Gregory E. Reynolds
Land of Sunlit Ice by Larry Woiwode. Fargo, ND: North Dakota State University Press, 2016, 32 pages, $17.50, paper.
Who am I to review the poetry of the poet laureate of North Dakota? Well, I know Larry Woiwode as a man who loves the place he is from. As a student in Paris, Czesław Miłosz was dismayed at his fellow students who disdained their homelands with cosmopolitan condescension. He determined to never disavow the Polish village that he called home. Woiwode’s prosodic engagement with his homeland is evocative of poetry’s best uses—lyric reflections on the pain and beauty of one’s home.
Woiwode is always aware that his Paradise is not located in North Dakota. But he pares this sensibility with a vision of the importance of this pilgrim life and the enchantment that still pervades his existence in his corner of God’s world. So the first of thirteen poems, “Prolegomena,” names the theme.
He covers the seasons of his life with the exquisite attention of a wordsmith in “Crystals,” weaving the specifics of his embodied life among descriptions of family and friends. Each line break falls in a rhythmic cadence that begs for them to be read aloud. “Horses” exemplifies a life embedded in North Dakota. “Deserted Barn” is a metaphor of the poet’s own experience.
I am a deserted barn,
my cattle robbed from me,
My horses gone,
Light leaking in my sides, sun piercing my tin roof
Where it’s torn,
I am a deserted barn.
“Migration” lovingly depicts the wonderful birth of a daughter. “Mid-fall Song” laments the passing life of the poet, with which every aging man can identify.
The longest of the thirteen poems, in seven parts, “Ars Poetica Conference,” is like books-on-books for the book collector. It is a sage observation of the poet’s struggle, with a special reflection on the marginalized Christian poet. Literary allusions warrant two footnotes, but they do not explain much. The reader encounters the formative tensions of influence from art, music, and poetry. Parts three and four are in the shape of a percolator (a pattern poem)—coffee being the stimulator of the conference. The dizzying atmosphere of such a gathering is loaded with temptations that the committed—read married—poet resists.
“The Interview” reveals the poet's love-hate relationship with the limelight, “A shrieking train articulates my state.” It reminded me of his poem, dedicated to his mentor New Yorker editor William Maxwell, in Eventide (No. 27).
Woiwode is, after all, a pilgrim, as revealed in “Dedication of Reiland Fine Arts Center.” Like Updike he is rooted in his place of origin, “the common / Act of art, an exercise in love, / Occurs.” And reminds us of his hope “of Calvary, Zion's reign,” finishing in Psalm-like phrase, “His blessing here forever on this day.”
“Capitol-Crowned” celebrates Jan Webb, retiring executive director of the North Dakota Council on the Arts, for her advocacy for the native land and lore of the poet’s home. “Quasquicentennial” celebrates the land Woiwode loves best. How he adores that place and its first displaced inhabitants—“we with grace / That always should pertain ask forgiveness of you.”
The riches here before the rigs’ reality
Arrived. We are every day blessed with a host
Of transactions by endurance in a northland
That we cherish as generations cherished
It, it's rainbow grandeur and cloud-capped grand
Range of rolling plains of greening wheat, its
Acres of azure flax, canola gold, white
Safflower stands, miles of east-leaning
Sunflower squares or blue-green oats right
At morning’s start—food supply its meaning;
There is a strong lament “as horsepower lost / Its primacy and turned to fueled machines.” Yet, with fracking’s rich rewards “The earth remains a giving host that routes / Computer climate claims in scents of sage; ... Blaze, Spirit, blaze, and set our hearts on fire.”
The final pattern poem, “Venerable Elm,” shows the poet’s descriptive expertise, describing the lovely tree he is called to fell. “Hawk’s Nest” completes the poet’s encomium of his beloved land, passed on to generations:
All that remains here is Hawk’s Nest
This ship of rest, its mast tips red, and Indian lore
No longer lore nor believed in, Lorna, Les,
And this long hour of last light, Lord, and goodbye.
I hope this is not Woiwode’s last poem. But North Dakota will be pleased with this tribute if it is.
The four pattern poems in this brief collection display the discipline of structure Woiwode has mastered.
Woiwode’s only other collection of poems, Eventide, was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 1977. The setting is the same in these forty-nine poems, but the thirty-nine years intervening show in maturity.
Land of Sunlit Ice is a slim, single signature letterpress, hand-bound chapbook, printed on a Chandler and Price press and sewn with a 1940's stitcher. The evocative cover is individually stenciled, with hand-set Garamond type printed on the platen press located at the Hunter Times, Bonanzaville. “The interior text—transferred to magnesium and mounted on a wood base to create sixteen wrong-reading engravings—is hand-letter pressed and assembled by publishing interns at the Braddock News Letterpress Museum, ND.” This carefully executed craftsmanship exudes the local care with which the poems themselves have been created.
Dating each poem would have been illuminating. But I can find no fault, only praise for this compelling collection of Woiwode's late-in-life poems. A larger point-sized type would have enhanced the volume.
Lovers of poetry, and the God who enables its treasures, will find this a satisfying offering from the laureate.
Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, June 2016.