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Book Report: Duluth poet: A blunt, dazzling wordsmith

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Normally I write about two books each week -- one national and one regional.

This week I'll mention just one because it straddles both categories and because its author, a Minnesotan, belongs in the ranks of the "nationals," taking his place with authors like William Stafford and X.J. Kennedy.

"The Reindeer Camps," by Barton Sutter (BOA Editions, $16) is a breath of fresh air in the poetry world.

Sutter, Duluth's famous and first Poet Laureate, is in some ways a traditionalist. He believes in meter and rhyme.

For my money that's a good thing in this tangle of free verse, when poetry is simply prose with a wiggly right hand margin

His new book is a cornucopia of razzle-dazzle old fashioned word-smithery that ranges from rage over his mother's early death to cancer to funny stuff about what a mess Minnesota's Department of Transportation makes of drivers lives.

Sutter's poem about the late, great J.F. Powers, too lengthy for this column, is a masterpiece of good sense.

Here's a shorter sample of Sutter's work, "A Mighty Fortress," a poem about his mother's funeral:

"The day was cold and snowy

They eased her in the ground

In a copper-colored casket, bright

As pennies I had found.

I couldn't watch my brother

Or touch my younger sis.

Somehow the little buggers

Would have to live with this.

How odd to see my father (a preacher)

At a funeral without robes.

The man looked sick. He deserved to be

For the lies that he had told.

We sang the heavy line he chose

For caring on her stone:

"A mighty fortress is our God!"

What crap. We stood alone.

I smiled at the plastic grass

Someone had laid out --

Like any dumbass couldn't guess

What hid there like a shout.

But then I glimpsed the frozen clay

And had to squinch my eyes,

Recalling how my folks had loved

To lean and harmonize.

"Have thine own way, Lord

Have thine own way.

Thou are the potter;

I am the clay.

Mold me and make me

After thy will.

Here I am waiting,

Yielded and still."

We drove away through falling snow.

I heard the tires hiss --

The Serpent...or the vicious god

Responsible for this."

And here is his homage to Karl Rove and T.S. Eliot and, I guess, George W. Bush. It's called "The Love Song of Karl C. Rove:"

"The first time I laid eyes on him, my God,

I knew I'd found the perfect man for me.

Instead of feeling shamed or slightly odd,

I was, near him, the man I'd meant to be.

He crackled with charisma. And that grin!

The down-home, easy manner? He was funny!

I knew right than I would have to have him.

His Levis were so tight I read the brand

Of snuffbox stuffed inside his pants. I'd wait for him.

I trembled, reached out, took his hand.

And it was firm. The man was absolutely

With nicknames, but not everybody got 'em

So I felt blessed he called me his Turd-Blossom."

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.