Yooper Poetry: On Experiencing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, edited by Raymond Luczak

Review by Mack Hassler

The cover of yooper poetry. An early prose poem in this excellent collection of Yooper Poetry contains the Finn word vaaramaki, which means “danger hill.”  The poem is by Kathleen M. Heideman who has some link to Finlandia University, formerly Suomi College, in Hancock.  It may be now that even Finlandia is closing its doors as I noted in my review here of Carolyn J. Dekker’s North Country.  She was teaching there when her Memoir was published (see my review here posted June 20, 2023).  So my opening idea is that some of the best Yooper writing reaches toward the poetic heights that resonate with “danger” as well as the related idea that among the nineteen poets in this book the most interesting work, in my opinion, comes from the “academic” poets, those who have studied and taught the traditions of literature and who are seeking to bring that knowledge to our regional literature of the U.P.  This abrupt start already makes my review of the collection suspect.

Many of my friends and even Raymond Luczak, who edits well here and writes very well in his own poems included in the collection hint that life in the rugged Upper Peninsula is naturally programmed to generate strong and meaningful writing sui generis, out of itself like the image of massive White Pines in another prose poem by Heideman that Luczak prints immediately following his fine “Foreword”.  Her poem is titled “Now Playing” and deals with running film of U.P. industry backward.  Here is the image: “great logs rolling uphill…bouncing a few times like boys on a diving board, and bounding upright: White Pines! White Pines!”  (p. 1)  This distinction is always present in writing.  There is always the anxiety of being unnoticed and forgotten, just a sapling rather than a great White Pine.  In fact, this is the anxiety of Yooper life itself.  We always wonder if the film of history for our region is running forward or backward.  Ironically, this is the same dilemma that New England literature had over against the great British Victorians as American literature was beginning to define itself, back in the days of Lomgfellow and Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.

I think the academics in this collection are nicely ambivalent and subtle.  Some have built their careers at universities and locations far removed from the U.P.  But they feel ties back as “Yoopers”.  This is more of the vaaramaki danger of ascent.  I think one of the best in this collection is Jane Piirto, who went to Suomi College originally, then earned advanced degrees nd taught at Northern Michigan.  Now she is a retired Trustees’ Professor at Ashland University in Ohio and lives in Columbus.  Each of her poems in the book has an epigraph from one of the Runo of The Kalevala.  Years ago my boss (chairman) in the English Department at Kent State Martin Nurmi, who was a good Blake scholar, loved it when my family began to spend our summers in Baraga County.  He would visit us often because his mother had been a Finnish journalist in Superior Wisconsin.  He would talk Finn with our neighbors and do research on his mother at the Suomi archives.  One more “closet Yooper” among my colleagues in the Kent State English Department is a ghostly and scholarly presence who must be called up.  Clyde Jentoft lived across the Bay from the Bishop Baraga shrine in L’Anse until he was fourteen years old when they stopped building the “woody” Fords in L’Anse and the family moved with the work. Jentoft became a fine Renaissance scholar, and like Nurmi he would often work The Kalevala into his teaching.  When his mother died, he brought her back to L’Anse for burial.   I think both Nurmi and Jentoft,  long dead, would love the Piirto entries in this collection, many about her father.

So mostly I am struck by the poets here who delve into the past, into who were our Fathers.  Several in the collection have been “poet laureates” of the U.P.   Luczak himself who is deaf and who now lives in Minnesota has a fine literary resume, many books in many genres.  I am nearly sure that his career has been a steep climb up a danger hill.   Hopefully this is not a plateau or resting place in his career I think he has collected a wonderful contribution to U.P. literature. Finally, thinking back to my rather startling opening for this review, only roughly half of the nineteen poets collected here show the references in their poems and the details in their biographies to identify them as “academics.” The other writers contribute good poems, the sui generis sort of work about their lives in the U.P. One of the most lyric and effective, I think, is the final poem Luczak prints.  The poet is Deborah K. Frontiera.  She was from the Houghton area and taught elementary school in Texas.  I quote the title and the first and third stanzas.  It is a three-stanza poem:

Leaving Home

There was a time when all
I wanted was to leave
The town that made me what
I am to find my self.

My place, my heart, was back
Home all along.  I never
Really left.  My heart, my roots
Were always where I came from.

Also, Luczak gives equal space to all nineteen poets    So ultimately it is the reader who decides if he or she prefers the “academic” or the sui generis approach.   A further good point about a very thoughtful and beautifully published book.  In his “Foreword,” the editor gives special thanks to Victor Volkman for help with all this work and with the book production.  And I do as well because I love the resonance that exists in Yooper Poetry and helps to feed our various literatures across time and distance.

Yooper Poetry: On Experiencing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, edited by Raymond Luczak (Modern History Press, Ann Arbor, MI 2024, 155 pages pbk, $19.95.

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