leo dangel | four kinds of lilacs

12 06 2009

Leo Dangel | Portrait by Kristin Pichaske

Poetry Dispatch No. 286 | June 12, 2009


and the poems of

Leo Dangel

by Norbert Blei

It all begins with the lilacs. One whiff…you’re back there again.

It’s not the red-breasted bob-bob-bobin’ robin that heralds another green season in the warm sun. It’s a lust for lilacs. Morning, noon, midnight air scented in a fragrance so divine, wafting you home…

Take a deep breath. Another.

Wrap it around your shoulders…Proust never wrote it– A Remembrance of Lilac Things Past. But he caught the essence. Then.

But this is the moment. NOW! Carpe syringa diem. Everything good is gone soon enough..

“Lavender blue, dilly, dilly…” (Where the hell did that come from?)


In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings, Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green, With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love, With every leaf a miracle……and from this bush in the door-yard, With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green, A sprig, with its flower, I break.
—“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d”… for Walt W. and Abe L.

Violet, pink, light purple, purple, deep purple, white…Ahhhhhhhh

I leave the house and the day seizes me in a single step-smell—where lilacs meet and greet, all a-bloom’d in the door-yard. Ahhhhh. More…

cover-old-man-brunnercover---mc-crow-CO-by-bleiI have missions in town to accomplish immediately — but take, instead, the long slow way to everywhere that doesn’t matter and nowhere to go …the back roads…the open fields…the ambush-bursts of lilac bushes in bloom randomly scattered here, there, everywhere… I slow the car down to a crawl, open all the windows… breathe even deeper than before, the deepest, purplish scented air imaginable…recall a woman who wore lilac lingerie (exercising the right of poetic license )…Oh, yes…(she said,) yes… And so did he…or should have.

And though I’d rather not call a halt to lilac lust—I must). This is just a reminder that it all started all over again when I finally suddenly inhaled that first scent of lilacs in the backdoor yard the other morning–after a legendary long winter that refused to surrender to spring, day after day, week after week, on and into the coldest June…the lilacs, scent-less, wondering would they ever bloom again?

This is just to say that on my downtime, slow-time sojourn into backroad lilac nirvana, I was reminded too of this time being the right time, the best time of year not only by lilac air drifting through my car windows…but by words as well …tuned in as I was to Garrison…catching, mid-way through The Writers Almanac, the last few stanzas of my friend Leo Dangel’s absolutely lilac lifting, drifting poem.

Leo, who captures lilacs–and everything rural…real…just right!



by Leo Dangel

“Why don’t you turn at the next corner,”
she said, “and take another road home.
Let’s go past that farm with all
the different colored lilacs.”

“That’s seven miles out of the way,”
he said. “I wanted to plant the rest
of the corn before evening. We
can look at lilacs some other time.”

“It’ll take only a few minutes”
she said. “You know that lilacs
aren’t in bloom for long—if we
don’t go now, it will be too late.”

“We drove past there last year,”
he said. “They’re like any other lilacs
except for the different colors. The rest
of the year, they’re all just bushes.”

“They’re lilac, purple, white, and pink,”
she said. “And today, with no breeze,
the scent will hang in the air—no flowers
smell as good as lilacs in the spring.”

“I thought of planting lilacs once,”
he said, “for a windbreak in the grove.
The good smell lasts only a few days.
I suppose we can go, if we hurry.”







Thirty years ago,
after we marched in the gym
and partied in the Legion Hall,
with the eastern sky lighting up,
I lay down on the back seat of my car
behind Maggie’s Truck Stop Cafe.
No sense in getting home
just in time to milk the cows.
But I was too keyed up for sleep.
There was a box of dirty clothes
in the trunk, and I put on
a blue work shirt and jeans.
At the counter in Maggie’s,
I ordered eggs, sunny side up.
A new waitress—I think
I noticed then for the first time
that a woman over thirty
could be sexy—asked if I
was going to work with the road
crew out west. “Yes,” I lied.
Life on the highway seemed better
than going back to the farm.
“More coffee, honey?” she said.
“Sure, babe,” I said. “What time
you get off work?”
“Five this afternoon,” she said,
sounding as though
she might not be kidding.
Skipping ahead a few years,
I can honestly say it’s been
a good life, but never better
than that morning, diving home,
the car windows wide open,
and smells of spring grass blowing in.
The radio blared the latest hit,
“The Battle of New Orleans,” a happy song
about war, and I sang along,
taking easy victory for granted.


On Saturday evening, .
as usual, I’m sitting
on Irene’s couch
in her apartment above
Dwyer’s Hardware Store,
watching the fuzzy screen
of her black and white TV.
I’m about to open
my second bottle of Grainbelt,
when Irene says,
“I wish you’d say something witty
and romantic for a change.”

What does she expect?
Poetry on demand?
I still have some good lines
left in me, but I’m tired—
it’s the dog days of summer.
But I find myself
rummaging through my head,
thinking about the only
creative contribution
this town ever made
to the English language.
Word got around that Vernon,
who sang in a barbershop quartet,
was always telling his wife
that he was going to Sioux Falls
for singing practice.
“Singing Practice” became
the standard expression, as in
“My tomcat was out last night
at singing practice.”

I set my beer down, turn to Irene,
put one hand above my heart,
unfold my other arm in a grand
sweeping gesture, and say,
“Irene, the corn chips
may have no snap left
and the Grainbelt
has lost most of its fizz,
but Irene, I
am ready for singing practice.
I need to break out
into song. Irene, let’s see
if we can duet in close harmony.
One singing practice will bring
my warble to crooning perfection.”
And Irene says, “Ha,
you can’t even carry a tune.”


“That’s the last of the coffee,” she said,
pouring a few drops into his cup.
“It’s time you went out to work anyway.”

“I don’t know if I’ll plow today,” he said.
“Look, the sky is clouding up.
It might start to rain.”

“The sun is shining,” she said.
“I need to wash the dishes so I can go
to the beauty shop in town.”

“The tractor engine,” he said,
“made strange noises yesterday
and might explode if I try to start it.”

“If I don’t get to town early,” she said,
“I’ll never have time to get a perm
and do all the grocery shopping.”

“Giant, man-eating lizards,” he said,
“have crawled up out of the slough
and are roaming around in the north forty.’

“We both have work to do,” she said.
“You’ve taken twice your usual time
eating breakfast today.”

“I see white on the horizon,” he said.
“Maybe a glacier is moving over the field.
There’s no sense in taking chances.”

“Oh, all right,” she said.
“You can come along.
I suppose we can eat in town.”

[from HOME FROM THE FIELD, Collected Poems, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1997,]

norbert blei | the poetry of persona and the divided self

6 02 2009


Poetry Dispatch No. 269 | February 6, 2009

The Poetry of Persona and the Divided Self
Norbert Blei

Not every poet finds a reason or need to develop a voice within a voice, another ‘persona’ if you will, but for sometime a number of poets (Americans in particular) have been getting outside/inside themselves in a way writers of fiction create `characters’ or characters to voice other levels of meaning.

CAUTION: It may seem an easy thing to do. But it’s not something you can play around with like: “I think today I’ll write a sonnet” ten consider yourself Shakespeare. Rather…it’s a voice that may (or may not) call you when you are ready to listen—and record. One way or another, life itself propels you in this direction. Which is always the way of authentic writing. When it’s bullshit, it’s bullshit. When it’s true, it’s true.

The late John Berryman, author of an American classic, THE DREAM SONGS, is one of these poets who introduces the character of Henry in his work. A likeable guy. So much so that the reader begins to feel comfortable in the possibility that Berryman and Henry are one or share the same sensibility which the recorded moment requires—sad, sensitive, self-indulgent, self-disparaging, confessional roustabouts with something unsettling to say about life, art, the American dream:

Books drugs razor whisky shirts
Henry lies ready for his Eastern tour,
swollen ankles, one hand,
air reservations. Friends at the end of the hurts,
a winter mind resigned: literature
must spread, you understand,

–from “Dream Song 169” of THE DREAM SONGS, Farra, Strauss, Giroux

berrymanHenry = Berryman? Some resemblance, perhaps. Though Berryman himself states: “The poem, then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white-American in early middle age sometimes in black face, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof. Requiescat in pace.”

Paul Zimmer, (FAMILY REUNION: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, THE ZIMMER POEMS, etc. University of Pittsburg Press) is an immensely entertaining yet serious poet with his own special take on an alter ego who looks at the real world through the small-town eyes of a character named Zimmer. The titles alone pull you immediately into his world: “Zimmer and the Ghost”, “Zimmer Remembering Wanda”, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven”, “Zimmer’s Last Gig”, “Zimmer Is Icumen In”…


At the blackboard I had missed
Five number problems in a row,
And was about to foul a sixth,
When the old, exasperated nun
Began to pound my head against
My six mistakes. When I cried,
She threw me back into my seat,
Where I hid my head and swore
That very day I’d be a poet,
And curse her yellow teeth with this.

My friend, Illinois poet of the people and the prairie, Dave Etter, has to date never developed a whole book of poems to a character of his named Doreen (shades of an old high school sweetheart, word has it) but she pops up occasionally in his work, especially in a book of prose poems, HOME STATE (Spoon River Poetry Press).


Doreen always sleeps in a pajama top—that’s all. Winter or summer, just a pajama top. Who wears the bottoms? How would I know? Nobody, I guess. She probably uses them for dust rags, or maybe she gives them away to some girl who sleeps only in pajama bottoms. The way Doreen squirms and kicks her legs in bed, I can understand very well why she opts for tops over bottoms. What do I wear between the sheets? Well, it’s none of your business, but if you must know, I wear neither pajama tops or pajama bottoms. You wouldn’t either if you slept with Doreen.

On the international scene, one poet in particular of the post-modernist school, Zbigniew Herbert of Poland, brings a thoughtful character to light, Mr. Cogito, who seems to carry the whole sad history of Eastern Europe on his shoulders as he ponders the state of our times.


If I went back there
probably I wouldn’t find
even shadow from my house
nor the trees of childhood
nor the cross with n iron plate
the bench where I whispered incantations
chestnuts and blood
not a single thing that is ours…
…while all around
piles of ash are growing
up to my shoulders
up to my mouth

from MR. COGITO, The Ecco Press

Back in the rural Midwest, over in Minnesota, the poet Leo Dangel sometimes sees the world through Old Man Brunner’s magnificent, munificent eyes:


Old Man Brunner never cuts his weeds.
Right up to the house,
sunflowers and fire weeds
grow tough and hard as small trees.
In the summer evening, Old Man Brunner
sits and surveys his jungle,
his sleeves rolled up,
his cracked shoes beside him.
Old man Brunner’s feet are white,
white as angel feet.
He hold one white foot in his brown hand
and cuts his toenails
with a tin shears.

-from OLD MAN BRUNNER COUNTRY, Spoon River Poetry Press

It is almost impossible to read any of the many collections of the late Bukowski’s (Charles) poems, stories and novels and not come up with a street-wise character, part buffoon, part philosopher, part loser, part poet…semi-serious slant on himself, Bukowski likes to call Chinaski:


I met the movie star, he’s playing Chinaski
in my new movie, I pout my hand on his shoulder: “you’re
all right, Ben,” I tell him.
then the famous Italian director puts his leg up on
the table: “now I’ll drink with you Chinaski,” he says.
(that’s the way he always drinks, I’m told.)
“o.k.,” I say and I put my leg up on the table.
I drain my glass, he fills it again, I drain it
Again, he fills it again.

they know I’m a real guy then.

-from, OPEN ALL NIGHT, Black Sparrow Press

Tom Montag, one of our best Wisconsin poets did a book, Ben Zen THE OX OF PARADOX with my press, (Cross+Roads Press) in l999 which is a wonder to read, behold. I won’t say It’s all Zen; I won’t say it isn’t Zen. I will say that for any reader with the slightest interest in the subject, not to mention a love of poetry—Tom Montag speaks to you in this book—through the simple presence of a wise old farmer, who sounds a lot like a Zen monk, speaking in koans:


Engineers are like poets,
Ben says, only backwards.


If you don’t have
Truth in your heart

You won’t know
What you have.

Anything will fit, Ben says.
You just have to learn to wear it.

Oh to a be the junkman, Ben says.
To have everything no one wants.


Much as I’ve been,
Ben says,
I’ve never been enough.


There do not seem to be as many women writing the poetry of persona as men, though one in particular, Lyn Lifshin, whom I have read for more than twenty years in hundreds of little magazines, has written “more than a thousand” (she tells me) “Madonna” poem (in addition to her regular poetry) and is still writing them. Her “Madonna” is—ribald, rambunctious, erotic, excessive, demanding, demeaning, ironic, iconic, horny, heady, outspoken, outrageous…born to deliver the double whammy. Her latest books are: COLD COMFORT and BEFORE IT’S LIGHT (Black Sparrow Press). Collections of her Madonna poems, are hard to find. Check out: www.lynlifshin.com I leave you in her (“Madonna’s”), warm, anxious hands:


around her bed:
spoons like lovers
licked and left


makes you feel
good twice


gets you going
fast, leaves
you in your
own juices


unexpectedly hot
but she doesn’t stay


is into feminism
likes to tower over men
thinks of them all as dopey


takes what she
can’t use
and uses it
so it won’t
use her

from Wormwood Reviews, #’s 82, 87, 92, 117


For a number of years now a local character by the name of Olaf has been knocking on my door, pulling up a chair here in the coop, drinking all my brandy, telling me some of the damnedest stories. But I’ll save him for another time.

leo dangel | a memory of bears

10 01 2009


Poetry Dispatch No.265 | January 10, 2009

In Memoriam

My partner’s father, Steve Kozak, died this past week in Michigan at the age of 88. Jude loved him in that deep dimension of the human heart that only a father and daughter understand though seldom talk about till the appointed hour, if then. I considered him a father-in-law at heart—that ‘other relationship’ with its own peculiar passageways and boundaries. We shared an ethnic past, rooted in Czech traditions, including a love of stories and laughter. I never got to know him well, that distance across the great Lake Michigan, a boundary for sure, but I will not forget that Steve Kozak smile when he was about to tell you something he knew you would enjoy.

He was an ‘UpNorth’ kind of guy…a trout fisherman, a camper, who instilled that sense of beauty and quiet of the northwoods…lakes and running river water… in all his children, especially his daughter Jude, whose greatest joy is to sit around a campfire with friends, swapping tales. Not a bad inheritance from “Pop.”

At one point during the brief funeral arrangements this past week, Jude mentioned the possibility that she and her two sisters might serve as pall bearers. I thought that rather unique, and could not recall ever witnessing a woman pall bearer.

Later that night I remembered a poem by my friend, Leo Dangel. An ‘UpNorth’, rural, Midwestern kind of poem.

This is for father and daughter, the whole Kozak family, right down to the latest great grandson, with warmth, reverence, and a gentle smile in a time of memories, love, and loss. —Norbert Blei



by Leo Dangel

I learned my father would play a role
in the funeral, a pallbearer. It sounded
like an animal, a bear named Paul,
something like a teddy bear.

And the dead man’s name, Joe Bauer,
sounded bearlike, a name I often heard,
though I never saw him alive
and didn’t know he was my great-uncle.

After the funeral, walking in line
toward the open casket at the back
of the church, I was curious
to see my first dead man.

I expected something ghostly or strange
but only remember he had black hair
and wore a brown suit. He looked
ordinary, I think a little like my father.

And I remember this: when the “paul bears”
carried the casket across the country road
to the cemetery, I pictured them as six bears,
lumbering on their hind legs.

I have no instructions for my funeral,
but if relatives gather around my bed,
my mind a little fuzzy, I might say,
“I’d like some bears to carry me—

big bears, with fur and smiling teeth.”

from THE CROW ON THE GOLDEN ARCHES, Spoon River Poetry Press, 2004

leo dangel | 2 poems

19 12 2007


Poetry Dispatch No. 190 | September 25, 2007


She’s in there all right,
cutting hair alongside Ralph.
From California, they say,
young, blonde, and built.
A woman has no business
being a barber, we said.
But soon we saw
how Old Man Brunner walked
back and forth
past the barbershop,
not going in until
somebody was in Ralph’s chair
and hers was empty.
In a month we were all
glancing into Ralph’s window,
timing our haircuts.

being a barber, our wives say.
One thing is dead certain
in this town:
we will never have topless
dancers or massage parlors.
When strangers
ask what we do for excitement,
we can say we got a lady barber
if your timing is right.




I walk to the barn before a sign
of morning. The stars are sparks
in a black sky. Yellow light
from a window is on the blue snow.

Then my father and I
carry the milk pails to the house.
We bend over the sink, our heads
close together, and scoop up water
with our hands to wash our faces.

I smell bacon. The others come
downstairs, rubbing sleepy eyes.
I want to tell them what I know,
the mystery that goes away
when everyone wakes up and the sun
is a cold fire in the east window.

from HOME FROM THE FIELD, Collected Poems, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1997

leo dangel | concluding a prayer

6 10 2007


Poetry Dispatch No. 36 | December 8, 2005


And then, Lord, there’s the man
who invented those plastic bags
on rolls in grocery stores,
the bags whose edges cling
together and will not yield
an opening for aging, tired
fingers—at least let that
man know his slick design
is so far from clever it makes
me hanker for the touch
of a scratchy gunnysack,
and he should know as well
how much hands like these,
that worked in soil and hefted
a shovel or a sledgehammer,
now ache to close around
a pitchfork handle for just
five minutes with him
alone in a box stall.

from THE CROW ON THE GOLDEN ARCHES, New Poems by Leo Dangel, Spoon River Poetry Press & Cross+Roads Press (2004)