Friday, March 19, 2021

The #Midwessay: Gayle Brandeis, White Footprints

The essay, as we all know, is an attempt. It’s a way of telling about, relating to, examining, delineating, and explaining things: big things and small; elephants and moths; individual human lives and families; a neighborhood, a whole city; a state or a whole damn, glacially-ironed region.   

The Illinois essay, and the essayists who call Illinois home, are concerned and consumed by delineations, with explaining themselves and the state(s) they now find themselves in: Northshore vs. South Side; Chicago vs. the ‘burbs; Chicagoland vs. Downstate; corn and soybean futures vs. the actual plants themselves; mile-long parcels of flatness vs. many-storeyed city blocks; staying vs. leaving.

The Illinois essays that follow are indebted to many that came before (Chief Blackhawk, Eliza Farnham, Honest Abe, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, John Hughes, and David Foster Wallace, to name a few) but are trying real hard not to live in the past. 

The essays that follow are curious about how many minutes it took you to get here. They are here to warn you that if a white boy in a Patagonia fleece tells you he’s from Chicago that he’s actually from Oak Brook or Highland Park. —David Griffith, Illinois #Midwessay Coordinator


White Footprints

Gayle Brandeis


I am learning the names of my childhood world. 
     I learn the weed I loved, the one with smooth green leaves circled around a tall spike, a spike I used to love to run my fingers down, strip it of its little green buds, is called plantain. Like the fruit, but not like the fruit. I learn plantain is a healing plant—if you chew or crush it and press it to your skin, it can stop bleeding, neutralize bug bites, bring splinters to the surface. I had thought it was a Midwestern plant; when I saw it for the first time in California, years after I had left Illinois, I fell to my knees, fell back into my child body. (I learn it’s also called “white man’s footprint”, learn it was brought to America by colonizers, learn my journey West mimicked its own. So many white footprints.) 
     I learn the boulders that line the shore of Lake Michigan, boulders I spent hours scrambling over, smelling their cool mineral breath, their texture embedding itself into my palms and knees, are called riprap, are there to slow erosion. Riprap feels like too silly a name, too close to riffraff, to the trip trap of goats on an ogre’s bridge. These stones are majestic, the vertebrae of a giant serpent hugging the edge of the lake. The backbone of my life. 
     I knew the name Potawatomi. Now I learn Odawa, now I learn Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac and Fox. Now I learn the names of peoples ripped from the land so I could one day call it home.
     I learn the name Chicago comes from the Algonquin shikaakwa, meaning striped skunk and onion, meaning pungence. I learn the shores of Chicago once reeked with wild onions and leeks and ramps. I never found members of the allium family as a child, but can picture myself pulling them from the sand, can picture myself biting into those sulfurous bulbs. So much beneath the surface. So much that burns in the throat. 

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the novel in poems, Many Restless Concerns (Black Lawrence Press), longlisted for the Bram Stoker Award, and the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis (Beacon Press). Earlier books include the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press), the craft book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne) and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement judged by Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, and Maxine Hong Kingston, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt BYR), which was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have been widely published in places such as The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, O (The Oprah Magazine), The Rumpus, Salon, Longreads, and more, and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2016, 2019, and 2020, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award and the 2018 Multi Genre Maverick Writer Award. She was named A Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine, and served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014, focusing on bringing writing workshops to underserved communities. She teaches at Sierra Nevada University and Antioch University Los Angeles.

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

1 comment:

  1. LOVE your last two sentences. Thanks for sharing this.