For those who don’t know poet Timothy (Tim) Russell, I want to introduce you to as solid a working-class poet as there is. Tim qualifies as a working-class poet not just because he wrote of that life (as did famed James Wright and Kenneth Patchen), but because he also lived it. He worked for 20 years as a boiler repairman in the Weirton Steel plant ‘til his lupus (MDS preleukemia disease) forced him to retire. He retired from the labor but not from the life and not from writing. For the next 30 years, he and his wife Jodi and kids lived along mile 61 of the Ohio River in small-town Toronto, Ohio. 

Tim Russell, featured in the book, A Red Shadow of Steel Mills (1991); photo credit: Jodi Russell

The Ohio River along the West Virginia panhandle is a ripe area for steel mills and poets.

I grew up about 20 minutes south of there in Mingo Junction, about 20 minutes north of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, where Wright grew up. The Ohio River along the West Virginia panhandle is a ripe area for steel mills and poets. In 1991 David Shevin and I edited A Red Shadow of Steel Mills (a line from Wright) which included poetry chapbooks of Tim Russell, Richard Hague, David J. Adams, and Kip Knott. It was one of our first books in the Working Lives Series from Bottom Dog Press. 

Last month, other poets and I gathered with his family and friends for his memorial, at which Jodi and grandkids spread Tim’s ashes in the river about a block away from their home. Here’s a bit of West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman’s eulogy quoting Tim’s poem, “Plano.”

Because hills are not on the maps,
it's easy to get lost here, distant
neighborhoods appear to be adjacent.

“Even though I lived a long time in the rural heart of Appalachia,” Harshman said, “those words obviously ring true for Tim’s urban mill town as well. And it is ‘easy to get lost here,’ but Tim’s poems seemed always to be pointing a way, providing an anchor, enabling us, his readers, and his friends to feel just a little bit less lost. That’s a gift, a gift worth remembrance at any time but certainly here, today, as we do our best to remember and to honor Tim and know this is one of many reasons we miss him.”

Tim’s poems seemed always to be pointing a way, providing an anchor, enabling us, his readers, and his friends to feel just a little bit less lost.

In the mill, Tim was nicknamed “Mad Dog”; among poets he was the “Steel Mill Poet,” though he is equally a fine nature poet. A sample of his work reveals how enmeshed he was with the mills and his place, its people, and their language: 

In Adversa  by Timothy Russell

March is the nuthatch
skittering head-first
down the bare black walnut
or the bare silver maple.

April is forsythia
beneath hazy pastel willows
weeping over the bank
of the orange creek.

May is mock orange
scattered like mortar explosions,
the most delicate mist
rising all around.

June is the red squirrel
fleeing the blue joy
both of them caught in the morning
sun crackling in the sycamore.

August is sulfur
moths twirling above the crown
vetch, deer prints in silt
at the culvert.

September is crab
apples, so red
on the roadside
near the Tin Mill
carpenter shop.

October is a buck
swimming the river,
climbing the gray slag bank
toward red and yellow
trees on the island. 
Tim Russell; photo credit: Jodi Russell

Tim authored many books, each winning prizes and literary recognition. He is the author of the chapbook The Possibility of Turning to Salt 1987, which received the Golden Webb Award, 1987; of In Dubio 1988, which received State Street Press, 1988; and of In Medias Res, 1991. His full-length book, Adversaria, in 1993 received the Terrence des Pres Prizeia Poetry (Tri Quarterly Books). Chapbooks What We Don’t Know Hurts, 1995, and Lacrimae, 1997, followed; his haiku writing received the 4th Shiki International Haiku award Shiki team, Ehime Prefecture, Japan, 1999.

In Integrum by Timothy Russell

I’ve put my white shirt on
to celebrate my neighbor’s glaring roof,
the brick chimney leaning against its
own shadow,
the next of black branches above it all
dissolving into brilliance.
I’ve put my white shirt on
to celebrate cookies on a plate downstairs
and the pears and oranges in a bowl
with one perfectly curved banana.
I am celebrating the Christmas cactus
blooming in March.
I am celebrating nothing.
I am celebrating today.
I’ve put a white shirt on.

How did Tim share his days? Besides parenting, his wife Jodi says, “Tim tended to his gardens along the Ohio riverbank and built a stone henge across from his house fondly called ‘Tim Henge.’ He also grew poppies, zinnias, and sunflowers in it throughout the years. Battling knotweed on the hillside, he turned it into a bird and wildlife sanctuary. He would ride along the banks of the river in his boat collecting garbage and debris trying to keep the river clean. He was mindful of sharing and taking care of the earth for everyone and everything.”

Tim had a great sense of humor and a fine sense of image and form. He uses the common language to touch us. A world-published poet, he wrote many haiku and won many prizes with them, including a trip to Japan. Here is the last haiku he wrote, a few days before he died:

                 Snoozles
        The little dog knows
                 I’m toast 
   
                       – 9/13/21

A fund has been established at the University of Pittsburgh, Tim’s alma mater. It will help support a freshman majoring in English Creative Writing. Donations may be made online at http://www.giveto.pitt.edu/russellmemorial or a check may be made payable to “University of Pittsburgh” with a memo “Timothy W. Russell Fund” and mailed to: University of Pittsburgh, P.O. Box 640093, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-0093. 

~~~

Timothy W. Russell was born May 25, 1951, and raised in Follansbee, West Virginia. As a sergeant of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam Era he served as a handler of Military Police Sentry Dogs 1970-1972. He had graduated from Madonna High School (1969) in Weirton and following the war, went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from West Liberty College (1977) and master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh (1979). He passed away on September 16, 2021, at 70.

~~~

Larry Smith grew up in the industrial Ohio River Valley and graduated from Muskingum College and Kent State University with a doctorate in literature. He taught at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College for over 35 years and is the author of 8 books of poetry, 5 books of fiction, a book of memoirs, 2 literary biographies, and more. He’s written film scripts for “James Wright’s Ohio” and “Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement” and is director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing in Ohio. He reviews for New York Journal of Books. Bottom Dog Press hopes to publish the collected poems of Timothy Russell soon.

Header image of Ohio River is credited to Larry Smith

~~~

Rebecca here–many thanks to Larry Smith for this beautiful tribute to the the life and work of Tim Russell. Please visit Bottom Dog Press’ website for his Working Lives series…and much more.

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21 thoughts on ““Mad Dog,” “Steel Poet” Tim Russell: a literary reflection by poet and publisher Larry Smith 

    1. Wish it was mine! Tim Russell’s nature poetry is outstanding. I love the seasons he captures in that poem–such close attention paid to the nature surrounding his home in Ohio. Thank you for reading, Damyanti, and I hope you’re well!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Lani! You’re so welcome. I love that poem, too, and I love how imbued with symbolism, ritual, and even reinvention the white shirt is. I was trying to think of what I might use for such a symbol. “I put mascara on,” maybe. Or, “I took my apron off.” Or, “I shaved my legs.” I’m not enough of a poet to offer poem prompts, but if I was that might be a fun one!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, I know what you mean. Maybe “I put my hair up” or something to do with jewelry….

        Dabbling in poetry is fun. I took a class my friend was teaching and she made me feel amazing 😛 but I fear I need the guidance and can’t come up with anything on my own!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Right! Well, my money is on “amazing” where you’re concerned–and that’s at poetry or anything else. So, I recently started working on a “found poem” because I had the same thought–how am I supposed to come up with something myself? That took a little pressure off and was pretty fun. I like the challenge of writing a poetry in a strict form. I recently tried a sestina–so difficult! I might just be a poetry masochist. Ha. I’d love to read your poetry anytime!

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Rebecca, I apologize for getting here so late, but I’m really glad I did. I’d never heard of Tim Russell, and I’m glad to learn of his life and work. Sounds like he was an amazing man/poet. You know, reading a tribute like this is so wonderful in that it honors the life and work of an individual, but it also makes all of us readers take check of our own lives, asking ourselves what we’ve done (and can do) with our “one wild and precious life” of which Mary Oliver has written. I will surely check out this poet’s work. Thank you for sharing Larry Smith’s beautiful tribute, Rebecca — and for all you do to shine a light on the writers of the Rust Belt. 🤗 Deb

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that point, Deb! As we honor a life we can check in on our own. As a nature poet, and as a man who loved the nature around him, Russell honored his home. And, it seems he bridged his steel worker days with all his days after, caring for the land and water around him. Admirable, I think. Larry certainly did a lovely job with this tribute–and I’m really hoping his press publishes a collection of Russell’s work. Larry will do the late poet justice. Also, you’re too kind, Deb. I’m just doing what I love here! (And do keep in mind, I love a guest post–if you write anything particularly Rust Belt-ish one of these days!)

      Like

      1. Well, as they say, do what you love & love what you do — it shows that you love what you’re writing about here! Lovely comment, Rebecca — I’m trying to “like” it, but darn if my WordPress isn’t giving me fits tonight. I think I need to sign in another way. Ah, technology!

        Liked by 1 person

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