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1990 BOOK PRIZE WINNER: POETRY : On John Caddy's 'The Color of Mesabi Bones'

November 04, 1990|JOSHUA ODELL | Odell, publisher of Joshua Odell Editions at Capra Press, currently is at work with Jack W. C. Hagstrom on the second volume of a bibliography of the poet Thom Gunn. and

\o7 Iron birthed red, torn from the

earth,

and miners and towns took its

colors and ways, reds of dust and

rust,

of fresh blood and dried, of SCAB

slashed in paint across a store, of

Indians

who would not disappear, of the

Klan's fires,

Wobblies, union bombings, socialist

Finns--

the only unred the blacklist.

John Caddy, here in the second stanza of his title poem, "The Color of Mesabi Bones," (Milkweed Editions) gives a rich and grim description of the Mesabi Range of his childhood. The Mesabi Range in northeastern Minnesota is a 100-mile string of mining towns about five miles apart from one another. The common link between these towns, which led to their development, was iron-ore mining. The color of bones found in the Mesabi Range is the color of leaching iron ore. Red.

Sitting over coffee in a restaurant beneath his publisher's offices in Minneapolis, John Caddy explains, "What is perhaps confusing is that the Mesabi Range sits next to a mountain Range--one of the oldest ranges in the east, some three billion years old. The mountain range is called the Giant's Range. Mesabi means 'sleeping giant,' and the name comes from the Ojibwa Indian tribe, natives of the region."

There are no mountains along the Mesabi Range, only mining towns. It was in Hibbing where John Caddy was born. (The Zimmermans had a hardware store in Hibbing. Their son, Bob, who grew up with John Caddy, later changed his name to Bob Dylan.)

Caddy is a third-generation native of the Mesabi Range, a descendant of hard-rock miners from Cornwall. His father was a mining engineer. Caddy's collection of poems is written from the experience of growing up in a tough family in, at times, a very tough community, and in a harsh region. There is a bittersweet appreciation for the place and the people of his youth that emerges from his work.

There are poems and prose sketches about family: Grandma, Grandpa, a harsh father looked upon in terror as "the Giant" who beats his bewildered son. The boy perseveres. Perseverance comes naturally.

Caddy's poems revolve about his community in the Mesabi. "Mining towns have always been either famine or . . . boom. Nothing in between. And when there's a boom there's often a strike, which means famine again. Economic fortunes are constantly ebbing," says Caddy reflectively.

A sense of history is gleaned through reading the collection. Wobblies were members of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a socialist movement strong in the mining communities and the lumbering communities that felled the forests before the miners stripped the land. (The derivation of the term Wobblie given to me by a bartender in Minnesota is that the Chinese who worked in lumbering and mining mumbled and mispronounced "workers of the world," transforming it into Wobblie .)

The Ku Klux Klan was active in Minnesota during Caddy's youth. In his poem "Mine Town: Trick or Treat," Caddy writes of a young boy who secretly explores the forbidden drawers of his grandmother's dresser and discovers the white robes and hood of the Klan. The child ponders their purpose: "Sorcerer's robes, costumes for grownups, magic--imagines them at the Halloween party. Exciting new pictures of Grandpa and Gram." When caught, he is admonished. The experience signifies nothing to the child, but recalled years later, it brings the stunning revelation of what the garments were.

One of the most touching pieces in the book, "The Travel Collection," tells the story of a young boy who secretly collects free pamphlets through the mail from tourism offices. In his room, he pores over the brochures, dreaming of these places: "New Mexico, Land of Enchantment. Kachinas. Pueblos. Color. Space. Florida orange groves. Magic Tourist countries: Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad. The Caribbean. Lesser Antilles. Windwards. White sands, ocean blues, pale to azure to green."

One day, while collecting on his paper route, the boy confesses to a woman that he has a hobby, a travel collection. She calls her aged husband to the door, exclaiming "the paperboy collects the same thing you do!" A toothless man in long johns and overalls, who must have lived his entire life in his house next to the mining foundry and pit, insists on showing the boy his collection. "He reads the headlines to the boy, sounding out the hard words: Barbados. Montana. Antigua. Tehuantepec. Kachinas. Land of Enchantment."

"Children fascinate me," muses Caddy. "Their job is to survive, that's their only job. What they don't need to become self-aware about, they don't. You see in 'Mining Town: Trick of Treat!' it all means nothing to the child at the time. Then years later, bang! In the piece 'The Travel Collection,' the boy--who in this case is me in my youth--doesn't make anything of this old man. But look at the two."

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