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Friday, May 21, 2010

Anne-Marie Oomen: A Michigan Treasure

Her new book of essays, An American Map, is out this spring from Wayne State University’s “Made in Michigan” series, and all Anne-Marie’s fervent and loyal fans are thrilled. Here is a very small sample, chosen from the penultimate essay of the book, “Finding (My) America., the landscape described that of the Michigan’s Drummond Island alvar.
Even our geological past is made of what water left, compressed shell and plant life, a limestone liturgy written in glacial scrape over these flats. The limestone layer, which in the rest of the Great Lakes regions drifts from dozens to hundreds of feet below our surface, is the surface here, revealed as a plain, a geological page where a lean layer of beleaguered loam writes an ancient history.

Long-time followers of Oomen’s work will not be surprised by her passion for and deep knowledge of Michigan. New to this volume of memoir essays are travels farther afield—Missouri, California, Colorado, Puerto Rico. Anne-Marie has always been able to make her personal life personal to her readers, as well, and in these essays she guides us to places, insights and partial, perhaps temporary answers to the very large questions of life, by means of very specific and concrete experience. They are better than no answers at all, even if they prove ephemeral and we have to search for them all over again.

It begins with a question:
Lately I have been thinking about how discrete places, and perhaps an entire country, might become placeless. No, not placeless, for that is more or less impossible, but how places might lose their individuality, and in turn lose their meaning....

Are they still out there—places where meaning and geography and people are linked so closely they make the stories that give us identity, that give us people?

[Digression: Recent years’ travel has brought this question to my mind again and again. One old friend of my husband’s who now making his home overseas claims dismissively that “Every part of the States is like every other part.” When he is here, he drives expressways, going from Point A to Point B (such a phrase seems appropriate to expressways) in the shortest possible time. Okay, you know I hate expressways, and more than expressways I hate the ubiquitous clusters of gas stations and fast food joints around the exits, along with the big box suburban commercial sprawl that reaches out to snare the unwary. Yes, that part of “America” is the same everywhere—which is precisely why I want to avoid it and take a more leisurely, meandering route on two-lane pavement through small towns farmlands, woods, prairie, hills, seeing architecture that varies according to the region and accents and dialect that change along the way. What surprises and delights me on these long, slow trips is the variety continues to thrive, all across the country. Even in our little Leelanau County, no two small villages look the same or have the same character. Each is unique.]

Those not yet familiar with Anne-Marie Oomen’s work are in the enviable position of having other treasures to discover for the first time. Besides the new title, there are Oomen’s first two books of memoir, Pulling Down the Barn and House of Fields, and a poetic tour de force entitled Un-Coded Woman, that last a small book of poems building one upon the other, subtly and chronologically, to form a short, powerful, unified narrative, a kind of novel in verse. I first read it not expecting the connections and found myself drawn into the world of a character whose life gathered depth and complexity with each page.

An active member of and participant in the Michigan Writers group (and still an ex officio member of the Board), Oomen is, besides an extraordinary writer, one of finest teachers of writing in northern Michigan. Only this morning a friend came in to pick up a book order, and we started talking about An American Map, only to realize we were in the same writing workshop with her years ago and that valuable lessons from that day are still with us.

She is a literary treasure, and we are deeply fortunate to have her in northern Michigan.

Changing the subject, I got my window boxes planted today in front of the bookstore. Traffic is becoming heavier, boats are being trailered to the harbor, lines are forming in the grocery store: the season is nearly upon us. It "feels like" rain today, but none has fallen so far. Weather this week has been idyllic. We live for these days.


Anonymous said...

Geraniums! I am a geranium aficionado . . .

I like watching Anne-Marie at work, thinking about what works and what doesn't. Good, smart writer. Very, very good and very, very smart.

P. J. Grath said...

And, I'd like to add, a sweet and generous person. She's a rare and wondrous bird.