The broken sunlight spatters Joe Enzweiler’s log cabin with splotches of yellow-gold. It’s February, and on recent nights the temperature here near Fairbanks, Alaska, has dipped to 40-below zero. The morning air—in other months rich with the scent of alder, spruce or high-bush cranberries—simply smells cold.
Inside, by the light of two double windows, Enzweiler is feverishly typing on a computer. The author of five books of poetry, the 1972 physics graduate typically composes in longhand on paper. But today, he’s revising his first serious work of prose, a memoir, and the computer, which belonged to his girlfriend’s late father, makes the task easier. The strong aroma of coffee mingles with the pervasive scent of wood burning in the stove. Three cats lounge nearby, taking refuge in the warmth.
In a life that follows the arc of a great North American adventure, this is one of the quiet moments. “I like being on the road and experiencing things,” Enzweiler says. “Not that I live life in order to write about it. I live life. Then I write about it.”
“Writing is a very moral art. It can save people, and it can kill them.”
The American Dream is built on our freedom to author the lives we imagine. Most of us choose the safe route. We stay close to home. We are responsible. We don’t risk much. Some of us, fearing responsibility, choose a well-traveled path and come to sad ends. Then there are those who follow a road less traveled out of a sense of responsibility. They live, they think, they help connect the dots of meaning, and they send back reports to those who stay behind.
Enzweiler’s best work is rich in the kind of emotional power inherent in even the smallest of human experiences—the sound of windshield wipers in the dark, the pattern of light filtering through nighttime blinds, blinking neon, a face looking back through a bus window. He seems to remember everything, and his memories, condensed into evocative verse, have garnered their share of admirers. Among those is the celebrated writer and radio host Garrison Keillor, who has twice read Enzweiler’s poems on NPR’s “Writer’s Almanac.” Most recently, on Dec. 12, Keillor read “Christmas 1963,” from Enzweiler’s book, The Man Who Ordered Perch.
- Web Exclusive! Listen to the”Writer’s Almanac” podcasts, which feature readings of “Christmas 1963” and “A Little Tune”
“When you inhaled, you could feel the grit in your teeth.”
On the evening of Aug. 22, 1975, a light mist was falling over British Columbia. Enzweiler was roughly 2,700 miles from Cincinnati and exactly 1,530 miles from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where he had been accepted into the graduate program in physics. Past the grain elevators on the outskirts of Dawson Creek, the first mile of the Alaska Highway came into view as a straight, northward stretch punctuated with puddles. It was the beginning of the last American frontier.
Enzweiler steered his silver 1973 Chevrolet Vega into a Texaco station. Filled up the tank. Checked the oil. He picked up the black hat reserved for special occasions and pulled it down over his thick, sandy hair. He fliped on the headlights, turned on the windshield wipers, puffed a Canadian cigarette, opened a tin of sardines and pulled out of the Texaco into the uncertain darkness with visions of Klondike gold miners in his head.
It was a new boom era in Fairbanks. Rather than miners in tents, Enzweiler found people living in cars, hoping for work on the Alaska pipeline. The town was abuzz with newfound prosperity. A divide was developing between the city’s fundamentally religious folk and the Friday bars and rowdy nightlife along Second Avenue. Into that divide strode an army of cowboy-booted, silver-belt-buckled, Stetson clad engineers, welders and pipefitters looking for high wages and good times.
Some were not disappointed.
“I was here when I wanted, gone when I needed to be.”
The urge to go had been growing for years, and childhood dreams of the American West remained large. Following graduation, Enzweiler enrolled in graduate school at Xavier. But it was short-lived. “I really had wanderlust, and Xavier had quietly dropped its graduate physics program.”
It was the spring of 1973, the time of the Arab oil embargo, and wanderlust was expensive. Mindful of economy, Enzweiler purchased the first of only two cars he’s ever owned—the Vega—for $1,875, without a radio. “It was one of Life magazine’s three worst cars ever,” he says with a laugh.
Momentarily secure in his new car, caught up in the spirit of the times and armed with AAA maps, Enzweiler set out to explore the west—and find himself. On the second or third night out, he stopped in Chamberlain, S.D., on the Missouri River. “It really is where the west begins,” he says. “It was there I discovered games of eight-ball and beautiful Indian maidens. It was right next to two reservations. I’d sit in the high grass across the river, camp and write poetry and dream about the arc of American history.”
Deeper into the west, he crossed the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. The land was pulsing with anger—it was the summer of Leonard Peltier, when two F.B.I. agents died in a firefight with Native Americans. Somehow, Enzweiler doesn’t recall feeling afraid. He hit Montana and Calgary, but eventually made a U-turn and headed home to Cincinnati. On the way, he stopped at Barat College, a now-defunct school in Chicago. He stayed there two months, living in his sleeping bag on a dormitory roof, reading “everything I could find.”
It took two unfulfilling jobs and one more trip west before he left Cincinnati for good.
“It takes a long time to do anything well on earth.”
His mother’s death in 1977 inspired Enzweiler to deepen his poetic efforts. But mastering a craft is hard, and raising a craft to the level of art harder still. As he honed his writing skills, Enzweiler worked at a patchwork quilt of jobs: at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks geophysical institute and the Alaska Department of Highways. He designed roads, built his home with his own hands, operated a drafting business and worked as a photographer, carpenter and stonemason. But poetry remained his underlying passion, his way of seeing and organizing the world. “You have to do an apprenticeship,” he says. “People often overlook that in the age of instant gratification. You have to respect it.”
Commitment is key—it took Enzweiler seven years to complete A Curb in Eden, a book made up of a single long poem—and plays an important role in developing an authentic understanding of place. “I lived here 30 years before I wrote my book of winter poems (A Winter on Earth). I think you have to give yourself to a place before it gives itself to you.”
“Wood Stove” and “Christmas 1963”
“It was Simon and Garfunkel-type stuff.”
A self-described romantic, Enzweiler wrote his first poem—a sonnet—in high school. But it wasn’t until he arrived at Xavier that he tapped into his muse in earnest. “I fell in love with this girl,” he says. “She was not in love with me, and I had to torture myself for two-and-a-half years over her. What that produced was about 48 poems, which is a lot of horsepower to devote to someone who doesn’t know you exist.”
Intent on honing his craft, the young poet was invited to become a member of Xavier’s legendary Mermaid Tavern writing group, where he found himself the only physics student in a legion of English and literature majors. But he was in good company. Other members included Richard Hague, who has taught English for 39 years at Purcell Marian High School and was named the 1985 Ohio Poet of the Year. The two have remained friends, and Hague has written about Enzweiler many times in non-fiction pieces.
“Most of us get locked into one thing or another, but Joe’s maintained his independence,” Hague says. “He’s a man who is capable of solitude and of using solitude well. There’s a kind of spiritual solitude there that nevertheless is filled with family and friends.
“Personally he’s a tender man in many ways—I don’t think other people would say that of him unless they knew him well. He’s very aware of the sacredness of life, very aware of the transitoriness of it. He’s the kind of person who says ‘I’m alive today, therefore I will do good work today.’ He has tremendous strength and patience.”
At Xavier, Enzweiler discovered an affinity for Dylan Thomas, and through Hague and other Tavern members, discovered others. He found Rilke, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Will-iam Stafford, read Japanese and Chinese poetry, and examined Jack Kerouac’s beat writing.
“It seemed like a nice way to say ‘I love you.’ ”
In 1985, the onset of computers dealt a deadly blow to Enzweiler’s drafting business. To clear his head, Enzweiler returned to Greater Cincinnati to visit his brother Phil and sister-in-law Nancy, who own a two-story stone farmhouse in Campbell County, Ky. While there, Enzweiler decided to give them a gift: He began building a stone wall, patterned on the Shaker-built walls at Pleasant Hill, Ky., around their three-acre property.
Every two or three years, Enzweiler returns for a visit, living in the smokehouse, visiting with his nieces and nephews, writing and adding to the wall. He collects limestone from nearby creeks and loads it into his Toyota pickup truck. By his calculations, each truckload weighs about one ton and provides for about two feet of wall. The wall is now virtually complete and measures 1,200 feet in length, meaning he’s moved about 600 loads of stone.
“I believe I have something to say.”
Writers often scale mountains of rejection letters before seeing their work in print. Enzweiler’s story is different. One day in 1985, he was munching a chicken cordon bleu sandwich in a Fairbanks Wendy’s when a writing-workshop acquaintance, who had recently joined a publishing company, approached and offered to print a book of his poetry. Enzweiler agreed.
Eventually, he arranged his life around his writing. These days, Enzweiler works as a carpenter and stonemason from spring until the first snowfall, when he retreats to his cabin and writes through the winter. The son of an electrician father and a mother who was a classical musician, he sees no delineation between the types of work he does. He lives simply, a small pension from the road department augmenting his income. He runs regularly, amassing about 12,000 miles since 1997. Perhaps most important, as he sits revising his work in the winter light, Enzweiler remains content with the road he chose.
“Time—not cash—is the treasure in life,” he says. “That’s what I wanted. I understood the bargain: I gave up a career-type job so I could write poetry and live a life more in keeping with the cycles of the seasons. I’m off the grid, no plumbing, no mortgage, no bills. It’s not for everybody, but this way of life has suited me.”