Just past the Moose Lake exit off I-35,
I say, “The North is an idea, not a place,”
And my wife looks at me as she often does and asks,
“Then why are we trying to drive to it?”
We shoot downhill along concrete channels into Duluth,
With its bridges, railroads, and waiting freighters.
We pass under the arching elms of Lake Street with its
Handsome mansions and porched Victorians.
And we come out on highway 61, where we ride by those lovely-named parks,
Gooseberry and Split Rock, Tettegouche and Temperance—
Temperance, where each summer we whoop and leap, hand-in-hand,
From a rocky ledge into the river’s cold currents below.
Turning to our right, when stands of birch and spruce relent,
And the view opens up, we see Superior singing,
Its silver and sapphire waters shimmering
As far as the eye can see.
Then a voice from the back seat: “Are we there yet?”
I make a last check for typos, change a word here or there,
And hit “Send.” This book of poems is off to my publisher.
“The readers will decide,” I reply.
It’s unfair, I know, to press a question when you only
Meant to sit cozily in your chair and be amused,
But which is it, dear Reader: Is the North just a place,
Or is it an Idea?
Along the Laurentian Divide
We pull over, along the Gunflint Trail,
When we see the roadside marker.
“Laurentian Divide Scenic Overlook” the sign says,
Explaining what was divided.
Water falling to the north flows into Hudson Bay,
And on to the Arctic Ocean.
Water falling to the south
Flows through the Great Lakes into the Atlantic.
Not the Great Divide,
As they call the long line through the Rockies.
Only two thousand feet above sea level,
It divides watersheds, not a continent.
But just as decisive,
Telling billions of raindrops,
In no uncertain terms,
Which way to go.
A storm is blowing in from the northwest.
Rain will fall here soon.
Emptying itself into two oceans.
How many of us toss now in turbulent clouds?
How many of us
Soon will fall one side or another of some Divide,
Soon will swim in an ocean we do not even recognize?
Begging for Thimbleberries
I’ve never eaten at the French Laundry,
That famous restaurant north of San Francisco,
But if I did drop in, I’d have a question for the chef:
“Do you have thimbleberries on the menu?”
The chef would look at me sadly and shake his head,
Because he’d know that the tastiest berry of them all
Won’t wait to be served on a plate—
Picked, it must be savored at once.
I consider this, on an August morning,
Along the ferny edge of a forest
Where thimbleberries grow thick,
As I place one tart, red cap on my tongue.
When my aroused taste buds rush the good news to my brain,
I imagine those sophisticated patrons of the French Laundry,
Encircling me, begging me:
“Please, please let us taste one!” they cry.
We push the tandem kayak off the rocky shore
And watch our two young daughters
Paddle around a point and out of sight,
The first leg of their first kayak trip without us.
We smile wanly at each other and head inside to worry.
We’d given all the warnings—
Eye on the weather, stay close to shore—
But not until we catch sight of them again will we relax.
We want them to love what we love,
And when we see them glide into shore,
Paddles raised in jubilation,
We know it is happening.
August days of blueberry picking, beachcombing for agates,
Ledge leaping into the Temperance River,
Evenings playing board games and stoking campfires:
Time has made our special place their special place.
But what about their children?
Will our busy daughters have time to build memories for them?
Does sense of place regress over generations,
So eventually no place is valued over any other?
A few miles beyond Beaver Bay you see it,
Its grey geometry of concrete towers, cylinders, and rectangles
Stretching a full mile down the highway,
The largest taconite processing facility in the world.
I was nineteen when I first visited Silver Bay,
Home to the taconite plant and my college girlfriend.
Already everyone was talking the court case,
United States versus Reserve Mining Company.
The company had been dumping 70,000 tons of tailings a day
Into Lake Superior. Harmless, the company said,
But now we knew the waste rock contained “asbestos-like fibers”
And that those fibers were in the drinking water, and in the air.
We hiked the hills around Silver Bay that summer.
We played golf and biked and swam and ended days
At the local Dairy Queen,
Sharing chocolate dip cones, watching the sun go down.
A decade later, she became a pediatrician, saving young lives.
Who else could have made that call for us late on New Year’s Eve?—
The call that sent the chief of pediatric surgery
Rushing to University Hospital in his tuxedo
To perform an emergency operation on our infant daughter,
While we sat holding hands in the waiting room,
Ringing in the new year?
That bright and lovely woman with auburn hair and an easy smile,
That woman who may have saved our daughter’s life,
Died of cancer in her fifties.
I wonder too.
The poem below was a winner in the "Pandemic Poetry Contest" sponsored by Garrison Keillor and the Writer's Almanac. It is included in a forthcoming collection of poems, Shooting Hoopes in the Dark.
“A purple flower that is the Latin word for garlic?
Six letters, ending with an ‘m’, I think.”
“Allium,” Cheryl says. “With a double ‘l’.”
“Yes, of course,” I say, penciling letters into boxes on the
crossword. I picture the allium.
Its determined stem reaching higher than seems possible,
topped by its preposterous purple globe.
“It reminds me of the coronavirus,” I say.
“Spherical. Its little pointed petals sticking out.”
“Everything reminds you of the coronavirus.”
“Except the virus is gray, not purple. And its spikes are red.”
Are they really red? I wonder. Light can’t reach a virus, can it?
It must have no color at all.
“I think some artist just made the spikes red to scare us.
To make it look more like an alien invader.”
“Yes, dear,” Cheryl says.
In our backyard, the azaleas parade their pink.
The dogwood boasts its elegant blooms.
An iris chorus cries “Spring!”
“Let’s go outside,” I say.