“In every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock," writes Niedecker in the poem that begins this collection of letters, journals, and commentary that tie like tributaries to the eponymous Great Lake. Written in the spare style that typifies her work, Niedecker’s poem was the distilled product of a road trip she took with her husband Al Millen in 1966. “Setting off by auto for Lake Superior by way of L. Mich. Shore to Mackinaw Country and Sault Ste. Marie… Al’s vacation," Niedecker wrote poet Cid Corman in a letter included in the book. While the trip may have been her husband’s, the landscape out the passenger seat window—with its gravel pits, pulp manufacturing plants, smelt fisheries, and piles of iron ore—became hers. “The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and language," she wrote in a journal kept during the trip. Niedecker’s poem is further illuminated by a tightly curated constellation of essays, including work by contemporary poet Douglas Crase, who grew up on a farm in Michigan; 17th-century explorer Pierre Esprit Radisson, who traded furs in Wisconsin; and 19th-century geologist and ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft. In total, the map offered here by Wave Books leads back to the modest cabin on Lake Koshkonong in Wisconsin, where Niedecker traced her own poetic beginning to the discovery of the objectivist poets and eventually understood her job, as Elizabeth Willis has written, as “speaking for, rephrasing, recombining and condensing the phenomenal world into art.”
This review was published in American Poet, Volume 44, Spring 2013.