Poetry News

Laura Sims Reviews Lorine Niedecker's Lake Superior

By Harriet Staff


Seems like one our favorite objectivists has been on the minds of poets a plenty! Laura Sims reviews Lorine Niedecker's Lake Superior (Wave Books 2013) for Coldfront! She gives it a million stars. According to Wave, the book "is a collection of personal, geologic, and historical writings by Lorine Niedecker and others. It includes the poet’s travel and reading notes, excerpts from explorer journals and Wisconsin guidebooks, and related critical and environmental writings—strata that inform a single poem’s creation and resonance." A collaborative reading experience, as Sim notes. More from her:

...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. . . .

Read more about that sublime here.

Originally Published: July 24th, 2013