Following his 60th class reunion at Amherst College in 2017, Harlan Underhill scripted a virtual diary in poetry, communicating over 200 entries to several fortunate classmates. The poems illuminate both immediate and past experiences and observations, memories both cherished and painful. These two poems are drawn from that collection.
The powerboat clips Scofield point and breaks away from my cabin toward the more serious waters of Lake Superior. My guide, Tom, cranes his neck to view the shore as if he’s never seen it before, though he knows these bends and inlets well. We pass the outer islands—Rabbit, Caribou, Cemetery—which lift like teeth from the blue-green water. The motor quiets as we turn inward and thread the eye of Moskey Basin, toward docks and wooden nets, remnants of a long-gone fishing industry cast along the shoreline.
On the Path from the Edison Fishery to the Moose Boneyard
When we identify respect (coming from the root word meaning “to look at”) as one of the dimensions of love, then it becomes clear that looking at ourselves and others means seeing the depths of who we are. Looking into the depths, we often come face-to-face with emotional trauma and woundedness. Throughout our history, African Americans have pounded energy into the struggle to achieve material well-being and status, in part to deny the impact of emotional woundedness. Truthfully, it is easier to acquire material comfort than to acquire love. —From Salvation: Black People and Love, by bell hooks
Home is not just a house; it’s this yearning for a place where you’re safe, [a place where] nobody’s going to hurt you. —Toni Morrison, in conversation with Claudia Brodsky at Cornell University on March 7, 2013
It’s mid-January, and I’ve come to northern Michigan to see a frozen river layered with fresh snow. On winter days, a long time ago, a young woman skated across this river to be with the man she would eventually marry. She lived in Hancock, a town draped on hills opposite my vantage point in Houghton, which sits on highland and spills, like its sister, to the Portage River. Her beau lived on the Houghton side and worked in a hotel with cupolas and a grand ballroom, two blocks up from where I stand observing the expanse of ice. I can’t understand how she skated after a snowfall, or in bitter wind and blizzard whiteouts.
Like an orgy—or a fight. Legs collide with legs; strangers struggle around each other, into each other. A collective gasp clutches them all together. One, shirtless, leads the ball down the field, stumbles, and loses control of it. Now the ball leads him and leads his opponent into him. The two collide without a sound, the crash dampened by their flesh. Everybody stops to watch them battle for the ball. When it spills free, the first man gains control and rolls it across an invisible line between two heaps of t-shirts. Half the players cry in ecstasy. Half sigh in frustration. For a few seconds before this, nobody breathed at all.
When we first moved to Ludington we spent days on the beach wandering along the sandy shores that stretched north to Manistee, south to Pentwater. Even in winter, when all the Fudgies (as tourists are known up north) had left town, having migrated to points south, we got out and hiked the hard-packed frozen beach, which provided a firm footing rather than the summer’s soft, fatiguing sand. But we had to cut against the strong gusts off Lake Michigan, and sometimes it was all we could do to walk upright, gripping our woolen caps over our red, nearly frostbitten ears. We spit grains of sand out and hunkered down, pushing against the wind.
In 1964, as a kind of recompense for, or salvation from, moving us to the treeless, waterless plains of Minnesota, my parents joined with Henry, my mother’s brother, in the purchase of a cabin in northern Michigan, and for seven summers thereafter we escaped. It was three months of heaven after nine months of hell. I remember it, vividly; the memories are icons, glassed-in and shimmering like relics of the Church.