Surface Displacements

Sheila Packa

book description

buy book

read online (html version)

related media projects

thanks / funding

wildwood river home

turn on sound

book description

Surface Displacement book cover with aerial image by Sara Pajunen.

Surface Displacements is a finalist for the 2023 Minnesota Book Award in poetry. These poems travel through mining excavations and waterways vulnerable to environmental contamination and climate change in Minnesota, where the Northern Continental Divide crosses the Laurentian Divide and creates three watersheds that flow into the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and Hudson Bay. These are stories and images, historical and contemporary, about people who arrive or are displaced, whose language is replaced by another language, and still they find a fluid space full of possibility. This poet has given music to solastalgia, the term describing the grief or distress caused by environmental change.

“In Surface Displacements, the spirit of the ancient Finnish shamans breathes again. Sheila Packa’s best early poems recalled her youth on Minnesota’s Iron Range, growing up in households where Finnish was still spoken, where the immigrant towns were gritty working-class, in a landscape of mine pits, forests, and water. That environment remains her fundamental source, though now everything has changed, changed utterly, as Packa has learned, with increasing confidence, to incorporate history, science, and myth, even as her language has grown more musical, her poems more spiritual. Like the old shamans, she has become a shapeshifter, able — through the dreamy trance of poetry —to speak in the voice of a snail, rivers and lakes, an entire landscape and its people.”
—Bart Sutter, author of So Surprised to Find You Here

“There is a beckoning, a teaching, a singing and lamenting in Sheila Packa’s Surface Displacements. In rivers, headwaters, displacement and the otherworld we are given ways of navigating earth’s trauma in the sink and rise of all that is broken, all that survives. Whispers, dialogues, and the power of forgotten language are forged in the stellar poetic title poem that speaks of both beauty and loss. This is an important book of place, that calls out truth, journeys into landscape, history and the natural world. Ancestry runs through this book as challenge and praise, a way of naming that offers “the tongue with the old root.” Packa dives into the body of language and voices the body of the earth with skill and relish. “To speak is to mend” is an invitation to us all in this intimate and compassionate calling out of the elegant and fragile wonders of this world.”
—Diane Jarvenpa, author of The Way She Told Her Story and The Tender Wild Things

“Surface Displacements is a Lake Superior epic, an Iron Range chronicle, a Northland saga in which the human psyche merges with rock and water. This book has a heartbeat, and its rhythms are those of Great Lake seiches and flooded open pit mine waves. This poet’s practice is not only one of noticing but also of becoming, as self and landscape merge. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that humanity and geography have always been one, and Packa’s words remind us of what we know in our bones: that life is movement, displacement, and constant “shift(s) from state to state”; and also that we are connected to a core of belonging forged from earth and spirit. These gorgeous poems are incantations of legacy, deep roots, disturbance, destruction, flight, and transformation.”
—Julie Gard, author of Home Studies

"Through the art of attention, Sheila Packa elevates the landscape of northern Minnesota to the holy. Each poem is a room rich with texture, imagery, and sound that resonates long after one puts the verses down. This is a book to simultaneously lose oneself and find oneself in."
—Darci Schummer, author of Six Months in the Midwest

media projects

In the Water-Filled Mine Pit

composer & media artist: Sara Pajunen

map to cloud mountain

composer & media artist: Kathy McTavish

text/voice: Cecilia Ramón & Sheila Packa

click to read text

cecilia (translations):

how could i have known that i was packing my whole life at that moment ...
how could i have known that when i said good bye in the back room and you and i sat in the bed and you gave that big big hug ... i would not see you again ...
cómo podía saber que estaba empacando realmente toda mi en ese moment ...
cómo podía saber que cuando me despedí, y nos sentamos juntas en la cam, y me diste ese abrazo abrazo grande, ya no te vería ...

it was midday, the phone rang, she told me that you had passed the night before ...
y era el mediodía, sonó el teléfono, ella me dijo que habías fallecido la noche anterior ... me quedé callada ...

snow keeps falling ... sigue nevando ... snow keeps falling and it's january ... i keep confusing the beach in san bernardo with this frozen lake ...
sigue nevando y es enero ... me sigo confundiendo con la playa en san bernardo o este enero con el lago congelado ...


no other morning like this ...

I waited a long time for day break
listening to the faint sound of a battery
in the clock and each minute
measured, mechanical, slowly pushing
away from my father's last breath


rupture ... it happened / or it didn't happen / it was a shadow ...

Title poem: Surface Displacements

Kathy McTavish & Sheila Packa

click here to access

One River Many Stories: St Louis River

One River Many Stories collective

see more at: documentation website

People in the St. Louis River watershed share their connection to the river with WDSE, Duluth PBS, as part of a community experiment. One River, Many Stories is a collaboration of storytellers in the region focused on a single topic. More stories by WDSE at More information about the project at

mill city requiem

Sheila Packa & Kathy McTavish

see more at: documentation website

ekphrastic quilt

Leslie Hughes

in response to the poem "Water-filled Mine Pit"


Thank you to the following organizations for grant support for various aspects of this project:

Sheila Packa was a fiscal year 2022 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity was made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. She was also a fiscal year 2020 recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Sheila also received an Individual Artist Career Development grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council in 2015. This activity is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, thanks to appropriations from The McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Legislature and general and arts and cultural heritage funds.

This book project, originally titled Three Rivers, was also made possible with the support of a grant in 2016 from Finlandia Foundation National, Finlandia Foundation National invites applications for its grants program, which awards funds to projects related to Finnish-American and Finnish history, heritage, preservation, arts and culture.