When Wallace Stevens wrote: “The world is ugly and the people are sad” he was speaking in a specialized tense, “The Stevensian pluperfect” on behalf of an ordinary evening in New Haven.
The phrase, at once autocratic and abstract sounds right. But let’s contrast Stevens’ lines with these by Greg Brown, a folk singer from Iowa City: “The world ain’t what you think it is/ it’s just what it is.” One way to understand the difference between these two sensibilities is to say that Mr. Greg Brown has had his heart broken by local girls: (he grew up on a strawberry farm) while Wallace Stevens broke his heart on Schopenhauer, a matter that did not necessitate leaving his room. The difference matters since what we call “the local” in American literature is inexhaustible and organic and its words don’t spring from a vacuum. In other words: all human losses are local and are balanced by recoveries which occur in real fields and strawberry patches. This takes work, whether we’re talking about the psychiatrist’s couch or rebuilding your barn.
The people are sad. Living is hard. And some days the landscape does not support the hopes of the psyche. The landscape is as elusive as the heart.
All landscapes, and especially Midwestern ones, appear elusive at first glance.
Michael Martone writes: “The Midwestern landscape is abstract and our response to the geology of the region might be similar to our response to the contemporary walls of paint in the museums. We are forced to live in our eyes, in the outposts of our consciousness, the borders of our being. Forget the heart. In the flatness everywhere is surface. This landscape can never take us emotionally in the way smoky crags or crawling oceans can. We stare back at it. Beneath our skins we begin to disassemble the mechanisms of how we feel. We begin to feel.”
And to this I must add that there are Midwestern sounds that surprise us, trick us out of our rooms.
Snow crosses the fields of Iowa and it sweeps along the river valley and behind it the strange winter thunder can be heard like an upturn of tempo by Sibelius.
Something is coming. Better roll up the windows of the car. We begin to feel.