Literary Photographs
From the Mundane to the Sublime

by Gene Bellm (Colombia 1966–68)
May 2007
204 pages

Reviewed by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966–68)

    GENE BELLM’S LIFE STORY took him from a family farm, to a Catholic seminary, and then to Peace Corps/Colombia as a community development worker. While there he met his wife, who is Colombian. For 37 years as a secondary school educator he participated in international academic programs that took him to Pakistan, Israel/Jordan, France, Turkey, El Salvador, and Paraguay. These experiences were augmented by other travels to Europe, Mexico, South America, and Thailand.
         Mr. Bellm is now at a point in his life where a thoughtful person takes stock of things and reflects on life’s journey so far. If it has not been our habit to assess how life is going, many come to this point by way of a parent’s decline or death, a personal illness, the death of a friend or sibling, or the loss of a vital relationship. One or more of these things combines to drive home the point: this life as I know it will end. We ask ourselves: Where have I been? What have I valued? What lies ahead? What is important to me now? How do I best live the present moment? This book of poetry is Gene Bellm’s effort to answer those questions.
         The title of this book of poetry provides a key to its contents. The free-form poems, arranged alphabetically, range widely from laments over bad restaurant breakfasts (The Universal Bland Breakfast), to travel pieces, to those with a religious topic, such as The Rule, a description of men living a monastic life. The largest number of poems are about Mr. Belm’s experiences in foreign cultures. A handful are about his own family life.
         I particularly enjoyed Mr. Bellm’s several poems about growing up on a family farm in Illinois. It doesn’t take too much introspection on my part to realize I appreciate those poems because I too grew up on a family farm, though in Wisconsin. I sense Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry — “emotion recollected in tranquility” — in these farm poems, but perhaps it is my emotion recollected in tranquility at least as much as the author’s. No doubt this is the mysterious way in which successful poetry, or prayer, or music, or any form of art seems to work: something in it elicits a positive and creative response from the perceiver. In any event, when I read . . .

    Cold winter night
    Raw wind blowing up snow drifts along the yard fence
    Farm animals bedded down for the night in drafty barns
    While inside the house, the warmth of the kitchen cook stove
    Holds the cold at bay

    . . . am there. We had an electric stove in our kitchen, not a “cook stove,” but on cold winter nights my mother would often leave the oven door open, hearth-like, to supplement heat from the wood burning furnace in the basement. Mr. Bellm’s words had me simultaneously in his family kitchen and the Hundt family kitchen, enwrapped in the warmth and protection of the family circle, until it was time for bed.

    To bed, quickly then, in chilly upstairs bedrooms
    We sleep two to a bed under heavy piles of blankets

    On winter nights my sister Connie and I, in long flannel nightgowns sewn by our mother, would curl up next to each other, wary of icy toes, shivering from the cold as well as the menacing winds howling around our corner of the house.
         I paid particular attention to Mr. Bellm’s poems about the Christian faith, since in recent years my prayer life and service as a diocesan Lay Minister in the Catholic Church have become a central part of my life. I turned with interest to his poem, Jesus Rode a Harley (A friend commented, “Now, there’s a concept.”), but it was too clever and ‘cool’ to satisfy. Jesus the God Man has gravity, however, as does Jesus Is a Miracle Man.

    They cry out to him
    In their hunger
    In their sickness
    In their loneliness
    Crying out to be fed
    To be cured
    To be made whole
    To be brought back to life again.

         In the preface, Mr. Bellm writes that his book represents his effort “to live reflectively and explore all that life has to offer.” He encourages readers to use his poems “as a starting point, a stimulus, to become more deeply aware of their own life experience.” How can we refuse?

    M. Susan Hundt-Bergan lives in Madison, WI, with her husband Hal. Susan is retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and is now a Lay Minister in the Diocese of Madison. She serves her parish and the diocese in various ways, including coordinating the Catholic ministry at the Dane County Jail, a responsibility that takes her to the jail each Thursday night to worship with incarcerated men. She is blessed to be the mother of two and grandmother of three.