As I look about me, Missouri seems to have a strange and sullen beauty. As if indifferent to any order, any use. Trees, nettles, weeds, shrubs, cattails, mosses, burst forth where they will, in an unrestricted and contentious grapple for sun, nutrient, soil. It makes me think, in a rather literal way, of when the apostle Paul wrote I am allowed everything, denied nothing. I can sense it’s not quite what he meant.
But then plant life does have that quality, a brazenness. I can understand the pioneering white male impulse to conquer, historically and now, though I’ve never identified with it. It’s an urge to quell something you don’t understand, turning a feral power into something lascivious, like disdain for a woman with unruly hair blown about, or a fully bloomed rose going to ruin. It’s the subtle differences that mark the college girls from the town girls, us townies with hair whose loose ends run ragged, a bit of color on the eyes only, instead of perfectly coiffed waves, blemishes airbrushed off. Both types of beauty, I look and think: how dazzling. But one says, This is how I am, take it or not. And a stubborn pride in that. As in: these superficial concerns? I haven’t the time.
I think there’s not enough room for this wild beauty that verges on hunger, the choice to disregard. Missouri is a place for the locals, the secret water holes and underground caves. It doesn’t flaunt itself: if you care enough to stop, see, you can be a part of something. Most people want signs, want to talk over. I think of this, similarly, with men. Only now, in my thirties, have I given myself that type of permission to seek after things only because I want them, to say “No,” “I don’t think so,” or come out with a straightforward question: Why do you want to see me? Or say, This is what I want. This was never sanctioned, growing up, in various circles of friends or church guys that I went with. I did love them, maybe, but even then I wanted to be loved for me, full-blown and irascible, like the landscape around me, not some quieted version of it.
This is me, this is what I am: Missouri, its rivers flooding the banks, despite farmers wanting to plant in its bed. Its woods, home to bobcat, snake, tick, not entirely safe. Like this place, it can be disarming when a woman decides to put forth her own face (hint: the woman is me). Disarming, as in: how to do battle? It’s as if, in deciding to no longer play a role, people don’t quite know what to do with you. I went out with someone the other day, who seemed handsome, and charming, and sweet, but he just kept talking on and on, as if he wanted me to buy into some sort of story about him, as if he wanted to lay the groundwork for all our experiences to come as he saw them, and I didn’t nod along, or widen my eyes, or say, “Oh really,” and he started talking faster, more aggressively. He didn’t have the awareness, perhaps the wherewithal, to say, “Well what about you? How do you see it?,” as if the thought never occurred to him. To think that, outside the bounds of response based on approval, there could be thoughts, considerations perhaps different, independent of his own. What is it they say about what exists outside of these expected lines—here there be monsters?
Missouri is a monster; so am I. It’s only, after all, a name for something with will, with wiles, that can’t be controlled.
The essay as such—the Midwestern essay? I have never thought of it in such terms. If anything, such an aesthetic is an amalgamation of forms and voices from this region, what slips in unnoticed when the urbanites allow us in the room. A bit of T. S. Eliot’s philosophy of time in “Burnt Norton” (“If all time is eternally present/ all time is unredeemable”); Frank Stanford’s aging reflections in “Man is so afraid” (“man says to God If I eat right will You take away cancer,/ God no say, man flush pot”) Mary Ruefle’s brutal pith on the nature of knowledge in Madness, Rack, and Honey (“in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn’t even speak”); Mark Twains’ tongue-in-cheek morality in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (“May be you understand frogs, and may be you don't understand 'em; may be you've had experience, and may be you an't only a amature”); Marilynne Robinson’s odes to the land or love or faith in Lila (“when I’m walking this road I’ve known all my life, every stone and stump where it has always been, I can’t quite believe it. That I’m here with you”). My Midwestern essays are shapeshifters, their forms slipping in through every genre’s cracks.
I think of myself as doing the work of a Midwestern essayist, and since I’m not afraid of breaking any rules of decorum I’m allowed to say it. But what the Midwest is, maybe, is an aesthetic, of regionalism, pastoralism, openness, that harkens to 19th Century New England writers, or writers of the West. Give me even St. Francis talking to birds, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau, Willa Cather.
Above all, I think, what may hint at the elusiveness of any Midwestern essay as type, is that here in our towns, on the banks of our rivers, stopping on Main Street or pulling the tractor over in the field, we know that it can be tiresome to pontificate. Or one runs the risk of that. Why elucidate points over an item when you can start, “You’ll never believe what my cousin came across in the trees—” ? What we value, I think, is something with a good beat—banjo or trochee—what you need is a good yarn.
To get on with it, now, is at hand. To avoid just that pontification. Or, as any woman can say: Alright, Handsome, just stop talking. But to get on with what? Surely the perfect, bifurcated essay, is as much a facade as the perfect, beautiful woman, the perfect, ordered land? Perhaps in coming to expect orderliness, we do ourselves a disservice in not appreciating reality, the raggedy chaos of life.
I’ve always been sort of against conclusions. It’s like saying, I’m done thinking, I’ve polished up all I want to say on it. The it, this questioning, becomes sort of artificial.
And so, in a suitable gesture, I will end on the things about Missouri that appeal to me, stuck onto the end, in no order and with no explanation, though you may take metaphor where you find it:
Stepping from a riverbank or lake, cold, the water dripping off of you, bumps raising on your skin, algae between your toes
a squall coming up out of an impressively blue day, clouds opened at the edge of the horizon as if invented on the spot
the husks of cicadas, dry and thin as wax paper, you can see the light through them
the scent of earth freshly turned over by a plow or rake or badger, wet and fomenting with secret undertaking
the scent of my skin in the air, porous, it means what’s around me goes in and out of me
leaves turning the same color as apples on the branch, as if helping the fruit in attempting imitation of the colors it knows
and on, without end, whatever you open your eyes to
mist coming over the top of a river at night like the river’s dream
smell of the leaves, ripe, floating, grinding into dust under feet, dust in the air, as if to tell our senses Run, laugh, dear children, go as far as you dare to go, before the cold night—
And here you may feel free to add your own:
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