Photo by rolandmey
Poetry is much on my mind these days. It is my intention to complete a book-length manuscript of my poems, and to have found a publisher for the book by year’s end. I’m deep into the processes of polishing and organizing 70+ poems, and of researching potential publishers.
So, as I say, poetry is much on my mind, and today it led me on a brief detour, a little sentimental journey that I’d like to share with you.
Sometime in the early ’70s I fell in love with the nature art prints of Gwen Frostic. She carved block prints, some of them four- or five-colors (each color requiring a separate carved linoleum block), but most of them simple two- or three-colors. Each image seems to distill the essence of what Gwen was looking at: a wild iris; a gnarled tree limb; or a great blue heron in flight, her signature icon. Most images were printed on fine textured papers with deckled edges, and sold as stationery and card collections with matching envelopes.
One fine summer day I decided it was time to see Gwen Frostic’s Michigan studio. I packed up our family and drove along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to the town of Benzonia, south of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With a population of around 400, the town was too crowded for Gwen, who was a hermit at heart. She purchased 40 acres of isolated sand dunes outside Benzonia, and built a single-story home/studio/shop constructed of native stones, wood, and glass. It looked as if it had emerged organically from the sand it sat on. I especially remember the gently sloping roof covered in soil that supported native grasses and whatever other plants found their way there. In the cool interior of the display room were the lovely prints I expected, plus a mammoth stone fireplace and a natural fountain, both in keeping with Gwen’s sense of natural beauty.
But just beyond that room was a whole other world that I didn’t expect: a huge room crammed full with tons of exotic paper, and twelve hulking Heidelberg platen printing presses. Most of those presses were at work, with steady deliberate movements, imprinting Gwen’s collections of beautiful images along with the illustrated packaging and envelopes to go with them.
Another thing I didn’t expect: when she was less than a year old Gwen contracted an unknown illness, similar to cerebral palsy, that left her with physical difficulties for the rest of her life. When I met her that day she walked with a cane; instead of struggling to inscribe her work and sign her extensive correspondence, she had commissioned a special machine that held a pen and wrote Gwen’s distinctive signature over and over again. She still designed and hand-cut her original linoleum block images, however, and oversaw the work of all those massive presses. Her physical limitations did not stop her from her lifelong creative expression, nor from making her artistic career so financially viable that at her death in 2001 she left a thirteen-million dollar bequest to Western Michigan University to benefit students of the arts and creative writing.
But her compromised health wasn’t the biggest surprise for me that day. How could I not have known that Gwen Frostic was also a poet? And that her books of poetry were self-published gems illustrated with her art and poetry printed on a melange of beautiful papers, some of them tissue-thin so that the poetry was visible through the prints, or vice versa.
I own four of her books of poetry. I confess that I haven’t read them in decades, but poetry is much on my mind these days. So this morning I dug out the Frostic poetry from my library to show to a friend who also writes poetry. His poetry is often more complex than mine, and I thought he’d appreciate something that I remembered about Gwen’s poetry: in her desire to praise the wonders of creation that she saw in the simplest of natural things, she apparently ran out of everyday words, couldn’t find adequate substitutes, and so (I believed) made up words that expressed her awe. Thanks to today’s Google, I’ve learned that those were “real” words, just not everyday ones, nor ones listed in my Webster’s Pocket Dictionary at the time. She used “omnity” where I might choose to use “divinity” or “God.” “Eternity” wasn’t forever-enough for her, so she used “diuturnity” and “indesinency” and “olamic” instead. There was something mesmerizing about these words, like reading a foreign language in which the meaning looks almost familiar – but you trust that the author knows what they mean, and that’s good enough.
Knowing Gwen must have been like befriending a philosophy nerd high on ecstasy. Her poetry reads as if a philosopher/theologian were translating Mary Oliver from simple to complicated. Yet Gwen had a way of infusing the very ordinary with a mystical word-serum that, once you get used to living with the unknowable (“enigmatical”), makes the whole universe (“multiverse”) glow.
Gwen Frostic wrote her own uncomplicated epitaph: “Here lies one doubly blessed. She was happy and she knew it.”
What more can anyone ask of a life?
In honor of that life, I invite you to take a peek at her art and poetry books – they’re still available from that studio nestled in the sand dunes near the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. You can see them at http://www.gwenfrostic.com
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