I have spent many years thinking about the Middle Border—also known as the Midwest. Where does it begin? Where does it leave off? What makes it what it is? The essence of a place that by definition is “in the middle” and a “border” defies black-and-white cut-offs, mixing its liminal neighbors into a go-between waiting-place.
In Eggtooth, a volume of poetry with five parts, Jesse Nathan, a native of Kansas who has spent much of his life in California, seems to answer this question. The Midwest is, above all, a place where people have wanted to be free, and have sometimes succeeded, not because of their own efforts, but because of the dependability of the land.
The longest and perhaps most remarkable poem in the volume takes up all of Part II and is titled, “Between States,” with a descriptor of, “Walking the creek. Springtime.” Nathan’s engagement with the poetry of William Cullen Bryant, the epitome of nascent American literary tradition, which portrays the continent as a deserted garden with promise—contemporary critique focuses on the myth of no native presence—is in itself ambitious. It is almost necessary for a poem of this moment, and Nathan in turn provides his own vision of the promise of the fertile land. Holding no fulfillment for the people who live on it, the land is a mystery whose essence is to hide itself the more that it is used. Nathan terms the use of land, “a culture of extraction displacing itself”—“all that projected emptiness.” As settlers turn the soil and remove weeds, making a home that has excluded people unlike themselves, they force individuals to take on a double identity, much like that of the Middle Border itself. “[I]t wasn’t the land that carved me apart,” Nathan recalls, “but a system of culture.”
Nathan begins the poem with the imagery of a road grader because it stops “the land from taking” back what has been leveled by “stopping it with the language of a straight line.” For Nathan, this land, with so much more emphasis on virgin soil and fertility and powering-forward than the New England that was colonized earlier, is most characterized by a divide. Hopeless, it sounds—to take land and recycle it endlessly from generation to generation, each taking as much as it can for survival and perhaps for power. Nathan, though, opens up the idea of “a huge sun of remembering, halved by the line of the land,” by declaring, Whitman-esque, “I say a border is also a world.”
What makes it an important world? Nathan embeds the specifics of Midwestern nature throughout the poem: cottonwood, hackberry, monarchs, bobolinks, stinging nettles, creeks, fog, sneezeweed, love grass, dropseed, the prairie woodland . . . Nathan takes the prairie woodland as his particular emblem for this poem. “[W]oods along streams / surrounded by seas of grass.” It is yet another kind of divide, but there’s something to the specificity of the “solace.”
Dialoguing with William Cullen Bryant’s assertion that in American land, “nothing points,” Nathan says that lady’s slippers, pheasants, kingfishers, and windmill grasses—bobcats, nitrogen-eating bacteria, dung beetles—call it home while still not caring about “states” or the divides that form them. Nathan adroitly calls out the virgin-soil romanticizations of American thought and undermines claims regarding an exclusivity to earth usage by demonstrating that, yes, a homeland can exist without strict demarcation, and it can be even more dazzlingly, unendingly homelike because of it.
To Nathan, “Only the land itself was always a solace”—he’s “always loved / that unroomed vertigo, a sky that swallows you”—the Midwest’s famous celestial arches unhampered by closely-packed skylines. It is “a private liberated gloom” in the woods, an ecosystem unto itself where, like the Pawnees sang, we can wonder, “Let us see, is this real, / this life that I am living?” In this multiplex world made of borders, we ourselves are borders, multiplicities of perceptions, limited self and ever-expanding universe.
For such a small-town place, the Midwest has given rise to some of the most wistful longing for sublime nature and art. I have noticed this throughout my years of studying Midwestern literature, particularly novels. While its artists—Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Booth Tarkington, among others—have noticed, like Nathan, the bigness of its sky and ideals that swallow individuals in their tracks—even those who attempt to impose, for good or ill, “culture”—they have always condoned their heroes and heroines in trying to demarcate their own place in the unending. This seems to me a very compassionate point of view, and Nathan empathizes with it himself: he imagines “my stanza / standing for the grid within me, while my lines run on / like creeks across pastures.” Nature itself sends creeks to divide pastures, and it is only natural for humans to try to make their own homes, verbally and literally, in the elusive earth.
Nathan’s theme comes up again in a poem from Part IV called “Archilochus,” after the Greek poet. He says,
I’m thinking of what our work and what it means:
A fence may be a seam, or seem a bridge,
both are gestures in the air.
So many possibilities exist for a divide—a line of poetry—a strand of thought—a person’s perception of a moment, like the many Nathan describes, in Midwest farmland or town or city. It can be good, or it can be bad. It can be discriminatory, or it can form connections between people. It can cut people off from each other, or it can show them their commonalities. Our work as poets and as people is to make our borders “gestures” of kindness and common sense.
The air—wind—silence frequently appear in Nathan’s poems. Described at length in the first nine lines of “What Ruth May Have Wondered,” this particular Midwestern silence rings true with me, and I have often tried to capture it myself. The sort of emptiness that this delightful triplet from “Coastal” emphasizes strings the lonely, rural sight of stars to the outer reaches of the universe and greatest achievements of technology:
the stars some hard, far cry
in the interrogated sky,
and a satellite the only reply.
I am avoiding covering the first poems of the book because of Robert Hass’s must-read eye-openers on them, but I would like to bring us back to the unlabeled prologue, “Straw Refrain.”
Young gray cat puddled under the boxwood,
only the eyes alert. Apressed to dirt. That hiss
the hiss of grasses hissing What should What should. Blank road shimmers. On days like this
my mind, you hardly
seem to be.
On days like these.
First, this stanza contains the sense of place that Nathan brings to his poems. In them, we are going to see concrete animals, touch nature—observe, as they do, for example, the play of light and air on grass and road. What does it mean? What does the land tell us? The phrase, “What should,” I think, indicates an ethical question: the presence of flora and fauna themselves pose us with a silent, overwhelming and underwhelming by turns, choice.
The choice to divide with a line. The choice to make ourselves heard. To have a voice. To become even more one with the nature that holds us, sea of grasses and ocean of sky.
It’s a freedom that comes with the air we breathe, an almost unreal privilege with possibilities, as all-encompassing, frightening, and comforting as the silence of “What Ruth May Have Wondered” can be.
And, indeed, as Nathan says at the end of “Between States,” the Middle Border, whether the Midwest itself or another line, is intrinsically “half imagined, half vanished.” It’s for us to imagine and fill in the other halves, hopefully like the “windy-eyed” poets of the poem, “First Love Song,” who see with the freedom of air and silence and wind, that ultimate in-between of sky and earth. May we “wake to the wind,” and “ribbon” with pleasure in it, like the narrator in “Archilochus,” who works with his land but also respects it. I think that the “steadiness that defies possession” that Nathan’s narrator asks for in “What Ruth May Have Wondered” is precisely nature’s renewing commitment to fluctuation and variety, even to us. We, in return, can choose it as home.
NOELLE CANTY is a writer, researcher, and editor who loves to learn from clients and collaborators. She has published on nineteenth-century American literature and has written poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and conference presentations. Philosophy and intellectual history are among the interests that inform her imagination. You can find her on Twitter @NoelleCanty.