“A Feast of Belle and Roethke Poems” and the Book’s Autobiographic Elements

The two great poets, Roethke and Frost, standing together in their full academic regalia with Michigan’s President Hatcher. Spring 1962.

The two great poets, Roethke and Frost, standing together in their full academic regalia with Michigan’s President Hatcher. Spring 1962.

On May 13, the Director of Roethke House Museum in Saginaw introduced the author and poet of a new novel for a “Feast of Belle and Roethke Poems” to Roethke’s Friends:

“The Belle of Two Arbors is a page-turning read, hosting 678 fast-moving pages!  The authors, Paul Dimond (prose) and Martha Buhr Grimes (poet), dance together:  Dimond’s prose drives the action while Grimes’ poetry offers closer insight.  Absorbing Emily Dickinson’s poetry at her mother’s knee, the fictional protagonist Belle moves among real life poets Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke and W. H. Auden to offer readers a story beyond a story about poets and their poems. Met by antagonists such as Sven Surtr and his disrespect for preserving the majesty of Sleeping Bear Dunes or Ned Strait and his rigid academic constraints, this novel knits a cast of characters together with architecture and athletics, race and religion, and science and sexism for a rich archeological dig of their times. Whether embraced in the Great Lakes of Glen Arbor (up north) beginning in 1913 or Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan (down state) ending in 1978, this historical novel weaves together on-going concerns for Michigan’s land and its people: both sacred to this day.”

A 40-minute presentation of the stories and poems Belle and Ted shared from their first meeting in the spring of 1925 through Belle’s memorial service in 1953 followed.  Paul set the stage and read Ted’s poems, and Marty as Belle read hers. A lively question and answer session continued for a half hour and ended with book signings, pie and coffee included.  One of the questions, “Paul, how much of your novel is autobiographical,” led to several follow-ups. Here’s the gist of his answer:  

“This may seem an odd question about a novel written by this man in the first person singular voice and perspective of a woman who ages from 13 to 53 between 1913 and 1953. Yet I did grow up in Ann Arbor with one foot straddling my University professor father’s gown and the other the town with my mother, our home, neighbors, schools, and playing hockey, tennis and golf with my peers in the 1950s. On occasion, I also read a Frost or Dickinson poem in English class or at home. Despite several sojourns away totaling 15 years (including four years at Amherst College to which Dickinson and Frost were so much longer tethered), Ann Arbor is still my home. I also summered with my parents on Little Glen Lake in the shadow of Sleeping Bear Dunes.  In 1976 I bought a vacation retreat in Glen Arbor for my two daughters to share, until I sold it 1993 and moved to D.C. for nearly 5 years to serve as Special Assistant to President Clinton for Economic Policy.  On my return to Ann Arbor, I continued to visit there with four generations of family and friends.  No surprise that the main settings for the novel are Belle’s two arbors, Glen up north and Ann downstate.  Of the handful of times that Belle left her two arbors, two were in Amherst, where her younger brother went to college to study astronomy upon Frost’s return to his academic home.    

At Amherst, I majored in history, buried in the musty archives at the old library.  At Michigan Law School, I began the study of original sources on the history of the Civil War Amendments and prejudice that bedeviled me – and divided the Supreme Court and the country – for the next twenty years: first, as a civil rights lawyer representing plaintiffs challenging official discrimination in the 1970s and then as a Con Law professor and author trying to understand caste discrimination, the Fourteenth Amendment and judicial review in our democracy in the 1980s. After four other diverse careers I decided on my sixtieth birthday to turn to fiction to write better endings. 

I began with a crazy notion: to write four novels, one for “tweeners” age 9-12 (North Coast Almanac, 2012); another, a love story for my aging peers (Widower’s Song, unfinished); a political thriller (Succession at the White House, in progress); and this historical novel.  Intrigued by several new books on Dickinson and Frost published in the 2000s, I began to wonder why these two great American poets so long associated with Amherst appeared to have so few links to each other.  When I learned that Amherst College lost most of both their archives to other rivals, I began to dig into this common thread to find out why.  Not surprisingly, the College’s loss related in both instances to a family feud.  I also studied Frost’s unsuccessful trial teaching full-time at Amherst, 1917-1919, and his years serving as a creative fellow with no teaching responsibilities at Michigan in 1921-23, and his accepting a lifetime appointment as a ‘Permanent Fellow in Letters’ beginning in 1925-26. He resigned his tenure at Michigan after one year upon negotiating a similar position at Amherst closer to his family and roots.  

All this led to centering my novel in the character of Belle as the living link between Dickinson and Frost: Why shouldn’t she be born at the turn of the last century in Glen Arbor at the northwest tip of the little finger of Michigan’s mitten and be weaned by an invalid mother on Emily Dickinson’s posthumously edited and published poems?  Stuck rearing the younger brother she saved on her mother’s tragic death in the opening scene of the book, this lonely teenager blossomed early into a woman but couldn’t fledge age 21.  She headed downstate to the University in Ann Arbor, where she will meet Frost, become his student, acolyte and assistant and, over time, lifelong friend, correspondent, colleague, and competitor for the World Literary Doubles Tennis Championship.  And why shouldn’t there be other scenes of escape and challenge, marathon swimming in deep water, golfing on tough MacKenzie links, and skating fast in hockey on hard ice?  

My extensive research with secondary and original sources also revealed that Ted Roethke and Wystan Auden, two other Pulitzer prize-wining poets, also spent considerable time at Michigan.  Thus could the plot thicken as Belle, her stargazer and inventor of a younger brother, and their poet friends battle various forms of hidebound prejudice in academia in Ann Arbor.  Up north, with their Ojibwe friend David, they also struggle to expand their family empires and to conserve the sacred Sleeping Bear dunes, shores and bay.   Based on careful historical research of the times and places, authentic antagonists and emblematic battle scenes emerged.

Throughout this adventure, my poet Marty challenged me in her poems to think more deeply and in her questions to make our title character an authentic woman, even if one of a kind.  Midway through the drafting, we both became Belle, and she seemed to take over writing her story in prose and poetry.  Indeed, Belle decided before she died to hide her letters, poems, and this story for another generation.  After such a long gestation, The Belle of Two Arbors is at last available for all to read and make of her what every reader will.  Marty and I hope that for most Belle proves a great read and a character they will continue to wonder about long after finishing, as we still do. 

 

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