Micro Essay “Lake Superior”

Lorine Niedecker “Lake Superior” by Andrew Miller

I entered into “Lake Superior” as a displaced Michigander, whose final earthly wish is to have my ashes set a float on a lake breeze, landing where they may along the coast. Niedecker has provided me a far better eulogy for that eventual event than Hemingway’s “The Big Two-Hearted River” ever could. For two pieces set within a similar time and place, one speaks far more to the Heidegger, Olson, et al. temporal sense of logos – as opposed to the “logic and classification” (ascribed by Spanos, to Aristotle) found in the latter.

  • In every part of every living thing
  • Is stuff that once was rock

The theme of commonality vs. classification is striking to me throughout. In the beginning the reader is meant to accept the universality of carbon (ostensibly so) – their very blood courses with the same minerals that make up the earth.

5          Iron the common element of earth

Here I wonder if the reader is only to accept that “iron” (as in ore) is a common element, which is of course suggested in the next line:

6          in rocks and freighters

or if in fact the reader may take this a step further and see “iron” (as in the act used on clothing); as in, to flatten everything and make it even. Of the two, which is the more Olsonian ideal of logos? By lines 10-12 we see this sort of cooperation between entities:

10        The waters working together

11                    internationally

12        Gulls playing both sides

Interestingly, this point where the poet brings a sense of cooperation and commonality to fruition is also where the reader realizes how the Gulls portend classification, and thus competition. Internationally transitively means multiple nations; while in “playing both sides” the reader understands that these multitudes are in competition.

It is lines 13-18 that the reader is introduced to the ultimate antagonism occurring here. Pierre Esprit Radisson was the first known European to survey the now famous Pictured Rocks on the southern shore of Lake Superior. Niedecker ascribes a quote to him, calling the area:

14        “a laborinth of pleasure”

Unmistakable in the post-modern form is the (mis)spelling of the word labyrinth. Using the word labor within Niedecker’s spelling suggests that Radisson conceives of this area as one of utility, industry. His ultimate fate ends with torture at the hands of the Mohawk Indians – who in life he had betrayed. Thus the reader knows now what they are up against and throughout the poem, Niedecker uses the theme of temporal sensuality, generally portrayed through natural scenery, in opposition to judgement and competition portrayed as nationalism and religious fervor.

Each section of the poem set apart in this serialized format that is almost like the rowing of an oar, circling back around into the same water, only slightly different because the reader, the rower, has moved one stroke further along in the lake. Lines 19-23 describe a canoe as having been made of Seder not Cedar, and the reader must consider the new category of religion being put upon the land. Following on this, the next section (lines 24-26) the sign of the cross is set upon the “Beauty: impurities in the rock” – a judgement made by who? Possibly Jacques Marquette, the Jesuit priest who founded Sault St. Marie on behalf of the French and is referenced in lines 27-35. Those same Seder [sic] woods cast as “ribs” – fitting both of boats and of bone, both once more referenced in the same passages on Marquette.

This round and round of nature > native > voyager (voyeur?) continues through Joliet, Englishmen, Schoolcraft, Chippewas and the Soo. Not until lines 50-56 does the reader (possibly) meet the poet themselves:


50        Greek named

51        Exodus-antique

52        kicked up in America’s

53        Northwest

54        you have been in my mind

55        between my toes

56        agate

With this section the reader learns that the poet themselves are struggling between the temporal and the logical, the mind and the touch of the toes. This precedes my favorite section to read out loud because it is so pleasing to my ears:

57        Did not man

58                    maimed by no

59                                stone-fall

60        mash the cobalt

61                    and carnelian

62                                of that bird

Finally, a pure aural aesthetic that engages the reader with energy and movement without expecting any direct translation. This shift in form remains a pronounced feature throughout the final four sections of the poem and seem to encourage ever more playfulness with words. As the history of the region comes nearer in time to the poet and the poem’s writing, the poet shows themselves more and more to the reader. Ultimately the historical content of the poem, the temporal sensations, and the poet become one.

Lines 79-100 show in quickened pace this back and forth, the deermeat called back by the poet’s dear. The voyagers crossed – of time space and religiosity – while “we successfully passed”; until “we hurry / home”. Ultimately what the reader seems most clearly to come away with is how the Olsonian/Niedecker logos of “lake” is superior to anything else ascribed within.