St. Louis Poet Karen Smead Mondale: “He would tell you he never was an artist.”

I first met KAREN SMEAD MONDALE, long-time community activist and retired educator, last fall at a Duff’s River Styx poetry reading. She read at Duff’s this week as part of Loosely Identified, a St. Louis women’s poetry workshop, while I was on my Nashville audiobook recording trip, so I missed that treat.

Karen Mondale at Copperhead Cliff, family retreat (photo courtesy Karen Mondale)

I later met Karen at the St. Louis Poetry Center Gala in the fall where we viewed an amazing collection of antique cars and turn-of-the-century French posters out by the airport while sipping champagne and listening to winning poems.

Karen edits the St. Louis Poetry Center Newsletter (available on the web), and participates in Loosely Identified, a women’s poetry workshop, and the St. Louis Poetry Center. Five of her poems were included in Breathing Out, an anthology published by Cherry Pie Press, and others can be enjoyed in the Mid Rivers Review, a Literary Journal. She has given poetry readings in the River Styx series at Duff’s, at Genesis House, the Regional Arts Commission and for a charity event held in the Forest Park Golf House. Karen’s dog’s name is Solace, and she specializes in creating soups, and seves them in Francoma soup tureens.

Her lovely poem, “He Would Tell You He Never Was an Artist” printed below, won honorable mention in the James Nash Poetry Contest, in 2007.

Then, this year Karen took a second Honorable Mention in the James Nash Poetry Contest. She read her prize-winning poem “Joe, 1960” at the Atrium Gallery this past Sunday, May 18. This is a a poem that speaks about the difficulties of getting past the trust divide between blacks and whites who wanted to be friends in 1960.


Lester Mondale (courtesy Karen Mondale)

by Karen Mondale (copyright 2008, all rights reserved)


It never was fired,
and so
the only proof
that once I could hold it within my hands
remains in the photograph
against the wall:
A preacher
behind the pulpit,
one hand on the good book
and the other raised to shake a fast fist at sinners,
its mouth contorted wide,
spitting eternal fires
at those who chose another way;
this piece of clay, he said,
was his reminder
of all he abhorred
in small minded men.

The Preacher, sculpture by Lester Mondale, photo courtesy of Karen Mondale


Only a recollection remains of the
one morning when we woke up,
my sisters and I,
to run downstairs and
into a stunning world of
flirty mice in clothes, ducks in ruffles,
rabbits with giant teeth, scrawny cats with great grins,
witches, masked boogie-men and Snow-White
with her seven dwarfs;
all these merrily marched
around the walls
of our dining room.
The day before the drawings,
those walls had been covered
in cabbage roses, and the day after,
we gathered within a pattern of stately stripes.

Lester Mondale at Copperhead Cliff, where the Mondale family spent summers. Karen’s father retired and lived at Copperhead Cliff until the night he died. (photo courtesy Karen Mondale)


Visitors to our hilly summer home,
christened Copperhead Cliff,
slowly drive through the 90 wooded acres
to find the sign he carved from
a piece of felled tree.
Nailed to a live tree
remains the invitation to
“abandon all despair, ye who enter here.”

The lean-to shed
stored cords of wood in
neatly stacked logs,
cut ends facing out,
patterns of wood grain decorated
with more patterns of sunshine and shadows,
these sawed from trees
he had carefully selected in the forest
to encourage the growth of young trees
by thinning out the old wood.
An ax and a thick stump
remain as testimony to his years
of splitting logs into firewood.


He called it the lamb of god,
this piece of granite,
and he rolled it day by day,
a little every day,
until it reached
its perfect position
on the granite shelf
where it remains
a piece for contemplation and reflection,
a little to the left and
slightly downhill from
the picture window.

He would tell you
he never was an artist.

He would tell you that
art is in the contest
between man and the wily packrat,

He would tell you that
art is slaughtering a hog
at your neighbor’s farm
in the morning and then
attending evening theater in New York.

He would tell you that
art is in this old oak tree,
still producing acorns,
after decades of struggle
in stony ground and cramped space
between the house and the boulders behind it.

He would tell you that
art is in the habits of discipline
which enable a man to function
long after he no longer recalls
the reason for a particular chore.

and he would tell you that
art remains in the running waters,
the passing possum,
the mating copperheads,
the people from whom he came, and
the living daughters and grandchildren
he left behind.

He would tell you
He never was an artist.

copyright 2008 photos and poem…all rights reserved Karen Mondale

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  1. Oh, how I wish to be in that delicious dining room, seeing its transformation from day to day and taking inspiration from it! Karen, you have conveyed the spirit and soul of your father in words of love and understanding. Thank you for this personal glimpse into his life.

  2. That feels so natural and compelling! What I like in this tribute is the art of crediting a loved one as the ‘different person’ by using a single line of verse (the last line). Very poetic! Thank you Karen for sharing your tribute with us!

  3. “Abandon all despair, ye who enter here” If only we could live that way, and all find ourselves able to embrace the world in all its splendid and challenging diversity the way Lester Mondale clearly did. What an inspiring tribute! Thank you Karen, and thank you, Janet, for bringing Karen’s work to Riehlife!


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