The literary quarterly The JMWW Review of Baltimore published its Spring 2014 issue today. I have three poems in it — “Grubout,” “Behind a Grove,” and “Crows Overhead.” Two of the poems, “Grubout,” and “Behind a Grove,” have connections to family, but also explore themes of work, death — and, in different ways — the way death can sometimes quickly remove a presence from the world. They are then, of course, about how we think of our dead, the importance of remembering, but also letting go, a balance that is always so hard to achieve in our lives.

“Behind a Grove,” is largely about a pioneer cemetery that fell into long disrepair before being restored in recent years. There are mass graves, unmarked graves, crumbling grave stones. The family story is that the grove where the cemetery is located is what remains of the farm site where my grandmother — my mother’s mom — grew up. I never saw the place as a kid, and there are no traces of buildings now. Just the cemetery, where some of my grandmother’s ancestors — some of whom would have been just a few years older than her — are buried.

Give JMWW a look. It’s a quality quarterly. The spring issue has a big group of poems, along with fiction, flash fiction and an interview with the terrific short-story writer Robin Black.

I want to recommend, strongly, three poetry collections I have been reading lately.

The first is Saving Singletrees by the great Leo Dangel, the retired Southwest Minnesota State University creative writing professor. It is classic Dangel in many ways — straightforward and plainspoken language that holds so many truths and conceals, and then reveals, a great wisdom. Leo writes about rural life, but, as he ages and now lives in a nursing home, he’s also writing about aging, infirmity and even death, but with his usual grace, humor and perception. He is one of the best who has ever come out of the Midwest, and Saving Singletrees proves it on every page.

The second is They Say This is How Death Came into the World, a collection of prose poems by the Omaha author Paul Dickey. He read a week ago at Waldorf College here in Forest City, and his work is inventive, thoughtful, muses — both with humor and seriousness — about religion, philosophy, the poet Pablo Neruda and more. Dickey is an interesting case. He went to school for philosophy and writing, but ended up working in private business for a long time, and said he didn’t write a poem from 1980 until he retired from work a few years ago. He’s already out with two full collections. He also writes and edits the Facebook page The Liberal Limerick.

The third book is Whirling Round the Sun by the New York poet Suzanne Noguere. It was actually published in 1996, but I recently got it and have been reading it the past few weeks. There is formal verse in it, and also some blockbuster free verse poetry. It’s really attentive and sensitive work, and if all you do is read the opening poem “Ear Training for Poets,” you’ll come away enriched. A local note: Suzanne is copy editing a forthcoming history book by Marshall, Minn.,’s Joe Amato, The Book of Twos. I read early drafts of the book over the winter. It’s going to end up being an important book, I think, one that takes global views of history, religion and philosophy and runs them through Joe’s endlessly curious mind and, in a sense, although Joe didn’t start out to do so, devises a new system for thinking about these major strains of thought. But that’s for later. For now, Whirling Round the Sun is worth your reading.

Today’s news about the missing Malaysian airliner reminded me of one of my favorite poems by the late Bill Holm: the powerful “The Sea Eats What It Pleases.” The poem was published in Bill’s book Playing the Black Piano (Milkweed, 2004).

In case you haven’t heard, Malaysia’s prime minister declared today that the plane’s flight “ended” in a remote part of the Indian Ocean, and said there are no survivors. The declaration is based on more analysis of satellite data of the flight of the plane, which has been missing now for nearly three weeks. There were 239 people on board. There’s no answer for why the plane crashed.

Here is Bill’s poem:

                     The Sea Eats What It Pleases

If you turn your back to the ocean
Do you think the tide will not find you
If it decides to rise a little higher
Than usual, to swallow an extra helping
Of gravel, to suck on your bones to clean
Its palate? The sea eats what it pleases
Whether you face it or give it your back.
No use having opinions about this.
But the sea does not hate you, or imagine
That you have wounded it with your avarice.
You cannot blaspheme the honor of water
Or insult the tide for tasting of salt.
Only humans, so newly risen from fish,
Imagine drowning each other for reasons.

eLectio Publishing, which published my book Good Shepherds last year, has been a busy publishing house in recent months. Here are three of its newest titles, each of which takes faith-based writing into terrain that provokes thought about not only faith, but, as in the first book below, by Anita Saleem, the importance of language in our lives and on others.

As a poet, this is something I look at a lot. And after editing a forthcoming book by the historian Joe Amato, which looks extensively at metaphor and the close relationships of “twos” — things in pairs, contrasts, the narrow parsing of definitions and synonyms — the impact of language on the course of history, philosophy and religion occupies a front-and-center spot in my thoughts these days.

eLectio does a really strong job of publishing a diverse group of author, styles and topics. Give these new books a look. (The descriptions come from eLectio.)

 

 

Cover of Burnt Offerings by Cathy Warner
WORDS: Spoken and Unspoken Forces by Anita Saleem
Words: Spoken and Unspoken Forces provides the key to understanding the secret power of words and traces how this power is activated by drawing references from various authors and experts in psychology, philosophy, medicine, and semiotics.
 
The author presents a theoretical model to understand why words affect individuals by suggesting that words color emotions, shape behaviors, and influence physiological functioning to create an overall impact (whether positive or negative). Drawing upon several scientific studies, this book will help the reader understand why words are spoken and unspoken forces that have the potential to shape the future.
Call Me Clumsy Cover Art
Call Me Clumsy by Matthew Weinrich
You are about to embark on a truly weird, interesting, and entertaining experience…
 
So begins the “odyssey of awkwardness” that is Call Me Clumsy, the my-life-so-far memoir of Matthew Weinrich. Through utterly humbling experiences that span the decades of his life, Weinrich provides anecdotes that are equally cringe-inducing and laugh-out-loud funny. From his experience as a consummate slacker to his marriage proposal gone horribly awry to an unfortunate run-in with the fine men and women of the TSA, Weinrich brings you along as he strolls down memory lane, for better or for worse.
 
Ultimately, Weinrich gives us a heart-warming picture of the humility of a child of God who knows, without a doubt, that the old adage applies to him:
 
God is God, and I am not…
 
…not even close.
Theory of Mind Cover Art
Theory of Mind by Jacob Gorczyca
Have you ever kept a secret for a friend? A secret that you couldn’t tell a single person? A secret that gnawed and consumed your mind? A secret that robbed you of sleep? It might be something wonderful or awful, something neither good nor ill. It might be rather strange. No matter what it is, a secret craves freedom, but it mustn’t escape. It must be kept.
 
Everyone has kept a secret, but few have kept one like Sam Gylkov’s.
 
Sam, a farmer from southern Michigan, has a secret he can no longer bear, which he will soon entrust to a friend. It is at the same time wonderful and horrible and dizzying.
 
And after hearing it, no one will ever be the same.

Some of the best lines or phrases from books, newspapers, magazines and blogs I have read in the past week:

• “The tin can, serving as a rain hat / on the muffler of the John Deere / is delighted when the farmer forgets / to remove it.” — Leo Dangel, from the poem “Starting the Day”
• “The meek shall die rich / would you believe: / with such poverty / lavished upon them.” — Geoffrey Hill from the poem “Churchill’s Funeral”
• “I’m late for the anniversary, but I didn’t miss the revolution.” — Pat Duncan, writing in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first tour in America
• “He thought that in the whole history of the world it might even be that there was more punishment than crime but he took small comfort from it,” Cormac McCarthy from his novel The Road
• “Not all dying words are true …” McCarthy, again, from The Road, again
• “The book [Tinkers] messes with time and the experience of being in time. Going back to what you were saying, time stops and moments explode. The constriction and dilation of time and consciousness. I spend my time reading all the physics I can understand, and time is the big mystery. And theology: I spend tons of time reading Karl Barth and Jonathan Edwards. Also philosophy.
“This whole idea of being in time is fascinating. And it’s connected to narrative. That’s what narrative is all about: This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. We’re in the stream of it, wondering what it all means.” — Paul Harding, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers, in an interview on PowellsBooks.blog
• “To me, the only way to be anything close to what you would call “life affirming” is to try to write truthfully. Any affirmation in the story comes from giving these people the respect that comes from bearing precise and accurate witness to the truth of their lives.” Harding, again
• “Dirt-road voice of his, kicking up gravel like a runaway Buick. / He asks Should I come in with that back beat, and whatever those / Six lines were bothered by skitters off like water in hot grease. / Come in, Levon, with your lips stretched tight and that pig-eyed grin, / Bass mallet socking it to the drum. Lay it down like you know / how to …” — Tracy K. Smith, from her poem “Alternate Take (for Levon Helm)
• “As a journalist, Snowden was extraordinarily conscientious. [Reporter Glenn] Greenwald says that on the memory sticks he was given the documents were meticulously organized and indexed, with not one miscategorised: he didn’t doubt that Snowden had read them all.” Daniel Soar, writing about Edward Snowden in the London Review of Books
• “Balzac connected the miser’s love of money with a spreading disease that has serious ramifications for the whole of an age and a people. It’s not only that the miser’s heart turns to stone — a phenomenon he explores in great detail in Eugénie Grandet — but that his disease is spreading.” — Hugh Curtler, from his Feb. 22 blog

My poem “Pontoon Dreams” was published in the winter issue of the Split Rock Review.

Now, the review has made me its spotlight contributor — there’s a link on its home page that goes to a guest blog, where I talk about the poem and my late father’s love of fishing, and a couple other memories of him.

SRR is based in northern Minnesota and its design is terrific, lots of white space, subtle use of type (which I notice and like as a former newspaper editor), and the quality of the content is top-notch.

• The March issue of Inside Tennis magazine came out this week and contains a nice review of my book on the Southwest State University women’s tennis program, A Higher Level.

The review is brief, but positive. I had hoped for a longer review, but considering this is a 330,000-circulation national tennis magazine — one of the two biggest in the country — I’ll take it! And it’s not too bad a thing to be included in the same issue as a feature on Serena Williams, a couple of big stories on the Australian Open and another on the Davis Cup.

You can go to this site, and the digital version of the print magazine comes up. Just click on the cover, and you can scroll through the pages from that point until you reach the page with the review.

• Retired but still writing Southwest Minnesota State professor Leo Dangel has a new collection of poetry, recently published by Wayne State Press. The collection, Saving Singletrees, has earned high praise from Dangel’s former colleagues at SMSU, Phil Dacey and Dave Pichaske,

Pichaske has written a review of Saving Singletrees for the literary journal Paddlefish, and I especially like this passage: “Dangel’s strengths as a poet are those which would appeal to … farmers and college profs: his voice, his sense of humor, his fidelity to the rural landscape (natural, social, and linguistic), and the psychological depths which underlie a deceptively simple and therefore inviting ‘plain everyday presence.’ Dangel’s poems expand remarkably the more you read them.”

That has long been the key to Dangel’s greatness. He can deliver great truths, great wisdom, in the simplest declarations, the most straightforward observations of rural life — or, of course, they appear to be simple and straightforward, but really are so much more.

Dangel is nationally respected, and often nationally anthologized: His poems are read regularly by Garrison Keillor on “Writers’ Almanac,” and appear often in all kinds of online, print, and broadcast collections, including former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s nationally syndicated newpaper column, “American Life in Poetry.”

Saving Singletrees is Dangel’s first collection since 2004. 

(And by the way: I am a former winner of the Leo Dangel creative writing scholarship at SMSU! That meant, and still does mean, a lot to me. I keep Leo’s big collection, Home From the Field, close at hand most of the time, and certainly all the time when I am writing poetry. It’s not only an inspiration, but a quality-control checkpoint for me as I write: am I getting even close to writing about rural life like he does?)

• One of the strongest things I have read in a while is a short essay by Richard Lloyd Parry called “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” which appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of the London Review of Books.

It’s a haunting piece, non-fiction that has a magical, spiritual, novelistic feel to it as Parry writes about the traumatic mental health experiences of survivors of the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

The first section of it, describing the frightening transformation undergone by a man who was untouched by the tsunami and then cavalierly visited the worst scenes of the damage and death, pulls together spectral stuff — ghosts and unexplainable, scary behavior that becomes sad and grim, and then inspiring: what happens when one man, without deliberately doing so, absorbs the grief of thousands. The essay includes stories of others with similar experiences, as well as careful description of the remote area hardest hit by the tsunami.

Parry, the Asia editor for the Times of London, is working on a book about the tsunami. The essay reminded me of some of the fiction I’ve ready lately by Kyle Minor, especially Minor’s stories about post-earthquake Haiti, where the mystical, religious and death also intermingle in strange and compelling ways.

Death shocks, saddens and stuns us. Often enough, through nonfiction or fiction, it still also has so much to teach us as we think about the dead, or read about the responses of those still living. Yet at other times, as in this passage from Parry, it seems the only thing to do is be stunned. Nothing else, nothing more. A tsunami that wipes villages away has the power to do that.

“Nearly twenty thousand people had died at a stroke. In the space of a month, [local priest Reverend] Kaneda performed funeral services for two hundred of them. More appalling than the scale of death was the spectacle of the bereaved survivors. ‘They didn’t cry,’ Kaneda said to me a year later. ‘There was no emotion at all. The loss was so profound and death had come so suddenly. They understood the facts of their situation individually – that they had lost their homes, lost their livelihoods and lost their families. They understood each piece, but they couldn’t see it as a whole, and they couldn’t understand what they should do, or sometimes even where they were.”

 

 

 

 

Over the past couple days, I read Kyle Minor’s newly released book, Praying Drunk, a collection of short stories that really form one single story with different voices and settings, but a trio of unifying themes.

 

Praying Drunk ($15.95, Sarabande Books) is a remarkable book, and one that will most likely continue to soak and seep its way through me. Even in the two pieces I’d read before, so many new things struck me — whether detail, or in the way they ignited thought and emotion in me.

 

The book brings echoes of a host of brand-name authors: Roth, Hemingway, Bradbury, Kinsella, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, the contemporary creative-nonfiction essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan. I mean echoes in a very good way. It’s clearly Minor’s voice, his story, his passion for the story and the truth in the story. Yet it is so often done so well, I found myself saying, hey, wait, who does this remind me of? Then, one of those big names came to mind.

 

I am not always a big fan of post-modern, meta-fiction writing, but most of the time in this book, the instances where Minor use the techniques really serve the story or the reader. For instance, the way a character or an incident will loop through different stories, sometimes slightly in different guise or with slightly different perspective, is very effective. It makes us see that there are many ways of seeing and thinking about the truth, and also has the effect of gathering up the grief and loss of each of the stories into an accumulation of grief and reaction to it. That’s a powerful thing in the book. A lot of death, and a lot of grieving over it — but not much of it is sobbing-over-a-beer or in the church basement kind of grief. Rather, very intense and personal and distinct forms of grief, and they, too, have an accumulative effect.

 

I’m not sure what Minor’s personal views on religion are right now, but I know that he was once an associate pastor and grew up in Christian schools. Yet, the people in Praying Drunk who are involved in faith – those who live it, those who struggle with it, those who’ve lost it — are treated with respect here, not mocked. They may be wrong-headed, or they may have given up their own faith, or twisted it somehow, but Minor lets them exhibit those things without judging them. The effect is a generally truthful feel for how faith is at work in people’s lives, especially at the times when they may need it most: there is the sincere embrace and the sincere questioning of God, and sometimes the giving up on God. It works for some and sometimes does not, and the way Minor depicts it feels right and true.

 

Not only right and true, but it is the heart of the book.

 

The biggest strength, of course, is the book-long presence of death and grief and tragedy, and how it affects us in so many ways. I think it is good that Minor doesn’t answer all the questions that are triggered by those emotions, nor resolve every situation or incident peacefully or even cleanly – if it is resolved at all. There’s truth in that, too, and it is how most of us live our lives: trying to understand why we live and die, and what’s the point, and what’s God’s hand in all of it? We may find some insights some times, and other times we may be so lost we’d swear we were waltzing in a blizzard, and some times we are in simply in such deep pain that it doesn’t matter if we can see our way or not. It just hurts, and it is hell, and that is how it is.

 

The story, “Seven Stories about Sebastian of Koulev-Ville,” which I’ve read four times now (the title character used to be named Kenel), continues to amaze and move me. It is set in Haiti, as is the long story “In a Distant Country,” which fills much of the second half of the book. “Seven Stories about Sebastian,” is so rich, not only in the personality it gives Sebastian, but in the series of almost fable or moral-esque incidents and anecdotes that make us think about universal ethical riddles, and make us confront how we think about other cultures and other peoples. Plus, each time the story takes another foray into a new village or scene within a village, Minor opens the door to whole new stories or possible stories. Now, I wonder about what those people do when they are not on the page? The technique adds such great dimension to the story, and makes us think not only about Sebastian and his life, but the lives of many others. It also reminds me of what Hemingway said about “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” that the story was so loaded with truth and great writing that it carried the load of four novels in one short story. This does the same.

 

The last thing to mention is the striking command of voice Minor has throughout. This is a book where there are many violent deaths, and yet to me the prevailing tone and voice of the book is one of quiet — a disturbing quiet sometimes, yes, but also a quiet that comes when people reflect on life and loss, and faith, and their place in the world (if they have one at all.). The quiet voice is the proper one for a book that goes after the big topics this does – life and death, God or not God, etc. Those topics sometimes need the respect of quiet, but also the space of it – so we can think about those issues as the characters do.

 

A paragraph toward the very end of the book is a good example of this.

 

“The lies observe truths we would like to quiet. Danny heard voices under the ground and daily walked outside with his Glock to find and silence them. Some of the hill people say the mountain is riddled with caves and that the older people knew how to get to them but that the old knowledge is dying away as development encroaches upon the old ways. They say that soon there will be no water witchers with divining rods to approach by foot and point out the best places for well-drilling. Danny spent three months in Arizona with some exorcists who claimed demons were whispering in his ears. I believe in the doctors whose antipsychotic medicines Danny regularly neglected. The mind is sufficiently vast for myriad voices to find a place to hide.”

 

That is a paragraph of beautiful writing, and not the only one you’ll find in Praying Drunk.

 

Those of you who’ve read my work or know me, know I have written or lived with my share of death, grief, spiritual yearning and journey, and the darkness that mental illness will drag a person to. I know those things, and I live heavy among them yet. So to see a book written by an author who also knows those things — and whose book is a deep exploration of them — is important and moving to me. Minor doesn’t answer everything, nor does he ask everything. But he brings us closer to knowing things, to truths both good and horrible, but truths all the same. And that is what good literature must do.

One of my favorite places in the world to go is Duluth, and almost anywhere in its vicinity, especially along the north shore of Lake Superior. So I am excited to have a new poem published in the current issue of the Split Rock Review, which went live online today.

Split Rock Review is a literary journal based in Minnesota’s Northwoods, and takes its name from the famed Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors, northeast of Duluth.

My poem, “Pontoon Dream,” is a remembering poem about my late father. He loved to fish and didn’t have nearly enough time to do it as much as he would have liked. The poem celebrates a moment when he did fish, though, and with proper luck. The poem takes it initial image from a photo of my dad standing in his pontoon, holding a stringer of newly caught fish.

Be sure to spend some time looking around the Split Rock Review web site. It has a terrific, classy design. There are striking photos of Lake Superior and the Northwoods, and some strong writing in the current issue. I’m pleased and proud to be included in the issue with well-known Minnesota writer Michael Fedo, a Duluth native who has written a book on the 1920 lynchings of three black men in Duluth, and also a biography of Garrison Keillor, among other books.

Here’s a link to a thoughtful op-ed written by Robert M. Sopalsky, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford, who argues — looking at results of a new study — that reading serious literature is good for the brain. For young brains, as they develop, but for the rest of us, too. The more we read, the better we become at thinking intuitively, which helps us in solving problems, and in relating others: we’re more apt to see a problem, or the world, through their eyes, and it helps us function better in a complex world with complex situations.

In short, it makes us better people, and makes for a better society. The study’s results, Sopalsky said, also make for good arguments to keep our college literature programs intact. The study doesn’t necessarily offer new news, but more reinforcement for other studies that have shown the importance of reading in the success of brain development. I can remember a decade or so ago, when Ruth Ascher, then the executive director of the United Way of Southwest Minnesota, got the organization heavily involved in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which put a new book in the hands of parents and kids younger than 5 — every kid in Lyon County, Minnesota, was the goal — each month for free. Yep. Each month, from birth to age 5. Ascher was really influenced by a study done by Art Rolnick of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve which said that successful brain development in young children was proven to have made them better students, better employees and, ultimately, better members of the community. They were less likely to commit crimes, and more likely to be productive workers and good neighbors, active in community life.

Rolnick continues to advocate for strong investment in early childhood education, as this recent Q&A shows. He says the return on investment is well worth the cost — for reasons I mentioned above. Any time a person lands in the correctional system — jail, the courts, probation, etc. — it’s extremely expensive. Certainly much more costly than a book and the classtime to read it.

The op-ed first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and was published today in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

My thermometer says it is 5 degrees outside right now. Warmer than it has been, but still too cold for my blood! However, I received some news this morning that lifted the chill quite a bit: My poem “When Lilacs Bloom” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the annual awards that honor the best literature published in the small presses.

The poem was nominated by John Lambremont Sr., editor and publisher of The Big River Poetry Review of Baton Rouge, La., where the poem was first published in June. This is the second year in a row I have received a Pushcart nomination for poetry. Last year, I was nominated for a package of poems that were published in different journals and reviews. There’s a lot of competition, a lot of great writers. I don’t expect to win, but it is very cool — an honor — to be nominated again and be in the company of so many gifted writers. So I thank John for his support of “When Lilacs Bloom,” and for for the nomination.

The print issue of the edition of Big River Poetry Review’s fall edition is also available for sale online here. It would be a good Christmas gift for poetry or any reader on your list. Plus, after reading a review the other day of a new book about the nasty side of the growth of Amazon and the ruthless business practices of its founder, Jeff Bezos, I’m reminded again of how important it is to support independent presses and publishers. The good thing about Amazon is that it makes a lot of books more readily available to a lot of readers, no denying that. The bad thing is that it extracts a toll on a lot of others in order to be able to do what it does.

So think about buying the fall issue of Big River Poetry Review, and remember the independent presses and book stores in your midst.

Here is “When Lilacs Bloom:”

When Lilacs Bloom

Dana Yost

The neighbor’s lilacs in thick bloom,

lavender and lush.

A thrush, startled

by mid-morning door-slam, darts

to refuge between blossom and branch.

Watching,

I am reminded of Whitman’s

tribute to the dead Lincoln,

a pair of men who saw the world

not as a line to be stood upon one side or the other,

but as a freshly born sphere — every slight turn a bending lead

to new arrays of angles, perspectives,

the sunlight leaving shadow neither black nor white

but an infinite arc of gradients — azure blue to buttercup to Tuscan red.

And they trained their minds to absorb thought

the way their eyes took in color,

gradations of ideas and opinions,

none fully right, none fully wrong,

but each, if seeded in a meadow,

sprouting another stem, blade, leaf

that springs in shouting vibrancy from the sphere.

Have I taken you a long way from lilacs?

I don’t think so:

behind the lilacs,

our neighbor’s tall ash is luscious green

and our red maple bears leaves a waxen maroon,

and beneath them, grass green, yellow, brown,

and an intersection of city streets: faded-to-gray asphalt,

dirty-white curb and gutter.

See the world in all its colors.

Not just with your eyes,

but with all that pulses in you.

When lilacs bloom,

bloom with them.