“This anthology is a love letter to my newest hometown, to the rural, and to the small,” writes Julie Arhelger in the introduction to Turn Left at Nowhere: A Century of Morris Poetry (2014). Compiled as her capstone project for the University of Minnesota Morris’ (UMM) honors program*, Turn Left is a lovely volume of pieces inspired by (and in conversation with) the town and its people on the western part of the state. She continues:
If we are to know and appreciate a place like Morris, we cannot simply look at it on a map or read about names and dates. We must look closely at the experiences and emotions of the people who live there, and what better way to do that than through poetry? Poetry is experience and story compacted into the smallest of spaces, it is edited emotion. Poetry of place is at best a deep, stark examination of that place and an unapologetic reflection on experiences, stories, people, and the emotions swirling throughout.
In addition to being a book about place, because so many of its poems come from students (past and present), it is as much a book about being young. Interspersed between poems of the prairies and Main Street are students day-dreaming in class, smoking cigars on their porches, and walking empty sidewalks with first loves. Much of the imagery, naturally, will have a special relevance to the UMM literati, but there is a universality to small town life that suggests the writers could be speaking of any small town, any rural campus. (Some may challenge this characterization, and I’ll freely admit that I don’t have the same near-religious adoration for the college that many of my peers do).
When I received my copy in the mail, I was worried Turn Left may’ve fallen victim to a common problem in student-led publications: a weak gate-keeper. Fortunately, Arhelger was deft in her selection, managing to include a wide-spectrum of writers and styles without jeopardizing the volume’s quality. Still, nearly everyone is in some way associated with the University (the exceptions being Robert Bly and Tom Hennen), be they current faculty members like Athena Kildegaard, Chrissy Kolaya, and James Togeas or recent graduates (several of whom I know personally). What balances this — and is a real treat for readers — is a whole section of poems from when the campus was still the West Central School of Agriculture (WCSA; 1910-1963). Together they offer a different dimension to Morris, more historical, less serious, that otherwise is not present.
For example, the following is by a “Harland Berglin” and comes from the 1932 WCSA Moccasin Yearbook:
Some blame it on the President.
Some say it starts at home.
It worries every resident,
And also those who roam.
Our school is also in its throes
As anyone can see.
The boys don’t take the girls to shows,
And don’t keep them company.
Much saddened sons write home to Dad.
“No mon; no fun; your son.”
“How sad, too bad, your loving dad,”
The mournful answers run.
Ice cream no more on Sunday noon,
And no more cakes and pie.
They’ll keep this up perhaps until
There’s naught to do but die.
The only weakness to Turn Left is its lack of analysis. I would’ve liked to see how Arhelger thinks these pieces fit into a broader historical, geographic context. Her introduction says much about the power of poetry in articulating self and place, but what exactly is being articulated? What does it mean to write about UMM? Is it a liberating or self-containing space? Is the Morris poet contemplative or active? I have my own ideas, and if you buy me a beer, I’ll tell you.
Overall, this book is quite the accomplishment — and I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before. Already within alumni circles it’s being hailed as a landmark event, and it’s the kind of book that’ll surely be coveted by local writing groups, working now with an idea of how their own experiences fit into this broader narrative. It’s an exciting legacy!