A Fan Letter on Minnesota Writers
The Corresponder

Fall 2000

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In this Issue

Book Reviews

Seasons of Sun and Rain by Marjorie Dorner
Reviewed by Carrie Williams
 Painting the Dakota: Eastman at Fort Snelling by Marybeth Lorbiecki
Reviewed by Tyler Crogg
Tall in Spirit: Meditations For the Chronically Ill  by Joni Woelfel
Reviewed by Don Gadow
The Girls Are Coming by Peggy Carlson
Reviewed by Debra Selbach
Woman Lake by Richard Broderick
Reviewed by Nick LaRocca
What Do I Know? New & Selected Poems by John Calvin Rezmerski
Reviewed by Julie Ann Hayes
Famous Persons We Have Known by Richard Robbins
Reviewed by Jennifer Fandel

Boundary Waters by William Kent Kruger
Reviewed by S.B.Edgewater

Rufus at the Door & Other Stories by Jon Hassler
Reviewed by Beth Luwandi Nelson

Upcoming Good Thunder Reading Series Events
News and Notes
 
 

Corresponder Editor

Book Reviews

 

Seasons of Sun and Rain
by
Marjorie Dorner
Milkweed Editions, 2000  Price (Paperback) $14.95
Reviewed by Carrie Williams

Mystery writer and Winona State University professor Marjorie Dorner tackles subjects greater than the simple “whodunit” in her most recent venture.  Like the mysteries she typically writes, the story contains nearly as many surprises and instances of suspense, but this foray into literary fiction produces a much more complex sequence of emotions and actions than a mystery novel.

Seasons of Sun and Rain is the story of six women, each on the brink of her 50th birthday, who reunite for an annual summer outing they have appropriately dubbed “Camp Menopause.”  Jan, Linda, Mary, Micky, Peg and Sharon make the trek from their homes all over the Midwest to a quiet bed and breakfast in scenic Northern Minnesota.  As they explore the region, taking in some of the traditional sights that many Minnesotans will recognize, they share many of the memories and experiences that have been forgotten over the years.  All members of the St. Augustine College class of 1968, these women have kept close ties through the years, documenting the many changes in their lives through letters and phone calls.  Throughout the novel, each character must deal with both current and past problems.  Linda has just broken up with a married man; Mary deals with the effects of her divorce; Peg is frustrated with financial issues; Sharon is well on her way to becoming an alcoholic and Jan must deal with feelings associated with her son’s recent announcement that he is gay.

Despite all of these issues, the most difficult change and incomprehensible change is Micky’s recent diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease.  Now a college professor, Micky was always the most sensible and most knowledgeable of the group.  For her to be tacking up Post-It notes on her mirror with reminders to pack shoes, a raincoat, and toothbrush is far from her normal character.  After she has told family and friends of the diagnosis, she makes one request of her closest friend, Jan, adding to Jan’s already mentally exhausted state – to help Micky commit suicide before the disease takes every memory she has.

Told by six very different and articulate narrators, the story of how the group deals with their own personal issues and Micky’s situation weighs heavily on the reader’s mind.  This multi-narrative structure serves to isolate Micky’s bouts with memory loss and allow her to bring to light her own concerns with and feelings about the disease, enable each individual to react to and express concern about the state of Micky’s life, and reveal the effects Alzheimer’s has on the individual and the group.  Each narrator lends her own memories of college and post-college life to recreate the memories that Micky has already lost or will be losing.  Overall, the multiple narrators serve to provide a variety of perspectives to characterize Micky and the many experiences they each have endured.

Dorner not only treats the subject of Alzheimer’s with respect and dignity in her creation of Micky’s character, but she also reveals the concerns that friends and family express because of the diagnosis.  This sensitive issue is explored thoroughly resulting in the creation of an emotionally mature book about the subject of Alzheimer’s.  The characters she invents make the story and the feelings tangible to the reader while at the same time providing a clear picture of the issues associated with Alzheimer’s.

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Painting the Dakota: Eastman at Fort Snelling
by
Marybeth Lorbiecki
Afton Historical Society, 2000  Price (Paperback) $14.95
Reviewed by Tyler Crogg

If Lieutenant Seth Eastman had never been sent to Fort Snelling in 1830, he probably would have been known as a lesser Antebellum Era landscape painter among the Eastern high society circles.  Fortunately for us, Eastman captured in a series of watercolor and oil paintings the final decades of the Eastern Dakota tribe as an independent, self-sustaining nation in the Minnesota Territory. Eastman’s final years were spent completing a series of oil paintings, mostly of the Dakota people, for the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.  His works compete with the best ethnographic treatises for their particular detailing of American Indian culture.

Lorbiecki, an award-winning children’s writer and M.A. graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, has presented the dual story of the Dakota people and the Army officer/artist who portrayed them in a balanced and detailed style. The text mainly focuses on Eastman’s relationship with the Dakota Nation and kin (Eastman’s first wife, Stands Sacred, was daughter of a local tribal leader) and his steady rise to prominence as a first-rate artist of the American frontier and Dakota Nation. Lorbiecki has judiciously spiced the text with Eastman’s notes and Dakota oral histories.  Eastman’s second Anglo-American wife Mary maintained as much interest in the Dakota Nation as Eastman himself.  Mrs. Eastman’s journal entries provide a literary counter-point to Eastman’s watercolors.  Her description of a Dakota bride about to be married recreates Seth Eastman's attention to detail:  “Her moccasins were worked with porcupine [quills] and fitted closely her small feet; leggings ornamented with ribbons of all colors [. . .]. Her breast was covered in brooches [. . .]. She has a bright spot of vermilion on each cheek.”

In Eastman’s perspective, the Dakota were not just subjects for his canvas, but relations, friends, humans struggling to survive year to year.  The selection of Eastman’s works in this book documents the everyday essentials of life: women gathering wild rice, men hunting and ice-fishing, ceremonial dances, funeral and wedding rites. In this sense, Eastman is a Vermeer among American artists of indigenous peoples; he found beauty and meaning in the unnoticed and common acts of life. A nameless woman scraping a deer hide or men spear-fishing from a canoe enticed Eastman more than a gathering of tribal leaders.

The best test of a children’s book is whether adults are entertained and informed as well.  This is one of those books. An addition of a glossary and a pronunciation guide for some of the Dakota terms and names would have been helpful, but overall, Lorbiecki’s writing is precise.  She handles complex historical topics, like the growing dependence of the Dakota on Anglo-American merchandise and the regional Dakota-Ojibwe conflicts with clarity, and without oversimplification.  Her portrayal of Eastman is honest. As a New Englander, he was not pleased with being so far from the artistic centers of New York and Boston, but he used his time at Fort Snelling to improve his talents and understand Dakota culture as well as any Anglo-American could.

Lorbiecki will hopefully keep investigating and writing on historical, ethnic and environmental subjects she has covered in her past books.  Her scholarship and style hold as much detail as one of Eastman’s watercolors.  Painting the Dakota recreates a fascinating portrait of early Minnesota history, its original inhabitants and the man who painted their world.

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Tall in Spirit: Meditations For the Chronically Ill 
by
Joni Woelfel
ACTA Publication, 1999  Price (Paperback) $9.95
Reviewed by Don Gadow

Quickly glancing at titles of the forty essays in this first published book by Joni Woelfel of Seaforth, Minnesota, (est. pop. 85) – “The Killing Frost,” “Bone Woman,” “Alligators of Fear,” “Rafts and Battleships,” “Prayerful Howling,” “Strand Gatherers,” “The Christmas Hush” – informs the reader that this new voice offers more than chicken soup for sufferers of pain and illness and their friends and family members.

Woelfel, a victim of Meniere’s disease, facial Bell’s palsy, a mitral valve prolapse of the heart, and lipid storage myopathy, tells us that her intimate acquaintance with suffering from chronic illnesses has shaken her “by the scruff of the neck so powerfully that I’ve felt my teeth rattle.”

But instead of taking refuge in cloying self-pity that traps the reader in a web of pity and guilt, these essays startle us with unique glimpses of inner voices and dreams, childhood memories, animistic views of nature, and the keen discoveries and fresh metaphors of a poet.

Dark storm clouds and stone gargoyles on the façade of a Rochester, Minnesota, clinic lead Woelfel from the patient’s anxiety over the unknown to “an unconscious turning toward the stark, untouchable beauty of stone against sky.” Examining a surrealistic dream of sitting in a classroom while alligators run through, the author concludes that alligators must also have their say, which surprisingly is a message of encouragement: “Sometimes we just need to be brave.”

The soft click of a lock mirrors small truths of the soul, painful as they might be. A rusty lock with key seen at the bottom of a clear stream reminds us of the need for the unbreakable combination of support and hope. Memories of childhood remind Woelfel that an important value of rediscovering lost youth is the opportunity to tap into “that life-giving secret rhythm – the kind that makes trees sway when there’s no wind.”

A mythic spirit of the land understood completely only by someone who has had a long lasting, intimate acquaintance with rural life renews inner strength. In a small scruffy woods near her house, the author takes us along a “path untrod,” past Philosophy Point, Dead Tree Gulch, and Sit-a-Spell Log to Red Rock Rapids, dwelling place of six large cottonwood trees, the Great Grandmothers. One day Woelfel discovers that one of the huge trees has fallen, “large roots broken open to the daylight.” It was like a death to the author, who “felt like weeping.” But over time as the bark gradually weathered and the tree became a bridge spanning the creek for Woelfel and her family, this grandmother came to represent “the backbone of the woods – skeletal, with only her essence remaining,” teaching us “that change and diminishment are nothing to fear but are, rather, part of a natural process overshadowed by the care of God.”

What can the reader learn from these meditations? Seriously ill people sometimes need space because coping requires all their resources. “Trial or illness does not make us gentle. Rather it makes us authentic.” Fragility does not have to mean weakness. Instead, it’s “an element of the deepest deep that should be noted with mindfulness, sensitivity and respect.” Vulnerability “is not something to be ashamed of, apologized for, or taken as a sign of character weakness.”

While this book of meditations offers no formulas, no coping mechanisms, it can lead all of us from the darkness of despair all of us have to face at times to an understanding of the importance of recognizing the everyday things around us that can lift us up, give us connections, allow us to face our inner selves with authenticity. As the author tells us, “Our suffering may not go away, of course, but there is a ‘downstream’ feel to it that connects us to a deeper trust that we can hang on to and that hangs on to us. We cling to that trust, knowing that – no matter what happens – we won’t be destroyed.”

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The Girls Are Coming
by

Peggie Carlson
Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1999Price (Paperback) $ 15.95
Reviewed by Debra Selbach


In Peggie Carlson’s memoir, The Girls Are Coming, the author shares her unique experience as one of the first three women hired by Minneapolis-based Minnegasco.  A black woman, she was hired to fill quotas federally mandated by the Equal Employment Act of 1972, helping the company, with her dual minority to “look good in two different categories.”  Unaware of the Equal Employment Act until informed by a “woman telephone man,” she applied for jobs at Bell, Northern States Power, and Minnegasco.  Accepted by all three, she threw a dart to choose.  Minnegasco won.

Carlson’s gender was the problem for employees of Minnegasco, not her race. Men mumbled “lesbo, or libber, or feminist” under their breaths, but never “nigger.”  Some wondered why she “want(ed) to work for Minnegasco, seeing as how (she) was a girl.”  One guy walked up to her without bothering to introduce himself and said, “I have a family to support [. . .]. I’ve been working here for ten years [. . .]. I shoulda had your job.  I wanted it.”  Using his misconceptions against him, she asked, “What group of people make up most of the welfare recipients?”  “Af-fo A-mer-i-kans,” he proudly replied.  “Wrong, but let’s pretend our answer is correct,” she said.  “Shouldn’t you be happy that I have a job?”

Carlson had many difficult days as a novice “Gascoite.”  She was first hired as a meter reader and was given the suburban route of a vacationing male employee.  One morning, after knocking at the door of a big brick house in an affluent Minnetonka neighborhood and shouting “Meter reader,” a blonde-haired woman appeared under the threshold totally naked and told Carlson that “she was expecting somebody else.”  It was later discovered that “the man whose route she read that day was one of the four black men who worked at Minnegasco.”

That afternoon, a white female racist called her a “nigger” and attacked her with a butcher knife.  Forcing the knife out of the racist’s hand, she ran out the door, only to find her boss, who’d been hiding in the bushes, brushing thistles from his pants.  He explained, “We like to keep an eye on our new readers.  In case they run into trouble.”  She knew he was lying, that he was in on the set-ups and was following her, spying on her, “waiting for her to fall apart” and leave Minnegasco.  But she didn’t leave.  Instead, she applied for a better job within the company in the pipefitting department and soon became the first black woman pipefitter’s apprentice in America.

The quality of Carlson’s apprenticeship varied according to the quality of the “master” under whom she learned.  Three are mentioned: Elmo, Box, and Rockhead.  She liked Elmo.  He was nice and had a neat Swedish accent – “Go get me dat t’ing.  Dat t’ing.  You know. Dat t’ing dat goes like dis.”  He accepted her, too, saying, “S’long as a guy does his job, it don’t matter to me if he’s a gal.”  She liked Box, too.  He praised her “small hands” as an on-the-job asset, believing that “she would find it easier to manipulate the tiny parts and small motors than [. . .] most of the clumpy, spatula-fingered guys.”  Rockhead, on the other hand, was loud-mouthed and greasy, an arrogant slumlord who spent company time collecting tenement rents, playing cribbage and hitching up his tool-belt.  He allowed his friends to chastise Carlson, subjecting her to “a litany of comments, suggestions, innuendoes, and insults,” forcing her to examine her motives for working at Minnegasco.  He didn’t hate her, but didn’t respect or help her, either.

I enjoyed reading The Girls Are Coming, particularly the funny dialogues between Carlson and her co-workers, in which she intelligently uses conversation to open closed minds as she used a pipefitter’s wrench to open bad pipe.  In chapter one, Elmo said of the pipefitter’s wrench, “Comes in handy when you ain’t got enough torque to break her open.”  Examining her petite frame, he said, “You’re gonna need a lot of torque.”  She had torque – lots of it – enough to silence her critics, earn a pipefitter’s license, and even to become a forewoman at Minnegasco, where she stayed for fourteen years before leaving to teach in the Minneapolis Public School System and, eventually, to write this book.

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Woman Lake 
by 
Richard Broderick
New Rivers Press, 2000  Price (Paperback) $13.95
Reviewed by Nick LaRocca

In Woman Lake, a collection of fifty poems, Richard Broderick weaves a pretty line between boyhood and manhood. Many of the poems in the collection, and perhaps the strongest, or at least, the most moving – and why shouldn’t that be our primary criteria for quality – take as their subjects family members, including his grandfather in the poem “Johnny Broderick,” his grandmother in “He Dreams of Visiting His Grandmother’s House,” his mother in “Hanging Laundry out to Dry,” and his father in the subtly beautiful “My Father Sings Along with Mario Lanza.” Though there are others, and though he handles external and naturalistic subject matter as well, these four poems form a remarkable quartet of meaning.

Broderick has said that his purpose in writing poetry is to resist “the death of feeling,” which, he argues, is an inherent prerequisite in becoming part of American society. He wants to re-enchant the world, to “embody those attributes missing from a market-dominated view of life. Memory, mystery, awe, passion, and an embrace of fate.” Perhaps it’s true that his heart yearns so much for this because of the singularly fateful life he has led. His father died when he was fourteen. His sister, as well, is dead. He writes about her in one poem as the victim of a lashing, at his hands, with a straightened wire hanger. In another poem, perhaps his least subtle, he writes about his sister on the first anniversary of her death, “You’ve become, sister, not / the vessel, but the emptiness inside, the absence / that defines the boundaries of what’s alive.” He imagines his grandfather in steerage on a ship headed to America, and in the moment just after the ship leaves the narrator writes, “It’s / night on both sides of the ocean [. . .]. And somewhere / out there I am waiting to catch / the first glimpse of your / dark hull hoving into view.”

Of his grandmother, he writes in less nostalgic terms. “He Dreams of Visiting His Grandmother’s House” is the shortest narrative of a dream in which the narrator’s father is “not dead anymore.” As the boy of the dream rises to go see him, his grandmother, with whom he’s been sitting on the steps, digs a knuckle into his side. “’Dumb mick,’ she teases, ‘you’ll grow up / to shovel shit against the tide.’” His mother, though, he portrays as softly courageous. In “Hanging Laundry out to Dry,” the narrator, spawned by a broken dryer in his house, remembers her “feeding the clothespin / to her hand whenever she reached / the edge of a sheet or the seam / where a shoulder and sleeve met.” He goes on to write, “look how easily I invoke her presence / in the simple mystery of the wash.” These are the first two lines of the last stanza, and though they are, themselves, gracefully abstract, they seem to be telling us something about the nature of poetry itself and its foundation in memory, how simply such monumental meaning can be constructed.

Such coming-down, though, is not a weakness of Broderick’s, but a strength. If indeed it may be called sentimentality, and I’m reluctant to use that word, then it is a touching thing also, and then, so what? It can be said, I think, that the modern poem could use a bit of sentimentality, a bit of commonness, a bit of coming-down, and Broderick’s instinct for the moments in which such a movement is necessary is keen.

Nowhere, I believe, is this strength more apparent than in “My Father Sings along with Mario Lanza.” The narrator writes, “He’d stand in front of the hi-fi, / knees bent as if already buckling, / and let his mouth / fill with Lanza’s tenor.” The second stanza – the poem is only two stanzas – ends: “I think he was happiest then: / eyes closed blissfully, / his voice drowned out / like the cries of a man / swept over the falls.” This ending is the sort of thing that makes the poem accessible, and yet it still brims with language and fire-of-the-moment as if it leans over the edge of a precipice itself.

In “A Dream for the Dead,” the narrator writes, “My father / is the first to go [. . .] Then my uncles / my cousin, my grandparents, their parents / all the dead, all their bodies.” They are floating in a lake, and one by one the narrator is “feeding them to the current.” He goes on, “They look so peaceful, spinning / and rolling slowly…” Broderick’s poems are like this, each bit of grace spinning and rolling slowly toward a conclusion, one wrought in the particular pain of loss and the necessity of memory that, by the end of the book, allows Broderick to claim that he has beaten that ultimate death, “the death of feeling.”

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What Do I Know?: New & Selected Poems 
by 
John Calvin Rezmerski
Holy Cow! Press, 2000  Price (Paperback) $13.95
Reviewed by Julie Anne Hayes

John Calvin Rezmerski slides the whole world under his poet’s microscope and then spins a few poems to show us what he sees.  He pans over our everyday terrain and zeroes in on a story which may not have occurred to us in the past, but once presented seems like it must be true.  Turns out that he has the inside scoop on “Why Henry Thoreau Never Married” and he exposes “Tarzan” as the gauche elitist that he really is.  In What Do I Know? New & Selected Poems, Rezmerski generously rolls out over thirty years of work, which will delight everyone who picks it up.

The various poems reveal characters similar to Jon Hassler’s, in that they are quirky and enticing enough to think about later.  There is an old couple who boards the bus smelling of cherry pop.  The speaker imagines that they may have been involved in a bathtub game of “Catch the submarine” with cherry pop suds fizzing over their delicate skin.  And in “Your Voice, October on the River,” a man canoes with his wife; the whole time the two talk about “jobs, insomnia [and] houses along the river” while “the light fell yellow from the trees/ in beads and drizzles.” To him it is as if her words and the light are indistinguishable.  It is a delicious day, so filled with brightness that the man says nothing on the way home fearing that he would say “something dark that [she] might not understand or be able to forgive.”

The leap from the idyllic river scene to the looming possibility that all is not perfect with this couple is effective in calling them to mind again and again.  A genuine affection for these people grows.  Although much of the work in this book focuses on regular people, the poet also gets inside the heads of some very influential figures.

Apparently, Henry Thoreau finds a woman to be like a pod of beans and so he launches into the most thorough investigation of the string vegetable that one has ever heard accounted.  If a woman were inclined to fancy him in the first place, she would have lost all patience by the time that he had completed his shell-folding, seed-splitting, picking, planting, harvesting, sweet and starch tasting bean experiment.  It seems that he was, “looking for the soul of the bean, / looking for some reason to say / women are holy.”

The old squatter is better off sticking with plants. If his exploration ever led to an actual woman, it is likely that she would have been annoyed with his brand of courtship.  There are probably not many men today who would start their romantic lives in the garden, but the clinical assessment of a woman as an object to be judged, rather than a participant in the process is contemporary.  In fact, if you have a friend who gets harassed for looking at measurements to choose his bowling date, tell him that he is merely being scientific like the great writer.

As Thoreau inspects the bean microcosm, Tarzan swings through his jungle world like a big clod.  He’s a martini swilling guy who swaggers around thinking that the “world’s going to hell, by Jesus,” because the “knee-grows” are encroaching on his high-rise tree house neighborhood.  When Jane discovers that she’s “lost her poultry scissors,” Tarzan takes her to the Congo Club, where he proves to be generally crass and boisterous.  He orders the waiter around and tells Jane what he’s going to do to “show these superstitious jigaboos not to get ideas.”  Of course, he’s not alone in his caste-attitude, because at the same time that he’s proclaiming that he’s “King of the Apes, Lord of the Jungle,” there are those in the club who note how déclassé he is, because he’s half-naked and speaks with “a God-awful gorilla accent.”

Whether the subject is a pop-hero or a wise father, there are works in the collection, which will convert even the most rabid poetry hater (like my brother) to a fan.  Characters like Uncle Skinny, in “The Bebop Era” are as real as the curmudgeon that sits kitty-corner from you at the local diner.  The speaker in this poem gives you a laid-back groove to review a kaleidoscope of music history, most of which his silly uncle did not appreciate.

                    Uncle Skinny had no time for that bebop music,
                    which was any music he had no time for.
                    He grew up in ragtime times
                    and heard all the changes
                    tune by tune through tango, Dixieland, boogie-woogie,
                                Kansas City, Yes, We Have No Bananas,
                                Charleston, Flat Foot Floogie with a Floy Floy, swing
                                [. . .]
                                all the way up to bubblegum and punk and disco,
                    which is when Uncle Skinny was relieved to die.

Rezmerski is a “gateway poet.”  He uses the tools of poetry to illuminate regular folks, from bank clerks to old people on a bus.  As a result, the people who are turned off by poems celebrating Grecian urns or Spanish cloisters are reeled in by his work about grandmas, road-kill, Bella Lugosi and Burger King lunches.  The fact that novice poetry readers enjoy his work does not mean that it is any less enjoyable for the literary connoisseur.  The scholarly will enjoy even the introduction where the author shares some advice imparted to him by great writers as well as his own insight, which has ripened in his lifetime of studying the world.  In short, when John Calvin Rezmerski packages the things that he has come to know in one book the readers get a great gift!

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Famous Persons We Have Known 
by 
Richard Robbins
Eastern Washington University Press, 2000  Price (Paperback) $13.95
Reviewed by Jennifer Fandel

Famous Persons We Have Known is the second book of poems by Richard Robbins, MFA program director and professor of creative writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Sweeping a wide range of subjects, Robbins’ poems in this rich collection kindly lead readers by the ear, their sounds surprising us in each word and line. The title section “Famous People We Have Known” examines how the lives of the famous, such as Elvis, Theodore Roethke, and Jimmy Hoffa, intersect our own private lives and thoughts; “Views of Table Bay” reveals personal connections to nature; and “Fraction Hymns and Sonnets out of Town” explores how distance and death often lead us to renewal.

The collection opens with the poem “Lon Chaney, Jr., at the Supermarket in Capistrano Beach.”

                    Mostly they aged well, in chinos and golfer’s tan,

                    not a mark out of the ordinary
                    except for the too-white teeth, or they carried
                    the torque of who they were and no longer were
                    in a kind of walking hammerlock [. . .]

                    Did you recognize who cast the spells?
                    Would they someday reveal themselves
                    like the gray man behind you at checkout [. . .]

This strong opening poem showcases what Robbins does so expertly – choosing the perfect word to marry meaning and sound. The echoing sounds in “torque” and “hammerlock” ricochet off one another while their images resonate through the poem, making alive those old movie stars caught imagistically and metaphorically with their arms twisted behind their backs.

Throughout this section, Robbins explores how our identities are never fully our own since they are shared and shaped by the world to which we belong. We see this in the poem “Dick,” the poet speaking of his own identity being maimed by someone with his same name. Likewise, the poem “Mansface,” which tells of a town that eventually names everything from its liquor store to beauty academy after this legendary rock with a man’s face, illuminates the crazy truth that “after time, what we name/names us.”

In many of Robbins’ poems, especially those concerning nature, death, and distance in the second and third sections, movement becomes stilled in times of great emotion, as though the poet has taken a step back and stopped the world for moments within the poem. The end of “Rosary” takes us in with this stillness.

                                         And I know
                    no one’s to blame for not being good enough,
                    for being just average. We are walking ghost towns
                    making the point, and a whole

                    continent of towns glows inside us,
                    towns on a string seen from a plane, one that maps
                    the progress of leaving.

We can also see this motionlessness in the following lines of “Orchard, April.”

                    She calls your name out mid-stroke
                    then slumps, each apple branch exploded
                    white a slow acre away.

The slant rhyme of “stroke” and “exploded” strikes through the heart of the blossomed orchard, and we feel immobility in the elongated sound of “slow acre away.” In this poem as well as in others, much of the imagery and sound captures how we perceive the world unnaturally slowed during times of suffering or distress.

While Robbins seems highly aware of sound in his poems, he also focuses much of his description on images involving sound. In “Self-Guided Tour to Avalanche Lake” we hear and see: “The sound now / of a bow let loose, quiver of air going out / in a strain for name that comes back on itself.” The poem, “Meditation” takes us to the crossroads of sight and hearing with the line, “She is a candle of sound [. . .].” And in “After Being Quiet for a Long Time” the poet focuses our attention specifically on aural images:

                    A bell choir changed you. Squirrels in the attic.
                    The crying girl. A pencil breaking.
                    Where does all the noise go, going inside?

Robbins’ question is answered in each one of his poems. Not only do sound and meaning typically unite, but sound and image also connect with great and often unexpected force in the poems of this collection. All of that “noise” has been transformed to poetry that keeps us coming back, always surprising us with what we find.

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Boundry Waters
by 
William Kent Kruger
Pocket Books, 2000  Price (Hardcover) $23.00
Reviewed by S.B.Edgewater

This fast-paced novel wastes no time involving the reader in a perception of emotions and place much larger than we are. The opening scene is brief yet packed with images that cannot fail to register a visceral response. Opening a novel in this manner seems to be a calculated risk in offending the reader and providing a convenient exit, or engaging and making one wonder what the author can do to maintain this intensity.

Kruger answers this by quickly introducing his main characters. The first is a country-western singer, named Shiloh, threatened by abandonment. Maintaining the suspenseful edge by setting this adventure in the Quetico-Superior Wilderness with its two-million plus acres, Kruger is sure to make even the most self-assured reader humble. The setting is softened by the reintroduction of Kruger’s serialized character Corcoran “Cork” O’Connor running on the fallen, matted, mid-October leaves.

Kruger contrasts the Catholic religion with the Anishinaabeg, referring to his daughter or others as “good Catholics” (read anal and close minded), to the open and poetic language of the Anishinaabeg. Cork is at peace from his run over the scent-filled October landscape, mindful of a drum song by local mystic Henry Meloux:

                    Straight is my path.
                    Straight is my mind.
                    Straight is my heart.
                    Straight is my speech.
                    Kind will I be to my brothers and sisters.
                    Kind will I be to beast and bird.

His daughter, Annie, on the other hand, believes “rules existed for a good reason, any breach in protocol was always to be viewed with a disapproving eye.” She is “a wonderful Catholic.”

We are introduced to a host of characters, some comic, other fearsome in their acts and psycho-personalities. Music, metaphor, mysticism, murder, money, marital discord, and the mob remain dwarfed by the vastness of the Boundary Waters adventure. We are even given the opportunity to revisit the theme of “Three Men and a Baby” mixed with enough similarities that some appear to be directly cut and paste.

Cork is a likable character and easy to revisit in past and future works by Kruger. Teamed up with our hero is ten-year-old Louis, the son of Stormy Two Knives. Louis is the only one who can lead the team of FBI men, Cork and one of Shiloh’s “fathers” in the search to rescue her. Louis is totally stripped of any possible innocence that might remain after a lifetime of being exposed to the gruesome violence portrayed on television, seemingly without a blink from the author. Kruger pushes Louis past television images into the real world of murder by various devices.

Kruger is adept in his sensory descriptions of the native land and treats Native belief with respect. The Clan of the Wolf is represented and proves to be the spirit guide. The appearance of a wolf, real or phantom, weaves its way through the mist, preserving the life of Shiloh and Cork. True to form, the good guy wins in the end, with all loose strings neatly woven in place. Thanks, Mr. Kruger, for the inspiring metaphor.

I am, despite some reservation, motivated to read Kruger’s first novel, Iron Lake, and look forward to the release of a work in progress that includes Corcoran O’Connor.

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Rufus at the Door & Other Stories
by Jon Hassler
Afton Historical Press, 2000  Price (Paperback) $14.95
Reviewed by Beth Luwandi Nelson

In the title story of Rufus at the Door & Other Stories, Jon Hassler writes: “In a village as small as Plum the ordinary population didn’t outnumber the odd by enough to make the latter seem all that rare [. . .]. [E]ven the most eccentric among us [. . .] were considered institutions rather than curiosities.” The same might be said of the whole of Hassler’s characters captured here and throughout his body of work. His characters become friends or irritants, evoke our pity, remind or amaze, and effectively attach themselves to our list of knowable, real people. These seven short stories do not disappoint.

The second compilation of Hassler’s earliest and shortest narratives, Rufus at the Door introduces some likable new characters as well as blesses Hassler fans with new tales about beloved familiar ones. Agatha McGee rises to new adventures in a thumbnail vignette of an impending teacher’s strike. Sarah and Emmett slowly bloom together after grief in “Winning Sarah Spooner.” Dodger Hicks emerges from memory to become a haunting ghost of childhood. Nancy Clancy and her nephew George demonstrate the indecencies and dignities of old age. And Rufus Alexander, who first appeared in Grand Opening, inspires reflection about our own response to “the most eccentric among us.”

Nowhere is Hassler’s concise writing more vivid than in these short pieces grounded in honest language and description of place. As always, these Hassler characters are formed by place, whether by natural inclination or by forceful molding. In “Nancy Clancy’s Nephew” Hassler writes:

                    This winter had been the worst of the seventy-five George Post had spent [. . .]. It seemed to [him] that the
                    only break in the overcast had been the bitter stretch in January when the air itself froze and he couldn’t see
                    across the street through the icy haze until the sun burned through at noon and raised the temperature to
                    25-below. For sixty days he had been confined to the house.

Even Delano Klein, Hassler’s self-proclaimed “bad guy,” elicits pathos, separated as he is from common Minnesota warmth, subjected to a disconnected stoicism as a boy. His mother’s greatest concern for him is that he be rid of his distasteful teenage acne. Delano is unusual. At age five, he will not give up a birthday gift purchased for a playmate, later puts a hard dog turd in the classroom post office, and announces at age ten that he will give up smoking for Lent. Strangest of all, in his teens, Delano binges on reading. He later returns briefly to this passion but his reading cannot save him from himself, his own dispassionate life, and his wasted death.

Delano Klein is surely Hassler’s antithesis, for our reading is in fact rewarded. In the concise language of a Catholic Minnesotan, Hassler’s storytelling is passionate in its simplicity, weighted heavily with all that remains unsaid, all that is said and lingers. A cadence of ritual and ceremony wraps Hassler’s prose in robes of believable characterization, rich detail, biting ironies, and poignant, effective juxtapositions. Included at the end of Rufus at the Door, the postscript by Agatha McGee reports the “cruel and irritating” behavior of Hassler’s own “dreadful companion, Dr. Parkinson.” By this, Agatha and thereby Hassler prove that reading and writing can save us from dispassion and a wasted life.

We are indeed richer, better, and more complete for Hassler’s provision of characters to care about deeply, characters who remind us of loved ones and acquaintances, characters who come to life and dwell among us, characters we grieve losing at the close of each story. And, in the end, Hassler himself remains the most beloved character of all.

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Good Thunder Reading Series Events 2000 - 2001

Each event includes a craft talk at 3:00 p.m. and a reading and books signing at 7:30 p.m. All events are held on the MSU campus. For more information contact program director Richard Robbins at 507-389-2117.

November 30, 2000
Nonfiction writer Richard Terrill
Poet Richard Robbins

February 1, 2001
Poet John Calvin Rezmerski

March 1, 2001
Fiction writer M. Evelina Galang

March 27-30, 2001
Eddice B. Barber MSU Visiting Writer, featuring
Fiction and nonfiction writer Davis Miller

April 5, 2001
Poet Tim Seibles

April 26, 2001
Fiction writer Antonya Nelson
 
 
 

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News and Notes
 

The Corresponder is a biannual publication to provide support for Minnesota writers,
as intended by its originator, Robert C. Wright.

This issue of The Corresponder was edited by Verena Theile.  

 Direct all correspondence and review copies to:

The Corresponder
Minnesota State University, Mankato
P.O. Box 8400  MSU 53
Mankato, MN 56002-8400

Or E-mail to:
 Timothy Midgette (Editor, 2001-2002)

The editor would like to thank Roger Sheffer, faculty advisor, Richard Robbins, program director of the
Good Thunder Reading Series, and all the reviewers, and in particular,
Lori Buoen, Jennifer Fandel, and Aaron Rudolph for their help and support in publishing this month’s issue.
 

Webpage by
Bare-bones WebPages
Jerry Beyer  -- Verena Theile
 

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