It's evening when I feel pangs of home. When the sun falls far enough in its arc — well before it actually sets — it is lost behind the red brick three-flats of my neighborhood in West Town. All that's left of the sunset is a static light, gray tinged with orange, that seems to remain for an hour.
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I grew up in a small town in Kankakee County, only an hour south, though the place where I'd watch the sun's full descent and the sky's flamboyant pastels might as well be across the country. Chicago is my home. I don't think I'd want it otherwise, yet I also feel a deep love and uncertainty toward the culture and landscape in which I was raised. I miss home.
Poetry offers a unique insight into another person's mind. Even if the details of a poem aren't factual — for most poets, they are not — the access a poem offers is intimate. Done well, it is "true," in the sense that it is believably human. It is emotionally unstirring to say that someone has left home, but through poetry, we are allowed to understand this experience. Two strong debut poetry collections, Austin Smith's "Almanac" and Sara Tracey's "Some Kind of Shelter," examine the people and landscape of the heartland with the distance that living elsewhere has provided.
Austin Smith was raised on a dairy farm in northwestern Illinois, and the poems in "Almanac" are obsessed with the region. Smith, a recent Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University, has a fiction writer's interest in narrative and character. "Almanac" opens with "The Silo," a structure that haunts the speaker as a child:
Those were rare days we brothers
took turns climbing to the top to see
grain our grandfather had harvested,
black and numerous now as teeth
in a mass grave ....
By the end of the poem, the silo is demolished, but its absence becomes more frightening than the structure itself had been. Grass won't grow well where it was, birds fly around its former airspace, and in the poem's ominous ending, the speaker finds the tracks of deer that "had stepped gingerly / around that blighted ring like children / who know not to walk on graves." The silo becomes a metaphor of the speaker's rural childhood: Poignantly, its continued presence even in its absence mimics the way that memory works. As the book's first poem, "The Silo" casts its shadow over all of "Almanac."
Smith renders the characters and culture of rural Illinois with sympathy. Numerous farmers, a veterinarian and a man who loves his horses (really loves his horses: you'll see) are rendered fully and with heart — lovingly, even. By the book's end, however, the speaker views his native landscape with a more experienced perspective. In "The Scythe," the speaker views the tool in a museum and wishes he could "get the kid cooking fertilizer into methamphetamine / out of the dark cellar of an abandoned farmhouse" and show him how to use it. The speaker then realizes that even he doesn't know how to use one. Though the implication that labor or farming could fix a drug scourge is simplistic, the poem nonetheless offers a potent conflation of a changed lifestyle and strained economy. Part of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets edited by the esteemed Paul Muldoon, "Almanac" is an impressive first book.
Sara Tracey, who is finishing a doctorate degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago, hails from Ohio, which figures importantly in "Some Kind of Shelter," an equally skilled collection from Chicago-based Misty Publications. Tracey also uses characters, some recurring, as avatars for exploring the Rust Belt of her upbringing. Though she writes her characters sympathetically, Tracey also isn't afraid to let them look simultaneously foolish. Donny is one of the most memorable. In "Highway Maintenance," he is assigned to clear roadkill, such as "a raccoon, / bloated and sweet on the yellow line / of Route 162." "Donny Takes a Night Class," quoted in its entirety, shows his vulnerability:
There's no time to shower
between work and school; he shows up
in boots, Wendy's sack
in one hand, clipboard in the other.
He sharpens his pencil with a pocket knife,
folds like a love note
into a desk that wobbles, eats his burger
in three bites, wishes for beer.
He thinks the teacher's younger
than his favorite bartender,
not nearly as smart.
Despite his willfulness, it's hard not to feel for Donny. This later deepens when we see him at 17 posing on the beat-up truck his mother has given him, along with condoms in the glove box "she pretends he'll never need to use."
In their dignity and folly, Tracey's characters are deeply human. The speaker's cousin Stella is another frequent figure, the speaker's mirror in both likeness and antithesis. Through Stella and other characters, Tracey writes about the female body, unhealthy relationships and the Midwest, as in "Stella Takes Me to Tucson," where the speaker "ache(s) for green." Tracey's "Some Kind of Shelter" is populated with black walnuts, gravel roads, a Camaro's back seat, and Dairy Mart, and Tracey writes Ohio with equal parts dissection and love. Her debut is deeply imagined and full of yearning for home. As the author states in one of the book's poems set in a city, "The sun doesn't shine on Taylor Street."
What's ultimately most important about a place is what one remembers of it; there is perhaps no way to feel this intimacy about one's home as in poetry. As "Almanac" and "Some Kind of Shelter" demonstrate, the Midwest is a place that haunts — even from far away — a person's memories.
Kyle Churney is a poet living in Chicago.
By Austin Smith, Princeton University, 82 pages, $12.95
"Some Kind of Shelter"
By Sara Tracey, Misty, 77 pages, $15