Boyhood in Bayfield
by Andrew Oerke (PC Staff: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Jamaica 1966-71)
Poets’ Choice Publishing
$19.95 (paperback) – purchase from publisher
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93)
Poems by a Man of Many Talents
Andrew Oerke has as diverse a biography as one could imagine. He was a Peace Corps country director in Tanzania and Jamaica. He was also a Golden Gloves boxing champion. He was the CEO of an environmental foundation. He was also the president of a microfinance organization.
By one account, noted in his obituary published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Oerke was instrumental in the creation of the Peace Corps. The newspaper reports: “At a campaign stop in Milwaukee during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential bid, Oerke is credited with suggesting to then-U.S. Senator William Proxmire that a global volunteer organization should be developed that would allow young people to share American values overseas. Six weeks later, Kennedy announced the idea of the Peace Corps during a speech at the University of Michigan.”
This review will concern itself with what Oerke, who died in 2013, was in addition to all of the above: a darn good poet.
Oerke wrote 14 books of poetry and a total of more than 450 poems, some of which appeared in the country’s top journals, including The New Yorker and Poetry. In 2005, he received the United Nations Award for Literature by the U.N. Society for Writers and Artists for his books African Stiltdancer and San Miguel de Allende.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet William Meredith said Oerke’s work “is a window on the world, a world seen through the compassionate eyes of a fellow pilgrim.”
Oerke’s wife, Anitra Thorhaug, spearheaded the publication of his posthumous book of poems, Boyhood in Bayfield. As she told the Star Tribune, “Poets think large visionary thoughts, out of the box, and that informed his ways of viewing things, including the human condition and what could be done.”
Oerke’s gifts are on ample display in Boyhood in Bayfield. Grounded in Oerke’s childhood in Wisconsin, the poems explore the poet’s relationship to family, nature, history, and death.
Unlike his cutting-edge work in other fields, Oerke is a traditionalist when it comes to poetry. Far from experimental, his poems, the majority in free verse, are accessible if also intricate and worthy of multiple readings.
Like all good poetry, Oerke’s verse illuminates the universal by focusing on the particular. “Homecoming, Bayfield #1” is about both the poet’s efforts to remember particulars of his past and the elusive nature of memory in general. The poem opens:
Every year I detour to the old summer house
to reassure my boyhood he really existed.
The poet recalls “the bouncing-ball boy” turning on “the spotlight in a grade-school play” and his “brother and sister hawking Kool Aid to no one in particular for a nickel.” Other memories — of a Victrola, the National Emblem March, a foghorn and a lighthouse—follow. But these memories are intangible, imperfect representations of what once was — “peripheral shadows skedaddling away when looked at directly.”
Like an expert fiction writer, Oerke is excellent at characterizing the people who live in his poems. One of the most delightful poems in the collection, “8 X 6 One-Room Schoolhouse,” introduces us to one of Oerke’s fellow students, Marilyn, “who dished out a brand-new language.”
When Marilyn stood up to recite, she’d sigh,
Giggle, and roll her China-doll-blue eyes.
She’d thrust her palms out at the finish
Like Al Jolson at the wind-up of “Mammy,” whoa!
Years later, Oerke returns to the schoolhouse, which has been converted into a garage. It is Marilyn he remembers most. Hers was a voice, he says, “from a land that doesn’t exist.”
“Mississippi Literary Aorta” offers a geographic tour, via waterways, of the hometowns of well-known writers. Making an appearance are Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Hart Crane, and Sherwood Anderson. Two poets and a playwright appear in the third stanza.
Oerke’s description of F. Scott Fitzgerald is especially vivid:
F.Scott started where the spring sprung, brilliantine
hairdo glistening like the rapids
that fingerwaved his brain with Hollywood
undulations and straight lines.
There is exuberance in “Mississippi Literary Aorta,” but his celebration of these writers — doubtless writers who influenced him — never becomes sentimental. Oerke was too much a part of the world, too steeped in its sadness as well as its joys, to write anything but the truth. “Trophy,” for example, is a vivid, if also disturbing, account of a 40-pound catfish’s capture and killing:
Now the rubies of his heart ooze bright-
ly down pink gears under gill flaps
that suck and suck as the world grows dim.
As the poet notes in the previous stanza, “There is no reverence for his death.”
In addition to its fine poems, Boyhood in Bayfield features an introduction by the poet’s widow and a number of photographs and paintings that complement the poems. It’s an elegant, and fitting, last book for a talented man.
Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93) is the author of eight books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, The Rink Girl: Stories, won the 2018 Prize Americana (Hollywood Books).