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After the Fire: A Writer Finds His Place

Paul Zimmer
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttsk39
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  • Book Info
    After the Fire
    Book Description:

    After the Fire is the story of the poet Paul Zimmer’s journey from his boyhood in Canton, Ohio, and his days as a soldier during atomic tests in the Nevada desert, to his many years as a writer and publisher, and the rural tranquility of his present life. Zimmer juxtaposes timeless rustic subjects with flashbacks to key moments: his first and only boxing match, his return to the France of his ancestors, his painful departure from the publishing world after forty years. These stories are full of humor and pathos, but the real center of the book is the abiding beauty of the driftless hills, the silence and peace that is the source of and reward for Zimmer’s hard-won wisdom. _x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9408-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Prologue: Finding Home
    (pp. xiii-2)

    For some lost reason aeons ago, during the glacial period, the Patrician ice sheet split widely in its slow grind over the Midwest, separating at the top of an area in southwest Wisconsin. It passed down each side of the land to meet again at a base in northern Iowa, leaving a heart-shaped area of nearly fifteen thousand square miles open to the forces of weather.

    In subsequent ages the wear of erosion on this place was gentler than the gigantic pressure and scraping of ice. Because this unglaciated area was formed by wind and rain, these “driftless” hills don’t...

  5. Strangers in Friendly Places
    (pp. 3-27)

    I had just turned into a scrawny, ardent seven-year-old in 1941 when the United States entered the Second World War. Everyone was very worried about the conflict. My mother’s parents were French and Belgian immigrants, and my father of German ancestry, but they did not clash over the war. We were apprehensive that it might come to America, to our town of many factories. My father was on our neighborhood Civil Defense team and patrolled with a red-filtered flashlight during the practice blackouts while we sat in our darkened basement and my mother taught us French songs like “Frère Jacques”...

  6. Trees
    (pp. 28-34)

    Of our 117 acres near Soldiers Grove, 43 have been cleared on the ridge top for hay and pasturing. The rest are heavily wooded acres down the slopes of the ridges. This is typical of the area. It is lovely to gaze down on the canopies of the trees. When you drive through this countryside in warm weather it is verdant. There are small dairy and hay farms on the ridge tops and strung through the valleys, some more than a century old. The working life is difficult and the economy is tight. Too many places are abandoned or lost....

  7. Sky
    (pp. 35-39)

    Sometimes up on the ridge it feels like we have two-thirds sky in our prospect. It is a prominent part of our lives. We have lived mostly in cities and towns, and it is constant wonderment for us to step outside and behold the uninhibited sweep of daylight or dark.

    Some mornings the sun rises through a cream of mist like an egg yolk or some marvelous confection. On clear dawns it bulges out of the horizon as a fiery mushroom. Clouds are various, ebullient, and full of moods. Sometimes they are ridged magnificently like surf rolling up from the...

  8. Poetry
    (pp. 40-43)

    Poetry completes my life; it is a verity for all my days. I began wanting to be a poet after I was drafted into the army in the mid-1950s. Frightened, lonely, and bored by mindlessness, I discovered that I like to read. At first it was fiction and popular history, but then I found poetry. I was fascinated by how poets use words. Sometimes the words were obscure, but always sensitive, intelligent, and challenging, far more impressive than the words of journalists, politicians, or glib popular writers.

    Eventually I began scribbling my own verse and kept it on soiled papers...

  9. Neighbors
    (pp. 44-48)

    There is a difference between neighboring in town and in the country. In the university towns where we lived for thirty years, people in neighborhoods dwelled together and yet very much apart. Invisible dividing lines were rarely crossed; people made a few allowances, gave a little space, but mostly ignored each other. Although our houses and property lines were only some yards apart, the distances were enormous. For instance, on our street in Iowa City there were full professors, low professors, high townies, low townies, doctors, dentists, high administrators, low administrators, and even a few graduate students living in bungalows...

  10. Birds
    (pp. 49-54)

    In all seasons our breezy ridge top is a table and launching pad into the valley for birds. Smaller birds come to our feeders, then wing out, dipping, pumping and rising, dipping again, pumping and rising. But larger birds shoot out in a straight line with all their power. Only the mightiest winds deter or make the crows and hawks waver. We see crows flapping strongly in high winds over the point of our ridge, making no progress at all for minutes at a time, apparently enjoying the challenge and exercise.

    Bird species come and go and populations shift. In...

  11. Making Poetry
    (pp. 55-66)

    Here is another small history. As a young man I worked on my poems weekends and vacations, on time off from my jobs, and I wanted to be a poetallthe time. After some years I found that work, as Whitman said, “did not finally satisfy or permanently wear,” yet if I was to continue to be a poet I had to labor on in order to find time to satisfy my habit.

    When I first pondered a career as a poet I was easily intimidated. Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Wallace...

  12. Library
    (pp. 67-71)

    The big two-car garage near our house on the ridge became a storage space and catchall. If we pulled the truck in during the winter, mice came out of the walls and crawled into its warm heater vents to build nests. A blast of twigs and fuzz hit the inside of the grates when we turned on the fan, and the smell of mouse permeated the cab. It cost a hundred bucks to have the vents cleaned out, so we parked outside in all weather and used the garage for our firewood stack, a place to throw outdoor furniture, boxes...

  13. Insects and Arachnids
    (pp. 72-75)

    It is difficult to remain at peace with certain kinds of insects. I enforce a rule I made for myself: I share the outdoors with them but, just as they do not tolerate my encroachment on their nests and space, I will not permit their invasion of my dwellings. It seems a reasonable arrangement.

    I make no deals, however, with insects whose existence depends on sucking my blood. Mosquitoes are voracious and legion in humid weather. We use mild lotions and sprays to keep them somewhat at bay. We are constantly swatting. I cannot imagine what life was like in...

  14. Grasses, Fruits, Plants
    (pp. 76-79)

    Tread, cut, rip, cement, burn, insult the grass; it returns and abides. You destroy grass only by asking too much of it, then it leaves you with a sorry face of dust. Slash of blades, teeth of animals, fire and water. It comes back. Fescue, rye, bamboo, clover, corn, reed, broom, bluestem, rice, cane, timothy, barley, wheat, foxtail, milo, flax, grain—just a small part of the list. Grass can grow over your head and make you disappear, can cover your house if you neglect it, swarm over your bed. It is your food and your poison. Like the sky,...

  15. Gardening
    (pp. 80-86)

    Suzanne and i came to our ridge top with full knowledge of good and evil. We weren’t hiding from the Lord God. We did not know at the time, but we had been waiting all our lives to be in this garden place, and no serpent was going to trick us out of it at this late date.

    At first it was only weekends, but then retirement was thrust upon us. The scene is entirely ours, we hear no sounds but our own and those of creatures in our woods and meadows. In winter we look out a long way...

  16. Coyotes, Foxes, Wolves
    (pp. 87-89)

    Unloading the pickup one evening I heard a sudden, tumultuous yipping followed by a chorus of long howls from near the old pump up the road. An even more spirited and shrill soprano response came from the south side woods. I stopped hauling and sat down on the tailgate. The ritual exchange was made several times. Then, as if they had been waiting their turn, all dogs within earshot started to bark.

    This was my first time as an audience for coyote music. I was mildly alarmed because it sounded like a barbarian attack and I seemed to be surrounded....

  17. Taking a Punch
    (pp. 90-106)

    My lifetime fight record is perfect—one win, no losses. I don’t aim to improve it. I was eleven when my parents sent me for a week to the diocesan summer camp near Youngstown, a tidy outpost in the woods and weeds with morning mass, swimming, softball, crafts, and nature hikes. There were a lot of “sponsored” kids from the tough parts of Youngstown, Canton, and Akron, and there was serious combat every day behind the bunkhouses. When I saw blood flowing I kept a very low profile.

    The counselors tried to channel the aggression. The tradition at Father Kane's...

  18. Deer
    (pp. 107-108)

    In the autumn mating season the male deer fight. We find bits of shattered antlers in the woods and violent scuffle marks in the frosted grass of the fields. But we find gentler signs as well. Deer are a constant presence; silent and elegant, they munch and stroll in the fields. We saw them on our first walk at twilight, five shadowy figures at the bottom of the sloped field, their heads raised from grazing. I held Wanda, our Great Dane, by the collar, but she didn’t strain, apparently as surprised and fascinated as we were. The deer watched us,...

  19. The Hunt
    (pp. 109-113)

    We always know when the war with animals is about to begin. In October nights we see bright lights in the fields and sweeping flashes in the valleys and on the ridges—hunters, in their pickups with swivel-beam lights on their cabs, looking for feeding deer. It is called spotting; the hunters are locating the herd.

    We post our land with no hunting signs (I even have one that says chasse interdit) and allow only Richie Halverson to bring in a small party on opening day in November. It is always the same. We are awakened again by distant gunfire....

  20. The Blind World
    (pp. 114-133)

    I have a 1955 snapshot of myself that always amazes people. A private (E2) in the U.S. Army, I am standing in the desert. I have a pencil in my shirt pocket and the flap is open. Probably there are poems scribbled on folded papers in that pocket. My shoes are unshined, my fatigues rumpled. Just off my right elbow, from behind a mountain, the mushroom of an atomic explosion is lifting into blue sky as leisurely as a cumulus cloud. It rises above my head, soaring in its power. I am callow, slender, smiling my snapshot smile as if...

  21. Trouble
    (pp. 134-138)

    Even now, all these years later, I sometimes awaken from bad dreams tasting the grit of the desert. My ears have never stopped ringing. Witnessing atomic bombs was the trouble of my young manhood; now, decades later, ill winds were blowing again.

    We bought the farm joyfully and for ten years traveled back and forth from Iowa City on weekends. It was our great blessing—and my curse. We arrived at the beginnings of weekends, always in happy anticipation, and I reveled in the hours for poetry, reading, walking, doing chores, but as the time drew close for our departure,...

  22. Dogs
    (pp. 139-143)

    If you pay attention to dogs, they can help you through the very worst patches of your life. I have counted heavily on them. Being with them is an important part of my life. Wanda was the first dog that came to the driftless hills with us. She was magnificent, mostly Great Dane, big and stately. She loved walks in the fields and woods, and she barked at us incessantly until we took her out, but she stayed close and did not romp off into the brush like our other dogs had. She charged after deer and chased them across...

  23. Old Jazz
    (pp. 144-145)

    I always thought of retirement as a warm good-bye, a memorable sayonara, a happy finish to anticipate, but conditions did not permit me this reward. Despair overwhelmed my last weeks and months of work; frustration and anger filled my hours and days.

    My instincts were good. I needed greatness—contact with human and powerful art—to help me endure the invidiousness and humiliation. I went back to basic texts, rereadKing Lear,Pere Goriot,Beowulf,Return of the Native,Walden,The Tower. I looked at Brueghel’s peasants, Manet’s last flowers, Cézanne’s fruit, Pissarro’s landscapes, Steichen’s and Kuhn’s photographs. I listened...

  24. Young Jazz
    (pp. 146-166)

    Fat carlson and i used to go to the movies on winter Saturday afternoons in 1945. We would meet at the bus stop and ride downtown to the Palace Theatre on Market Street in Canton, Ohio. One weekend the marquee announced that our Abbott and Costello movie was paired with a live matinee performance of the Count Basie Orchestra. Uncertain about what this meant, we decided to forgo our milk shakes to make up the difference in ticket price. Both of us were eleven years old. I cannot speak for Fat, but it was a sacrifice that significantly changed my...

  25. Winter
    (pp. 167-171)

    By the time we finished moving all our possessions to the driftless hills, the year had turned and it was hard winter. I was pleased with our new freedom, but it would take a long time to make at least a partial recovery from my abrupt retirement. It is inevitable that the cold heaviness of winter can bear you down on occasion, and I was carrying a considerable load. But winter was the perfect time to make this transition.

    I know how to act in the presence of the muse, have been preparing all my adult life for this cohabitation....

  26. The Condition of My Faith
    (pp. 172-188)

    A jewish rabbi friend surprised me twenty-five years ago, after we had spent several pleasantly ardent hours discussing literature and art. As if this were a natural progression, he asked, “And what is the condition of your faith?” I realized he had been setting me up for this throughout the afternoon. He was a social friend, a fellow writer, and I am not Jewish—but, after all, this was his work. At the conclusion of our afternoon of high talk, it was an amicable question, and he was assuming I had some faith to condition. The bumptious old comic strip...

  27. Spring
    (pp. 189-192)

    Although i was not sustained by formal faith, the damage to my spirit caused by the abrupt conclusion to my publishing career began slowly to repair itself. By spring I began to realize more fully that the countryside had become our home. When the thaw started, the fields began to unlock and grow moist. Our road was glutinous. There were many tracks in the mud. Plants and trees were poised, hinting at green, but there was no lusty, verdant unraveling yet. It was a landscape full of hints. I loved the feeling of newness and potentiality. It was exactly what...

  28. Summer
    (pp. 193-196)

    I am not a full participant in the huge, vital activities of summer in the driftless hills, and I remain mostly an observer. There is endless work to be done on the farms, but if I tried to help I would be more trouble than I am worth. It is no season for rumination or indecision. The farmers hope always for perfect proportions of sun and rain. A few of them still watch the phases of the moon. But whatever is given, they must unhesitatingly make the most of it. Inexperienced help is a burden.

    Summer is massive and inclusive....

  29. The Catcher
    (pp. 197-217)

    Summers irresistibly turn me to baseball. It is my old habit, an intrinsic disease for which there is no cure. But mine is a curiously hybrid strain of this great American affliction. Catching is my passion.

    At lunch with friends a few years ago when I was still living in Iowa City, we were recalling the irreplaceable delights and challenges of playing baseball. All of us were well over fifty, wearing our neckties and hard shoes. The talk grew ecstatic as we recalled the pleasure, and ultimately we challenged each other. Could we still play baseball? We decided we could...

  30. Dairy Days
    (pp. 218-226)

    All the work done in the driftless hills is celebrated in venerable seasonal festivals. The commercial orchards in Gays Mills host the Apple Blossom Festival in the spring, and in the autumn the town throws the Applefest at the fairgrounds, with a flea market, exhibitions, craft booths, and a parade through town. People sit together drinking Old Style Lite and cider, eating brats, barbecue, apple fritters, and fry bread. The flea and craft fair is fraught with endearing junk. We always buy at least an annual roll of duct tape at a tool stand, and some local jams and jellies....

  31. Autumn
    (pp. 227-230)

    By the time leaves start to tinge in early autumn we have been full time in the driftless hills for almost a year. The freedom has been exhilarating. Now every morning I walk with Sheba to my writing shack and work for two, three, or four hours. It is an extraordinary luxury, a lifelong dream come true. For forty years I had to scramble to find time to write. Now every day I visit my texts for as long as I desire. I am still a mass of pink scar tissue from my final experience with work, but I am...

  32. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-231)