November 29, 2010

In The Lake of the Woods

I think Tim O'Brien lives in Texas now, but this author grew up first in Austin and then Worthington, Minnesota, and tends to write stories and books that connect to his homeplace. I listened to him read and talk about writing and life last spring in Chaska, and although everyone was asking him questions about The Things They Carried, he did slip in an admission that he believes his best book is his 1994 novel In The Lake of the Woods. The comment stayed with me. I wondered why. So when I was thinking of the next MN-based novel I could take in, his title came to mind. 

The Lake of the Woods. It sounds mythic, doesn't it? Something you get lost in. 

As I read the book, I came to believe that this was exactly what O'Brien intended. The themes include deception and mystery, loneliness and memory, and I was impressed by how well these inner states fit with O'Brien's description of the setting:
"The wilderness was massive. It was a place, Wade came to understand, where lost was a rule of thumb. The water here was the water there. Nothing in particular, all in general. Forests folded into forests, sky swallowed sky. The solitude bent back on itself. Everywhere was nowhere. It was perfect unity, perfect oneness, the flat mirroring waters giving off exact copies of other copies, everything in multiples, everything hypnotic and blue and meaningless, always the same. Here, Wade decided, was where the vanished go. The dropped nickels. The needles in haystacks." (239)
The book is rich in images, and I came away with stark mental pictures of what the Mai Lai Massacre in Vietnam might have been like, what PTSD can do to a man, what it can do to a relationship. But it was where John Wade did his untangling of memory--The Lake of the Woods--that seemed both the most real and far away. 
It would take me six and a half hours in a well-gassed car to get to the southern most point of the lake. And to get to Angle Inlet, where John Wade's cabin is located, I would have to take a small plane. All around me would be blue and green, even in the winter. O'Brien has painted a picture of a wildness so deep that it is almost dangerous. People get lost, he is saying. And sometimes it takes a dose of disorientation to find your way to freedom. I can relate to that. Who can't?

This book has intrigued me, made me long afresh for wilderness. I'm sure I'll say it again and again in my life: there are so many places on earth that are worth our close attention. The Lake of the Woods seems to be one of them, and I'm grateful that, through his words, Tim O'Brien has offered up a lens.

November 25, 2010

Snow Fruit

A wintery addition for your grateful-ladened table. 
Happy Thanksgiving, all!

November 22, 2010

Joyce Sutphen

Continuing on with my Thirty Before Thirty list, I've spent several hours this past week reading Minnesota poet Joyce Sutphen's 2000 collection Coming Back to the Body. The book was given to me on my 21st birthday by a fellow English major at Gustavus (thanks, Julie!), so I've read many of the poems before. I've since been told by poet friends, however, that though poems are entities unto themselves, a collection is formed intentionally, and should be read as a cohesive manuscript, cover to cover, at least once. So, this is what I've done, and upon finishing, it's clear that each of Sutphen's small creations builds on the next until the reader arrives at the last page with a clear emotional picture of a woman challenged and changed, someone who has returned to herself.

Some of my favorite poems in the collection come from the first of the five sections--not surprising, as they explore the details of rural landscapes. But I was physically stopped at the fourth section's first poem "Bookmobile."

      I spend part of my childhood waiting
      for the Stearns County Bookmobile. 
      I pace back and forth in the line,
      hungry for the fresh bread of the page,
      Because I need something that will tell me
      what I am; I want to catch a book,
      clear as a one-way ticket, to Paris,
      to London, to anywhere.                     (71)

This was me. Right down to the Stearns County address. The bookmobile had been replaced by a permanent library, of course, and I did not have to wait in line, but books were still tickets to faraway lands, locales that were the opposite of plowed fields and deep snowdrifts and everything I thought I already knew.

At the end of Coming Back to the Body in the enclosed biography, I found that Sutphen "grew up on a farm near St. Joseph, Minnesota... [And after studying literature at] the University of Minnesota... like many of the people she had read about, she set out on a long journey to find truth and beauty. As usual, the road led straight back to the beginning: home, country roads, the sun setting through the woods."

Although I still have a long way to go in discovering truth, this sounds a lot like me, too. It's a pity to think I passed the good professor in the hallways of Gustavus' Confer-Vickner building--where Sutphen teaches--without stopping to say hello, without stopping to talk of the St. Joe I recognize in her poetry, the dust coming up from the gravel at dusk, or "the land, threading through me, stitching me into place" (11).

November 17, 2010


You go to bed, the night inky black, aware that there is a field below your window full of dusty blonde grasses, dried clumps of goldenrod, scratchy patches of sepiaed clover. There is wind, so their brittle bodies rattle against each other like reluctant bones, or swish down and back up--thin, dilapidated flags of the retreating autumn. You do not consciously think of any of this. It just is, like the woods are beyond the field, hundreds of brown arms reaching into an open sky, and you rest with this image buried in your dreams.
But when you wake, you tug open your blinds, and the easy belief you held the night before of ordinary, of familiar, of something known is shocked out of your hands. No matter how many Minnesota winters you have experienced, the first snow storm of the season is always new, is always completely bewildering in its power to transform the recognizable into something other, something that is sudden, and total, and white.

You cannot believe how much snow has fallen while you slept. You cannot understand why you didn't wake up, why some sound no matter how soft did not alert you. You just stand at the window, watching the quarter-sized flakes swirl in sometimes beautiful, sometimes ferocious, circles. You go out on the deck and put your hands in the stuff, making snowballs until your flesh stings, until your husband brings you mittens, and a hat, and a coat, and a grinning shake of the head. You tell him, "I'm going on a walk, now." And he kisses your red wet nose.

And off you go, walking, the snow still flying, though a bit more slowly. You discover a landscape that did not exist twelve hours before: ground that sinks and crunches, wind that forms solid ledges where before there was only air, air that is crisper--studded with fireplace smoke. A few old friends poke up from that other, earlier world. That colored world. Today, you look ahead of you at a thick and heavy pale ocean.
You clomp along in boots instead of flippers. You think about how much more you can see, how all that was small and light has been laid flat, how most of the things that are visible now are strong and ancient: two red granite boulders, an old gnarled oak tree. You look at the crooks of branches sagging under the weight of frozen water and think of friends and family, how when it is cold we move closer together, how when there is trouble or change, it's on these people we depend. 
When you come across the berry trees, you're a bit ecstatic, because of course there is color, and of course it is small and concentrated, at the ends of wands, full of power. Each one is dripping with water, and they look more lovely than the embers of a fire. You think the snow clings to the branches for as long as it can to stay near them.
And when you walk into the woods--stepping over downed logs covered in nine inches of snow; crouching under and around branches and plants that have thistles and barbs that catch on your clothes; noticing animals tracks, bird song, snow slipping from the higher branches and thunking into the soft earth or smacking the top of your head--you think, I'm crazy for doing this. I'm such a dreamer. I've always been too much in the snow-heavy clouds. But then you look up--the branches a tangle of filigreed fingers--and down--a little leaf fallen right at your boot-toe--then within--because ever since you were small, the natural world has always been where you are truly and absolutely the most happy--and you realize the only thing that makes any sense is to keep walking.
-- Published in The Talking Stick

November 12, 2010

Bon Iver's "Flume"

It seems that when I went into my master's program, I adopted a kind of tunnel vision and took in only art news that was of the adult literary variety, because just like I was caught blinking two years ago at The Hunger Games' unveiling, so too am I finding my jaw dropping two years after the hype at the music of Bon Iver.

"Flume" or "Re: Stacks" starts to play, and--just like I did in high school--I find myself on the floor of my bedroom, eyes closed, listening, forming my lips around lyrics I want to swallow up and make a part of me.

It is November now, but still I will roll down my car windows for this. Such music is like wind; it runs well through the trees, these empty fields, into the lungs of the coming winter. 

November 7, 2010

Saving Light

I do love the light, so these Northern nights from this day until spring when darkness comes early feel strange and heavy, like a too-warm blanket pulled over my head. Where has the world gone? In the daytime now, the color is drained, but it's still at least beige or brown. At six o'clock, everything out my window is black.

But six o'clock also means dinner, and as I enter into this season, I understand why a warm November meal on the table is good for the spirit. Green beans. Yellow butter. Gold bread. Red apples. Meat that is juicy and tender and white.

And then there is this: a pumpkin pie. The orange of autumn. The orange of full fields glowing under the sun. An end-of-harvest melon that grows plump enough to feed multiple mouths, returning  to the kitchen and the evening ripe light. A gift.
With my mother, I covered my hands with flour this weekend. I mixed and pressed and crimped and measured and added and stirred and poured and smoothed. I turned on the oven. I set the flaky pastry and the golden center into heat. As it baked, spices filled the air, and confidence. And as we ate, warmth entered our bodies, and we did not notice the sinking sun.

November 3, 2010

"Solitude Late at Night in the Woods"

The body is like a November birch facing the full moon
And reaching into the cold heavens.
In these trees there is no ambition, no sodden body, no leaves,
Nothing but bare trunks climbing like cold fire!

My last walk in the trees has come. At dawn
I must return to the trapped fields,
To the obedient earth.
The trees shall be reaching all the winter.

It is a joy to walk in the bare woods.
The moonlight is not broken by the heavy leaves.
The leaves are down, and touching the soaked earth,
Giving off the odor that partridges love.

-- from Silence in the Snowy Fields
by Robert Bly