‘Lake Superior’ by Lorine Niedecker
“In blood the minerals / of the rock”
Like the eponymous Niedecker poem at its heart, Lake Superior is a richly layered and deftly allusive work of art, one that requires the reader to collaborate in its making. The poem appears first in the collection, but supplemental literary and historical documents are layered in after it to create a vastly enriching context, one that amplifies its images and lines and brings the reader to a deeper, fuller comprehension of the poem. The documents include: selections from Niedecker’s journal and letters, a Wisconsin travel guide Niedecker worked on for the WPA, the writings of two explorers who appear in the poem, a critical essay on “Lake Superior,” and writings by companion voices Aldo Leopold and Matsuo Basho. Just as Niedecker herself sifted through journal notes, processed ideas in letters to friends, and assembled historical facts and anecdotes in creating “Lake Superior,” so the reader sifts and shapes as she reads, arriving, ultimately, at a remarkably compelling reading experience.
In “Lake Superior,” Niedecker draws a subtle and intricately layered map of the forces, both manmade and natural, that have made the Great Lakes region what it is today. She acknowledges the precious cost of mankind’s progress in lines heralding the death of the wild pigeon–“Did not man…/mash the cobalt/and carnelian/of that bird”–but at the same time notes the violent work of water and earth in images like “Wave-cut Cambrian rock” and “peaks of volcanic thrust”—man is not alone in marking, and altering, the land and its inhabitants. She tracks early explorers (i.e. corruptors) of the region, like Marquette and Joliet, without indulging in outright judgment; instead, she lets the land’s permanence stand in contrast to their fates: Joliet “vanishe[d]” and Marquette’s “bones of such is coral / raised up out of his grave.” Their deaths, which might read as punishment for their transgressions, are ultimately irrelevant, though. “In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock / In blood the minerals / of the rock,” read the poem’s first lines. Human and animal, animal and land are one, Niedecker says; transgression and retribution fade to nothingness in the wake of these lines, introducing as they do the poem’s vast perspective. “Lake Superior” is neither one thing or another—it contains multitudes: critique and requiem, celebration and sober acceptance of life/land/humanity as it is, impurities and all.
Following the poem is Niedecker’s journal from the trip she and her husband, Al, took to the Great Lakes region in 1966. It allows you to track the genesis of her thoughts on the regional changes to language, geography and culture through the years. It also shows her beginning to write “Lake Superior,” even if the formulations and exact phrasings would come later. In the journal she notes, “In every tiny part of any living thing are materials that once were rock that turned to soil,” which would become the first lines of the poem (quoted above). Her attitude toward all this change and corruption becomes clear in the journal too: “Bring on your purities and your impurities for it’s the mixture of minerals—lava flow—and rock that creates their colors.” In the poem this becomes: “Beauty: impurities in the rock.” The idea of impurities creating variety and perhaps even beauty extends to the human realm as well—“And look what’s been done to language!” she exclaims, noting that “People of all nationalities and color have changed the language like weather and pressure have changed the rocks.” Having the journal here, in its spot after the poem, not only gives the reader a chance to see the probable origin of the lines, but it also effects a kind of reverse evolution: it walks us backwards through the poem, un-polishing it, revealing the raw material, and giving us insight we wouldn’t otherwise have into its making. The journal nudges us to examine and appreciate process in a book (and poem) keenly focused on exactly that.
Douglas Crase’s marvelous essay “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime” follows the journal. In a more traditionally structured book, the essay might appear as an Introduction or a Foreword, but here it comes in the middle, which seems more in keeping with the book’s intuitive organization. It allows the reader to experience the poem first, then the journal—the two “true sources”—before encountering this compelling critical perspective. Crase situates Niedecker as part of the “evolutional sublime,” an artist who, in acknowledging that humans are made of elements destined to become other elements in time, “locate[s] [her] story in stone.” “Lake Superior” is a poem of rock, water, and air as much as it is, or maybe more than it is, of humankind—not from any impulse to romanticize Nature, but from an impulse to reveal the interdependent relationship between humans, animals, and the land.
Crase celebrates Niedecker’s “immense concision,” noting that the overriding impulse for writers of the sublime is one of excess—hyperbole and exaggeration. Niedecker, on the other hand, sands words like the Lakes region was sanded by “lava, sea, glaciers and human history.” Furthermore, her spare style acts as an embodiment of the sublime: “[it] seems to say what her subject matter likewise says, that on this linguistically promiscuous and overwhelmingly talkative continent the self will not be composed of language only. It is also composed of the mute things we look upon, the unspoke beauty of them.” If, as Whitman posed, “the effect of true poets was to bring people back from their sickly abstractions to the divine, original concrete,” Crase succeeds in arguing that Niedecker does just that.
Crase’s essay acts as a dividing line—before it is the poem and its direct source, the journal; after it is a mix of documents placed historically after or before, sometimes long before, Niedecker’s 1966 trip. Each document augments the poem’s depth and scope, such as the excerpt from Matsuo Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns (translated by Cid Corman, Niedecker’s longtime friend and correspondent). Basho’s peripatetic musings sound not so very unlike Niedecker’s own, despite the vast geographical distance and difference of more than two hundred years between them. He describes passing time like this: “Moon & sun are passing figures of countless generations, and years coming or going wanderers too.” This speaks directly to Niedecker’s sense of geologic time, evident throughout “Lake Superior,” a perspective that dwarfs the span of human history. Aldo Leopold’s “On a Monument to the Pigeon” reveals a similarly sympathetic soul, though he expresses himself in the more typical hyperbole of the sublime as he mourns the end of a species. Despite stylistic differences, though, he and Niedecker both acknowledge that the progress of mankind has in many ways been detrimental to the rest of the biosphere.
The detrimental influence of Western man in particular is on display in the two explorers’ narratives that end the book. In “From the Writings of Pierre Esprit Radisson (1661),” we witness an unequal battle between Westerners with gunpowder and an Iroquois tribe. “Our machine did play with executions,” Radisson says with some pride, “I may well say that the enemy never had seen the like.” The battle is bloody and terrifying, and fully reveals the ugliness that accompanies “discovery,” hinted at in Niedecker’s section on Radisson:
“a laborinth of pleasure”
this world of the Lake
Long hair, long gun
Fingernails pulled out
Though in this case Radisson was the one to suffer, ironically, in his so-called “laborinth of pleasure,” this record of his torment stands as evidence of the cost of invasion and exploration.
The very last document in the book, the scanned image of Niedecker’s notes on geologic time periods, serves as the perfect counterpoint to Radisson’s and Schoolcraft’s accounts of their ambitious endeavors. On each of the two pages you can see her notes on the reverse side bleeding through, so that the Paleozoic and Cenozoic Eras overlap, as do the Age of Reptiles and the Age of Man. It seems fitting to end the book with a literal representation of the vast scale of geologic time, especially one that enacts a kind of folding or layering of time. In the midst of these blurred boundaries, toward the end of the notes, we see the “rise of man.” We’re a small blip amidst the ever-sanding, ever-sorting movements of the earth and the passing millions of years. This moment, like so many in Lake Superior, nudges us farther from our “sickly abstractions” and closer to an immensity that, as Niedecker suggests, is both in us and outside of us.