U.P. poets represent genre well

1604 SR2

the poet’s room

by t. kilgore splake

Calumet author t. kilgore splake has been writing poetry for many decades. In all, he is the author of 75 books of poetry, prose and photographs. He has been published in countless literary and art journals, and much of his writing has drawn attention to the Upper Peninsula. The Vertin Art Gallery also features the T. Kilgore Splake Writer’s Workspace, and his poetry has been taught in poetry classes at Gogebic College.

This poet has written far more than I could ever review here, but one of his newest books is the poet’s room. (The lack of capitalization is one of splake’s trademarks, although he does not go as far as E.E. Cummings in rejecting punctuation.)

Some of splake’s poems are quite short, such as the opening poem “morning writing” which reads, “early contest/with elusive muse/premenstrual lady.” Others run up to four pages in length. Some of the shorter ones read like descriptive lists, for example “heaven” reads: “cold blue ribbon/sharp cheddar wedge/dutch masters scent/dusty dirt road clouds/chasing rainbows.”

Many of the poems offer critical insights into society and life. One I particularly liked is “razor’s edge,” which comments on Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, in which a young man leaves society to find God. splake writes, “easy finding god/distant asian mountain” and compares it to the much harder “living real life/with other people/magic and chaos.” Other poems depict the individual angst of people, many of them showing how young girls are preyed upon by men or become victims of society. In “alive,” splake describes a “young naked girl” who is a “junk food addict” and “smoking endless cigarettes.” She is dreaming of love but “lost in zoloft haze/meds smothering fear/of never being.” In “beyond ashes” a 13-year-old girl with an alcoholic father longs for excitement, gets raped, and ends up reading Sylvia Plath. Many other poems also feature young women longing for love or middle-aged women who failed to find it; all end up disappointed in their relationships. Many of these poems also, understandably, have sexual components to them, often of sexual frustration.

The poet and his creative angst is the theme of many poems. The poet finds himself frustrated with “mediocre talkers” and fears the inability to create. In one poem, a “graying literary veteran” is “facing mfa resistance/english professors.” In another, the “cool acting guy/wannabe poet” is “ignoring suicide/blow-head-off-death/mediocre losers/who talk writing.” I think these poems accurately reflect the glamour many see in writing poetry, along with many people’s inability to write it and the frustrations that come with that.

Other characters are not much happier. In “football player,” a young athlete gets injured, impregnates his girlfriend and ends up working in a factory. In “prisoner,” a junior high school teacher spends “years of babysitting,” his last good day was his twelfth birthday and he’s compared to a character in a Beckett play.

These are not happy poems by any means. Most of their characters are trapped by small lives, restrictive religious beliefs, drugs or dysfunctional relationships. That said, there is truth in them. I imagine most readers will find unpleasant similarities to their own lives. Many of the lines are somewhat graphic in language, reflecting frustration and coarseness. But there is also a smidgeon of happiness in some. In “beyond the road,” the poet tells us he is “not bitter over fate” and we get the sense that writing poetry, the “magic chemistry of words/made life complete.” Overall, I found by the end of the book, I’d had a cathartic experience where I could accept that life may be a constant battle of “fighting depression,” yet we also find reasons to go on.

You can learn more about splake and his poetry at https://tksplake.wordpress.com/

Berry Picker’s Blues:

Poems of the Northwoods

by Jon Taylor

The back cover of this poetry collection describes it as “A postmodern updating of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha written in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau.” Berry Picker’s Blues definitely fits that categorization, and both Hiawatha and Thoreau are mentioned in the poems. While Taylor is from Nashville, his love for the U.P. radiates on nearly every page.

All the poems are one page in length, and they are divided up into five sections: places; flora and fauna; seasons; the U.P.; and north, south, east and west. The last section compares the U.P. to other places to give it a broader context, but almost all the poems are about the U.P.

The beauty and wonder of nature is a primary theme throughout. There are numerous poems about trees and flowers and how to differentiate between different species. Many poems focus on the value of looking closely at what surrounds us. For example, in “A Weed” the speaker says a rare flower is “there for the one/Has a will to see them/And is shameless enough/To stoop and examine closely.”

Another major theme is the love of solitude so that one can experience nature. The speaker finds many solitary places to enjoy. In “The Secret,” he describes how in the U.P. you can “lie among the ferns/For a minute/Or an hour or a morning/Or a day and a night/And have the planet to yourself.” Most of all, I enjoyed “The Tip of the Keweenaw” where you will never get the same directions from anyone to find “High Rock Point,” but once you find it, “don’t go there/On a weekend or holiday/When the place is jammed with campers/and in-the-know trolls/And please/Don’t think of it/In the middle of the week either/That’s when I might be there.”

The U.P. isn’t without its flaws, as some of Taylor’s other poems reflect. The speaker does not like the “Praise the Lord” and “Support the Troops” mottos he sees and hears everywhere, but he realizes they also exist outside the U.P. He just holds the U.P. to a higher standard. One of the most critical poems in the book is “Along the Yellow Dog” where the Triple A road is described as being now “Flat as a pancake/And four lanes wide” all to make a path to the “Wonder of the world/Nickel mine.” And the speaker concludes that someone “could run/A marathon down the road/If they weren’t bugsplatted first/By an ore-hauling truck.” The book’s title also comes from one of these critical poems where the speaker feels all the attention now goes to the people in casinos or riding on ATVs while the berry pickers get no respect. Despite all this, and while the speaker realizes this is no longer the U.P. of mining, logging, fishing and hunting, he finds it is still the U.P. of great beauty.

Taylor’s poems are far from idyllic, and yet I felt my whole body relax as I read the nature poems and envisioned myself out in the woods. The more critical poems also have their place, showing what is truly valuable about the U.P. and why it needs to be preserved. I imagine those likely to be upset by such poems are not likely to read poetry anyway. Taylor does a wonderful job of capturing the contemporary U.P. experience with its blemishes and beauty, all existing beside each other, and providing a time capsule for what our own time in the U.P. is like for those who will love it after us.

by Tyler Tichelaar

Editor’s Note: Tichelaar is the author of My Marquette and Willpower. All books reviewed in this column are available in local and online bookstores. For book review submission guidelines, visit our website, www.marquettemonthly.org

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