Monday, January 19, 2009

All the Michigan Boys

When I was at Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West, where the six-toed cats roam free, aloof to the tourists' antics, where the palm trees shade the garden while the sun beats on the pool, where his old portable typewriter sits in honor on the writing table in the room above the poolhouse, I stood on the second-floor veranda and phoned my sister, who was another tropical child, to brag about where I was standing. Green shutters on every window, and the veranda painted green.

the Hemingway House, Key West

In the gift store, which is in the lower-level rooms of the poolhouse, there is a sign that says:

Mission Statement

Our job is to destroy the myths concerning Ernest Hemingway, because truth is more interesting than fiction.

Unless it's fiction by Ernest Hemingway.

Can't argue with that. I applauded the sign to the store manager, who was running the cash register—I indulged myself in purchasing a nice hardcover edition of The Old Man and the Sea and a few small curios—and she immediately approved of me. We got to talking for quite awhile, as other tourists circulated around us. When I told her I was a Michigan boy and had been to many of the places in the northern Lower Peninsula that were key to Hemingway's work, we became instant friends. She said she didn't get many Michigan boys coming into the shop, and she approves of all of them. That made my day. Who am I to argue?

In the past week I found at a used bookstore Hemingway's Complete Poems, which the editor admitted hadn't been complete in two editions, as more papers continued to come to light and be donated to the Hemingway Room at the Kennedy Library. New editions might occur for a century, who knows.

I also found the reprint of Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin, his daily prose-poems to the suicidal Russian poet, who wrote his last poem in blood then hung himself. Harrison was writing at a dark time in his own life, with a new daughter present, all of them living on a farm in northern Michigan, none of them doing all that well at the time.

Hemingway could not be called much of a poet. Most of his verses were occasional pieces, some of them sarcastic replies to critics or pastiches mocking even his friends among the writers of his time. Harrison is a better poet, occasionally even a great poet. Reading him I want to write, myself. The poets that have meant the most to me have always caused that cascade of words to fall out of me, after reading their words—Rilke, Rumi, Jim Harrison, Jean Valentine, a few others, call that up in me. Call it inspiration, for lack of a more precise connection.

Hemingway wrote some prose-poems included in the Complete Poems that are like letters wherein he changes tone from prose to something more poetic, breaks lines, and dives into that pool of heightened speech. As always, he could be as precise in what he leaves out as in what he leaves in. Some are short narratives that are broken into lines, and structured more like poems; dark folk ballads, as so many folk songs are, about death and blood. The tone in some of these poems is far more bitter than in his polished prose, leading one to view them as more tossed-off, more spontaneous, more personal pieces in general. People think Hemingway always wrote short sentences. That's wrong He wrote some very long sentences that have many clauses in them and don't use much punctuation to separate the clauses. Some of the poems are like that and some are downright terse. You could read the poems aloud with a pause at the end of each line and it would be like bullets shooting into a soft hillside, thump after thump adding up till the roots fall out and the humus gives way and falls. Hemingway was not a great poet, at all, but there are glimmers here, and there are also indications of the rest of his work. Sketches for stories first tried as poems, for example.

Lake Michigan

Harrison's prose-poems in Letters to Yesenin have all the blood and guts of farming in them, you can smell the soil, the rot, the green smell of broken weeds being tilled, the smell of an old fence-post in the rain. People don't think about smell that much, how essential smells are both to evoking memory, and to the pleasures of food and sex. Sometimes it's hard to tell in these letters if they're prose-poems or poems in very long lines with sentences breaking across the lines. It might not matter. Harrison circles around his subjects in self-therapy, watching his moods and playing with expectations and stereotypes—we can't show weakness, it's unmanly—that I recognize well from my Michigan childhood. Granted I grew up in Ann Arbor instead of Petoskey, and I had easy access to Zingerman's Deli, which Harrison approves of and stops at each time he drives through, as do I. I was just in Ann Arbor earlier this month, and stopped at Zingerman's. I also made some other traditional shopping stops, and drove by my old home there in a neighborhood now both older and more inhabited than I remember. Harrison is one of those writers whose books I do seek out, poetry and novellas and novels alike. Like Robert Silverberg and a few others, Harrison's natural fictional form, which he excels at, is the novella length work. The novella is a largely neglected form in fiction circles, mostly because neither magazines nor book publishers think much of it, wrongly it turns out, as the novella is one of the most natural lengths for any fiction. A lot of published novels are just padded novellas anyway. Harrison excels at the novella, and several of his books are novella trilogies published in single volumes. Harrison, unlike Hemingway, is a legitimate poet. Some of his Zen-influenced poetry is among the best Zen-influenced poetry to come out of North America. When you combine that with his observations of nature, gleaned from a majority of time spent living and in direct contact with natural settings and processes, and combine both of those with his poetic style, which reminds one sometimes of Hemingway, you get the occasional masterpiece. And Harrison's food writing is among the funniest and most inspirational of the past half-century.

Lake Michigan

I can sense in both Hemingway and Harrison a tone of voice that I recognize as native to northern Michigan. It's an awareness of life, a direct knowledge of death as a natural part of life, something that comes from living more rural than urban, more aware of the weather and the seasons than those city-dwellers who even condition their air to simulate maximum unchangeable comfort zones. That coddle and weaken us, perhaps, when faced with real humidity, real heat, real cold, real suffering, the death of farm animals, that aunt who froze to death because her heating oil ran out during the January blizzard all those years ago.

Growing up in Michigan, growing up next to and between any of the Great Lakes is different than growing up in the rest of the Midwest. There are no water shortages; swimming is part of every childhood summer, and sailing almost as much. I summered many years in Muskegon, very near the Lake; we were there many winters, too, around the holiday season. My mother was from Muskegon, and her parents lived there till they died. Growing up in the Great Lakes, and especially in Michigan, whose boundaries are defined as being two notable peninsulas surrounded by the Great Lakes, water is your world. Lots of lake-effect snow in winter; lots of heavy lake-effect thunderstorms in late summer. Not tornado alley, but the alley next one over. Weather is news, more than other news. Growing up in Michigan, your lives, and your writings, always carry a tinge of the Lakes perspective, the Lakes attitude. There is always something in your writings that is less urban than universal. Even though Ann Arbor looked to the east coast for much of its culture, its still got a no-nonsense attitude that east-coasters find unexpectedly grounded and centered, while Plains state natives find it more blunt and honest than they are sometimes prepared for. You can say one thing about both Hemingway and Harrison, they have an honesty and bluntness about life that can't be ignored or suppressed. Hemingway came first, and perhaps set the tone for all of us who followed after him, in life as well as in literature. It's a big shadow to find oneself standing in. I no longer deny that connection to Hemingway, because we were both Michigan born and raised.

Lake Michigan boys

Ernest first, then Jim, then me, all the Michigan boys. I've summered at Walloon Lake. I've camped beside the Big Two-Hearted River. I've camped in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, summered at Torch Lake near Petoskey. I've camped in the Upper Peninsula, and further north, on the shores of Lake Superior, up in Minnesota's two extreme north counties that make up the Iron Range and the Arrowhead. I know the lands that gave rise to the other Michigan boys. I feel a connection, and a debt. You can take the boys out of Michigan, but don't take it out on the Michigan boys.

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Blogger Christopher Hennessy said...

Re: that lest sentence, here here! I find myself writing poems almost exclusively about growing up in Mich. lately.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Christopher, hi and right on! That sounds very interesting I hope we get to see some of those poems, soon, too.

Thanks very much!

4:59 PM  

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