She Who Believes in Unicorns

Congratulations to Kimberly Blaeser! She has been selected as the 2015-2016 Wisconsin Poet Laureate.

And we are so lucky to have her, and her words, to inspire us. As the Poet Laureate website explains, the position is “more an ‘activist’ than an ‘honorary’ one. Past Poet Laureates have traversed the state tirelessly to fulfill their calling to “enrich the lives of Wisconsin residents by sharing the values of poetry, creativity, and artistic expression across the state.”


About my Work

by Kimberly Blaeser, January 2015

The following essay, written in the summer of 2010, sketches my braided preoccupations with the ecstatic and the literary.  I think my life path has always meandered as I tracked these overlapping yearnings.  

In childhood, I followed the same sun-dappled trails as my brother, cousins, and all our childhood friends. We biked, swam, skipped along the railroad tracks collecting coal, and played whatever games came our way. In winter, we stared into the lighted water world beneath the ice and waited for something to find us. Perhaps we dreamed of the lunker, the fish that would become a story to tell through all the years ahead. But alone in my room through the long winter nights, I also stashed away poems, stories, books—and the sometimes mysterious ideas they brought.  Imaging things beyond my experience and neatly recording my fears, thoughts, and plaintiff sing-song rhymes, I began another journey—one toward a life in the arts.

A number of years ago while visiting my father and sifting through my old belongings, I came across a thin book I remember well. A look at the book jacket told me I had purchased it for half price—half of $2.50, less than the cost of a cup of coffee these days. Forgive me if I do not declare the title; I’d like you to think not of that single book, but of whatever fortuitous work passed into your own hands:  a sketch, play script, photograph, collection of poems, or 33 ⅓ vinyl album—whatever work of art lighted an other world in your life, making it as real and visible as a twenty-inch northern pike swimming among the reeds deep beneath the frozen surface world.

Today I would call the little book with the softly smudged country scene on its cover a work of philosophy; then I hadn’t yet that term.  Paging back through text and time, I find metaphors—“the oak sleeps in the acorn.”  I find statements about service and “spiritual aspirations.”   Among the passages I underlined in the volume was this: “Composer, sculptor, painter, poet, prophet, and sage, these are the makers of the afterworld, the architects of our heaven.  The world is beautiful because they have lived; without them laboring, humanity would perish.” 

In the recent weeks, as I have spoken about my appointment to the post of Wisconsin Poet Laureate, I have quoted Audre Lorde who bravely declared, “Poetry is not a luxury.” I agree.  Indeed the humanities are not a luxury, but a vital part of a life lived leaning toward an other light, a different vision of how to be in the world.  Humbly, as I place myself among these seekers, I hold up my own small lamp of assembled words and images and invite you in.

Let us conjecture together about where we will find the next life-changing bargain.  Perhaps in the symbol of the unicorn, perhaps in ideas about belief, or perhaps in simply continuing the quest together with the various artistic “architects,” as the long ago book suggested.


On the Existence of Unicorns

Originally published in 2010 in the WHC’s On Beliefs publication.

In May, following a conference gathering in the south of France, I join four friends at an outdoor table of a small pub. Half-finished glasses weep condensation as we laugh our way through various topics. I slip my feet from my sandals and seek the cool of the paving stones.

You would think this particular pub moment an unlikely one for an exchange on belief—or at least a discussion that continues to resonate weeks later. But it is then I feel the presence. You see, questions of belief follow me around. Always have. Or perhaps I wear them tucked into the hems of my skirts. See? That kind of allusion—if only I could touch the hem of his garment—weaves itself into the most ordinary of moments.

The whole thing begins innocently enough, with our friend Lee explaining that his 50-something-year-old sisters staunchly believe in unicorns. He wonders how he might dissuade them. I, of course, wonder how do we know? How do we know they didn’t exist—along with dinosaurs, mastodons, and other fanciful creatures?

Vampires. Unicorns. Mastodons. Spirits. Creator. And so the conversation gallops along, crossing and recrossing the borders between play and sincerity. How, Aaron wonders, do we answer our children’s do you believe questions? Where do I stand, someone asks, on Christianity versus Native spirituality?

The talk lands at one point at Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” and his literary gesture toward everyday wonders, toward the trees blossoming richly with an essence elusive as faith or poetry. Amid the banter and lines from Baudelaire, we nudge ourselves closer and closer to declarations. I quote Ed Castillo: Indian people can hold more than one thing sacred; and translations from Rumi: There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

We are from different countries, different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and yet we all seem haunted by similar questions. What do we believe and why? Do we insist that those with whom we share our lives also share our beliefs? Do our beliefs change over time? And does that change entail some loss of faith or just the continuation of an ongoing search? Is it the belief or the search that feeds our soul?

We wind our way safely back to unicorns, then walk the peaceful darkened streets to the Hotel du Palais. The next day, Lee leads us to a statue in a small garden. The statue had been there the day before, but it had not, he swears, worn on its equine head the single horn that now shows gold in the dappled light of a Montpellier afternoon. Graciously, playfully, he concedes the existence of unicorns.

Kimberly Blaeser is the 2015-2016 Wisconsin Poet Laureate. She is the author of three acclaimed poetry collections—”Absentee Indians and Other Poems,”  “Apprenticed to Justice,” and “Trailing You”— and works as Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she teaches Creative Writing, Native American Literature, and American Nature Writing.

Over the years, Ms. Blaeser has been involved with five projects awarded WHC grants.  Again, we celebrate this honor with her and also say thank you to our friend and colleague Carol Cohen, another tireless advocate for the humanities, who represents the WHC on the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission! 

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