I’ve been sitting on this Word document for the better part of a year, maybe even more, called Northern Poems.doc. The idea, if I remember correctly, was to try to capture in verse something of the idea of Minnesota, whatever that is. I think, to be honest, that it wasn’t even Minnesota, necessarily, but that thing that we in the Twin Cities call “Up North.” It’s a funny thing, really; if you look at a map of Minnesota, you’ll see that the Minneapolis/Saint Paul metropolitan area is located in the East-Central part of the state, and maybe even hovering just a little bit south of that designation. That means that places like Hinckley or Lake Mille Lacs become “Up North,” despite their considerable distance from what might be called Northern Minnesota.
Geographical innacuracies aside, there is something kind of wonderful about getting out of the city and pushing into that part of the state that is not prairie but woods and lakes.
I remember reading Tony Glover‘s liner notes on the Jayhawks’ 1995 masterpiece Tomorrow the Green Grass something along the lines of “these songs are Minnesota” (if anybody can provide a link to these online I’d be grateful), and it changed the way that I listened to that record, which, for what it’s worth, is still one of my favorite albums ever.
I don’t expect these poems to gain such wide popularity and/or endurance, and I’m actually fairly insecure about my poetic dexterity, but even so, I offer these Northern Poems.
As a final note, the irony in these poems is that they seem to celebrate a certain warmer something than the seven degree temperature that’s here today (which is to say nothing of the windchill, of course…). I think fellow Minnesotans will agree that we endure winter in order that we might be able to breathe in the more temporal beauty of our state’s more temperate months.
* * *
There is a juniper berry
between your thumb and forefinger
And birchbark in your voice.
I will build us a canoe.
Your laugh will be the oars,
Stirring up the depths
As we make our way.
In time this lake will freeze,
The snow upon its surface
Crunching under heavy boots.
At these temperatures,
No one questions the integrity of ice.
We will walk without purpose for a while,
And you will lay in the snow,
Arms and legs working together
To make a snow angel,
And your laugh will echo across the granite.♦
The air is wet and full of pine.
A tawny miracle stirs not twenty feet away.
Eyes meet, a question mark against birch and fir,
Answer: hooves push off for safety.♦
The lake dark and shimmery,
Sky reddening as the sun
Says, “this is all you get,
But not all there is.
Also: this is spectacular.”
We stand silently, a vigil
To its departure, emptying
As it goes.
You say, “well,
Should be getting back,”
And a spell that stretched
From the eastern shore of Elbow Lake
To a distant spot below the earth
Snaps, component parts
Lighting up the night like fireflies.
I say nothing, and we walk slowly
The worn path to the cabin.
“This is everything,” I say,
Hoping to stretch something.
The air is sweet with wildflowers, and
You laugh your laugh,
Which I also have to tell you is everything,
Say, “it is?” and kiss me under the porch light.♦
New Morning Poem
Astringent air blows in with morning,
Wet sand like witch hazel.
My breath lingers just there,
In the space between the workweek and a sunrise,
And in the distance, a loon.
In another second, both will disappear.♦
When the last of the whiskey is gone,
Secrets buried in the yard
Roll over to get comfortable.
You rub your bleary eyes,
View the world through ragged pouches,
And listen to the crickets.
A million little metronomes,
Keeping pace of life up here,
Restless legs more symphony than syndrome.
Sloshing spirits can’t bring him back
Forty-five years on,
But the crickets, tiny and dependable,
On the smell of the tall, wet, grass
Fold time in on itself.
On the long walk back from the ballfield,
He strutted in the road, just next to the shoulder,
“Tony Oliva will be Rookie of the Year.”
You, younger, afraid, dependent,
Straddled the seam between pavement and dirt,
Kicking a rock that you found by the park,
Trusted he was right.
Headlights now, and you want to yell “look out,”
To grab his waist, to pull him near you,
But he is gone, and they fall across the kitchen,
A million pieces of glass, future sands,
Upon which tomorrow’s insects scurry.♦
This island pulls radio
Some nights as far away
As the Cities,
North to International Falls,
Those clear nights,
You sit with CBC
On your grandpa’s old transistor
Pale ale and a map
That came with the cabin.
How easy it seems,
Those clear nights,
To pack up the truck
And drift north,
Into a foreign land
The way radio floats
On the wind.
How many gas tanks,
How many portages
Or in the other direction
To the great Hudson Bay,
To the sea?
Greenland and Iceland
Become mere stones,
Breaking laws of physics,
Skipping across the surface
Of the sea
En route to Edinburgh,
A six pack of beer
And a map,
And you’ve traveled the world
From a cramped lakeside room
That smells of mildew.♦
Amidst moss and wet leaves,
Little room for worry.
There’s the smell of the earth:
No small comfort.
Soil in the fingernails
Signals a day spent well.
The dock your father built,
Left behind years ago,
Both weathered now.
Maybe it’s holy here,
Amidst moss and wet leaves,