The Music of Failure

The Music of FailureThere are two eyes in the human head–the eye of mystery, and the eye of harsh truth–the hidden and the open–the woods eye and the prairie eye. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity, and darkness. The prairie eye looks for usefulness and plainness in art and architecture; the woods eye for the baroque and ornamental.

The Music of Failure by Bill Holm

The Music of Failure, Bill Holm’s first collection of essays, is a meditation on how a place–in particular, a no-place place, the empty prairie around Minneota, Minnesota–is made sacred. The graves of immigrants and dogs, the ruins of Icelandic churches, the obsessive carvings of a Norwegian farmer, a hodge-podge squatter’s garden, bring the vastness of the prairie down to a human scale, and fill it with story.

Holm has a strange love for Minneota. Though he fled the prairies as soon as he could–”[a]t fifteen, I could define failure fast: to die in Minneota, Minnesota”–his time away from Minnesota (teaching in China, Iceland, and Virginia) pulled him back. “I found empty-hearted rootlessness, books used as blunt instruments, a sneering disbelief that hayseed farmers had souls” instead of the elegant and cultured world he expected. His celebration of Minneota is not, though, a celebration of the stalwart and intrepid immigrant farmers who found success on the Great Plains; Holm’s subject is failure, gloriously recounted.

In the long eponymous essay at the middle of the book, Holm turns our common understanding of failure on its head. Through Whitman’s lines–”I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons”–he explores the lives of some of his immigrant relatives. Pauline Bardal, a homely old maid who was not an especially good organist, would appear to be a failure. But she imparted to the young Bill Holm a set of values that put the work-a-day world in a different context:

Watching that joy on her bony face as her fingers slid over the yellowed keyboard of the old upright, it became clear to me even as a child that neither her nor my true life came from kneading bread or candling eggs or fluffing pillows in a sick bed, but happened in the presence of those noises, badly as they might be made by your own hands.

Though Pauline and her siblings ended in apparent failure, “six dead in the graveyard of a dead church, no progeny, no empire following them, only the dry wind of a new world which promised them and all of us so much,” she lived a self-contained, sufficient, and consistent life that eludes the successful. Holm traces this to the character of the Icelanders who “came out of an immigrant culture that had succeeded at failure,” and back further into the Icelandic sagas that document the poverty, murder, and hubris, the “600 years of colonial domination, black plague, leprosy, volcanic eruption, and famine that by 1750 reduced this already half-starved population to half the size it had been at settlement time.” This historic failure has led, a hundred and thirty years after Holm’s family came to the Great Plains, to “a mild, harmonious, democratic welfare state, just and literature, almost without murder, theft, or any violent crime. … Iceland is what America says it is.” Holm’s thesis is that the Icelanders have accepted responsibility for their failure, and have learned to live within bounds that Americans find stifling. (How Holm would view Iceland’s role in the global economic collapse, twenty-three years after “The Music of Failure,” is an interesting question; I haven’t been able to find his final thoughts on Iceland’s economy, though I’m sure he had some interesting observations and hope that they will be published someday soon.)

Holm claims to have the “prairie eye” for simplicity and practicality, but his essays suggest otherwise. His sentences are long and complex, turning around on themselves as he works through his thoughts. He is drawn not so much to the gruff farmer as to the retarded handyman, the “naked man eating lilacs” in his yard one night, the old woman at a nursing home reading who yells that his poems are “Shit! Nothing but shit!” whom he would like to kidnap, “first to Minneapolis, then New York, and wheel her into committee meetings, cocktail parties, congressional hearings,celebrations of the mass, and serious cultural occasions. I may even marry her.” Holm’s people are misfits and failures, complex and broken, with darkness and light at their center in equal measure. Like Carol Bly (and unlike, I would argue, Garrison Keillor, but more on that some other time), Holm loves his misfits without condescension, and finds in them strange and wonderful lessons for living a successful, if failed, life.

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