One of the most Midwestern essays I’ve read is by Robert Creeley, who was not Midwestern, who was East Coast all the way, and it’s not an essay but a poem: “As I sd to my / friend, because I am / always talking,—John, I // sd, which was not his / name, the darkness sur- / rounds us, what // can we do against / it, or else, shall we & / why not, buy a goddamn big car, // drive, he sd, for / christ’s sake, look / out where yr going.”
When I googled the poem so I could copy and paste it into this essay, I found one comment beneath it, from “James,” posted in 2006: “dats nice i got a freind and sometimes i act that way towards him.” James spelled “friend” wrong, but that’s ok. “dats nice,” James wrote. “i got a freind,” James says.
This is a Midwestern comment. Is it parody? Is it sincere? Is “dats nice” sarcasm or sweetness? Is it a marker of humility? Is the misspelling purposeful? A refusal to play the goddamned game? Or is James just not all that invested in spelling? I wasn’t, for years, until I had to be. Is the confusion around who “I” is in relation to the poem, and who “him” is, purposeful? As in: I could be I or I could be him or I could be Creeley or I could be a toadstool you don’t know me. Or did James go for concision over clarity? Did James come upon the poem in some serendipitous moment of internet weirdness, and cascading from that moment, in 2006, came “dats nice” and the rest of it? I want to know James.
I am from the Midwest. I am comfortable with Creeley’s poem. It wakes me up. It doesn’t make me feel like shit about myself. The quirky word division, the shorthand of “sd,” the aural hesitancy —well, that’s how things are in the Midwest, both city and country. The explosion of “goddamn big car,” it’s like when the fuel tanks exploded, it’s like when the outdoor movie screen caught on fire, it’s like putting too much popcorn in a too-small pan and the lid rises up like a crown. “drive, he sd.” In the Midwest, when the darkness sur-/rounds us, we drive, sometimes all the way into the city to watch planes take off from the big airport with the blue-lit runway from which we assume we will never lift off into the air. dats nice.
I’ve digressed. That, too, is Midwestern. There are times we are heading to Walmart and we end up at a haunted church because we just had to drive by those cows. The ones way out there whose pee stream is so ferocious you can hear it hitting the snow. Whose pee is so hot it steams when it meets the cold air. We drive by the cows and roll down the windows to hear the pee and huh—I never noticed that church before, that church over there with the boarded-up windows, that condemned church, we must explore the church. Even if we fall through the floor? Yes, even if we fall through the floor.
I just said digression is Midwestern. I said cows and condemned churches are Midwestern. I said steaming pee is Midwestern. How essentialist am I? Very essentialist.
The Midwest is big. It contains Ohio.
My God, it contains Missouri, Indiana. Wisconsin. For Christ’s sake, St. Louis is not Chicago. Chicago is not Detroit. Detroit is not Cincinnati. Cincinnati is not Milwaukee is not St. Paul. And Iowa. What shall we do about good ole pillowcase-shaped Iowa? But what do I know of Iowa? What do I know of Chicago? I know its art museum and its pizza. I know Cincinnati’s art museum and its chili, Detroit’s art museum and its hot dogs, St. Louis’s art museum and its toasted ravioli. I am what a long-term resident of any of those cities would call a motherfucking tourist, and to the place where I was raised, unless you grew up there, you too are a motherfucking tourist.
What I know, or knew, is Niles, Michigan. What I know or knew further back, as it’s where we lived when I was very young, is Edwardsburg, Michigan. It is 10.9 miles between Edwardsburg and Niles on US 12, but I prefer taking the discursive path, US 12, past the fieldstone house where we ate watercress salad, to Gumwood, to Bertrand Rd., past Billy’s house, my first slobbery kiss. I liked him because he was the boy with a wooden leg, which he removed for wrestling matches. The kiss faded. The leg stayed. If you take the back roads off Bertrand you’ll see the Tying the Knot Wedding Chapel and the former site of a country bar, once painted smoke-pink. Now it’s an auto shop, and the memories of the good times are covered in corrugated steel.
Between Niles and Edwardsburg there are soybean fields, silos, the homemade crosses that mark teenage car accidents, an underground house, and fog. Edwardsburg, where my mom was raised and where I lived as a child, has a current population of 1,255. The village was built next to a small inland lake around which my mother, as a girl, walked backwards, and was bit on the ankle by a snake. No one believed her until they witnessed the fang marks. The lake is now the site of a massive marina and boat sales showroom. In a place where ghosts were once seen dancing on telephone wires, the marina has decimated all such hauntings.
There are undoubtedly more dead in the Village Cemetery than those living in the village. According to the Cemetery Red Book, last updated 9 years ago, there are 69 rows of graves, and a full page devoted to people “Buried In Edwardsburg Cemetery but unknown where.” I don’t know what to do with that information. The cave where dead bodies were stored in the winter, when the ground was too frozen for the gravedigger’s shovel to break through, has collapsed into the boggy hillside and is mostly swallowed by wild grapevines.
My dad has been a resident for 57 years. My mom tends his grave, and her parents’ graves, with unshakeable loyalty. Is grave-tending Midwestern? Is loyalty to the dead? No. The cave, the grapevines, the dead buried somewhere, but nowhere known? Probably not. We picnic on the graves. Do you picnic on your graves? Do you wonder what we are eating? I wonder what you are eating. What are they eating, I ask myself as I drive past them in my goddamn big car.
Niles, comparatively, is bursting to the gills, with a population of 11,211 living human souls. It was built around a river, the St. Joseph, or St. Joe, as we call it. The river is as innocent as any river. Maybe not innocent, but neutral. It’s not its fault it once floated with human sewage, that it has a vicious, shit-stained undertow. Now, it floats with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from the burning of fossil fuels, mercury, insecticides, herbicides, plasticizers, antioxidants, detergent metabolites, fire retardants, nonprescription drugs, sterols, flavors, fragrances, and dyes. As Elvis would say, “Plus tax.”
In the 17th century the river carried colonizers—Catholics, fur traders, “explorers”—to its soggy banks, where the Potawatomi had lived, unimpeded, for centuries. Neshnabek, they still call themselves. The true people. The false people took over, as they are wont to do. They fought each other and wrecked a lot of stuff. Factories rose and fell, leaving their shells, like river snails, behind.
Now Niles has a box store, a couple of big home improvement stores, an absurd number of auto parts stores, and a strip of fast food restaurants, though not Steak ‘n Shake. The dream is Steak ‘n Shake, but we are not Steak ‘n Shake’s sort of people. If you need your Steak ‘n Shake fix you’ll have to drive over the state line into Indiana. When Culver’s arrived in Niles, people were so happy they cried. It’s nice to know you have access to the same cheeseburgers other people have access to.
If you drive through the village and the town, I’m not sure what you would see. It would depend on your orientation to life, the nature of your eyes. Most likely you’d see a generic Midwestern town halved by a highway, Shell station on one side, cemetery on the other, river over there, water tower over here. But you’ve seen all that before, from sea to poisoned sea.
You want to see beauty? What’s your idea of beauty? We’ve got a bridge. A dam whose water froths yellow. A papermill. You like papermills? We’ve got a museum. A stuffed two-headed lamb. A zoetrope. A beaver hat. Tin soldiers. Arrowheads behind glass. Cornfields that go gold in the fall. Meadows full of Queen Anne’s Lace. If you use the gravedigger’s shovel in the meadow, in the cornfields, on the grounds of the papermill, on the bridge-edge, in the silt beneath the dam, on the riverbanks, you will find cufflinks, gunflints, a mouth harp, pottery shards, beads, bones.
You might see houses, barns, sheds, mostly dilapidated, that were safe houses for escaped slaves on the underground railroad. You might even take a side trip to Bear Cave, Michigan’s only official cavern, also a hiding place for escapees. You could also recognize residential segregation, which was the reality when I grew up in Niles many years ago and remains the reality today. My mom’s house is not within the city limits, but on the outskirts, in Niles Township. Her house faces west, sunset. On the eastern edge of her neighborhood, facing the sunrise, is where Black people lived in the township, and continue to live. At the end of that street is the high school where my dad taught for a few years before he died. I remember climbing around the school construction site with him when I was a small child. You would have thought he’d invented every brick. That’s how proud he was. For the students who walked down that east-facing street to school to get educated, racism was as elemental to the place as the cement foundation. Was. Is.
My mom has lived in the same house for 58 years. It’s a pre-fab on a cement slab. That’s how she describes it. No basement, so tornado warnings are a bitch. It is rectangular, banded with white aluminum siding, and black aluminum shutters frame the windows. It sits on a corner lot. At the tip of the corner, right next to the road, my sister once grew snapdragons. I liked to pull off the blooms and use them as puppets, forcing them to speak. That’s where the neighbor boy, Mark, often sat eating what he called cracker sandwiches. Soda crackers between two pieces of Kreamo bread, and yellow mustard.
The lot had been carved out of woods with bulldozers. Ours was one of the first houses in the development, so we were surrounded by oak trees and dirt hills that were left behind on the bulldozed land. Overnight, it seemed, houses like ours replicated around us and families moved in. Men spent their off-hours manuring their property to convert it from woods to lawn. I remember the sweet-rot smell of cow shit, the green blades pushing through. Even through his suffering my dad seemed to take pleasure in his lawn. Back then, a lawn meant you’d made it, post-war, into the lower-middle class. Long ago my mom decided to let the lawn be what it had always wanted to be, a mossy forest floor.
Inside her house, the small rooms are linked in an uninterrupted circle. Living room to kitchen to half-bathroom to bedroom to hallway with two other bedrooms and full bathroom back to living room. If a dog wanted to go on a circular rampage it could do so without running into a wall. As in every domicile, each room holds its own story, meaning, and hum. My mother’s kitchen, living room, bathroom, cannot be generalized, even to those same rooms in the identical-looking rectangular house across the street.
The bedroom where my mother now sleeps was originally the room she shared with my dad, and then his sickroom. Once he died, my sister painted it Pepto-Bismol pink and covered every inch of the walls and ceiling with photos of the Beatles torn out of magazines. During those years, my mom slept—when she slept—on a twin bed in one of the smaller bedrooms. On the wall of the full bathroom I had painted, at age 10, “Poop in here” in glow-in-the-dark paint, a message which has survived for more than 50 years. At the back of the small medicine chest attached to the wall over the sink is a slot labeled “used razors.” For decades I have imagined my dad’s razors living down there in absolute dark and wondered if there is some way to liberate them.
In lieu of décor, which cost money we didn’t have, and was ultimately deemed empty, my mom put food coloring and water in jars and stuck them in the windows. A red, an orange, a yellow, a green, a blue, a purple, a violet. To each window its own color. Its own frequency and wavelength.
Years ago, I hosted a well-known fiction writer at the college where I taught. After her reading and Q and A she commented to me, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” We were walking through the dusk to her book signing. “Good,” I said. “It’s a pretty special place.” The moon was full and yellow. Without glancing at me, her heels clicking on the pavement, she responded cheerily, “No it isn’t!”
She was accurate, of course. There is nothing particularly special about that college or any other. Nothing distinctive about me, either. If you think you’re special, she inferred, well, you’re not. You’re like every unknown flyover state literary hack who’s ever hosted me. The dinner was not special. Especially the chicken. The conversation was run-of-the-mill. The students were like all students. Oval-faced, bored, some of them barely pretending to care. She, however, was special. She told the crowd her father referred to her as “kitten” when she was growing up.
I’m fairly sure she is not from the Midwest. If she were Midwestern she wouldn’t have thought such a thing, that the place and its people were not special, and had that thought managed to squeak through, she would have never said it out loud. In the Midwest there is a silent agreement that the truth is less important than respecting other peoples’ illusions. Is that right? Is it Midwestern? Maybe it’s just my family and I’m generalizing. In fact, my mom teeters in the direction of honesty over illusion. Maybe it’s not us at all. Maybe it’s just me. Or it’s not me, just how I want to think I am.
Maybe Edwardsburg, Niles, are not Midwestern at their core. You could find similar places and points of view in Arkansas, New Mexico, Eastern Oregon, Texas, Florida, etcetera. Maybe the housing development where my mom’s house is situated is like every lower-middle-class housing development on the continent, and what I’ve described, and what I feel, is more about the outskirts anywhere than our particular outskirts. If you are a hayseed you could probably come to Niles and feel right at home.
My mother’s house is the color of a generic barcode. White. Black. But inside it’s all her. There is the whiff of the snake that bit her when she was small. The flag from my dad’s coffin, folded into a triangle and clasped inside its case. Her coffee maker—cheap, but she likes it. When it gives up the ghost she’ll get another just like it. Her bookshelves packed with texts from her late college education. Her small refrigerator. Her small tv screen. Her chair. Her hair in the wastebasket, as now she cuts it herself.
There may not be a Midwestern essay.
There is a Norma essay. That’s my mother. A Deb, my sister, essay. She was a Hospice nurse. Helped hundreds of people die. Has terrible, chronic pain in her shoulder from lifting bodies, both alive and dead. Her husband, a Vietnam vet, disabled from Agent Orange, who also, in his time, hoisted bodies. He, too, an essay.
A separate essay for each of her daughters—a nurse and two teachers—their husbands and kids. One of the teacher-daughters also breeds pigs. As I write this sentence, my sister sends me photos of the newborns, pink with black spots, one fully black, in the arms of the younger daughter who helped deliver them. She wears bloody disposable gloves. The black piglet’s cord hangs down in front of her pink jacket. Her older sister, who used to midwife the pigs, is now more interested in boys and the cosmetics and other products it takes to lure them. For every girl, for each stage of her doing and undoing, an essay.
And there’s an essay for my son, deeply but tangentially linked to mine. He lives 600 miles north, though still officially in the Midwest. Like me, after some really hard times, addiction, and lost love, he lives alone. He’s begun to like it that way. His essay is huge and thunderous and brilliant and wounded and funny and sad. If he could, he tells me, he’d move to the North Pole. The North Pole is not the Midwest, but he’d still be himself, even there. Maybe, as in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” his very presence would transform the landscape around him. Maybe it would become the Midwest’s northern outpost.
There is not a thesis broad enough to hold even our small family, let alone the pigs.
Does a poem have a thesis? Blatant as a box store, or concealed in a safe house, but maybe. Does an essay sing? Is its song shaped like a rectangle, or like the curved walls of the hiding room in the only cavern in Michigan? Maybe.
Is penetrating the mystery of landscape the life work of a Midwestern poet? Is penetrating mystery the life work of the poet? Is “maybe” the rhetorical terrain of the Midwest?
I saw Robert Creeley walking on 8th Street when I lived in New York for a time that felt like exile. He didn’t see me.
Before he died of AIDS in the mid-1980s in San Francisco, my whatever-he-was, Mikel, insisted I visit him to tell him goodbye. The very thought of it made me want to wretch. I called a crisis line to get help with how I should tell him no. I had a good excuse, a baby who was still nursing. Instead of getting a young crisis worker who might have let me off the hook, I got some sort of elderly bodhisattva midwife woman who said in no uncertain terms that I must go.
Mikel was raised about a mile from my mother’s house. His family lived behind the fruit stand on Sunside Byway, which was a dirt road back then, and still might be. Mysterious, how a gay aesthete was born into that town, that neighborhood, that rough-edged family. More mysterious even than the two-headed lamb. Bullied in school, he moved to San Francisco after a couple of attempts at a college education, which just didn’t suit him. In his years there, he brought the Midwest to the Castro, at least to his loyal group of friends, and they—the friends, the neighborhoods, the state of California—finally gave him a safe space to be overtly, fabulously queer.
When he gave me instructions for dispersing his ashes, though, he wanted to be back home. In water. Not in Lake Michigan, he said. Not in the St. Joe. In a tributary, which seemed humble in a bossy sort of way. His mother would be invited but not his father. My then-husband and baby son. My mom, who had been his teacher. I didn’t have the guts to touch the ashes. My ex-husband therefore put them in the stream for me. I remember that his hands shook, which almost, but not quite, allows me to forgive him for leaving us, but not myself.
When I flew to San Francisco for two days, not long before Mikel died, he returned to me all the letters I’d ever written him. He also gave me his book of poems by Kenneth Patchen because he loved the poem, “And What with the Blunders,” especially the line, “we shall not be there when death reaches out his sparkling hands.” He gave me a portrait he drew of me, in oil pastels, from memory. The woman in the portrait is conventionally pretty in a goth sort of way, which I have never been. He wanted to give me his Calphalon cookware but the idea of making spaghetti sauce in his pan made me feel creepy, like I’d be stirring it with one of his bones. Finally, for my son, then a baby and now in his mid-thirties, he handed me Ginsberg’s annotated Howl. Inside the cover, on a blank page, Mikel wrote:
Post a Comment