Saturday, April 13, 2013

April 13: Disappearing, Matthew Gavin Frank, "The Morrow Plots," New Cartoon

Anyway, as soon as I got my breath back I ran across Route 204.  It was icy as hell and I damn near fell down.  I don't even know what I was running for--I guess I just felt like it.  After I got across the road, I felt like I was sort of disappearing.  It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road.

It's snowing again in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  It's an end-of-winter snowstorm that makes me think the sun is never going to appear again, that it's been swallowed up by cloud and cold forever.  I know how Holden feels in the above passage.  I look outside, and the world has disappeared again into white.  In the fall, snow seems cleansing and clean.  Now, snow seems like a cruel joke, as if someone is throwing a blanket over my head as I'm trying to get out of bed.

Matthew Gavin Frank tells a story about the genesis of his new collection of poems, The Morrow Plots.  He was living in a summer community in upstate New York, teaching at a nearby college.  During the warm months, the town was a thriving tourist attraction, with amusement park rides and boaters and a hedge maze.  When the cold and snow descended on the hamlet, it was deserted, frozen in isolation.  It was during this time when he became homesick for the Midwest where he grew up.  He started Googling famous landmarks in Illinois and eventually discovered the Morrow Plots, which he describes as "a now-revered series of soil plots upon which agricultural experiments could be conducted" on the grounds of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  The Plots were established in 1876 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1968.  Frank began tilling this sacred ground and found this book.

The poems in The Morrow Plots are unstable, moving back in forth in time and character.  Each line is a sprouting seed, an experiment in astronomy and agriculture and identity.  The poems aren't easy.  They're intelligent and confounding, tests of sound and emotion, syntax and line.  Much like its namesake, the book creates fields of scientific beauty and mystery in the reader's heart and mind.  To pick one poem to highlight here is like choosing one ear of corn from a silken Greek chorus crop.  Each poem, shucked and exposed, is both frightening and tender.  One of my favorites is titled "Breadbasket":


I have not eaten for days.
It is common--this notion of what happens
under each tooth.
A coven of molecules burning
with the wet hay of the harvest.
As I chew on the air, I feel, under my
shirt, the metal cold
of a dying girl's hands.

When the diner reopens, I will eat,
visit my friends in the hospital,
a sick doctor losing himself
in the fluorescent light
while shaving the chest
of a broken farmer.

On an empty stomach,
there is a fullness to sitting on the roof
of a building dedicated to the study of life,
the wet-eyed edges of things
that could be the falling of a student chorus,
could be the corn
gently blown, the statue
of a Huguenot lost in Illinois.
Up here, strangely un-hungry,
height and food have fused.  My body,
this thick bag for transience.

Matt Gavin Frank stuns me, over and over, with his poems in The Morrow Plots.  It is not a comfortable stun.  More like the stun of an icy wind on a November night or the slap of a cornstalk on a sunburned shoulder.  The pain is transient.  The payoff is dark and bracing truth, as lasting as the Morrow Plots themselves.

Like Holden Caulfield running across Route 204, Saint Marty can feel himself disappearing into The Morrow Plots, becoming a part of a larger story, both individual and universal.

The Confessions of Saint Marty

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