Midwestern drought

Two debut books of poetry, "Some Kind of Shelter" by Sara Tracey and "Almanac" by Austin Smith, explore the people and landscape of the Midwest. (Scott Olson/Getty photo)

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.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


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