by Dennis Dalman
One night, while looking out her window, Mary Willette Hughes saw a red sports car covered with autumn leaves, a sure sign that fall was well underway and that winter was not far behind.
Those images and thoughts (snazzy car, leaves, winter coming) sparked Hughes’ imagination and then morphed into a poem she entitled Finding Signs. The red sports car reminded her of the full-speed-ahead energy of youth, the leaves reminded her that time is flying and aging is unavoidable. Her poem became, in its last line, a stark reminder of mortality, symbolized by a sudden “Dead End” sign. (To read the poem, see the very end of this story.)
Hughes, who lives in Waite Park, is a member of the Grand View Poets, a group based in Sartell and headed by Dennis Herschbach, an award-winning Sartell novelist and poet who is president of the group. He is also current president of the League of Minnesota Poets, of which Grand View Poets is one chapter. Grand View is named after the apartment complex in Sartell in which the group meets, starting at 6:30 p.m. the last Monday of every month. There will be no December meeting. The next one is Jan. 26.
Grand View Poets fosters camaraderie among fellow poets and gives them all a chance to read one another’s poems and to offer kindly criticism and suggestions, as well as praise. There are a dozen members of the group. Anyone can join, including beginners. For more information, contact Herschbach at 1-218-343-1522 or email email@example.com.
After going to a poetry group in Brainerd for several years, Mary Willette Hughes was happy to discover the Sartell-based poets’ club.
That’s because she used to commute to the Brainerd one with a woman who has since died and a man who stopped attending.
“This is a wonderful, close place,” she said. “I’d known Dennis (Herschbach) for quite a few years through the League of Minnesota Poets, and I was glad he started Grand View Poets.”
Hughes is the award-winning author of three collections of poetry: Quilt Pieces (poems about growing up), The Shadow Loom and Flight on New Wings.
The latter book is comprised of poems written during Hughes’ work with Recovery Plus, an out-patient program of the St. Cloud Hospital for people with alcohol or chemical dependency. Hughes has been a poetry facilitator for that group for 15 years, part of Recovery Plus’s Expressive Arts program. Hughes informs the members of the group how poets come to write, how they find their inspirations and how they shape words, thoughts and feelings into poems. Then, the clients in the group are invited to write poems of their own and read them aloud in the group sessions. Hughes said it’s amazing how poetry can help people bring their inner feelings into full bloom. Many people suffering from addictions are often stigmatized, she noted, but what impresses her about those clients is their sensitivity as expressed in their poems.
Hughes knows first-hand the “healing” power of poetry. She began writing poems when she was 58 to try to focus her mind during a family crisis involving a son.
“Poetry was therapeutic,” she said. “Finding metaphors, creating a form on the page really helped my mind move in a positive direction. The poetry-writing is cleansing and healing.”
Born as a farm girl in Delavan, Minn., Hughes’ mother (Florence Hymes Willette) was also an amateur poet who thrived on words, word play and the game of Scrabble.
Besides her dedication to poetry, Hughes has been a music teacher and was an instructor for 18 years with the Family Life Bureau in St. Cloud.
Hughes and her husband, Mark, married for 60 years, have seven children. The following is a poem Hughes wrote in honor of their anniversary last August.
Sixty Years of Becoming
by Mary Willette Hughes
Every day we become a blend of old and new wine.
We have known days of warm, spring rains,
snow-swirled nights, and summer sun’s lusty breath.
Now, Autumn chill circles, enters our bones.
Lord, we offer the all of our lives to You,
the Alpha and Omega of our marriage: of daily love,
of children, of teaching, of music and poetry.
We lift a toast to you, Lord. Crystal goblets are filled;
sweet white wine spills beyond the rim of gold.
For Micki Blenkush, poems are a way to crystallize fleeting experiences that sometimes don’t make sense until they are translated into poetry.
Her inspiration for a poem is an experience that lingers in the mind, causing her to return to it and then to express it in words.
“A lot of my poems are narrative poetry about being a parent or growing up myself and looking back at my childhood,” she said. “Some childhood experiences linger and don’t make sense until later.”
Blenkush, who lives in St. Cloud, used to attend a poets’ group at the Waite Park library until she discovered the Grand View Poets group. She joined it in 2013.
“The group is my idea of a good time,” she said. “I appreciate the feedback. We give and receive helpful criticisms, and we respect the way other members write. Every month, I look forward to that group.”
Originally from Atwater, Blenkush moved to St. Cloud in 1986, earning a social-work degree from St. Cloud State University. Married and the mother of one daughter, she is employed as a social worker for Stearns County.
“I’ve always enjoyed writing,” she said. “Poetry seems to be the best fit for me rather than short stories or the novel.”
One of Blenkush’s award-winning poems is based on a photograph of a man sitting alone on the patio of a restaurant. The following is that poem:
Bradley, who used to cater
remains long after
the other guests leave.
He obscures a chair
at table nine, tucks his elbows
while assistants clear the dishes.
As one worker sweeps below
Bradley lifts and returns each heavy foot
to its rooted place beneath the table.
His soft hands snuggle
into the nest of his belly
like baby birds as he leans back,
stretches out his legs, agrees yes
that is his cane against the far wall.
Over the clatter of stacking plates,
of knives and forks rejoining,
his voice warbles like a pigeon
as he considers the merits
of lemon cake.
Before the accident, he says,
he knew all of his dishes by heart.
I was a chef of intuition! he announces
to the near empty room.
Bradley then sings
his recipe for Quiche Lorraine
before he tells the man
standing at the gate, holding the keys
that he believes
he can probably find
his own way home.
Dennis Herschbach was a high-school biology teacher for 34 years in Two Harbors, Minn. He moved to Sartell four years ago after meeting and marrying a Sartell resident, Vicki Schaefer.
After the death of his first wife, he wrote his first poem, Two One Alone, Nov. 5, 2005. That led to a series of essays in which he worked out his grief process, eventually publishing his meditations in a book entitled Grief Journey, which was warmly received far and wide.
Later, Herschbach published South First and Lake Front, a collection of stunning, gritty poems about a lakefront bowery area next to Lake Superior; and still later, two mystery-murder novels featuring a female law-enforcement officer.
Next April, Herschbach and Grand View Poets will welcome members of the League of Minnesota Poets when its statewide convention takes place at Anton’s restaurant in Waite Park.
The following is a poem by Hirschbach that won second place in the 2011 National Federation of State Poetry Societies:
by Dennis Herschbach
The hands of autumn
have shaken summer leaves
from spreading branches
of the willow grove.
In its lonely emptiness
he sees eroded hulks
moldering away to rust,
machines and tools forgotten
by farmers no one remembers,
sickle bars and plate-shaped discs,
steel-spoked hay rake wheels
taller than most everything else,
their arching rims ready to roll
with nowhere to go,
each day settling deeper
into the loamy dirt,
He limps to the porch,
fishes out his pocket watch
and winds it as he’s done
ten thousand times before,
feels his grandson’s arms around his leg,
stoops to pick the towhead up.
They look to the yellow-grained field
where his son rides high,
seated in the closed cab
of a new combine that is unaware
of its spot waiting in the willow grove.
The following is the poem by Mary Willette Hughes referred to in the opening of this story:
by Mary Willette Hughes
On our street last night, below twin Basswood trees,
a new, flashy-red sports car. Crisp golden leaves
drifted down and down, layering up and up on hood,
roof, front and back windows. An undeniable sign
the season of Autumn cannot, and will not stop.
This morning the car waits for its young owner
to brush the leaves away before driving. But he
doesn’t. He sits in the car, revs the motor and lays
a long dark patch. Leaves fly. He speeds to the
highway; whitewall tires screech at the stop sign.
If only signs of old age could be wind-swept away
as easily as leaves to find a bright red car below,
maybe a Mazda Miata, waiting to zoom our last days.
But . . . no! In bold, black letters a sign shouts:
DEAD END. We try to brake. We cannot stop.