Barbara Larsen Looks Behind the Fine Print

Door County Poet Laureate Barbara Larsen has recently released her chapbook Obits: Reading behind the fine print, her seventh book of poetry.

“Obituaries have always interested me,” wrote the poet in the forward to her book. These brief formal glimpses of a human life often offer a “hint of more behind the small print,” stirring her imagination to “capture the person.”

The collection of poems offers light-hearted and witty, but respectful, poetic amplifications of actual obituaries, names changed except of those with celebrity status.

Larsen dedicated her chapbook to the members of the Thanotopsis Society to which she belonged during the 1990s, a mortality support group of six or eight couples that spent “companionable evenings discussing aspects of death and savoring gourmet pot luck suppers,” she says. One Thanotopsis assignment was for the members to write their own epitaphs. She included hers:

Aspiring poet to the end,
she’s gone to join the heavenly chorus.
Before you put the cover down,
please tuck in her Thesaurus.

Writing about herself, the laureate establishes a tone that she maintains throughout her collection of semi-fictionalized obituaries. Her subjects included J. Lee Rankin, a voice for the Civil Rights Movement, who also grew roses, raised horses, and played piccolo; and Milwaukee Rep actress Rose Pickering, “terrified in the wings” but lighting up the stage with her entrance.

She presents a gay botanist, “the world’s top expert on beans;” an iguana at a children’s museum; a clinical child psychologist with a Tarzan yell; a fireman who will no doubt “choose serene heaven over fiery hell;” and a naturalization teacher who taught immigrants “an American hymn of joy.”

When “time ran out” for the clock-maker, his clocks did not “stop / short / never to go again” but rather “their ticking voices / sounded a persistent protest / in the empty room.”

Larsen’s home is perched on a bluff with a spectacular view of the waters of Green Bay. The final poem of the collection, “Sunset From the Deck,” offers a peaceful but poignant resignation to the fact of death. The poet recognizes the beauty along with the metaphorical significance of a setting sun, and notes “Such a gentle death. / It makes good practice / each time we watch.” A fitting epilogue to Obits.

The book features whimsical illustrations by Gretchen Maring (the friends have collaborated on two earlier books) and design/layout by another friend, Kate Rericha. The result is a work at once amusing and poignant and inspiring and hopeful.

Obits (Beach Road Press, 2012) is available at The Clearing, Main Street Market, Passtimes Books, and the Pioneer Store.

History Teacher. History Maker
What triggers courage and resolve?
In Clara Luper’s life it was memories:
a young brother denied treatment
in a city hospital; her father never allowed
to sit and eat at a downtown restaurant
or take his children to the zoo.
Clara believed in the Constitution
and Bill of Rights. An N.A.A.C.P.
counselor she led fourteen youths
to Katz’s Drug Store where they sat
and ordered Coca Colas at the counter.
Denied service, they returned
Saturday after Saturday until
Katz’s agreed to desegregate its many stores.
Arrested twenty-six times during protests, she
managed to integrate all but one church
in the city. Its minister remained adamant:
God did not intend Negroes and whites
to worship together!
Eighty-eight when she died,
the city’s flags flew at half mast.

Straight teeth were Peter Spiro’s goal.
He ordered grins for those
who hid smiles behind closed lips.
A master sergeant in his spit and polish office,
he inspected raw recruits with practiced eye,
enlisted them in orthodontic boot camp,
and sent them to barracks built of plastic
and barricades of wire.
There he pressured platoons of enamel soldiers
until they lined up straight and even in two rows.
At home he was a loving sort of man who
played outside with neighborhood kids.
Took them to baseball games and the circus.
They liked him even more than tooth fairies
sneaking shiny dimes under their pillows.

Sunset From the Deck
Quietly, steadily,
sun drops into the bay.
Going … going … gone.

Is that what dying is?
One tiny moment you are,
the next, you aren’t?
Slipping into … what?

I guess dying won’t be so bad
if that’s the way it is,
one gentle plop … then
the afterglow
with colors spreading
across the sky.

Such a gentle death.
It makes good practice
each time we watch.