‘A hundred years went by’

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Last week the leaves popped and it became summer on the Iron Range. Once again we fly the colors of our flag — birch green, sky blue and iron ore red. Our haunted northern Minnesota spring, which revealed all that the snow had covered, dissolves into a comfortable summer — the woods obscured by woods, secrets safe again.

It was the perfect week to read the new collection “Night Train, Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range” by Ranger-turned-Duluthian Sheila Packa. I recommend you do the same.

Poetry is often labeled an intellectual pursuit, and thus can be regarded with distrust among the blue collar ranks of the Iron Range. Time allows us the luxury of forgetting how timely, well-crafted words shaped our history, the songs, the languages and open doors of knowledge that led us from our divergent past. Packa shows this well in her latest anthology. In fact, in a number of poems in “Night Train, Red Dust” she demonstrates that poetic form is Iron Range function.

In writing class at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, former Duluth poet laureate Barton Sutter taught us that poetry is the most rarified form of creative writing. A novel allows days to develop a thought; a story might allow an hour. But poetry requires precision; and a good poem can deliver the punch of a good novel in seconds. Appropriately, fellow former Duluth laureate Packa shows how this is true in one poem “Unknown Woman Miner,” which does in a few lines what the movie “North Country” failed to do in a couple hours: show us not just what was done to the women who endured harassment in the mines; but what the years did to them, too.

"Night Train, Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range" by Sheila Packa

“Night Train, Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range” by Sheila Packa

Taken together, Packa’s poems act like a pack of strikers jumping the berm of an iron mine, hoping that in number one of them would avoid the bulls to reach the works. The elements of poems overlap, but the mission, the theme, each follows its own path. What it means to be an immigrant, what it is to be cheated, what it is to work your life out through your arms.

More than that, though, also the landscape. The colors. The odd mix of isolation and community comprising life on the Iron Range. I’m no regular reader of poetry, certainly not in the form of anthologies like this. But “Night Train, Red Dust” resonated with me; like songs mixed onto a great album, back when albums meant something. I read this with the windows open and frogs practically screaming out in the swamp. There was a light breeze. Goosebumps speckled my arms for most of the evening.

One of the most powerful poems for me was “Sketch,” which begins:

In 1916, in Biwabik during the strike
an accident happened
when the company’s guards
visited the house of Philip Masonovich.
Some said it was over a drink
but that’s not what others think.

What follows is a sketch of the events of that year, some strung out from specific news stories, others imagined details of the time. But the poem ends with what was, for me, two of the most significant lines of the book:

Some votes were lost — some were won.
A hundred years went by.

The sentiment in this poem and in Sheila Packa’s “Night Train, Red Dust: Poems of the Iron Range” is clear: we of the Iron Range live in the echo of a people, place and time that converged loud, hard and significant some 100 years ago. No living person was there to see it, but we hear the echoes, softer, softer, softer with time.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, June 1, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Hi! Thanks for the review! The poem that you mentioned, “Sketch,” is based on historic fact. The form of the sketch was used by proletarian writers and poets in that era, and Joseph Kalar has good examples in his book. Here’s a link to an article I wrote about Kalar who was born in Biwabik! http://sheilapacka.blogspot.com/search/label/Joseph%20Kalar

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