Sunday, December 03, 2006

Swimming Into the Unknown

In one of those bold risks of youth--the kind of risks that adults often deem foolhardy but which seem essential to those younger needing to take them--Diane Siebert and her husband decided in the early 1970's to follow their hearts and swim into the unknown.

Here's how Siebert, an award-winning poet, describes the way life unfolded for her then:
In 1971, my husband and I hatched a plan: we would sell whatever possessions we could, buy two motorcycles, and spend the summer seeing America. And that's exactly what we did... except that our summer trip turned into a ten-year journey around the country. When money ran low, we stopped, found jobs, and saved until we could travel on. We met hundreds of interesting people and gained a real appreciation for America's big cities and rural towns, its scenic wonders, and its wildlife and natural resources. We camped most of the time and had good adventures and some not-so-good adventures. Occasionally we fell off our motorcycles. But every evening, no matter what, I wrote in my journal, and the poems, prose, and music scribbled on those pages eventually turned into children's books and poetry for magazines.
Like a gardener, Siebert planted seeds--Every evening, no matter what, I wrote in my journal--so that years later the compost heap of memories fed the garden of her imagination, and the words and images, the thoughts and emotions that she so carefully tended on her journey blossomed into a remarkable collection of poems called Tour America, which is currently under consideration for a 2006 Cybils Award (see for more information).

Siebert notes that the book is "a collection of writings about just a few of my favorite sights in these great United States."

Well, "just a few" is something of an understatement; there are more than two-dozen poems in Tour America, each one a dazzling doorway into the essence of a particular sight that struck a chord in Siebert's imagination years ago: gargoyles in New York City; statutes of Paul Bunyan in Bemidji, MN; Lucy the Elephant in Margate, NJ, and many others.

Much like postcards sent from the road, these poems draw the reader into places that Siebert visited years ago--whether Cape Hatteras, NC or Roswell, TX, St. Louis, MO or Gold Hill, OR--and which remain alive for her today through the power of memory and the magic of poetry.

Her poems mix impressions of city and country, desert and sea, rivers and marshlands, offering a record of her journey across America and creating a feel in poetry that's reminiscent of Woody Guthrie's classic song, This Land Is Your Land.

The collection is filled with our country's humor, history, trivia, legends, mysteries and wonders. It's a map of America's treasures--some hidden, some well-known--with each poem crafted with such skill that readers are able to feel the essence of each place emanating from somewhere deep inside the poems themselves.

Here's Siebert meditating on Mount Washington, New Hampshire:
Mount Washington's deceptive peak
Can quickly change from bright to bleak;
From raging storm to mild and meek
with sunbeams that entice.
A place of great and wild extremes,
Its smile can turn to sudden screams,
Its face not really what it seems:
a balmy paradise.
A passive mound, a tallish hill.
It stands quite commonplace, until
Great gale-force winds bring bitter chill
with blasts of snow and ice.
And those who tread without a thought--
Who, unprepared, are often caught
In temperatures that plunge to naught--
may pay the final price.
In brief narrative asides to each of the poems, which are accompanied by glorious illustrations by Stephen T. Johnson, Siebert offers some background information about the places that the poems describe:
Mount Washington. Although this mountain rises to only 6,288 feet, it stands exposed to two very active storm tracks and is noted for its extreme weather conditions. One of the world's highest wind velocities was recorded there in 1934--231 miles per hour! Warm, sunny summer weather in the valley often fools hikers and climbers, many of whom have died from hypothermia brought on by the mountain peak's nearly constant cold mist and ceaseless, chilling winds.
In another poem, Siebert takes readers further west to Las Vegas, Nevada:
Las Vegas glitters in the night
And shimmers in the day;
She opens arms of neon light
To those who come her way
With hopes of placing one good bet
And finding Lady Luck
While playing blackjack or roulette--
Well, OOPS! There goes a buck!
Accompanying the poem, Siebert adds this note:
Las Vegas means "the meadows." It was called that by Spanish explorers because of natural springs and wild grasses that existed in the desert oasis. Now each year 30 million people stay in this city's more than one hundred thousand hotel rooms. Buzzing day and night, Las Vegas has live circus acts, a man-made volcano that erupts routinely, water parks, and a roller coaster built one hundred stories above the ground, but gambling remains its biggest attraction. Casinos, which have a variety of themes from ancient Egypt to Caesar's palace to Paris, are loud and gaudy, offering good food and flashy shows but no clocks or windows-- a ploy to prevent gamblers from thinking about the time and keep them at the gaming tables where they lose billions of dollars annually.
Siebert's journey is one that readers will enjoy sharing as they discover America through this wonderful poet's eyes.

Swim with her from the Everglades in Florida to the Tallgrass Prairie in Oklahoma, from the El in Chicago to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. No matter where you happen to stop, you'll find something worth seeing... and remembering... as well as a reminder not to shy away from taking risks, whether as a youthful writer or as one who has matured in years.

Nearly forty years after Siebert first swam into the sea that is America, not knowing what she'd find, one can only give thanks that Siebert was the kind of writer willing to leap into an unknown body of water.

Today, as she spins her memories into gold, we are all enriched by her experience and by the poems that she discovered on her ten-year journey.

For a conversation about Tour America with Diane Siebert and the illustrator, Stephen Johnson, visit:


Susan said...

What a nice review, Bruce. It makes me want to take another look at the book to see what I missed the first go-round.

jo'r said...

I got a copy after you mentioned her in a recent email, Bruce; I haven't gotten to it yet but your wordswimmer introduction should help move her to the head of the line. I love the idea of her and her husband climbing on motorcycles for a ten year odyssey.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

I've always wanted to tour the US that way. Maybe not for ten years, nor on a motorcycle, but to just travel around for a while, talk to regular people, see non-tourist sights. We saw a lot of the western US on vacation when I was a kid, but it was never quite enough for me, and I have taken far too few road trips as an adult.

Thanks for a lovely post and an intriguing review.

What Maternal Instinct? said...

Just thought you should know you're the review of the day at Cybils:

Thanks for such a stunning contribution.


Anonymous said...

Lyrical review, Bruce, perfectly befitting the book.

And what a treat to read your blog. I've been so busy lately I haven't had a chance to do much reading, but I'm going to add wordswimmer to my Bloglines a/c and start catching up, I hope, in the new year.

(your fellow panelist with the blog alias, just in case you were wondering!)