Flatlands and Open Waters: Prose Poetry in the Midwest

Excerpted from the AWP 2015 panel presentation: Flatlands and Open Waters: Reading Hybridity into the Midwest
1. Midwestern P.O.V #1: I’ll begin with Brigadoon, the lost place between mountains that no one else sees. I prefer to think of the Midwest as such—as misty as masked. Just as the mountains rise up above Brigadoon enshrouding the valley where this myth takes place, so do the towering cultures of east coast and west coast rise above the plains. The east coast and west coast are not only states, but states of mind.
Perhaps because our Midwest culture is less-weighted than those on the coasts, there enters a weightlessness to the prose, a lyricism, a hybridity to writing. The landscape affects our writing and promotes hybridity. The landscape allows us to see space above form; looking above the plain, we can conjure our own image. From this point of view—the point of view of our vertical bodies upon the sweeping horizon, we conjure our form. It is a flatness upon which any note can be assembled. It is from this panorama that I begin to see multiple textures to write about. I want to examine the image that is in front of me, and the image behind that. Midwestern writing calls for structures that would be inclusive of a narrative that is both there and implied; it calls for the invention of structures that incorporate negative space–what occurs on the page and what occurs in the pauses. This thinking within the white space allows us to construct a second narrative, one that exists in the breath above the page—it is the Brigadoon of structure. The prose poem and lyric essay incorporate, perhaps live within, the plains of this space. Let’s not call it Brigadoon. Let’s call it Plains Writing. Narrative that takes place above the plain of the page. The following poem, “From Where I stand on the Steps of the Romanesque church” tries to emulate that expanse. It tries to convey that events, as well as the memory of events, are part of a great expanse. The poem is about a wedding and how my grandmother attended in a wheelchair, and how, within the space of a moment, I was already aware of her passing, and the passing of others. It’s my Brigadoon:
From Where I Stand
on the Steps of the Romanesque Church

Weddings seem unreal to me, and so it seems that I am not here,
but only that I remember I was here. I’m already remembering how
I stand on the steps of the Romanesque church and look at the
vines growing gracefully on the building across the street and how
the Cadillacs turn into the parking lot—which seems an old
thing—to have Cadillacs arcing along the shaded vine-wall of the
church parking lot. What era was that? And I am already remembering
how I will remember it. Providing it might be something
worth remembering. That it might be something. Tony Lamont, an
old friend of Aunt Ag’s, is getting the wheelchair from the trunk
of the Cadillac. He wears the painted-pony cowboy boots for Aunt
Ag, who still flirts with the man she went skiing with in Aspen
thirty years ago. My younger cousins, two girls 16 and 18, who will
never be 16 and 18 again, each go to help my grandmother and
slowly settle her into the chair. The linen dress of my grandmother
is now pressed into the chair and pulled out at the sides, like the
wings of a moth caught in the daytime screen. My cousins close in
around the woman in the wheelchair, each touching her shoulder
lightly. My aunt has her moment to shimmer as the sun dapples the
street and plays upon the ice blue gown pooled briefly at her feet
like water. The girls wear ruffled dresses that swish as they walk.
They look both ways before crossing the street under the elms. I
am already remembering the orange and yellow dresses flashing
light in the open canopy. Aunt Ag, and Tony, the two girls, and the
grandmother in the wheelchair come toward me where I stand on
the steps of the Romanesque church.
2. Midwestern P.O.V. #2: We are like cult members—except without a cult. Midwesterners have our small towns, our three car garages, our secret places in fields and woods where we smoke or get high or read the paper. We have our swamps, our creeks and rivers and places to portage canoes that we know of through family lore. We know secret shortcuts to everywhere here in the middle of nowhere. The Midwest does not ask us to reinvent ourselves as New York would. It does not ask for the grand gesture, as the west coast would. We see ourselves in some occult way—what we could be if we were not in the Midwest. We might conclude that the “there” in the Midwest, consists of everything that is “not there.” The Midwest offers a knowledge predicated upon question: Who are we? Where are we?
In the Midwest there is nothing to distract us except cycles of crops, cycles of weather, cycles of days. We are gods trapped in bodies that are as long and as flat as our shadows upon the fields. Perhaps it is in this vein of thought that I wrote this poem about a visit to my grandmother. She had been a little famous, among her small circle of Elk’s clubbers, as the best ballroom dancer of Midwestern ladies of a certain age. When she became elderly she was given a vague diagnosis of dementia. When I visited her, I wanted to acknowledge her mindspace. Within this space she was always reaching out toward a dance:
There’s a Shoe on Your Plate
I shouldn’t mention again that my grandmother was known as the
best ballroom dancer, if only by her circle of elder friends—and a
grower of roses, though she planted only the hot colors, the candy
Nor should I mention the nursing home and sitting with her on
her bed that day with the book of roses I had brought and stopping
to look out the wired window at the autumn trees.
Nor should I recall following the shape of her hands as she moved
them to mimic the trees outside. Her arms tilted like branches.
Nor remember the words she said—Look, the trees are dancing.
Nor should I recall that I looked at the trees beyond the wired
window, beyond the curb of the parking lot and noticed, sure
enough, one could say they were dancing. Sometimes the branches
swayed in pairs. Sometimes they dipped and caught each other. For
this she hugged herself.
She has passed now and these moments should dissipate and not
be frozen.
I should not note that out in the hall across from us, a man in a
wheelchair had a tray of lunch in front of him and was putting a
shoe on his plate, and another man in a wheelchair across from him
was yelling, Don’t put your shoe on that plate! Don’t put your shoe on that plate!
Nor should I further note that the first man continued to arrange
his shoe on his dinner plate. Taking a comb from his pocket, he
combed the laces carefully down each leathered side of the shoe
and pressed the tips of the laces into some lettuce, mayo, and
tomato. The man, who had been yelling, now laughed and said,
There’s a shoe on your plate!
And how ridiculous it would be to note this momentary sadness,
because no one there that day was sad. Certainly not the man
arranging his shoe on the plate, nor the grandmother staring out
the wired window. And yet, there we were pinned—this grandmother
swaying, this granddaughter watching this choreographer
with a shoe, while the other shouted, There’s a shoe on your plate.
And before the whole thing breaks apart, there must be something
more to say.
3. P.O.V #3: The Midwest is not a region it is an anti-region. Among certain regional scholars, Midwestern writing is analyzed as a literature of the “anti-region.” (Andrew RL Cayton, a history professor at Miami University, defines the Midwestern region as “the Anti-region” in a book he co-edited called The American Midwest.) Perhaps one function of art is to create metaphor for place and the history of our movement upon a place. However, the fact is, we have not hit upon a discourse of regionalism in the Midwest. If possible, we are known for what does not happen, the identity we do not have, the amorphous spiritual moment, the infinitely encompassing grandlessness of our landscape, the myriad mosaic of our reflections, the continual paradox of being contained in this openness, coupled with the irony that just 1% of our prairies exist as they did 200 years ago. It turns out simple and unassuming beauty is the easiest to destroy. Midwestern writing is a present moment deeply aware of its fleeting reality, its enjambment with past and future.
In the Midwest, literally, we are at cross purposes with our landscape, and this can be seen by viewing the perpendicularity of our figure upon the landscape, our vertical upon the horizontal as we gaze out. In my poem “Patty Hearst on the Prairie,” I tried to capture the dichotomy that exists between the desire to be part of a larger landscape and the reality of our smallness–the small substance of our bodies upon landscape. In this sense the anti- region can be seen as having a nascent reality, the qualities of an adolescent—which is may be what the Midwest is. Midwestern writers might take to the prose poem form because it is a form in the borderlands, both narrative and symbolic, metaphoric and histrionic. I try to capture this adolescent quality in my poem about a teen-age narrator who walks the streets of the city in a sort of identity-panic after just having visited the dying mother of a high school friend.
Patty Hearst on the Prairie
There was nothing in the room
save the bed, two chairs, and the standing caretaker.
And now us, the standing girls with tea cups.
I have to be more. There has to be more,
I may have said this to myself a hundred times.
She asked us what we were reading.
Unamuno, June whispered.
—the woman whispered back, La Palabra, did you read that one?
We stared at her. Her dark hair, her white robe.
Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida—The Tragic Sense of Life,
she translated for us. I was suddenly transfixed by the Spanish
We shook our heads. Perhaps more pastries
or breads? The caretaker came in to offer this.
Unamuno. His voice weighs nothing, she said.
Walking out into night air
I looked up into sulfur light, bare branches, sky beyond.
Looking back, the caretaker was pulling the curtains. I felt dizzy.
Winters in Chicago are brutal—everyone says this.
The lake had frozen over that winter. The water turned sharp
and haunting, then glossy black, and slowly gave up
sheets of white ice.
Going home on the bus that night
I wore my moccasins, my hoodie, my round hipster glasses.
I noticed three others looking out the bus window.
From there we saw the small ice mountains
guarding the snowy beaches.
We were each thinking something.
I was thinking
exactly one summer ago we lay there,
right there where the snowy mountain was,
there was a beach.
And high school friends and I,
let the sand sift lazily through our hands
while we talked and greased ourselves with tanning oil,
and analyzed family and teachers and god.
In the summer we all had a look—flip flops and expensive
bags, cut-off shorts with fringe, black t-shirts,
dramatic and desolate, long blond hair, with dark eye shadow,
like calm heiresses.
Seen from a distance, we all looked like Patty Hearst on the beach.

Re'Lynn Hansen’s memoir in prose poem and essay form, To Some Women I Have Known, is available at White Pine Press. Her essays, prose poems and short stories have appeared in Hawai'i Review, Prism, Rhino, New Madrid, Water~Stone, New South, Poem Memoir Story, Fourth Genre and online at contrary. She is the recipient of the New South Prose Prize, and the Prism International Creative Nonfiction Prize. Her chapbook 25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker was published by Firewheel Press. Her Novel Take Me to the Underground was nominated for a Lambda Literary award. To read her essays, poems and for more info go to www.relynnhansen.com