Export: Writing the Midwest
Art Sinsabaugh always eyed the prairie beneath Chicago. He bought a wide-angle camera, the kind used then to take group shots, family and class reunions, wedding parties. His project was to place the camera at various points in the city, shoot the flatness of cityscape, pull the prairie back up out of Halsted Street.
It’s also my project—eyeing those weeds that grow at the base of the Prudential Building or along the Blue Line’s gray soil. My problem is that I’m from southern Illinois, a region that has at conscious points in its history attempted to be a part of the American South, geologically and politically. In my displacement here, as Lisa Robertson notes, I’m stung with “the moral promiscuity of any plant.” As American readers, we believe a voice speaking in place. It tells us that it’s lost something, and we’re all ears. We feel like Chicago has lost its prairie, that our own sense of displacement finds a song in this loss. But weeds are on the move. A swamp hovers beneath the city. These things seem important to me.
Downstate, geology doesn’t stay put on a map. Celebrating this, these poems are a collection of bones, pharmacy calendars, cloth flowers, ditches along roads. Strands of narrative, places one travels through on the way to other cities. Like the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers that boundary my home region, its history is a moving waterway that doesn’t allow the singer to stay in place. In fact, very little stays in place here. Things are in a process of constant reimplacement. Is southern Illinois a part of the Midwest? The South? Here, not even the boundaries themselves are reliable. In a desire to reestablish the lines that mark the prairie, I ask my cousin where the South’s northern boundary is. He replies, “The South? Oh, it starts about ten miles south of here.”
Midwestern Landscape #13
after Art Sinsabaugh
she says “frames”
then opening the
lens or “exposures”
harp threaded with
walking south the
price of eros in
Des Moines a
fish sandwich in
hazy swing with
the musicians’ hands
onstage and moving
in sequence he took
his horn apart sd
I’m dissembling the
with light his harp
threaded with water
or a field’s texture
after harvest a ditch
after snowfall the
violence done to
water Caesared and
sung put the President
on a bus—he’ll be there
Domestic Scene #3
Like any other cellar really. Slop sink. Tables pushed to the walls. A place where I can watch the men as they repair their VW Bugs, their wrenches jangling the concrete. Navy pea beans, canned tomatoes. Ironing board, one leg down, spanning the drain in the floor. Stack of white t-shirts. Metal-legged dinette chairs. The red cabinet on the wall. Plastic fruit. Catechism. This is WTAX. . . Washtub and wringer. Glass jars with nails and all these rather attractive knives. Zale-Graziano II. Wyatt Bros. Pharmacy—where your dollar goes farther. Or the voices outside. GE Skillet and the toaster socked in terrycloth. Receipts. Sickle. Last summer’s wax beans. Latches skimmed with colorless paint. That painting of two girls in a field. Spools of black thread. Fake palms. Clorox. Shadows of moving pantslegs passing the window. Train track. Thermometer—Pepper Up at 10, 2 and 4. Sweaters bagged last spring. Abrasions across tin. Wicker sound. Broken plastic pieces to some game. Anniversary photographs spilled across the bed. A can of beer. Movie screen. Mop. Rat poison. That place under the steps. Coke—the pause that—. Telephone on the metal post. Pegboard and saw. Topless shop vac. Forced air furnace. Flecks, cigar box remains of a bug collection. Dress patterns cut from brown tissue. Singer. Door that won’t stay closed.
Jesus Christ in his Off-Hours
The Dead River’s farmer
virgin still camps, fishes her Rafetown lean-to;
sends earthworms into the soil.
Her boy raises sunflowers now, takes his turn
as road commissioner;
she’s in early retirement.
she buys up plastic
relics in town, scatters
our bright boy’s gone off
to masturbate in the self
motel. His rectory
dreamed by seminarians.
What comes from watching TV in the dark.
On his wife’s grave this afternoon,
Manfred Burgener set cloth flowers,
cloth, his pension and lady friend;
he’s got the Holy Ghost,
he drives a new Lincoln.
Out yon window,
my wandering eye seeks the road’s shoulder,
eyeful of young lovers. Sweater pulled over head,
they unbutton together, rough mouth to nipple,
where the graveyard shelves at the blacktop’s edge. . .
My mind’s not round.
On the car radio, “She’s long,
she’s tall, she’s six feet from the ground. . . ” I look
down at my four-legged throne, grinning
as if the world were in my lap. . .
I myself am what?
Only cherubim, who’ve left
chasing tiger moths for kicks.
They rush across the blacktop,
heaven’s blue-green floor, bare feet stung
in the gravel and fescue
of the Reformed Church.
Hung on the wall comfortably
of our bright boy’s study I watch
cherubs’ noses pressed flat against dewy glass.
One places his hand against cold window
of car light, hums, “Holy, holy, holy!”
Der Knochenlieder (Three Investigations)
Someone had to talk to the bone. It was just there (as bones often are. You know how it is, O reader,) where a bone gives you a significant look. I sent K. across the street to chat it up. He crossed, checking both ways, and I think that’s where the trouble started. In the crossing, not the checking. It seemed like a reasonable enough bone, but then it started. K. asked the bone something about Boyer. The bone said something contentious under its breath, and then I heard K. say, “Well, then, fuck you, bone!”
The children threw bones at us. We had to leave.
in the Embarras River’s March-
Things were not bueno. All these dry bones around, for instance. These fucking bones in their summer dresses. All these fucking bones coated with a thousand breakfast stickiness. Then, Boyer tuned his banjo.
“How do you like your bones?” the priest asked.
“Very tedious,” Boyer said, strumming out the first measures of the No Flapjack Blues.
He played over the bones’ clamor.
“You can roll those bones from now ‘til sunset,” the priest said, “but I don’t think it’ll
But these are hypereducated bones. They hide in the clouds, configure themselves in ways I never imagined.
(tune your dobro, O reader; keep time)
box of bones skull
rolled down the hall
We followed Boyer as far as the Church of the Gated Savior. The priests, though, were waiting for us.
“I know you,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you,” they said.
K. and I boneshopped the confessional, but the saints dissembled themselves, threw their bones at us.
“We’d like to raise you, bone,” K. said.
“Yeah,” the bone answered. “Everybody wants to be my fucken daddy.”
Boyer placed the right side of his face in the holy water. His cheekbone came up, dripping. So much cold water.
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