About the Montanan
by Susanna Sonnenberg
Spanning nearly two decades of work, Borrowed Hearts offers the reader the satisfaction of tracing Rick DeMarinis even as he traces us. DeMarinis writes stories that make us catch ourselves after we have set down the book. He amplifies how we hold knives, how we smell and, most deliberately, what we smell. Here is a single, simple moment captured in the bitter A Romantic Interlude:
A faraway train, the afternoon Amtrak, gave a lengthy blast of its horn. Two longs, a short, followed by a long. Did railroad men want to visit loneliness and despair upon the land with their great melancholy horns? No no, oh no it grieved--and he felt abandoned in a dark and lonely place without hope or luck or the last-minute clarity of grace.
The characters that inhabit his earlier stories are often self-absorbed men early in their lives. Under the Wheat, the stunner that opens the book, reveals a man so detached from his life that he literally embraces the nuclear warheads he guards with neither irony nor conviction.
In the more recent stories, the characters are anxious about pace makers and erections, about too much booze and too little time left. Set largely in the retirement zone of the Southwest, wistful men in late middle age watch men a little older and think to themselves, Hell go first.
DeMarinis understands privacy, the betrayals of the heart, the hoarsest whispers of mistrust and anxiety. His stories are studded with wisdom and offer excellent reading.
In Robert Wrigleys new collection, Reign of Snakes, the poet tries to tame the untamable with poetry: its sections and line breaks, its parsed words and images. Here is the opening to Hoarfrost:
This morning the swing sets a confection
Even its chains flocked thick
As crustless loaves, the painted steel frame
Diaphanous with light but gargantuan.
The poet refers to such fundamental things here as the diurnal cycle, birds and animals. But theres something ominous as well. The world is at odds with itself. The swing set is empty of its expected children, the bread absent its safe crust. People arent here, but they have been here, and something else too, something too big to hold, something both diaphanous and gargantuan.
Wrigley sends a chill up the reader, a haunting caveat that we are not as secure in our domination as we believe. With arresting images such as the sad, swallowed pansies and the blood-freckled cheek of the evening snow, Wrigley depicts a natural world poised to engulf everything, and his poems feel like a desperate attempt to beat back the invasion.
In the nine-part title poem, the formal centerpiece of the book--with lines like Slick back tuck of fang and spit/Pit black waggle tongue strummer--Wrigley tells an enthralling story with Biblical formality and Miltonic force.
Human nature--never such an oxymoron as here--makes its stoutest appearance in Nostalgia. The speaker describes his wife nursing as he mourns his own mothers denial of such sweetness. She offered him instead formula and the bland protuberance/of mass-produced rubber. Then this startling elegy:
I miss it,
I miss it so: my youngest son used to rise
Red-faced, eyes rolled back in his head,
And murmur, Other side, then fall again,
To what I know I never knew.
Imagine you are about to take a long train trip. With the prospect of ten or twelve bloated hours ahead, you are already bored. Just as you have resigned yourself to a monotonous windowscape, a man bustles down beside you and starts to talk. He talks like no one has ever talked before.
That man is Bryan Di Salvatore, master deviator, list-maker and caster in the stream of consciousness, a writer who is part inveterate fabulist, part educating uncle. Like Walt Whitmans speaker, Di Salvatore might say, I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
A Clever Base-Ballist is a biography of nineteenth-century baseball player and pioneer John Montgomery Ward, a man of distinction in his day, whose fame is now obscured by the leonine salaries, celebrities and strikes of contemporary baseball. Ward, who briefly united his teammates against management and changed the course of the game, is an elusive subject, as the writer reminds us. But with his enthusiastic and exhaustive detective work, Di Salvatore has illuminated a place and period that could have no finer interpreter.
This biography feels creatively conscious as well as researched, which is to say that Di Salvatore seizes the human possibility from the dry statistics and scorecards and brings 1880s America clambering to life. A list of Wards expenses for his first term away at school becomes riveting because Di Salvatore has constructed a context for us. He riffs on everything from the deliriously inviting names of the ballplayers (. . . Germany Long, Oyster Burns, The Only Nolan, Adonis Terry. . . ) and the style of photographic portraits to the history of higher education and a condensed chronicle about the bicycle.
Beneath Di Salvatores enjoyment of writing and his maniacal obsession with his diverse subjects, he has laid a tenacious foundation. The book gives us--in a style I will call willed speculation--a portrait of a society and valuable history. The writer, who immersed himself body and soul in archival records, libraries and microfiche, imagines himself in, say, small town Pennsylvania, 1890, with the conviction of a time traveler. With his tentacled attention, Di Salvatore covers everything from the weather to the soil, the trains to the ballparks. If baseball is quintessentially American then A Clever Base-Ballist is an ecstatic ode to a sprawling, mewling, bat-cracking, heart-bursting land.
Roadside History of Montana
by Don Spritzer, Ph.D. 80
Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1999. 440 pp. $20.00 paper.
Take any road in Montana, Don Spritzer knows, and theres a history. Drive Interstate 90 over Lookout Pass and youll follow in the footsteps of John Mullan, the gritty lieutenant who in 1859 hacked a 640-mile road from Fort Benton to Walla Walla, Washington. Cruise Interstate 15 to Great Falls and youll be in the spot where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent a month making a torturous passage around the Missouri Rivers Great Falls. Take Montana 200 east to visit Jordan, and youll be in the place that cattle thieves and, more recently, the Freeman called home.
By taking the broad chunk of Montana and dividing it into six areas, Spritzer organizes the states history by its geography, illustrating his tales with maps and 170 photographs. The Northern Corridor, covers the history of the explorers, railroaders and homesteaders who traveled west on the Missouri River. The Crown of the Continent is George Grinnells term for the breathtaking landscape of Glacier National Park. The Mining Frontier depicts south-central Montana, with its mother lodes of gold, silver and then copper. Cattle and cattle ranching dominate The Central Valleys--a region bounded by the Rockies to the west and the Big Open region of Garfield and McCone counties to the east. The Yellowstone River Basin section is a rich stew of stories about gold seekers, explorers, Crow Indians and tourists come west to view geysers, mudpots and hot springs.
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