Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

'A way of doing life-review': Minnesota poet gathers 50 years of work and memory in recent book

The Mercy of Stone poetry book cover.
Florence Chard Dacey's latest poetry collection includes 50 years of work on nature, family and feminism.
Courtesy of Florence Chard Dacey

Poet Florence Chard Dacey has a deep relationship to the town of Cottonwood and the surrounding area of southwestern Minnesota, where she lived for more than 40 years.

Dacey, who is now based in Northfield, has had a long and interesting career. She spent decades teaching writing workshops around Minnesota and worked with the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis.

Dacey joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about her fifth poetry collection, “The Mercy of Stone,” which spans 50 years of her life and writing. She also read poems from the book, which came out in 2023.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Let me ask you this question-- have you ever been to Cottonwood, Minnesota? It is a cute town. It's a small town. It's in Southwestern Minnesota. It's around two lakes. It's got a water tower that announces to incoming travelers. It isn't too far to Cottonwood.

Our next guest has a deep relationship to that area and lived there for more than 40 years. Poet Florence Chard Dacey is now based in Northfield. She has had a long and interesting career. She spent decades teaching writing workshops around Minnesota, and she worked with the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater in Minneapolis.

Last year, she came out with her fifth poetry collection, which encapsulates much of that career and her life. It's called The Mercy of Stone. She joins us right now to talk about the book and read some poems. Florence, welcome to the program. It's a real pleasure.

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: Thank you so much, Cathy. I'm just absolutely delighted to talk to you. I'm a big fan.

CATHY WURZER: I appreciate that. Thank you so very much. I'm very impressed with this body of work of yours. My goodness-- this book includes more than 150 poems written over 50 years. The earliest ones are from, gosh, 1970. What inspired you to gather all this up and then send it out into the world?

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: Well, I'm 82. I started working on the collection several years ago. But I like to say I can see the exit sign when you get into your 80s. So I wanted to just do a collection that was representative of my work over the years.

So I went back and I looked at my four previous collections and picked out some strong poems that I liked from those. And then I started looking at many other poems that I have that haven't been published in book form. So it was a long process-- a long, slow process. But I think of it as a kind of a way of doing life review too for me as a poet. I get to go back and revisit a lot of events from my past.

CATHY WURZER: What did you see in those poems of your life? What really stood out to you?

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: Well, these themes emerged, and so the book is arranged thematically rather than chronologically-- the importance of family, my passion and connection to the natural world, which has really informed my teaching and led me to do some advocacy for the Earth over the years. As I lived out those years, I was a mother and then a grandmother. And so I learned a lot from just my life experiences.

And I think my poetry arises organically out of all that. I'm very concerned about the future of the planet, the future for my children, grandchildren, everybody. And so there's a section in the book about that. I learned that you can survive a lot and that writing poetry has helped me to do that.

CATHY WURZER: Mhm. Mhm. Can I go back to your interest in the natural world? Because many of your poems portray talk about the landscape, especially the Southern Minnesota landscape. Would you mind reading one of the poems? I believe it's called What I Did Not See?

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: Yes, I'd love to read that one. Yeah, I lived out in Cottonwood for over 40 years. So that was once prairie, of course. And, actually, I think this poem originated when I was doing a writing residency up at New York Mills.

But anyway, I've spent a lot of time out on prairie spots over the years. And I hope this one just helps the reader think about all the drama that's going on around us in the natural world, often unnoticed, and also explains some of my love for this particular landscape. What I Did Not See.

A nee complained how I kept him from his cup of purple flower, so I moved. A larva, painted like the Badlands, crawled through the hole in my straw hat free to escape to villas in the prairie grass. I found the innards of a deer and the matted fur, hoof, and bone arranged as for a painter's eye.

Most things hid from me, a quiet perpendicular piercing the sparrow's horizon. But I knew they were there. The fists and elbows of jostling seeds, lilting eggs of the chirping sparrow, ants with their long, serious paths, and somewhere, a snake, a vole, well apprised of one another.

What I did not see steadies me miles from prairie now as a rock, as my father's unsaid words. I know a hill where prairie smoke will write its pink and purple story every June, even as machines not far away break the Earth to make another road. I know each time I must, I can't come home to prairie wide with light and all those hidden there who never raise a gun, or promise love, or ask of me what I cannot give.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, Florence, I love the word pictures you painted with that. That is gorgeous.

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: Thank you. There is just a lot out there to pay attention to, isn't there?

CATHY WURZER: Oh, of course. Of course. My poet friends, those that I have who are poets-- oh, gosh, how can I say this-- they write from a place of great emotion. And I wonder, sounds like you do, too. And I'm wondering, gosh, you went back and went through all those poems, 150 poems. Was it a little bit frightening to go through some of those emotions again as you read the poems?

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: I don't know if it's frightening. I wouldn't say it was frightening, but instructive to revisit them and be in a different place and connection to those things. When we're young, everything is pretty dramatic if you're an emotional person the way I am, and some people I know. So you can go back from a different perspective. But I still feel deeply what is presented in the poems, what's conveyed in the poems.

CATHY WURZER: Thanks for being vulnerable by putting that out there.

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: Well, you have to be that way to be a good poet, I think.

CATHY WURZER: That's true. You're right.

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: Not always easy.

CATHY WURZER: No, it's not. You mentioned your family-- your parents all the way through to your grandkids are a part of this. I think you have a poem called it's called After a Year-- does it also reflect some of your some memories of your family?

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: Yes, it's about my mother who was amazing in her ability to weather some serious life blows, I thought, and still be cheerful. And she had some Irish ancestry, and I always thought she always had an Irish twinkle in her eyes no matter what. And she just taught me so much about the importance of music, and literature, the names of flowers, and, certainly, the importance of family. She died 23 years ago on January 17, but I still talk to her when I'm in a pickle.

CATHY WURZER: Good. I'm glad you do.

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: Yeah. After a Year. I want your inattention. You're straightening the small packets in the fridge. I never really needed those sought-for queries about my art. I want your objects-- pills, cup of water, coupons, deck of cards, the gray hair nets, the lists, your crooked leg, and blue veined hands, botched, forgotten tunes on the organ.

I need your cheer that shredded loss, handed me the meditation for the day. Once, you led me everywhere. Who else stayed through it all and never mentioned how I wrecked my life? I want you back, snug in your stubborn joy and allegiance to what you knew was true?

Five children, how they were your body and your will. How they were the music, food, god.

CATHY WURZER: Mmm. Lovely. Where can listeners find your book?

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: They can go to the press' website, which is MidwestVillages.com. You can order it through there and learn some more about it. They can also go to my website, FlorenceDacey.com. And they can hear some more poems, and they can get in touch to get a book.

CATHY WURZER: Perfect. And "Dacey" is D-A-C-E-Y. We'll put that up on our website, Florence. Thank you so much for your time. Beautiful poetry. All the best to you.

FLORENCE CHARD DACEY: And to you, Cathy. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you. Florence Chard Dacey is a poet who now lives in Northfield. The book is called Mercy of Stone-- Poems from 50 Years. This has been Minnesota Now.

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