Writing Minnesota Steve HealeyPhoto: Stephanie Colgan

Steve Healey: "Shhhhh"

Steve Healey's new book of poetry, "10 Mississippi," marks his unabashed plunge into the local landscape.

Healey says something used to keep him back from unlocking the poetics of a particular place. "I used to be afraid of sounding too local, of being provincial, which I think a lot of writers fear, unless you live in New York City — you never have the fear of being local in New York City."

But Healey, a Washington, D.C. native, embraced the landscape of his current home in Minnesota with his book "10 Mississippi." The collection was published by Coffee House Press in 2010. It includes, you guessed it, ten musings on the great American river whose headwaters are in Minnesota.

Some of the poems spend time in the dark eddies of the river; "1 Mississippi" evokes news reports of bodies found in the river. Others are more playful.

"2 Mississippi" deals with Healey's obsession with the sound of the river. Nationally acclaimed poet Billy Collins gives the collection high praise: "Loopy, smart, eyebrow-raising, wiggly, and wildly entertaining belong in the string of modifiers that would try to describe this poet's amazing work."

Photo: Stephanie Colgan

Healey's first poetry collection, "Earthling," was published in 2004, also by Coffee House Press. He has published poems in numerous magazines, including American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Fence, and Jubilat, and in anthologies, including "Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century." He lives in Minneapolis, and has recently taught at Michigan State University, Macalester College, and the University of Minnesota. Here is his poem "2 Mississippi," reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Photo: Stephanie Colgan

2 Mississippi

Standing next to the river, I recorded the sound 
of the river in an attempt to represent that sound 
more accurately than my earlier description of it, 
which compared the river sound to someone 
saying "shhhh." I rewound the tape and played it back, 
and the recording also sounded like someone saying 
"shhhh," but then I remembered that I was listening 
to both the recording of the river and the river itself, 
and I could not with absolute certainty distinguish 
one from the other. It sounded like the two sounds 
synchronized into one "shhhh," but at times they 
seemed to separate, as if telling each other to be quiet, 
like accomplices committing a crime. Or they may 
have both been telling me to be quiet, despite the fact 
that I was producing no sound, or so I thought. 
Retreating swiftly and quietly to the privacy  
of my own home, a safe distance from the river itself, 
I listened again to the recording of the river sound. 
This time it sounded like a perfectly preserved memory 
of the river, a solitary "shhhh" moving inexorably 
toward the Gulf of Mexico, and just as I felt liberated 
from the burden of having to remember the river 
through my own mental activity, the recording stopped, 
precisely at the moment when I had turned off 
the tape recorder. Then I remembered that the river 
itself was elsewhere, continuing its perfect sound 
forever, and that I would never be able to represent 
that continuousness accurately. I remembered, 
however, that I could take a length of magnetic tape 
on which that river was recorded and splice the ends 
together to form a loop which I could then play 
continuously. The sound could keep going "shhhh" 
all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, telling all the cars 
and condos to be quiet. It's worth remembering, 
however, that a river is not a person, and that a person 
saying "shhhh" eventually needs to stop making 
that sound, either to inhale or die. There would be no 
other choice, unless of course I recorded myself 
saying "shhhh" and played a loop of that recording 
continuously, in which case I'd no longer need 
to remember myself. I'd be immortal 
in the privacy of my own sound.