A Ouisconsin Primer
Poetry written after the advent of Modernism is often accused of being prohibitively difficult for "uninitiated" audiences to understand. Though we don't think that Ouisconsin is as difficult as many long poems written in this era, one of the goals of Emergency Press is to help make serious writing more accessible and relevant to the lives of contemporary audiences. We decided that perhaps the best way to do so, for this particular book, would be to provide unobtrusive guidance, in the form of this 'primer,'for readers who might find it useful for whatever their personal objectives may be. Also, though we wrote this primer particularly for young adult audiences (at the high school and undergraduate levels), and their instructors, we have been told that some of the questions contained herein might be of interest to any student of contemporary poetry, and perhaps even to some students of history and genealogy. However, keep in mind that this primer is not meant to be authoritative in any waysimply a secondary and inessential resource for those who want it.
This primer is organized so all comments and questions contained in it parallel the organization of the poems in Ouisconsin. Thus one can read both texts side by side, if such is one's desire, or one could find questions that pertain to a certain poem in Ouisconsin by simply finding the title of the poem in the primer, in the same location you would find it in the book, and all the questions pertaining to that poem will be correspondingly listed under the poem's title in the primer. Undoubtedly, users will not find all of the prompts useful, but we hope that they will find at least one engaging prompt for each poem.
Because we would like each reader to have an individualized and adventurous interaction with Ouisconsin, most of the comments which we provide in this primer are in the form of open-ended questions which are designed primarily to help provoke discussions of the poems. We don't want to explain the poems to readers. In fact, we would be much more interested in having you explain your interpretations to us. We hope you enjoy your stay in Ouisconsin.
Overall Questions to Consider While Reading Ouisconsin
How important do you feel one's ancestry and the stories of one's ancestry are, when considering who one iswhen constructing one's identity? What is the relationship between a story and the language in which it is told? What is the relationship between people whose lives are shaped by the same stories?
To what extent do the traditional stories of your region's indigenous tribes influence your sense of belonging to that region?
Try to figure out why the poems and the chapters of this book are organized the way they are. If they were organized in a different manner would the impact be significantly different? Do you consider this book to be one long poem, or a series of individual poems?
Farming and fishing are important activities in this book, almost to the point of being mythologized. What do you think they symbolize in this book? How are the communities and interpersonal relationships in this book affected by the types of labor their members perform?
What kind of person do you think the poet is: angry, excited, or just very observant? Would you describe him in some other way?
How does your understanding of the complete process of immigration change as you read the book? How does immigration affect identity, language, imagination, and relations between different groups of people?
This book is written in the "free verse" tradition. What do you know about free verse? How is it different and similar to "formal" verse? Do poets writing free verse abide by any rules when writing? Is it possible to write (or do) anything without abiding by some rules?
Are you familiar with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams? If you are familiar with their work, how would you compare and contrast it? When you start to read Ouisconsin, ask yourself if you notice any similarities between Tomasovich's poetry and theirs.
What do you think Ginsberg means by the "imagination of the clouds"? How might this type of imagination be different than the imagination of the land, or any other type of imagination you can think of? What might this have to do with writing, or with the way something is written?
"Accent" is the way different people say the same name. How is "accent" different than "pronunciation"? Are they different? Who decides on what a name will be in the first place? How? Why do people new to an area keep the same name for a place even if they pronounce it very differently from the people who were there before? How could you relate this issue to the Ginsberg quotation?
Can you recall a time when the naming of somethinga person, a town, etc.caused a debate?
What is being described in this poem? Why do you think the poet starts the book with this memory?
How can hair "be made equal to the wind"?
What might the poet mean when he says "When I mention the blood, the picture becomes far too calm"?
How is this man's suicide "mechanized"? Look for descriptions of the man that make him sound mechanical. Why might the poet have described the man this way?
How does the poet relate taste to one's place in the world?
What might be the connection between "a heavy hardbound book" and the need for company? Why does the book feel so heavy, and how does it remind him that he cannot take care of the dead man? Why does he mention Odysseus regarding this issue?
Why are the words "Big man" alone at the right side of the page? What kind of transition does it make into the next stanza?
What do the last two lines mean? Where else in the poem has the poet talked about being in the middle of something?
"Our Dead In The Clouds"
What do you think the poet means by "It is fertile as we allow"?
What is a "melisma"?
How does the poet relate the dead to the clouds?
"The dead are clouds" looks like a fairly standard example of a metaphor. However, if this is a metaphor, then what is the tenor and what is the vehicle? In other words, which is being used to describe or explain the other?
How might the rain be said to behave in a democratic fashion in the second half of the poem? What does it bring together? How might you relate this effect to the work of Walt Whitman?
Regarding this poem, the poet has said, "This poem can show how
the dead always influence us-that they are part of our current identity-as
individuals-and the social identity of a place, or region." In what
way do you think he means "the dead always influence us"? Do
you think his interpretation of this poem is the only interpretation that
works? Do you have a different interpretation?
"Son of Tomas"
How is the name of this poem related to the poet's name? Do you know what your last name means? Do you know the original last names of all your grandparents? How about your great-grandparents? Would you like your grandchildren to know your last name?
How do the facial features of your family differ from those of other families?
Do you remember hearing any of your relatives speaking a language different from the one you regularly speak?
In the second half of this poem the poet is trying to say exactly how he feels about his grandfather's death, without using inaccurate clichés. How would you describe exactly the way you feel about a grandparent's death?
What does "godforsaken" mean? How is the phrase "Godforsaken land" used ironically at the end of the poem. Why do you think the poet does this?
Have you ever hated a place where you lived? Why? Did the other people
who lived there also feel unhappy about it? Did anyone like it? Why? What
did you learn from living there?
"Would Not Trade Milwaukee for the Rest of the World"
In what ways is this poem similar to "Our Dead in the Clouds"?
What is the logic behind the organization of the stanzas in this poem? How do you think the poet decided when each stanza was complete? Why use stanzas at all?
How do you think the poet feels about returning to Milwaukee, a town where he lived when he was a young man? How does he relate that feeling to the past of the town itself?
Who do you think the "freaks" are?
The last two stanzas repeat "there remain only pages and pages more" in Italian, German, Slovak, Czech, Polish, and Belgian, the dominant European languages spoken during the first half of the Twentieth Century in Wisconsin.
"Bumblebees and Butterflies"
In this poem the poet seems to be developing a metaphoric theory for categorizing the unique people, or "freaks", he sees around him in Milwaukee. Do you think you can figure out his theory? How does it relate to the symbolism of "Our Dead in the Clouds"?
Why does he choose flying insects for his metaphors? Do you think the poet includes himself under the label "freak"? Consider the tone of this poem, as well as others, when answering this last question.
What is "plainsong"?
Which other poem in Ouisconsin does the last stanza of this poem refer to?
What do you know about the history of Socialism in Wisconsin?
"Clouds Empty Light"
How could homecoming be the opposite of hypochondria?
What effect is produced by placing the words "I lean" where they are on the page? How about "Now evening" in the next stanza, or "a lone fisherman" later?
What do the words "umbrage", "anabiosis", and "offal" mean?
In this poem the poet is acting as a "flaneur", a wanderer who, first-hand, watches the life of the city unfold. How do all of the poet's observations converge in the scene at the end of the poem?
Regarding the last line, do you think the poet really believes he is
explaining anything? Why the insistence on "vernacular"? What
is "vernacular"? Think about references to language in other
poems in this section.
"Clouds: Last Will"
What are "effigy mounds"? You might also consider researching "totem animals" and "clans".
What is "cloud-cockoo land"?
What are "suckers"?
What do you know about homesteads and The Homestead Act?
In the middle of this poem the poet has a flashback to his adolescence and to the day when he left his hometown in Northern Wisconsin. What act as the transitions into, and out of, the flashback?
Who was Increase Lapham? Solomon Juneau?
How does the poet use a mathematical formula to ironically exaggerate the "height of his beaver", where his remains will remain?
How do you feel when you stare at the horizon? How do you think staring at the horizon affects people emotionally and psychologically?
In what other poem does the poet employ animals to help explain certain aspect of human existence? Why do you think he does this?
Do you think the poet is successful in combining Native American and
European American beliefs in this poem?
Do you know where your ancestors came from and how they got to the land where you live today?
How were Germans at the company treated because of World War II? Do you know of any other American immigrants who were treated like this during that war? Can you think of any immigrants today who might be treated this way because of current wars?
Do you know how World War II affected your ancestors? If you don't know, consider asking your older relatives.
How is reading this poem different than reading a story or an essay about Kristian and Katarina? How is it similar?
How is this poem related to "Milwaukee Road"?
Can you find any instances in which characters in the poem behave in a prejudicial manner or unfairly judge other people? In which one of these instances is the poet being ironic? Why do you think he does this?
What exactly is the situation that Kristian is in?
What is "usury"? Do you know who Ezra Pound was? Do you know why it is ironic that the Pound brothers engaged in usury?
This poem, like many in this book, is told in several voices. Who do the voices belong to?
Do you know what American immigrants have to do today in order to become American citizens?
Do you ever feel like the poet or Kristian, like you don't know exactly who you are? If so, do you think it's for any of the same reasons?
The power of this poem comes primarily from the images it creates in the reader's mind. However, as the poet himself says, "They say a picture of the works on fire / capped by the inferno cloud / is worth a thousand words // but what words?" Which is your favorite image in the poem? In your own words, explain why.
If the dead are in the clouds, how do they lend assistance in this poem?
Is there anything ironic about their actions?
How is Ouisconsin like a panorama?
How can a wound be a "flowering of concentration", and what do you think is the "last frustration"?
What is a "turnverein"?
What does the poet suggest in the last three couplets of this poem? How is this conclusion related to Ouisconsin as a whole? Regarding this poem, the poet asks, "Why do we use other cultural/religious events that happened elsewhere, when we've got such a rich history under our noses?"
"Farmers Set Foot in Our Town"
What is "manna" and "eponymy"?
How does this poem relate to "Bumblebees and Butterflies"?
What does "banking on a strange angle of the sun / in the cornplanter's
Can you think of any other food items that had their names changed because of international tensions in a time of war?
What is a "Hessian"?
The poet claims this poem is closely connected to "Train Songs".
Do you agree with him?
"Czechs and Slovaks Face the Clouds"
What is the Native American reservation closest to where you live? What do you know about the tribe that lives on that reservation? Where and how did they used to live? Do you know any of their stories? Feel free to ask them, if you don't know.
How would you compare the kind of learning being done by university experts, such as Gilbert Wilson, with the kind of learning taking place on the farms nearby? How about Ales Hrdlicka's learning? What have you learned from Native Americans?
How is the tone of this poem different than the tone of previous poems? How has the structure of the poem changed to accommodate this new tone? Do you find it an effective accommodation? Does the form change every time the tone or the voice changes? If so, how?
Do you recognize a link from this poem to "What Survives?"?
What do the clouds symbolize in this poem? Is this symbolism consistent with the way the clouds are presented in the other poems?
Where else have you seen the word "freak" in Ouisconsin? Do you think there is an intentional connection? If you see a connection do you think it matters if the poet intended it?
Do you notice any conflicts between male and female elements in this poem?
What types of manuals are you familiar with? How are they similar or different from Kristian and Katarina's manuals and handbills? Do you think one could consider Ouisconsin a manual? If so, what would it be a manual for?
How did ethnic prejudices affect the behavior of early Wisconsin immigrants?
(Note: "Chippewa" is an Anglicized pronunciation of "Ojibwa")
Ales Hrdlicka is a famous member of an ethnic group which didn't have many famous members in America. How do you think the poet feels about sharing Hrdlicka's ethnicity? How about when you consider that Hrdlicka is mostly famous for inventing the "scratch test", a pseudo-scientific method of identifying ethnicity, which was ultimately responsible for dispossessing many Ojibwa of their ancestral homes?
How would you answer the question the poet asks at the end of the poem?
How does the last stanza relate this poem to Buffalo Bird Woman?
"Skunk Frank Episodes"
What is the Weendigo (sometimes spelled "Wendigo")? What part does he play in Ojibwa creation stories?
This is the first poem in which the poet uses asterisks to divide the poem into sections, or "episodes". Do you think the sections could stand on their own, as individual poems? If so, what holds the sections together in this poem? If not, how do the divisions between sections make the poem different than if there were no asterisks?
How many voices are there in this poem?
How do Weendigo and the beavers relate to other poems in this book? What might beavers symbolize in Ouisconsin? Have you ever seen a live beaver? They, as well as wolves, river otters, and many other large mammals, used to be plentiful in Wisconsin. Beavers do a lot to shape the land. What happens when their numbers severely decline? How does it affect the landscape?
What do you know about Marquette and Joliet?
What is "genealogy"? How has it been affected by the internet?
Much of this poem is preoccupied with the difficulty of searching for one's genealogy, especially with the frustration that accompanies the realization of how easy this task is for the descendents of famous and infamous people. Do you know your own genealogy? Do you think your ancestors are less important than the ancestors of people such as Father Marquette?
"Coureur de bois", roughly translated, means "runners of the woods". They were French fur-traders who acted as intermediaries between Native Americans and the French trading posts. Why does the poet appear to have little respect for them?
Why do you think the poet says that now we know Marquette's "coming was so sordid, unnecessary, etc."? Who do you think are the "we" and the "us," distinct from the young man, that he refers to in this poem?
Why do you think the poet inserts excerpts of correspondences regarding his genealogical search into this poem?
How does the tone and rhythm shift when the narrative shifts from events in the distant past to the poet's internet investigation in the present? Describe the tension between the two narratives if you can.
In this poem some light is shed on the disappearance of the beaver in Wisconsin. Can you find it?
What is "polygamy"?
How does this poem present the issue of polygamy as an example of a serious conflict between two equally legitimate cultures?
Where in Ouisconsin have you heard this phrase before: "others must eat what is left"? What link does the repetition of this phrase suggest between genealogy, language, and history? It might also be fruitful to think of Weendigo and the beaver in this context.
Why do you think the poet dedicates this poem to his great-grandmother? How are recipes and language related to our ancestry?
How are recipes related to the landscapes and climates that contain the cultures from which they originate and the agriculture that these areas can sustain? Can you think of a way in which our bodies are built by such surroundings? Do you think it's possible for languages to evolve out of environments in a similar fashion?
Can you find other poems in Ouisconsin in which language is referred to as a thing which can be eaten, or which can nourish the body and mind?
What do you think might be the relation between the words above the horizontal line and the words below it?
How does this poem "taste"? What about other poems in this
"During the First Death"
This poem functions as an important transition in the book. In what ways does the focus of the book shift here? How does this poem thematically proceed from "Father Marquette"? How does this poem thematically lead us to the next one? Take a look at the last couplet of "Father Marquette" again: "You pick on that young man, Milwauski / and you pick on his whole family."
What, exactly, is happening to the poet's brother in this poem? What do you learn about the poet's relationship with his brother, and how members of their family interact with one another? What kind of relationship do you have with each living member of your family? How do the dead members of your family affect the relationships between the living members? Think about the figure of Pete throughout this section, and ancestry in general.
What do you know about the Vietnam War and how it affected the collective consciousness of Americans in the Sixties and Seventies?
Do you notice any particularly effective line breaks in this poem?
How is Pete and the father's predicament in this poem reminiscent of the genealogists' predicament in "Father Marquette"? Why is the father telling Pete "stories they knew growing up on the farm"?
Pete is dying of a brain tumor. Why does the poet say that we need to know more about what illnesses are hereditary, and which are not? The father has one idea about why Pete developed a brain tumor. What other possibilities are there? Can one's job as a farmer in any way contribute to such an illness?
How many characters are "hypnotized" in this poem? By who? How might a writer or a historian be a kind of hypnotist?
What are the different definitions for the word "yarn"? What does yarn symbolize in this poem? What about polka dots?
How many puns did you notice in this poem?
How is the attic episode related to the rest of the poem?
Do you think ellipses are necessary at the end of a line? How do they change the line break?
Who do you think speaks the italicized quotation near the end of the poem (page 70)?
Who is the poet speaking to throughout the poem? Does his imaginary audience change? If so, how does it affect the way you read the poem?
How are stories like ghosts?
How are the characters of the father, Pete, and the poet evolving?
Have you ever imagined your own parents as young people? What do you think they were like when they were your age? Have you ever asked them?
In this poem, the family farm held for generations is lost. How does
this affect the family? How does the large-scale loss of small family
farms affect the greater society?
"Rain Where It Does Not Belong"
What is the island in this poem? How does it symbolically relate to the poet's family?
How much do you know about the father at this point in Ouisconsin? Do you think he is more interesting now that you know something about the history of his family? Would the character be as interesting if you hadn't read any of the other poems in this book? Do you think the poem would still be good? If so, in what way?
How can a dream be the size of a fish? How can you raise yourself with your lungs? How might these statements be exemplary of the logic of poetry?
The tone of "Rhinelander" is subtly different than most of the other poems in Ouisconsin. How is the tone of this poem unique? Why do you think it comes at the end of a chapter?
What unifies the sections of this poem? Do you think they could stand on their own? Better than the sections of "Skunk Frank Episodes" or "Yarn Unraveling"? Why or why not?
One of the aspects that distinguishes this poem from others in Ouisconsin is that it is more lyrical, or, in other words, less narrative, than the rest. If the other poems are connected primarily through narrative, then how is this poem related to the rest of the book? How might the other poems be connected in ways other than narrative? How might people be connected in ways other than narrative?
Each section of this poem poses a question or a theory. Try to answer the question, or figure out the theory, presented by each section. Do they all lead to the same conclusion?
For an interesting exercise you might consider comparing this poem to Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird".
By comparing the Anishinaabeg creation story with the rest of the poem, what would you say the painter is trying to create with his art? What about the poet?
About this poem Tomasovich says, "as in my discussion of 'Panorama,' why not use the history of one's place rather than appropriate something (like the Christian flood) that happened/originated elsewhere? I could have used Noah, you see, but what's the point if I have something local-local, close to us, but also far away chronologically. The painter and his work (and his 'muse' if you will) are doing the same thing as what happens in the creation story-boundaries of time and place disappear." In what other poems did "boundaries of time and place disappear"? How is this related to creation?
Compare the island and the watery depths of this poem to the island and
depths of "Rain Where It Does Not Belong".
"Immigrant Wedding Song"
According to the poet, the "ivory flashes" are "the bright flashes from a copy machine that occur when you don't close the lid". Given that these, "ivory flashes" somehow become bombs, what does this say about how war permeates our consciousness?
Are the questions asked on the U.S. citizenship application (page 89) real, or did the poet make them up?
How does this poem link the earlier sections of Ouisconsin with the middle sections (for example, "Son of Tomas" and "Father Marquette")?
How do you think the poet feels about his family, both past and present?
What do you think the poet means by "the evil of wishing for pure blood"? Taking another look at "Son of Tomas" might help explain this.
How is the final question in this poem related to the final question in "Czechs and Slovaks Face the Clouds"?
What gifts are referred to at the end of the poem?
What do you think the poet means when he suggests that men all bring danger to their wives? What does he suggest that women bring to their husbands?
If a man "cannot go home", can his great-grandson? Why would
his great-grandson want to? What would it mean for the great-grandson
to be an immigrant in the land his great-grandfather left? Would he feel
more comfortable, more at home? Would his life and his identity be less
complicated, less conflicted?
Who do you think the poet is speaking to in this poem?
How might clouds be like people (past, present, and future)? Think of their relation to the land; how they move in relation to it, and how they are a part of the landscape.
How does the list of clouds in this poem relate to the Native American beliefs regarding clouds mentioned in the "Overall Questions" section of this primer?
What are "cordate" and "lenticular" shapes? What more specific shapes does the poet see in the clouds?
The poet employs a number of different stanza forms in this poem. How do the different forms reflect or accentuate what the stanzas are saying?
Have you heard questions similar to the one at the end of this poem, elsewhere in the book? What do you think of them?
There's much anxiety in this poem, regarding losing one's language. Can you find several different examples?
When one lives in a multicultural land, such as the American "melting pot", how do you think one should balance one's desire for unity with a desire for a unique identity?
This poem contains several untranslated words and phrases from the Slovak language. Following is a list of the words, on the left, and their approximate translations in English, on the right:
What suicide is the poet referring to in this poem? How might this reference help give Ouisconsin more closure? Think of other characters in the book: how might you consider some of their predicaments suicidal? Regarding this topic, the poet has said, "you could think of 'the message of suicide' in many ways: what suicide tells us, a suicide note, the lessons we learn from suicide suicide seems so often to be the result of narrowly measuring one's identity-the success of one's identity and if we could learn to look at our identity as a bigger entityone that is comprised of ancestry, the land, etc.the themes of the bookit would be harder, perhaps, to become so self-obsessed with one's failures that you would take your own life."
What other famous works of art are alluded to in this last poem (e.g., "the changing of the light")?
What tension is created between the power of the natural world and the forces of technology?
What is the poet's conclusion regarding his home?
Does Ouisconsin leave you feeling ultimately pessimistic or optimistic regarding the future? Why or why not?