'A Step from Death' is a memoir full of poetry
North Dakota's poet laureate traces his life as father, farmer, and writer.
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Author: Larry Woiwode
It's hard to know where to start praising Larry Woiwode's new memoir A Step From Death. Perhaps with the language – perfect, poetic, layered. Perhaps with the pace – wandering, peripatetic, interrupted, like memory itself. Or perhaps with the clumsy and unrelenting love with which he, as a father, addresses his only son, Joseph, for whom the book was written.
Woiwode and his family operate a ranch in western North Dakota, where the author relishes the physical demands of farming as a balance to the more interior work of writing. A writer, he believes, should also work.
If life on the farm builds up his family through the rigors of chores, sweat, and machinery repair, it also exposes them to accidents and tragedies. Woiwode relates these as he does the other bits of his past – in snippets peppered throughout the book – rather than long tragic episodes, which would have been hard to take.
Yet these bite-size chunks of memory pull the reader through: The first 25 pages are so riveting it's impossible to put this book down. Woiwode starts out on a sunny morning to make hay, turns back to fetch a jacket, and by the end of the morning his life has been changed forever.
Or has it? Though tragedy and time may wear away at the outer man, his identity is unchanged. "After decades of poems and stories and books, I've reached the age termed 'senior' – a desolate desert of regret...." To the outer world, perhaps. But he still sees himself as he did long ago: "I'm the person I discovered in my interior the day I woke to the world, and I have to pause in surprise at reflections in glass that suggest the one gliding by isn't nineteen...."
Woiwode worked with acclaimed New Yorker editor William Maxwell and includes amusing lore from that relationship. He has published many short stories and two novels. His position as poet laureate of North Dakota shines through best in the writing in this book, laid down with the precision of a poet who knows the terrain.
He describes a snowy afternoon: "I stick out my tongue and catch crumpling spangles that taste of cistern water." Then the afternoon turns dangerous as he finds himself driving in a blinding snowstorm, with semi trucks "bannering past in a digital blare" as "a cloud of snow fog blinds me to both [highway] lines," the beginning of another fateful event.
Despite his considerable accomplishments, Woiwode feels his life's work to be unfinished and his writing laborious "a clumsy tumble like airport luggage."
We can only thank him for a tumble so rich.