We’ve lost another one, too soon.
On February 25, Bill Holm passed away at age 65.
Bill Holm was one of our great writers of the Midwest and of place. He was literally a giant of a man—closer to seven feet than six, enormous Viking build, beard and hair—first reddish and then, over time, a magnificent white—that flew out of his face riotously. His eyes sparkled maniacally, piercing in their crystal blueness. You would expect him to have wielded a mace and worn a giant elk-fur vest, a horned helmet, laced leather boots—a combination of Viking berserker and wild cave man. But despite his imposing appearance, Bill Holm was one of the most generous, gentlest, funniest men you would ever meet.
Bill Holm, of Icelandic descent, was born and grew up on the stark prairies of southwestern Minnesota. As he tells it, he itched to get away and experience the wide world. He did so as a child (and throughout his life) as a voracious reader—ransacking both the public library of his small hometown of Minneota, Minnesota, and the bookshelves of his “little-educated” immigrant neighbors, who read and discussed Plato in the evening. As an adult, he did go away and live in other places, and he traveled the world. But he returned to Minneota in his 30s to live out his days, to read and write and live in community, and to teach at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.
He also bought a small house on a northern Icelandic fjord where he lived during the summers, conducting writing workshops from that remote but starkly gorgeous rock of a country near the Arctic Circle. Aside from the written word, music was Holm’s passion. His dilapidated house in Minneota was known not only for its over-stuffed bookshelves on the verge of collapse, but also an array of traditional keyboards.
I said Bill Holm was a gentle man. He was—but he was fierce. He had the Scandinavian socialist running through him with fire and vinegar, and he was not shy about calling out and eviscerating dunderheads and morons—especially those with puny social consciences and those who would destroy the natural world.
Holm wrote numerous books and many essays and poems. His first book, Boxelder Bug Variations, a mixture of poetry and meditations, is still widely known. He showed us the amorphous boundary between greatness and failure—equally grand—in The Music of Failure. He demonstrated that he indeed was a man of the world in Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China Essays, written after a teaching exchange in China. His book Eccentric Islands shows just how kaleidoscopic his thinking was—islands being Molokai, Hawaii, or a piano, or human pain. His last book, The Windows of Brimnes, is a meditation on America (mostly dark) viewed from his Icelandic perch.
The first time I saw Bill Holm was over 15 years ago at a reading in a packed auditorium during a Marshall Festival at Southwest State (then without the “Minnesota” in its name). He lumbered out onto the stage, leaned his giant arms on the podium, and boomed, “If you have anything to do with American literature, your grandma is Emily Dickinson and your grandpa is Walt Whitman!” Yes, sir! The following day, as my wife and I walked down the main street of Marshall toward the town’s only Chinese restaurant for dinner, Bill Holm drove by, his hair flying out the window of a monstrous old beat-up clunker of a car.
My favorite Bill Holm book is The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth: Minneota, Minnesota. Not exactly an autobiography, it is one of the best books on living in place I know—and one of the most brutally honest. Failure, death, and narrowness live side by side with love, warmth, community, and natural beauty. The book truly brings home how Holm was rooted in a small place but lived a life as broad as the whole world. I taught the book in a class on Midwestern literature while teaching at Moorhead State University (now Minnesota State University Moorhead). I had my students write letters to Bill Holm about their experience with his writing. He wrote back, thanked us all for reading his book, and said the students were much too polite.
After we lost another of those great Minnesota sages, Paul Gruchow, I could not imagine the book of tribute essays that I edited (The Grace of Grass and Water: Writing in Honor of Paul Gruchow, Ice Cube Press, 2007) without Bill Holm. I got to talk with him a few times over the phone, always enjoying that exuberant Minnesota-inflected voice on the other end, and we exchanged a few emails—in between his sojourns to Iceland. We wanted him to come to Iowa City for a reading from the book (along with Carol Bly, who sadly passed away herself in December 2007). He was game for it, but was in his last semester of teaching before retirement, so it would have to wait for some other time. Some other time never came. Just a few weeks ago, Bill Holm collapsed in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota airport, returning with his wife Marcy from a trip to Arizona. He died shortly after of complications from pneumonia. He had been writing daily—in the first stages of his retirement, enjoying the fruits of a 2008 McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist of the Year Award, the culmination of many other notable honors.
Bill Holm wrote the greatest essay on the beauty of the prairie ever, “Horizontal Grandeur,” first published in The Music of Failure. Holm says, “Prairies, like mountains, stagger the imagination most not in detail, but size. As a mountain is high, a prairie is wide; horizontal grandeur, not vertical.” But Holm says that prairie is about delicacy as well as magnitude. The prairie lover “looks at a square foot and sees a universe; ten or twenty flowers and grasses, heights, heads, colors, shades, configurations, bearded, rough, smooth, simple, elegant. When a cloud passes over the sun, colors shift, like a child’s kaleidoscope.”
I loved seeing the prairie, America, Iceland, China, music, and the beauties and foibles of humanity through Bill Holm’s kaleidoscope. And I will continue to do so through his writing, the essays and poems that are full of angels of death, specters of failure, dark requiems and fugues, delicate sonatas, shining ideals, Jovian laughter, prairie flowers and grasses for miles and miles and miles—all wrapped in a Scandinavian wool sweater.
Bill, give my regards to Emily, Walt, Odin, and Freya.