On August 25 Robert Bly gave a reading at Blue Mounds Interpretative Center in the southwest corner of the state as part of a year-long series honoring the 100th anniversary of novelist Frederick Manfred’s birth. I reserved a walk-in campsite at the park, stuffed the backpack with the bare necessities, and was on the road by eight, hoping to reconnect not only with Bly but also with that relatively untouristed part of the state.
Outside of Belle Plaine I saw a man chasing a horse down a gravel road—always a funny sight. Two police cars and a pick-up were parked along the highway. I suppose the man was transporting the horse in the pick-up, and when the cops pulled him over, the horse jumped out. But I have no idea what’s really going on in rural Minnesota. It’s a whole different universe.
The skies were gray but the route along Highway 169 up the broad floodplain of the Minnesota River Valley toward Mankato was lovely. The rosemary-apple scone I picked up at the River Rock Coffee shop in St. Peter was also topnotch. I’d dropped a recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s 7th Book of Madrigals into the CD player radio; angelic voices, both male and female, were intertwining with tireless bright emotion in pleasingly incomprehensible Italian, and I said to myself, “I could listen to this all the way to Luverne!”
By the time I got the Windom, I’d taken a wrong turn down 169, driven through a patch of heavy rain, and was thoroughly sick of Monteverdi. The expansive sea of corn through which I’d been driving, dotted with islands of thick woods as far as the eye could see, was impressive. All the same, I was happy to depart Highway 60 onto a county road where the landscape was hillier and the shoulders were narrower or non-existent.
I was on my way to Kilen Woods State Park, tucked into a fold of the Des Moines River. I’d never been to this park before, and found that there isn’t much to do there, especially with the hiking trails being so wet. The park does offer some views down into the valleys, and the largely treeless “prairie” campground loop has a few nice sites looking out across the countryside.
At noon, having passed a fair number of wind-turbines in Jackson County, I was sitting in the parking lot at a Burger King in Worthington under a gray sky, looking out the windshield at a Walgreens, a Hy-Vee gas station, and an O-Reilly’s Auto Parts. I was listening to jazz pianist Brad Mehldau trying to breathe life into “Still Crazy After All These Years” and I was also struggling to keep mayonnaise from dripping out of my hamburger onto my shirt.
Half an hour later I was in Luverne, scoping out the Art Rocks art fair on the county courthouse lawn. I listened to a woefully off-kilter rendition of “Under the Boardwalk,” then went inside to the Brandenberg Gallery to look at the same ten Brandenberg photos I’ve been seeing for the last fifteen years.
I was crossing the street on my way back to the car when I was stopped by a woman in a passing SUV who asked me where the Brandenberg Gallery was. “It’s not in this building here,” I said, pointing, “but the one next to it.” Then I noticed Robert Bly was sitting in the passenger seat.
“Robert,” I said, as if we were old friends, “I drove down from Minneapolis to hear the reading. I’m camping at a walk-in site at the park.” (As if he needed to know that!) He smiled wanly, tried to look pleased, and nodded his head.
Blue Mound State Park lies just a few miles north of Luverne, and I doubt if there is a better time to see it than in late summer under an overcast sky. The “mound” rises a hundred feet and more from the surrounding countryside. It’s made of pink Sioux Quartzite, one of the hardest rocks on earth; local farmers found it impossible to cultivate the thin layer of soil scattered on top of it. Patches of virgin prairie remain amid the exposures of quartzite, and quite a bit of it is now used as grazing land for the park’s sizable herd of buffalo.
Three hiking trails cut along the length of the mound at different levels from one end of the park to the other. That afternoon I hiked a few miles of the middle trail, moving along the crest of the mound, then cut down through a break in the cliff face to get a view from the grassland below. The pink slabs of exposed rock veritably glowed, and the lichens, the grasses, the stunted sumac, the cactus, and other flowers and shrubs roundabout all took on a remarkable intensity in the filtered light.
Touch the Sky Prairie, established in 2001 by the Brandenberg Prairie Foundation, can be reached via paved and gravel roads three miles east of the park. It lacks the drama of Blue Mound’s pink cliff-face, but the site seems more remote and windswept, and the prairie grasses more all-encompassing. The peculiar positioning of the quartzite chunks scattered here and there call to mind Zen gardens or menhir alignments, though I suspect they’ve been sitting that way for eons.
Communing with these solitary, elemental environments put me in a good frame of mind for the Bly reading, and even the tired lettuce in the salad I bought for dinner at the local supermarket couldn’t dispel it. Bly isn’t a “nature” poet, but he does draw much of the imagery for his illogical, fabulous, musings from the plant and animal kingdoms—mice, dogs, birch trees, the sea. Benedetto Croce once described a work of art as “a compendium of universal history” and as far as Bly’s poems are concerned, the definition almost fits: guilt, love, infatuation, vanity, deceit, longing, all bundled up with dream-images from the farm and allusions to classical literature.
But I don’t care to analyze Bly’s “style” here. Some like it, others don’t. I will say that he’s a marvelous reader of his own poems, giving them a conversational yet musical emphasis that renders the “meaning” almost secondary. He’s also good at pacing an evening of readings, leaving long breaks between poems and reciting others twice.
There has always been a compulsion underlying Bly’s work, not merely to assert his personal genius, but to get us to change—like a Biblical prophet, but with a far more eclectic pantheon. And though he peppered the evening with little quips and jokes, it’s clear that he thinks it’s important for us, as listeners, to dig more than a little deeper into our relationships with our parents, children, and neighbors, and also into our religious beliefs.
I found some of the quips endearing. After reading the short poem “Clothespins” (reprinted below) he remarked, “That says about as little as a poem can say, I suppose.”
I’d like to have spent my life making
Clothespins. Nothing would be harmed,
Except some pines, probably on land
I owned and would replant. I’d see
My work on clotheslines near some lake,
Up north on a day in October,
Perhaps twelve clothespins, the wood
Still fresh, and a light wind blowing.
At the conclusion to one poem he said, “I have no idea what that means.” Then he added, “You write a book of poems, and years later you look at it again and say to yourself, ‘Did I write that?’”
But perhaps the most touching aside came at the conclusion to “When My Dead Father Called.” Robert read it twice. He honed in on the line, “He was stuck somewhere.” Then he asked the crowd, “Maybe your father has been stuck somewhere. What would you do?” There was a pause, and then he said, almost dismissively, “Write a poem, I guess.” The sense of resignation with which he delivered this remark left me with the impression that this is what he did…and it wasn’t an adequate response. And it still pains him.
David Whetstone provided beguiling sitar accompaniment throughout the reading—he was skilled and relaxed and congenial, adjusting Robert’s microphone, stopping and starting on command. And Robert’s wife Ruth helped him pick out selections to read, eventually coming on stage to sit behind him. “It’s nice to have a wife who likes some of your poems,” he remarked at one point. It was a truly loving scene, and the thirty or so guests sitting alongside me down in the pit, most of them from Luverne and the surrounding countryside, I suspect, were lapping it up. (But as I mentioned earlier, I have no idea what’s really going on in rural Minnesota.)
The Laverne Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, if I’m not mistaken, and they also provided the free bottled water and ice-cream bars!
At one point Bly, uncomfortable dominating the proceedings, asked the audience to contribute, to say something. This is an awkward moment. We’ve all been thinking about the words Bly has been reading. We’re going to have a hard time coming up with a response to:
You become whatever
steals you, the tree steals a man,
and an old birch becomes his wife
and they live together in the woods.
Bly had stolen us. But we had not yet become Bly.
I was going to say something about the nighthawks circling outside the building, or the blue grosbeak I spotted earlier on a dead tree down in the valley below the interpretive center. But I held my tongue. Saw some birds? Where’s the import? Where’s the catch?
It was not yet dark as I made my way down the path to my little campsite. A lump of Sioux Quartzite about the size of a tank sat just beyond the fire ring, half-covered with wild grapevines. The Rock River gurgled through the woods in the shadows nearby. I’d purchased a load of firewood at the ranger’s office and I sat on the picnic table staring into the fire, sipping the Irish whisky I’d brought along in a little metal flask, thinking about nothing.
A vast contingent of families from SE Asia had occupied the group camp a few hundred yards away, and the pleasant shriek of children chasing one another and playing games came wafting through the woods in the dark.