a molar being ground down with an old, slow drill. I have to pay attention to the road. A red, red fox could sneak across the white, white field and I would not see it.
At Five Corners where the youngsters were killed, the white cross - icicles hang off the cross bar. Two crows above the road fly east into the teeth of the morning.
was the featured reader at the Foot of the Lake Collective's poetry reading in the Windhover Center for the Arts last night in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He was introduced as a "performance poet," and I'm just far enough out of the mainstream that I don't know what that means exactly. So, as I often do with unfamiliar vocabulary, I find the meaning by examining the context. A performance poet, if Matt Cook is representative, might be defined as a poet who, on the one hand, doesn't comb his hair and gestures like one of the wilder and less mild minor Old Testament prophets; and who, on the other hand, like a stand-up comic, keeps his audience in stitches.
Yes, he kept us in stitches. Some of us couldn't catch our breaths and required oxygen. Funny schtuff, as Johnny would say.
I do think poetry is big enough that sometimes you can play it for laughs; it doesn't always have to be about The Great Cosmic Significance of Things. Most of the time, but not always.
"He bucks tradition," we heard during the introduction. "He does things his own way."
"He chronicles the Milwaukee landscape...."
"Oh, you got that off the internet, didn't you?" Matt said from the back of the room, implying not only that what you find on the internet might be inaccurate, but also that it seems to stay around forever.
Matt came to the podium. "People are sitting very close to me...." he noticed. If it bothered him, it didn't bother him for long.
He read us poems from his second collection, Eavesdrop Soup.
"How about something like this? This one, 'Walking Through Snow.'"
"He would call me up to ask if we could walk through the snow together. I like walking through the snow with crazy men, so I went...."
"For a second there, I mistook him for an important curiosity...."
"All the passengers were making progress...."
A Milwaukee bus driver stops the bus to let a squirrel cross the road: "An act of refined sophistication not available in the cultural centers...."
"It's obscene, the way some people put their fingers inside bowling balls...."
"It was like I was turning into a radio station, which was okay because my radio had broken...."
"Thank you, Walt Whitman, for doing what you did, so we don't have to write like they did before you...."
"The Norton Critical Edition of your mom...."
"Poetry about sex - when it's bad, it's terrible; and when it's good, it's still pretty bad...."
"We were in the backyard playing dead. Playing dead was more fun than playing backgammon...."
"Whatever happened to static electricity?"
"Here's something different from that...."
"So - essentially, my wife got flashed, and the cops came over and told her she was old...."
"... a kind of weird cemetery extremist."
"Today is the last holiday before the first day of the rest of your life...."
"Naw, not that one...."
"Surely I'll die not understanding the noises my furnace makes...."
"... morally superior dishwashing liquid."
"He was on the vanguard of belligerent simplicity...."
"The poem goes on from there, but that was the best part of it...."
"I gather people want to get past futility into the period of post-futility...."
"I had no idea I would write about Hungarian Goulash today...."
"The worthless song birds are up in the trees again...."
After Matt finished his reading, as usual, there was an "open mic" session. I read a poem by William Stafford, "You Reading This, Be Ready," written two days before he died; it is good instruction on this, the last holiday before the first day of the rest of our lives.
Reminder: I'll be one of the featured readers at the Foot of the Lake reading at the Windhover on Tuesday, March 6, 7:00 p.m. Be there or be square.
last night. Moonlight on the snow this morning when I rose, early. Light enough to do whatever must be done.
Sometimes the artist wants to be alienated: he fosters alienation. He counts how he is different, not what he has in common with family and neighbors and companions. Sometimes we choose to be the outsiders, to feel the pain of exclusion. We don't always seek the exclusion on purpose, I know, and we aren't always purposefully excluded.
I am at the point in my life where I want to find what I might have in common with my fellows, and to discover what small spark of difference brought me to a poetry that sometimes speaks for my family and neighbors.
It comes down to a few elemental moments, as near as I can tell, places and moments that have put their claws in me and won't let go. The memories which rise up, insistent.
Family can love us; that doesn't mean they will understand us. Sometimes we think the failure to understand is the sin. The sin is the failure to love, when love fails.
The attachment of frost is not fierce this morning. There is a hint of hoarfrost on the trees in the village. The sun is breaking through a thin haze.
The school bus is behind me as I head east on Washington Street. Children are liked up like soldiers. There is no fire in their eyes.
In the country, the hoarfrost is thicker. A low, white haze hangs in the tree tops as well. At the hawk's tree, the haze drops to six feet above the road. There is no wind to blow it away. Farther on, the haze drops lower. I drive through it as through a storm. The world may have its knife edge but doesn't show it now.
It occurs to me that sometimes artists are not loved because they are not loveable.
last night, I found an e-mail from William Stobb, one of the poets I met on a trip to La Crosse, Wisconsin, last month for my reading at the Pump House Center for the Arts. One of the pieces I read at the Pump House was an excerpt from my essay, "Who Is Poetry For?" Stobb got a copy of my collection of essays, Kissing Poetry's Sister, which contains the complete version, and after reading it, as he says in the e-mail, "I decided to explore my own thoughts about the questions your essay raises." He does so in a podcast at http://www.miporadio.net/WILLIAM_E_STOBB/ under the title "Hegelian Shuffle: Part 1 of 3 Thesis: Tom Montag." I have dial-up internet service, and I've been downloading the podcast for about 45 minutes, about 20% of the file, so I haven't heard what he has to say yet, but I wanted to point my readers in the direction of Stobb's comments. I may follow up with some discussion here after I've heard the piece. We're up to 24% downloaded now. Upp, now it's 26%
Yesterday, in the morning, I finished my draft of Chapter 10 of Peter's Story. The end is in sight! I have Chapters 11 and 12 to draft, and I have some massaging to do in Chapter 13, which is mostly completed, then I'll have a complete draft. I can almost taste it.
Yesterday, in the afternoon, I went to Milwaukee to see Peter. I read him Chapters 2 and 3 and we revised and approved them. We also re-examined the chronology of the first ten chapters and, with three changes, I'll have the order of events perfected.
I left Fairwater early enough yesterday that I could go look at where Peter had lived in Milwaukee's old Third Ward, on the south side of Clybourn between Jefferson and Jackson Streets. On that side of Clybourn, there is freeway overhead, and bare ground beneath. The neighborhood from Peter's life? It's all gone, every last stick of it. What remains is Peter's memory of it. In a very cold brightness I got a look at the raw ground and the pillars holding up the freeway and the freeway itself overhead, and I felt a rush of gratitude and pleasure that I'm able to help Peter to tell his story.
Today, I start drafting Chapter 11, with vigor and renewed enthusiasm.
Ivan wondered. "He lived over there by Kirwin somewhere. He was driving his old pick-up down the highway. He kept wandering all over the road. The highway patrolman was following him. Finally the patrolman turned on his flashing lights and his siren. He pulled the old guy over and walked up to the pick-up and said, 'Have you been drinking? I've been following you, and you have been wandering all over the road.' The old guy said, 'No. I've been trying to light my pipe.'"
"Speaking of pipes," Ivan said, "one time I went down to the Bonecutter-Hill Chevrolet Co. thinking about buying a used car. I went in and I asked Harold Hill what he wanted for so-and-so's car. He got out his pipe. Packed it with tobacco and got you his Zippo lighter. He thumbed his Zippo twice and finally on the third try he got it going. He held his Zippo over the pipe bowl and sucked the flame into the bowl and got it going to his satisfaction. Then he said, 'Let me tell you about that car.' His pipe had gone out so he thumbed his Zippo a couple more times. Then he said, 'The guy that brought that car in here said there was ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong with the car, he just wanted a different one.' I said, 'What are you asking for it?' He thumbed his Zippo a couple more times and said, 'The guy said it didn't use a drop of oil. Said he had just put on two new tires.' Now he hit the bowl of his pipe against the palm of his hand and knocked the burned tobacco into a waste paper basket. Then he very methodically packed it with tobacco again, thumbed his Zippo and said, 'I think it would make you a good car.' When I was walking out the front door, I still didn't know how much he wanted for the car, and he was sucking the flame from his Zippo into the bowl of his pipe."
"John and Tammy Windscheffel joined the As the Bladder Fills Club last Saturday morning," Ivan reported. "Tammy was sitting down at the far end of the table next to Bobbi Miles. They were carrying on an animated conversation which I could only assume was girl talk. Tammy was holding her cup out in front of her while she was talking to Bobbi. John said, 'Tammy, quit talking into your cup or your name will be in the Echo.'"
"Jack Yenne usually makes it to the As the Bladder Fills Club on Saturday," Ivan said. "Ol Jack is a good guy, but he does have two character flaws. He always looks neat and he likes to work. Those are two things you can just leave out when you are describing me. I've been thinking about starting a Smith Center chapter of Slobs Anonamous. Get up in front of the group and say, 'My name is Ivan Burgess and I'm a slob.' And from the group comes the answer, 'And your pants are unzipped too.'"
"Am I embarrassed," Ivan said. "Here I am, 220 pounds of muscle and sinew. I was over at the library last Tuesday. Pulled on the door and it wouldn't come open. I thought to myself, I'm too early. Looked at my watch and it was ten o'clock. Pulled on the door again. Still wouldn't come open. So I over to the other door. It was at this moment that Diane Depperschmidt, whose name weighs more than she does, just a mere slip of a girl, came out, grabbed the door, gave it a jerk, and invited me in. Was I embarrassed."
"You know what I've got to do," Ivan said, "I've got to apologize to Edee Drake, or as some people call her Ee Duth. Edee was a tellin' how her mother used to make chocolate-covered cherries. Edee said that her mother always used mashed potatoes for the base of her chocolate covered cherries. She said she added powdered sugar to the mashed potatoes. I tried to stifle my laughter when Edee was a tellin' this story. Then I went to the Kiwanis spaghetti dinner. I sat right across from Leona Conaway. I told Leona what Edee, or as some people call her, Ee Duth, had said. Leona said, 'Oh, yes, those chocolates that come up to a point are made from mashed potatoes with flavoring in them.' Well, I had to believe Leona because she used to be a member of the press. And if you can't believe a media person, just who can you believe?"
"I used to hunt and I used to fish," Ivan said. "I would tell myself what a good time I was having. Then one day it dawned on me - I wasn't having any fun. I was just kidding myself. It's all right to kid other people, but don't ever kid yourself. Once I realized I wasn't having any fun, I haven't hunted or fished since."
yesterday - not enough to say it's spring, yet more than winter ever promises. A dusting of snow during the night, so the streets have a very thin white coating.
Asking the farmer and his wife "Why am I a poet?" cannot possibly elicit a full answer, because of course they do not know. They cannot know. The poet himself does not know. That is why he is going back, returning to that elemental place, the farm at Curlew, to re-examine the elemental images out of his childhood. Which image was it that forced utterance? Whence does the farm boy come to cadenced speech? What moved me to speak - to speak for those people I remember and others like them - my parents, our neighbors, the folks in town, my own lost self?
Looking back at my life I see a mosaic that has been dropped, shattered; the pieces lay scattered; I need to pick them up, re-work them, understand them. I know going in that what I make shall be at best an honest interpretation, but interpretation nonetheless. Going back, I want to find the source of my cadenced speech, and the swirl of images I live with, images that make me what I am and keep me from what I am not.
Of course the impulse to poetry is not necessarily understood by family and neighbors - I don't understand it myself. Yet for me there is a fierceness and urgency; the world is changed by the drive towards speech; I doubt that my parents or brothers and sisters would understand the fire that burns in a poet's belly. Aren't all artists aliens to some extent, the moreso in small town Iowa in the middle of the twentieth century? I cannot complain that they do not understand my fire, for what experience of it do they have.
Sometimes you might wish they'd stand back out of the way a little bit, but that's seldom the nature of family. So a poet makes do. He counts his blessings and thanks his lucky stars and starts to set down one word, then another, and listens for them to sing.
A winter's sky. Grey light. The air is chilly. The morning spins gently.
The flag at the cemetery blows easily, west to east. In the country, a white haze, like the cook is dusting flour off her hands. Near the hawk's tree, the snow is stirred up and drifting.
Saturday night and Sunday. We were gone from home yesterday during the day so I went out this morning at 6:00 a.m. and cleared the driveway and the small plowbank. The new snow has softened the harshness of everything. The world is more gentle this morning, somewhat more delicate and lovely.
The question has been asked: Why would a fellow go back? I have established a home here in Fairwater, now I have roots here, I belong. Why would I go back to Curlew to find that home I had there?
We are formed, in our early years, by the roll of landscape, the cycle of seasons, the scrape of voices we know then. The land and people, farm and school and church, small town, wind, sunset - these are all peculiar and special to a certain time and place in my youth.
One goes back not to recapture them - because we know the world changes; not to evaluate them - because we don't know enough to judge; not to dismiss them - because we cannot, the images, the memories have claws. Rather we go back to see what moves us - I had belonged, I left, I no longer belong. What will the land say to me, what will the old buildings say? Will old neighbors know me?
One goes back partly to see what is left, perhaps. And he goes back to see what he left there. Anything?
A fellow wonders. All the answers are so much smoke except the going - leaving Fairwater, what I am and what I know - and heading back to a place that exists in its present circumstances and yet reverberates for me with the power of memory. I must immerse myself in that other places, understand why and how I am who I am, where I am.
My Curlew home will not be changed by my going back so much as I will be changed. I hope to come to some understanding of myself - why do certain images hold me, why do certain words catch in my throat? I think I am going away so I can come back wiser. I say wiser because a wise man knows himself. All I have to say about the wide world is filtered through the lens of who I am; I'd like a clearer understand, brighter wisdom.
The streets of Fairwater are snow-covered and slippery in places. Grey sky. Very little wind. A ssst on the road north of the village where salt has melted the snow; not much has been melted, however. It is still colder than a crow's heart. Crows are odd, their oddness like the unbending strength of prime numbers.
from Karl Elder at Lakeland College near Sheboygan. "Are you interested in again teaching Creative Nonfiction during our fall semester? I know the students would be pleased...."
"Well, yeah!" I wanted to shout, but actually I responded with something a little more composed, ending with "Let me know more as this develops...." It is a lovely possibility.
Working with young writers is always such a charge for me, like sticking two prongs into the juice of the universe and being jolted with that hugeness. I always have to hope that I'm giving back to the students as much as they give to me in those classes.
I am fortunate in my situation as a Visiting Writer at Lakeland that: (1) this is one class, not a full load; (2) it is a subject I love and am excited about; and (3) it comes without all the obligations that the other faculty members have, so my energy is devoted 100% to the class I'm teaching.
"If we were supposed to go outside we wouldn't have houses." A fellow in NYC could, I suppose, live his whole life without ever stepping foot on real soil, always on concrete, always seeing the skyline, never the sky.
Even here in the middlewest we have lost some of the grit of living out-of-doors. Our suburbs are as phoney as the color on women's the lips these days. Manicured lawns, parks without a single plant out of place. If deer or coyotes or geese intrude, we complain. The animals ruin our idea of a straight line.
I don't like sleeping on the ground, but perhaps we should do some of this, become animal to some degree again, taste where we came from.
You cannot cry "Ah, wilderness" if you yourself will not be wild.
Clear, blue sky. Crisp, sharp air. A very cold morning. It is at least zero, perhaps colder.
I think I would be "Longshadow in the Morning." It is when I feel most alive.
The wind is blowing from west to east. A crow on snow just north of Fairwater. Which is crusted more, crow or snow? Crow rides the cusp of sorrow, he is lost in his bowl of loneliness. Now he climbs the cold ladder of air into the blue funk of sky. You go, Crow.
for the tree huggers' position and believe we cannot ever preserve too much pristine wilderness; yet in the main I have a farmer's sensibility, that the earth is here for us to use. To use, not abuse. To husband, not to plunder. I think man is an animal on the landscape no less than all the other creatures, and man's needs should be considered too.
Yet husbanding may be a difficult word to define to the satisfaction of all of us. What is husbanding for me is plunder for another.
I think if we take, we need to put back. If we use, we need to restore. If we break, we need to repair.
I'm not sure our President and his greedy minions could ever understand what I'm talking about, and that's scary. Our nation is poised to plunder big time for big profits for the big guys, the earth be damned.
The days are lengthening noticeably. The sunlight rips and races earlier, dawdles longer in the evening. We have enough blue sky this morning to cheer February coming in.
The morning is crisp enough there is frost tight to the windows of the car. In a few minutes my fingers feel like chunks of meat thawing but not thawed. The red of the house, the sunlight - this is the answer. What is the question?
The rain earlier in the week has taken the softness of the snow. The snowbanks are hard-edged now, sharp lines with shadow.
The flag at the cemetery in Fairwater hangs limp. To the west and north, a heavy grey cover of cloud coming on. The world is constantly a battle ground - darkness and light, sun and clouds, cold and its absence. Something to be gained, something lost.