Friday, December 28, 2012

Looking Back at 2012 in Northern MN

On the Morning Show Friday, Aaron Brown and Scott Hall started this list of memorable events that affected many of us here in northern MN in 2012.  Feel free to add to the list or comment on ours. In somewhat chronological order:

- The demolition of the old DuPont Blasting Powder plant in Hibbing last February (pictured before the demo).  It was a remnant of an earlier mining era, and site of a couple of unplanned explosions in its heyday.

- KBXE goes on the air in March!

- The election in June of Carri Jones (at left) as the new Chairwoman of the Leech Lake Band, and Melanie Benjamin, Chairwoman of the Mille Lacs Band.  Now four of the seven bands of Minnesota Ojibwe are led by women.

- Extreme weather events: the heavy rains and flooding on June 19th. By fall, most of northern MN was in severe drought conditions. The July 2nd blow down caused widespread power outages and lots of devastation to property and forests.

- A variety of events (and radio programs) commemorating the150th anniversary of the U.S. - Dakota War of 1862, one of the more tragic events in 19th century Minnesota and U.S. history. 

- Magnetation expands in and out of northern MN. The innovative mining company continues to expand its capacity to extract high grade ore from mine waste dumps here, but will build a new plant to process the ore in Indiana.

- In November, Minnesota allowed the hunting and trapping wolves.

- Also in November, DFLers retook control of both houses of the MN legislature. For the first time in twenty two years, we'll have a DFL Governor, and DFL majorities in the House and Senate. And DFLer, Rick Nolan,defeated Republican incumbent, Chip Cravaack, to represent MN's 8th District in Congress.

- More mining exploration adds to the size of the known copper-nickel deposits in northeast MN, and increases the pressure to develop that potential.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota by Stewart Van Cleeve

Dan Sinykin

A few years ago, Stewart Van Cleve took an elevator down to the depths of the Elmer L. Anderson Library at the University of Minnesota and followed a curator into a distant corner of the “Special Collections and Rare Books” archive. Here he found, in his words, that “a lone quarter-sized rainbow sticker guards one of the world’s largest repositories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer thought, art, and history” (1). He also found the archive in disarray, with teetering stacks of materials in need of organization. Thus began his involvement the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection, which would grow into a groundbreaking book, Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota.

Van Cleve brings to the book the tempered passion and perspective of an archivist. He acknowledges that archives, as he writes, “are reflections of their founders and the people who work within them. Not bound by professional standards that did not yet exist, the early collectors of queer artifacts saved the things that they liked and discarded the things that they did not. Even under the auspice of professionalism, archivists and curators make innumerable daily decisions that determine cultural memory. Historians, in turn, write histories that are based on the decisions of those archivists” (3). Van Cleve’s recognition of the limits of his work is generous and refreshing. And it’s good to know that his book is only the tip of the iceberg. Yet anyone who ventures further into its pages will find a wealth of material that has been kept largely underground, missing from other histories of Minnesota, now bursting forth.

Some listeners might wonder why the book uses the word queer in its title. For much of the twentieth century, queer was a derogatory term for gays and lesbians. But in recent years the word has been reappropriated by many people who embrace non-normative gender and sexual identities. Van Cleve puts it well when he writes that “queer efficiently describes a host of identities that challenge the existence of sexual normalcy and the dominance of the gender dichotomy. . . . The word provokes and simultaneously defines the social order by calling its assumptions into question. Queer,” he continues, “has come to describe many who are not easily categorized using contemporary terms” (14).

Both Van Cleve’s origins in the archives and his use of the word queer influence the very structure of the book. He has loosely divided the book into seven thematic sections, each of which contains a number of semi-autonomous entries on everything from a visit Oscar Wilde made to the Twin Cities to Minnesota AIDS activism. A few of the entries contain similar information, though each time with a difference. The result is a text that need not be read “straight” through but can be approached from a variety of directions.

That said, the book opens and closes with entries on northern Minnesota. It begins with the story of Ozaawindib, an Ojibwe two-spirt person who lived near Leech Lake in the early 1800s. As Van Cleve notes, “Among scores of tribes and nations, including the Dakota and Ojibwe, certain individuals possessed a duality of spirit. Men who behaved like women and women who behaved like men were mystics, matchmakers, healers, leaders, truth sayers, and warriors” (15). At several points, Van Cleve includes entries on more recent two-spirit gatherings in Minnesota.

The last entry in the book is devoted to queer life on the Iron Range. Earlier, Van Cleve writes that, “although it is less repressive than myths depict, northern Minnesota has been a challenging place to lead a queer life” (154). Nevertheless – or for that very reason – in 2009, Ashley Kay Rantala founded The Iron Range Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgenders, and their Allies and initiated biweekly meetings in Hibbing and Virginia. By ending the book with the Iron Range, Van Cleve points to the persistence of queer life across all of Minnesota.

He adds a final note in the form of an epilogue, returning to where he began. One purpose of archives is to store communal memories against an unpredictable future crisis, which is all the more critical for marginalized populations. “As long as [the] archive exists,”Van Cleve writes, “we will always have a community memory to guide us if times change for the worse” (281). Let’s hope that’s unnecessary and that these words from the book’s dedication prove prophetic:

“For those who will remember us.
May their genders be irrelevant,
may their sexualities be respected,
and may oppression rest,
finally and forever,
in their very old books.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Y by Leslie Adrienne Miller

Dan Sinykin

What are all the things the letter Y could be? Leslie Adrienne Miller implicitly ponders that question in the opening poem of her collection:

Perhaps it’s a thread that needs to be pulled,
a single stitch caught in the crux.

Whole word in French and Spanish,
vertical axis of Cartesian three

loaning its fragile branch to a boy
in theory.

Above all, in these poems, the letter Y signifies the chromosomal difference between male and female, what Miller describes as a:

frizzy blot of genetic code directing the symphony

of a trillion sperm

Those chromosomes become the boys who lurk through Miller’s collection. Many of the poems interrogate the relationship between grown women and young boys, often mothers and sons. But these are not sweet poems celebrating maternity. In a poem called “Lucifer Effect,” a boy hides from his caretaker as she tries to lure him indoors with a root beer popsicle. Miller writes:

            Crouched in a shrub, he waits
for the moment to unfurl its enormous flock
of risks, only to wheel back and settle again.
He waits until her smile begins to slide, until
the inevitable stumble, and there it is –
tingle of dark cause, sensation ajar,
rippling along his scalp.

Listen to the cadence of “unfurl its enormous flock” and “until / the inevitable stumble.” Like the devilish boy pushes the limits of his world, Miller pushes language nearly to its breaking point, both in structure and in sense. She maximizes the drama of enjambment – how one line falls into another – and she relishes the sonic quality of words.

Another investigation that spans her collection is the tenuous link between physicality and language, between words and bodies, between bodies and minds. Everywhere in these poems these borders break down, and the realms invade each other in a battle against what she calls, in the poem “Vestigial,” “the mind’s brutal appetite for dichotomy” (39). The title of that poem – vestigial – refers to another of the books’s boys, who, under a woman’s watching eye, is yet to fall prey to that appetite for clear-cut categories, who is, according to the poem, “still in the realm / of the mutable” (39).

Once we are fully grown, irrationality becomes a threat from within. Such is the case in the poem “Phrased by Wolves,” where the narrator feels the words my mother on the verge of bursting, uncontrollably, from her mouth at inconvenient times. At a cocktail party. The phrase is, as the narrator realizes, a “place / keeper, cognitive stutter, cosmic comma” (34). But does it mean anything? Is it an unconscious sign of unresolved issues with her actual mother, or only a meaningless twitch of neurons? The narrator argues for the twitch, imagining the phrase as natural force that will, one day, Miller writes, “simply gush, my mother / my mother, like some warm and shocking / bodily fluid over the tongue’s warm threshold” (34). Even the pun in the poem’s title, “Phrased by Wolves,” suggests the raw material power of words.

Miller produces another variation on the theme of words and bodies late in the collection, in one of the many fragmentary pieces she calls “adversaria.” Each of these includes a handful of sentences that she’s plucked from a highly-specialized discourse, like genetics, or French history. They employ a poetic technique called parataxis, which is the pairing, one after the other, of what seem like unrelated thoughts. In this late adversaria, Miller quotes, “We lived in a bell that rang all day,” which doesn’t seem to have much to do with the next sentence: “The syllable may have evolved as a by-product of the alternate raising (consonant) and lowering (vowel) of the mandible, a behavior already well-established for chewing, sucking, and licking” (83). What belongs to our body, and what to our mind?

The book is full of hints and clues, ever pressing us toward an illuminating insight that will, quick as lightning, return us to our darkness. Though it also encourages us to feel, somewhere in our inner organs, that brief, bass rumble that follows the lightning – the  dark, even hellish, rumble of thunder.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life’s Transitions ed. by Sheila Packa

By Dan Sinykin 

Here is the end of the poem “Divided,” by Amy Jo Swing:

a bit of panic now that the anticipation of
color is gone. Now that the drive home is dark,
color only memory, and even shape is suspect.

These are haunting lines, especially as we pivot toward another Minnesota winter. The repetition of the word now places us in the moment after we have seen what we waited for. The recognition that each day is growing shorter than the last is as much about the turning of the calendar as it is about a mental state. The feeling of claustrophobia that can come after private joy, when suddenly the world looks hostile.

This is only one of the many moods evoked by the collection Migrations, which brings together dozens of writers from the north country, young and old, polished and raw. The book feels, above all, like a community event. It is an intimate gathering, because poetry, whether in verse or prose, provides a forum for people to express emotions and stories that otherwise often stay hidden.

Beverly Hanks remembers how her father walked thirty miles through the snow from a Depression-era job to make it home in time for Christmas, carrying oranges for her in a pair of wool socks. Molly Tillotson works through why she never returned to Antarctica after that first time. Jasmine Baumgart discovers the power she feels from feminism. Rocky Kiukanpi writes about a place where, in his words, “the center of the world is everywhere.”

The theme of the collection is “life’s transitions.” As one might expect, a great many of the pieces deal with birth or death, lyric celebrations or elegies of longing. At their best, they catch us off guard with a startling image or an unsentimental turn of phrase. The very pregnant narrator of Linda LeGarde Grover’s “Parturition, a Poem for Brenda,” imagines she sees her dead grandmother in a window, only to discover herself in a mirror, “an ageless crone at twenty-two.” Or, in Gary Boelhower’s elegy, “Between Us” he writes:

Sometimes the distance
            between us is light years,
                        you in your dying, me

in my planning to keep
            the flowers watered and
                        get the house painted

The phrase “you in your dying,” paired with daily chores, hits me, at least, with the poignance of the sort of tediousness of death, its everyday-ness.

Alongside birth and death we return, as always, to the seasons. Ellie Schoenfeld writes:

We have no idea
what the sun will
call back to life,
his warm fingers digging deep
into the winter
which is melting away
inside of us.

If the end of autumn brought panic, here the spring thaw brings resurrections we may not have expected. The shortest poem in the collection, “Emergence” by Cindy Spillers, expresses not surprise, but – like it or not – the inevitable rebirth of spring:

Tenacious crocus
Erupts through frozen darkness.
No turning back now.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Half in Shade by Judith Kitchen

Dan Sinykin

In Judith Kitchen’s genre-bending memoir, Half in Shade, fragments of history become the occasion for lyrical speculations on the passing of time – and rare moments captured in fleeting light. Many of these fragments are photographs, which Kitchen loves for their limits. What lies outside the frame? What is tellingly absent? What happened to the scar on aunt Margaret’s cheek? Or to great-uncle Carl’s clubfoot, hidden as an infant by his enormous christening dress?

Her memoir moves according to an associative logic, like a detective story told by a wild and poetical Watson. The mystery, in this case, concerns the nature of family. Kitchen’s meditations swirl toward revelations of submerged links, the hidden affinities that mark a geneology. She mirrors those links in her prose, deploying subtle puns that produce novel ways of seeing.

The story of her family is also the story of herself. And her story becomes urgent as she becomes seriously ill, twice, in the process of completing her book. These illnesses come as intermissions, shattered meditations on mortality, and a final, musical essay. They lead Kitchen to recognize that life, like photographs, is about radical limitation. “Limit yourself,” she writes, “to the letters that came to you, filed in your left-hand drawer. To the gifts you’ve been given – the boxes and baskets and stones from the beach, and the faded, ethereal flowers. Limit yourself to the tangible” (63).

Kitchen’s memoir reads, throughout, like these overheard thoughts. They are the thoughts of an aging woman torn between the limits of the present moment and what she calls her “infernal urge toward retrospection” (91). She cannot leave the past alone. She struggles to understand her dead mother through the evidence of journeys long finished. She digs up the detritus of old floods.

As the memoir spirals toward its end, it loosens its associative logic. The leaps become greater, the links harder to follow, as if on the rush to say it all, Kitchen realizes how much will forever remain unsaid. Still, while fighting against the inevitability of the world’s danger, she focuses on those fleeting moments when the world is vividly alive, when what might have been could have been, before, finally, everything is beautifully broken.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Last Hunter by Will Weaver

Dan Sinykin

In a harvest season long past, Moffet Weaver traveled from farm to Minnesota farm with a work crew and his Hart-Parr grain thresher. Moffet’s grandson, Will, imagines how his father might have fallen in love with his mother when the Weavers came to the Swenson farm. “Their eyes locked,” Will Weaver writes, “A lightning bolt” (21).

Weaver’s memoir, The Last Hunter, navigates between a hard-edged nostalgia and the stubborn facts of family history. He begins with his parents and ends with his children, telling along the way his own story of growing-up.

He remembers roaming the family farm, outside Park Rapids, with a slingshot and license to kill pigeons and sparrows. But his pastoral childhood rapidly encounters modern death when he asks his uncle how many Germans he’d killed in WWII. The “stricken” look on his uncle’s face gave him, as he puts it, “a vague but gloomy feeling that something large had changed in my life, and that there was no changing it back” (33).

Throughout the memoir, Weaver’s personal changes parallel America’s urbanization. His father had wanted to be a railroad engineer, but polio restrained him. By the time Will is old enough to join in the family deer hunts, his father’s dream of what-might-have-been has become an impossibility. Returning from the hunt, they come to the crossing. Weaver remembers how, “from habit, [my father] looked both ways down the tracks. I did, too, but we need not have. By that year, the trains had stopped running altogether” (69).

Weaver heads to college and falls in love with literature. His life becomes a tug-of-war between books and hunting, which is reflected in his writing. He may be the first person to deploy T.S. Eliot to describe mincemeat. He buries small treasures for the attentive reader, painting a blueberry pie “wine-dark,” an allusion to the color of Homer’s seas. He slyly nods to The Great Gatsby in his description of the homes on Big Sand Lake (124, 84).

Unsurprisingly, then, he becomes a writer and an English professor. His children grow up as town kids in Bemidji and refuse to take up hunting, deflecting his hopes. His relatives grow old and the annual hunting party disintegrates. Still, he persists, and learns to find joy when his son, a vegetarian in Austin, Texas, willingly eats his wild game, or when his vacuum-sealed venison reaches his daughter in Manhattan. Times change. Minnesota farmers no longer share Hart-Parr grain threshers. But Weaver, at least, takes some small solace in “food from home,” which, shared, remains, in his words, “a ritual that binds and knits us together no matter on what coast or in what decade we have landed” (167).