Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Chain Letter of the Soul, by Bill Holm: Review

By Nathan Bergstedt

Minnesota poet, Bill Holm’s, latest book, The Chain Letter of the Soul, is like so many last books: a tribute to a life’s work. Holm passed away on February 25th, 2009, at the age of 65, but left behind a wealth of written art.

The Chain Letter of the Soul is a compilation of new and selected poems from previous books, such as Box Elder Bug Variations, The Dead Get By with Everything, and Playing the Black Piano. The writing in this book, though it’s called poetry, is of a clear prose style which allows one not only a gateway into his mind, but a piggy-back ride with him on his travels, be it to Iceland, China, or what it is he sees looking out the window of his home in Minnesota.

Some artists merely document & present a world image from their eyes, creating a dialogue on a topic simply by bringing it up. Holm is not afraid to take a stand and give his opinion on matters. He evokes powerful images of destruction due to industrialization of untouched wildernesses, and the tearing of one’s soul due to greed and a blind eye to injustice. Aesthetically, such poems have the tendency to feel preachy, especially if it’s a viewpoint you yourself don’t share.

Though arguably not a political poet, by lending poetic criticism of certain popular mindsets, he’s certainly a social poet. With a consciousness of the people and the world around him, he makes his observations. But at the same time he has an apparent jealously of, say, box elder bugs, or at least all things naturally content and at peace with the world.

But the most important thing about this book is its accessibility. Steadily over the past century, poems have been lumped into a classification of lofty ideals and obscure abstractions, which you need a Harvard education to begin to understand. Historically, though, poetry has been a people’s art, very often read by the fireside with the family before the invention of television or radio. Much of The Chain Letter of the Soul attempts to bring poetry back to the people, written in a language spoken simply and clearly, but still with ideas of importance and beauty. Perhaps Holm explains his style best, in his new poem “I Began the Day in My Sixty-Fifth Year.” “So I babble away to myself, always in crisp, parsable sentences, adorned with the sizable word hoard I’ve filed away from reading these thousands of books for well over half a century.”

This book is a tribute to him. But like any honest tribute, it isn’t written by a devotee gushing over him. The words are his own, as he unapologetically speaks for himself.

The Chain Letter of the Soul is published by Milkweed Editions.

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