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.