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Four Twin Cities poets offer vibrant new works

  • Article by: Pamela Miller
  • Star Tribune
  • December 15, 2001 - 10:00 PM

History is made vivid by infusions of biography, and biography by its historical context. Among a treasure of recent offerings by Twin Cities poets are two books by Minneapolis writers that illuminate that truth.

Ted Genoways' "Bullroarer: A Sequence" (Northeastern University Press, 68 pages, $14.95 paperback) visits three generations in the poet's family. Sharon Chmielarz' "The Other Mozart" (Ontario Review Press, 110 pages, $21.95) is a poetic biography of Nannerl Mozart, whose musical gifts were eclipsed by those of her brother, Wolfgang.

The poems in "Bullroarer" couple formal metric structure with portraits of gritty lives shaped by work in harsh places. These eloquent, arresting snapshots of birth, death, work, sacrifice and endurance often feature the poet's grandfather, from his birth in a poor rural family to his work in the Omaha stockyards to his final years.

So much beauty lurks in these poems, even as they describe such harrowing events as childbirth or a slaughterhouse worker being gored by a dying steer. Death and mortality are central, yet the overall effect is a celebration of commonalities.

A father tries to toughen his son by showing him a slaughtered pig's blue heart, which leads to the wry refrain, "Dad doesn't couple this muscle with love." An uncle deluded that he is back in World War I dies in a trench he digs during a flood. A child playing in the woods turns over a stone and finds the word "baby" inscribed on it.

Genoways is a marvelous poet. "Bullroarer" travels beyond personal family history into the realm of art.

"The Other Mozart" is a sequence of poignant poems about the life of Nannerl Mozart, which began with promise and ended in banality. In the 1700s, Leopold Mozart dragged his little prodigies through the courts of Europe, less out of pride than fierce money-lust; his daughter describes his need for money as "the wolf."

In Nannerl's teens, Leopold narrowed his focus on Wolfgang, and she wrote: "I am without music, Papa, hours/ drag through the house." Eventually she married a widower with five children, had children of her own and lost herself in mundane routine. As an old woman, she sat in a chair: "Her hands can't sit still, an old habit, to/ play, or pluck at a thread."

At times the poet's voice is too modern for an 18th-century woman. And the poems are much assisted by a chronology at the end of the book that should be at the beginning. Still, "The Other Mozart" is moving and effective both as poetry and biography.

Water works

What did my father call this life?

One salt hour between two eternities.

"The Salt Hour" (University of Illinois Press, 103 pages, $14.95 paperback), by J.P. White of Edina, is full of striking poems. White's style is formal, learned and elegant. Set in landscapes ranging from the Great Lakes to Oregon to the Bahamas, his poems are rich in images of water, weather and fish.

In "Breakwall Cats," a family visits a breakwater near which the cats lurk "skittish, shadowy,/ Hissing from hiding places few have ever seen." "Barracuda in the Wreck" tells a fisherman's spooky tale. "Island Vacation" is about an estranged couple visiting paradise. Each poem in this book will be someone's favorite.

Love and humor

St. Paul poet Jim Heynen has a delightful offering in "Standing Naked" (Confluence Press, 65 pages, $20). Heynen, writer-in-residence at St. Olaf College, employs some of the themes one finds in his short stories and works for young readers -- the harsh beauty of rural life -- and the same mix of humor and gravity. But poetry allows him to expand his territory into the acreage of philosophy and love.

Some of his poems, such as "The Old Farmer Speaks of the Millennium," are laugh-out-loud funny. Others are beautiful and sad, such as "Iowa Poem," in which a son tells his father that although he doesn't go to church, "in my chest there's still a believer/ praying for a cold clear sky." "Tornado Alert" describes a twister roiling through a sky "hilarious with debris," taking the form of a mysterious, furious woman.

Such different voices, these four poets, but each offers something fresh. We are lucky to have them as our neighbors.

-- Pamela Miller is at pmiller@startribune.com .

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