Bart Sutter’s new poetry collection revels in the natural world

Bart Sutter in the apple trees

Bart Sutter in the apple trees.

“Lake Superior is God.” Bart Sutter wrote that declaration in his 1998 book Cold Comfort, a collection of essays about “life at the top of the map.” The work was well received by readers, culminating in a Minnesota Book Award for creative nonfiction, and Sutter’s permanent status as a northern force.

He later earned a Minnesota Book Award for poetry with The Book of Names: New and Selected Poems, and for fiction with My Father’s War and Other Stories, becoming the only author to win the award in three categories. He was named the first Poet Laureate of Duluth in 2006.

Sutter’s latest work offers glimpses of the divine in nature. Cotton Grass, a collection of poetry, presents the gargantuan (think of 10,000 lakes) and the minuscule (be sure to check out the Monarch Man poem). Sutter includes poems from seven of his earlier books along with a section of his newest work. “It’s the best of my poetry focusing on nature,” he said.

Think of reading Cotton Grass as if you are in a dream state. Float over northern Minnesota, from Boundary Waters canoes to Lake Superior’s waves. Listen as Sutter interprets. Hear him conduct the orchestras of raccoons, tiny birds, and lake trout. It’s as if he is saying, “Come on over here. Have you seen that? Look at this. It’s awfully nice.” And he’s right.

On the way, you’ll learn about cotton grass. It seems Sutter is an expert.

“First of all, we northlanders can easily find it,” he said, giving directions: “When the snow melts, drive north from Duluth, up the Jean Duluth Road until it ends. Don’t turn right or left, except to park. To the north, you will see them.”

His descriptions will floor you. See the cotton grass, “fluffed by the breeze” and “White delight, dauber-on-stiff-stem.” Hear it, “Silken parachutes, softly, softly.” Feel the Swedes push it into their pillowcases, “Imagine. Imagine their dreams.”

Sometimes he surprises the reader by narrating familiar events: encountering beaver dams and marsh marigolds. Other times the story he gives is unexpected, such as the scene when “a raccoon relaxes in the hole he’s ripped through a roof, gazing round like a soldier from the turret of a tank.”

And there is the ethereal pictograph. He finds it a day’s paddle from camp, ancient paintings on the rock “antlered buck” and “raven facing west.”

He closes the book with “love and gratitude to the Lake Superior region.”

Check out Sutter’s performance with his musician brother Ross Sutter on June 8 in Chester Park. It’s part of the Duluth-stämman, a two-day festival of music, dance and entertainment.

Cheryl Reitan is a freelance writer living in Duluth.

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