"The Immortal Cupboard" (with notes on the Lorine Niedecker Poetry Festival)

The Madison Public Library is an all-right place. Among the books I was looking for, they had Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot and a surprising amount of poetry on the “New Non-Fiction” shelf.  Mr. C. picked up a bunch of books and Clash of the Titans.

We went to return “Immortal Cupboard,” a documentary-sort-of-bio-video of Lorine Niedecker’s life and work.  A few weeks ago, I visited Lorine’s cabin on Black Hawk Island, which, I was sad to discover, isn’t actually on an island.  There's no bridge, just a long road into marshy land.  I got the video because, after reading her poems, the snippet-bios online, and all the other things everyone sees, and after sitting in a little of her wilderness, I needed to find more of her. 

The film slips through various shots of Lorine’s marshy riverfront land, zooming in on dragonflies and cormorants flying against a blue sky, while Lorine’s friends and family read her poems and letters.  Even if I hadn’t seen the place in real life, Lorine’s cabin-on-the-river-landscape is a typically-lovely Wisconsin scene.  The pacing of the film mimics the slowing down and paying attention that Lorine’s demands of its reader. 

It’s clear that Cathy Cook, the film’s director, editor, and cinematographer, has a deep appreciation for and understanding of Lorine’s work.  I mean, creating a film about a Wisconsin poet has to be a labor of love, right?  And while the film is beautiful, people new to Lorine's work might find it more rewarding than an audience of equally appreciative and understanding readers might.  As for me, I ended up skipping though much of the beginning, believing that sitting with a notebook on the riverbank where she once sat had been a much more thorough way to get to know her.  If you can't sit on her riverbank, sit near any lake or river surrounded by trees with her poems, and you'll feel her.

I skipped through most of the beginning, true.  But, I watched the entirety of the last section of the film, which goes a bit deeper into Lorine’s later years and her relationship with her second husband, Al.   Lorine and Al married when she was 60.  In a letter she writes to Zukofsky, she tells him that Al actually reads and knows who Voltaire, Bertrand Russell, and Robert Frost are.  This part of the film moves away a bit from the river landscape, and moves inside, where we see her: photos of her and the cabin, letters, handwritten recipe cards, and, my favorite, handmade books of conversations she and Al had had over the years.  Each year for Christmas, she typed their conversations and bound them with pretty paper
to give to Al’s kids as gifts.  This was the something more of Lorine that 
I came to the film looking for. 

I watched the film because I wanted to meet the Lorine, just-a-person, living in Fort Atkinson.  I wanted to see her as more than a glorified, clichéd Emily Dickinson-esque hermit character who moved to NY briefly and had an affair with a "famous" poet.  Besides being a poet, she was a person, and, for the most part while in public, she kept the two separate.  In her later years, it seems it may have been harder to keep the poet and person apart,  She lived in line break, but she also cooked dinner for Al.  I wanted to meet the domestic all-in-one-Lorine, and I finally did at the end of the video.  I wanted to see more of the Lorine who wrote inside poems like this:


            Sewing a dress
inside the cabin

The need
these closed-in days

to move before you
smooth-draped
and color-elated

in a favorable wind



If you haven't been to the Lorine Niedecker Poetry Festival in Fort Atkinson, you might like to go. I only had the opportunity to catch the workshop at her cabin with Lisa Fishman and Brian... M? from Columbia College, but there is something of her spirit lingering in the trees in that town.  It's one of the few towns in Wisconsin where you sense poetry is welcome and celebrated.  If you can't make it, at least visit The Friends of Lorine Niedecker site, which features a new archive item of the month (this month a cookbook. Hooray!)





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