norbert blei | winter book

9 07 2011

To clear the air or the screen a little: a little history.

I was invited by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowhip of Door County last spring to give a talk/reading in celebration of National Poetry Month…in honor of Emily Dickinson. I cautioned that I was not the person to talk about Emily since I felt uncomfortable with her poetry. But I was immediately advised that it was not about Emily, but about poetry…about my sense of poetry…about… Well, take it from there.

And I did–on April 13th. Which got me talking about poetry and prose. The combination. How poetic prose can lift words off the page.

I spoke/read for about 45 minutes…felt ‘unhappy’ about the sound system; was unaware that a film was being made (that would eventually appear on YouTube); was unhappy with my delivery at the beginning (out of rhythm, out of synch), unhappy about the weak sound of my voice; felt I had/was losing it since my operation; felt I was still locked somewhere between decline and recuperation, might never be who I once was, do what I once did…and why the hell was I boring all these good people tonight anyway? There must be something better on TV.

The filmmaker seems to have broken down the talk into five separate videos on certain subject areas i discussed. I don’t know if it’s all here/there or not…if there are any transitions. Just how it all or IF it all comes together. If any of it makes sense. And I won’t know because I never watch myself, review any films or videos or programs.

Some people find this hard to believe. But I find it hard to believe some people.

In any event, my memory of that night, that talk, centers around the poetry of prose. Just how it works. Writers in the past I particularly admired, (Chicago’s Nelson Algren for one. Sandburg. Dylan Thomas…) writers I studied, because they knew how to make ordinary words sing, raise talk to written art…and and so on. I also read from some of my work to show what I learned–so far. I read from the prologue to CHI TOWN. And excerpts from WINTER BOOK. And???? And then I felt tired…running out of time…and probably said: “That’s it.”

And it was. I had an enjoyable time. Saw a number of old, good friends. Made a few new ones. And went home. promising to read myself to sleep with a little more Dylan Thomas and some Sandburg.

Above, again, for the record, what I’ve been talking about. What appears on YouTube.

And right here, for now, thanks to so many of you for your emails and comments on my “15 minutes of world fame.” My time is up. —Norbert Blei


norbert blei | cabin fever

5 07 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.187 | July 4, 2009

Editor’s Intro to Summer:

This is the weekend of the 4th of July. Officially summer in these parts for many. Summer ends whenever school bells ring. A solemn note. A memorable sadness. Something akin to a judicial sentencing: time to be served.

But there is both essence and absence to the nature of time in summer. Measured, if at all, by a daily offering of sunshine, blue skies, perfect temperatures…the feeling you will live forever. This is what Eden must have been all about. Still calling us home

Summer here in northern, Midwestern America, and other parts of the world as well, is all about escape. From and to. And part of that destination (summer and fall/winter) remains the old cabin…in the woods…by a lake…

I don’t believe there was a cabin in biblical Eden.

But I do believe they are on the endangered local cultural habitations list. Almost extinct—the originals.

You may have to search the deepest woods, nameless little lakes, farthest reaches of True North to find what I’m talking about.

Lucky the person who does…whatever the season. Summer especially. —Norbert Blei

Cabin Fever

by Norbert Blei

As change makes itself seen, felt upon a way of life and place and work once rural…going, going, going…..gone…
Gone the way of the outhouse, the chicken coop, the windmill, the granary, the machine shed, the milk house, the corncrib, the root cellar, the cistern, the pigsty, the silo, the woodshed, the red barn, the white farmhouse, the home-made flagpole (hewn from a cedar tree) with American flag flying in a blue sky…
goodbye, too, “a cabin in the woods”.
Urban sprawl, urban folks, urban values
assaulting the spirit of the rural, the rustic, the real,

reducing open land and shoreline to NO TRESSPASSING `property’. ..
But welcome Mr. & Mrs. Moreanmore and their minions,
in their million dollar mansions with stone pillar entrances
studded with bronze plaques: “Innisfree”, “Sherwood Forest”, “Dreamthorp”;
gated developments;
class condominiums (Cottage Cove);
phony farmsteads, phony farmers, phony farm animals (llamas in Dairyland). ..
Give me a _ _ _ _ _ _ _ break.

Be mindful of the cabin, I say to no one in particular.
Look and you shall still find them, here and there.
A cabin beside a small blue lake in summer…

A cabin under a canopy of golden maples in autumn…
A cabin buried deep in the woods, deep in snow.
Pause, pay attention, your last respects. Circle the dwelling in reverie.
Peer into the windows.
Try the door. Take up a chair and sit down.
Leave everything untouched. And do not forget:

  • -one room
  • -in a woods
  • -facing water or within the sound of water
  • -made of pine…inside and out..
  • -a saggy pine wood floor that creaks with each footfall
  • -no insulation…bare studs, honey-colored with time…
  • -nails sticking through the water-stained walls inside
  • -a penciled note stuck through the nail sticking through the inside wall
  • -`Ernest’ it reads `firewood, eggs, tape, raspberry jam.’
  • -a wood stove with a stove pipe poking through a torn shingled roof
  • -the lingering smell of wood smoke in winter…soot marks
  • -a wooden screen door with rusty, spring action:
  • BANG BANG BANG. open/shut/open/shut/open/shut/open/shut
  • -a warped wooden front door that doesn’t shut …
  • -a back wooden door locked, with no key
  • -space at the bottom of both doors and around all the window to let the cold air in
  • -old coffee cans and a rusty bucket to catch the rain leaking in through the roof
  • -spider webs in the corners and most of the windows
  • -moths on the screens all summer long
  • -garter snakes under the cabin
  • -frost, ice, snow, on the window glass
  • -mismatched windows, one in each wall, two with muslin curtains, two without
  • -flies, fly swatters, sticky fly paper, dead flies … spiders … ants…mosquitoes …lady bugs…lightning bugs…bats…toads…field mice…wasp nest under an eave outside…
  • -a cardboard box of faded newspapers and kindling wood
  • -rag rugs
  • -a boxes of wooden matches, Diamond brand
  • -burnt candles and kerosene lamps…
  • -an overhead lighting fixture with a 40 watt bulb
  • -three windows with cracked glass
  • -a girlie calendar (1953) “Harold’s Auto Repairs” hanging near the kitchen sink
  • -open shelves above an old gas stove filled with Melmac ware, a couple of cracked China plates, and coffee cups, all but two with the handles broken off
  • -dripping faucet
  • -rust-stained enamel sink
  • -a tiny piece of Lux soap, almost translucent, resting on the windowsill above the sink
  • -a rose floral patterned drape of washed-out material hanging on a piece of string covering the plumbing beneath the sink and a new bar of Fels Naptha soap.
  • -a galvanized bucket
  • -a rag mop in the kitchen corner and a red wooden broom worn sharp to an angle, broken straw every which way
  • -three wooden Victory mousetraps, one still armed with hard old cheese
  • -a cabinet drawer filled with mismatched dinnerware: knives, forks, not enough spoons… a rusted church key can opener, a dull bread knife, a broken spatula, and a large chipped enamel ladle…
  • -two burned pot holder near a gas burner too clogged to light.
  • -a maple-armed sofa covered in a torn blue bedspread across the back and an Indian blanket spread put the length to sit upon
  • -a blue knitting needle and three pennies lost between the cushions
  • -a rustic, wobbly wooden chair, cane seat coming apart, made from branches and a small and an apple crate end-table beside it with torn covers of National Geographic, the Reader’s Digest and fishing magazines.
  • -an old army cot in one corner, covered in an old woolen army blanket
  • -a wooden kitchen table covered in yellow oil cloth with cigarette burns on two sides and three mismatched painted wooden chairs
  • -a flat rock from the lake to set hot pots upon
  • -a shelf behind the front door holding a black and red check flannel hunting cap
  • and four broken clothes hooks on the wall beneath the shelf, with three wire hangers one of them holding a navy blue woolen sweater filled with moth holes
  • -a small bathroom, just a stool, with just enough room to squeeze into and hook the door with an almost empty roll of toilet paper behind you on the tank along with a book of matches: “Ed and Rosie’s Knot Inn”
  • -or an outhouse, with an ancient aroma both nostalgic and non-describable, light streaming in between the cracks, a huge spider web in one corner, old newspaper and Sears catalogs
  • -some evidence of a dog…an old collar, a chain leash…
  • -more evidence of fishing gear: bamboo poles, rods, reels, tangled lines, weights, bobbers, hooks, broken lures
  • -a musty, moldy smell—till the windows are open in spring and summer, till a fire is lit, autumn and winter.
  • -a small, brown plastic radio (mostly static) to listen to news, weather, and Golden Oldies…Going to Take a Sentimental Journey…till bedtime…

-perhaps partitioned bedroom, with a single or double bed to sit upon fully clothed, removing your shoes or boots, your funny old outdoor clothes, thrusting the body back upon the bed in a full stretch against the bare wall or worn head-board…a mattress, you don’t ever want to see…alive, alone, listening in the cabin-dark to the wind, the rain, the insects, the snow falling against the windowpane…freezing, roasting, never enough or too many sorrowful looking blankets, positioning yourself on that unmentionable mattress somewhere between almost comfortable and too soft for a tired back…seeking firmness or a full body press …then sinking slowly into a free fall of partially sleep. The feet frozen, the nose ice…and you sending out a shivering animal call in the pitch darkness of closed eyes, registering all the frenzied pain of C O L D …Was that a scream? Was that me? Two, too small, too soft, unsupportable pillows, punched into shape, sinking the head first followed by body-sinking into sub-zero cold, cold sheets, cold, plastic-covered mattress, falling further into a fetus position harboring a hope of warmth, thinking thoughts of found-in-the-morning-frozen-dead. Ah but for the grace and beauty of frost upon the window glass, (eyes open and shut) in the middle of the night, the middle of the full moon shining through. Must I get up, stand barefoot in the snow, and relieve myself out the front door? How could I ever leaves this home-made hollow of warmth to hibernate through the night, through the long, cold, beautiful winter? Am I working up a sweat? Was I once cold but now fill a fever upon me? Shall I make eggs and bacon for breakfast in a black, cast-iron pan? Salt and pepper the yolks galore? Toast some old rye bread?. Cut the last red potato into chunks, fry it in hot bacon grease, salt and pepper, in the same cast-iron pan…toss in some chopped onion, bits of cheddar cheese, caraway seed. Boil a pot of hot black strong to sit up and take notice of everything, day and night…Listen to the wind in the trees. It must be 20 below…Reach for and pull up that second-hand-shop, fuzzy-pilled, beige blanket of tattered-stitched edge at the end of the bed, too thin to offer much warmth for bare shoulders kissed all night by sudden wafts of cold air stealing in under the door… o beige blanket of too much history, too many bodies engaged in too many battlegrounds of human misunderstandings, lust, or love…falling further into a numb tranquility…a cabin’s the right place for love, for passion, for a solitariness of soul…I don’t where it’s likely to be better…cabin dreams, cabin coffee perking on the cabin stove …come morning, noon, night…come fresh snow, winter birds, sunrise over the white lake, cabin love.

[from WINTER BOOK, Ellis Press, PO Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241, $20]

norbert blei | skating backwards

27 01 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 167 | January 27, 2009

Skating Backwards

Norbert Blei

Once after the war the small boy went from the city in a new blue Buick convertible and skated a frozen river in a forest preserve with his favorite uncle who was like a father to him.

Uncle Stephan was a soccer player, a soft ball player, an archer, a photographer, a singer, and a speed skater. He was married to Aunt Edith who always complained about her health. Uncle Stephan had a thin mustache and wore flashy shirts and pants the boy’s father called race track clothes. The blue Buick convertible, the family suspected, was bought on the black market after the war when new cars were almost impossible to buy. Uncle Stephan, who worked for his family’s business, which he hated, was a neighborhood butcher who provided for the family during the war when food was scarce. Packages of meat wrapped in pink butcher paper and tied in coarse string would miraculously appear once a week behind their kitchen doors.

There was some mystery and jealousy to Uncle Stephan which was never mentioned outright. Something about the way he dressed, the way he spent money, the way he ignored Aunt Edith while she worshipped him, which was whispered by the father, the mother, aunts and uncles in the family. But in Uncle Stephan’s presence all this disappeared. The family always seemed happy to see him. Everyone ate and drank and laughed and told stories. Often stories in another language. Sometimes Uncle Stephan would reach for the small boy, “Come here, Sport,” grab him and tickle him till the boy screamed, and Aunt Edith would scold the uncle, accuse him of acting like a child, and the boy, filled with laugher and tears, would come back for more.

He loved Uncle Stephan, who often took him for thick strawberry malts, drove him around the city in his black market Buick with the top down, kidded him about girls, taught him to play soccer and soft ball. Uncle Stephan knew everything. All the boy’s aunts loved him. Including the boy’s mother.

“Okay, Sport,” he said to the boy as they approached the frozen river,” let’s see if you can catch me.”

In the boy’s eyes, he had entered a Christmas card world of woods and snow and children in bright mufflers skating on ice in an afternoon sun slowly turning to twilight skies and lavender shadows, backlighting the black branches etched in snow. He skated very slowly, uncertain of his balance, absorbing the natural world around him, feeling a part of it. It was like nothing he ever witnessed or felt in his neighborhood. Nothing so alluring as a river and the quiet of a forest in winter.

This was the same river where one summer he stood on a bridge and watched men fish from green wooden row boats with white numbers painted on the bow. Bullheads and carp and sunfish were somewhere under his feet at the moment, somewhere under the ice. This was the same river he had seen his Uncle Stephan one golden autumn kissing a woman against a tree. The boy pushed hard with his blades, glided, pushed again and fell. Got up and followed the curving river of ice, his legs shaking.

Up ahead he could hear Uncle Stephan singing, see him moving gracefully on black leather skates with long silver blades. See him making a beautiful arc in the distance and pause to wait for the boy under the bare branches of an old willow tree leaning over the frozen bank. A young girl about the same age as the boy, stood next to him.

“Here he comes,” he could hear his uncle tell the girl. “He likes you. He’s shy around pretty girls.” Both the girl and the uncle smiled and began skating backwards in circles around the boy as he approached.

The girl had beautiful dark eyes and long brown hair. She wore a red coat, red mittens, and furry white earmuffs. She stopped in front of the boy and extended her arms toward him. The boy took hold of the girl’s red-mittened hands and followed her as she skated backwards, pulling him toward her.

Slowly he fell into the rhythm, push…pull, push…pull…

The boy was in love with the girl, the long white river of ice, the black branches of the trees overhead against the falling light. The uncle went back to the car to get his camera and took a picture of them skating away from him down the river, holding hands, balancing each other. Neither had much to say and the afternoon passed quickly.

“Time to go, Sport,” the uncle yelled. “It’s getting dark.”

Years later, alone on a small lake a great distance from the city, near an invisible Canadian border where he settled in midlife, the boy who is now the age of his Uncle that afternoon on the river, skates backwards in the night, swiftly gliding around and around a frozen lake, extending his arms toward the darkness, pulling it with him.

Copy of the original publication of the hand-painted cover edition of 25 copies.

from WINTER BOOK, Ellis Press, 2002; originally published by Chris Halla, Page 5, #6, (Limited Edition), 1995, as a chapter of an experimental novel, WHAT I KNOW BY HEART SO FAR. Winter Book is a mature performance with a satisfying sense of completion. The season is winter; the dominant theme is the acceptance of small wonders, including decay and obscurity. Like Blei himself, Winter Book is alternately nostalgic, angry, and amusing. It is in some respects a very public book, in others a very personal collection. The journalistic profiles are Blei’s own experiences and friends, including public figures like Chan Harris and Al Johnson, and Door County natives, poets, musicians, and artists. Blei’s fictions explore the Door landscape on a deeper level. Blei is an astute observer whose attitudes are shared by readers inside and outside the County. Once again the personal becomes the public, and Winter Book, like Door Way, records communal experience.