Poet and photographer cooperate on 'Co-op' and communism

"The Co-op Label," by Jim Johnson and Marlene Wisuri, is a story in poetry and photographs of immigrants (especially Finns) and cooperatives in northern Minnesota.

"The Co-op Label," by Jim Johnson and Marlene Wisuri, is a story in poetry and photographs of immigrants (especially Finns) and cooperatives in northern Minnesota.

It is a complicated story of assimilation, hardship and attempts to deal with assimilation and hardship, through cooperatives and through a complicated relationship with communists. As a press release with a review copy describes it, before the Great Depression, communists and communist sympathizers helped the co-ops. The co-ops later rejected the communists. But during the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, there were investigations into possible communist ties.

Johnson's poems and Wisuri's photographs "delve into these issues" and suggest it's "a past that more and more needs reinvention."

Thus, it's a significant part of the Minnesota story.

The photographs are striking, some of them even haunting, like the image of parents standing by the open coffin, propped up with the body of a baby in it.


It's fascinating to look into the eyes and faces of another age. One picture of six girls dressed up in Co-operator's Flour dresses with little hats is a remarkable study, one face with an impish grin, as though she's just told a joke, a couple of them looking like they mean to be serious and two on the ends, grim and stone-faced.

There are scans of newspaper clippings and digitally altered photographic illustrations, too. Many of the poems seem to tell the stories in the photographs. An early example is a poem called "Board Feet," accompanied by an image of sawyers at work.

Some of the poems are also haunting. Immediately, "1918" comes to mind, the story of an immigrant lynched in Duluth when he tried to revoke his citizenship after learning he could be drafted.

"The Statue of Liberty's Soliloquy" speaks of the immigrants' story, being lured to America to work in whatever jobs Americans themselves didn't want, Asians for laundry, Irish for unloading boats, Eastern Europeans for working in mines, Finns to cut trees.

We learn of corrupt managers who run off with the co-op's cash. We learn of the hard lives of farmers and their wives.

We read of funerals and meeting halls.

It's a fascinating, often powerful portrait.

The communism, a thread running through the book, sits uneasily.


Communism is possibly the most murderous ideology yet thrust on the world, accounting for perhaps 100 million innocents dead in gulags, crackdowns, purges, forced famines and wars of aggression. For more than 40 years, its Evil Empire's goal of world dominion drove a Cold War that dominated world political life and had generations of young Americans worrying about mushroom clouds. Even today, the remaining outposts of communism, including a potential superpower in China, continue to murder, oppress and rattle sabres.

Some of this is acknowledged in the book. In the poem "Joseph Stalin Pauses Among the Birches in Karelia" and the following poem, the theme is this bloodletting. Karelia was a region in which Stalin's purges killed thousands of Finns. There are other similar things.

But other references are more ambiguous. Back in that powerful "Soliloquy" poem, early in the book, the author, or at least narrator, seems to disapprove that communists were unwanted as immigrants.

Again, in "What We Eat," toward the end of the book as we're exploring what relevance the cooperative ideas have for today, we get a contrast between the country co-ops of the immigrants ("socialist, communist-type") with the city ones of today ("whole foods, hippie type").

What is the relationship there? It's not quite clear, at least to me. But I hope the author doesn't mean to suggest that the "communist-type" ideal is one that needs reinventing or has been reinvented at the hippie-type co-ops.

There's a sense of disapproval about the Red Scare, too. But surely there was reason to fear? That should be clear by now.

In fairness, this interrelationship is a very complicated story, told through imagery I may not completely understand. But when it comes to the hammer and sickle, I'm not sure we need any more ambiguity than we do with a swastika.

This fascinating profile provoked a lot of thought for me, but a lot of it was uncomfortable thought.


The book: "The Co-op Label," Dovetailed Press (Duluth), 2005

Author: Jim Johnson

Photographs: Marlene Wisuri

ISBN: 0-9765890-0-1

Cost: $15.95

Recommendation: An interesting portrait of immigrant life in northern Minnesota.

What To Read Next
Get Local