Sunday June 9, 2013

When I was a boy growing up in rural New Hampshire, there were a few old men who always wore overalls and who lived out in the woods. Those men -- Chief, Pop, Jake -- knew where to find the best wild dandelion greens, sensed when the sucker fish were running the mill race, and squinted at the sky as if it were a baseball box score printed in the tiniest type.

In the poet Tom Hennen, I've found their spiritual descendant. As he writes in "Summer Night Air":

Night doesn't fall

It rises

Out of low spots

Tree trunks

And the back

Of the old cow

I'm bringing home to milk.

A Midwestern poet, Hennen has published six books with small presses since 1974, with titles like "The Heron With No Business Sense" and "Looking Into the Weather," but "Darkness Sticks to Everything," an essential survey of his career, is his first book to be distributed nationally. Hennen's work, until now, has been like a fine fishing hole only the locals knew about.

That's a shame, really, because, as the poet and novelist Jim Harrison writes in the introduction, Hennen is "a genius of the common touch." Some of his titles say that: "Plains Spadefoot Toad" and "Two Crows and a January Thaw," "Finding Horse Skulls on a Day That Smells of Flowers" and "Sunlight After the Pig Yard Flood." Hennen was born in Morris, Minn.


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, in 1942 to a farming family and spent most of his life working outdoors, first for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and then the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. He's a poet in whom the cycles of the seasons and the rhythms of each day burn marrow deep.

His Shaker-clear voice is that of the prairie and the country, evoking John Clare from 19th-century England, the flensed-to-the-bone work of the great Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge and the aphoristic lyrics of certain ancient Chinese poets. Here's "Cold in the Trees" in full:

The hoot

Of the owl

Is large enough

To carry off a whole sheep.

It's hard to believe that this American master -- and I don't use those words lightly -- has been hidden right under our noses for decades.

This is a poetry of the heartland, where "The minnows jerk past my numb fingers, swift as black seconds ticking," and "For two days/the air has smelled like salamanders." Hennen, though, doesn't resort to mere nostalgia here. His poems often reflect who Americans still think they are -- family farms, amber waves of grain and all that - although he knows, for the most part, they aren't anymore.

Yet even amid the inevitable changes wrought by time, one of the pleasures of "Darkness Sticks to Everything" is watching Hennen age into full lyric wisdom. In one of his new prose poems, "What the Bees Found," he writes of a field "with bits of time bending in the wind," of a bee dancing "a map in the air" to remind him "where a lost day can be found." And he closes: "Then I will feel a sudden sting for neglecting the search for what is most sweet."

Hennen is too hard on himself, though. For nearly 40 years he has stoutly and quietly stood his poetic ground, seeking that sweetness. In "What the Plants Say," he pleads: "Help me to be in the world for no purpose at all except for the joy of sunlight and rain. Keep me close to the edge, where everything wild begins."