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Iowa, by Travis Nichols

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Iowa, by Travis Nichols. Letter Machine Editions, $14

Nostalgia gets a stern rap. Don’t indulge in it, poets tell each other, thinking, I think, of the OED editors’ second take on the word, viz., “Sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past, esp. one in an individual’s own lifetime; (also) sentimental imagining or evocation of a period of the past.” With negative emphasis on the sentimental. With regretful making the memory suspect, the past self an impostor, surely guilty of treacly crimes. Lest we forget, we are reminded: the past is another country, where the grass is always dirtier.

Who would disagree that making a fashion of living in false memories is disagreeable? Dressing ourselves in the clothes of a decade cherished because we remember or know so little about it, we make fools (babes) of ourselves. Such false consciousness Alan Ruppersberg may have had in mind when as an element of his “Preview” (1988), he slapped up a slogan poster: Nostalgia 24 Hours a Day.

But let’s not forget the OED editors and their heroic, historical diligence. Here’s their first definition of nostalgia: “Acute longing for familiar surroundings, esp. regarded as a medical condition; homesickness. Also in extended use.” At certain times in one’s life you can stay in one place, and yet the surroundings can become more and more unfamiliar. We live in uncanny times, when technologies (electrified or not) we use to interface with each other and the world change for better and worse daily. I bought an iPhone last week. Facebook changed its skin a few days later. Today something called Buzz shows up in my Gmail. I don’t know what it is, and eight people are already “following” me on Buzz. Yikes! It makes you wonder, what’s wrong with longing for the familiar?

Technological gizmos are far from the only thing to bring on nostalgia. Longing for familiar surroundings reaches perhaps its most poignant intensity when families are formed, broken, reformed, decay. So I’d argue that childhood is itself for many, and certainly for many poets, already characterized by a self-conscious experience of nostalgia, of homesickness. Uncertainty about one’s place in the home. Doubts about the rules. Confusion over boundaries. Our changing bodies. Think back on childhood, and you’ve got nostalgia times two.

In his first book, a sequence of prose poems called Iowa, Travis Nichols travels byroads of childhood and adolescent memory, and has the courage to register sentimentality, sincerity, embarrassment, along with critique, disdain, anger. Whether these are postcards from his own or anybody’s autobiography matters less than the tones and shades of the often ambiguous and shifting scenarios they capture.

Remember Harold Bloom? I thought of him when I read the opening lines of Travis’s book:

Always speaking, a crow sits on a blown speaker. The springtime dissolution drowns out its muddied voice, washing it under the wheels of a red van. The red van on the long-suffering concrete has just picked a boy up from the palace of never singing and placed him in a loading dock behind the old armory for informed arms.

Like I said, I thought of Harold Bloom. I thought of the agon, and (lazily, and with a good deal of reluctance) got ready to go all allegorical on this book. So, here is a “speaker,” an upstart “crow,” perched on the shoulders or perhaps the tomb of a “blown” (dead?) poetic forebear, yapping his fresh new barbaric yawp. Watch out! Here comes the red van of taxonomy, to take him into a poetic school, file him away with the ranks of those trained to use their writing “arms” to scrawl poetry. Whoa! This was getting boring fast.

But wait, along came John Ashbery in his bright moustache to save the day (as usual). I forgot about Professor Bloom and thought of what is possibly young J.A.’s most famous ditty, “Soonest Mended,” and its undying counsel, “[T]ime is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up / Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.” Which got me wondering: how have poets been reading these lines for the past thirty-five years? Because it occurs to me (not that I’m going to name names or anything) that there had been a fair amount of poetry of late (maybe up until a year or so ago) that brought to market an insouciant, breezy, willingly amnesiac brand of nostalgia. The kind that poets warn poets about. The kind that Alan Ruppersberg makes posters about. I don’t think this was the “brightest kind of maturity” that Ashbery was on about, either (and his “for us, right now at any rate” kind of looks that gift horse in the mouth, for that matter). But a lot of poetry seemed to me to get untethered from a self-conscious sense of place and history. (Because, hey surprise! And isn’t that thought what you ought two? Etc.) Okay, enough vague intimations!

Back to Travis. I started wondering, What if Travis is paying a visit to the past, fully knowing that the past itself was nostalgic, was a place where nostalgia ran riot? What if he brought with him few or no other preconceptions? Then I got excited. Because growing up is often the story of DIY identity formation and self-taught voice lessons done under the shadow of an uncanny longing for familiar surroundings. Under the shadow of searching for a place of inclusion. So, What if Travis is going to that place to see what it was (is) really like? Reader, Iowa is a map of that state.

Nobody understands teenagers. Children are best when seen but not heard. Your parents, they fuck you up. True, true, and true. Travis invests with moving life a world of young avatars and their often menacing elders (a step-father who “wanted me to keep inside his head;” Coach Al, whose house has “a tangy taste;” deadbeat Dads and “office harlots”). Travis’s cast of characters live out the underbelly of the above truisms. They live in an occupation zone, really, ruled by those on high whose rewards and punishments are as confusing as their erratic behaviors.

We know this, but what’s interesting about Travis’s book is the way it recalls with true sudden force the adolescent experience:

The sleuths and this one kid, My Bones Are Wheat and My Blood Is Vinegar, ran track for a year but got initiated. They loved him. By the shorts, his wide ruddy face almost broke his neck in the urinal. His little mouth quit. I didn’t want to be his wild orange ring of hair and his moustache then, but I remember really they loved his side-whiskers and his starched shirts wanted to be liked by people. Whenever his baggy pants and his sensible white shoes met them, which wasn’t what they loved, his red hands and silver rings flew. Very often I remember being kind of loved. How he alone loved me terribly and shocked me. How he spoke of love when speaking of laws. And they were horrified when he said it was impossible to forbid a man to run genetically closer to the antelope and make a big wax doll to kiss it. Then white runners, which I don’t think of. But if this man with the doll is true. But I’m so bad at science who knows. But if he were to sit in front of a man in love and begin to caress his doll the way their Mom was a white tube of light, the man would caress his beloved, inside of which there must have been the man in love. You would find it unpleasant, something the kids would sigh and pull their brown bright and blank but no-one clothes around them about and say, “We know.”

As you can see, these poems are generous with readers. Kind-of grammatical sentences and the prose form allow multiple interpretations and emphases each time you put this sheet music on your clavier’s stand. Beyond that the poems are okay with you and or the speaker not getting all the references or replacing them with your own. There is the de rigeur pronoun confusion, but it feels warranted here, in the teenage Waste Land, where nobody knows who they are going to be when we grow up yet anyways so why don’t you get up out of our faces, okay mister? Take this, for example:

He would never park a girl but came up to me really talking anyway, eating meat culled from me and asking if it was carrots. I did our unknown process. “Dan is good,” I said. “No,” he said. We stood there for a while, and then I went to go get a girlfriend, but her parents could feel me turning into a training room doorjamb, so they decided not to live there anymore. Red then, she walked her legs into a bucket of ice. Aaron teaches math back to her friends who were water because I got shinned somewhere in Virginia. It hurts. Gretchen is skinny. She didn’t want a lot right at the start when I covered up some of what I assume was someone else combed into me.

There are moments of cringe-worthy whimsy (e.g., a farmhouse “turned out…to have a floor made of squirrels”). And a few tableaux worthy of Gregory Crewdson—not really my cup of tea but de gustibus non est disputandum, right now, at any rate. Compare this from Travis…:

We were in the woods like it was a blue day. I think I could see on this dirt path with a creek more than I could over a little cliff below us. I looked in the day because that moon flew down at her for a long second, and then she pushed me off of her and went back. She would catch the kids when the campfire without me sat and fell, listening to the creek move into its snow-sewn fields. Frozen for a while, I was thinking about having voiceless sex with Tami from Roland-Story in the woods.

…to this from Gregory Crewdson [Untitled (Forest Clearing)]:

But there are so many moments when Travis gets the child’s experience of nostalgia, or gives us the adolescent’s experience of nostalgia! Take these examples (there are so many more in this wonderful book):

She saw me come in, so I went vision.

#

To school, lit a very comfortable degree, the rose made a wide eye.

#

It was pretty good, and everybody trying to feed the body with actual goodness laughed…

#

For once, my beak had something pure, and my first kind of thinking wasn’t but a real person who could be like my next thinking and loved, but I retched another kind of virus vomit thinking, and then over your face everything in my head was in splattering pieces all lovely.

Gertrude Stein is beaming proudly in prose heaven. There is much narrative in Travis’s intricate and beautiful book, and eventually a mysterious, potent character, The Pioneer, makes his fateful entrance. I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that that the Pioneer, like his namesakes the white settler of the Midwest and the Japanese-made stereo, powerfully explores the history of place and registers each note, true or false. I hope everyone visits and revisits Iowa, and really listens to the population.

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Written by Chris Hosea

February 10, 2010 at 10:15 pm