Farewell Ellen Kort

Last March, at the Appleton Public Library, I saw Ellen Kort for one of the last times.  I hadn’t known her very long, but what I knew was that she was full of love.  I could tell by her smile.  I could tell by the joy of her poetry, her soft voice evoking images mined from bone marrow. 

When I go to the grocery store and stand

in front of the shelf filled with jars of honey

every brand spells the word Mama
(from Ellen’s Over and Over Again)

When I moved to Appleton in 2010, one of the first places I went was the little bookstore across the street from the Radisson.  I was appalled that they weren’t selling any books by Ellen Kort.  I had just discovered her poem Over and Over Again, sent by a friend when she heard I was living in a house once occupied by Wisconsin’s First Poet Laurent. 

Mama told us how bees

need strength to fly from one plant to another

how their little bodies grow fat from the dust

of pollen when they enter the open house

of flowers how they have to regurgitate

a sip of nectar 200 times in order to turn it

into honey Mama naming what cannot

be named the pure grace of hard labor

the soft hum of gratitude Mama

(from Ellen’s Over and Over Again)

I couldn’t help myself.  I stalked her, called her up, explained where I was living.  She was guarded, until I told her I was a writer too, and then she told me a great little story from when she was living in the house, about a strange woman she didn’t even know who barged in when she was writing, and how this woman got accosted by a ghost, in the very spot where I was sitting, put into a headlock and held there until she was so scared that she ran off and never came back again.  “So, have you seen any ghosts?” Ellen asked. 
For a short time, we both taught at Renaissance High School.  In the spring, students signed up for poetry with beloved Mrs. Kort, but by fall, Ellen decided against teaching, wanting time to work on a poetry collection, so the students were stuck with me. Towards the end of that semester, one of the girls in the class told me that Mrs. Kort used to give the best prompts.  “Like one time she let everyone pick a rock and then we got to write about it.”  Not just anyone could hand out a rock and change a person’s life.  But Ellen could.
I stood in a crowd at the Atlas Mill Coffee Shop one evening a few years back to hear a whole room full of poets testify in beautiful waves of words their love for this teacher.  It is my great loss that I was never her student, that I never got to record her reading her poems and telling her stories.  I only encountered her a dozen or so times.  Still, I feel the profundity of her impact. 

I’m beginning to understand how the long

Years unwind how stories come back

On the wings of memory simple things

Locked together an offering of recurring

Echoes Even now your voice sweet as honey
(from Ellen’s Over and Over Again)

         Last March at the Appleton Public Library, sharing the stage with her former student, Cory Chisel, Ellen told us a story about how, when she was a little girl, staying at her grandparents’ farm, sometimes the phone would ring and it would be the neighbors alerting that the cows were out again.
Ellen recalled sitting in her grandpa's truck driving the country roads all day long trying to round up those cows.
By the time they finally got them herded back to the barn, Ellen knew her grandpa was mad.
He told her to count the cows, and she did, afraid of what was going to happen.
When she had them all counted and went to tell her grandpa, she flinched, anticipating the blows to follow.
And Ellen told about how her grandpa went up to that first cow, lifted his hand, brought it to her forehead, and gave her a kiss.
And then he went around and kissed every cow in the barn.

After that, I saw Ellen only three more times, last August at Mile of Music.  We kept running into each other, on the bus, on the front steps of The Chapel, Ellen with her two daughters, me with mine, all of us exuberant with all the music and all the poetry of those sunny days. 

1 comment:

  1. Joann--Thank you so much for this. I knew her well.