In Her Own Way: Remembering Mary Oliver in Minnesota

Around 1988 -- I am trying to fix the date, so if anyone knows, please get in touch -- my friend John Krumberger and I made a pilgrimage from Minneapolis to Duluth to take part in a workshop with one of our favorite poets, Mary Oliver.  In those years Oliver was not the literary celebrity she became, though in American Primitive (1984) and Dream Work (1986), the former of which won her a Pulitzer, she had already achieved two of her greatest artistic triumphs.

To say that Oliver wasn't fashionable in those years is something of an understatement.  American poetry -- and especially poetry in the Twin Cities -- was enjoying one of its periodic romances with identity politics.  Oliver chose to keep her focus on the world, particularly the natural world, rather than herself.  She was foremost a nature poet, and therefore consigned to a literary ghetto reserved for those dealing with Lesser Matters in the eyes of the urban arbiters of culture.  And so, despite her honors, awards, and growing recognition of her excellence, Oliver had never, to my knowledge, brought her work to Twin Cities audiences.  It fell to that northern outpost Duluth to introduce her to Minnesota with a free workshop and reading at the historical Depot venue, a still-functioning train station, expanded to serve as a community cultural center.

Minnesota figured crucially in my familiarity with Oliver and her work in more ways than one.  In fact, it was in Minnesota poet Robert Bly's influential Sierra Club anthology News of the Universe (1980) that I'd first encountered Oliver.  Her poem in that volume, the wild, ecstatic "Sleeping in the Forest," put me on the trail of Twelve Moons (1978) the breakthrough collection in which it had first appeared.  I would guess that appearance in Bly's anthology served as entree to Oliver's work for many other readers as well.

I haven't been able to locate my notes on the Duluth workshop, whatever they amounted to.  I remember it was informal and low-key, attended by maybe two dozen or so.  Imagine, only two dozen people turning out for a free Mary Oliver workshop!  Oliver herself was matter-of-fact, unassuming.  Her reserve told us that, as an introvert, this wasn't her preferred way of spending time.  She was in her early 50s then, privately coming to terms with difficult personal issues Dream Work hinted at but stopped short of making explicit.  Her style was unfussily neat, out-doorsy.  I thought there was something of the fox in her countenance, a shy yet cunning elusiveness well-practiced in avoiding traps--not furtive or evasive exactly, but delicately wary and cautious, not willing to come close enough to be what one could call "personal."  She had dignity, gravitas, and did not wear her sense of humor close to the surface.  Some of the workshop attendees had brought poems to critique -- I can't remember whether John and I had thought to do that.  Oliver's responses were generous and helpful.  As men, John and I were greatly outnumbered by women in attendance, and I was thankful for Oliver's welcoming attitude toward us.  We weren't able to stay for the evening reading, but left Duluth well satisfied with our time in the company of one of our poetic heroes.

It took two decades for Mary Oliver to visit Minnesota again.  By 2007, Oliver was long established as America's premier nature poet, beloved by many and disparaged by some who weren't able to see past the "nature poet" label to the rich and complicated humanity of her poems.  Now Oliver commanded reading fees usually reserved for popular musicians and sports figures; Jim Lenfestey, heading the Plymouth Congregational Literary Witnesses reading series, had the chops and connections to finally entice Oliver to the Twin Cities, packing 1,400 into the overflowing sanctuary of Plymouth Congregational Church.

The next year Oliver returned for another triumphant reading at the State Theater in downtown Minneapolis.  Those were lucky times for us in the extended Twin Cities literary community, the rare thing happening not once, but twice.  It turned out to be a brief season that privileged us with our close-up view of the formerly distant author, for Mary Oliver never returned to our area.

I had the good fortune to almost literally rub elbows with her during the 2007 visit.  Arriving early at the church where the reading was being held, I first glimpsed Oliver in a small enclosed courtyard with a couple of other people that early-May evening.  She immediately struck me as older, smaller.  Well, she was past seventy now. . . . And she was smoking!  Mary Oliver smoking, demythologized in a single blow!  I saw she was smiling, chatting in a relaxed way with her companions.  It appeared as though the reserve of twenty years earlier had dropped away like some unwanted baggage jettisoned on the road.

The reading was as marvelous as anyone could have hoped, perhaps more so.  She had just published Thirst, poems written around the time of the death of her long-time partner Molly Malone Cook, challenging her regular audience with the introduction of conventional religious language, a stark departure from her usual vocabulary.  Thirst tested that audience who now, rightly or wrong, identified Oliver with her Unitarian-affiliated publisher, Beacon Press.  At least in her reading at Plymouth Congregational, Oliver went light on the new poems, perhaps had already begun to moderate the new concentration on her Episcopal faith.

In notes scrawled during her reading I seized on the still-palpable tension between religious doctrine and the spontaneous self-revelation that animates the vast body of her poetry:

Telling the truth but not willing ever

to give up the hope and desire for paradise.

An allegiance to life so great as to

keep her alive through the greatest grief.

She is a nun grown old in service

to the church of the world.

Funny around the edges of her poems,

but completely serious in them.

Someone very young inside her voice, eternally . . .

otherwise how could she ask all those questions?

Her favorite words are light and world.

Speculation ran that Mary wouldn't attend the reception afterward.  But surprise! she did.  Robert Bly, one of Mary's own heroes, was there and quickly engaged her in private conversation.  Mary's traveling companion and assistant, Daniel Franklin, confided to me that it was time for Mary to circulate a little more.  Shortly afterward I noticed an empty chair between Mary and Louise Erdrich at the kitchen table.  I didn't hesitate to seize the opportunity.

I don't remember a word that was said at that table, only the sheer, heady pleasure of finding myself seated within a hand's breadth of those two superb writers.  I think I wanted simply to size Mary up at close range, get a better sense of her as a person.  There had always existed in my perceptions a tension between who she was in her poems and who she appeared to be in life, a mysterious private person, latter-day female Thoreau, perhaps a recluse, versus the ordinary person who went shopping for groceries and paid the monthly bills.  My glimpse of her that evening reconciled this imagined tension; what I saw, or thought I saw, was a kind, introverted woman who, of necessity, for self-protection, had erected a somewhat forbidding wall of difficulty around her.  As I knew from Jim's efforts, one had to work hard -- and pay much -- to breach that wall.  But the woman inside the protective wall was a generous soul, essentially modest, down-to-earth, utterly genuine.

One moment I do remember was Mary's asking whether we'd mind if she smoked.  With an I-don't-do-this-for-just-anyone smile, our host Susan opened a nearby window and produced an ashtray to lay before Mary on the table.  Noticing Mary's slightly apologetic body language, I decided that joining her would be the gallant thing to do.  With some relief, I thought, she tipped the pack toward me, and we lit up.  By all accounts, Mary Oliver remained a smoker (a "bad" one, she told Krista Tippet in a 2015 interview) even after an episode of lung cancer.  

As much as Mary Oliver loved this world, there were clearly limits to how long and under what circumstances she wanted to stay in it.  In poems she'd made her life look more effortless than it was -- perhaps her cardinal sin in her critics' eyes -- all those moments of delight and revelation, and, unless you happened to be a careful, comprehensive reader, so little of her personal struggle in the lines.  But if you could read between the lines, it was there, clear enough.  Nowhere does that struggle come nearer to revealing its true nature than in Dream Work, in which she wrestles allusively with the childhood sexual abuse that cast its long shadow into her adulthood.  In the last poem in that book, she isn't speaking only of sunflowers when she remarks "the long work / of turning their lives / into a celebration / is not easy."  It's evident that, as the cover copy noted so truthfully, "Mary Oliver's willingness to be joyful continues" in part "by choice."  She chose to be joyful where many would or could not.  It couldn't have been easy.  That she was equipped by temperament to do so was a blessing.

As Mary and Daniel were leaving the party, she warmly hugged and kissed each of us who remained.

"Mary," I exclaimed in a foolish transport of affection, "I hope you live as long as Stanley Kunitz!"  The long-lived poet Kunitz, who had died at age one hundred the previous year, had been a great spiritual and emotional support to her as colleague, mentor, and neighbor in Provincetown.  

She replied, with an ambivalent smile suggesting that one hundred might in fact not be as desirable a goal as I imagined, "In my own way!"

"In whatever way you wish," I amended.

       *     *     *

       This is the poem I wrote about what happened afterward:

     Mary Oliver's Wine Glass

And tell me,
who do you know
in this world who could
not love Mary Oliver?

Not us, the four left
in the kitchen after
the poet -- who'd earlier
in the evening brought light

into fourteen hundred faces--
and her friend and the other
guests had gone, not us--
Jim, Susan, Krista, and

I -- who, picking up
dishes from the table
after midnight,
reverently as though

it were the Chalice,
passed the half-
inch of chardonnay
remaining in her wineglass

among us and imbibed
in true communion,
thrilled to touch lips
to the rim that had

touched so recently,
was almost still warm with
those lips that had kissed
so many ravishing poems.

copyright 2019 Thomas R. Smith

The Peculiar Music of the Prose Poem

I've come to believe that the prose poem may be defined as much by its degree of relative musicality as by its visible form on the page.  Traditionally, poetry in the West has occupied some midway point on the spectrum of utterance between singing and ordinary speech.  One has only to listen to recordings of W. B. Yeats to hear poetry that registers very near the singing pole on that spectrum.  I've told students many times that Yeats and Johnny Cash aren't so far apart in that respect (to test this for yourself, listen to Yeats reciting "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" and Cash singing "I Still Miss Someone" back to back).  Practically speaking, this means that many poems occupy a middle zone on that scale of musicality, from which they could conceivably edge to one side or the other as free verse or prose poem.

But we have no objective scale for judging such matters.  Yeats's style of recitation falls foreign on modern ears.  We're generally accustomed to a post-Williams plain-spokenness that renders the older, more overtly musical delivery stilted and quaint to our hearing.  It's probably safe to say that if Yeats registers at a position of 8 or 9 on a musicality scale of 10, then the average prose poem registers somewhere between 1 and 3.  This isn't to argue that the musical content of every prose poem is the same or that the prose poem is lacking in music.  In This Journey, for example, James Wright mischievously disguised a fully rhyming iambic pentameter sonnet, "May Morning," as a prose poem, perhaps to test the awakeness of readers, and in any case, to quote Lehman, truly "[making] use of all the strategies and tactics of poetry" save the line break.  (For this revelation, I'm indebted to Kevin Stein's essay in The Kenyon Review, "These Drafts and Castoffs:  Mapping James Wright.")

Although the vast majority of prose poems do not employ rhyme or meter of any kind, much rich sound work can still take place within those print rectangles.  The ability to analyze relative musical content can help poets arrive at appropriate form for their poem.  Oftentimes I've seen my own poems in that ambiguous middle zone on the scale slip from lined verse to prose poem or vice versa, and maybe back again.

         (from "The Prose Poem: A Practice")

(Note:  The paragraphs above are excerpted from the introduction to my book Windy Day at Kabekona: New and Selected Prose Poems, recently published by White Pine Press.   My introduction outlines some of the areas of interest and concern that have come up in my 40 years of working with the prose poem medium.  This book has been a long time in the works, and I'm delighted to see it in print, beautifully designed by White Pine, with cover art by the great Gendron Jensen who created wonderful interior and cover art for Robert Bly's pioneering prose poetry collection This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood.  Though the prose poem is hardly new (its legitimate roots go back at least to the l9th century), some readers -- and poets too -- still feel confused over the elements that make what obviously appears on the page as a paragraph function as a poem.  My comments attempt a partial answer.) 

Here is a prose poem for our current season from Windy Day at Kabekona:


The woman at the Extension office says that the two dozen or so wasps clustered under the roof eave of our porch are starving.  They die off, she tells me, except for the overwintering queen who starts it all up again in the spring.  They've long ago exhausted the small supply of wasp honey that fed them in the comb, and grope feebly together as though blind, searching for sugar, using up their energy reserves because it's September and the sweets of earth die back too.

In full sun they fan out on the joist, not venturing far from each other, seldom flying.  Sometimes one flexes angular wings as if uncertainly testing the air, then retracts them close to its spindle body.  Sometimes one looks down at me, returns my stare, antennae twitching.

At dusk, they crowd together in a tight clump to conserve heat, withdraw into a shadowy depression.  By day they browse the painted wood dulled by weather, dust, accumulation of tattered spider webs, bits of captured debris.  The low sun is bright and cool.  The wasps are remarkably unaggressive -- we have coexisted peaceably at close quarters for half a month.  In warm hours a few still whirl up against the south side of the house like wild-flung honey.

You can order Windy Day at Kabekona  at this address:

Ode to Joan Baez

(To honor the conjunction of two Capricorn birthdays, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on January 15 and Joan Baez on January 9)

I too would have fallen

for your grave purity.

I have always

had a weakness for

a girl with a guitar.

Easy to see you

and Bobby as perfect

partners, too perfect--

sooner or later

you were bound to

crash that mirror.

Wondrously concentrated,

you presented to

a soul-starved world

a picture of soul.

No one's muse,

you became

a truth-teacher,

a courage-teacher,


tested by the bombs 

of Hanoi, the bullets

of Sarajevo.


old concert footage,

I fall in love--

that seduction of

the past, does it

catch at you too?

Do you also

ponder where

it went, that grace,

that dark wind

collected in the eyes

and in the voice's

unwavering clarity?

What hasn't

changed is 

that you were on

the right side of history.

Into our time, God

sent a Black Lion,

and you walked

a while beside

him on the path.

Because you not only

sang but spoke,

there are people

alive today

who did not kill,

who did not die.

(Originally appeared on the International Times web site, UK.

NoteThis essay was originally written for the "Real Words: Real Men" blog on the Minnesota Men's Conference website.  Dr. Moore was a long-time teacher at the conference founded by Robert Bly in the mid-1980s, and I was frequently in attendance of his brilliant lectures.  Many thanks to RWRM editor Mark Gardiner for his probing questions that helped sharpen both my thinking and my sentences.  You can visit the MMC website to see the nifty graphics Mark added, handsomely assisted by layout guru Rick Ferchaud at

    Last summer, following the shocking suicide/murder of Robert L. Moore and his wife, Margaret Shanahan, I realized with a sense of muted regret that, more than a dozen years after its publication, I still hadn't gotten around to reading Robert's final completed book, Facing the Dragon:  Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity.  I knew that Robert Bly, with whom I'd been in close contact at the time of the book's appearance, had words of high praise for Facing the Dragon.  He said in his blurb:  "The question is what to do with the God energy [in us] in a time of secularism.  Moore gives frightening answers to questions people haven't even begun to ask."  And since, in the summer of 2016, possibly the most grandiose presidential candidate in American history had just ascended to his party's candidacy, it seemed an appropriate moment to go back and hear what Moore was saying on that subject in the comparatively "normal" early days of Bush II and the second Gulf War.
    Reading Facing the Dragon in 2017 has left me convinced that Robert Moore's examination of grandiosity and the dangerous narcissism that can come with it is a more useful key to understanding the convulsions our democracy is now undergoing than more mainstream psychological analyses, which tend to neglect the spiritual dimension of our crisis.
    Moore's subject in Facing the Dragon is the grandiosity that follows us into adulthood from our authentic experience of the sacred in childhood.  Moore was a Jungian, able to see the dark or shadow side of our luminous apprehensions of the divine.  When one identifies personally with the divine, of which we all carry a small spark -- and which Moore liked to call the Great Self Within -- we enter the territory of pathological narcissism, as opposed to a healthy narcissism which enables "self-esteem and a healthy exhibitionism." (Facing the Dragon, p. 100)  In contrast, pathological narcissism, Moore points out, oscillates "between arrogance and a terrible self-hate."  
    Facing the Dragon is essentially a tool for dealing effectively with the grandiosity that can too easily lead us down a path of personal psychic disintegration while in the process doing great harm to others around us, and even to the structures of democratic government built up by the labor and sacrifices of past generations.  
    As a Jungian, Moore was unafraid to take on the subject of evil, which the more superficial manifestations of New Age philosophy have specialized in avoiding.  In keeping with many religious and indigenous conceptualizations of evil, Moore believes that evil has an agency of its own.  In mythology the vampire that "thrives on the absence of light" is an apt personification of evil:  "It manifests great intelligence, as if it has lived many lifetimes and has methodically developed a capacity to detect and exploit personal weaknesses and blind spots.  It preys in a seductive way on your rightful need for attention and recognition that is not in itself demonic."  (p 6)  Early in Facing the Dragon, Moore lists ten assumptions about the nature of evil distilled from ancient wisdom traditions.  We might especially apply #3 on that list to our political sphere:  "The chief tactic of evil is to present the human individual and community with a false, deceptive representation of reality.  In short, it lies." (p. 5)
    At least as urgent for our present society is item #9 on Moore's list:  "Evil denies the reality of death and all human limitations." (p. 6)  Limitation is a word that comes up frequently in Facing the Dragon, most centrally in Moore's discussion of humility as an antidote to the more reckless, destructive kinds of unconscious grandiosity.  "True humility," Moore says, consists of two things:  "(a) knowing your limitations and (b) getting the help you need." (p. 72)  As he points out, this is the foundation of twelve-step groups' success in countering addiction.  
    Identifying evil helps us to identify what Moore calls the "anti-life" forces operating in our world.  Evil is anti-life, and "tries to destroy relatedness" through "deceit, lying, and illusion." (p. 37)  Evil hates community and the power that individuals gain by banding together for the common good; therefore evil "wants to get you alone and isolate you."  In the post 9/11 world, we recognize evil's great recent penchant for manipulating us through fear and distrust; people who no longer know who or what to believe are especially susceptible to becoming isolated in the darkness of lies chiefly designed to disempower them.
    Moore's wide-ranging book explores these themes from multiple perspectives, with especially insightful chapters on "The Archetype of Spiritual Warfare," '"How Modern Spiritual Narcissism Leads to Destructive Tribalism," and "The Psychological Sources of Religious Conflict."  These broodings all point toward a recognition that the spark of divinity we all carry inside, like a particle of spiritual radium, is real, powerful, and deadly if mishandled.  Moore reminds us that "narcissistic pathology" is "like sin, a condition common to all. . . . psychologically speaking, you shouldn't ask, 'Am I carrying any narcissistic pathology?'  You should ask, 'Where is my narcissistic pathology?  How am I acting it out?'" (p. 147)

*     *     *

    I'd be very surprised if by now the name Trump, Trump, Trump isn't thumping around in the reader's mind like the sound of a flat tire flopping along on a severely potholed street.  There is something uncannily prescient in Moore's anatomy of pathological grandiosity, as though he could see our present catastrophe materializing in the distance.  It would be a mistake to think that Trump and his regime of fear and self-serving greed are something new; we have been here before (think Robber Barons, think Nixon), our "rough beast" slouching back around, as Robert Bly, among others, has warned us repeatedly that it would.  In a 1990 essay, "Form in Society and in the Poem," Bly observed:

    Something in us wants and wants endlessly.  Witches and giants in fairy stories stand for that wanting.  The witch wants a ton of wheat sorted in an hour, she wants all the fish in the river to be laid out by species and in neat rows this afternoon; the giant wants to eat now, now, now, and he can eat for days, he can eat all the food produced in the county this year.  Goya's painting of Saturn eating his son suggests the anguish inseparable from that endless, repetitive, abusing hunger.
    Kohut and the self psychologists have named the source of this infinite hunger infantile grandiosity or psychological omnipotence.  When a two- or three-year-old child is on the grandiose road, it has godlike goals and is not at all sure that it is not God.  Limits, conditions, bounds, confines are something the child doesn't want to hear of
. . . .
It's hard to believe that these words weren't written during our ongoing national train wreck under a president who seems to eerily embody these witch and giant energies. 
    It seems likely somewhere in the inscrutable murk of Trump's psyche he is experiencing that anguish Bly identifies in Goya's painting.  Trump's insatiable appetite for recognition is on a collision course with his evident psychological and emotional lack of fitness for the job he has taken on.  It's clear that Trump didn't bargain for the extreme challenges of the office.  "Underestimating what you are dealing with is one of the marks of grandiosity and immaturity," Moore says (p. 34)  When in his campaign, claiming to address America's problems, Trump said, "I alone can fix it," red flags signaling grandiosity bordering on megalomania shot up instantly to tell us that this was not a man grounded in a realistic sense of self.  He'll build a wall, deport undocumented aliens, keep out all Muslims, give everyone health insurance without raising taxes, bring back the coal industry, everything will be wonderful.  Trump has already left behind him a trail of extreme claims incalculably damaging to truth.  In fact, having risen to the presidency is no doubt making the problem worse.  Moore says, "It overstimulates our grandiose energies when we start looking at the large problems facing humanity.  We become very anxious.  It's like having a 300-pound St. Bernard jumping around in your head." (p. 47)
    Moore points out that "Cultures around the world taught that the great engine of evil was arrogance, or hubris, as the Greeks called it." (p. 12)  Trump's arrogance or hubris is psychologically isolating, and one must posit an intense insecurity underlying his notoriously reactive twitters, many of which express a sense of impotence strangely at odds with the magnitude of his office.  Moore pinpoints "sensitivity to criticism" as one of the earmarks of the narcissistic personality disorder:

If you are a narcissist and people criticize you, you may experience great anxiety and fragmentation.  When they are not criticizing you, and especially if they are constantly mirroring you, you may feel pretty calm with little fragmentation anxiety. . . .  Your anxiety level will stay fairly low only as long as you can arrange for everyone to adore you, because that serves as a camouflage and no one can detect how easily you become anxious and subject to fits of rage. (pp. 111-12)

    Trump appears to operate outside the boundaries of ordinary friendship in which one opens up on a deeper emotional level.  If his ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz (The Art of the Deal), is to be believed, Trump views even personal transactions as a competition in which someone must win and the other lose:  "Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world.  It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him:  You either dominated or you submitted.  You either created and exploited fear or you succumbed to it. . . ."  Echoing Jung, Moore observes that "Without authentic and grounded relationships, we can easily get a little bit crazy, because you have no one to challenge your inflation." (p. 133)  Insider reports paint the Trump White House environment as one of fear and distrust rather than of cooperation and common purpose; Trump seems to share the right wing preference for family over polis.  Even so, Trump's relationships with his family are very difficult for outsiders to "read."  If we can empathetically put ourselves in Trump's shoes, we may find ourselves in a profoundly lonely place.  It seems a fair bet that his story will finally be seen as an American tragedy.  Whether we as a society will ultimately profit in wisdom from the debacle is anyone's guess.

*     *     *
   The "anti-life ego" of the pathologically grandiose narcissist is self-destructive.  "Part of a person's psyche is hell-bent on destroying her and not allowing her to have any love, not allowing her to have any trust, not allowing her to have any successful transformation of her patterns of relatedness and her patterns of human interaction." (p. 40)  This may illuminate a basic disconnect between Trump's narcissistic demand to be universally loved and the extreme administration he has put in place to carry out policies deeply repugnant to the American people and to the rest of the world.  A leader who truly desires to be loved by the people promotes a spirit of compromise and reconciliation.  But Trump as President has persisted in dividing rather than uniting.  This basic incoherence has already led to Trump's becoming one of the lowest-polling presidents in American history and the object of derision world-wide.  And this in turn drives his narcissistic ego into new frenzies. 
    And of course "anti-life" is also harmful to others, whether it manifests in outright hostility or in a programmatic neglect of the social and environmental conditions that sustain healthy life for the individual and the collective.  Robert Bly has often remarked on the "death energy" of our society, and surely our tolerance of openly destructive figures such as Trump and appointees such as Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions, and Steve Bannon (a kind of Mount Rushmore of Hell) speaks poorly of our collective values, such as they may be.  What has changed to bring us to this precipice?  Moore remarks that up until the early 1950s, Americans could feel, rightly or wrongly, that we had fought "moral" wars.  Our moral world or "sacred canopy" was still somewhat intact.  "After Korea," Moore says, "it was collapsing, and by the time Vietnam arrived, we no longer had a functional sacred canopy.  In the process of modernization, the sacred canopy of myth has collapsed, and that means we have nothing to return home to." (p. 57)  This has left our society vulnerable to "the fantasy of expecting progress without spirituality." (p. 63)

*     *     *

    I know that in focusing on the relevance of Moore's book to our present spiritual-political dilemma, I have given the reader more "dragon" than "facing."  My emphasis here on the negative somewhat reflects Moore's.  I wouldn't want to give the impression, though, that Moore's outlook is gloomy or hopeless.  While he refuses to sidestep the issue of what he calls "radical evil" -- the evil that is rooted alongside the good in the human psyche -- he suggests various resources for "facing the dragon," which include religious community, active imagination, prayer, and mythological work.  Of the latter he says,

. . . we all need to sit around the global campfire once again and tell stories to each other, tell people what is happening.  With people sitting around the campfire, and the fire burning away, we can say, "Okay, what have you heard about what is happening over in the homeland?"  So the ritual elders, the people who perhaps are better storytellers than the others, will say, "I understand that such and such is happening in the homeland." . . . If we will do [this] . . . our species might begin to wake from its long sleep and repetitive nightmares. (pp. 197-98)

    Moore's chapter on "Dragon Laws" identifies areas in both private and public life where we can be alert to the destructive potential of pathological grandiosity to cause damage and harm.  One item from the second category should cause us to weigh carefully how we respond to our politicians' present abuses:  "Grandiose, disrespectful, and unempathetic behavior by people with social and political power always generates powerful, rage-filled compensatory outbreaks of madness." (p. 210)  Overly reactive responses, lacking self-reflection, can often set back worthy causes.  Moore makes a further, more hopeful generalization:  "When a tribe's spiritual grandiosity declines, it immediately gains more radiance as a portal for the incarnation in history of what Tillich called the 'authentic spiritual community.'" (p. 216)
    Moore especially advises going beyond the myths of our own "tribe" to open ourselves to what he beautifully calls "the entire human symbolic trust" of mythology.  Yet he cautions against the simple-minded goal of finding a new myth to replace an outworn older one:  "When people think they can solve the world's problems with a different myth, they are only offering to make you one-sided in a new way.  The issue is to realize that we need to create a container, a chalice or grail, that holds with reverence the entire human symbolic trust and enables us to cherish it all." (p. 139)
    In our world of fear and division, it becomes even more important to make that effort to "create a container," in ourselves, in our communities, and in our nations, to "hold with reverence the entire human symbolic trust," a wealth that, as Jung argued, belongs to every person without exception.  "Our war," says Moore, is not with each other but with "the pathological infantile grandiosity that seeks to destroy the human species." (p. 134)  Certainly with the past election we have seen the shocking escalation of that warfare.  As we spin into our "rage-filled compensatory outbreaks of madness," we might heed Moore's reply to a famous revelation by the Walt Kelly comic strip character Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us":

. . . psychoanalysis makes it possible for us to refine that.  I would like to sit down and talk with Pogo about this.  I would like to say, "Pogo, I don't think our true human selves are the enemy.  Our grounded and human creaturely egos are not the enemy.  The enemy is that unconscious grandiosity within us that constantly tries to persuade us to forget our limits and forget that we need help, to forget that we need others, or as the Native Americans are able to say, to forget that we are all related and all of one family." (p. 134)

    I could go on and on about this deeply relevant and healing book and its author, but I've said enough.  My approach here has been more suggestive than descriptive, an attempt to capture a few of the connections that fired for me while contemplating Facing the Dragon in the light of events a decade and a half after its publication.  Personally, I'm undecided about Moore's belief in the nature of evil, but I do agree with him that "the demonic is closer than you think." (p. 1)  What the demonic is is another question.  Moore's fellow Jungian, Marie-Louise von Franz, memorably defined the demonic as siding with gigantic impersonal forces against common human concerns like wanting enough to eat and and a place to live.  By this token, "A plague would be good because it would thin the herd" is demonic, and "A war would give the economy a boost."  A good guide for individuals and for nations, I think.
    In closing, we were lucky to have Robert Moore with us for as long as we did, and as we approach the first anniversary of his death, the occasion of this appreciation, let's send out another prayer for his spirit and for his wife Margaret's.  Meanwhile we remain humble in our ignorance of the torments that must have driven them to their final extremity, an ending that in no way diminishes the importance of their lives' accomplishment.  Any book of Robert's will richly reward the time and attention we give to it, but for reasons I hope I've made clear in this essay, it was his last, Facing the Dragon, that best equips us to understand and address the challenges of the grandiosity-driven chaos of our present spiritual-political moment.  It's the next best thing to having Robert Moore here with us now.

(A note on sources:  All page references are for Robert Moore's Facing the Dragon:  Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity, Chiron Publications, Wilmette, Illinois, 2003.  Robert Bly's essay "Form in Society and in the Poem" appears in his book, American Poetry:  Wildness and Domesticity, Harper & Row, New York, 1990.  Tony Schwartz's writings on Donald Trump have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and other publications.  The piece I quote here was reprinted in the Minneapolis StarTribune on Sunday, May 21, 2017.  I would also refer the reader to Alex Morris's thorough psychological analysis, "Trump and the Pathology of Narcissism," in the April 20 issue of Rolling Stone, which examines Trump in light of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)


Note to Self

Well, we die whether we stay together or fall apart.

Finally the world goes on its way without us.

The most scourge-like name alive today will one day

be spoken seldom if at all.  To what purpose 

this sighing and raging?  To what purpose this pain?

The main thing is to be a part of one's time,

no matter which side seems to be winning.  It's OK

to be a noble failure, a fool in the eyes of the world,

to die in the relentless faith of a Pete Seeger

or Rachel Carson.  The big truck taking up so much

space will one day come to the end of its road.

Insults will be forgotten.  Offended decency

will be forgotten.  In a hundred years, new

people and new problems.  And we can be

sure there will be some glory in being alive

in just their moment, as there is in ours.

Even as I write and as you read, the termites

of ruin are chewing day and night at the under-

side of the hypocrite's mask that shines with

such shameless intensity in the national

spotlight.  The time to speak is always now.

Say your truth if only for those who may be

listening from the galleries of dead and unborn,

if not the childish public locked in their

death tango with destruction.  Reserve for yourself

days of uninterrupted silence in which to hear

those things that have settled in your heart most deeply

sing their faithfulness beneath time's altering sky.

(Note:  This poem originally appeared on the New Verse News web site on October 8, 2016, a month before our disastrous election.  At rare moments a poem one has written can return to comfort, as though a past self speaking to the present.  I feel this to be the case with "Note to Self" on this very dark morning of November 9, 2016.  Courage and perseverance, friends, for the difficult road ahead.  May we, as Thomas McGrath wrote in his poem "Epitaph," "journey together joyfully, / Living on catastrophe, eating the pure light.")

On This Side of the Wall

    Reading John Berger's collection of essays, Hold Everything Dear, a number of years ago, I became fascinated with the concept of "the wall" as developed by the British novelist and critic.  Berger, who has lived for many years in a small French village, is probably the pre-eminent Marxist art critic of our time.  He is also a subtle thinker and a Marxist "amongst other things," as he carefully describes himself.
    Berger, when he wrote down his thoughts in 2007, was brooding over the increasing tendency of global elites to insulate themselves from "the wretched of the earth" via literal and figurative barriers, the wall cordoning off Palestinian Gaza a prime example.  In recent times the "wall" has taken on the added negative symbolism of a fear-ridden nativism that would exclude the growing refugee populations of our world from the hoarded resources of the more well-off countries.  Need we mention Donald Trump's proposed Mexican border wall as our current most egregious literal example?
    I first became a fan of Berger's writing with his trilogy, Into Their Labours, which charts the transition from the old peasant way of life to modern global urbanism (or should I say, modern urban globalism).  In this fictionalized account of the exodus into cities of people who have traditionally lived on the land, Berger found a way of metaphorically telling one of the secret stories of our times.  His work thus provides a skeleton key to unlock our own sense of exile and unbelonging in a world increasingly friendly to money and hostile to human life and perhaps to life itself.
    In Hold Everything Dear, Berger homes in on the economic exile we experience as colonial clients of the multinational corporations which have, already to a large extent, supplanted national government entities as the ruling powers of our world.   
    In the end, Berger's subject is what is being done to us all by those corporate lords and their purchased politicians, and how we respond (or do not) to their often unrecognized control of our lives and fortunes.
    My purpose here is not to take that subject up directly, nor to give an overview of Berger's collection of essays, but rather to think a little more about one particularly striking image that looms over Hold Everything Dear like its restless spirit, which perhaps it is.
    Berger does much gnarly rumination over the world we have become in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.  He has much illumination to shed on the fear tactics by which we have been ruled since that time, and he strongly suggests that the whole deceptively named "war on terror" is really a strategy for further consolidating the power of the rich few over the poor masses, the war of the haves against the have-nots.
    These themes crystallize and converge in Berger's image of the wall, which he elaborates in his essay "A Master of Pitilessness?" on the painter Francis Bacon.  The art criticism context of his remarks need not be summarized here in order to appreciate the profundity of the analysis.  "The present period of history," Berger writes, "is one of the Wall."

. . . Concrete, bureaucratic, surveillance, security, racist walls.  Everywhere the walls separate the desperate poor from those who hope against hope to stay relatively rich.  The walls cross every sphere, from crop cultivation to health care.  They exist too in the richest metropolises of the world.  The Wall is the front line of what, long ago, was called the Class War.  (p. 94)

    The wall divides our world into two camps or realities.  If we are at all aware of the world as it exists beyond the narrow consumer viewpoint legitimized by our media conglomerates, we will recognize the two realms as Berger defines them:

    On the one side:  every armament conceivable, the dream of no-body-bag wars, the media, plenty, hygiene, many passwords to glamour.  On the other:  stones, short supplies, feuds, the violence of revenge, rampant illness, an acceptance of death and an ongoing preoccupation with surviving one more night--or perhaps one more week -- together.  (p. 94)

    Reading Berger challenges the reader to ask of himself or herself the question, Where do I encounter the wall in my life?  Leading up to the great financial meltdown of 2008, shortly after Berger's book appeared, workers in the American auto industry found themselves on the "stones" side of the wall, as did the millions of home-owners experiencing foreclosure.  In more recent times a growing awareness of gross income inequality has served to define the 99% on the "stones" side of the wall versus the gated 1%.  Politicians endlessly attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act stand on the protected side of the wall against the under- or uninsured who live one medical emergency away from poverty.  On the world stage, cynical right wing politicians play on the fears of their constituencies to erect more than figurative walls against the growing number of refugees generated by the Mideastern wars that have done so much to enrich the transnational 1%.  The worst wall of all is the one that has been raised to block the flow of love and compassion from the hearts of a frightened populace.
    For each of us, Berger says, has in some way internalized the wall.  Perhaps the single most arresting point Berger makes in his essay is that how we choose to align ourselves in relation to this internal wall makes a very great difference in our ability to find a meaningful and honorable place for ourselves in the quickly changing contemporary world:

. . . Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves which side of the wall we are attuned to.  It is not a wall between good and evil.  Both exist on both sides.  The choice is between self-respect and self-chaos.  (p. 94)

It's this final sentence that shocks me awake, and from which, no matter how many times I read it, I never quite recover my balance, so upsetting its truth on both visceral and intellectual levels.
    We see many Americans in a state of "self-chaos" today--in fact, we would have to say that the country as a whole has been in a state of demonstrable "self-chaos" for at least the past decade and a half, if not longer.  Self-chaos exists when one's beliefs and opinions do not serve the actual conditions of one's life, when the results of one's politics actively undermine one's best interests and the real interests of one's country.
    One can be in "self-chaos" when one is mentally on the rich side of the wall but materially on the poor side of it.  There is another, perhaps less destructive form of self-chaos when one's opinions are on the side of the poor but one's material circumstances are on the rich side of the wall.  There is at least some consistency--though with its own toxicity--for those who are, in both their mental and material circumstances, on one side of the wall or the other.
    We know that many wealthy people fight generously on behalf of the poor.  And being poor and oppressed doesn't necessarily make for virtue.  The biggest losers of all, it seems to me, are the working poor who mistake the interests of the ruling and media elites for their own.  These are the real victims of Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump, the politically incoherent underclass (or so-called "low-information voters") who can't seem to avoid being manipulated, by way of fear and anger, into sabotaging their own well-being.
    In this still-young, desperate century, whole countries and peoples now live on the stones side of the wall, including, we must note immediately, since it is host to our longest-running war, Afghanistan, where the average life expectancy is now 24 years, thanks to decades of exploitation and siege at the hands of powers from the rich side of the wall.  The wall also figures prominently into the problem of global climate change, in which the poorest nations--those on the stones side of the wall--pay most dearly for the consumption and pollution habits of the richest nations--those on the armed or tanks side of the wall.  In 2009 Kofi Annan's Global Humanitarian Forum estimated that weather-related disasters resulting from climate change were already killing 300,000 people annually, with the numbers projected to rise to 500,000 by 2030.  Given the collapse of farming which has flooded some Mideastern cities with internal economic refugees, it's no stretch to attribute the recent refugee exodus into Europe in part to climate change.
    More and more, these ugly and disturbing facts indicate that the dominant conflict of our time is, beneath its diverse manifestations, a war of ownership waged by the world's privileged elites against the poor.  The conflict is, as Berger has pointed out, the current guise for what a more politically astute era knew as "the Class War."  But where, prior to the 20th century, that war was fought society by society, our present War of the Wall finds the global elites joined in de facto solidarity against the increasingly hungry, desperate, and therefore threatening masses.
    To seriously contemplate the depth of the trouble we face as a world is to risk the paralysis of silence.  Every day, in the most practical terms, greater numbers of economically and politically betrayed Americans are wrestling with a realization that the wall is not only, as we may have believed, a wall between America and the rest of the world, but also a wall erected in our midst, separating bankers from the foreclosed, employers from the jobless, the insured from the uninsured, "dark" money sources from grassroots donors, and politicians from their nominal constituents, to whom the former often appear maddeningly deaf.
    We must first come to the awareness of this wall and all it implies for the future of democratic society before we can hope to actively address it.  The wall itself is neither Republican nor Democratic, but has been maintained by politicians on both sides.  The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision has aided many anonymous efforts to build the wall higher.  
    During the demoralizing destructiveness and lawlessness of the Bush years, many more of us began to realize the extent to which our government has become not a government beholden to "we the people" but a government beholden to shadowy money interests that have, so far, successfully enriched themselves at our expense behind the 1-percenters' wall.  Unfortunately, the election of Barack Obama as President did not substantially change this.  In our present best-case scenario, we now face the prospect of Hillary Clinton as American chief custodian of the wall.  This is not to say that Clinton is not infinitely preferable to Trump, only that the wall is bigger than any president.  No president by himself or herself possesses the political clout to decisively change the relationship of tanks side and stones side.  That power belongs, as it always has, only to the people, and then only if they can muster the will to wield it.

(NoteThis unpublished and newly updated essay was written a few years before the current absurd wall-talk.  Our present national moment, when an alarmingly significant segment of the American public seems to take such isolationist fantasy seriously, is as good a time as any to add the above thoughts to the conversation.  God save us from the possibility of what conservative columnist David Brooks has called the "American Putinism" of Trump.)

In Praise (and Memory) of Marie Sheppard Williams

(Note:  On Monday, December 14, at 3:40 a.m., Marie Sheppard Williams, a dear friend, wonderful writer, and, truly, one of the most magnificent human beings I've ever known, passed from this earth after a long engagement -- I don't think the peace-loving Marie would have liked the dominant war imagery of "battle" -- with cancer.  In praise of her, and in her memory, I'm presenting here the introduction I wrote for her poetry collection, Everybody, which I recommend for reasons that will become obvious as you read along.  I know I'll write more about her, but this can stand for now as both celebration and eulogy.

For those who have not had the pleasure of knowing Marie's rich opus, her work is readily available at  Here is a link to her wonderful poetry collection:

    Marie Sheppard Williams must love surprises, there are so many of them in her poems!
    This book itself will come as a surprise to many.  For who could have predicted that this master short story writer, praised by talents such as Bill Holm, Anne Lamott, and Howard Zinn and honored by a popular theatrical production of her best-known story "The Worldwide Church of the Handicapped," would amaze us with a collection of poems exhibiting such assured command of voice and a storytelling skill as fully realized as in any of her fiction?
    Whether in prose or poetry, Williams is a quintessential storyteller, and we are richer for it.  She knows not only that we hunger for story, but that we hunger for surprise, for revelation, even for revolution -- to have the tired old assumptions and verities overturned in favor of some glorious, unfulfilled promise or possibility hinted at by our own grievously neglected spiritual traditions, a better outcome than we had let ourselves hope for, though inherent in the situation at hand.
    Her poems about serving others in the dementia ward of a nursing home are especially beautiful.  There the surprise often comes in discovering the living core of humanity inside a person silenced by disability and discounted by others.  The title character of her poem "Howard" is "an Alzheimer's patient / whose ability to communicate / is simply gone." That's what others think anyway.  Yet through loving attention and independent-minded suspension of received opinions about Howard's communication abilities, Marie elicits from him, like some transcendent performance, speech "clear as clear."

You have to believe they're in there,
all the time, no matter the evidence to
the contrary.  You have to believe.

    Her poems are also abundant with the surprise of what the universe provides, which incidentally is what faith is all about.  In one of her moving poems of childhood, "Depression," Marie recounts the touching story of her brother Donny taking a glass button for a diamond which he believes with his innocent faith can rescue the family from poverty.  Donny grows up to become a rich man, we're told, and although the siblings carry their Depression-era habit of scrimping into adult life, Marie still reports finding "miracles lying on the sidewalk, jewels in glass."  She seems to be able to do this, in fact, every time she puts words on paper.  The surprise here is that one can actually emerge spiritually enriched from a time of want.  It is exactly that kind of surprise we need to keep having in fearful, greed-obsessed America.
    The very best surprises in these poems are those involving shifts in consciousness that allow Marie to perceive unsuspected levels of meaning in ordinary experience.  One such shift occurs in the title poem of this collection, "Everybody."  At a bus stop in South Minneapolis, Marie is asked to sign a street person's jacket.  He tells her he is "trying / to get everybody."  Gamely, Marie autographs a "little space on a pocket."  She concludes:

Sometimes I remember:
I am one of everybody.

    Taken all together, these poems reveal nothing less than a wholly developed human soul.  Marie Sheppard Williams understands that to embrace the unpredictable realities and unsought gifts of earthly existence is the golden road to self-acceptance and acknowledgment of one's own place in the family of being.  As a literary enactment of that committed embrace of others and self, Everybody is a kind of handbook for becoming a true human being in an era of fakes and unworthy substitutes.
    I am grateful for Marie's poems, which have illuminated my experience since I first had the good fortune of reading them several years ago.  As it happens, I too once met that street person (it was on the sidewalk in front of the Electric Fetus record store in Minneapolis) and signed his jacket, though I don't know whether it was the same one Marie signed.  It might take more than one jacket to "get everybody."  It seemed a small thing to do to add to that man's happiness, costing nothing but the effort of a few pen strokes and a basic decision to treat this perhaps homeless man as a real person.  Marie blesses her subjects and her readers alike with the recognition that they are real persons.  We come away from this book with a surer sense that we also are "one of everybody," and of what we can then do with that recognition to make the world a kinder, more just place.

The Coming Elections: Make or Break Time for Wisconsin

    This coming November, Wisconsinites will make one of the more momentous and far-reaching decisions in the political history of our state.  That decision is whether to re-elect Scott Walker as Governor or replace him with his Democratic challenger Mary Burke. If Walker wins, one future, already fast-tracked by the Republican-dominated state legislature, will unfold; if Burke wins, a very different future is possible.
    I believe that the fate of democracy in our state hangs in the balance in this election.  If Walker prevails, government by, of and for the people will be further eroded toward corporate oligarchy, rule by the wealthy few.  On the other hand, if Burke becomes Governor, representative democracy still has a fighting chance in Wisconsin.  (A turnover of the state senate to Democratic control could achieve the same effect, though political observers consider such an upset statistically less likely.  Let us not forget the importance of turnout in mid-term elections.)
    The present diminishment of Wisconsin's democracy has resulted from multiple factors.  The financial meltdown of 2008 and accompanying recession virtually guaranteed that state governments would be blamed for a nation-wide debacle over which they had little or no actual influence.  The exclusive hand-over of Wisconsin's state government to the GOP in the 2010 elections might not have occurred under a healthier national economy.  Voters threw a collective temper tantrum, one consequence of which was the election of Scott Walker.  Other wreckage of that election included the eviction from office of champions of the people like Senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and the late Representative Jim Oberstar in Minnesota. 
    Walker's rise to power, combined with Republican control of both chambers of the state government, has given the right wing carte blanche to enact a radical agenda driven by the American Legislature Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch Brothers.  These forces have ruled virtually unchecked by an effective Democratic counter-force.  To compound the disaster, Republicans seized the ready opportunity to gerrymander state district lines so as to favor incumbents in ways that may not be mitigated until long after the next census in 2020.  In districts redrawn to favor incumbent parties, extremists double down, trying to outdo each other to prove their credentials to the party faithful who mainly determine the outcome of primary elections.  Thus winner-take-all politics have virtually driven moderation out of our state government, especially among Republicans.
    One could fill pages with the disheartening litany of the Walker administration's actions to reverse Wisconsin's progressive tradition:  curtailing collective bargaining rights for public employees; attacks on education, health care access, women's rights and local control by municipal governments; weakening of environmental regulations, diminishment or sale of publicly-held commons; voter suppression measures designed to discourage minorities, the elderly and students (Democratic-leaning constituencies) away from the polls; policies favoring the rich and unfairly disadvantaging the poor; hostility toward clean energy and rail development -- the Walker Dishonor Roll goes on and on.
    The Walker administration's environmental policies should be especially troubling to those who care what sort of world we leave our children and grandchildren.  Private investment in renewable energy, encouraged and supported by government in some of our neighboring states, has largely left Wisconsin under the environmentally regressive Walker regime.  A friend of mine working out of Minnesota to promote alternatives to fossil fuels in the Midwest tells me that Wisconsin is widely viewed as a "dark place" in which sustainable energy efforts are discouraged by political hostility to such initiatives.  In addition, environmental advocacy groups in Wisconsin have lost national philanthropic support because the Wisconsin policy climate is seen, in the words of my friend, as "stalled and unworkable."
    Then there's the troubling matter of criminality in the Walker administration.  At least a half dozen of Walker's employees or associates have already gone to jail for illegal activities undertaken, if without direct knowledge of, at least in close proximity to their boss.  A second "John Doe" criminal investigation, said to come much nearer to Walker himself, is tied up in the courts as of this writing.  No one knows what will happen, but this is a time bomb that may still blow up in Walker's -- and Wisconsin's -- face.
    As for Walker's character, even the governor's political ally Republican State Senate President Mike Ellis was secretly recorded in April saying that "Walker's working for Walker," not the people of Wisconsin.  Many Republican lawmakers no doubt privately express similar misgivings about our Governor and his presidential ambitions; unlike the outspoken Ellis, few have the political daring to say so openly, for fear of being "primaried" by more extreme right-wing "tea partiers."  And thus proceeds the unseemly spectacle of the GOP eating itself, as more moderate Republicans are systematically purged from office.
    One might mention also the shocking ease and swiftness with which the blogger Ian Murphy, posing as David Koch, got Governor Walker to reveal his true colors in 2011.  The infamous phone conversation, which can be heard in its revelatory entirety on Youtube, finds Walker cravenly toadying up to the faux-Koch and openly discussing underhanded and illegal methods of sabotaging the enormous daily protests occurring at that time around the State Capitol.  (Walker also confided to billionaire donor Diane Hendricks that he intended to break the public sector unions through a "divide and conquer" strategy, an incriminating admission captured on videotape.)  For web addresses, see Smoking Guns below.
    Three years later, democracy remains a dim flickering on the Wisconsin landscape.  This November is make or break time for Wisconsin:  we'll either allow that flickering subside further into darkness or encourage the flame to burn brighter again.  Our state was once an exemplar of clean, transparent government.  The question, "Can we restore good government to Wisconsin?" will be answered in the 2014 elections.  Mary Burke is a decent, level-headed moderate who will work to heal the tensions between family, friends, and neighbors Walker has cultivated with his "divide-and-conquer" tactics.  As Secretary of Commerce in the Doyle administration, Burke helped create jobs and promote fairness in an economy that worked reasonably well until the 2008 financial meltdown.  If we choose her and the Democrats, the destructive agenda of ALEC and the Koch brothers will be subject to a moderating force that may allow a return to the divided government that has traditionally meant health and balance to Wisconsin's public policy-making.  If on the other hand Walker is allowed to pursue his extreme agenda for another term, absent significant Democratic victories in the state legislature, we will likely have to watch Wisconsin's continuing painful decline play out in numerous ugly ways over the next few decades.  Mary Burke may be our last firewall against forfeiting the greatness of Wisconsin as a national leader in grassroots democracy, the state we have rightfully revered and called our home.

Youtube Sources

Scott Walker's February 23, 2011 conversation with David Koch impersonator Ian Murphy at

Walker's incriminating "divide and conquer" remarks of January 18, 2011 to billionaire donor Diane Hendricks can be found at

When the Rainbow Starts to Pay: The Triumph of Marques Bovre

    Strictly Discs on Monroe Street in Madison, Wisconsin, occupies a deceptively small corner location in a residential business district.  Inside, and especially on its basement level, aisles filled with bins of audio treasures, both vinyl and CD, stretch out in almost dream-like plenitude.  From a mounted wall rack I'd pulled a CD intriguingly titled Ghost Stories from Lonesome County, by a once popular Madison rock band by the name of Marques Bovre and the Evil Twins. 
    Gripped by complex emotions, I studied the black and white cover photo:  double-exposed against the severely plain doorway of what was evidently a weathered wooden country building, a church perhaps, four young men faced the camera with a manifest seriousness utterly lacking in rock-star attitude.  Second from the right, possibly the most unglamorous of the lot, and certainly the shortest, stood the author of the songs on the CD, Marques Bovre.  A subdued smile gave him a slight though definite proprietary look, as was only appropriate:  Singer, songwriter, guitarist, Marques Bovre, with his band, had regularly topped annual readers' polls in the local alternative weekly The Isthmus in the mid-90s when Ghost Stories from Lonesome County was released.  He was clearly the center of this little constellation.
    I knew that Marques Bovre had died just a half year ago, on February 11, birthday of both my wife and one of my brothers.  I had in fact attended one of Marques's gigs around the turn of the Millennium and briefly spoken with the artist.  While that exchange remained vivid in my memory all these years later, I had yet to hear any of his recordings.
    Feeling the weight of unfinished business, as well as a certain karmic fatedness, I took the CD to the checkout counter.

    *     *     *

    Flash back to Monday, April 3rd, 2000 at the Club Tavern in Middleton, Wisconsin.
    My wife Krista and I had driven from across the state that weekend with the express purpose of catching a rare small-venue appearance by the alternate country duo Buddy and Julie Miller.  Buddy Miller, at that time Emmylou Harris's regular touring guitarist, wasn't hard to find on the circuit, but this was an opportunity to hear Buddy with his more retiring, fibromyalgia-suffering wife Julie perform their own superb repertoire, a chance not to be passed up.
    The flier I carefully peeled off a kiosk on State Street near the University of Wisconsin in Madison noted that Buddy and Julie Miller would be accompanied by a "full band."  Smaller type at the bottom further announced "with Marques Bovre (solo acoustic)." 
    Many of the couple hundred lucky souls crowded into the Club Tavern that early spring night no doubt already knew of Marques Bovre.  I, however, had never heard of him.  As is often the case on such occasions, I prepared to receive whatever this opening act had to offer while curbing my anticipation for the headliners.
    The man who strode onto the stage was compact, neatly dressed, and, I thought, a tad nervous.  Earlier I'd seen him pass through the crowd, wearing a sort of coverall, now exchanged for vaguely rockabilly-looking stage clothes.  But his severely close-cropped hair made him look as much punk as country.  His shiny, somewhat round face reminded me a little of Phil Alvin of the Blasters.  Accordingly, my expectations was set for some sort of rockabilly-punk hybrid.
    I wish I could remember more about his songs, but at this distance in time I'm left with impressions, not specifics.  Ignorant of Marques Bovre's then already considerable body of recorded work with the Evil Twins, I enjoyed the set sans retention.  The singer's crisp, often twangy vocal tone I thought invited comparison with Steve Earle.  I could tell at once that the songs were extremely well-crafted, the execution confident and professional.  Marques Bovre marshaled a compelling intensity and focus, embodying the archetype of the lone, perhaps lonely troubadour, successfully capturing and holding the attention of those scores of Millers fans packing the Club Tavern.
    Marques Bovre's music sufficiently moved me to thank him when he came offstage from his set.  Thus my one and only interaction with Marques Bovre took place.  It went something like this:
    Me:  I really enjoyed your songs.
    Marques:  Thanks.  Did you want to buy a CD?
    Me:  Uh, maybe later . . . Can I find them in Madison?
    Marques:  But I'm here now.
    Truth to tell, I was playing it close to the vest financially.  The travel to Madison had already taken a bite out of a limited budget.  I thought Marques Bovre looked generally disappointed at the non-buying crowd that evening, and his plaintive rejoinder registered to my ear as a minor-key protest.  Feeling embarrassed, I edged away then and put it out of my mind -- not hard to do when the Millers came on a few minutes later to great gusts of welcoming applause.
    Meanwhile, I noticed Marques Bovre, in his coveralls again, making his exit.  Apparently he had to leave before the main set.  Fleetingly, I felt a little sad to think that he was missing the Millers' performance, a melancholy that merged with mild, though complicated regret over our brief conversation, which I've remembered with surprising frequency over the years.  I'd seen enough satisfied listeners leave after my poetry readings without buying my books to know how it felt when an audience member declined to take a chance on an artist they had professed to appreciate.
*     *    *

    Back home from Madison in July 2013, I was eager to finally sample Marques Bovre's recorded output.  Everything about the package of Ghost Stories from Lonesome County suggested substance, from its sturdy jewel case to liner notes with lyrics printed on heavy, glossy stock.
    As did the music.  The first song, the eponymous "Lonesome County," kicked in with its ominous, sinuous opening guitar riff and throbbing bass line, signaling an immediate seriousness.  In a muscular R&B mood reminiscent of Eric Burdon's 60s work with the Animals, the singer swiftly located the action of this album in the physically and spiritually decimated rural landscape of the American heartland:

     You got your dead train tracks
     This used to be a railroad town.
     You got your river runnin' muddy
     It eats away at solid ground.

From there on to its conclusion a full hour later, Ghost Stories mapped that hard-hit terrain as skillfully and knowingly as more famous heartland rockers like John Mellencamp and Steve Earle have done, both of whom came to my mind on first listening.  Rich with incident involving often tragicomic small-town characters, Ghost Stories told its frequently grim tale with the honesty and humor of which only a reflective, self-aware artist is capable.
    Clear to me upon that revelatory first listening was a second theme embedded in the 13 songs of Ghost Stories, the peculiarly American struggle to reconcile the carnal excitement of the rock medium with a cultural religious tradition at best suspicious of the body and its sensual ecstasies.  Nowhere is this struggle more evident than on a seven-minute epic called "Ballad of the Evil Twins," the dramatic peak of Ghost Stories from Lonesome County.
    "Ballad of the Evil Twins" must be heard to be believed.  The "evil twins" of this piece of over-the-top musical theater are cousins Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, who actually were, as Marques notes, "raised as brothers."  The first half of this long track (reminiscent of the Hendrix "All Along the Watchtower") dramatizes in conventional if impressionistic fashion the tension between the preacher inveighing against sin versus the rock 'n roller incorrigibly wedded to what has often been denounced in the South as "the devil's music."  The formal verses then give way to a barrage of "speaking in tongues" gibberish, which I've since learned is Marques's own uncannily convincing approximation.  Like a rain squall temporarily clearing, this incoherence then segues into what one could be forgiven for assuming is a verbatim clip from a Swaggart sermon but is in fact another remarkable piece of audio impersonation by the vocally agile Bovre.  Railing against rock and roll in particular and electricity in general, this faux-Swaggart lapses briefly back into "tongues" and is then overwhelmed and finally drowned out altogether by staggeringly chaotic guitar feedback, seeming to establish that in the song at least, and maybe in the singer's ambivalent allegiances as well, the "devil's music" is hands-down winner.  Given the mad flavor of the recitation (sample:  "Above all these, most egregious in the eyes of the Lord is the electricity that powers electrified guitars in the hands of young people"), which cousin is more possessed and which of the two possessions is finally the more demonic?  "The Ballad of the Evil Twins" is ultimately a devilishly clever defense of rock and roll against those body-haters who would defame it as satanic.
    From that bacchanalian abandon, the singer regroups for a home stretch of three more measured meditations on faith, each sublime in its way.  Yet even after the final gorgeous lead guitar figure of the serene closer, "Judgement Day," dies away, the listener is left to conjecture that the matter is by no means settled.  As a "concept" album, Ghost Stories from Lonesome County brilliantly states an internal conversation or struggle between the "evil twins" who are active parts of Bovre's own psyche.
    Most apparent from this initial venture into the Marques Bovre catalog was the wit and intelligence of the singer-songwriter.  In his literate and slyly humorous lyrics he betrayed a sardonic self-knowledge and a full readiness to turn his biting satiric sensibility on himself when warranted.  Also abundantly evident was the excellence of his band, the Evil Twins--actually three in number:  Eric Dummer on drums, Doug Meihsner on bass, and Linus (Brian Bauhs) on lead guitar.  In the creative variety of their arrangements, this highly capable and versatile unit afforded their leader a wonderfully broad musical palette with which to render his vision.
    I felt as though I had stumbled on a lost classic of American roots rock.  After many listenings, I still feel that way about Ghost Stories from Lonesome County.  Now that I'd started, I knew I'd have to dig deeper.  Something had gotten under my skin with my first unsettling encounter with the artist in 2000, and had never quite left me.  Questions now began to proliferate.  At the Club Tavern, Marques Bovre had told me, "But I'm here now."  Since that was sadly no longer true on this earthly plane, I would have to try to get my questions answered some other way.

*     *    *

    Setting out on Marques Bovre's trail, I found ample traces of the comet-like arc of his life and music.  First there was the memorial web site, a cornucopia of information about the man and his music, lovingly maintained by dedicated friends, including his long-time bandmate, bass player Doug Meihsner.  A glance at established the range of the artist's achievement, nearly twenty albums worth of material spanning roughly 25 years.
    I decided to continue my exploration of the Bovre oeuvre with Flyover Land, the 1995 release immediately following Ghost Stories from Lonesome County.  The title track, I had gleaned from Internet sources, was widely considered MBET's (Marques Bovre and the Evil Twins') signature song.  Though some of Marques's best albums are unfortunately out of print, including Flyover Land, I easily located a used copy online.  (For those so inclined, MP3's of almost everything Marques recorded are available from iTunes.)  Knowing nothing at the time of the song's context in the history of MBET, I heard a good-naturedly defiant declaration of Midwestern identity, through which a note of complaint, though not yet resignation, rang out:

     We built up a sound
     And nobody come,
     I said, Hey!  Listen!

I understood the hooky appeal of this high-spirited anthem voicing the universal cry of the deserving but neglected regional artist.  Flyover Land wasn't quite up to the stellar standard set by Ghost Stories from Lonesome County.  Still I was impressed that an artist and band could produce two albums of the combined quality of Ghost Stories and Flyover Land within a year or so of each other.  Undoubtedly there was a lot more musical gold to be panned in the Marques Bovre opus.
    My continuing foray into Marques's music necessarily entailed learning more about the life and the personality of which the music was an expression.  In this I was aided immeasurably by Doug Meihsner, who took pains to thoroughly answer my many questions with articulate insight, giving liberally of his time to satisfy a new fan's curiosity.  Thus I was able to piece together the biographical trajectory along which Marques's songs fall, and make some sort of sense of how it all unfolded.
    Marques Bovre was born in 1962 in Paoli, Wisconsin, a little town outside Madison.  Given his first guitar by supportive parents at age 7, Marques seems to have been blessed with an early sense of his musical calling, and began writing songs as a teenager.  In a note on his 2012 Nashville Dandelion CD, Marques cites as early influences voices as diverse as Johnny Cash, Arlo Guthrie, and Roger Miller, all of whom, I think, left discernible marks on the mature artist.
    After a few earlier attempts, Marques formed his most popular and most potent band, the Evil Twins, in the fall of 1987.  The "classic" configuration, which included Doug Meihsner on bass, Eric Dummer on drums, and the rather whimsically nicknamed Linus on lead guitar, powered many of Marques's most accomplished performances.
    Not well known during MBET's heyday was the fact that Marques suffered from a rare form of osteoarthritis, which often left him in pain, depleting energy reserves needed for the arduous life of a road musician.  Thus the reach of MBET was necessarily limited by Marques's endurance, which diminished over the years.  In the liner notes for Angels, Bones & Clocks, the last album with the Evil Twins before dissolving the band, Marques thanks his surgeon for "four new joints."  Since the album was released in 2000, that means that the sturdy-looking 38-year-old I saw on stage at the Club Tavern had already had both hips and shoulders replaced.  The growing physical stress of maintaining the band was undoubtedly a factor leading to the dissolution of MBET in 2003.  A couple of years later, with singer Maggie Weiser and bassist Ken Stevenson, Marques formed SoDangYang, a trio more suited to managing the increasing demands on his health.
    Marques continued gigging around the Madison area and recorded a few songs with SoDangYang (some featuring guitarist Jim Schwall of Siegel-Schwall Band fame), and continued to be held in high esteem locally.  Then in August 2011, at the age of 49, Marques was diagnosed with brain cancer.  He fought valiantly the tumor he personalized as "the Hob Goblin" and completed one brilliant CD in his final year, along with a respectable reunion set with his old comrades in the Evil Twins.  On February 11, 2013, with Terese, his wife of 20 years, by his side, Marques left this world.
    Of course this "flyover" thumbnail of outward events can't do justice to the richness and complexity of Marques's prodigiously creative inner life.  Luckily, abundant evidence of Marques's thought, humor, and spiritual wisdom waits to be discovered by new listeners to the couple of hundred tunes he recorded in his quarter-century career.
    Having now surveyed most of that recorded body of work, I'm of the opinion that Marques Bovre made an uncommon number of good and very good records and three flat-out great albums, those three being Ghost Stories from Lonesome County (1994) and C'est la Vie (1997), both with the Evil Twins, and Nashville Dandelion (2012), accompanied by a group of studio musicians based in Tennessee.
    I've already discussed the earliest of these, Ghost Stories from Lonesome CountyGhost Stories exposes Marques's small town Midwestern roots perhaps more thoroughly and deeply than any other single collection of his songs.  As mentioned earlier, an evident ambivalence lies at the heart of this album, brought into acid-etched focus in the monumental "Ballad of the Evil Twins."  An inner tension no doubt already present in seed form in the 7-year-old with his first guitar comes to full dramatic expression in the symbolic battle between the cousins, one the sinner, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the other the dubious would-be saint, Jimmy Swaggart.  In fact, Marques is determined to have both God and rock and roll:  His music with the Evil Twins is robust, vital, generous, sometimes rowdy, and has an appealing advantage over the more judgmental religiosity of which he was a persistent critic.  (On the whole, Marques is unusually nonjudgmental -- his catalog overflows with songs that get inside suffering "sinners" with uncommon empathy.)
    On the concluding track of Ghost Stories Marques expresses confidence that "All will be well on the Judgment Day."  Given Marques's abbreviated span of years, the last verse of the song, addressed to an unspecified lover, is especially poignant:

     And when I am old and gray,
     When time brings my body and dreams to decay,
     I pray I'll be by your side
     On the Judgment Day.

    While struggle is often manifest in one way or another in Marques's work, on 1997's C'est la Vie the singer sounds less conflicted, more steady in his spiritual grounding.  Perhaps he has become more confident in his music as a vehicle for moral expression.  The singer's emphasis has shifted away from himself somewhat toward concern for others, especially women.  Three of the best songs on C'est la Vie are in fact about women:  "Ixonia" is a paean to a sexy Cub Scout den mother, while "She's All Gone" and "Beautiful Girl" both lament, in different ways, beloved female figures from Marques's past who have disastrously, even tragically fallen on hard times.
    Though Marques is at his peak here as songwriter, what really stands out on C'est la Vie is a sheer delight in music-making.  By their fifth or sixth album together, MBET have achieved a comfort level and facility in the studio that lifts their playing--marked by that peculiar telepathy that grows between musicians who've arrived at a thorough knowledge of each others' abilities and personalities over time--to new, and subsequently unequaled heights of synchronous joy.  In addition to the mastery each musician has individually achieved with his instrument within the well-oiled collective, this elevated esprit is audible in the seamless, soaring harmonies that vocally distinguish such tracks as "Died 4 U" and "Sam's Song."  The latter in particular distills all the elements of MBET's sound, you'll pardon the alliteration, into one irresistible elixir of exhilaration for the ear.  It also features a kind of arrangement at which MBET excelled, in which verse and chorus alternate with exuberant bursts of instrumental jamming, a fine democratic balance struck between band leader and band.  On the epic "Died 4 U," the most explicitly religious song on C'est la Vie, Linus solos with an escalating sense of excitement and release that rockets the listener straight into the guitar-glory Empyrean.  Overall, C'est la Vie is a direct, coordinated hit to the musical pleasure centers of the brain.
    This is arguably MBET's best album.  If forced to choose only one of Marques's CDs for my collection, I'd be mightily torn between C'est la Vie and Nashville Dandelion, which I'll consider next.  C'est la Vie is another "lost" classic of heartland rock, able to stand up to the better efforts of John Mellencamp and Steve Earle, whom Marques sometimes resembles.  (More than these, though, I hear in Marques's voice of this period the high, sharp twang of Arlo Guthrie.  By the time of Nashville Dandelion 15 years later, this, along with much else, will have changed dramatically.)
    It's hard not to think of 2012's Nashville Dandelion as Marques's summation and even swan song.  Nashville Dandelion creates a warm, country-inflected acoustic ambiance to showcase some of Marques's wisest and most profound meditations on life and, inevitably, death.  "I've been living and so I've been dying," he sings in "Mystery."  "I'm trying to be alive while I'm still alive," he tells us in "Let It Drain."  Remarkably, these recordings were begun in 2011 before Marques's brain cancer was detected (some songs, in fact, predate the recording sessions by several years).  There's always the possibility that Marques intuited what medical science would later reveal, though in any event he was acutely aware of his mortality at an age when most of us are not.  Whatever Marques knew or didn't know subconsciously, he'd developed the ability by this time in his life to look at even death with a disarming good humor and apparent absence of debilitating fear.
    In Nashville Dandelion, spirituality, which has been a consistent thread in the artist's work, again comes to the fore as central thematic concern, unsurprising, when you think of it, for a man nearing his ultimate challenge.  Marques's approach to religion generally combines a refreshing irreverence with a genuine devotion to core Christianity, shed of the hucksterism of socially conservative corporate "big box" religion, which Marques gleefully skewers again and again.  In Nashville Dandelion's "Cloudy Day," Marques takes a swing at the fundamentalist longing for "the rapture":

     . . . when the rapture comes
     We'll let the righteous have their fun, when the rapture comes.
     And with the righteous gone there might be room for everyone.

Clearly Marques doesn't think "the righteous" are all that righteous.   He throws in his lot with the riff raff, the ordinary people Jesus invited to the wedding at Cana, which in "Dandelion" inspires another of Marques's warm-heartedly inclusive tropes:

     Dandelion wine at the wedding feast,
     And from many fleshes, one.
     Eat, dance and drink and I gotta think,
     There will be room for everyone.

    Despite his jabs at organized religion, Marques was no stranger to church participation.  In Madison he'd been active in campus ministry efforts and in 2007 became artist in residence at Lake Edge United Church of Christ, an involvement he would maintain until no longer physically able to do so.  Lake Edge became a testing ground for some of his more explicitly and adventurously religious songs.  I may be wrong, but I sense in the decade from 1997 to 2007 a shift in Marques's musical focus related to a scaling down of his ambitions in the music industry.  Still his spiritual and artistic aspirations clearly remained constant even after his most successful band became history.
    I should mention here that Nashville Dandelion's spiritual emphasis was foreshadowed by a 2003 solo album, Full Frontal Confession, Marques's only straight-out religious collection.  Those songs seem to have been developed for performance at Lake Edge, acknowledged in the notes.  Full Frontal Confession is very beautiful, contemporary sacred music that is neither doctrinaire nor bland.  2003 in fact represents something of a high water mark in Marques's productivity, giving us not only Full Frontal Confession but another album, Yarn:  The Great Unraveling, which revisits some of the social and political themes of Ghost Stories updated for the George W. Bush era.  The two albums couldn't be more different, with the tender and sincere devotional serenity of the one and the bemused, sometimes angry turbulence of the other.  Both sets are accompanied largely by MBET alumni, but more as studio musicians than as full band members.  Marques was known to write in inspired bursts, and in 2003 he also laid down some gorgeous solo acoustic tracks, posthumously collected as Pure Marques:  A Songwriter's Demo, which will eventually be made available via the memorial web site.  A very fertile year for Marques Bovre, after which we have two SoDangYang EP's but no full-length album until Nashville Dandelion.
    Interestingly, the Marques Bovre voice of the final recordings (which include The Soul You Save, recorded with the Evil Twins in 2012) differs significantly from the voice of a decade earlier.  Deeper, huskier, and with more gravitas, this Marques is more Johnny Cash than Arlo Guthrie.  One can't help imagining what the elder statesman of American country music, the Man in Black, might have done with "Mystery" with its incisive refrain:

     Telescopes and microscopes and Scopes v. Tennessee
     Trying to blow the lid right off of every earthly mystery
     And though we burn it down and we boil it down,
     There is still this mystery of you in me.

    In this late Nashville harvest, Marques consistently fixes his sights on the aspect of divinity that manifests in flawed human beings.  There's a grand tradition running from the Mideastern Sufis through the southern European Troubadours that blurs the distinctions between the human beloved and God, which we hear echoed in "Blaze":

     I love her as I love you
     I love you as I love her.
     Seems to be a sacred simile,
     My sweetest lover and my Lover/Creator.

    Listening to Nashville Dandelion, I am repeatedly struck by the courage and true faithfulness of an artist no more than a couple of years away from his death and who on some level probably intuits it.  Marques indeed was dying as he was living (as are we all), and indeed succeeded richly in living while he was "still alive."  What was perhaps intended to be a return to form thus became a kind of musical epitaph.  Awareness of death shadows many of Marques's earlier efforts, to be sure, yet never becomes a morbid preoccupation.  The many surgeries required by his osteoarthritis would certainly have heightened Marques's sense of the tenuousness of his physical existence.  Yet he seems never to have given in to those limitations in a spirit-shrinking way, no matter how they constricted his sphere of worldly actions.
    We find perhaps the purest distillation of his hard-won knowledge of living in "Let It Drain," in which he concludes:

    Well there's only two things that you can do with your pain,
    You can pass it along or you can sing in the rain.

"Let it drain" is his good advice.  Words to live by.  "Let it wash across the world like holy rain."
    We all know what can follow a good rainstorm -- a rainbow.  The rainbow's promise duly makes its appearance on Nashville Dandelion in the aforementioned "Cloudy Day," in which the prideful "righteous" make their rapturous exit, leaving "room for everyone."  In one of his most intriguing lines, Marques says, "I wanna be here when the rainbow starts to pay."  In living --and dying--in sustaining faith, hope, and love, Marques Bovre indeed was "here" for the rainbow's full yield.  Mystics like Kabir and Swedenborg say that what we find now in this life is what we'll find, in a different way, in the next.  In his long fidelity, through pain, disappointment, limitation, and compassionate response to the sorrows of the world, I think there must always have been a divine rainbow giving it up for Marques Bovre.

    *     *     *

    Shortly after our return from Madison in early April, 2000, my souvenir Buddy and Julie Miller flier went up to join various other memorabilia on the walls of my writing study, where I've seen it most days for the past 14 years.  Nor have I failed, during that flier's long occupancy on my wall, to take note of the line "with Marques Bovre (solo acoustic)."  So in an odd way, Marques Bovre, however removed in time and geography, became a part of my life and world all those years ago.
    This has given my recent journey into his music that strangely fated quality I mentioned at the beginning of this appreciation.  It's evident to me that our brief interaction at the Club Tavern lodged and grew in my soul into the present encounter and reckoning with what has turned out to be one of the ghosts of my own interior "lonesome county."  Put another way, I could say that something about Marques touched me in a way that thereafter caused me subtle, largely unconscious regret at not having followed that inner prompting with a more active interest in the man's music.
    I'm well aware that certain outward signs which others may dismiss as accidental, random or simply trivial sometimes instruct us to pay closer attention to our moment of passage through this mysterious world or--to borrow Keats's phrase--"vale of soul-making."  Learning that Marques Bovre had died on my wife's and brother's birthday made me at last sit up and take notice.  (And so, for that matter, did the discovery that my old friend and bandmate Mark Annett had contributed backing vocals to one of the songs on Ghost Stories from Lonesome County, "Drunk and Disgusting."  Another connection I couldn't ignore.)
    Though I traded no more than a handful of words with him, I've come to feel a personal connection with Marques Bovre.  Marques wrote in his notes to Nashville Dandelion, "Remember, just because we never met doesn't mean we aren't friends."  I believe he intended those words as much for posterity as for the present moment in which he wrote them, as much for those who would hear him after he was gone as for his faithful audience of regular listeners.  When I met Marques that one time, I didn't know we were friends, but maybe he did. 
    I now recognize Marques as one of the rare awake people who are sensitive and creatively responsive to the currents of life flowing around them, of which we are all a part.  Being "here" was what Marques was all about.  "But I'm here now," he told me, and I believe he knew a lot more about the simple value of just being here than I did at the time.  The rainbow richly pays those who make being here their discipline, joy, and burden, despite (as he put it in one of his last and best songs with the Evil Twins, "The Soul You Save") the "grit and shit and sorrow."
    In the liner notes to Flyover Land, Marques wrote, "I don't believe in a judgement day when the wicked explode in a fireball.  Maybe we'll all just have to say, 'I'm sorry.'"  This piece of particularly forgiving theology has a special ring of truth for me.  In the my past year's rewarding exploration of Marques's music, I've felt sorry that I didn't really take a chance on him back then, and thus did not carry the comfort and challenge of his music along with me for the past decade or so.  (I consider it an equal loss not to have heard him gig with the fantastic Evil Twins.)
    But late as I've come around to his music, I have not come too late.  As I enjoy and absorb the many delicious songs Marques dropped for hungry wayfarers along the path of his too-short but very fruitful life, the regret I felt at the outset increasingly gives way to gratitude for the body of heart-gladdening, spiritually probing, emotionally satisfying songs which will stand as Marques's legacy.  For this belatedly declared fan in western Wisconsin, where (as in many other places) Marques Bovre is virtually unknown, those songs have become something of a secret garden I've known I would have to share with others.

(Note:  All lyrics quoted in this essay are protected by copyright and used with permission.  You can buy all of the songs and albums mentioned here and more at  Thanks to Mark Gardiner, an early reader, for encouraging this essay to say what it meant to say.  And above all, gratitude to Doug Meihsner for his invaluable input, patiently and generously dispensed over the course of a long, taxing winter.  This essay would have been much the poorer without his help.  In his energetic advocacy through the official web site, he has worked hard to keep Marques Bovre's music and memory alive.  No artist, I think, has had a more faithful friend.)


Do you remember the fresh shock of the Beatles'
look and sound, giddy joy in the choreographed
head-shakes, tumult of yeah-yeahs like an ecstatic
conquering army sweeping over the hill
of our doubts?  More than anything, what sticks
for me from that evening my younger brother
and I gaped at the long-haired troubadours
on our grandparents' TV, able to pull in
Cities stations our rabbit-eared set at home
couldn't, is the shared dazzlement of siblings,
one teenaged and the other wishing
he were, walking the snowy streets home,
in no hurry to subject this new wonder
that has lit up their faces to the belittling
sarcasm of a father unable to
join in the fun.  Glad for any occasion
to visit, those two old people, his parents,
plied us with potato chips and soda,
supported us in a way gently subversive
to our father's dour regime.  Though because
of our four adopted British older brothers,
we would both go on to take up guitar,
the younger quickly outstripping the elder,
the deeper drama of our lives has its roots here
in the early-set divisions of home
and heart that, magnified in the nation,
persist and intensify year by year,
while the Beatles' inclusive star beams down
like the better angel it's turned out to be
since sweetening that first bitter era
of loss and diminishment our generation knew.

(from The Night We Saved the Beatles, Lost Music Press, 2012)

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