How many of us have stood on an ice-covered rock, or dug our toes into sun-baked sand, breathed in the pure air, listened to the waves, and gazed at the far horizon, wishing we could put our thoughts and feelings into words worthy of the scene? Lake Superior evokes a sense of wonder that has inspired creative minds for generations. A new book, Amethyst and Agate: Poems of Lake Superior, published by Holy Cow! Press, presents the responses of 62 poets and 11 visual artists to the phenomenon that is Lake Superior. It is a treat that invites us, as the big lake does, to wade in from time to time, to experience the bracing cold, the soothing laps of waves, the shift from personal reaction to universal wisdom and back again.
The collection is rich in the language of Anishinaabe natives, French voyageurs, commercial fishermen, and immigrant dock workers, as well as smitten visitors from far away. Many of the poets live close to the Lake Superior shore; others, from as far away as Texas and New Zealand, embed vivid memories in their poems.
There are descriptions here that seem simple, but are so right they call forth a smile and a nod, as these lines from “Superior at the Shoreline: February” by Norita Dittberner-Jax:
Watch the lake begin to breathe
at the seams, the slight rise and fall
of its breast, the deep push
against ice, the first crack.
Many people begin their experience of Lake Superior with a drive north. They will recognize the scene in Jane Graham George’s “Watermark:”
That was the first time,
somewhere near Cloquet,
the smell of the lumber mill,
the land rising slow as a bear
from winter slumber,
and there at the top was the lake, shimmering,
a distance of forever
to my 12-year-old eyes.
We all have our personal memories of the lake, which we fold into new experiences. In her prose poem “Northwestern Ontario,” Julie Gard takes her aging rat terrier, George, to a provincial park.
We let go of that dog when we needed to, but first we took him to Canada, gave him all of the water in the world.
In “Gichigami,” Dan Campion sketches the vastness of Lake Superior, then reminds us there was once a bigger lake here, Glacial Lake Agassiz. Then – as poets do – he turns to the personal for deeper meaning:
Superior and Agassiz, comrades
unvexed by humans, giants in deep time –
but you know this story, how one friend wastes,
dies, passes into other forms, is mourned
until new interests measure out relief.
In many of these poems, the writer lets us into a private world of pain or confusion or tender hope, then turns at the end, pocketing a stone as we all have done, showing us it’s our world too. Others are meditations on the natural occurrences of the lake: hawk migrations, how agates form, a hymn to the Spirit Little Cedar, shipwrecks, granite dissolving, the earth spinning. A few burn with anger at the human harms that weigh the lake down.
Two sections of paintings and prints by regional artists offer a visual echo of the ideas and feelings expressed in the poems. Abstract or personal, intense or contemplative, the images offer a breather, a chance to pause to absorb the words, as well as a reminder to appreciate the labor that artists of all kinds invest in their work.
The editors had worked together on two previous anthologies and found inspiration for this one in recent Nibi/Water Walks, extended ceremonies led by native grandmothers to pray for restoration of the waters, the source of life. They “put out a call” for poems about Lake Superior. The result is a rich and varied collection that mirrors the lake itself, with storms and soothing moments, down-to-earth moods and sudden flights of inspiration, a changeable yet everlasting contemplation of one of nature’s wonders.