It was 100 degrees on Friday afternoon when I was discussing with a colleague one of my favorite books: Silence in the Snow Fields, by the Minnesota poet Robert Bly.
He and I had recently agreed to start a mini reading group, as in the two of us. We wanted to pick things that one of us enjoyed and wanted to share with the other. I thought of Bly’s 1962 book, and I excitedly texted my friend.
I originally found my way to this collection while in the MFA program at Minnesota State University Moorhead in the early ’00s. Because I first read the book so long ago, I remember little of actually reading it, but I remember that I enjoyed it a lot. I remember feeling “at home” in the worlds of these poems.
During my post-MFA stint in Portland, Oregon, I picked up Bly’s Selected Poems, and the third section of the book, containing many of the poems from Silence in the Snowy Fields, was a section I regularly returned to. Here I was in the Pacific Northwest reveling in all the lush scenery so foreign to my rural Minnesota upbringing, and I even as I explored this new region, I was returning to Bly’s poems.
When I moved to Texas six years ago, I found a copy of that treasured book in my university’s library. Of course, I checked it out and reread it and was again brought into a familiar and welcoming place. Sometime afterwards, I bought a copy.
Then last week I reread the book. Again, I was transported to a place a 1,000 miles north. Again, I felt at home in the worlds of the poems, the landscapes and the details Bly describes. Again, I appreciated the austerity of imagery, the economy of language, the plainness of diction.
When I was a young poet (newly married) first reading the book, it was critical in my development. I saw towns I knew, places I’d been, landscapes familiar to me. It was as if Robert Bly were telling me through these poems, “yes, write about what you know and love best.”
A decade and a half since my first encounter, I’m still writing about what I know and love best, which as it turns out, is that section of southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota.
In closing, here are the opening stanzas of two poems. The first excerpt is by Robert Bly; the second excerpt is from my poetry chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian. This poem is in some ways an homage to Bly.
“Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River”
I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their house on car seats
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds.
“Driving to Pleasant Valley Cabins on Our Wedding Night”
Single lanes aim toward the sinking sun.
Corn stands knee high in the haze.
Late June swooshes through our car.
And you, my bride, now in capris,
sandals, and blue polo, are as lovely
as in your spaghetti-strap dress.