Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bill Holm Uncaged

Bill Holm died this week. Years ago I wrote my first fan letter ever to him… and never sent it. While an undergrad, I attended Bill’s reading-recital. A big burly guy of Icelandic heritage from rural Minnesota, Bill wrote tender and caustic poetry about a landscape for which I refused to be homesick. He read a few concise words about the tundra and then meandered over to the piano to play precise Brahms.

The tundra poetry didn’t choke me up, but the music did.

I don’t think he cared whether or not we liked the music. The music was for him. The words were for us.

At the time I struggled to find a balance between music and writing. Until Bill, I didn’t know that writers could be musicians and musicians could be writers.

I had led a charmed and harsh prairie farm house life to a soundtrack of my sister's piano: Chopin, Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, Rachmaninoff. We were an unsettled family of musicians pulling the grass apart/ to place our fingers on God’s heart (Edna St. Vincent Millay's Renascence 201-202).

Underneath aborted fan mail to male writers with rural souls is my mother’s mantra: “Write what you know. Write what you know. Write what you know.”

What do I know? It’s just as difficult to find antonyms to music as to write synonyms for what I think I know.

Is writing about the logical loop of thoughts on a page or the pressure of the pen in a hand that cramps? Is piano music about concise precision or the bounce of the keys under the fingers, the bounce of sound in a house in the middle of nowhere? Is singing about vocal emotional prowess or the resonance of the sound vibrating through a living breathing body? Is all art, sound, word about manipulating the emotions of others or jolting and soothing one’s own psyche?

I quit caring about small rural life. I suppress dreadfully poignant bullshit observations of what it means to grow up rural. Leaving rural life boils down to understanding what a caged wild animal must endure. I was on the verge of caged animal madness when I saw Bill Holm. His music calmed me.

Now I cage the music.

I live on a concrete island surrounded by a river of rumbling cars, as close to the heart of a City as I can stomach. Yet every day I look west and see a mirage of wheat and corn and grass and snow.

I know out in Bill Holm’s landscape there will always be a window open to a room with a piano… a concert of Chopin for an audience of combines and cows.

Bill Holm's Website

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