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Dave Wood's Book Report, Nov. 5, 2008

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"Red osier dogwood,

the Indians called

it kinnickinnic,

took inside their lungs

smoke from the bark

mixed with bear

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root and tobacco

leaves. Lime-green

during warm months,

a cut branch

can grow new roots

even in sandy soil,

earning red willow

its reputation

for resurrection.

At spring equinox

when the summer

yet to be born

has traveled midway

on its long path

out of darkness,

I drive past fields

still sealed by snow,

where March clouds ruffle

like eaglets' down.

The most vivid color

above or below

is the crimson shine

of kinnickinnic

woven from the smoky

gray ditches.

My winter-

emptied heart

gathers itself,

a willow basket,

to catch that dark

alizarin burnish.

Then I too stand up

out of the scabbed ice

of a dead season,

ready to flower and leaf

again from a bare red stick."

That's the opening poem in River Falls, Wis., poet Thomas R. Smith's latest collection of verse, "Kinnickinnic" (Parallel Press, University of Wisconsin, no price). If there's a poet more in touch with nature around him than Smith, I'm not acquainted.

As long as we're at complimenting Midwestern writers, let's move further west to Montanan Ivan Doig and his latest, "The Eleventh Man" (Harcourt, $26). Doig takes his cue from the 1941 Montana State football team that went undefeated that year. After Pearl Harbor, all the team members enlist and go to various corners of the earth to engage in the deadly struggle. One footballer, the eleventh man, is Ben Reinking, who is pulled from the paratroopers and ordered by the brass to make heroes out of his teammates. So in the course of the novel its hero meets his old buddies, records their adventures, their deaths and all the fortunes of war that befall those who engage in such activity.

Doig is a master at bringing to life past events in history, as evidenced by his most recent book, "The Whistling Season," reviewed in this column, a book set in post-World War II Montana. Doig is now at work bringing back a sequel of the award-nominated novel, featuring the school teacher Morrie Morgan.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Questions? Call him at 715.426.9554.

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