Monday, October 26, 2015

Emily Van Kley: On Distance

In May 2015, Michigan State University Press published an exciting multigenre collection called Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsulaedited by Ron Riekki, who's doing as much as anyone living to highlight the many writers who write about Michigan and/or consider Michigan their home. He's edited several anthologies now, and Here is the most recent and perhaps the most exciting. It's been an opportunity to discover a number of writers who were not previously on my radar, including Emily Van Kley, who posts below about her relationship to place and to state and to state of mind.

And do consider checking out the anthology, if you, like me, miss where are you are from this time of year. --Ander

On Distance

At first, I didn’t think of the place I had grown up as a place, as anything with its own story or parameters for being. Roads were long, in various stages of disintegration, and always, always bowed over with trees. Lakes were big enough to alter weather. Woods were close, which isn't to say that I noticed, really, unless they were absent, as when my family would travel south though neighboring Wisconsin, or pass through one of the few Upper Michigan townships where there was cultivated farmland, which seemed quaint, bare, and impossibly old-fashioned to me. Cities made sense––my grandparents lived in the south suburbs of Chicago, and obviously with so much concrete trees would be hemmed in, more accessory than landscape––but grass? fields? trees playing second fiddle to tilled dirt, low-lying vegetation, hoofed animals that didn't have the sense to jump a fence line and stay out of sight? That was the stuff of 50s television sitcoms, of romanticized Westerns. Foreign to me. It was a shock, when I left for college and followed a path west thereafter, how much of the country is forest-less. How little trees figure in the overall topographic equation, how much they cede.


I worry that I make the Upper Peninsula precious now, having been gone just about exactly as long as I was there. Of course I do. My poems about the UP (and so many of my poems are about the UP) tend toward the cringingly nostalgic, maudlin, embarrassed, embarrassing. To wit:


Despite absent traffic,
the road required attention: 
blacktop gnawed by snow
& thaw, unwitting deer, nonsensical
seams of bedrock & eruptions
of maple root to launch 
a station wagon, wreck its rims.
It was always dark. We always 
sped. So the lights were a problem
when they snaked the sky 
green, sharpened the black
edges of torn-paper 
pines, pulsed violet
as if at the hest 
of a technician’s knob.
I watched as if I was leaving. 
I was always leaving.
So I craned the windshield, 
swerved & neglected
to swerve. The road rattled, 
my tongue bled. Leave long
enough & you may no longer 
be from anywhere.
Some people like to watch 
the dark flare behind
their eyelids. That is one way.
Everything technicolor, even the desolation I obsess over in my writing, which folks who still live in the UP, like my parents and their friends, would be quick to tell you is far from the whole story, and would of course be right.


My own relationship with the UP is intense, a little macabre. A lot died while I lived there. Mining, which built the small and then smaller towns I grew up in, had been on its way out throughout my childhood. In one town abandoned high-shouldered mine buildings towered near the Pamida and the National Ski Hall of Fame. In another a flooded 200 foot open pit served as a swimming hole for the brave, despite a sunken crane dubbed Lazarus that was rumored to gather air bubbles and bloat to the surface every so many years. There was the year the logging company, my last town's only remaining industry and sponsor of my summer softball team, announced it was leaving. Left. Not long after, the window factory down the road moved operations to Wisconsin, forcing many of my classmates' parents to take apartments out of state, live the week there, return home on weekends, sliver their same pay for the sake of keeping a job. Keeping a job: an embattled state, one that seemed to get harder and harder until the prisons came, and then just stayed hard. Or the military funerals I'd be pulled from class to play for. The shrill sound of notes through my trumpet's cold mouthpiece while coffins were carried to idling hearses, then driven away to be warehoused until spring when the ground could be worked, car exhaust disappearing against snowbanks and then rising into the sky’s snow-grey.


Not long after my partner and I moved to western Washington and it began to seem like the move would stick, I got snowflakes tattooed over most of my back. I thought it would help me feel less lonely for a lonelier place, one that went still for six months of the year, wrapped itself in cold the way some people cover themselves in blankets––one that wasn't striving to be anything other than its sad and spectacular self. And it did help, a little. The needle with its creeping geometry close to and away from my spine like ice taking the surface of creek, inch by inch. Even now, when I catch a glimpse of my shoulders in the mirror my mouth sometimes fills with the taste of snow, flat, slightly sweet, momentarily fierce with cold and then vanishing.

That’s how it is when I think about the UP. On the one hand, I live elsewhere because that’s the life I’ve chosen. And it is nice to live in an area of the country with enough other gay people that we associate based on individual preference rather than on bare survivalism. I enjoy having regular access to live music beyond oldies cover bands, and I adore sitting lakeside in the summer without once dousing myself in DEET. Most of the time I grasp the logic of such things, but then a photograph of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore will appear on a friend's Facebook page and my senses are cast into such a yearning they clamor, begin to cross.


Here's an example of the kind of synesthesia that rules my relationship to Upper Michigan: when I was growing up, each short summer my family would set out to harvest enough berries to last a year's worth of morning toast and neighborly gifting. Strawberry, raspberry & blueberry all grow wild in the UP, as do lesser known but eminently jam-worthy varieties like sugar plum (serviceberry), thimbleberry, and chokecherry (these last possessing all the charms of a tablespoon of witch hazel when fresh but quite tasty when sweetened and preserved). I don't remember often being asked if I wanted to go berry picking. It was one of those activities, like school or dental visits, that were set by forces beyond myself. Berries would come ripe in the woods, and that meant the whole family would soon be piling into one of a series of the aforementioned road-salt rusted station wagons and heading to a secret location my parents had been scouting off some trail or forest service road as soon as snow receded in spring.

My mother, who'd grown up in rural Indiana and had been employed as a young person in commercial blueberry fields, was maniacally efficient when it came to picking: it was customary for my brother, sister, father and I to combine our afternoon's work in the hopes of mustering a challenge to her dominance, and to fail.

Though in general I approached berry picking with the same good-natured ambivalence I brought to all potentially enjoyable outdoor activities that were nonetheless not as predictably wonderful as reading for hours on end, I truly hated picking raspberries. Wild raspberry canes have furry spines that flush your forearms to a prickly fever. They prefer areas of the woods that have recently burned, where the canopy is sparse & the soil dusty. They come ripe during the hottest part of the summer and, worse, the sunny spots they favor are the domain of biting flies (mosquitos having dominion over dusk and shade). Compared to mosquitos, with their slender proboscis and dram of anesthetic, biting flies are crude, unprofessional. They use serrated mouth parts to saw––or if hurried, rip––ragged little holes in victims' flesh. Their bites are instantly painful––pure and abrupt as being slapped. The affected skin tends to swell and bleed, which everyone knows attracts more flies. The bites can engender a flashing rage, the same dumb, inward-focused fury that comes from stubbing a toe. Preventable. Evidence of a lack of vigilance, and its punishment at the same time. Sweating, wheeling my arms overhead until I tired, pinching tiny wounds of raspberries into my ice cream bucket, yelping with sudden pain, knocking the bucket over, righting it, repeating––that was raspberry picking for me. Years into my adulthood, I hated the taste of raspberries. I wouldn't touch the jeweled pints of jam we'd raise from those excursions. A church member's cobbler would taste sweaty and somehow oppressive. Fresh berries on ice cream sour and salty as frustrated tears.


Taste with touch. Beauty with pain. My thoughts about Upper Michigan are a jumble and, I’m afraid, likely to remain as disorganized as my erratic emotional response to having left the place. I recognize this sense in Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State, the concept album by Sufjan Stevens, which deals with themes of nostalgia, longing, and estrangement with the depth and juxtapositional skill of a lyric essay. Despite its bias toward the Lower Peninsula (which is after all typical of most things Michigan) and fact that as a Yooper I am more or less contractually obligated to view with a measure of distrust any work made about the UP by someone from downstate, track five, titled after the Upper Peninsula, has always had its persuasive moments for me. "I live in America with a pair of Payless shoes/ The Upper Peninsula and the television news" it begins. There, the isolation, florid in its plainspokenness. There the sense of separation: the speaker from a nation, the viewer from happenings far removed. The music itself vacillating between the spare and unassumingly lovely to the discordant, speaking its own language that, depending on your mood, could signal either mourning or joy.

Emily Van Kley's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Best New Poets 2013, among others. She's a recipient of the Iowa Review Award and the Florida Review Editor's Award, and has contributed to several anthologies, including Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She lives in Olympia, Washington. Find her online at

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