Daniel Bowman, Jr.
"For each home ground, we need new maps, living maps, stories and poems, photographs and paintings, essays and songs. We need to know where we are, so that we may dwell in our place with a full heart."
—Scott Russell Sanders, from "Buckeye"
I sit on my porch swing at 600 North High Street in Hartford City, Indiana, waiting out a lazy shower on the end of a storm. I'm learning that a midwestern spring thunderstorm—the quality of light across the sky, the texture of saturated clouds, the sound the rain makes on the sidewalk—is different from how it happens where I come from. In my native Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, the sky seems to climb into the hills; it has corners, or pockets. Rain runs down steep slopes into gorges, creates mud, and swells the Barge Canal, the Mohawk River, and dozens of streams and creeks whose names have been forgotten. My adult hometown, the city of Rochester, abides by its own natural rhythms as well; one is never unaware of living on the shore of the great lake, Ontario, whether in the persistent breezes of July or the lake effect snow squalls of, well, most other months. The summer sky gets hazy as you look toward the shore.
Those are conditions I understand, and I've learned to express what they do and how they feel, the movement and the atmosphere. I'm a proponent of García Lorca's poetics, in which he claims that creating art depends in part on a "connection with soil." For him, it was Granada, Andalusia; for me, upstate New York. I developed a specific language to account for the place, a register of images that emerged from a combination of instinct and lifelong observation.
But I'm not there anymore. As a northeasterner in the heartland, it's difficult to know how to reconcile myself to the soil or the sky. Take tornado warnings, for example. They feel like a game to me. I discovered that before coming here, deep down I didn't actually believe that tornadoes existed. Each time a funnel touches Indiana ground, I need my neighbors to delineate the variance between a "warning" and an "advisory," and just how many miles per hour does wind normally move, anyway? What's an acceptable range?
What are the rules of engagement for this place? Maybe there's a pamphlet at the Chamber of Commerce, or a website.
I don't have the basics down yet, much less an authoritative store of earned images and the voice to articulate them with precision and potency. I have little language at all for Indiana; my premature attempts fall short, and I wonder how long it will take and whether it will ever come. I'm a writer; I need this language. Furthermore, I teach writing, and one of my obligations is to foster in my students a deliberate and reflective relationship with their soil, which, in general, is this place, now our place. Yet I'm nearly at a loss when I'm driving from the university in Upland down narrow, flat Route 26, where the sky rolls in at me, corn on one side and soy beans on the other.
I need to let this place inside, and that will take time. It should; growth always does. But I also need to participate in the creation of meaning. I began by learning the facts the way all writers do: by asking—and answering in the affirmative—the question Mary Oliver asks not once but four times, always in italics, in her poem, "Ghosts": "Have you noticed?"
Even as I noticed this place and grasped facts, meaning did not automatically accompany them. There was more work to be done. I'd looked at the geographical map, but I needed what Scott Russell Sanders calls "living maps": "stories and poems, photographs and paintings, essays and songs," because, he continues, "We need to know where we are, so that we may dwell in our place with a full heart." I wanted to interpret the facts of this place in the spirit, as Jack Leax has said, "of hope, not expectation," not just to write about it or teach others to write about it, but to live from wholeness.
Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere
The default in our culture is to see, and define, the interior of America in terms of absences, like a photographic negative. "It's the middle of nowhere," a student says. "It's a cornfield," one friend said with a wry smile and a wave of his hand when I told him I'd accepted a professorship at Taylor University.
We all know that Hollywood sets an overwhelming percentage of its TV shows and movies in New York, LA, and several other major cities, encouraging the perception that those are the only options for one who would seek a life of meaning, especially in the arts. As the Cincinnati hard rock band Greatmodern snarled, "New York stone, California sand: in between, we're all damned!" The Midwest is flyover country, at best simply a place to leave, like Willa Cather's Jim Burden, or like James Dean turning from bucolic Fairmount, Indiana (just a few miles from here) to follow his dreams.
It is easy to love New York and LA, or the idea of such places, to project onto them our hopes and aspirations for ourselves. This seems especially true in a visual culture where the camera never lingers more than a split second, jumping and cutting spasmodically between the sexiest shots, each flicker of city light representing possibility. My cornfields and soybeans do not make the final edit in that world.
Yet the student's statement, and my friend's words, do not signify. The "middle of nowhere" is, by the rules of the game, somewhere. And what is a cornfield, exactly? My instincts tell me that it's infinitely more interesting—that is, connected to our souls—than we would suspect. Maybe I'm romanticizing. But if there's any truth in the notion that beauty will save the world, then I must learn how to see the beauty that is here, and create a bridge from the experience of beauty to language. Simone Weil wrote, "Let us love the land of here below, for God has seen fit that it would be difficult yet possible to love." What is rural Indiana if not just that: difficult yet possible to love, seemingly resistant to our efforts?
I knew that art would be, for me, a portal to love. So I took the first steps toward reading the living maps of the Midwest, haphazardly and with no specific goal in mind—simply to acquire language, to learn and grow and begin to understand how to love this place, to see what it might require of me.
I revisited Sinclair Lewis' Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, with high-spirited Carrie Milford, and followed the scoundrel Elmer Gantry around the preaching circuit. I watched Wing Biddlebaum's frightening hands flutter about Winesburg, Ohio. I read the story of Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine, who illuminates the small-town Midwest in important ways through the perceptions of an immigrant suffering along a journey that lands her, at last, in Iowa. I read William Maxwell's keen perceptions of life in early 20th-century rural Illinois. I went back even further to Hamlin Garland's prairie stories in Main-Traveled Roads (1891). It was Alfred Kazin—that self-styled "walker in the city"—who asked, "Was it not in Garland that American farmers first talked like farmers? Was not Garland among the very first to dedicate his career to realism? It is true."
In his essay "Imagining the Midwest," Scott Russell Sanders notes:
While Midwestern characters, like the writers who create them, often experience the human world as a series of cages, they also feel restored and liberated by contact with the land. In our vagabond culture we have no ready language for this nurturing link between person and place, so we speak of majesty and charm, dignity and fulfillment, a thrill of recognition, applauding poplars and singing forsythia, the trout leaping, the heart hiding in long grass.
The very writers who bitingly denounced midwestern provincialism could also rhapsodize about the land and all that it meant to them, even after they'd lived away for many years. That was one of my first clues about the paradox of this place, a paradox still potent.
Sanders became one of my first guides to thinking about today's Midwest and the Hoosier state we both call home, a place that, culturally and physically, has changed a great deal in the last hundred years and yet stayed much the same. In Writing from the Center, Sanders evokes the "battered corner of Ohio" where he spent much of his boyhood, the regal red-tailed hawk gliding across the open sky. In the essay "Buckeye," he offers the buckeye tree and its seed as a wholly midwestern yet transcendent image: its beauty is as subtle and restrained as life in rural Ohio—but it's also poisonous. He talks about how his father knew the folk names of trees rather than the scientific Latin terms, showing us that midwestern knowledge was traditionally agrarian, privileging personal experience with the land over other forms of knowing.
And yet I learned this through reading. I soaked up the language, the stories, the imagery, the particular styles and tones and harmonies that signify this place and its people and history, and I began to feel that I could and would write about my life unfolding here, and maybe soon. First, though, I wanted to read more and better understand what this place had in common with other areas, as well its unique features.
In a Los Angeles Times piece on Sanders' book Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, the reviewer concluded that Sanders "proposes a different kind of citizenship." I take it that in his understanding, citizenship has to do with learning to love this particular place, learning the literature of the land and its people, and the rhythms of the natural world we've inherited here.
Chinua Achebe and Writing Place
Just how radical a proposition is this "different kind of citizenship"? One of the most effective "living maps" I've ever read is Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. When I teach the novel in my World Literature course at Taylor, I talk about personal identity as it's related to the literature of a region, and remind students that when Achebe's novel was first published, in 1958, little had been written about place and culture by a Nigerian. Achebe had his work cut out for him, to both provide common ground to readers elsewhere and describe that which was uniquely Igbo.
I start by reading the first few paragraphs of the novel aloud, then stop and ask students how he's doing so far at writing his place from the inside, inviting us there:
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.
The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw the Cat.
That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan.
When we begin to parse these paragraphs, we see that Achebe manages to redefine an entire continent in less than a dozen sentences. It would take too long to make all the necessary points, but for starters, Achebe names people and places, thereby inviting the Western reader to reckon with the specific spellings and pronunciations that are so much a part of the life of any region. He shows us activity: a sporting event—an ancient Greco-Roman one at that—that we can identify with, providing common ground on which Western readers can walk side-by-side with their African counterparts.
The event includes music, so the identification is even stronger; furthermore, one of the finest athletes is nicknamed "the Cat." Regions that cheer for teams nicknamed after animals, including the Tigers and the Lions, are invited to relate at a deep level. Achebe tells us that Okonkwo's "fame rested on solid personal achievements," demystifying the cultural hierarchy of the tribe and preparing us for some of the more difficult-to-accept tribal practices that will come later in the narrative (such as polygamy). He gives us action that rests on direct conflict, propels the narrative forward, and reveals character.
Then he invents a new, and very African, simile for us to chew on as we adjust ourselves to the world of the story: "Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan." In order to unpack that image responsibly, one might have to do a bit of research to understand the features of the harmattan, and explore the characteristics of a bush-fire there, including the consequences it would entail.
In class we can, from the literary side, trace the image of fire to classical Western material we read earlier in the semester, from Dido's burning passion (and her literal burning on a pyre) in Virgil's Aeneid to the fires of the nine circles of Dante's Inferno. From the cultural side we can examine the issue of fame; from the biblical side we might begin thinking about pride and its spiritual consequences for the individual (which indeed will play a major role in the eventual fate of Okonkwo).
All this to say that Achebe has done something extraordinary: he has shown us that there is as much that connects us with tribal Nigerians as there is that separates us from them, that Okonkwo is perfectly us and at the same time perfectly Other. World Literature happens at the moment each of us in the classroom begins to consider the profound implications of this state of things, that the paradox is, as Richard Rohr says, "radically okay."
Is Achebe's example relevant for me? Is the difference between coastal America and the Midwest extreme enough to warrant considering a "different kind of citizenship"? Do we truly need living maps to navigate a region of our own country?
I remember once showing a poem to a veteran writer from Berkeley, California. His own recent book included poems set in famous European capitals, complete with italicized phrases in French and Italian. My poem used apostrophe, the poetic device in which the speaker addresses something that can't talk back, often a place. In my case, the speaker spoke to the city of Cincinnati, in deep earnest.
The older poet couldn't get past the title without a smirk and a comment: "Ha! Funny, I forgot that some people write about places like that."
I'm sure detractors held similar attitudes about Chinua Achebe and the story of his Igbo tribe, questioning the value of writing about a place that had been written off: "In between, we're all damned" indeed.
Nevertheless, some people do write about "places like that." And many more who will never put pen to paper live and die in places like this town where I live right now. They deserve a voice. Maybe a "different kind of citizenship" is in fact needed in the Midwest.
I'm thankful that there are living maps available to those of us who have decided to love this place—maps that help us define ourselves as midwesterners, "Hoosiers" in my case, where we can explore and examine and question those definitions fruitfully. While place is only one facet of identity, it's surely a powerful one. Studying our living maps is a way to know ourselves and write from what we're learning and unlearning, losing and gaining.
Norbert Krapf's Indiana: Familiar yet Mysterious
One book that has helped me on my journey toward new citizenship is Norbert Krapf's Bloodroot. Krapf was the poet laureate of Indiana from 2008-2010. Author of many collections of poems, he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Like Achebe's fiction, Krapf's work often contains the names of towns and bodies of water and bridges and Hoosiers, from the Mississinewa and the Wabash Rivers to James Whitcomb Riley to Jasper, Indiana; the poems spill over with the richness of this place.
In his preface to Bloodroot, he notes that the poems in the volume "articulate [his] major allegiances": "Bloodroot brings together," he says, "the essential poems rooted in my native place that engage the details of the natural and human history—the external and internal cosmos—of the landscape that I was given as a birthright." He goes on to call Indiana his "familiar yet mysterious universe to explore." We know we'll find common ground in his poems, while the promise of mystery holds our attention.
When I first came upon the collection, I could see that my instincts would be affirmed: that living "in the middle of nowhere" was in fact living somewhere—somewhere "familiar yet mysterious." Krapf's poetry is helping me acquire the images and language that I crave. His poems notice and faithfully record and illuminate.
Krapf sometimes works in broad, expansive images that somehow still exude intimacy and appreciation of place. One could argue that, at his worst moments in the abstract mode, he essentializes Indiana life through common cultural memories or even stereotypical scenes. But I've found that the poet's skill and restraint, rendered in hard-earned plain speech, highlight dimensions of place that feel at once traditional and perfectly alive today.
In the poem "God's Country," Krapf uses the second-person point of view not only to place the reader more immediately into the action but also to create a nostalgic distance between the speaker and the scene. He writes in the second stanza, "When you steer around / a curve in God's country, / the language on the side / of the red barn coming/ at you tells you what / tobacco to chew / and a sign on the side / of the road tells you / when church begins."
While "you" are steering around a curve, with a barn "coming at you," another version of "you" seems to be hovering over the scene, or sitting quietly nearby, on the grass, maybe in the shade of an old a tree. And that version of you reckons carefully with the intertwining of tobacco culture (in the hills of southern Indiana which borders Kentucky) and traditional churchgoing; it is, after all, "God's country." You get to be the character in the truck and the implied one sitting under the tree at the same time. That way, you're not too busy at the wheel to read the words on the barn, or to feel deeply the simple dirt under you and the weight of generations of sober citizenship in this place. Neither are you too lazy under the tree to be compelled by the motion of the truck, an energy that defines daily existence, the movement required in a place where the yield of the land still determines the prosperity of an entire county.
Later in the poem, the immediacy becomes more poignant through the combination of sight and smell: "Through the screen door, / your nose takes in the scent / that tells you onions have / lain down in bacon drippings / in the iron skillet and made / friends with potatoes boiled / in their jackets, sliced into / thin white coins of the realm." The economy of a place is told through the impersonal but specific details that enable the reader to see, smell, and hear, and, at the same time, perceive the larger significance of the scene. While the camera pans (with no people in the picture yet, other than the shoulder of the "you"), we come to understand the fullness of these establishing shots, the richness of the oeuvre. And we come to know this place more robustly, its familiar aspects inextricably linked to its mysterious beauty.
Krapf also brings the camera in for close-ups, even extreme ones that capture the minutest—and sometimes most telling—details. Consider his poem "Hauling Hay":
As the sun burned
on the back
of your neck
you grabbed a bale
with both hands
by the binder twine
heaved it high
enough to clear
the mounting stack
on the back
of the wagon
by a tractor
groaning in low
it just right so
the whole load
and the chaff
swirling in hot
air like a swarm
of sweat bees
settled on your
beneath the collar
of your sweat- sopped shirt
the skin stretched
across your spine.
Here, rather than mediating the distance between reader and scene, the second-person point of view invites readers to identify with the "you" in the most elemental and intimate way. Krapf matches form to content by stripping away all but the most terse language, allowing himself a maximum of two syllables per word but using mostly one-syllable words where one syllable will do. Likewise, most of the lines contain no more than four syllables; many contain only three. The omission of internal punctuation creates a sense of the whole in each of its parts, and establishes the careful rhythm through the repetition of foundational sounds, through rhymes and slant rhymes. There's a precision in this construction as precarious as that of the wagon load which, we are told, "someone stacked … / just right." The speaker seems to "[groan] in low" like the tractor, doing the work of the poem efficiently and without ceremony. The prick of the chaff—the most ordinary experience—becomes climactic here, pricking our senses and pricking us out of our comfort as we sit with the book and imaginatively inhabit the image. The chaff and its impact register on the smallest of scales, like the tiny shock of recognition we feel as we discover that a whole world, a whole state, a whole heartland swirls in the air of the poem like a city in a snow globe.
I taught "Hauling Hay" at the Writers Center of Indiana Gathering of Writers in Indianapolis in 2012, when I was just getting to know the poem myself. The Gathering brings in writers from all around the state and the surrounding Midwest. I read the poem aloud and as I finished—before I asked a single specific question—an elderly man raised his shaky hand and simply said, "I know that. That was … my life."
I don't farm, but I live among farmers. I don't harvest the fields, but I walk and drive by them every day. I see them and consider them; they are becoming "the furniture of [the] mind," as Thomas J. Watson described "what we hear, read, observe, discuss, and think each day." As are other Indiana images: I go to the Muncie Civic Theatre for a show; I attend church with my friends at Gethsemane parish in Marion; I sit on my porch in Hartford City and watch a storm come and go.
And I read the poems of Karen Kovacek and Norbert Krapf, ponder David Pierini's photographs, read Susan Neville's essays and Cathy Day's fiction, meditate on the metaphors of Scott Russell Sanders and the wisdom of Dan Wakefield. I hear their words hanging in the air as I hear the words of my neighbors in line at the grocery, the hardware store, and the pizzeria.
I drive down Route 26 from Hartford City to Taylor University in Upland, the sky rolling in at me, corn on one side and soy beans on the other.
Daniel Bowman, Jr., is assistant professor of English at Taylor University. He is the author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (Virtual Artists Collective).
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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