Jun 12 2008

Traverse City, Michigan and Environs

Published by Brian at 7:17 pm under travel, poetry, agriculture, science_fiction

My room at the Holiday Inn in Traverse City“Bend of bay and swerve of shore” begins Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and that pretty well describes the Lake Michigan shore around Traverse City. I’m here for the ACE 2008 Conference, a gathering of agricultural and natural resource science communication professionals. I’m staying at the Holiday Inn.

Please note that there are no Michigan girls in my room. (And let me say up front that, although I’m traveling for work, the opinions expressed here in no way represent those of my employer, and the photos and information gathered for this post were done on my own time and at my own expense. No need for a tax-payer revolt, y’hear?) But if you don’t know “Michigan Girls” by Califone, I hope you’ll check the song and the band out.

Broke heels and bare legs
Pink waterline gave up on your twisted code
God’s eyes are crossed maybe just like yours. (”Michigan Girls” by Califone)

Lorine NiedeckerNot that I haven’t met some lovely women (and, oh yeah, sure, some nice guys, too) here in Traverse City. Today, for instance, I went hunting for bookstores in hopes of finding a book of poems by Lorine Niedecker (nee-decker), in hopes of gifting a new friend of mine back in Washington who grew up in Michigan and loves the Lakes.

I found several used bookstores up and down the coast. “Do you have anything by the Michigan poet Lorine Niedecker?” I kept asking. My association with Niedecker goes back some 25 years when someone, maybe Dorianne Laux, said I should read her. Niedecker is a poet of wonderful compression, often described as “domestic,” a rather insulting designation considering the fact that bearing a uterus doesn’t make a poet (or any woman) any more domestic than it did Emily Dickinson. In her collected poems, which I don’t have at hand, Niedecker has a long poem about the rocky Upper Peninsula. I got blank looks from several bookstore keepers, all lovely women. As was Niedecker.

Niedecker was born in 1903. Trouble is, at least for my book hunt, she wasn’t from Michigan. She was from the other side of the Big-Sea-Water, Wisconsin. Her she is with her beloved Lake in the background.

Lorine Niedecker with the Lake in the backgroundLike I say, I have her poems at home, but didn’t think to bring her with me. Fortunately, the Electronic Poetry Center at U. Buffalo has some of her work online. Here’s a fairly typical poem:

Along the river
  wild sunflowers
over my head
  the dead
who gave me life
  give me this
our relative the air
our rich friend

Niedecker, according to Wikipedia, “was the only woman associated with the Objectivist poets and is widely credited for demonstrating how an Objectivist poetic could handle the personal as subject matter.” I’m not so sure about that, as her friend and correspondent, Louis Zukovsky, could get pretty personal. In any case, Niedecker wrote about the natural world around her without recourse to blatant romanticism. I’ve long been attracted to her as she was something of a hermit, wandering the bends of bay and swerves of shores “looking clearly at the world” while writing with “sincerity [and] intelligence” (Wikipedia again).

Speaking of pretty women, I met two at Chateau Leelanau. Michigan has a small but interesting, if young, wine industry. I’m no wine connoisseur, even though I regularly write about the Washington wine industry. But my interest is in the science and I eschew, and am otherwise no damn good at, the obfuscatory adjectival style of most wine writers. I do know I like big reds with a lot of “mouth feel” (tannins, to a chemist), and the few I’ve tasted here are pretty small (typically 12% alcohol compared to 13.5 and above for Washington and, yeah, that other place south of the Evergreen State). I bought a couple bottles from these nice ladies as gifts for friends back home.

cherry trees in MichiganMichigan is, of course, famous for its cherries. The airport here in Traverse City is called Cherry Capital. I was surprised to see old-school orchard systems. You’ll note how far apart and tall the trees are in this photo. Probably hard to get a sense of scale, but these trees, older ones, are about ten-feet tall with crowns as wide as the trees are tall, meaning they require a lot of labor to harvest; you have to climb a ladder to harvest the fruit in the crown, which is a pain in the ass, and a little dangerous, too, especially if you’ve been working in the humidity and heat all day. Just down the road from this older orchard are some much more recently planted trees, also not on dwarfing rootstock and in a low-density configuration. Maybe I’m just seeing the “for fun” orchards and not the serious, high-volume production ones, but these orchards take a lot more inputs to sustain (water, pest treatments, and so on) than do high-density systems, so I’m puzzled. You’d never find low-d systems in Washington, which is also pretty serious about its cherries (they don’t call the pink-and-yellow crown jewel the Rainer for nothing).

As I cruised around in my rented Kia (not a bad little car; plenty of head room, always a good thing for a not-so-bendy-anymore bean pole), I was listening to WNMC, a public radio station out of North Michigan College here in T Town. This is an awesome station, playing lots of jazz, blues and American roots music, as well as classy “world” music. The DJs are smart and low-key. We’re pretty starved for good radio back in Pullman, so this was a bit of bliss to go along with the lovely scenery… and the Kia’s air conditioning.

The last bookstore I stopped at was back in Traverse City, a place called the Bookie Joint. The owner was sweet as pie, and helped me paw through the Poetry and Michigan sections looking for, ahem, “the Michigan poet,” Niedecker. Hope she doesn’t read this! Well, actually, I hope she does, because she was smart and friendly, even if, like every one else (and Neidecker truly is one of our great but neglected poets), she’d never heard of my beloved Lorine. I ended up buying a handsome 1996 edition of Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, with a sharp, if mystified (honestly so), foreword by William Gibson.

The Kia safely parked, I walked down T Town’s trendy shopping district on Front Street for a solo dining experience at Poppycock’s. (I’m in marketing, but somebody ought to round us all up and smack us smartly about the head and shoulders for coming up with such names; I’ll stand in the back, if you please, so I don’t get too bruised.) I’m not much of a meat eater anymore (I work in ag, remember?, and know too well what chicken, pigs and cows go through on the way to our tables) but ordered a salad with (what else?) cherry- and jalapeno-glazed chicken breast on local greens with a (what else?) cherry-lemon vinaigrette. That, and a glass of a California Central Coast Syrah, went straight to my head. By the time the spinach-basil ravioli arrived, I was through Gibson’s foreword and into the first few pages of Delaney’s exquisite prose and remembered why I so loved this novel (or novel-like substance, more likely) as an adolescent. The first thing that happens is a sex scene:

With her fingertips she moved his cock head roughly into her rough hair while a muscle in her leg shook under his. Suddenly he slid into her heat. He held her tightly around the shoulders when her movements were violent. One of her fists stayed like a small rock over her breast. And there was a roaring, roaring: at the long, surprising come, leaves hailed his side.

Good dinner and good wine with an old friend. Probably a sacrilege of some sort to be reading that while eating, but I’m never short of heresies, and the meal was at least close to being as rich and complex as the prose. And thinking of that “recombinant city” (as Gibson manages to describe the scene of Dhalgren), I thought of cities of the heart I’d left behind in the ’90s and how Traverse City is a travesty in perfect synch with post-industrial America. Then I shrugged, paid my bill, and went walking in this charming, self-absorbed city, happy to be alive and not nearly as old as I once thought I was, welcoming the ghosts of the past. I tend them like a garden, with care.

As for my new friend back home, I’m still going to give her some Niedecker. Wisconsin, Michigan, big deal: water means the world to both of them and that’s enough for me.

One Response to “Traverse City, Michigan and Environs”

  1. Daveon 11 Nov 2008 at 7:01 pm

    Hey B….
    I’ve enjoyed just browsing around your site. I stumbled upon this Traverse City piece and, being a Michigan boy whose Mom and sister line in TC, found it fascinating. It seems your bookstore browsing put you in touch with the best of the city, apart from the dinner at Poppycocks, or whatever that name was. I’m sure they’d say that their name caused you to react (and remember).

    Well, on to more enjoyable browsing,

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