Around this time last year, I was at a gallery opening in Duluth. While wandering around the exhibit, I came across Sheila Packa, Duluth’s former Poet Laureate. We had met each other on a few occasions, so we greeted each other with friendly platitudes. But then we started talking about art, specifically the piece that was before us, as well as what we had respectively been working on or intended to work on. At that time, Packa told me that she was gathering stories and learning the history of the people of the Iron Range for a series of poems.
So when “Night Train Red Dust” showed up at the office a couple weeks ago, it was a very pleasant surprise. I can’t say I’ve talked to Packa since that evening in Duluth, though after reading her new collection of poems, I can safely say that I’ve had the chance to pick her brain a bit.
Since she calls northeastern Minnesota her home, the story of the Iron Range is very much the story of Packa and her family. Many of the poems are very personal in nature; not just in the way they humanize even the unnamed characters who haunt the history of the mines, but the poems are about herself. A wonderful example of this would be in the poem “Old Music.” Through the stanzas, the reader is invited to see different episodes in the life of the speaker (who is presumably Packa herself). The history in the piece hints at important parts of the American story, as well as the more unique one of those living in this corner of the world, all punctuated by hints of song from an accordion. The final stanza seems to not just tie a beautiful bow on the poem, but of the theme of much of the book when it reads:
I follow the threads back
through her scissor cuts, back through the eye
of her needle. She has wet me with her tongue.
I take her into the American vernacular,
drive her language to its destination,
play the volume on high
in a minor key, old music.
But not all the poems read so autobiographical. In the poem “Sketch,” she unpacks multiple dimensions of an accident and all the repercussions that follow for years thereafter in under two pages (something only poetry can do), throwing out vignettes no more than a couple lines each that read like whole chapters in this history. It starts (seemingly) straight enough to the point.
In 1916, in Biwabik during the strike
an accident happened
when the company’s guards
visited the house of Philip Masonovich.
Some said it was over a drink
but that’s not what others think.
It shouldn’t be understated that besides the interesting content, looking at the local history in a new light, Packa’s collection of poems is wonderfully well written. Thoughtful in each word and punctuation mark, the poems with few exceptions offer readers a joyful experience in the aesthetic of language while at the same time giving those of us who won’t be satisfied until we’ve deconstructed the last phoneme a new reading project as well.
It should also be said that if you’re looking for “joyful” poems that leave you with a warm feeling inside, you very well could be leafing through the wrong book. The history of immigrant laborers in Minnesota and of the mining industry isn’t exactly laced with sunshine, literally or metaphorically.
But that’s not to say there aren’t poignant moments of love and tenderness that happen within the pages. Like the region’s history itself, the book expresses both victory and defeat. It’s a must read for fans of poetry, as well as for all with an interest in the history of the Iron Range.
For more information or to purchase “Night Train Red Dust,” visit www.wildwoodriver.com.