He Departs as Air: Bill Holm, 1943-2009

Let go of the dead now.

The rope in the water,

the cleat on the cliff,

do them no good anymore.

Let them fall, sink, go away,

become invisible as they tried

so hard to do in their own dying.

We needed to bother them

with what we called help.

We were the needy ones.

The dying do their own work with

tidiness, just the right speed,

sometimes even a little

satisfaction.  So quiet down.

Let them go.  Practice

your own song.  Now.

–“Letting Go of What Cannot Be Held Back”, from Playing the Black Piano, Bill Holm, 2004

I first heard of–and met–the large, ebullient, red-faced Icelander over twenty years ago when I signed up for some poetry/creative writing workshop at my St. Cloud, Minnesota, college.  Bill Holm had just published Boxelder Bug Variations, and I was intrigued by the freshness, the humor, the seriousness, the twinkle.

Many years later, I suddenly found myself teaching English at a tiny little school in a tiny little town that just happened to be not only Bill Holm’s hometown–and current residence–but his muse, his tether, his theme, his kingdom.

It wasn’t completely accidental, of course.  During my interview for the teaching job, his name and acclaim were brought up as a way of sweetening the deal.

It worked.

For the nearly seven years I’ve worked here, I’ve seen Bill Holm speak in a variety of contexts, spoken to him in awe as he peeked into my classroom, driven by his house with a sense of fan-girl curiosity, and admired both reading and teaching his printed word.  While I’ve never–and will never–share his appreciation for the desolate prairie (I’m a “tree person” as he would say), I do share a Scandinavian Lutheran background, a Liberal mindset, and a love for wit, humor, and travel.

And a love of Walt Whitman.

Reading his essays, his poems, is like looking in a mirror and finding I share part of myself with a middle-aged bearded man with a hearty voice and a love of ale and chat.

It’s not a bad place to be.  Ever.

When I began teaching my Advanced Placement Language course one of his books of essays (The Heart Can Be Found Anywhere on Earth) centered around the very town in which I spend the vast majority of my time, three schoolyears ago, I was nearly giddy when reading certain of his pieces.  My class teased me the entire year about my schoolgirlish crush on the man, and kept threatening to stop by his house to tell him of my undying love.  Since I had thought about getting up the courage to ask him to speak to my class, this was a major problem.

I never did ask him–he spoke about the same essays in another English course taught by another English teacher (Aaron Cheadle, who also happens to live across the street from Bill)–and now I never will be able to.

Bill Holm died last night, in Sioux Falls.  We thought we’d lost him a couple of years back when he suffered major heart trouble, but he pulled through to keep carrying around Walt Whitman and leading Boxelder Bug Days, and even kept teaching at the local University until retiring this past year.

Every summer, he conducted an Icelandic travel and writing seminar, and I always wanted to come up with the money to go.  It was a dream of mine.

And last night…he left us.

And, like he wrote above, I still want to bother him and call it help.

Goodbye, Bill.  I will look for you in the grass.

12 thoughts on “He Departs as Air: Bill Holm, 1943-2009

  1. A lovely remembrance. Thanks. You captured much of what I was feeling after hearing the news earlier today. I briefly met Bill around the same time you did—twenty years ago already?—when he did a reading in the tiny English department lounge at UM Morris. The room was fairly dripping with heartiness and cheer, and I left that night with a model for living a gentle, humanist life full of good talk, great books, and the music of language, and a new appreciation for prairie life. Not that I’ve picked up any Icelandic along the way, and my piano lessons ended at 4th grade, but still. I wound my way through Box Elder Bug Variations, Coming Home Crazy, The Dead Get By With Everything, Eccentric Islands, Black Piano—each new book like a postcard from an old friend.

    On a stormy day like today when everyone’s attention is literally whited-out and elsewhere, thanks for making quiet note of this news and life.

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  6. Bill Holm was a professor of mine at Southwest State and really hooked me to poetry and really creative writing in general. I use many of his works from time to time in my classes.

    I also wanted to comment that your blog is wonderful. Take care and keep Bill’s unique attitude, memory and joy of writing alive!

  7. Thank you to Bill. You shared your words and your self with us.
    I met him in person at the RamseyCounty Library in St.Paul, Mn. He read from “Playing the Black Piano,” then signed any
    and all of his books which we presented to him.

    My grandparents were Norwegian immigrants, and I felt connected to the way Bill loved immigrants. The U.S. considered many of them failures. He honored them in
    “Music of Failure.” I love that book, and I loved Bill. It is a loss
    for all of us who read and understood his words.
    I cherish and will re-read his beautiful literature.

  8. the dead are gone, and that is sad. I may be young, but I’ve seen more than I care to tell, I find that it’s best not to dwell on death, think of if that person would want you to dwell on it, or if they’d want you to get on with life. Bill was a good man, writer, and poet, he also was a person like, well, all of us, and he watches from somewhere and smiles.

    godspeed bill

  9. I first met Bill, my neighbor across the street, when my family was out Christmas caroling. He unexpectedly invited us inside and we found ourselves around his piano singing a few songs together. I was teaching in Marshall and had no idea who he was.

    Years later, when I left the first time with the Army Reserve for Operation Iraqi Freedom, my neighbors on one side had a sign on the lawn in favor of the war. and my neighbor across the street (Bill) had a sign opposing the war. I could identify with both and took them as a sign of support. When I returned, Bill and I talked about the war around his kitchen table. We saw eye-to-eye on so much of it that it wasn’t the interesting discussion you might imagine.

    I made a resolution when I was gone on that first deployment to connect more deeply with my community. I transferred from the Army Reserve to the MN National Guard and applied for a job at Minneota HS. I also started to ask more questions about the history of the town and heard that Bill had written a bit about Minneota. 10 years after moving to Minneota, I read my first Bill Holm essay. I couldn’t believe what I had been missing out on and resolved that no Minneota student should graduate without knowing our home-town literary hero. I created a unit in my American Literature class where the students read a few of Bill’s essays and wrote their own Bill-Holm-type essay and invited Bill to come speak to the students. It was a very successful end-of-the-year unit and something I looked forward to every year. I think Bill really appreciated it as well.

    I was in Iraq when I heard he had died. I realized how much he had come to mean to me and months later I still mourn the loss of our conversations and the chance for Minneota students to meet him.

  10. Thank for posting this, I simply wanted you to be aware that I found it actually valuable. All the best|greatest to you in the future. Thanks

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