Where the waters speak
MILAN -- Robert Bly started his automobile trip from Willmar at dusk and reached a small bridge near Milan as moonlight covered the water.
He was very likely on the way home to his farm place outside of Madison in Lac qui Parle County.
His experience became a much celebrated poem, "Driving toward the Lac Qui Parle River.''
It was published in 1962 as part of a collection of his works "Silence in the Snowy Fields.''
The poems continue to inspire readers today in ways we cannot know, except in one instance.
Visual artist Lucy Tokheim of rural Dawson was chosen to create the cover art for the 2010 Meander, or Upper Minnesota River Valley Art Crawl.
With that challenge at hand, Tokheim said one image came immediately to mind: The covered, steel bridge with the brilliant blue color that Robert Bly referenced in his poem.
Tokheim said she wanted a "strong graphic" to feature on behalf of the Meander.
She used only her mental image of the bridge to create her work.
Afterward, she drove to the bridge that crosses Lac qui Parle Lake on Highway 40, took photographs of it and returned home to create again.
She soon realized that her first image of the bridge was the right one; just as her son Ben had told her the instant he saw it.
She can't help but believe that Bly had a role in shaping her image. "This poem has always stuck in my mind,'' said Tokheim.
She wrote Bly about her work, and gained his permission to reprint his poem along with her portrayal of the bridge. Her image and the poem are now featured in a limited-edition, small booklet printed on a letterpress by Andy Kahmann of A to Z Printing in Montevideo.
The bridge is a well-known landmark for many in western Minnesota. It was built as a Works Progress Administration project and dedicated in 1938.
Its days may now be numbered. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is planning to replace it in 2014.
There are structural issues with the bridge, ranging from deterioration of the concrete deck and rusting steel, to lead paint that is flaking away, according to information from Susann Karnowski, P.E., project manager and pre-design engineer with Mn/DOT.
The 72-year-old-bridge presents other problems as well. There are weight restrictions in place on it, and its narrow shoulders and sidewalks and sight restrictions present safety concerns.
The bridge's historic features and importance are well known to Mn/DOT, which is obligated by law to take them into consideration as it determines what is both prudent and feasible to do, according to the engineer.
The bridge has long played an important role in the history of Milan, according to Billy Thompson. His passion for the region's history is probably as well known as the bridge itself. Thompson is founder and operator of Arv Hus on Milan's Main Street, a museum filled with photographs, artifacts and materials telling the region's history.
His displays include photographs of the bridge's construction, and others showing the first structure erected in 1901 to span the waters here. Thompson said that before the Churchill Dam was built and Lac qui Parle Lake made wider and deeper as a result, crossing the Minnesota River at this location could often be done with no more than wet feet to show for it.
That a poet known around the world should have grown up on a farm not far from this bridge is no small matter, according to Tokheim. The fact that Robert Bly returned "to launch his life work as poet, translator and prophetic critic'' is important to this region as well, she pointed out.
"He has kept ties with his hometown region and through them has helped grow the vibrant artists' community here,'' wrote Tokheim.
She does not believe a new bridge could ever be as beautiful or sport as surreal a blue as the bridge that inspired the work by Bly. She only knows that this will always be a lovely place to watch a full moon rise over the lake.