Trout Fishing in our Own Lake
Review by Mack Hassler
Like many serious writers, this poet tinkers with his name for literary purposes. He invents an identity that links his work to the clever science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut (Kilgore Trout) as well as to the Kerouac-type Beat writer Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America , 1967). My fishing reference book says that splake are a hybrid fish between a female lake trout and a male brook trout. Brookies are pretty small. One can catch them in random streams all over the UP. Splake can grow to 35 inches and live in the Big Lake. In this book, several references to Brautigan can be found (his suicide linked to Hemingway’s) as well as one line stanzas “ghost of Thoreau” and “on the road again” (both at page 25). Clearly, Splake is an ambitious writer who reaches far beyond his regular work as a professor “dissertation long forgotten” (page 23). So I think it is fitting that this Splake volume is my initial effort at reviewing for this venue that seems to be dedicated to the ambitious project of identifying and, I hope, defining a true literature for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
I am always interested in why we write and how good writing helps to define our culture. I worked a long time on modern science fiction and how it matured into a serious literature. My own dissertation had a lot to do with evolution and growth. I love the work of Emerson, his essay on the search for the “American Scholar” and the common search at the time for a genuine American literature. When Walt Whitman sent Emerson an early Leaves of Grass on the chance that he would approve, the chance not only paid off but produced what still defines much of the work that influences Splake. As I work more for the common project on UP books, I will be looking for similar dynamics of growth. I think it is a great project and hope it will be noticed as such. Names and labels are essential. Early 18th-century British writers called themselves “Scriblerians.” Modern science fiction writers, also, had a club that identified themselves as “Futurians.” The Swift of Gulliver’s Travels,”which often is included in both groups, loved to play games of wit with the surname he was given– a sharp-beaked and rapid-moving little bird.
Having said all this about my own interests, I must come back to the catch of the day. Splake is no Whitman. But like the master, this “collection of poems” is one long poem actually; and with his fishing and beat wit the big and very personal topic is the Quincy Mine at the top of the hill above Hancock and nearly to Calumet. He does take this shaft with its depth as a fine image for his personal growth as a writer. Splake is, also, known for his fine photography. So it is not only a monumental shaft but also deep tunnels that define his own song of himself. It is totally free, or “breath” verse—no measure. So the text reads easily. His positioning himself as a true Michigan poet, I think, works. He has many other books of similar verse and many published displays of his camera work. To follow my comparison of our efforts as reviewers here to the long journey toward a true American literature, I cannot claim, of course, to be an Emerson. But perhaps the tough and crisp voice of Splake may be heard as a Washington Irving or a William Cullen Bryant as an early harbinger, if large fish may be heard as having singing voices, of Whitman’s “song of myself.” I love the Copper Country of the UP and have taken visitors whenever they come up to the Quincy Mine tour. The region needs the sort of literature that this new reviewing project is meant to foster and that Splake has in mind. And like any ambitious goal, it must have its wit and humor of our self-consciousness. That wit is one difference between us and the fish we catch.