Friday, February 5, 2021

The #Midwessay: Matthew Gavin Frank, The Midwestern Essayist Can Only Wonder

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. 

The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

The Midwestern essayist can only wonder as to the parameters of the Midwestern essay, because both essay and essayist have a hard time distinguishing between their own genuine humility and affected modesty. In the Midwest, and perhaps in the Midwestern essay, martyrdom masquerades as uncertainty, and boredom dovetails with the beatific. You hear that hissing in the soy field over there? That’s incantation. That’s garter snake. That’s firefly orgasm. That’s murder. You hear that silence re-asserting itself in the kitchen right after the microwave dings? That’s your parents getting divorced. That’s your ready-ass meatloaf.  

The middle of a thing oftentimes represents its zenith or its nadir. In this way, the middle becomes an extremity. A new kind of waterless coast. The middle of the mountain is its peak. The middle of the mattress is where it sags to the beige carpeting. Surely there’s some mathematical theorem to explain this, but I’m Midwestern, so I speak of such theorems only in bars, tipsy on Goose Island, after loudly cursing the guy who keeps playing Seger on the jukebox, while privately loving the songs. They make me miss my dad, is what I’m saying. 

What else can the Midwestern essay do, but lie on its back in middle of the street, or the meadow, or the cornfield, or the front lawn, praying the sprinkler away? It looks up at the sky, at the things flying over—the birds and the planes—and tries to make mundane opera of the swoops and the exhaust. The Midwestern essay goes fishing. It comes up with a boot. It looks inside the boot. It sees a very strange dream. After doing a little research, it turns out that the dream was true, and happened right here, on this very plot of land, fifty years ago. The Midwestern essay is stilled, balmy (even when encased in ice), liminal, a silent bomb about to go off. It hovers. The Midwestern essay allows itself to speculate on the weather. It calls the clouds passing. It calls the clouds, broken. It makes fun of itself for fixating on the clouds.

I don’t really know what I’m saying, but that’s okay because I’m a Midwestern essayist, and even Kurt Gödel, the mathematician who became famous for coming up with the Incompleteness Theorem, didn’t know what he meant by incompleteness half the time. But he knew he was lonely. And he knew that he would drive himself mad trying to “prove” his loneliness, pin it down and make it manageable. I’ll have another Goose Island. 

I don’t know. Maybe the Illinois poet Michael David Madonick was on to something when he wrote:

I am quite sure
there is very little
I am certain of.
I plumb the day
with a divining
stick incapable
of expecting
water. I should
not have this work
I do…

…And then
the Thing, flying and
airless, propulsing
itself, a stringless kite
in Kansas, its arms relaxed,
limber in the lightning
of its own quickened pulse… 

… all
these words, all this metal,
these darknesses, the water,
the damaging lights, the
requisite solitude, all
our separate regions, our
impossibilities are all
we possibly



Matthew Gavin Frank was raised in Illinois and presently lives in Michigan. His latest nonfiction book is Flight of the Diamond Smugglers. It does not take place in the Midwest.

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