Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Husband the Entrepreneur

Steve has a true entrepreneurial spirit. And he's the best kind of entrepreneur because he not only loves "making" and "doing" what he does, he is also energized by the idea of marketing these goods and services. He believes in "great untapped markets" just waiting to find someone who can make them a good clothesline, restore their yard to prairie, provide them with big trees. He has loved five years of learning the business of lawn seeding and doing not just lawn seeding but also whatever landscaping plan he can see once he's on a property. He can also "sell" the plan to the homeowner, usually, with his vision and his enthusiasm. He loves being in his tree nursery, pruning trees and weeding and watering, and he loves making the fliers to sell the trees. He also loves machinery.

This year marked his movement into the tree business in a big way. He has been growing trees in his tree nursery, about five acres on the west side of the property, since he quit teaching high school to start this new self-employment adventure five years ago. He doesn't have many trees in his nursery yet that are big enough to sell, though he does have arbor vitae that are in good shape. This spring he bought a tree spade, a giant hydraulic attachment for his skid loader that can dig up large trees. He went out to a nursery where they sell mostly plants and also small trees. They don't have a tree spade, so once the trees are too big for buckets, they can't sell them. They had a grove of Sienna maples, a beautiful fall tree, that were too big to sell, and Steve bought them at a cut rate. He went out, dug them up, balled and burlapped them, and carted them back here.

A local farmer named Hooper who has been in the Christmas tree business for decades is now transitioning into the yak farming business, so he has lots of red pines for the taking. Steve bought them-- part of the agreement was he would come back and fill in the holes with topsoil-- and now they're out here for sale as well. Several groups of people have come out to "see the trees" in recent weeks, but so far no sales. But Steve insists once people "see those big trees" they have to have them. They can't resist.

I think it's a guy thing-- and it is true that the people who have seen those maples-- the guys-- are talking in numbers. They want three or four for their property. And I didn't really see the grandness of them until Steve planted one just off our screen porch. it reaches all the way up to that second floor loft and the birds are in it all day. I love it. It's well-placed to shade our eventual back deck and provide glorious autumn color.

And he made this flier, which will no doubt entice people to buy the trees. A damn good flier, with the usual requirements: a photo of Steve on machinery doing some kind of work, and a photo of the product in a great setting. (He Photoshopped out all the other trees for effect).

He's truly the best kind of entrepreneur, because he didn't just decide to do something he would enjoy-- he wants to go out and SELL it. I really have no patience for people who think their ideas or talent is so great that, "If I build it, they will come." And as someone who has mostly not done what she loves because I can't figure out a way to make money at it and I'm too darn practical to be an "artiste," I appreciate that he doesn't think marketing is a dirty word or somehow reduces the quality or reputation of what he does. I don't think he'll ever make a fortune, but I don't care about that. I'm just glad that on so many levels, what Steve does works.

Next year, he has his heart set on a drill seeder, that will make it possible to put the seeds of prairie plants directly into the ground without tilling. Tilling, you see, just agitates the weed seeds and the natives have a hard time establishing a hold. And just think of the untapped market out there. "No one does this, not for ordinary customers. Just wait..."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Colorado Vacation

I went on a four-day trip to Colorado last weekend with my friend Doug and had a great time. Our nature experiences were not as good as our fine dining experiences, but they were interesting!

The first day we drove right on up Mount Evans, the highest paved road in the US, or in other words, as high as you can drive in the US. We were good until about 11,000 feet, and then I started feeling short of breath and a pressure in my chest. At Summit Lake, 12,00+ feet, Doug started feeling dizzy and then he went rapidly down. At the shooting pain in his head, he stopped the car in the road and said he had to turn around. I took over the wheel, dizzy but functional, since we only had one mile to go! So it was we made it to 14,200 feet feeling surreal and dizzy and wondering how it was that everyone else up there seemed fine. It is especially humbling as you're going up and see all the cyclists pounding their way up the mountain. And old people.

At the summit people are drinking lattes and chatting, and there's this little cabin that looks like theater scenery, and a little snow, so that the actual peak with two mountain goats hanging out looked like a scene from Heidi in a play we were all waiting to watch. Yes, it was as surreal as the photo. And stunning. Of course I thought I could pass out at any moment. It might have been different than I'm remembering it!

That said, people should stay below 12,000 feet.

On the way down we stopped at the Bristlecone Pine station. You see, we were also almost out of gas. A ranger brought us some gas, and while we waited I went for a little walk. There's a grove of bristlecone pine trees there, which I didn't know about beforehand. Bristlecone pines are amazing trees that only at or just below the treeline. In the US, they are found in small groves in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. They grow excruciatingly slowly, so a medium-size tree could be hundreds of years old. A full-grown tree could be as old as 2,000 years. The oldest, in the Methuselah grove in California, are 10,000 years old. They twist as they grow, to get out of the full brunt of the elements, and their bark is twisted and stripped. Only parts of the tree, in some cases, have remaining living bark. The tree looks like it's dying but it's actually surviving as only it can.

I know about bristlecone pines because I've been to the largest forest of them in the US, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Inyo National Forest in California, on a camping trip (in another life) with Michael and Valerie Cohen. Michael wrote a book on the trees, and Valerie does beautiful watercolors of them. And to be in the desolate places where they live makes one believe that even the moon could support life.

In Rocky Mountain National Park the next day and feeling much better, we did a hike-- great on the way up, but hail and cold rain and storm on the way down, which would have been exciting if it weren't so unpleasant!

We did see this lovely elk and his partner by the side of the road!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Strawberry Picking

It's my birthday, and I've made a bit of a tradition (this is the third year) of going out on the morning of my birthday to Russ and Trese Willenbring's farm in Cold Spring and picking strawberries. It was a beautiful morning, sunny and dewy after early morning storms, and it will be very hot later today. Well, I can't believe I didn't take my camera with me, but here's a photo of the bounty...

The Willenbrings are "truck farmers," a term I learned only after moving here. It describes farmers who sell their goods from their trucks-- at farmer's markets, farm stands and the like. Russ and Trese's produce is small scale as farming goes, and varied, and all organically grown. So it's good they have nine children to do the weeding.

I was out on a row with two men in their 80s who didn't know each other but soon enough found connections. "You know Bookie?"
"Bookie? Yeah, sure. He and I used to golf together."
"He's my brother-in-law after I married again."
"Gloria is your wife's sister?"
"Yup, that's right."
"Good people."

Later they talked about slowing down in work, one a barber who only works weekends now. He said, "I went to the doctor for my physical last week and he just can't find anything wrong with me. I don't take any pills at all, nothing, so I really can't complain. Life is good."

They talk about how difficult it must be to have a big family. "We had six, and I can't imagine raising the nine they have out here, with the prices going up and up."
"We had six, too. Plus kids these days just want more and more stuff; there's no end to it."
"They never lived in a time where you went without. They don't know what it's like."

When Russ came down the row to check on how we're doing, the three of them started telling farmer jokes. A few were too long and complicated, but then there was this one. I have to admit I don't really get it.

"One guy asks the other what he does for a living, and he says, 'I'm a farmer.'
'Well, I'm a farmer, too,' the other guy says. 'What kind of machinery do you have at your place?'
'We've got all International Harvester out there. What do you have?'
'Oh, we've got all John Deere. Except my wife. She's a Case.'"

They laughed at that one, all right!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Red Lake (3)

There is, of course, another story to Red Lake, Minnesota, and the reservation of Ashinabe Ojibwe people who live there, where the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict served for 121 years. there is a story of clashes of cultures, the white missionaries and the native peoples. There is the story of how hard the Sisters worked to provide stability and spiritual direction, as well as education, food and basic help to the children and families of the area at their mission boarding school, parish, thrift store and through various outreach efforts.

There is the story of the utter bleakness of reservation life. One of the Sisters, who came into our office Monday after the celebration on Sunday to share with us her photos, was full of stories, as she often is. She spent five years teaching in St. Mary's School right after she professed her final vows, from age 25 to 30, in the 1970s. She pointed out women she'd taught as children. "That one taught me how to shoplift when she was in second grade. She said, 'It's easy, Sister, you just wear a big coat and walk like this, putting things inside it." "But is it right to do that? To take things?" the Sister asked the young girl. "Sure, it's ok, if you get by," was the reply. "That was what they said a lot, 'it's ok if you get by.'" And interesting choice of words-- not get away with it but get by. It went with the poverty of the area. Then there was the time one of the older Sisters confiscated a "balloon" from a first grader and took it to the priest. It was not a balloon but a condom.

And then there were the fires. "Don't leave your car if it breaks down on the reservation," this Sister said. "Within a half hour it will be set on fire-- boy, the people love setting fires." Is it racism? I think it's her experience. She remembered coming home at White Earth reservation and all the brush around the convent was on fire. She called her neighbor, a native man, first. "Leonard, did you set this fire?!" "No, Sister, it wasn't me." "OK, I'd better call the fire department, then." The fire department wanted to know, "How close is the fire to the convent?" "TOO CLOSE!" she said, and they came out.

A few years ago a teenager shot his grandfather before going to the Red Lake high school, wounding five and killing seven classmates, one teacher, a security guard and himself. It is extreme violence, but in a long line of violent incidents on the reservation. This Sister pointed to women in photos: "Her son was shot. Her son was actually decapitated and his body found days later." In an old photo in an art book of an older woman bathing a gleeful infant, she says, "This boy grew up and killed her, his grandmother, who raised him."

At times, the Sister said, she wondered what difference they were making. The older Sisters told her they made a huge difference in individual lives, and couldn't focus on the larger problems, so many of which were caused by poverty and oppression. What was hardest for her was the corruption in the tribal leadership, which exploded in the late 1970s.

When she asked one of the women who was her grade school student what she remembered most, the girl said, "the food!" It was cooked by the Sisters and lots of it came from the Sisters' large garden. "One day we canned 500 lbs of corn-- cooking it, cutting it off the cobs, canning it," she said. As a teacher, she was also the custodian for a three-story building, and helped in the garden. And this was the 1970s, not pioneer days! "The graduate said no matter how cold it was she looked forward to walking the distance from the convent to the dining hall, and when they walked in, there was the scent of homebaked bread." She paused, then said, "Can you imagine? The Sister baking bread every day and the good food we made there. Now it's just bulk food from government programs."

To provide good food to hungry children. To teach them to read and do math and introduce them to ideas. To learn the ways of others, and the lessons of love to be gained in living with another culture, and living with the poor. What better work is there than that?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Intelligent Homosexual... Kushner, part 3

Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, premiering at the Guthrie in Minneapolis and already booked for a Broadway run, confirms for me what I have long suspected about Kushner and aired in previous entries: he won’t commit to a plot. And because of that, his plays will never be masterpieces. Even the much-touted Angels in America suffers from this problem. There are many ideas in the play, many characters, and much spectacle, but without a central story and a central idea played out to its ultimate end, these plays don’t fulfill the real promise of theater. He’s no Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, though the references to these two and others abound in the current play.

There is a premise here. Gus Marcantonio (played by Michael Cristofer), an atheist, communist patriarch, has declared his intention to commit suicide. He’s going to sell the brownstone in Carroll Gardens, give the proceeds to his children, and kill himself. He’s already tried once, a year before. His children and sister have assembled to, well, talk it over, maybe agree or maybe dissuade him, emote and argue and maybe get somewhere.

The children are promising characters, too. The daughter is a labor lawyer, not exactly following in her father’s footsteps but working on behalf of poor workers as her father did. One son is a homosexual, the homosexual of the title, married to a theologian who doesn’t believe in God but likes to think about God, and torn between his husband and a hustler named Eli he’s been involved with for years and given quite a bit of money. The other brother, Vino, is the only real “worker” in the family, the only one not an intellectual, though he’s plenty smart. He smashes things and fixes things and his father should be proud of him but… well, maybe he is. Who knows.

The sister, Benedicta Imaculata Marcantonio, was a discalced Carmelite, then a Buddhist, and now just lives with the poor in Patterson and tries to help. Which is to say, it's not at all hard to watch-- even at 3 1/2 hours, it's not at all slow.

But something with a strong premise, interesting charactrs, and conflict, played out in the Brownstone like a classic play in American theater, leads me to believe it will be about something, or resolve something, or commit to something. And I think it needs to do these things to be ultimately successful.

If there’s a common thread in the ideas here, it’s that there is one supreme value: it’s good to help the poor. And yet that in trying to help the poor in any real and organized way (religion, labor unions, communism, being nice to hustlers), one is likely to have to compromise and hurt some even as others are helped. I say this might be a central idea because it is the only connection I can make to a major element in the play: the discovery of the grandfather’s suitcase hidden in a wall. What is in the suitcase doesn’t help us make sense of the action, or affect the father’s decision about the suicide. The children don’t even get to know what is in the suitcase, as it seems forgotten as soon as it’s found, only revealed later. The contents suggest that the grandfather also cared about the plight of the poor, and was willing to do something extreme to try to help them, something morally ambiguous to say the least. This is a link to the father, who says “the best thing I ever did is also the worst thing I ever did.” He’s haunted (I think) by a deal he brokered that changed the face of labor but in the end benefited “the older” guys at the expense of the younger guys, many of whom lost their jobs a few years later. No “systems” seem to be helping the poor, even those designed to help them. Maybe like Pill, the homosexual at the center (maybe) of the drama, the bourgeois just can’t be expected to leave their good, solid husbands for true love with the poor. No one can be saved. Is that it? Is the father going to kill himself because he’s haunted by the harm done by his early victory? Are his children's efforts to save him guaranteed to be futile?

That might be it. Or it might as easily not. I can give you 10 interpretations or more, and back them up with evidence in the text, but they won’t answer what this play is lacking. There’s no arc, no defining moment, no chance of catharsis for any of us. Kushner doesn't even make good use of a suitcase found in the wall. For all their yelling at and over each other, the characters seem to go away unchanged. The final scene is baffling and raises more questions than it answers. Or maybe it’s just random, one possibility in a line of them.

“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…” of the title is also supposedly the name of Pill’s doctoral dissertation, begun in 1974 and still unfinished, because he keeps adding everything he knows to it. It’s stuffed full of ideas and quotations and intellectual stuff. His husband Paul has this advice, which I present as I remember it, since I don’t have access to a script: “You have a premise: the impact of the 1936 San Francisco miner’s strike. Every time you have an idea, ask yourself: ‘Did it happen in 1936? In San Francisco? Were miners involved?’ And if the answer to these questions is no, discard it and move on.”

Distraction and lack of focus don’t begin to explain what is going on in this play. At the same time, it was an enjoyable theater experience. It moved along. The acting was good and people yelled and talked to each other and even made some good speeches.

But at the end of the day, I paid really good attention, committed a lot of resources to this play, and it just didn’t hold together. The scenes between Pill and Eli were the strongest, as that relationship and it’s issues and philosophical/emotional/psychological underpinnings played out. The actor who played the hustler Eli, Michael Esper, was by far the best in the production. As the youngest brother Vito, Ron Menzel, as well as Stephen Spinella as older son Pill, also put in strong performances. The lead actress, Linda Emond as Maria Teresa (MT or Empty) was not as strong as I’d expect, and Kathleen Chalfant as Benedicta should have had much more presence than she did. But again, I’m not sure if this is their fault or the script’s. Both are t.v. actresses I recognized, and I wonder if it’s been awhile since they have had to do “larger” performances for the stage. Production notes say both previously premiered in productions of other Kushner works. Both performances were good, but overshadowed by the male actors on stage.

The press on this play suggests that Kushner was writing right up to the time the curtain went up-- a week later than originally scheduled. He wants people to think of it as a workshop, not a final piece. And so maybe some of the larger issues will work themselves out, and an arc of a story will become clear. But Kushner also doesn't seem to care about things like having a thesis or having "meaning" in his plays. So it might just stay the big old delightful mess it is, all the way to Broadway and beyond.

(I apologize for the length of these last two entries... I'll be back to regular blogging now!)

Other Kushner reviews in this blog:

Tiny Kushner

Caroline or Change

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Red Lake (2)

I've been working on a press release about the Sisters leaving Red Lake Mission, and ended up basically writing a story instead of a press release. I had to cut it down to the basics, though I still might submit the story to the Cold Spring paper and maybe one or two other places. The purpose of the press release is to get reporters to do their own story. And I haven't been able to talk to any of the Sisters who are still there. I just had a history, Full of Fair Hope, written by Sister Owen Lindblad, available to use, and the reminiscences of a few Sisters I've spoken too. You can buy the whole history from the gift shop at the monastery.
It's been nearly impossible to get this thing written, because people don't want to promote the event. The Sisters are sad to be leaving, but also it's not easy to talk about Catholic Missions, especially to the Indians. Louise Erdrich's early books are set in this area of Minnesota, and some of her nun characters are quite cruel. It was a cruel business of forced assimilation at these schools. The monks of Saint John's Abbey ran a boarding/technical school at the abbey as well. And when it came time to write the history of their first 150 years, Father Hilary wrote one page about the school, and moved it around and around, having difficulty finding a place for it.
Yet, when all is said and done, the Sisters and monks and priests who lived and worked there also lived in difficult conditions. It's a cold and desolate place, and one thinks they would have rather been at the Motherhouse or Abbey. In the history you encounter the story of priest after priest who learned the Ojibwe language, even in the 19th century, and long after the Indian children themselves spoke it. And the Sisters I talk to about Red Lake speak of it with great warmth and love for the people and culture and even for the hard work and how that bonded them together. It's certainly more complex than I can record in this simple story, but here is one small piece. The photos come from the Minnesota digital library.

The Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict are leaving St. Mary’s Mission in Red Lake, Minnesota, where they have lived and worked for 121 years.

When two Sisters from Saint Benedict’s Monastery and two priests from Saint John’s Abbey arrived in 1888, the population of Red Lake was already one-third Catholic. There was a long history of missionary activity among the Ojibwe in that area, and the first resident priest, Father Lawrence Lautischar, a colleague of Father Francis Xavier Pierz, arrived in 1857. The presence of Catholic missionaries was uneven, however, until the arrival of the Benedictine priests and Sisters, financed in part by Katharine Drexel and her sister, philanthropists from Philadelphia, and in part by the government to set up a school. Within six months the Sisters had established a boarding school and day school and were joined by two more Sisters and a candidate, an Ojibwe girl from White Earth, Jane Horn, who later became Sister Marciana.

For 121 years the Sisters have been a part of St. Mary’s School and the life of the mission. It was a boarding school until 1940, when it became solely a day school. The experience of that school’s early days was one of cold and a lack of supplies. “All in all there was a spirit of sacrifice deeply embedded in the lives of the Indian people and their children,” wrote Father Egbert of his experience at Red Lake in the 1940s. “The teachers had nothing to work with. There were few books, the classrooms were not warm, the chalk was short, water in the gallon jugs froze. . . . Many and great were the sacrifices, noble was the spirit in those early days of the teachers and pupils alike. . . it gave birth to a new life of cheerfulness and happiness that pervaded the school.”
And every indication shows the dedication of the students and religious at the Mission resulted in a rich and often happy life, despite the challenges and the conflict which made up this story of two cultures. Education and religious training originally focused on assimilation to Anglo American language and culture, by government directive and by the mission of the earlier church missionaries.

The school challenged the vowed religious who lived there and who brought their hard work and vision to bear on the mission as well. After a visit in the 1930s from Virgil Michel, OSB, a major figure in liturgical reform, the school started a music program that produced at its height a 56-member orchestra and an accomplished choir. The demands of a boarding school and lack of resources also demanded heroic feats in the area of food preparation. “We thought nothing of canning two or three hundred quarts of peas and thirty or thirty-five gallons of sauerkraut a year,” cook Gudilia “Goodie” Duclos, OSB, recalled of the mission in the 1940s. “We did our own meat processing. We had the largest cooler on the reservation. We smoked our own hams, bacon and sausage. Mr. Peter Graves brought us big wash tubs full of walleye and white fish. Sometimes we cleaned fish till all hours of the night. We dug carrots and potatoes and put away 150-200 bushels of carrots in the root house.” Into the 1960s, the Sisters “fed over two hundred people a day, and there were always guests. We never knew exactly how many would be there at mealtime.” Sister Elvan Drayna, celebrating her 75th jubilee this year, recalled after a day of teaching going to the kitchen to “dress hogs” and “gut fish” before the work day was over.

Sister Elvan also remembers a dramatic fire in one of the dormitories in the 1930s, and how Sister Ernestine Jansky rang the bell to awaken the Sisters and children to get them out of harm’s way. Fire was always a threat in the wood buildings heated by stoves through cold winters. Fire destroyed the first Sisters’ and girls’ dormitory in 1905, only a year after a fire destroyed the boys’ dormitory in 1904.

In the late-1970s, the Mission suffered from political unrest on the Reservation, and changes in government policies and relationships between the tribe and the religious community led to changes in the life of the school. Like many Catholic parishes and schools, the years since 1970 have been marked by increased participation by laypeople and the strength of a parish council. Still, the Sisters and priests continued to live among the people and serve, with an increased understanding of the richness of the Ojibwe culture and continued hope for the lives of the people. One of the five Sisters remaining on the mission is Mary Lou Carlson, a granddaughter of Peter Graves, the Ojibwe man who brought in fish so many years before.

The Sisters continued to be resourceful and share their multiple talents on the reservation. Sister Ansgar Willenbring, OSB, who died earlier this year, spent 23 years at St. Mary’s Mission. It was said of her, “she can as easily fix a radiator leak as a headache; tell you why the ‘Big Boy’ washer isn’t working; how best to remove fruit stain from a white blouse. She is receptionist, laundress, hospitality person; she can do electrical and plumbing repair; knows remedies for aches and pains; is historian, caretaker, convent sacristan and church organist. In short, the big white house couldn’t run without her.” Geraldine Zierden, OSB, a golden jubilarian, remembers vividly the chaos of preparing meals in the warm and lively kitchen, and also running upstairs to see large sheets of ice on the lake shoot into the air during the thaw.

It is with sadness but also a deep gratitude for the long period spent with the Ojibwe people that the Sisters leave St. Mary’s Mission and return home to St. Joseph. There is no longer the personnel available to staff the mission, which will continue under the auspices of the Crookston diocese. The connection between the Benedictines and the Ojibwe of Red Lake is deep and lasting. The Benedictines leave a legacy that will continue to inform the character of the place, including the white house and church with white steeple by the lake.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Red Lake (1)

The Sisters are leaving St. Mary's Mission in Red Lake, Minn., a mission to the Ojibwe people, after being there since 1889. I'll have more on this aspect of their story, but right now I'm in Chicago without any reference materials. But I did want to post something. The monastery's newsletter has been posting memories from different Sisters who lived and worked at Red Lake. This one caught my attention:

Some of my best memories of Red Lake center on our community living. We prayed, worked and recreated together. One night an Indian came to sell us a moose he had killed. The moose was huge! All of us worked for hours, cutting and grinding meat and wrapping it for the freezer. By 10 p.m. we were almost finished, in more ways than one! Then another Indian came and gave us a bear he had just killed. Since it was so late and we were all exhausted, we hung the bear in the walk-in cooler; Sister Jane Weber and Brother Julius Beckermann butchered it the next day.

— Elizabeth Theis, OSB

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Poetry Story about Ducks

The first entry I wrote about the ducks was called "Two Ducks." It was sort of an inside joke between me and my creative writing students. One of the best ways I got students talking about "What makes poetry," was through an anecdote I'd heard.

A writer who had been in the Iowa Writer's Workshop told a group of us at a lunch table about the day one of the students, a wise guy, came into class ("workshop") with his poem. He handed out the photocopies for discussion. On the page was this text, which I would write on the board:

Two Ducks

two ducks

"Is this a poem?"
Some students would say, immediately, "no way." When I asked why not they'd insist you needed more to make a poem, something to make these ducks stand out and mean something. Something more descriptive, some simile or metaphor, or maybe action. A story or a more particular image. What did the poet want to say about the two ducks? Why should we care? We could talk then about emotion in poetry, our expectations, and about the tools of poetry: rhythm, repetition, figurative language.

Others would say, "It's a poem if the author says it is a poem. Maybe it means something to him or her." To which, invariably, someone would say: "It's just two words. Two plain words. You can't even say someone wrote that." Then we could talk about communication in a poem, audience, whether there were any rules or definitions, any limits.

The joke about the notoriously mean-spirited Iowa Writer's Workshop goes this way: "So he passed out the poem. And someone said, 'I don't like the first line,' and someone else said, 'I don't like the last line,' and someone else said, 'I don't like the title.' And we were done."

But my class doesn't go this way. I push my students farther-- can we make meaning of this? Are the title and line like reflections of two ducks on a pond, and so do we have sort of four ducks? Isn't the word "duck" kind of shaped like a duck, with a tall neck and forked tail? Do we all think the same thing when we see the words "two ducks" because we all have this shared image of what two ducks look like? Is it calling upon some primal, elemental experience we share-- of two ducks? Or, expecting more, does it dislocate us? Isn't "two" a strange word, not at all sounding how it's spelled? And yet ducks is so harsh and obvious. Is it a love poem? I am, of course, teaching them about "language poetry" here. For more on language poetry, click here.

And in the end I'm with the majority, in that I don't want as the reader to have to do all the work to make what is on the page mean something. I want the poet to tell me a little more than this. I want there to be a consciousness and author behind the poem who is willing to share something of the human experience with me. I prefer linearity, narrative, accessibility. But that's my preference. It doesn't mean it isn't a poem. And in some ways I, too, revisiting this poem again and again over the last twenty years, have come to see something in it, and something more in ducks as well, which I attribute to the poem.

Twelve Ducks

I wrote about two ducks awhile ago, a pair of mallards that were checking out our pond. In the end, a pair of wood ducks nested on the edge of the pond. They had eleven ducklings (I thought there were nine, but my photo clearly shows eleven), and the tiny creatures could be seen with their mother, sitting on an anchored log in the pond. What I liked best was the way the ducks would share the log with a turtle. The turtle jumps off as soon as I get near the dock, and the ducks didn't even let me get that close. It was impossible to get a reasonable picture of them. One day I was rowing on the pond and got to close to the nest-- and they all scrambled across the pond and into the tall grass. On that extremely windy day, I saw them huddled together at the side of the house, but when I cracked the door to get a picture, off they went. I did get this picture that day before they could get into the grass, and luckily it enlarged nicely. It's hard to explain how small they were, but they couldn't get over a drainage hose by the pond. I got the picture because the mother duck went over the hose and the ducklings had to go around, buying me some time.

There was reason for worry, of course. In the past few days I've noticed there are only eight ducklings (I'm questioning my eyesight-- but they're big enough to count, now!). For awhile it seemed the mother disappeared, and twice I saw just the eight ducklings in the pond. And once we saw all eight of them, so close together they must have looked to a hawk riding a thermal like a single, bigger animal, moving down from the little pond to the big pond. Were they picked off one by one? When I saw the mass of them moving, weren't there still nine?
Where was their mother? Was she looking for the three lost ducklings? Tending to a wounded duckling? Mourning? When she reappeared, I swear, I saw her sitting at one end of the log with a big gap between her and a few of the ducklings, while the others swam nearby.

Now they're goodsized, but still ducklings. And there are eight, the mother makes nine.