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The Music of Failure

The Music of Failure

BILL HOLM
Foreword by Jim Heynen
Afterword by David Pichaske
Copyright Date: 1985
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 160
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttv7pj
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  • Book Info
    The Music of Failure
    Book Description:

    The Music of Failure is a lyrical and surprising compilation that finds Bill Holm mining the stories and places that captivated him and continue to enthrall his many readers. This collection is Holm at both his early and quintessential best, an inimitable and much-missed writer who illuminates our private and common lives through both our quiet victories and our sublime failures.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7378-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-viii)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. ix-1)
    Jim Heynen

    Shortly after Bill Holm’s death in February 2009, like so many of his friends and admirers, I turned to his writing for solace. When I pulled down a copy of the 1985 Plains Press edition ofThe Music of Failure,I found this inscription:

    Xmas/ 85

    for Jim Heynen

    The music in Sioux Center is in the same key as in Minneota!

    Thanks for your house which hatched the essay.

    Affectionately, Bill Holm

    The house he referred to was in Port Townsend, Washington, where I lived at the time—a long way from my boyhood stomping grounds near Sioux Center,...

  4. THE GRAND TOUR
    (pp. 3-17)

    Farmers go to bed early, or at least used to when I was a boy. Small towns in Minnesota close by six, the cafes frequently at four. People eat at home, where it doesn’t cost money. By ten, silent streets, only the liquor store open, its lonesome Hamm’s sign proclaiming a few still up. Nothing but blue flickering TVs behind drawn blinds, and a random pattern of yard lights stretching off onto the prairies. By midnight, nothing. Drive on county roads, and you imagine trolls have kidnapped the human race, leaving only electricity behind. Your headlights are a ship’s beacon,...

  5. HORIZONTAL GRANDEUR
    (pp. 21-25)

    For years I carried on a not-so-jovial argument with several friends who are north-woods types. They carted me out into the forests of northern Wisconsin or Minnesota, expected me to exclaim enthusiastically on the splendid landscape. “Looks fine,” I’d say, “but there ’s too damn many trees, and they’re all alike. If they’d cut down twenty miles or so on either side of the road, the flowers could grow, you could see the sky, and fi nd out what the real scenery is like.” Invariably, this provoked groans of disbelief that anyone could be insensitive enough to prefer dry, harsh,...

  6. ON TOUR IN WESTERN MINNESOTA, THE POETRY-OUT-LOUD TROUPE READS IN FOUR NURSING HOMES
    (pp. 27-29)

    Some sat in wheelchairs eating their napkins. Others clucked their tongues at Lutherans and Catholics or played fuss-ball in the back bar while the traveling troupe laid on them poetry like a circuit-writer laying on hands.

    Folks thought it was nice, but didn’t understand why next winter roosters laid eggs, cattle organized a barnyard union, demanded Beethoven on the radio, no more Johnny Cash, snowbanks arranged themselves elegantly into nude women, didn’t melt till after April. Maybe anarchists hiding in corners of old stars, they thought, never dreamt it could have been those nice young poets they invited into town....

  7. AN ICELANDIC WOMAN VISITS MINNEOTA
    (pp. 31-32)

    She and I go to an old round barn by the river. The barn is full of the smell of old hay. Wind whistles through missing shingles in the high dome. Iron stalls are empty now. We see hoofprints on black dirt, made by cattle long since dead and eaten. From a nail she takes down a horse harness, leather dried and cracked. “From Iceland,” she says, and caresses it. We walk into the empty hayloft, fifty feet high, shaped like a cathedral dome. The last sunlight blown into the holes in the dome by prairie winds shines the floor...

  8. THE MOUNTAINS IN LINCOLN COUNTY
    (pp. 33-33)

    Southwest of Minneota, along the county road that goes past the Norwegian Church, land starts rising in tiers, glacial gullies and hills run off on both sides of the road like a giant’s stairway, each hill higher, each gully deeper than the last. Look northeast after driving nine or ten miles and you see that you have driven over the top of the Taunton grain elevator, now a few hundred feet below you and 150 feet high. Though the road has not curved, you have driven up a long inclined plane, the spiritual and geological beginning of the Black Hills,...

  9. WHAT THE PRAIRIE EYE LOOKS FOR IN A MOUNTAIN: CHIEF MOUNTAIN, MONTANA
    (pp. 35-35)

    Chief Mountain stands by itself on the Rockies’ edge, a giant knob, square and rough, without roots, graceful slopes, other mountains to protect it, hide it, cover its faults, make it lovely. This plain, Protestant, prairie mountain sticks up unapologetically, even unbeautifully, as if to say to those who come to it:

    Here I am, an unassuming rock, pretending nothing, part of nothing, a thing itself. You want softness, trees, wildflowers, alpine lakes, snow glaciers? Go elsewhere. I am what I am.

    Climb me and see shivering prairie grass for a thousand miles. Let’s have no nonsense about this business...

  10. ICELANDERS, BOXELDERS, SOYBEANS, AND POETS
    (pp. 39-43)

    The day before leaving eastern Virginia, I called the telephone company to have my phone disconnected and the bill forwarded to Minneota, Minnesota. I talked to a good-humored black woman and gave her the address. There was a pause. “No street, no number?” None. She asked me to repeat and spell the address. I did. Another pause. “You puttin’ me on, man—that a real place?” It is indeed, a place in southwestern Minnesota.

    In fact, I was born on a farm eight miles north of Minneota, Minnesota, where my Icelandic grandfather, Sveinn, homesteaded about 1880. The house sat on...

  11. BILL HOLM SR.
    (pp. 44-45)

    This strong, nervous, profane man loved whiskey, stories, and laughter. He had a velvety spirit, but the alligator hide of a blond man who sat on a tractor in wind and sun too long. I got dragged along with him into the Powerhouse when I was a boy, while he and Uncle Avy Snidal, with his clawed thumb, the only remains of his hand, and Einar the Mayor Hallgrimsson, and farmers from north of town sat around drinking, waiting for the combine to get fixed. He god-damned this, and god-damned that and god-damned a politician as “an asshole to dumb...

  12. FRED MANFRED IN ROUNDWIND: LUVERNE, MINNESOTA
    (pp. 46-47)

    He is a tall, thin beanpole of a man, with a good shock of hair—blond or grey depending on the light falling on it. Sometimes he is over 60, sometimes in his 20s. He likes making low houses in tall places, to be higher than his own roofl ine, but not so high as the hill. Humility, too, should be practiced in moderation; too much of it takes the spunk and life out of a man.

    But he does not talk moderately! No story is lost on him, so he rolls them around in his mouth like a good...

  13. RONALD
    (pp. 49-52)

    Town folk call Ronald the road runner. He strolls twelve miles down the highway to Marshall, balances on the railroad tracks four miles to Taunton, passes their doors fi ve time a day, always going fast in fi ve different directions. One skinny leg in mud-caked Levis strikes vigorously out front, pulling the back one along for fellowship. Road running, they call it. No money, no car, too dumb to pass the test, so Ronald walks while we drive. Though one edge of town is only a mile from the other, there’s no parking spot within two blocks of the...

  14. CATHOLICS
    (pp. 53-54)

    When I grew up, western Minnesota was organized into two pitched, sometimes warring camps—Catholics and Lutherans. They told us in Luther League that the Knights of Columbus stored guns for the coming revolution in the church basement and took oaths in blood to murder Lutheran babies who could not forcibly be converted to the true church. The Romans would presumably burn all extant copies of Luther’sSecond Catechism,thereby extinguishing the possibility of intellectual freedom and human growth. An adult Lutheran minister told these things to children who knew no better. He should not have done so. Farming land...

  15. THE OLD ROUND-UP SALOON
    (pp. 55-55)

    When Sister Helen preached above the Round-Up, they came clomping up that rickety staircase, those bored with mumbled Glorias, slow hymns full of tears, who longed for noise, the spirit flopping visibly around the room.

    Below, pool-shooters, rummy-players, snoose-chewers and beerdrinkers barely looked up from their games; hardly a chair scratched back across the oiled floor; hardly a click missed on the ivory billiards counter strung across the ceiling; hardly a chaw spattered over the brass spittoon, as the faithful parade came upstairs to meeting.

    Maybe once somebody made the remark that in this town the strong in spirit and...

  16. SUNDAY MORNING
    (pp. 57-61)

    6:00 Sunday morning. I wake to grey light, hear birds. More than birds. A human voice mumbling. I get up, stumble to the kitchen. There is a naked man in the garden eating lilacs, making a noise not quite like singing. He holds onto an iron fence post, weaving, while, with his free hand, he stuffs lilacs into his mouth. He ’s got a Janus body, an old athlete ’s hind end, but the front of a Roman emperor, bloated and pendulous, now maybe from lilacs. I don’t believe it. A naked man in the garden eating lilacs! I dress...

  17. SINGING LATIN IN NEW ULM
    (pp. 63-66)

    When north Europe’s cast-offs moved to Minnesota, they left some baggage behind. The Germans didn’t move Goethe, or the Poles Chopin; the Danes forgot Holberg, and the Swedes did not invite Strindberg to join them here. But they brought both their religions with new ferocity in them further from the sea, and the rudiments of their old country church architecture. In western Minnesota brick is Catholic, wood is Lutheran. Tiny bare frame churches contain Norwegians or Icelanders, but anything with a dome, spires, ornamental glass, and stone is likely to be full of Poles or Germans. Thus New Ulm, like...

  18. THE MUSIC OF FAILURE: VARIATIONS ON AN IDEA
    (pp. 67-106)

    The ground bass is failure; America is the key signature; Pauline Bardal is the lyrical tune that sings at the center; Minneota, Minnesota, is the staff on which the tunes are written; poverty, loneliness, alcoholism, greed, disease, insanity, war, and spiritual and political emptiness are the tempo markings; Walt Whitman and this sentence from theBhagavad-Gitaare the directions for expression:

    Die, and you win heaven. Conquer, and you enjoy the earth. Stand up now . . . and resolve to fight. Realize that pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat, are all one and the same: then...

  19. COLD SNAP
    (pp. 107-107)

    At thirty below, I try to start the car. A dead groan. No surprise. I go back in the house, call the jump truck, then bundle more to go out and wait. Northwest wind, not one cloud, nothing breathing, bright insane sunlight. I lift up the car hood. Impossible! That should not be there. At the center of the motor lies a gold kitten, torso under heater hose, head nestled against carburetor. Not thinking, I reach in to pet the cat—a fur brick. Must have felt motor heat three days ago, crawled inside to escape that wind and gone...

  20. SPRING COMES
    (pp. 108-109)

    I spend my first spring on the desert among thirty-foot saguaro cactus, thorny arms drooping under rain-bloated weight. Thirsty for so long, drinking everything that comes their way like dry drunks falling off the wagon, they topple over from their own greed. Inside, a spongy skeleton with an old pig’s face. Having settled in this unlikely place the saguaro live stubbornly for a long time, die like abruptly slaughtered animals. Past the cactus flows a tan gravel ribbon; the sign says it is a river, warns about lethal floods that last fifteen minutes. Afterward the river turns back into a...

  21. A LITTLE TALK FOR THE SCHOOLTEACHERS OF APPLETON, MINNESOTA
    (pp. 111-113)

    We grow up in a practical place where we are encouraged to be reasonable, keep our expectations of the world down, not get too excited. When not engaged in work, or when the world is genuinely mysterious and puzzling (as it so often is), when love or grief rear up in our life in other words, when feeling is demanded from us we feel embarrassed, inadequate, uncomfortable. Think how diffi cult it is for people to say honest, consolatory things after funerals, embrace others’ bodies during weddings, or express pleasure at the beautiful, whether ice crusts on dry weeds, a...

  22. LUCKY STONE
    (pp. 116-117)

    The Minneota Chevy dealer sells forty-two Chevies, and he and his wife win a trip to Athens and the islands, all expenses paid by General Motors, so they’re right there on the Acropolis and the guide talks about Socrates, old gods, marble statues of Athena that stood in the Parthenon, Turkish shells lobbed onto the roof in the eighteenth century, missing marbles stolen by the British Museum, and a lot more too. Then they all go have an ouzo and rest up for dinner. It’s amazing where Chevies get you in America!

    Later, back in Minneota, where blizzards howl, corn...

  23. AT THE GRAVE OF WILLIAM J. HOLM: BAY VIEW CEMETERY, BELLINGHAM, WASHINGTON
    (pp. 118-119)

    Grandfather Sveinn made it halfway across the continent to the prairies in Minneota, Minnesota, and Great-Grandfather Johannes continued the rest of the way to die at Bellingham Bay, Pacific in front of him, volcano behind him, two more sons laid out under the same tree. Born in north Iceland, he came halfway around the globe to find the same saltwater and lava he left behind.

    When I first came to see the graves, I went to the Icelandic old folks’ home in Blaine, on the Canada border, and announced that I was William Holm. One ancient Icelander glared at me...

  24. IS MINNESOTA IN AMERICA YET?
    (pp. 120-135)

    A few years ago, after working myself into a state of high moral dudgeon over one of America’s several recent wars, or government sponsored fi nancial scandals, or servings of one too many dollops of sanctimonious hypocrisy in public speech, I proposed secession to my neighbors in Minneota, even suggesting that our local senator start the legal process of severance in the legislature. Technically, this is treason, I suppose, but Minneotans (like all their fellow Minnesotans) take news of major crimes and catastrophes calmly. It is the small ones—joining the county library, the new wastewater plant, the mileage on...

  25. AFTERWORD: A LEFT BANK CAN BE FOUND ANYWHERE ON EARTH
    (pp. 136-144)
    David Pichaske

    When I met Bill Holm in the fall of 1981, he was a project waiting to happen. A decade after leaving the Midwest to pursue adventures in the Fabled East, Bill was back in his hometown of Minneota, Minnesota, by conventional definitions a failure: divorced, childless, without a full-time job, an ambitious writer approaching forty with not one book with his name on the spine. “How strange to think of giving up all ambition,” muses Robert Bly, who would become Bill’s friend and mentor, a poet who had followed a similar path out of and back to small-town Minnesota. Surely...

  26. Back Matter
    (pp. 145-145)