River Painting, drive-by shooting of dusk along the Mississippi River after a walk with two Midwest writers, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
Last week I finished reading writer Patricia Hampl’s memoir The Florist’s Daughter. It is set in her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. The landmarks are familiar to me, and I identify with her descriptions of “middledom” — the ordered streets, the litterless greenways and lakes, the pressure to conform that naturally seeps into the psyche when one lives in the Midwest.
But I was telling a friend, after 25 years of living in the Twin Cities (and I do love it here), I am still a transplant. My roots are steeped in memories of Southern dialect, and the writing and letters of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, and Carson McCullers. I feel an intense connection to the land and culture in the South. The years in Georgia (birth to 12), less than half the time I have lived in Minnesota, shaped me.
I am from the Midwest but not of it.
The Midwest. The flyover, where even the towns have fled to the margins, groceries warehoused in Wal-Marts hugging the freeways, the red barns of family farms sagging, dismantled and sold as “distressed” wood for McMansion kitchens, the feedlots of agribusiness crouched low to the prairie ground. Of all the American regions, the Midwest remains the most imaginary, ahistorical but fiercely emblematic. It’s Nowheresville. But it’s also the Heartland. That weight again: the innocent middle. Though it isn’t innocent. It’s where the American imagination has decided to archive innocence.
-excerpt from The Florist’s Daughter, by Patricia Hampl
Patrician Hampl is a poet and a writer. She has written four memoirs and two collections of poetry. And maybe because it’s National Poetry Month, I was drawn to the way she weaves poetry into memoir when describing the differences in her relationship with her mother and father. One wanted her to be a poet; the other, a writer:
He could accept the notion of my being “a poet” better than my mother’s idea that I was “a writer.” Poets are innocents, they belong to the ether and the earth. They don’t narrow their eyes and tell tales as “writers” do, proving in their mean-spirited way that the earthlings are filled with greed and envy, that the world is a spiral of small-minded gestures. Poets, at least, don’t tell tales on other people. They celebrate beauty. They make much of the little. Flowers, birds, the names of things are important to them. So being a poet was all right, though hopeless.
There was, even in “tragic” poetry, a note of optimism, of hope, the lyric lilt of meaning and significance. And he was determined to be cheerful all his life.
But for the most part he was silent, absolutely without affect. Finally let down his guard. I would chatter, ask him things, I got nothing—nothing—back. He just sat there, staring. Natter, natter, natter, my voice doing all the cheerfulness, his voice fallen silent as the midsummer fronds of wild rice made low hissing sounds in the wind. His real being, bleached to virtual absence by sun and water, descended to the soundless fish world where you didn’t need to say a thing.
Something about silence, something of silence was at the resistant core of poetry. Silence had to do with honesty. Just sit in the boat and stare at the lake’s troubled surface. No opinions, no judgments. No Leo the Lion—she almost never went out in the boat.
-excerpts from The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
A few days ago, a Bill Holm poem rolled into my inbox; it was sent by Ted Kooser on behalf of American Life in Poetry. Two more Midwest poets. We had been speaking of Bill Holm in the comments on several posts after he died unexpectedly a few months ago. He spent much of his time near his roots in Iceland, and I got to thinking, what is a regional writer?
What if you were born and spent your formative years in Virginia, your teenage and college years in Nebraska, then moved to Pittsburgh and New York like Willa Cather. Or were born and raised in Iowa but lived most of your adult life in Nebraska like Ted Kooser. Where are you from? What if you lived in Georgia as a child, Pennsylvania as a teenager, Montana in your twenties, and Minnesota for the rest of your life. Are you a Midwest, Northeast, or Southern writer?
Is it personal preference? The place you were born and raised. The town where you spent most of your life. Do you choose the place. Or does the place choose you? When have you lived in a place long enough to say “I’m from….” When can you call a place “home?”
American Life in Poetry: Column 213
By Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2004-2006
Bill Holm, one of the most intelligent and engaging writers of our northern plains, died on February 25th. He will be greatly missed. He and I were of the same generation and we shared the same sense of wonder, amusement, and skepticism about the course of technology. I don’t yet own an Earbud, but I won’t need to, now that we have Bill’s poem.
Earbud–a tiny marble sheathed in foam
to wear like an interior earring so you
can enjoy private noises wherever you go,
protected from any sudden silence.
Only check your batteries, then copy
a thousand secret songs and stories
on the tiny pod you carry in your pocket.
You are safe now from other noises made
by other people, other machines, by chance,
noises you have not chosen as your own.
To get your attention, I touch your arm
to show you the tornado or the polar bear.
Sometimes I catch you humming or talking to the air
as if to a shrunken lover waiting in your ear.
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Bill Holm, whose most recent book of poems is “Playing the Black Piano,” Milkweed Editions, 2004. Poem reprinted by permission of Bill Holm. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.
-posted on red Ravine from the Midwest, salt of the Earth country, on April 22nd, Earth Day, 2009
-related to posts: Got Poetry? (National Poem In Your Pocket Day), Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read?, Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group, WRITING TOPIC – A PLACE TO STAND