Love Song for the Bricks and Lakes of the Midwest

by | Sep 19, 2013 | Creative Nonfiction

A Poetics of Place

There was no fire, but two men cranked open the hydrant and began spraying down a white Cape Cod across the street, with little fanfare. No citizens lined the sidewalk to catch a glimpse, and a pair of delinquent jays jabbered in the single elm tree on the property’s lawn. I gazed back into my first grade phonics workbook, looking up only when a bulldozer approached and ripped the house façade clear off, in the style of a kid kicking over his sister’s sandcastle. What was most surprising was the updraft of pigeons through a gash in the roof. On the outside, the house had seemed like many other Chicago properties: moderately tidy, wood-sided, a yard populated with bright statuary. Apparently this house held some sort of danger. I couldn’t stop looking. My teacher pulled the blinds down and commanded me to turn around.

My poems are committed to never turning around. I did not know what they were, but I kept these pictures in my head, from a brick wall savaged by kids with bats, to the men camped out beneath a viaduct in January, beside graffiti of the words Stairway to Heaven. In school we were taught what to see, but not taught how to see, or why. My favorite way to look at things was out of focus, because that was how to keep them intact, the mind filling in colors of rain boots or exactly what trash the wind was corralling into upper branches of a tree. I remember walking down the stairs in an old brick building and smelling dried oranges studded with cloves. When riding the train I stared at the tracks.

Place is a character in all of my work, and I like my places dirty. Define dirty as you please, only make sure that it contains equal parts rust, ripped cloth, topsoil, sweat, busted concrete, dead leaves, fingerprints, budget ghosts, old rock songs creeping out of muffled speakers, the discarded green coat of a former lover, book pages left behind on a park bench, minnows, mildly polluted lake water, somebody’s lost purple headband, suspicious berries, motorcycles, birds that look like cracks in the horizon, soggy ground, washed-up glass fragments, and a sky that pushes back against the forces that would wish to bury it.

I write about the Midwest, with a special affection for its small cities. I have made a permanent home in Akron, Ohio, with past roots in Illinois and parts of Michigan, all fitting a similar profile. My collections of poems have all revolved around place in some way. Prairie Fever, my first book, engaged with an erotic landscape of rural isolation and encroaching danger, letting adolescence stand in for pioneering, and attempting to develop a sense of self despite various natural and man-made obstacles. The chapbook Saint Monica revolved around a reinvention of the saint as an ordinary Midwestern girl, less at odds with nature than in my previous collection, but still subject to naturalism in terms of social attitudes and the necessary rebellion against them.

My second full-length collection, O Holy Insurgency, used the ravages of economic decline to dramatize a love story, with a more urban backdrop, and continued focus on the intersection of religion and place. In May 2014, my third full-length collection of poems, A Sunny Place with Adequate Water, will be published by Black Lawrence Press, and this is the book that most directly engages with place, inasmuch as its true protagonist is a small city undergoing gentrification, attempting to hearken back to its bucolic roots, while keeping vigil for what is lost to the cause of progress. This city is filled with coin-operated machinery, which is becoming more and more obsolete, yet can never truly be replaced.

I am often asked if my poems are all set in a singular location; for example, the town of Midland, Michigan makes appearances in numerous pieces. Is it the everywhere of my work? The answer is no. In fact, the place in my poems is often a hybrid entity, part Michigan, and part Illinois, very much Ohio. Anyone who has driven a state route from one county to another knows how the Midwest twins itself, and recreates itself, whether it’s an ice fishing shanty near Morris, Minnesota or a crumbling edifice along the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. My poems are filled with lakes, yet sometimes those lakes are really women. Sometimes the men are stacked with brick. The only thing that’s certain is the firm ground that holds them.






Photo by Gary Krug

About The Author

Mary Biddinger

Mary Biddinger’s most recent poetry collection is O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2013). She is also co-editor of The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (U Akron Press, 2011). Her poems have recently appeared in Crazyhorse, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, and Sou’wester, among others. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Akron, where she edits the Akron Series in Poetry and Barn Owl Review.