Friday, 21 October 2011

Stellanova's Passion, by Leslie Askwith

I met the poet Stellanova Osborn when I was working for the Sault Tribe newspaper. I must have gone there to interview her but can’t remember the details of our conversation, although I have a vivid impression of her presence.
She lived in an apartment at Lake Superior State College, as it was called at the time, with a view of the St. Mary’s River and Canada on the other side. The window overlooked the bridge connecting the two nations and the steel mill with its plumes of smoke and occasional fires burning at the tops of stacks like an Al Gore nightmare. She can’t have loved the sight, for her poetry expresses profound feelings for the St. Mary’s River country and the man to whom she was married for two days, Chase Osborn, the only Michigan governor from the Upper Peninsula.
Stellanova was a wisp of a woman, 92 years old, a glowing presence, light skin and thin white hair. Her body seemed so insubstantial that it seemed to be little more than a frame upon which to support her spirit. Her face was animated and her eyes, lively. Perhaps she was happy to have a visitor, perhaps glad to have someone asking questions about her life, as I must have been there to do, but more likely, she was always an interested participant in her own life.
For her past was intriguing. Her story could have been portrayed as historically important, mystically beautiful and scandalous. For most of her adult life she had worked for a former Michigan governor, Chase Osborn, who, with his wife, Lillian, adopted Stellanova Brunt when she was 37. Upon the death of his, by then, estranged wife Lillian, in 1948, the adoption was annulled and she married her adopted father. He was 87 and she, 54. He died two days after the marriage.
On the day I visited, she reminisced about her life with her beloved “governor” on Duck Island as though they’d watched the sun set over Lake George a week ago, not more than 37 years before. She spoke dramatically, in a style as expressive as the words of her poems. “Golden deed on golden deed, Did not so much, Set this man apart, As sunrise after sunrise, Stored in his heart.” (From Man Apart)
At the end of our visit she read a poem aloud. It was from a collection of her poetry, Summer Songs on the St. Mary’ and when she finished, she autographed a copy and presented it to me … “ With good wishes for her hard work and the famous group of humans to which she contributes, Sincerely, Stellanova Osborn and the Governor, December 20, 1986.”
Stellanova died two years after our visit and was buried next to the governor on Duck Island, on a point of land overlooking the St. Mary’s River. Her gravesite is as she’d hoped it would be, marked by a boulder and shaded by trees. “When I lie down in my last sleep, My flesh and bones and dust shall keep, Contented company with these, Northern rocks and northern trees, That I have loved so long! And when some soul their music hears, Attuned to the symphonic spheres, That song shall be my song!” (Pleasant Dreams)
Her poetry intertwines her profound love for the governor with the St. Mary’s River country, specifically, the island where they spent six months of the year. Duck Island is separated from the east side of Sugar Island by a string of small lakes and narrow streams and is owned by the University of Michigan and open to the public. When I visited there with my Girl Scouts in the 1990s, we were accompanied by the property’s caretaker, a Native man who teased the girls by pointing out the porcupine quills he’d stuck into crevices of his truck’s front bumper, an inscrutable joke to most of us white folks.
It was a damp cloudy day and as we wandered around the main living area, it was easy to envision life there as Stellanova knew it. There were several log cabins on a hill, all with porches overlooking Lake George where she surely sat at twilight “While the moon and the evening star, Peer over the alder’s shoulder, And even the littlest clouds, Are admiring themselves in the water.” (From Twilight Mirror)
In the morning she bathed in the river … “To come upon, This shore at morn Is being like Aurora born.” … My spine is cold, My hands are ice, But this - oh, this Is Paradise.” (From Sudden Glory) And she swam in the river at night. “What have nights in Paris, To compare with nights like these, Where I can see the Big Dipper, Between two pin cherry trees? – Where my camp-fire’s smoke and my frosty breath, Are one with the Milky Way, And the river closing over my head, Has taught me that to pray, Is to bathe the spirit at the start, And the ending of each day!” (From High Life)
One of the structures was a decaying three-sided sleeping room, just the size of a bed, where, our guide told us, the governor slept on a mattress of balsam boughs when there was too much commotion in the main cabin. I remember it as being built of logs, although my memory is sometimes faulty, and considered whether or not she may have been referring to this place when she wrote, “The logs that shelter no one now, Still speak. How they have proved, No cabin can be desolate, That has been so much loved!” (From Eloquence)
Her poems enrich my experience of the St. Mary’s River Country. I recognize the meaning in her words when biking along Scenic Drive on a peaceful misty morning. “God walks upon these waters in the morning, In the sublimity of mists that roll, From Echo reaches to the Neebish Rapids, Flooding the deepest fiords of the soul.” (from October Dawn) They express my reasons for taking my sorrows into the forest. “When I carry, The woes of the world, Into the woods, Branches reach out, And brush them gently off.” (From Censors)
She may be speaking to us in other ways as well. As I was writing this, the phone rang and someone asked for “Star.” I said I was not her and wondered if it was simply coincidence that a call came for someone else named Star while I was thinking about Stellanova or whether it was the kind of divine happenstance she may have been referring to when she wrote, “The sun will come. The chickadees are calling. The weeping fog will rise. There is more to the world today and always, Than meets the eyes.” (From Curtain)

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