david clewell | new year’s eve letter to friends

31 12 2008


Poetry Dispatch No. 263 | December 31, 2008

Christmas to New Year (2009)
“Memoir” Dispatches, #7


Editor’s Note: I’ve been sending this poem to friends on New Year’s Eve for more than ten years. The same poem. It’s become my ‘Auld Lang Syne”, my “White Christmas”, my “As Time Goes By”, my… Good words have staying power. Admittedly every year I look for something different, something new, something, perhaps, even better. But I’ve never found it and honestly don’t believe a better poem exists for this moment. At least for me, how I see myself and others in time, present history, emotional ups and downs, all those everyday feelings of “in-spite-of-everything-it’s-okay” one wishes to pass on to friends. There’s also something about the poem at this historical point in our country’s time that is almost prophetic. Poems as commonly original as this possess that quality too: they always speak to the here and now.

I once ‘knew’ the poet, David Clewell, in a correspondent sort-of-way, a friend of other writer-friends (Dave Etter in particular), maybe thirty years ago, when Clewell was already on his way of becoming somebody in poetry, and I was still struggling as a ‘former Chicago writer’ with a meager reputation, howling in the rural, exiled on a peninsula in Door County, Wisconsin. (His book, from which this poem is taken, went on to win the National Poetry Series selection in 1989.)

Clewell used to haunt used bookstores—and occasionally send me some rare find, which he sensed was meant for me. And he was always right. Just the book I needed to read at that time. But life has a way of clouding over things, disappearing things before your very eyes—friends as well. Which is some of what this New Year’s Eve poem is about. Not forgetting friends who keep us alive. Passing on this generosity of spirit.

I hope through the mystery of cyber space this note somehow finds its way to Dave, wherever he is these days. But then, he surely lives forever in this poem. And the bowl and spoon continues to be passed on, received, with immense gratitude. —Norbert Blei

P.S. Dear reader, please open the link to “wisdombook” after the poem.


New Year’s Eve Letter to Friends

by David Clewell

Every year the odds are stacked against it
turning out the way you’d like:
a year of smooth, a year of easy smile,
a year like a lake you could float on,
looking up at a blue year of soothing sky.

Mostly the letters you’re expecting never come.
Lovers walk out and keep on going
and in no time they’re no friend of yours.
Mostly, the sheer weight of days
gone awfully wrong: a tire blown out,
someone’s heart caving in,
the hole worn finally through the roof.
Sometimes it’s only a few tenacious cells
digging in against complete dissolve.
The smallest strand of DNA, stretched thin
over thousands of years, goes taut
and finally holds.

I’ve watched men at the Mission staring out
into the middle distance,
putting up with the latest version of salvation,
all the time wondering just
how long until the bowl and spoon.
They’ve been around long enough to know
the good part’s always saved for last and
there’s no promise they won’t make to get there.
Each year cuts our life down to size,
to something we can almost use. So we find it
somewhere in our hearts: another ring shows up
when we lay open the cross-section.
One more hard line in the hand
spreading slowly out of its clench.

It used to be the world was so small
You could walk out to the end of it
and back in a single day. Now it seems
to take all year to make it mostly back.
And so this is for my friends all over:
a new year. Year the longshot comes home.
The year letters pour in, full of the good word
that never got as far as you before.
The year lovers come to know a good thing
When they find it in the press of familiar flesh.
Walk out onto the planet tonight. Even the moon
is giving back your share of borrowed light
and you take it back, in the name of everything
you can’t take back in your life.
Imagine yourself filling with it,
letting yourself go and floating
through the skeleton trees to your place
at the top of the sky.

And here’s the best part, coming last,
just after all your practiced shows of faith.
Even now, while you’re still salvaging
what passes for resolve.
Remember this, no matter what else happens:
this year you’ll never go without.
It’s no small thing you’ve been in line for,
this bowl and spoon passed finally to you.

from BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE, Viking, 1991

davidclewellDavid Clewell has published seven collections of poems–most recently, The Low End of Higher Things — and two booklength poems (The Conspiracy Quartet and Jack Ruby’s America). His work has appeared regularly in a wide variety of magazines, including Harper’s, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, Ontario Review, New Letters, and Yankee. His poetry is represented in five-dozen anthologies. He’s been the recipient of the Pollak Poetry Prize (for Now We’re Getting Somewhere) and the Lavan Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His Blessings in Disguise was a winner in the National Poetry Series.

Clewell teaches poetry workshops (introductory and advanced), 19th & 20th C. literature, and topics-in-poetry seminars. He directs the Creative Writing program and coordinates the attendant Visiting Writer Series, which he started in 1986.


WISDOM – http://www.wisdombook.org/



tomas tranströmer | standing up

30 12 2008


Poetry Dispatch No. 262 | December 30, 2008

Christmas to New Year (2009)
“Memoir” Dispatches, #6

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth, end-of-the-year/holiday offering in words to date as I consider the various interpretations of December, winter, Christmas, the coming year. Previous postings include: “Down to the Lake”, “Carol Ordal” , a winter haiku by Imakito Oku at “Garrison Keillor” , and a winter haiku by Buson . Today’s “almost New Years” poem by Transtromer will appear in the “Poetry Dispatch” archived version within hours. —Norbert Blei




In a split-second of hard thought, I managed to catch her. I stopped, holding the hen in my hands. Strange, she didn’t really feel living: rigid, dry, an old white plume-ridden ladies’ hat that shrieked out the truths of 1912. Thunder in the air. An odor rose from the fence-boards, as when you open a photo album that has got so old that no one can identify the people any longer.

I carried her back inside the chicken netting and let her go. All of a sudden she came back to life, she knew who she was, and ran off according to the rules. Hen-yards are thick with taboos. But the earth all around is full of affection and tenacity. A low stone wall half overgrown with leaves. When dusk begins to fall the stones are faintly luminous with the hundred-year-old warmth from the hands that built it.

It’s been a hard winter, but summer is here and the fields want us to walk upright. Every man unimpeded, but careful, as when you stand up in a small boat. I remember a day in Africa: on the banks of the Chart, there were many boats, an atmosphere positively friendly, the men almost blue-black in color with three parallel scars on each cheek (meaning the Sara tribe). I am welcomed on a boat—it’s a canoe hollowed from a dark tree. The canoe is incredibly rocky, even when you sit on your heels. A balancing act. It you have the heart on the left side you have to lean a bit to the right, nothing in the pockets, no big arm movements, please, all rhetoric has to be left behind. It’s necessary: rhetoric will ruin everything here. The canoe glides out over the water.

from FRIENDS, YOU DRANK SOME DARKNESS, Three Swedish Poets, Martinson, Eklelöf, and Tranströmer; Chosen and Translated by Rober Bly, A Seventies Press Book published by Beacon Press, Boston, 1975


tran375Tomas Tranströmer (born 15 April 1931) is a Swedish writer, poet and translator, whose poetry has been deeply influential in Sweden, as well as around the world.

Tranströmer received his secondary education at the Södra Latin School in Stockholm and graduated as a psychologist from Stockholm University in 1956. He began writing at thirteen, and published his first collection of poems, 17 dikter (Seventeen Poems) in 1954. His latest collection, Den stora gåtan (The Great Enigma), was published in 2004, and an English translation of his entire body of work, The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, was published in 2006. He published a short autobiography, Minnena ser mig (The memories are watching me), in 1993.

Other poets – especially in the “political” 70’s – accused him for being apart from his tradition and not including political issues in his poems and novels. His work, though, lies within and further develops the Modernist and Expressionist/Surrealist language of 20th century poetry; his clear, seemingly simple pictures from everyday life and nature in particular reveals a mystic insight to the universal aspects of the human mind.

Tranströmer and the American poet Robert Bly are close friends and their correspondence has been published in the book Air Mail.

In 1990, he suffered a stroke that affects his speech, but he continues to write. He has often been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and many consider him one of Sweden’s foremost poets. Tranströmer’s awards include the Bonnier Award for Poetry, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Oevralids Prize, the Petrach Prize in Germany,the Golden Wreath of the Struga Poetry Evenings and the Swedish Award from International Poetry Forum. His poetry has been translated into fifty languages; Bly, Robin Fulton, and the prominent American blues writer Samuel Charters have translated his work into English.

In 2007, Tranströmer received a special Lifetime Recognition Award given by the trustees of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, which also awards the annual Griffin Poetry Prize.

In addition to his work as a writer, Tranströmer was also a respected psychologist before he had his stroke. He worked in juvenile prisons, and with disabled, convicts, and drug addicts. He is also a good piano player, something he has been able to continue after his stroke, albeit with one hand.

Collected poems

  • * 17 dikter (1954) – Seventeen Poems
  • * Hemligheter på vägen (1958)
  • * Den halvfärdiga himlen (1962) – The Half-Finished Heaven
  • * Klanger och spår (1966) – Windows and Stones
  • * Mörkerseende (1970) – Night Vision
  • * Stigar (1973) – Paths
  • * Östersjöar (1974) – Baltics
  • * Sanningsbarriären (1978)
  • * Det vilda torget (1983)
  • * För levande och döda (1989) – For the Living and the Dead
  • * Sorgegondolen (1996)
  • * Den stora gåtan (2004)
  • * The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems (2006) – Translated by Robin Fulton
  • * Galleriet: Reflected in Vecka nr.II (2007)- an artist book by Modhir Ahmed

garrison keillor | the blessings of childlike wonder

27 12 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 165 | December 27, 2008

Christmas to New Year (2009)
‘Memoir’ Dispatches, #4

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth, end-of-the-year/holiday offering in words to date as I consider the various interpretations of December, winter, Christmas, the coming year. Previous postings include: “Down to the Lake”, “Carol Ordal” ( www.poetrydispatch.wordpress.com) and a winter haiku by Imakito Oku at www.bashosroad.outlawpoetry.com .


I can’t imagine a greater gift to American writing in our time, a writer for all seasons, than Garrison Keillor. There’s little I can add to all the well-deserved attention he has received thus far (a writer in his mere 60’s), all the work he has already committed to books, articles, radio, stage performances, good old-fashioned storytelling–not to mention one fine (somewhat overlooked) film, “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006) directed by Robert Altman, who never made a film that didn’t grab you: “Hey, I’m talking to you, Bub. Straighten up. Watch. Listen.” Altman (Kansas City, MO) and Keillor (Anoka, MN)—a perfect Midwestern match. “Prairie…” a film, a radio program, a Way (in the Eastern sense) about time, maybe a little ahead of its time–to be re-viewed years from now because it’s all there, everything—the way we like it. All one needs to know and love about the true heart of America.

We used to read newspapers because of the writers who talked to us in print every day. Spoke our language. Came out of our own neighborhoods or our neck of the woods. Tickled our funny bone. Made us feel the stories of people. New York had Jimmy Breslin. Chicago had Mike Royko. To mention only two–two of the very best.

We seldom see Breslin in the Midwest anymore. Royko’s been gone for years and has never been equaled. If you were lucky enough to grow up in Chicago, there was such wealth of good writing in newsprint you could hardly wait to get up in the morning, run down to the corner newshack, plunk your pennies down and see what they all had to say.

There’s a long history of writers with a sense of humor and humanity in American newspapers. Imagine opening your paper and reading Mark Twain in the morning. (Something else the troubled corporate newspaper scene in America today hasn’t paid enough attention to in their frenzied search for truth/meaning/salvation through marketing in a day and age gone cyber and too often, too meaningless.)

Imagine waking up in the morning, finding a real newspaper for sale at the local store…and opening the pages to Garrison Keillor–the Mark Twain of our time.

Now there’s hope for you. For the newspapers. For all of us.

If you don’t appreciate Garrison’s gift of words in this or any season—you’re probably way too far from home. —Norbert Blei


The Blessings of Childlike Wonder

by Garrison Keillor

It is the blessed Christmas season. But of course you know that. Unless you live 10 miles up a box canyon deep in the Wasatch Range with only your dog Boomer and are demented from drinking bad water, you are inhaling Christmas night and day and “Adeste Fideles” is stuck in your head like a 5-inch nail.

This Christmas I am in New York for the general dazzlement and variety. On Sunday St. Patrick’s was packed to the rafters for 4 p.m. mass in Spanish, the name Jesucristo drifting around the battlements, and a few blocks south the Jane Austen Society was meeting to discuss Christmas in Olde England, and in between, I stopped in a men’s store and bought six pairs of red socks. For myself.

Down deep I am selfish and don’t like to feel obliged to do what other people are doing— dancing, leaping, piping, drumming, welcoming the Christ Child with joyful hearts, etc.—at the times when other people are doing them. This city enables one to leap or pipe pretty much whenever you feel like it, even after 10 p.m. on weekdays.

The other day I took my sandy-haired, bright-faced daughter to dinner at 9 p.m., which is late for a 10-year-old, and introduced her to the idea of Ordering Whatever You Want, No Matter What Others May Think, and she got the chicken Kiev and for dessert an apple tart as big as a Gideon Bible. She is a good eater. She approached her meal with the quiet devotion that a chicken deserves. She loved the candles, the linen, the silver, the formality I enjoyed a tiny quail egg poached in a toasted brioche with a dollop of caviar, though, thanks to my upbringing, I eat my meals surrounded by gaunt Chinese children holding out empty rice bowls. And when the check arrives, I have visions of debtors’ prison, dank stone walls, a wooden bunk, a straw mat, water dripping, and so forth.

Here in New York, Mr. Madoff allegedly made off with $50 billion of other people’s money in a scheme, which is selfishness raised to a high level indeed, but the selfishness I am indulging is a simpler kind—for example, if I feel like having a mocha, I just step into a Starbucks and get one. A small one, no pastry but it feels luxurious, coming from a utilitarian background as I do. Why mocha? How does it further God’s work on Earth? I don’t know. I just like it.

A few weeks ago a pundit wrote about what a wonderful thing it would be to appoint Bill Clinton to the Senate to fill his wife’s seat, him being a former president and all, and then that idea vanished. Bloop. Bill called up a few people and said, “Whom are you kidding?” When a man can jet around the world and be received as a potentate and knock down a hundred grand every time he feels like giving a speech, he is not going to want to sit in the Senate chamber and hear old men drone on about Arbor Day and the crucial role of the forest products industry.

I feel the same way about Christmas parties. It isn’t fun to stand around making small talk with other people’s friends as they anesthetize themselves. But slipping into St. Patrick’s for mass in Spanish is pretty wonderful. It’s like a big family reunion at which I know nobody and so nobody is mad at me. Nothing said in Spanish offends me doctrinally or any other way I squeeze into the crowd, under the placid stone faces of saints, the sweet smell of burning wax and a hundred varieties of cologne, and feel the religious fervor, and tears come to my eyes, and I light a candle, say a wordless prayer, and out into the cold I go.

It brought back memories of Christmas Eve in Copenhagen 20 years ago and how beautiful the sermons were before I started learning Danish.

A man gets a keener sense of the divine in a church that is not your own. Maybe Luther and Calvin and Jan Hus and all of them were dead wrong and literacy is not the key nor an understanding of Scripture, and maybe the essence of Christmas is dumb childlike wonder, and the more you think about it, the less you understand. Which makes me glad I am no smarter than I am. Let’s go have lunch.

from The Chicago Tribune, December 25, 2008

norbert blei | down to the lake

26 12 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.164 | December 26, 2008

Christmas to New Year (2009)
‘Memoir’ Dispatches, #3

Editor’s Note: This is the third, end-of-the-year/holiday, offering in words to date as I consider the various interpretations of December, winter, Christmas, the coming year. Please check the first, “Carol Ordal”, now archived with the original postcard mentioned in the piece, at www.poetrydispatch.wordpress.com, and the second posting, a winter haiku by Imakito Oku at www.bashosroad.outlawpoetry.com . It’s my hope to send a daily posting in this spirit till (and including) January 1, 2009. Please read, enjoy—and send it around, if you feel so inclined. — Norbert Blei.

P.S. The first jpeg (painted by Charles ‘Chick’ Peterson) remains pretty true-to-form at this winter moment in Door(though deeper in snow); the second is an audio cassette cover ‘a voice’ in winter; the third, the short, complete Epilogue from the book from which the following excerpt was taken



Down to the Lake


He steps into another day much as any other day, looking for something … something to orient himself, re-adjust his presence…something to make the day new, different…something to retrieve out there, bring back to the table. Whatever it is that lies in wait, comes alive inside his own musings, ultimately turns him back on the same path, anxious to begin again.

He walks down the same road toward the same small lake as he has done for years…usually uncertain of the season, the mind busy shuffling images, thoughts, conversations, passages from books, poems… memories of other days walking the same road…the night before, yesterday morning, last week, years ago… his two small children pulling a wooden wagon filled with buckets of bright cherries picked from there across the road, where once an orchard grew … summers in a red rowboat drifting on the small lake, the bobber centered in ripples, the circles widening to infinity, to nothing but smooth water…fishing for bass and perch near the old boathouse, when the old boathouse and the dock were still there to lend a primitive spirit to all the lake touched along its shores …when the lake was mostly unknown, unmarked, hard to find, and quiet but for the wind singing over the water, inside the trees…when the lake took you by surprise in winter, snow-blinded you, held your footprints on ice, encompassed you in an immensity of white merging into the horizon … memories of small, ancient-like bonfires on a winter’s night, townspeople gathering to skate…that time the snowy owl sat for days in the maple there on the way down to the lake.…times of pink prairie rose in bloom along the road in spring… autumns of wild apples and northern lights…the winter his old neighbor crawled through the parlor window, snow drifted so heavily against the door…

doorHe walks in a diminishing darkness toward that moment night recedes behind him, and the slightest glimmer of first light begins spreading over the east, over the road, the woods, the small lake waiting ahead. He has come to love this moment when the night withdraws the darkest mysteries, uncovering the landscapes bare truths—dirt roads, telephone lines, chimney smoke, a black dog watching him from a distance, white birch trees, an entanglement of branches, evergreens, fallen trees…the long history of stone fences.

A day of no particular date but a sense of winter in retreat, the earth turning over on its back…maple sap running. A wake-up feeling of cold upon his face, around his neck, down his shoulders …a comforting cold, flipping his collar up, catching a slap of wind in the eye, loosening a trickle of cold-warm tears upon the cheeks…a tickling sensation of gentle flakes of snow falling invisibly, though the old road appears newer, whiter.

The black dog, catching up with him, running ahead, stopping, turning to gaze at the man, running forward in a frenzy again…the joyousness of dumb animal life, constant curiosity and playfulness, plummeting toward whatever lies ahead, while the man lumbers in the animal’s wake…waiting for the mind to empty…hands curled warmly inside black mittens, snow flakes tickling his face, the wind in play in the tips of the tall pines just ahead, swaying so slightly. He stops to watch the wind in the trees, the towering height of pines and hardwoods on both sides of the road, leading down to the lake–the density and darkness of the woods beyond and within …nowhere he cared to tread. He might never find his way back again.

He comes to the small crest in the road he knows so well…the ‘hill’ where his children went sledding in winter…the hill from which he catches a first glimpse of the small lake…so easy to saunter down in his walk toward the water. More breathtaking to negotiate on his way back.

His mind, in every direction this morning …returning to that field of tall pine he passed moments ago…once an open farmland, stone-picked, then gone to weed—fox dens, milkweed, songbirds, mushrooms, wild asparagus. Years later, pine seedlings were planted by the county forester…hundreds of finger-length pines tucked in place, row upon row, up and down the empty field from the road to his old neighbor’s house in the far distance. How long ago was that? He can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Long enough for those seedlings to reach the height of thirty feet or more. Nobody now cares about the open field turned to thick pine, the stone fence that ran forever down the property line, why the old neighbor lived so far in from the road you could barley see light in his windows at night …the sweet strawberries he grew and gave away, the flower garden of huge poppies, orange and pink, he tended in memory of his wife, the birdhouses he made from hollow cedar logs raised on poles high in the air, or nailed to the sides of the barn…how he died one night in his rocking chair a long time ago, looking out the front window, facing the first snowfall upon the new pine seedlings.

It’s still early, still almost dark but growing lighter the closer he moves down to the lake. Another gray-on-white day. Nobody’s about. No one on the road. Nobody on the lake. No light in the few farmhouses he could see. Hardly anyone living here this time of the year— remembering those early years he found himself alone among distant neighbors. He longs to get back to that. A time that occasionally visits him on days like this, early morning. Winter. The land the way it used to be.

He approaches the small lake…that opening at the end of the road, an expanse harboring drifts of snow, wind-swept clearings of pure ice…not a sound but his own breathing.

He takes a tentative first step out, into it all…breaking through the snow crust…punching in footsteps…heading toward the center, the first small clearing, an island of ice.

He hears the wind come up from behind him. Sees morning light, a lighter shade of gray, reaching up into the trees across the white lake. Watercolor gray, a Payne’s Gray an artist might spread in a wet wash…to catch it, hold it…cold, warm… make it all come alive in that moment of absolute solemn, moving light.

If he shuts out everything inside, if he concentrates on only the stillness, he can hear the sound of snow falling. His blood coursing.

He is inside a snow dome. Turned upside down. Under the ice, fish frozen in place, circle the darkness in wonder of water. Above, snow filters down upon the solitary man, alive in a glass ball…vanished upon a small lake.

The center of white. Where the only road leads.

He looks to the heavens, feels the gentlest flakes bless his forehead, nose, eyes… opens his mouth, childlike, in communion, tasting the sacred quiet.

He stays that way a long time…standing on ice… snow coming to an end…lighter, warmer…isolation, loneliness, love. Just being there.

The walk back would come soon enough…turning, retracing his path.

The walk back would be the same.

The clutter would reassert itself. Thoughts invade his steps. Hands on his watch tell time. Somewhere in the distance a truck would start up. A door slam. A dog bark. His own heavy breath, speak to him, as he trudged up the hill.

The light would be behind him now.

There would be sun.

He would be walking into his own shadow.


from MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE, A Door County Classic/New, Expanded Edition, Ellis Press, 2008, $15


Editor’s Note #2 (‘almost’ a commercial): In the spirit of gift-giving, buying, choosing…(BOOKS!)…a fleeting thought… ‘after Christmas’ offer, of sorts. In case you bought the wrong gift for someone, forgot to give someone a gift, want to give a gift to yourself, etc.…MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE has a long record (third printing) as the perfect gift for just about any occasion, especially Christmas. It’s also appropriate for summer visitors to Door County, for people concerned about the preservation of the environment, be it Door County or anywhere else in the world, and for anybody e just trying to get a feel for this unique place. 112 pages. Illustrated—by two of the county’s best artists: Emmett Johns and Charles Peterson.

the-quiet-timeGiven the current economic pressures…How to make $15 (plus $2.50 postage go even further??? Well, until DECEMBER 31, 2008 and/or till the current shipment lasts (ie. the shipment from my publisher, which I help distribute for him to a few stores in the county throughout the year) I will include, at no extra charge, (while the supply lasts) a copy of the audio-cassette (a $10 value) “The Quiet Time—Door County in Winter” (readings by Norb Blei/Music by Jim Spector) which includes one of the most popular, frequently played/read pieces at this time of year: “Christmas Eve in Door.”

To makes things easier (worse?) I’m prepared to help out the economy be even extending a little credit—should you need it. (I’m a trusting soul.) Send $17.50. When you can. (The sooner the better.) But please, send it by the end of January, 2009.

In the meantime/for now: If you would like a copy of the book and tape, just e-mail me your address or the address you would like it sent to. I will put both in the mail…well, as early as tomorrow, for any orders coming in before tomorrow’s post dispatch from Ellison Bay (11:30 A.M.) If you would like the book signed or inscribed, please include the name(s).



In the forty years since Chicago writer Norbert Blei bought an old farmhouse and settled into northern Door County to live and write, he has built a considerable body of work (stories, essays, poems, public/commercial radio commentaries, public television programs, newspaper columns, magazine articles, online writing, and books) devoted to his adopted landscape, expressing both his love and concern for the stark beauty of this fragile,Wisconsin peninsula.

While the writer continues to address the loss of rural character and community in print media, online writing (www. bleidoorcountytimes.com), and books, this new, expanded third reprint of his 1987 bestselling book, Meditations on a Small Lake, remains a testament to the changing times—informative and thoughtful in its defense of the preservation of the natural landscape, be it Door County or any rural landscape threatened by over development and crass commerce as “place” attempts to retain some sense of history and spirit.

The author has added three new essays to Meditations on a Small Lake, and substituted the original photographs of the first two printings with drawings by artist Emmett Johns, casting a whole new light and feeling to the book’ interior.The quiet, starkly beautiful and arresting cover drawing by Charles Peterson of Ephraim continues to retain its remarkable force in drawing the reader into the book upon a single glance.

I reveled in sunrises, sunsets, the eerie but welcome approach of fog…the fields so freshly washed after a thunderstorm, the serene secrecy of snow falling all night while one slept deeply through it, then awoke the next morning to the wondrous transformation of the landscape, a work of art in progress only partially recognizable, finding myself whispering through the windowpane lest I disturb the white world outside, speaking openly of it.

“Silence is the only voice of our God,” said Melville.

He walks in a diminishing darkness toward that moment night recedes behind him, and the slightest glimmer of first light begins spreading over the east, over the road, the woods, the small lake waiting ahead. He has come to love this moment when the night withdraws the darkest mysteries, uncovering the landscapes bare truths—dirt roads, telephone lines, chimney smoke, a black dog watching him from a distance, white birch trees, an entanglement of branches, evergreens, fallen trees…the long history of stone fences.

Meditations on a Small Lake, Ellis Press, 2008, Illustrated, 112 pp.

carol c. ordal | postcard

25 12 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 163 | December 24, 2008

Christmas to New Year’s (2009) ‘Memoir’ Dispatches:

Carol Ordal

It comes every year around this time from Carol, a plain blue postcard, filled with her thoughts. She was a writing student of mine at The Clearing here in Ellison Bay, WI more than twenty-five years ago. I think she came back again at least once within that same period of time (the ‘70’s?)…then, sort of disappeared, as so many of them do. So many never to be heard from again. But Carol would write occasional letters, detailed, in her own hand, always interesting, always engaged with the greater world of the human condition.

I’m not sure what I ‘taught’ her. A teacher of writing never is. I do know that with beginners (with all writers, in fact) I placed heavy emphasis on poetry, essay and story. Always story. And always poetry—which can make a story sing. While a teacher would like to think he presents a form for the writer to explore, practice, eventually inhabit with his or her own words, own life…it is not a comfort zone for everyone. All you can do is ‘show and tell’—encourage and hope.

I remember Carol as a very delicate woman, small, almost frail, In fact, I worried she was not in the best of health. What I loved about her was the strength she brought to the act of writing, her worship of feelings and ideas, her love of people, her diligent pursuit of getting everything down in her notebooks. (Always a good sign of a writer engaged.)

I’m not sure she ever published a story, an essay, a poem, a book. (If so, she probably wouldn’t mention it.) I’m not sure she works on a computer or has an e-mail address. If so, she’s never communicated it to me in all this time. Basics. Sometimes mystery is a good thing.

But my point (and reminder) here: There are all kinds of writers. And who’s to say one is more important than the other? Who’s to say that a homemade postcard from Carol is not just as valid, or more, than some one else’s published poem?

Maybe we don’t all have to be famous—or seek it. Maybe we just have to communicate. With honesty. With feeling.

I will probably read, write, tell, teach ‘story’ till the day my own ends.

Reading Carol’s postcard last night brought back so much of my own world, past and present. So many of the people I was fortunate enough to spend some time with in a landscape so conducive to story, to practice, to expanding our own lives with words. I am about to start a litany of names here…students/writers/friends I’ve lost contact with, lost through death, distance, turning toward different directions. There’s so much here to be said also about love—which is truly what the act of teaching is all about. But I’ll save those details for another time and place—another story, another book. It’s best we keep this story short, given this time of year, the winter season, all the beginnings and endings. —norb blei


Christmas 2008

Dear Norb,

We have heard the stories of the political candidates, and it’s time to tell the story of another year. Addressing my cards becomes a meditation as I write each name and think of you. My address book is a revolving-door record of all those whose stories are entwined with mine, and I say a prayer of gratitude that our lives are linked.
Threaded through the rhythm of daily life are the snags of sorting through “stuff” and the surprises and memories of traveling—a grandson’s first birthday, a sunset over Boston, a week in the green of rural Vermont (four-leaf clovers, a cow being milked, a canoe at dusk), the wedding quilt Mother made years ago when anticipating her granddaughter’ futures, flower girls scattering red rose petals in a daughter’s wedding, a Danish cousin who once read the Oz books to me, and magical days in Madison with family. We have all been enriched and inspired by each other’s stories.
Hearing about the pace and stresses of my children’s lives, I am grateful for the slower speed of retirement. Erick, Yumiko, Maria, and Kent moved from their noisy Boston high-rise to a quiet neighborhood in Newton where Maria started school and I once student-taught. In Vermont Jenny, Per, Solvei, and Aren are well settled in their new home and are committed to the cohousing way of life and shared resources. Ingrid and Joel live on Chicago’s South Side and were married on August 2 in a lovely chapel in Hyde Park. Ingrid in her white feather veil and wedding dress made from lace from a great-grandmother’s dress asked Joel, “Will you take flight with me?”
Looking up with hope to 2009, may we all move beyond our own limiting personal stories, weave them into a greater human story, and find the peace we pray for.
I hope all is well in Door! Peace, Carol


“We require story in order to
link our lives with each other.”

–Christina Baldwin

“Americans want a narrative
arc to their lives.”

–Barack Obama

“Story is how we make sense
of our world.”

–Lisa Dale Norton

“On porches and stoops, secrets
are whispered, songs sung, stories
told, make-believe selves
expanded, and dreams float in
the dim enchanted light like
iridescent bubbles in the sifting
and sweet peace.”

–Tillie Olsen

Tell a story of Peace each day.

[Her return address, top-middle of card: Carol C., Ordal 1509 Delmont Court #5 Urbana, IL 61801-5068]

alice d’alessio | questions for henry

22 12 2008


Poetry Dispatch No. 261 | December 19, 2008

Editor’s Note: The real payoff in teaching—and in publishing the work of others, should you be also engaged—is the satisfaction of seeing a student, a friend, (eventually a fellow-writer’s work) come back to you in other publications, literary mags, books…accomplishments, accolades galore. (“I remember her/him when…”), Not that you can in anyway lay claim to another’s success or talent, but only that “you were there” in some way to witness the beginning, the development, and perhaps in some small way gave a little nudge.

Sometimes the attention happens suddenly. More often, years pass. Either way, the journey is a lifetime—which both (I hesitate to use the word ‘teacher’ as well as ‘student’) realize though may not express because anyone seriously treading the writer’s path knows it is filled with potholes, wrong turns, dead ends, economic insecurity, considerable failure. No guarantees.

Real writers know the commitment is to the word alone—for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health… And one (teacher/friend) never forgets the other (student/friend/teacher). The writer/teacher wants to see the friend/former student succeed on his or her own terms. Find her voice. Let it be heard.

blessingAll this by way of mentioning a friend, former ‘student’, a poet whose book, A BLESSING OF TREES, Cross+Roads Press, published in 2004.

All this by way of mentioning my joy in discovering a beautiful new poem of Alice’s in the current issue of the little magazine, FREE LUNCH, edited and published by poet Ron Offen.

FREE LUNCH has published some of the best poets in America and abroad. Editor/publisher, Ron Offen, sets the acceptance bar quite high. I wouldn’t say he’s a strict traditionalist, but he honors form, music, substance. You had better know what the hell you’re doing, and not waste his time just stringing together lines of plain prose and making it ‘look’ like poetry. (Their ain’t no ‘free lunch’ for you, friend, at Ron Offen’s poetry restaurant)

This is a great little mag to support, by the way. Single issues, such as this one that Alice is in (FREE LUNCH #40) cost $5 . Paid subscriptions (three issues) are $12. It’s a good way to stay in touch with some of the best work that’s out there. If money in these poor economic times is a problem–you might suggest your local library subscribe to it—for the sake of writers, all lovers of poetry in the community.

freelunchFREE LUNCH
P.O. Box 717
Glenview, IL 60025-0717


Alice’s new poem—only the first stanza, and the first three lines of the last stanza. I’m holding back on the last 8 lines in the hope you’ll send a small Christmas gift to a good little poetry magazine that remains dedicated to celebrating the human spirit all year long, for many years now. No small thing. $5 will get you this issue, #40. $12, three issues.

Thank you all…Alice especially for “questioning Henry”…for following the true path. —Norbert Blei



My greatest skill has been to want little. –Henry David Thoreau

Alice D’Alessio

How little, Henry?
Didn’t you hanker for a haunch
of venison, and a pint
with the local lads? A fierce game
of bowls on the lawn,
pummeling the backs of the winning team?
A ride on that newfangled train,
racing at 30 miles per hour,
with the wind
licking your cheeks, ruffling your whiskers?

Or, how about
a warm and breathing body
next to yours?

…(continued in FREE LUNCH


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