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Feature Artist: Michael Belongie

Nov 12, 2012 09:27AM ● Published by Ryan Frisch

Gallery: Feature Artists: Michael Belongie [6 Images] Click any image to expand.

Karla JensenBy: Karla Jensen

If you are a lover of first lines and titles, you revel in how wordsmiths lure us from our normal existence with the hopeful bait of drama, high emotional stakes, humor and conflict.  When I first spotted the work of local poet Michael Belongie, something significant drew me in.  “Now is All We Have,” a recent poetry collection, spoke to me in a way other poetry titles had not.  It was as if my heart suddenly stood at attention and listened up to that certain teacher I grew fond of back in school.  This title sounded nothing like a simple title but maybe a special message, like a personal telegram for me and for you.

If you have any mileage on your years, then you know the ease by which we, in certain times and places, do not dwell in the now.  We get caught up in work, in our finances, in our needs and wants, in our differences.  Michael instantly knew how to get me with this title, how to choke hold with his words and force me to admit my inability to accomplish what he has realized ahead of many.  Life is short.  Live in the moment.  Take it all in and be thankful for your blessings.  “Now is All We Have” compelled me to get to know this poet better.  I wanted to explore what other words and insights dwelled beneath the cover of his book and what transpired in Michael’s own life to reach this poignant and authentic conclusion about life.

“Now is All We Have” is not Michael’s first poetry collection, but it might be some of his best work.  The opening poem, “Sophia,” in this particular compilation carries the line of that weighty title, but the visual Belongie produced for the reader was unexpected.  He writes,

“The toad uncovered in pruning

spirea, motionless, transmutes

eons of toad wisdom:

Now is all we have.” 

Michael, a gardener, knows how to trim his words back like he manicures bushes.  He snips here and shears there to expose the truth, the beauty, perhaps even the conflict, and he knows how to do it with as few words as possible.  And we still get the message. 

When I recently met Michael at a local coffee shop to discuss his passion for verse, I marched into the day determined to learn how one comes to be as focused as his frog Sophia, and live in the moment.

“It’s amazing what stillness allows you to do. To be a poet, you need quiet,” he claimed.  Michael advocates stillness.  He is a faithful volunteer at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison and has found enjoyment as a contemplative.  I pictured how difficult sometimes that is to achieve in a society spilling over with media 24 hours a day.  How does one sort through the fog of texts, phone calls, emails, radio, television and chatter?  The secret is quiet.  He listens to that inner voice, which allows him to find his own voice on paper.  Through meditation and study, his awareness as an artist is insightful.

Belongie is a torch when it comes to enlightenment.  His works taken together create their own prairie of reflection and commentary. He is as centered as a level and has somehow trimmed his poems as short as his spiked hair. He becomes one with nature with little effort. His words are often uncommon and as sophisticated as his wardrobe. Much of his work is centered in nature and I wonder as I am reading if he perhaps missed his calling as a DNR employee.  Instead, Belongie retired from teaching after 34 years at the Randolph High School.  He was just as innovative in his career as in his poetry.

Just when I think he is forever tied to nature in his writing, Michael catches me off guard – like a kid running out in front of a car – and writes of emotion to which we can all relate. In the poem “His Passing,” I was catapulted back to my own encounter with sorting my deceased parents’ personal effects.  Michael writes, “The wallet holds identity and personhood.  Years have spanned his death, and yet the moment is not resolved as acceptance must.”  (from These Kindred Stars)

Belongie also wrote a remarkable piece called “Do Me a Favor.”

In the coming days, think of me

and take a deep breath, hold

and recall a laugh or smile

shared with me.


In the coming week, call to mind

an unhappy thought, realize I

am freed of such moments.

 

In the coming month the

changes you notice are unobservable

for me in this sublime ever present.

In the passing of another season

Observe and enjoy God’s unending

palette of color and beauty.

In your favorite holidays

invite me back in celebration;

I will be there as much as

you want me to be.

 

In your journey,

remember the weight I carried

and realize God releases us

Sooner than can be known.

In your life be encouraged;

I await; for eternity is to

be enjoyed with you.

In 1972, Michael began the tradition of creating an original Christmas poem for friends and family that has endured for 40 years.  As his poetry evolved, so did his ability to broaden his artistic expression.  He paired the poems with artwork, creating a striking composition of keepsake.  Beaver Dam artist Bonnie Moll’s companion pen and ink artwork of Madonna and Child appeared with Michael’s poetry on a highly publicized print and Christmas card.  This November, he will unveil a collection of his Christmas poems entitled “Beckoned by the Star Maker” with artist and illustrator Shannon Kelly.     

In 1985, Belongie wrote a special piece for the new library dedication. He spoke to the values of the founding fathers of Beaver Dam.  “We are a city that values learning,” declared Michael, proud.  “Beaver Dam had one of the first libraries to allow customers to remove books by themselves from shelves rather than have librarians do it for them.” On April 17, 1985, this poem was recited, calligraphied by an artist and mounted behind glass.  His work hangs in the current library.

The entire state knows him well due to his involvement in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.  He has appeared with over 20 poems in the Wisconsin Poet’s Calendar since 1990, and has also been a distinguished editor.  He has coordinated the visitation of celebrity poets and introduced Bruce Dethlesen, Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate, who led a class during BDAAA’s Week of Art and hosted a reading this past spring.

It is impossible to capture all the wisdom, encouragement, power and perceptions imparted by Belongie all at once.  His career spans 40 years plus.  Yet, this gentle naturalist is also a succinct poet who continues to produce commentary in all manner of poetic fashion for readers to consider.  Whether one line or one title entices you to read his work, you will experience something new, something in the now that may take your mind off your ordinary life, move you to do something extraordinary or empower you to consider letting go of differences and, eventually, live in the now.

art poetry
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