America is a country that loves its advertising. That loves its boxes we can put people and places into. We love “Heartland” as opposed to “Dustbowl.” We also love to be surprised. Rural Minnesota, as written by Tom Hennen in Darkness Sticks to Everything, is a world of realistic loneliness and lessons. It’s a collection of sincere poems about man and the land.
The poems begin in 1974 and carry us through to the present. Hennen writes his titles like lines of country wisdom. “Spring Follows Winter Once More,” “Two crows and a January Thaw,” “Tracking The Breeze,” and the disconcerting knowledge that “If You Bite a Wood Tick in Two with Your Teeth It Can Give You Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.” His descriptive titles, however, are not descriptions of the poems themselves. They’re more like markers in his seasons.
His poems are not necessarily risky or ambitious in their use of language. They feel as though they’re here to record the world around him.
The poem “Minneapolis” opens:
Limbless from industrial accidents
Huddle on the outskirts of the city.
The words “blackened,” “limbless,” and “huddle” create a small space, a space of no exit or entrance. Not only have these trees, a life-giving force, been de-limbed and burned but they’ve also been banished to the outskirts.
Hennen writes of “going berserk,” of digging a grave for a “bitch dog,” of women on their way to grief who “zigzag.” Why this choice of language? What does “going berserk” give us? Hennen writes in the everyday language that surrounds him.
In “I Think of Bread and Water and the Roots of a Tree All Wet” we hear:
A description of the freeway
Looking for a city.
I come back
The purpose of freeways is to link cities together. They zip over towns with no concern. They are in fact the death of most farming towns.
On the parking meters
Glass and steel are shining
All the way through.
To be lost is ultimately to long for belonging. To belong is an elusive slice of Americana.
In “Country Latin,” Hennen sings:
Ka Bas, Ka Bas.
The only Latin my father taught me
The purpose of fathers is to link generations, to teach children how to swim and read. How to work the land, how to be people of the land. The Fatherland, the Motherland, our Mother Earth. Hennen’s father has taught him Latin, only it seems to be not enough.
One advantage of reading a collection is that you get to hear a poet develop over years. There is almost always a shift in language and landscape. There is most likely a thread of continuity. In his newer poems, Hennen sprawls out. They read more like prose. Hennen’s content is still in his surroundings. In the poem “Things Are Light And Transparent,” “Farm buildings are mistaken for smoke among the trees.”
In fact the century-old barns of Hennen’s Minnesota are disappearing, as is the farm land. There is an American myth that the rural landscape is an unending expanse. Hennen keeps the present in his recent poems, but there is also a looking back to what is no longer. As if we are continuing to miss something.