Book Review – The Trouble With Daydreams: Collected & New Poems, Mark Vinz

The Trouble With Daydreams: Collected & New Poems

Mark Vinz

NDSU Press, 2021: 192 pp.

This review appeared in the 34th volume of The Briar Cliff Review.


In The Trouble With Daydreams: Collected & New Poems, we hear the honest, strong voice of Mark Vinz – sometimes heart-breaking, always heart-filled – traveling the Dakota prairies. As he has throughout his long career of writing, editing, and teaching in the upper Midwest, he continues his passionate advocacy, with vivid images of the farms, small towns, and people who live here. Family, friends, neighbors, strangers – enduring hardships and loss, celebrating small victories – are brought to life in these lyrical, meditative poems. Living the daily lives they have been given, some tragically, many with strong spirits and humble courage.

Vinz is faithful to the truth of the world he sees, so precisely, deeply – interweaving it with his own interior landscape. Throughout his writing life, whether teaching at Minnesota State University Moorhead, editing Dacotah Territory Press as well as several anthologies, giving poetry/jazz performances, or working to distribute midwestern authors and presses on the Plains Bookbus, Vinz has celebrated his home territory.

The power of myth lives in many of these mysterious poems. In “Ritual,” Vinz proclaims: “Old men are dancing tonight in Fargo … with the ceremony of their secret singing.” Dark chapters of history, reflected in the natural world, haunt him with images of war: “an army of white stones / camped on the hillsides, / where there will soon be darkness / invading the houses of the prairie grass.” Yet such sobering tones are balanced with the possibility of love: “my headlights startle a flock of / old love letters – still undelivered, en route for years.”

Poetry closes the distance between us, transforms the way we see the world. In “Sleepless, Reading Machado,” Vinz contemplates: “the joy of solitude … new snow in the night … Bird / tracks wandering alone / in the moonlight.” But, he cautions, “Something holds us here, / where roads don’t ever seem to end. / Our maps are letters home …” Out the car window: “a field of sunflowers / leans against the frost / like some forgotten army, / heads down and waiting.” Defeated? Enduring?

Love, time, and death are always present in these poems. On a journey to visit his dying grandmother, Vinz writes: “She talks of death as I talk of life, / half believing … watching the other’s eyes.” Or, driving past a cemetery, “We hold our breaths.” He turns these conversations about the unknown back to the prairie landscape: “the way we all learn how / to walk on this far edge … that other winter, directionless / colder than ice, deeper than snow.” And these stunning words, when a friend and fellow poet utters: “I don’t know what it means to die. / It must be quite beautiful …”

Such moments of transcendence can lift us into a larger way of seeing: “The buffalo wallow is thick with prairie aster, / coneflower, gentian, blazing star … a cool wind ruffles the bluestem. / The sky is full of old bones.” Though sometimes all we have is acceptance. Vinz whispers to poet Tom McGrath: “we’ve finally reached the place / each road leads somewhere else.” He reflects on how we keep looking for a loved one: “I still keep records … to keep awake / on those long drives back, something you do / for a father – even when you search for him / to tell the news of traveling, and he’s not home.”

Vinz understands: “Perspective is the ground that creeps up from / the valley floor, reminding us of what / is coming from a long way off.” He sees our human spirit in lilacs still “growing wild … where once the farmsteads stood … markers of all / that wouldn’t stay cut down.” Stranded in a snowstorm with poet Richard Hugo, Vinz learns how “sudden storms can … remind us just what does and doesn’t count.” And lamenting poet Bill Holm’s passing, he writes: “a single voice keeps echoing, along each / dark, well traveled hallway of the heart.”

At other times, maybe the realities of life suggest to us it’s time to go on retreat. Vinz finds spiritual solitude at Blue Cloud Abbey: “Here’s the silence we’ve mostly forgotten … the intricate patterns of / prairie grass remind us of another life.” And that serenity follows him home: “For this moment there’s not a thing I want … just above the trees, returning geese … the kettle singing on the stove.” After time away in the desert, in a meditation on water: “How inevitably it all flows off and disappears … here, in this glacial lakebed where I live, / still dreaming of the great herds passing.”

In awe of and humbled by the ghosting presence of history in the vast landscape he invokes, Vinz remains faithful to his essential themes – the challenges of Nature and the people enduring its cycles. In the “New Poems” section, his connection to others – a woman selling tulips in a supermarket, his daughter “weeping” over Monet’s water lilies, an Irishman reciting Yeats in a bar, the poet’s mother remembered in a searchlight – inspire us to live with courage.

The same clear, intimate voice threads together all the poems of this beautifully written collection. It is especially powerful in “Heartland”: “We’ve learned to count on better days … the ones we know won’t last, / somehow content we’ll never find / another place to love like this.”

From Mark Vinz and his accomplished writing life, The Trouble With Daydreams is a lasting gift.

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