AS A PUBLISHED POET, you might expect me to read a lot of poetry. I confess that I don’t. I should, because through reading and studying others who practice our crafts, we learn.
So I determined, upon hearing of the death of renowned Minnesota poet Robert Bly on November 21, that I would read more of his poetry. I’ve checked out every Bly book available at my local library: What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey and Stealing Sugar from the Castle.
Interesting titles reveal likewise interesting poems crafted by an especially gifted writer.
As I began to read Bly’s poems, I noticed the brevity. As any poet understands, each word in a poem must count. Bly seems especially adept at that. Poetry is perhaps the most difficult of writing genres.
In Bly’s poetic voice, I hear rural reflected. From land to sky. Heritage strong. Faith interwoven. Solid work ethic. Agriculture defining small towns and occupations, threading through daily life. Bly writes with an awareness of his rural-ness, with a deep sense of place. I understand that given my roots on a southwestern Minnesota farm.
Yet, Bly’s writing isn’t defined solely by place. His world expanded when he joined the Navy after high school graduation, then attended St. Olaf College in Northfield for a year before transferring to Harvard. He pursued additional degrees. He was a prolific writer. A poet. An essayist. An activist.
While watching a public television documentary on Bly last week, I learned more about his activism. During the Vietnam War. In writing about men. He authored Iron John: A Book About Men, which remained on the New York Times Best Sellers List for 62 weeks. Sixty-two weeks. That’s saying something about Bly’s influence.
He also translated the works of others, including Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Voices. It’s a slim volume of nine poems with a title poem. And I have a copy of that beautiful hardcover book, purchased several years back at a used book sale in Faribault. Mine is number 14 of 50 limited first edition copies published in 1977 by The Ally Press and autographed by Robert Bly. Now, upon the poet’s death, this collection holds even more significance. More value.
Though Bly has passed at the age of 94, his legacy as a writer will endure. He scored many awards and accolades throughout his writing career. But I sense, even with that success, it was the craft of writing, the ability to pursue his passion for the written word, which he valued the most. That, too, I understand. For to write is to breathe.
That’s exciting news for those of us published in this award-winning collection of prose and poetry. This Was 2020: Minnesotans Write About Pandemics and Social Justice in a Historic Yearrecently won the Minnesota Author Project Award in the Communities Create category. That honor recognizes the work of indie publications in the state. Ramsey County Library (led by librarian Paul Lai) coordinated the book project, calling for submissions and then, eventually, publishing the collection.
My poem, “Funeral During a Pandemic,” was selected for inclusion in the anthology. I write about attending my father-in-law’s funeral at a Catholic church in a small central Minnesota town during the pandemic.
I encourage you to borrow or buy a print copy or read the e-version of this important book. It represents the hearts and souls of 51 Minnesotans, most of them published writers. They share their thoughts and experiences on two topics—social justice (connected to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020) and the COVID-19 pandemic.
My encouragement to read this collection is not motivated by self-promotion. Rather, I want you to read this anthology for the content, the insights, the documentation of history. The writing therein is personal. Deeply personal. These Minnesotans write with honesty, emotion and a rawness that almost hurts. The pain is real, the writing revealing. These poems and prose take readers well beyond the sound bites and headlines and video clips with powerful written words that are sometimes difficult to read.
In an historic time such as this, it’s especially important to gather and share stories in prose and poetry. Through stories we learn, connect, begin to understand, perhaps grow and change…for the better. I hope This Was 2020 prompts respectful discussions and introspection that creates healing. For now, more than ever, we need understanding, compassion and healing.
NOTE: To all of you who have supported my writing and This Was 2020, thank you. I am grateful.
If you opt to buy This Was 2020, here’s the ISBN#: 978-1-0879-6762-2
My poem, “Funeral During a Pandemic,” is among 54 pieces of prose and poetry by 51 Minnesotans published in the collection. In my poem, I write about my experience attending my father-in-law’s funeral in a rural central Minnesota church during the pandemic. To have that poem selected for inclusion reveals just one aspect of how COVID-19 has affected all of us.
As Paul Lai, Ramsey County librarian and lead on this book project states, This Was 2020 “…highlights the voices of people in Minnesota as they remember a difficult year.” And those voices come from across the state, most from the metro, but also from greater Minnesota. The writing, Lai notes, offers glimpses into our communities.
Judges for the award also sing the book’s praises, calling it “a beautiful anthology that memorialized a very difficult year in Minnesota.”
“This book is one small way to help us all grieve, protest, imagine, co-create and empathize so that we build stronger connections rather than more walls between each other,” Lai says in a reflective video. I appreciate that comment, that encouraging insight. (To hear Lai’s comments, forward to around 10 minutes into the video.)
Lai has been so supportive of the writers published in this collection. In a congratulatory email to all of us, he termed our writing “powerful, thoughtful, heartfelt, creative and caring.” I value that appreciation.
The book award comes with a $1,000 cash prize, which will go to the Friends of the Ramsey County Libraries, official publisher of the print book. Those monies will support the library’s collections and programs. Additionally, the award provides access for the e-book version in the national Indie Author Project network and author spotlights promoting the book. More opportunities to be heard.
I feel such joy and gratitude. Joy at this accomplishment, not only for myself as a professional writer, but also for my fellow Minnesota writers. This state has incredible literary talent. And I feel gratitude for those who foster writing projects like This Was 2020 and for those who publicly recognize the value of voices expressed in writing.
FYI:To view This Was 2020 online, please click here. I encourage you also to purchase a print copy, perhaps from your favorite indie bookstore. Enjoy. And appreciate. And use what you read to build stronger connections rather than more walls.
Publication of This Was 2020 was made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It was edited by Ramsey County Library and published by Friends of the Ramsey County Libraries. The Minnesota Library Foundation and Biblio Labs sponsored the cash prizes.
DESPITE THE STEADY THRUM of traffic along adjacent Interstate 35 and the drone of the power plant, Faribault Energy Park remains a favorite place to walk. Not because it’s quiet—because it’s not, not at all. But because of the dirt trails that wind through 35 acres of wetlands and ponds.
Here, when I put sneaker to ground, I feel connected to the land. There’s something satisfying and comforting about earth directly beneath my soles.
And although this isn’t prairie, the openness of this park appeals to me. It reminds me of my prairie roots, of the gravel drives and roads I biked and walked while growing up in southwestern Minnesota. Sometimes my heart hurts for missing those familiar wide open spaces and spacious skies.
At Faribault Energy Park, I pause occasionally to look skyward, to the expanse of blue. Or toward the churning arms of the wind turbine which, during my most recent visit, spun shadows across the land.
It should be noted that I’m not particularly fond of wind turbine fields. I understand their importance, but don’t like their visual intrusion upon the landscape. Like visual pollution, they detract from the beauty of the land. They seem out-of-place, invasive to my eyes. I feel the same about massive solar panel fields planted on farmland. But here at Faribault Energy Park, only one wind turbine stands, across the road from a solar garden (not field).
Mostly, I notice the wildflowers and grasses. Goldenrod. Black-eyed Susans. An endless variety of plants that I should take time to research for identification. Rather, I settle for photographing them and appreciating their beauty. How they sway in the wind. How they appear in the sunlight. How they splash color into the landscape.
If my current photos were poems, they would write of Autumn and her floral dress flowing, billowing as she walks the runway of Faribault Energy Park. (My poetic interpretation of all those colorful wildflowers edging trails.) Audience applause rising. (My poetic interpretation of the droning traffic on I-35 and the noisy power plant.) I imagine that as easily as I recall prairie memories.
Faribault Energy Park, 4100 Park Avenue North, keeps drawing me back. To follow the dirt trails. To appreciate the landscape. To, for a short while, escape, even if quiet remains elusive.
TWENTY YEARS. TWO DECADES. Two hundred and forty months.
Whatever words are attached to the time that has passed since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the reality of that day in our nation’s history remains forever imprinted upon our collective memories.
That day changed us. It changed how we view each other and the world. The acts of those terrorists not only claimed lives, but our sense of security. Our sense of peace. And much more.
I remember well that September morning, how my then seven-year-old son and his friend Sam reacted to scenes unfolding on our television set. My husband had phoned me from work, alerting me to the attacks. I switched on the TV. And the boys saw it all, right alongside me. Perhaps I should have been a responsible mother/caregiver and turned off the television. But I didn’t.
Soon Caleb and Sam were building twin towers with wooden blocks and flying toy airplanes into the skyscrapers. It was heart-breaking to watch. Both reality unfolding on the screen and then the re-enactment on my living room floor.
For a Minnesota mom geographically far-removed from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, none of this seemed distant. I felt the collective fear. I felt the collective pain. I felt the collective grief.
Today I remember, 20 years later, those who died. The families left without loved ones. The heroes. And those two little boys who saw, yet didn’t fully-understand, the events unfolding far from Minnesota. Yet too close.
Here’s a poem I wrote shortly after September 11, 2001:
September 11, 2001
You clutch your silver toy jetliners
then blast them into the twin towers,
blocks scattering across the floor.
Like that show on TV,
you tell me,
where the planes crashed
into those two tall buildings.
Somehow I must tell you
that this was no show on TV,
but real people
in real buildings.
Moms and Dads
with little boys just like you,
boys who build towers and fly toy airplanes.
How do I begin to show you the truth
behind a scene so terrifying
that it keeps replaying in my mind?
Hollywood could have written the script,
the latest disaster film, grossing millions
for an industry embedded in itself.
You’re right; this could be a show on TV.
Except this is very real,
so real that I want you to believe
those were just pretend buildings, pretend airplanes.
But you see the worry in my eyes,
hear the sadness in my voice.
You know the truth,
even before I tell you.
My son, only seven years old,
too young to fully understand
the evil that has invaded the world,
the fear that grips the American heart, my heart,
the sense of security forever lost.
Like so many blocks scattered across the floor,
we must pick up the pieces and rebuild, peace by peace.
I am humbled and honored to have “Funeral During a Pandemic” selected for publication in this award-nominated book. In my poem, I share my thoughts and experiences from my father-in-law’s funeral in a small rural Minnesota town. During a pandemic.
As the title of this collection conveys, the 170 pages of writing focus on pandemics and social justice. Those who penned these pieces, solicited by the Ramsey County Library via a competition, are a diverse group. In age. In writing backgrounds, although many are seasoned writers with extensive writing credentials. In skin color and ethnicity. In perspective and experience. That said, most writers live in the metro with a few of us from other places in Minnesota, including several from my county of Rice.
Those from outside the metro include a 12-year-old from New Market. Evelyn Pierson, in “My Experience at the George Floyd Memorial,” writes of her emotional reaction to visiting the site where Floyd died at the hands of police on May 25, 2020. It’s heart-wrenching—to feel her torrent of emotions, to read her insights and thoughts, to envision her tears. But it’s important, even necessary, to hear the voice of this eighth grader.
Just like it’s necessary to read Brainerd resident Susan Smith-Grier’s essay, “Black in White.” I find her observations and experiences of a black woman living in a primarily white community to be particularly powerful. She moved with her parents/family to north central Minnesota in the early 70s to escape the violence in Chicago. One of very few black families in her new northern home. The death of George Floyd triggered childhood memories of tear gas and rubber bullets, fires and looting…and then, today, a bit of hope that things will change.
Hope weaves into many of the pieces. As does overcoming the fear, the loss, the grief and more that too often defined 2020.
In his poem, “The streets emptied out, but their lungs,” Moyosore Orimoloye reminds us that, despite lungs filling with fluid from COVID, lungs also filled with song on the balconies of Turin.
So many writers detailed how the pandemic affected them—from worries about going grocery shopping to separation from loved ones to ways in which they learned to cope. I found Dave Ryan’s “Living and Dying in Memory Care” profoundly relatable given my mom lives in a long-term care center. I’ve experienced some of the same scenarios—trying to visit through a window, for example. Before he could no longer visit his mom due to COVID restrictions, Ryan installed a video camera in her room. That connected him to her. But then the unthinkable happened. As I read the conclusion of his essay, my heart broke right along with his.
These are stories you need to read. Real. Life. Authentic. Eye-opening (especially Chee Vang’s “To Kuv Niam,” about how her mother was treated upon contracting COVID). I learned so much, particularly from those writers who have experienced social injustice. From those writers, too, who live in the Twin Cities, who are widely-traveled and who have seen and experienced much more than a farmer’s daughter from southwestern Minnesota.
But I share one commonality with poet and educator Katie Vagnino of south Minneapolis. I am, like her, a Rapunzel with overgrown hair.
FYI: I encourage each one of you to purchase This Was 2020 by clicking here or buying it elsewhere (in print or as an e-book). Besides the 54 pieces, the book includes writing prompts, a discussion guide and a short list of grief, mental health, and anti-racism resources. This truly rates as an outstanding collection of writing that documents historical events which have forever changed us.
Publication of this book was made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Thank you, Minnesota voters, for supporting the arts. And thank you, Paul Lai of the Ramsey County Library for your hard work on, and dedication to, this book project. I appreciate you and every single writer who contributed to this exceptional must-read book.
PHLOX IN VIBRANT SHADES of purple and pink, interspersed with occasional white blossoms, fill my flowerbeds. They thrive, their fragrance scenting the air that drifts through my office window.
Occasionally I spot butterflies flitting among the phlox, random milkweeds, wild orange tiger lilies, ferns and other unidentified plants growing in a tangled mess of wildness. I love watching them—the monarchs and the swallowtails—their wings flapping with such incredible grace. They swoop and dip and pause. As if dancing. As if performing. As if penning poetry.
Moments like this imprint upon me the importance of pausing to appreciate the beauty of nature. The details of a flower petal. The curve of a butterfly wing. The bend of a milkweed pod.
Now, more than ever, I need this connection to nature, these moments to reset. To see that, even as a pandemic rages, flowers still bloom and butterflies still fly.
While my beloved Uncle Mike is long gone, the memories of the lilac bush which grew on his farm remain. I think of him each May when Randy brings me clutches of lilacs. It’s a sweet tradition. Loving. Appreciated more than a dozen roses, although those are lovely, too.
When Randy walked through the back door a few days ago with lilacs, I was surprised. Not that I should have been. He does this every May. I appreciate his thoughtfulness. I appreciate that he takes the time to gather these flowers for me at the end of a long work day.
There’s something simply sweet and precious about his remembering, his recognition of how much I value this heartfelt gift of love.
Breathing in the heady scent of lilacs each May, I remember my bachelor uncle and the gnarled bushes, heavy with purple blooms, that embraced his front porch and held the promises of sweet love never experienced.
He invited his sister-in-law, my mother, to clip lilacs, to enfold great sweeps of flowers into her arms, to set a still life painting upon the Formica kitchen table, romance perfuming our cow-scented farmhouse.
Such memories linger as my own love, decades later, pulls a jackknife from the pocket of his stained jeans, balances on the tips of his soiled Red Wing work shoes, clips and gathers great sweeps of lilacs into his arms.
Museology Museum Services of Minneapolis also deserves recognition as lead contractor for the project. I was first contacted by Museology in January 2020 about inclusion of my rural-themed poem in this exhibit focusing on Lyon County and also reflective of the surrounding area in southwestern Minnesota. I feel incredibly honored to be part of an award-winning exhibit that connects people to the history of this rural region.
MALHM awards were also given to historical societies in Anoka, Carver and St. Louis counties and to the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery. Susan Garwood, director of the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault (RCHS), earned the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award for 30-plus years of service to organizations across Minnesota, including the RCHS, Northfield Historical Society and the MALHM. The award recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions and demonstrated leadership to Minnesota’s history community on a broad scale.
The state-wide Alliance serves some 500-plus local history groups throughout Minnesota with a basic mission “of connecting people to nearby history.” It also provides peer-to-peer support and aims “to raise the quality of work in the local history field in Minnesota.”
A time existed when I didn’t appreciate history or history centers like I do now. My shift in appreciating history came when museum exhibits changed. When they became more personal and interactive. When an artifact was not just something encased in glass, but an object with meaning, purpose, depth. When living history became a standard. When stories became part of the story.
That brings me back to my “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother.” After I posted on Tuesday about the poem’s inclusion in the Lyon County exhibit, my cousin Diane emailed a 1958 photo of my parents. And while I’m not sharing that image here, I will tell you that I was overjoyed to see a different side of my parents other than as, well, simply parents. They were young and clearly blissfully, joyfully in love. Diane also shared that her parents and mine would often attend dances together, leaving the kids with Grandma. As one of the oldest, Diane helped look after the babies, including me. I’d never heard that story or seen that black-and-white snapshot. To receive both now—with my dad long gone and my mom in failing health—was a gift. Such a gift.
I hope my poem, inspired by my mom, yet representative of all the hardworking farm women of the 1950s and 1960s, is also a gift to those who read it. I hope those who read my words, who view the accompanying photos, will reflect and feel gratitude for these strong rural women.
I shall forever feel grateful to my mom and to the rural region which shaped me and continues to inspire me today in my writing and photography.
I feel humbled and honored to have my poem, inspired by memories of my hardworking farm wife mother, in the Lyon County Historical Society Museum’s newest semi-permanent exhibit, “Making Lyon County Home.” The exhibit opened in January. Its purpose, according to Executive Director Jennifer Andries, is “to share stories, artifacts, and photographs from Lyon County after World War II and to inspire residents and visitors to share their memories and experiences of growing up and living in Lyon County and the region.”
I grew up in this prime agricultural region, some 20 miles to the west on a dairy and crop farm near Vesta in Redwood County. I knew Marshall well back then as a shopping destination. A place to buy clothes, shoes and other essentials. But even more, I understood rural life decades ago because I lived it. I witnessed, too, how my mom worked hard to raise six children on our family farm. Before marriage, she attended Mankato Commercial College and then returned to her home area to work an office job in Marshall. Like most women of the 1950s, once she married, she stopped working off the farm.
My poem honors her in a poetic snapshot timeline of life beginning shortly before she married my farmer father. Saturday evening dances. Then rocking babies. Everyday life on the farm. Challenges. And finally, the final verse of Mom shoving her walker down the hallways of Parkview.
Whenever I write poetry, especially about life in rural Minnesota, I find myself deep within memory. Visualizing, tasting, smelling, hearing, even feeling. Although I took some creative license in penning “Ode to My Farm Wife Mother” (I don’t know that Mom ever drank whiskey or danced at the Blue Moon Ballroom in Marshall), it is primarily true. She met my dad at a dance in southwestern Minnesota. She washed laundry in a Maytag, baked bread every week, made the best peanut butter oatmeal bars…
I expect many who lived in this rural region in the 1950s-1970s can relate. Says LCHS Director Andries of my poem: “It is a good fit for the exhibit and fits with the agriculture section and the role of farm wives and mothers. The poem itself goes beyond just the agriculture area. I feel many people can resonate with the poem with the sense of being carefree while we are young but at some point we all have responsibilities but that doesn’t mean we lose our carefree spirit.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Tom Church, former managing director of Minneapolis-based Museology Museum Services, lead contractor for the “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit. Church first contacted me more than a year ago about using my poem. He said then that the poem “offers a nice snapshot of the era and setting we’re trying to evoke in several places within the exhibit and will fit well with our story.”
I appreciate stories rooted in a strong sense of place. The new exhibit features themes of natural landscape, agriculture, education, industry and community. For example, the devastating and deadly June 13, 1968, F5 tornado in Tracy centers a display with information and oral histories. How well I remember that disaster. The 1980s farm crisis focuses another section. A late 1950s era kitchen fits the beginning time period of my poem.
Although I have yet to view the exhibit, I hope to do so this summer. And even more, I want my mom to know how she, and other farm women of the era, are honored via my poem. I want them to see themselves in my words, to understand the depth to which I value them. My mom, through her selflessness, her hard work, her kindness, her love, her faith, helped shape me. Today, as Mom lives out her final days in hospice, her memory and cognition diminished, I feel a deep sense of loss, of grief. But I hold onto the memories of a mother who read nursery rhymes, gardened, and, before I was born, enjoyed carefree Saturday evenings out with friends. Dancing. Laughing, Delighting in life.
FYI: The Lyon County Historical Society Museum, 301 West Lyon Street, Marshall, is open from 11 am – 4 pm Monday – Friday and from noon – 4 pm Saturdays. The “Making Lyon County Home” exhibit was partially funded by a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage grant. The exhibit is semi-permanent, meaning artifacts and stories can be rotated to fit within the themes.
Ode to My Farm Wife Mother
Before my brother,
you were Saturday nights at the Blue Moon Ballroom—
a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey in a brown paper bag,
Old Spice scenting your dampened curls,
Perry Como crooning love in your ear.
Then motherhood quelled your dancing duet.
Interludes passed between births
until the sixth, and final, baby slipped into your world
in 1967. Thirteen years after you married.
Not at all unlucky.
Life shifted to the thrum of the Maytag,
sing-song nursery rhymes,
sway of Naugahyde rocker on red-and-white checked linoleum.
Your skin smelled of baby and yeasty homemade bread
and your kisses tasted of sweet apple jelly.
In the rhythm of your days, you still danced,
but to the beat of farm life—
laundry tangled on the clothesline,
charred burgers jazzed with ketch-up,
finances rocked by falling corn and soybean prices.
Yet, you showed gratitude in bowed head,
hard work in a sun-baked garden,
sweetness in peanut butter oatmeal bars,
endurance in endless summer days of canning,
goodness in the kindness of silence.
All of this I remember now
as you shove your walker down the halls of Parkview.
in the final set of your life, in a place far removed