NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No.125 | November 5, 2007
Mr. Midwest Muse
He doesn’t come around much. He never goes to church. He seldom visits universities.
Offer him a grant — no thank you. A bottle of Wild Turkey will do. A small room to write in, a blue chair, windows open to prairie wind or neon night. A woman to love. Bach or Bird in the background. Something to smoke. A jar of the neighbor lady’s dill pickles. Half a loaf of bread. A wooden table to write on. Pencil and paper. A sharp knife. The light of a May morning or October afternoon ‑‑ country or city. A box of wooden matches to meditate upon ‑‑ to flick into fire with his thumbnail, the seat of his pants, the sole of his shoe.
He loves fire. Hates cold. But lives with it. Cold gets him started when there’s real work to be done.
He doesn’t much care to speak when spoken to. He’ll listen to a field before him, a small lake, woods in winter, a city street before daybreak, a woman brushing her hair.
Geographically speaking, he prefers to be in the center of a place, feet on the ground, a far cry from continental coastlines of endless water, horizons of floating dimensions. He knows full well venturing too far in any direction either returns a man to the center or sets him adrift.
He’d rather not think about floating. Though many seeking his blessing believe he resides there.
Return to sender: Mr. Hard‑to‑Find.
Geographically, he would lead you to believe, whenever/wherever you find yourself, you’re in the right place.
To deal only with a stone, a creek, a blade of grass, is to make contact with plenty. Birds are difficult. So are fish. A dog will teach a man to love. A cat will set him free. Men and women lead to higher and lower realms. Like fire and ice. Concentrate on either too long, you’ll find yourself with nothing to hold onto…floating.
“Write if you find work.” “Get your head out of the clouds.” “Keep your feet on the ground.” Midwestern musings. “You can’t get there from here.”
Get down to brass tacks. Talk turkey. Plain and simple. Smack dab in the middle.
Writing is tossing a pebble in water.
Poetry is the pebble under water.
What you do know will hurt you. Hurt is home territory. Begin with hurt.
Make a fist. In that small room to write in, break the blue chair.
Mr. Midwest Muse harbors the heart of the carnivore. His other nature.
He knows the smell of blood. Accepts danger. Flirts with the borderline, whatever the distance from center.
Teeth, he’s got a mouth full of `em.
Death, his anxious dream. Fear, his awakening.
He thrives in a climate a little north of center. Payne’s Gray, white, flat, raw umber, empty. The tropic of brooding.
Which is why he hungers for what is denied him: the red lips of that woman back there he’s left dreaming on the unmade bed. After the broken blue chair. After the hurt. After the knife stuck in the wall above the torn picture of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. After the match he’s flicked into fire, burned down into his fingertips. After the window opened wide to the night wind and waning moon. Before the words begin.
Ask him who or what engages his attention, he’ll yield to those writers who have worked the middle and the middle borders with clear sight and simple truth:
“Nick did not want to go there now. He felt a reaction against deep wading with the water deepening up under his armpits, to hook big trout in places impossible to land them. In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was tragic adventure. Nick did not want it. He did not want to go down the stream any further today.” Papa Hem
“But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Mark Twain
“The young man, going out of his town to meet the adventure of life, began to think but he did not think of anything very big or dramatic. Things like his mother’s death, his departure from Winesburg, the uncertainty of his future life in the city, the serious and larger aspects of his life did not come to mind. He thought of little things‑‑Turk Smollet wheeling boards through the main street of his town in the morning, a tall woman beautifully gowned, who had once stayed overnight at his father’s hotel, Butch Wheeler, the lamp lighter of Winesburg hurrying through the streets on a summer evening and holding a torch in his hand, Helen White standing by a window in the Winesburg Post Office and putting a stamp on an envelope.” Sherwood Anderson
“The people know what the land knows
the numbers odd and even of the land
the slow hot wind of summer and its withering
or again the crimp of the driving white blizzard
and neither of them to be stopped
neither saying anything else than:
~I’m not arguing. I’m telling you.'” Sandburg
“Before you earn the right to rap any sort of joint, you have to love it a little while. You have to belong to Chicago like a crosstown transfer out of the Armitage Avenue barns first; and you can’t rap it then just because you’ve been crosstown…Yet on nights when, under all the arc‑lamps, the little men of the rain come running, you’ll know at last that, long, long ago, something went wrong between St. Columbanus and North Troy Street. And Chicago divided your heart. Leaving you loving the joint for keeps. Yet knowing it never can love you.” Algren
“The Middle West is nowhere; an abstract nowhere. However earnestly writers proud of being natives of it may endeavor to give it form and character, it remains out of focus, amorphous, and a mystery…What seems local is national, what seems national is universal, what seems Middle‑Western is in the commonest way human…There is no Middle West. It is a certain climate, a certain landscape; and beyond that, a state of mind of people born where they do not like to live.” Glenway Wescott
Whatever is there is there.
In the small room where memory lies broken, daybreak seeps through the window. He draws the shade, pulls the knife from whatever he imagines he left for dead, and moves before the wooden table making absolutions, ready to take on life again in his dry‑bloodied hands. He reassembles the broken blue chair and begins.
from WINTER BOOK, Norbert Blei, Ellis Press, 2002
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