june 20/RUN

1.4 miles
austin, mn
65 degrees
drizzle

In Austin for Father’s Day. Ran with STA at the park by his parent’s house, trying to stay close in case the light rain turned heavy. Windy, slightly wet, humid. Noticed the remnants of a Juneteenth party at the park building–just a few bits of trash that missed the trashcan. Also noticed the gentle curves of the trail as it winds through the (almost completely) shade-less, square park. These curves make all the difference–well, I think the giant evergreen trees help too–spruce? pine? I better check with STA about what kind of trees they are. Barely felt the rain drops as we ran. Rain! They needed it in Austin. Yesterday, it was strange and unsettling to walk through the brittle, hard, thirsty grass. Up in Minneapolis, we need it too–and now, writing this in the evening, back home, it’s raining. No more 90s, tomorrow in the 60s. For a day or two, that’s fine with me.

I’ve posted this one before, but it’s worth posting again. A favorite of mine–poet and poem.

A Short Story of Falling/ ALICE OSWALD

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

and every flower a tiny tributary
that from the ground flows green and momentary

is one of water’s wishes and this tale
hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail

if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

water which is so raw so earthy-strong
and lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along

drawn under gravity towards my tongue
to cool and fill the pipe-work of this song

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

june 19/RUN

3.7 miles
marshall loop
65 degrees

Writing this a day later, so I don’t remember as much from my run. Another run on the Marshall Loop. North on the river road trail. Past the welcoming oaks which I forgot to greet. Past the ancient boulder which I forgot to check for stacked stones. Through the tunnel of trees, which I remembered to notice and admire, breathing in the silence of an early Saturday morning. Up the short hill and over the lake street bridge until, somewhere in the middle, it turned into Marshall and St. Paul. There I saw at least 2 or 3 shells on the water–rowers! After the bridge, Marshall becomes a semi-steep, multi-block hill. Last week my goal was to run up it and not stop until I got to the top, then walk for a minute before running again. Today’s goal: no stopping on the hill or at the top. No walking, only running. Success!

Still thinking about water and stones for the month of June. Today: fossils. Mostly inspired by the amazing poem (which I posted on here before): And the Old Man Speaks of Paradise: a Ghazal/ Wang Ping, especially this part:

Clams and shells in Kasota stones—layered history of paradise

Put your fingers into the bluff, and pull a handful of sand
From the Ordovician sea, each perfect to make a paradise

Found a few resources for learning more about the fossil in this area:

And here’s a great poem (and an essay explaining the poem) about fossils:

Not the Thing but a Fossil of the Thing/ Rebecca Foust

Fern fronds fletched like a feather etch ache into gray slate,    

five petals float in a now-unbound crown,     

a thumb-sized spine curls and fans out to a tail, a spall splits

into stone pages stamped with tree bark

repeating like wallpaper, a leaf shines like oiled leather, oblate,

and an ammonite’s dull weight   

smells of new snow. A clam called brachiopod, licked, gleams

like a dark marble and tastes

of clapper-less, cast-iron bell, its absence of sound and soft parts

perfecting an imperfection

of knowledge called faith, bare of the lies told by the thing itself

—bravado bloom, spilt perfume, music,

bee-pollen, and blood and all that hot narcotic blur—these casts

and molds pungent as words,   

and as the moon’s craters are seen best in eclipse, so that when

I trace the diamond-on-diamond-on-diamond

of what once was a tree, a canopy spreads overhead, a bud

unwinds and wells with dew,

an ancient sea swells to flood the dry valley below, wet salt

to knees, hips, waist, neck, mouth, eyes   

and under my breastbone—a fish leaps—

I hope I can spend some more time with this poem, it’s great. I’d like to ponder fossils and how they are a thing and the trace of a thing.

june 18/BIKESWIMBIKE

bike: 8.5 miles
lake nokomis and back
75 degrees

First time since august of 2019 that I’ve biked to the lake. So grateful that my vision is good enough for me to do it. When I lose my central vision, will I still be able to bike? Biking is important because I can no longer drive (or, I no longer feel safe driving): it’s much faster than walking and much more fun than taking 2 buses over to the lake (I don’t think there’s a direct bus route to the lake, so even though nokomis is 4 miles away, you have to transfer). Biking is not too bad unless I have to pass another biker who is going too slow, then it’s scary. Very hard to see for sure if someone’s coming the other way. No passing needed on the way there, and only twice on the way back. What a gorgeous, sunny, summer day!

swim: 3 miles/3 loops
lake nokomis open swim
78 degrees
sunny/no chop

Last year, open swim added more days to their schedule–this bummed me out since I wasn’t doing open swim because of covid and in solidarity with my kids who couldn’t do the fun things they wanted to do in order for all of us to stay safe and healthy. I’m very glad they kept the expanded schedule for this year. Very cool to be able to swim on Friday mornings across the lake!

Morning swims are usually harder for me because the position of the sun makes it difficult to sight the buoys to the little beach, which only has the sparkle of an overturned rowboat as a landmark. Evenings are easier, because when the sun shines in my eyes or the buoys are backlit, I can always rely on the towering light poles or the roof of the boathouse to keep me on track. Today, the sun made it hard to see the little beach, and the buoys were only hulking, colorless shapes, but I was fine. The little rowboat was a bright beacon—at least, I think it was the rowboat; I saw something vaguely shining and decided it was the rowboat and I was swimming the right way. I could sense the final buoy from a long way off. I never saw anything that was orange, no flash or dot. Instead, I felt the buoy was there. I sensed the absence of the water or the beach and my brain told me that that void was buoy. So weird.

I breathed every 5 or every 3 then 4 then 5 or every 6. Before we started, I heard another swimmer on the beach telling a friend:

“I try to breathe every 3 strokes.”
“That’s good, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
“Yeah, but then I feel like I’m going to pass out!”

Did this swimmer mean that they need more air and every 3 is too many strokes in-between breaths? I guess I’m pretty strange with my breathing every 5 or 6, every so often, 7. It doesn’t bother me to stay underwater that much longer. It helps me stay lost longer.

At one point, heading toward the little beach, I tried reciting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” After a few lines, I realized that it was too distracting, that I needed to focus more on swimming straight and staying on course.

june 17/SWIM

2 miles/2 loops
lake nokomis open swim
82 degrees

Another great open swim. So far, I’m enjoying this new course. It’s longer and more forgiving, I think. Swimmers are spread out wider so you don’t have to worry about running into anyone going the opposite direction. It helps that more people are doing open swim too. More limbs to sight when I can’t see the buoys. I felt strong when I was swimming, and stronger when I was done. I love the feeling of my arm muscles after swimming. A warm glow, slightly sore, physical evidence of effort.

Not sure if or when I’ll get used to how strange and remarkable it is to be able to swim this course when I can hardly see the buoys–just a quick flash of orange green or the idea of it bobbing in front of me. Could it be that my brain “sees” the buoy even when I don’t consciously see it with my eyes? From the research I’ve done on vision, I think it’s possible. The body is remarkable. Swimming is remarkable. I love how confident I feel when I swim. Probably the most confident I ever feel doing anything. I never doubt or second-guess myself in the water. I just swim. I wish more things in life could feel this easy—well, not easy, but right or natural.

I did a lot of breathing every five strokes. Sometimes every six or every three or every three then four. Saw some ducks, was rocked by some waves, saw some flashes that might have been fish.

For much of the day, I was reading/reviewing the history of the Mississippi Gorge, starting with the occupation and renaming of Owámniyomni to St. Anthony Falls by Father Hennepin in 1680. Much of my focus today, without entirely intending it to be, was the tracing of commerce and capital, from furs to timber to flour to hydroelectric power. Learned about Franklin Steele and his tactics for grabbing land and making money. (Why Nobody Wants to Talk About Franklin Steele) What a terrible person, yet he did so much to make Minneapolis what it is today. Difficult to figure out how to reconcile the benefits of progress with the terrible damage it causes. Maybe they can’t be reconciled.

june 16/RUN

4.3 miles
the falls + winchell trail
65 degrees

A beautiful yet difficult run. Not sure why it was so hard. Maybe because I swam last night and didn’t eat enough breakfast before I ran this morning? Or maybe because of allergies from lake water? Still, it was great to be outside early (but not that early, already 7:20) in the morning. The sun was warm, the river was sparkling, the falls were flowing. I don’t remember hearing them gushing. Must be all the heat and the lack of rain. I wonder how full the creek is right now?

Heading back from the falls, I turned down by the overlook at 44th and entered the Winchell Trail. I walked for the first stretch, where the asphalt has surrendered to the dirt and the trail sits steeply above the river. Not even a dribble of water at the 44th street sewer pipe by the curved retaining wall. Encountered a few more people than I normally do on the trail, but I didn’t care or worry about how close I was to them. It’s fascinating (and a little unsettling) how quickly and easily you forget hyper-vigilance.

As I write this, someone is weed-whacking their lawn with an old, barely working weed-whacker. Sometimes its whine sounds like a person, weakened by age or pain or both, moaning. “Ooooooooooooooo.” Sometimes it sounds like a tiny mosquito buzzing around my ear, hovering too close. This is to say, it’s annoying!

Thought about stopping at the falls and checking out the different signs–with brief history blurbs or poems or names–but I didn’t. I think I’ll bike over there one day for a field trip. Maybe I can convince Scott and then we’ll get a beer at Sea Salt?! Speaking of signs, I just re-read this in Waterlog by Roger Deakin:

Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this is that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming [and running] will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things (4).

Waterlog: A Swimming Journey Through Britain/ Roger Deakin

As much as I agree with this idea of wandering away from official versions and ready-made interpretations, I also see the value of some of the historic signs that help us to get a deeper sense of the history of the land, how it has been shaped, and how we are connected to it. These signs need to be read critically and put in the larger context of who is telling the story and how. Sometimes these signs need to be updated or rewritten.

Found this poem via Maggie Smith (the poet, not the actor) on twitter. Like most great poems, after reading it a few times, there’s a lot I still don’t get.

The Blind Leading The Blind/ Lisel Mueller

Take my hand. There are two of us in this cave.
The sound you hear is water; you will hear it forever.
The ground you walk on is rock. I have been here before.
People come here to be born, to discover, to kiss,
to dream, and to dig and to kill. Watch for the mud.
Summer blows in with scent of horses and roses;
fall with the sound of sound breaking; winter shoves
its empty sleeve down the dark of our throat.
You will learn toads from diamonds, the fist from the palm,
love from the sweat of love, falling from flying.
There are a thousand turnoffs. I have been here before.
once I fell off a precipice. Once I found gold.
Once I stumbled on murder, the thin parts of a girl.
Walk on, keep walking, there are axes above us.
Watch for occasional bits and bubbles of light—
birthdays for you, recognitions: yourself, another.
Watch for the mud. Listen for bells, for beggars.
Something with wings went crazy against my chest once.
There are two of us here. Touch me.

I love the lines about water and rock: “The sound you hear is water” and “The ground you walk on is rock.” I also like the double meaning of turnoffs, both things you don’t like, and alternate paths and ways to travel.

Thinking about the title, The Blind Leading The Blind. According to Merriam-Webster it is “used informally to describe a situation in which someone who is not sure about how to do something is helping another person who also is not sure about how to do it.” Often this is interpreted as a useless, pointless, clueless thing. But, in a dark cave, where seeing is impossible, a blind person would be better equipped to lead than a normally sighted person. Also, why should being unsure about something mean that you can’t do it, or that you’ll bad at it? How can we ever really be sure about anything? I imagine Mueller’s two “blind” people (you and I) as not helpless from lack of sight, but connected and hopeful through touch.

june 15/SWIM

2 miles/ 2 loops
lake nokomis open swim
82 degrees

The first open swim! The first open swim! A perfect evening for it. The course was slightly different this year. There were the usual 3 orange buoys in a straight diagonal line from the north end of the big beach to the little beach, but there were also 2 bright green buoys a little further south. Huh? I had to ask another swimmer who looked like she knew what she was doing–actually, I heard her tell someone else that she had swam this course last year. They’ve changed up the course a little to make it safer and longer. Instead of always having the buoys on your left like they’ve done in the past, they are always on your right. The path is a straight shot from the northern end of the big beach to the little beach using the orange buoys. But on the way back, you travel much wider, using the invisible (to me) green buoys, and aim for the southern end of the main beach.

When I started swimming, I thought this new route would be a problem for me and how I’ve learned to swim without seeing that much, but I quickly got used to it, and decided that I liked it better. I like how it’s longer and that it’s wider. I can’t see the color green at all in the water, so the return buoys, if I manage to “see” them are just big, smudged hulks (and sometimes I confuse them with the similar shaped smudge of a sail from a sailboat further south), but I can use the silvery white rooftop at the big beach to guide me back to shore. I’m grateful for such a big landmark.

I didn’t run into any other swimmers, and I didn’t get way off course. At one point, I stopped to try and sight where I was, and a person swimming to my left stopped too. I think they were following me, hoping I would guide them the right way. I did. So strange and amazing and delightful to be able to navigate with such minimal, fleeting signals. How difficult was it for other people to see? When they looked straight ahead, just barely lifting out of the water, could they see the orange buoys clearly, a beacon in the empty blue and green? Or, were they like me, who was only able to see the smear of orange when I turned my head so that I could view what was straight from the side? Most of the time, the orange dot disappeared when I looked at it directly. Only once or twice, when it hit just right, did it appear. I was reminded of how much my sighting and seeing is based on trusting my straight strokes and learning to effectively and efficiently use the scant clues I have from what I do see. Open water swimming is a great confidence boost for me, and a reminder of how much I can still function. When I lose my central vision completely (which will almost surely happen soon), will it get worse, or have I learned to see mostly through my periphery already? I don’t know. For now, I’m happy to be swimming and not panicking, feeling strong and confident and at home in the water.

Searching for poetry about buoys, I found this awesome post by a poet-in-residence at a boat yard–Underfall Yard. They’re exploring the area, reading about boats and buoys and swimming and water, leading poetry workshops for visitors, planning poetry readings. I would love to do something like this! Wow. Very cool and inspiring!

And, a poem about orange buoys!

june 14/RUN

2 miles
austin, mn
70 degrees

Ran with STA to the downtown coffee shop. Saw the “Peanut Mobile” parked outside of the SPAM museum and then was approached by an old guy wanting to talk. At first, it was fine, but then he inched too close and wouldn’t stop talking. Then, after he left, STA mentioned as he talked, the guy spit a lot. I’m vaccinated, so I am confident I’m fine, but I’m not ready for this type of normal. It bothers me how quickly we went from lockdown to completely open. Where is the gradual transition? Where is the space for being uncomfortable, for still wanting to keep distance, for acknowledging and working through the difficulty and fear and anxiety involved in learning to see people as more than covid-carrying weapons (ED’s loaded gun)? I am not ready for normal again. And who wants that old normal, anyway? I want something better, less harmful.*

*update on 15 June

Just read “Dionne Brand: On narrative, reckoning and the calculus of living and dying” and it fits so well with some of my thoughts about the normal:

The repetition of “when things return to normal” as if that normal, was not in contention. Was the violence against women normal? Was the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism normal? Was white supremacy normal? Was the homelessness growing on the streets normal? Were homophobia and transphobia normal? Were pervasive surveillance and policing of Black and Indigenous and people of colour normal? Yes, I suppose all of that was normal. But, I and many other people hate that normal. Who would one have to be to sit in that normal restfully, to mourn it, or to desire its continuance?

and

But I hear what they say and many others do as well, “Look we should never live the way we lived before; our lives need not be framed by the purely extractive, based on nothing but capital.” Everything is up in the air, all narratives for the moment have been blown open — the statues are falling — all the metrics are off, if only briefly. To paraphrase Trouillot, we want “a life that no narrative could provide, even the best fiction.” The reckoning might be now.

Searching for poems about “rock,” I found this great one. I like the multiple meanings of rock bottom here:

ROCK BOTTOM/ Eamon Grennan

So this is what it comes down to in the end: earth and sand
skimmed, trimmed, filleted from rocky bone, leaving only
solid unshakeable bottom, what doesn’t in the end give in
to the relentless hammer, whoosh, and haul-away of tides
but stands there saying “Here I am here I stay,” protestant
to the pin of its absolute collar, refusing to put off the sheen
on its clean-scoured surface, no mourning weeds in spite of loss
after loss–whole wedges of the continent, particles of the main
plummeting from one element to the other and no going back
to how things were once, but to go on ending and ending here.

It’s interesting to put this beside my above discussion about the before times and the after times. How does it and doesn’t it fit for me?

I’m also thinking about the literal bedrock of the Mississippi River Gorge: what is the deepest layer of rock? I think it’s St. Peter Sandstone, but I will gather together my research to verify.

june 13/RUN

4 miles
marshall loop
64 degrees

planes sprinklers cicadas
shimmering leaves in trees interrupting hoses
dry dusty dirt
2 rowers — bright orange shirt — flickering like a bad signal
honking geese drumming woodpeckers crowing bikers
a steep hill
resting roller skiers panting runners hungry bugs
underwater in a sea of green
above water in a sky of blue
sweaty and stuffed up
alone together in a quiet early morning

Cooler today. Not an easy run, but a peaceful one. I love the early(ish) morning outside before most people are up.

Before heading out for my run, I read about the lobster diver who was swallowed and then spit out by a humpback whale. Woah. He dives in shark-infested waters, has lost many friends to great whites, almost died in a plane crash in Costa Rica where the pilot and several people were killed and he was stranded, half-dead in the jungle for days. He only had “soft-tissue” injuries and can’t wait to get back in the water and start scooping lobsters off of the sea floor again. He’s the last lobster diver left. Skimming through the article (Man swallowed by whale by Cape Cod, MA) again. He’s from Provincetown, the hometown of Mary Oliver and the source and inspiration for much of her poetry. If she were still alive would she have written about him? Probably not. More likely, she would have written about the whale:

The Humpbacks by Mary Oliver

Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,

its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones

toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire

where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.

Most likely, the whale didn’t intend to swallow the man; they were blinded by their billowing mouth as they opened it to feed.

Here’s another poem I posted a few years back, but it’s too fitting not to post again:

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale/ Dan Albergotti

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

june 12/RUNSWIM

run: 1.1 miles
lake nokomis
72 degrees

Did a quick 10 minute warm-up before going for my swim. 8:30 and already crowded trails. I heard at least one mourning dove. Favorite thing: hearing and feeling my feet shuffling on the sand on the edge of the trail.

swim: 1 mile/ 6 loops
lake nokomis big beach
73 degrees

Another mile beside the white buoys at the big beach. Such a wonderful swim. I don’t remember seeing any minnows at the edge of the water. No ducks either. Instead, milfoil. During my first loop a strand of it wrapped around my shoulders and face and I had to stop and fling it off. Then, a few loops later, I felt something on my thigh. At first I thought it was just the water being pushed by my arm. Then I reached down and pulled out another milfoil strand. I imagined the lake was attacking me, then decided it was embracing me.

When I started, there was a fitness class in the water and I heard the instructor calling out, “Lift those knees!” I saw some kayakers, paddle boarders, another swimmer. I noticed a steady processional of planes in the air above me.

I used my new bright yellow buoy. It works very well. As usual, I wore a nose plug which doesn’t bother me at all. White rimmed open water goggles, a bright blue latex swim cap, a purple-patterned on black TYR suit.

The sun was bright on the water. I definitely don’t have photophobia, a possible symptom of cone dystrophy, because the brightness didn’t bother me at all. Looking out at the water, so shiny and reflective, I briefly wondered how will I see the big orange buoys next week when I swim across the lake.

At one point when I was swimming, I thought about the origins of Lake Nokomis and when it got it’s current name. Looked it up (wikipedia): It used to be called Lake Amelia, most likely named for the daughter or wife of Captain George Gooding who came with the first troops in 1819. When the Minneapolis Park Board purchased the land in 1908 and in 1910 renamed it Nokomis, after (of course) Longfellow’s poem.

See a map of then Minneapolis Park Board Director Theodore Wirth’s ambitious plans for the lake in 1913

from EXAQUA [Oh, that’s what I was]/ Jan-Henry Gray

Oh, that’s what I was originally thinking of with the notion of swimming or orbiting that you mentioned: a giant essay that interrupts (or cleaves?) into the book. To cleave is to separate and to bring together. To yoke. To it: I’m thinking of this essay I want to write as… Essay as Ocean. Not necessarily in a geographic, landscapey way but weirder, queer, dense, full of strange currents with different temperatures, something immersive, at times panicky, the feeling of losing oxygen but delighted by the sight of strange objects that litter the ocean floor. An oasis of sight. Geography textbooks and all of that richly descriptive language. How can anyone read about the unseen formation of volcanoes or the glacial creation of lakes and not feel connected to the Earth—capital E? Essay as a vast, limitless, edgeless, impossible-to-keep-in-one’s-head-all-at-once phenomenon. Essay as a way of breaking up the rest of the poems that surround it. I wanted to offer a break, a reprieve. Freedom from forms.

I love this poem and I want to spend some time with it. I was just telling STA about how great swimming is for disorienting you, distorting your senses. Immersive, panicky, delightful, strange. And the line, “How can anyone read about the/unseen formation of volcanoes or the glacial creation of lakes and not feel connected/ to the Earth–capirtal E?”

june 11/RUN

5k
2 trails + 7 oaks
81 degrees
dew point: 68

How many days have we been above 90 now? Just checked my log, since at least June 4th. Tomorrow the high is only 86. Summer running is not my favorite, although I am learning to endure it more. 55-65 degrees is what I’d like to have for these early morning runs.

I ran south on the river road trail and passed lots of bikes, but not too many runners. All the green made it difficult to see the river. At 42nd, I encountered a roller skier in the grass taking a break. Can it still be my good omen if I don’t hear the clickity-clacks? Entering the Winchell Trail at the southern start, it was dark and quiet and thick with heat. No noise, not even a single dribble from the sewer pipe. A few days ago, STA and I were discussing the grossness of the word “dribble”–it’s a failure to flow or function properly. You dribble drool or pee. It’s like a weaker form of leaking.

Parts of the Winchell trail were a blur. I don’t remember running down the hill to the little bridge with the raised lip of the trail that I have to look out for so I don’t trip on it, or running up the mini hill just before the steeper climb at Folwell. After ascending at Folwell, then descending on the other side, back down a little closer to the river, I realized I was more than half way done with this hot run, and it felt easier because of this realization.

For the last 1/2 mile, I started reciting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in my head. I got as far as the verse, “The Sun came up upon the left/out of the sea came he/And he shone bright/and to the right went down into the sea.”

Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha

Lorine Niedecker’s work is inspiring me to think in deeper ways about the place I run–the Mississippi River Gorge, Minnehaha Falls, Lake Nokomis. Part of this involves thinking more about the rock and stone–the physical geography, and part of it involves reflecting on the haunting trace of dishonest treaties, stolen land, buried stories and traditions, and who controls the stories we encounter/remember/pass on about the river, the gorge, and the falls (St. Anthony and Minnehaha).

Yesterday, I decided to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” It’s in the public domain so I was able to download the entire thing for free on iBooks–all 400+ pages of it! 22 chapters?! Wow. I had no idea it was so long. I wonder what part of it is etched on the stone at Minnehaha Falls? I’ll have to check next time I bike or run over there. Not sure I’ll be reading the entire thing, but it’s interesting to skim it and think about how much of where I live takes names from this poem: Now I live in Longfellow neighborhood, I used to live in Nokomis east. My kids went to Hiawatha Elementary School and spent their summers in camp a few miles away at Lake Hiawatha.. I regularly run to Minnehaha Falls and beside Minnehaha Creek. I do open swim at Lake Nokomis.

The only part of “The Song of Hiawatha” that I remember, is the brief bit that my grandma Ines would recite when we visited her at the family farm in the upper peninsula of Michigan:

By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water

Gitche Gumee is another name of Lake Superior. So many connections. In “Lake Superior” Lorine Niedecker never mentions Longfellow or his poem, but she does reference Schoolcraft–the explorer whose notes and book Longfellow relied on for his epic poem. Another thing I just learned about Schoolcraft: he “discovered” and named Lake Itasca. It’s not a variation on an indigenous name, but the mashing up of the latin phrase for true/head source: verITAS CAput

Last night, I checked out a little bit of the final chapter (ch 22): “Hiawatha’s Departure” and I cringed when I got to the description of the white missionary being welcomed by Hiawatha with delight:

From the distant land of Wabun*,
From the farthest realms of morning
Came the Black-Robe chief, the Prophet,
He the Priest of Prayer, the Pale-face,
With his guides and his companions.

And the noble Hiawatha,
With his hands aloft extended,
Held aloft in sign of welcome,
Waited, full of exultation,
Till the birch canoe with paddles
Grated on the shining pebbles,
Stranded on the sandy margin,
Till the Black-Robe chief, the Pale-face,
With the cross upon his bosom,
Landed on the sandy margin.

Then the joyous Hiawatha
Cried aloud and spake in this wise:
“Beautiful is the sun, O strangers,
When you come so far to see us!
All our town in peace awaits you,
All our doors stand open for you;
You shall enter all our wigwams,
For the heart’s right hand we give you.”

“Never bloomed the earth so gayly,
Never shone the sun so brightly,
As to-day they shine and blossom
When you come so far to see us!

*Wabun is also the name of a park near Minnehaha Falls that I sometimes run through and that has a wonderful wading pool that I used to take my kids to when they were younger. I never knew what Wabun meant; it’s sunrise (from the Anishinaabe language).

But, back to Schoolcraft and Niedecker’s poem “Lake Superior.” Here’s an excerpt from the poem that uses details from Schoolcraft’s accounts of reaching Lake Itasca and the source of the Mississippi River. Interesting to note something I just found out: Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” takes place in UP Michigan by the pictured rocks on Lake Superior, near Munsing. Niedecker references Pictured Rocks in this excerpt (“Wave-cut Cambrian rock/painted by soluble mineral oxides”:

Schoolcraft left the Soo–canoes
US pennants, masts, sails
chanting canoemen, barge
soldiers–for Minnesota

Their South Shore journey
as if Life’s—
The Chocolate River
The Laughing Fish
and The River of the Dead

Passed peaks of volcanic thrust
Hornblende in massed granite
Wave-cut Cambrian rock
painted by soluble mineral oxides
wave-washed and the rains
did their work and a green
running as from copper

Sea-roaring caverns—
Chippewas threw deermeat
to the savage maws
Voyaheurs crossed themselves
tossed a twist of tobacco in”

Inland then
beside the great grainite
gneiss and the schists

to the redolent pondy lakes’
lilies, flag and Indian reed
“through which we successfully
passed”

The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
the leaf beside it
once was stone

true source park = true source = lake itasca

I love how a poem like this requires some work from the reader. So many references, some might be obvious to those who know, but not to those of who don’t. So, we have to look things up, and it’s not too hard now with so much information online. How did people read these poems in the past? Did you spend your entire day at the library, hunting down sources? That might be fun. I like giving the reader work and some of the responsibility. For too many years I was told, as the writer, it is my sole responsibility to make my writing clear to others. If they can’t understand it, it is my failure. Poetry refuses this obligation and invites the reader to put in some effort to understand.

Chocolate River: I was thinking this was about the color of the river, but after more searching I found a reference to it in an account by Schoolcraft about the discovery of the sources of the Mississippi River: “on the coasts of the lake between Gitchi Sebing (Great River), called by the French, Chocolate River.” In some more searching, I haven’t found any more about a chocolate river. In the process of looking this up, I found a very cool page, What Color is the Mississippi River?–I recall asking this question not too long ago on this log.