Minnesota poet Tom Hennen’s work has been around for a long time, since 1963, and his new book is a welcome addition to his ouevre.
“Darkness Sticks to Everything,” with a foreword by Jim Harrison .and an afterword by Thomas R. Smith (Copper Canyon Press, $18, paper) reprints poems from his earlier books like “The Heron with No Business Sense” and includes about forty of his new poems.
Hennen is a master of the prose poem, many of which he mines from his background as a farm kid in western Minnesota.
Here’s a fine example:
Corn Picking 1956—Afternoon Break
“I needed a heavy canvas jacket riding the cold red tractor, air an ice cube on bare skin. Blue sky over the aspen grove I drove through on the way back to the field, throttle wide open, the empty wagon I pulled hitting all the bumps on the dirt road. In the high branches of the aspens little explosions now and then sent leaves tumbling and spinning like coins tossed into the air. The two-row tractor-mounted corn-picker was waiting at the end of the corn rows, the wagon behind it heaped so high with ears of corn their yellow could be seen a mile away. My father, who ran the picker, was already sitting on the ground, leaning back against the big rear wheel of the tractor. In that spot out of the wind we ate ham sandwiches and doughnuts, and drank hot coffee from a clear Mason jar wrapped in newspaper to keep it warm. The autumn day had spilled the color gold everywhere: aspen, cornstalks, ears of corn piled high, coffee mixed with fresh cream, the fur of my dog, Boots, who was sharing our food. And when my father and I spoke, joking with the happy dog, we did not know it then, but even the words that we carelessly dropped were left to shine forever on the bottom of the clear, cold afternoon.”
Perhaps it’s only my background as a farm boy, but those finely detailed words struck me with real power.
I could taste the ham, probably served on coarse “homemade” bread, I could smell the coffee, could hear the yellowing corn stalks rustle in the cool sunlight, could feel the glossy coat of the dog Boots. (My dog’s name was Pal.)
As poet Thomas R. Smith points out in his well-reasoned afterword, Tom Hennen can take little details, tiny details and make them universal, as he does in
“In flakes, in the shape of pellets and pills.
Snow drifting, sailing, wind driven.
A hatch of crystal insects. One race or many?
Genus, species not classified or understood. Habitat air and sky and earth. Lives in groups. Small and large. Starts out alone but soon in crowds of snow, in piles in banks, in drifts, in heaps, in shovelfuls.
A skift of snow.
“Skift, a word my father used for a very small amount of snow but more than a trace, hard and fine as bread flour. It appears only on the coldest winter days. It comes when you are not looking: busy throwing hay down from the loft for the milk cows, or lighting a cigarette with your back to the wind, etc. It’s the layer of dry snow that skids over the patches of bare ground.
In below-zero wind when your eyes are freezing shut. Skift snow spreads itself in thin ribbons on the clear ice of puddles
Frozen in the dirt.
“Skift snow frightens all the birds away except the chickadee that has no room in its little body for an ounce of fear. The only sound of skift snow is a whisper as it brushes across the crusty winter afternoon. No matter. The chickadee will sing the same short song it has been singing since it left the ark, even as the next ice age slides in
on a skift of snow.”
“Spreads itself in thin ribbons on the clear ice of puddles frozen in the dirt.”
We’ve all seen it, but somehow Hennen makes it seem like more.
Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.