An Evening with Bill Holm

On September 29, 2002 Minnesota-born author, musician, and scholar Bill Holm provided a memorable evening of poetry reading, insightful commentary, and piano music for the Friends of the Northfield Public Library annual membership meeting.

Bill's insights and spirited piano playing were appreciated by all attending.

Although we can't share with you the music or Bill's strong character, we are able to bring to you the text of the poems he read.

A Retired Farmer Working as A Greeter at Wal-Mart

The store went up last year outside of town.
There was a cornfield where I'm standing now,
smiling, saying hello, and handing out ads
for plastic purses, towels, and microwaves.
The job doesn't pay much, but neither did farming.
Pete, my old neighbor, wearing clean overalls,
comes in. I say, "Hey, you lazy fart, I see
you're taking a day off to loaf in town."
And Pete says, "You should talk, getting paid
for standing around in an air-conditioned store."
While we talk about the rain last night,
the possibility of early frost, the price of hogs,
a dozen customers pass by ungreeted,
and I feel uneasy about not doing my job.

In one way, it's like farming--spending hours
on the tractor, with lots of time to daydream.
Now, I invent secrets I'd like to tell customers.
"Every third mineral water bottle is filled
with Russian vodka. Snakes have been found
in the cups of the imported brassieres."
But I only say, "Hello, how are you,"
and send them on their way down the aisles,
which are nothing like rows of corn.

Leo Dangel, Home from the Field


Someone dancing inside us
   has learned only a few steps:
the "Do-Your-Work" in 4/4 time,
    the "What-Do-You-Expect" Waltz.
He hasn't noticed yet the woman
    standing away from the lamp.
the one with black eyes
    who knows the rumba.
and strange steps in jumpy rhythms
    from the mountains of Bulgaria.
If they dance together,
    something unexpected will happen;
if they don't, the next world
    will be a lot like this one.

Bill Holm

An Early Morning Cafe'

At the summit of the Trade Center
107 stories into urban ether
the Windows of the World Cafe
served pate' and poached salmon
to diners staring down
into the caverns of Manhattan,
but early in the September morning,
the sommelier and maitre d'
still asleep in their far-away flats,
only the sous-chef and banquet staff
had arrived to peel the shrimp,
trim the artichokes, and wash
the leaves of the escarole.
Simple work in silence with your mates
in an empty early morning cafe'
is a pleasure: jokes, mild complaining,
a hummed tune or two,
sneaking a cigarette in a quiet alcove,
stories of luck in last night's poker,
when suddenly a berserk machine
decides to murder a building with fire.
Like a badly shot elephant,
the hundred and six stories holding up
your peeling knife and lettuce drier
wobbled and shook for a little while.
Smoke belched out from blown-out eye sockets
but when the flames began melting the bones,
it all tumbled down on top of itself in
a smoking gray heap, the shrimp,
the artichokes, the escarole, fifty thousand
bottles of elegant wine, joining
in a sticky red downpour:
type A, type O, Chateau Lafitte, Rothschild.
Pouilly Fuisse '79, type AB '49,
and you yourself unless you leapt
out one of the windows of the world
to try with your imaginary wings
to finish the flight to the city of angels.
Humans so riddled with hate they transmogrified
from men to bombs to smash the girders
under your cafe', though they'd never met you at all,
to murder you for the glory of God
with your apron still smeared with shrimp guts.
It was always thus. Try killing an abstraction
by murdering a building from the air,
but all you kill is Bob and Edna
and Sallie and Rodrigo and Mei-Mei.
A building is only a set of artificial legs
to hold up human beings in the air,
and an airplane only a sheet of folded paper.
But 50,000 bottles of good wine
and ten gallons of fresh gulf shrimp,
and Bob and Edna and all the rest.
Now that is something real!
If you think you've bagged the one truth
and that truth wants final sacrifice,
then you have stepped outside the human race,
and your plane will not land in heaven
wherever you think it might be.
Heaven in an early morning cafe'.
Wherever you are.

Bill Holm

Barbed-wire Winter

When we got married--now, that was cold weather.
At least twenty-five below,
winter solstice, nineteen forty,
war and rinderpest.
Road to the church was blocked with barbed wire.
I remember we clambered over the rail fence of the parsonage.
--Hey, your dress is caught
--no, not there--over there.
We tramped the furrows of an ice-crusted
potato field, up to the minister
who was in his surplice and had
the Scriptures ready.
--Love is a path you must walk, he ways, Yes, we said.
But my lord what muddy feet we had!
When we got in bed that night
we cried a dab--both of us. God
knows why.
And then the long life began.

Rolf Jacobsen: The Roads Have Come to An End Now


We bring Aunt Martha to the nursing home.
They weigh her, barely a hundred pounds,
and we help her lie down for a nap.
She closes her eyes, and the lines
of her frail body almost vanish
in her loose-fitting black dress.
I remember how this woman,
after her husband died,
ran the farm herself,
operating tractors and combines,
digging post holes and stretching barbed wire,
dehorning cattle and castrating pigs.
She cooked, too, and baked bread,
and fixed her daughters' hair.
Everyone knew Martha could do anything.
Now the nurse adjusts the Venetian blinds
and, speaking softly, tells us
we'll have to talk it over with Martha
when she wakes up and decide which box
to check on her chart--"No CPR" means
that if she ever stops breathing,
they won't try to bring her back.
Standing near her bed, we talk in whispers,
wondering how we'll raise this subject,
when, without opening her eyes, she speaks
in the voice she once used to direct
a crew of men shelling corn or filling silo,
"I'll kill anyone who brings me back."

Leo Dangel: Home from the Field

In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

Wislawa Szymborska


What is the pain like? says the pretty girl with the clipboard.
Like a serrated bread knife sawing at the top of the rib cage, punctuated with
sudden blows from an ax or a meat cleaver.
What the girl wanted was "not too bad" or "pretty bad", or even "bad", an
anonymous quality, sans detail, sans metaphor.
A little stoicism might have cheered her up.
Are you claustrophobic? She says with another nod at the clipboard.
Of course, I answer, Isn't everyone if they are still alive?
Can I give you something for it?
Only the lead gift in the twilight if that's what it comes to.
Never mind.
How do you feel, she asks, after she has slid my supine body into the tight white sarcophagus.
Like a character in a Poe story.
No, I work for Dr. Moe.
Not much lit in the med-tech course, I suppose.
Lots of people like music, she nods cheerfully.
What have you got?
East listening, soft rock, country...
No Mahler Ninth? No C# minor quartet?
Give me the news, I say. Ashcroft and the collapsing stock market seems about right.
It's noisy, she warns.
She has a gift for understatement.
It's like being squeezed in an airless plastic coffin dropped on the floor of a sheet metal factory
stamping out auto parts or shell casings. Irregular metallic thumping and whanging.
Only an hour left, she says after ten years.
Just lay real still. We're getting good pictures.
Not since the Middle Ages has anyone thought of a machine quite like this,
a modern rack or iron maiden to take pictures of the spine, the organs, the bones, the muscles.
Torquemada would have used it to take pictures of your opinions.
He would have offered his heretics prayer but neither easy listening nor Valium.
He thought it God's will. We think it science.
This is, I suppose, progress of a kind.
One way or another, you wind up diagnosed.
Either that or burned at the stake, another kind of diagnosis.

Bill Holm

Old Age

I put a lot of stock in the old.
They sit looking at us and don't see us,
and have plenty with their own,
like fishermen along big rivers,
motionless as a stone
in the summer night.
I put a lot of stock in fishermen along rivers
and old people and those who appear after a long illness.

They have something in their eyes
that you don't see much anymore,
the old, like convalescents
whose feet are still not very sturdy under them
and pale foreheads as if after a fever.

The old
who so gradually become themselves once more
and so gradually break up
like smoke, no one notices it, they are gone
into sleep
and light.

Rolf Jacobsen

Some People Like Poetry

Some people--
that means not everyone.
Not even most of them, only a few.
Not counting school, where you have to,
and poets themselves,
you might end up with something like two per thousand

but then, you can like chicken noodle soup,
or compliments, or the color blue,
your old scarf,
your own way,
petting the dog.

but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail.

Wislawa Szymborska, translation by Baranczak & Cavanagh

The Old Women

The girls whose feet moved so fast, where did they go?
Those with knees like small kisses and sleeping hair?

In the far reaches of time when they've become silent,
old women with narrow hands climb stairs slowly

with huge keys in their bags and they look around
and chat with small children at cemetery gates.

In that big and bewildering country where winters are so long
and no one understands their expressions anymore.

Bow clearly to them and greet them with respect
because they still carry everything with them, like a fragrance,

a secret bite-mark on the cheek, a nerve deep in
the palm of the hand somewhere betraying who they are.

Rolf Jacobsen

Wedding Poem For Schele and Phil

A marriage is risky business these days
Says some old and prudent voice inside.
We don't need twenty children anymore
To keep the family line alive,
Or gather up the hay before the rain.
No law demands respectability.
Love can arrive without certificate or cash.
History and experience both make clear
That men and women do not hear
The music of the world in the same key,
Rather rolling dissonances doomed to clash.

So what is left to justify a marriage?
Maybe only the hunch that half the world
Will ever be present in any room
With just a single pair of eyes to see it.
Whatever is invisible to one
Is to the other an enormous golden lion
Calm and sleeping in the easy chair.
After many years, if things go right
Both lion and emptiness are always there;
The one never true without the other.

But the dark secret of the ones long married,
A pleasure never mentioned to the young,
Is the sweet heat made from two bodies in a bed
Curled together on a winter night,
The smell of the other always in the quilt,
The hand set quietly on the other's flank
That carries news from another world
Light-years away from the one inside
That you always thought you inhabited alone.
The heat in that hand could melt a stone.

Bill Holm
Friends of the Northfield Public Library - 210 Washington Street - Northfield, MN 55057