Xavier: Northern Light (continued)
By Greg Schaber
(continued from previous page)
“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.”