Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What I'm Reading: Bobcat Country

41º ~ a beautiful slow brightening of the sky over my left shoulder, fleets of puff clouds drifting far off, the promise of near 70 today

As many of you know, Dear Readers, the shelf of poetry books "to-be read" is sagging at the moment, and choosing one means not choosing the others.  This gives me a brief twang of guilt; however, Eliot reminds us in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (the only Eliot I really like) that
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet

Last night, I lived up to one of my poetry resolutions: turn off the TV and read a book!  As my fingers skimmed the spines of all those luscious books waiting for me, the orange of Brandi Homan's Bobcat Country called to me.  I've had this book for a few months and have had it on my list for a year.  I can't remember where I heard of it first, but I think it might have been Karen's blog, The Scrapper Poet.  Wherever I first heard of it, I learned that Homan is from...wait for it...Iowa.  And now I've learned that she's not only from Iowa but from Marshalltown, Iowa, a town only 60 miles southwest of my own Waterloo.  I can still tell you exactly how to get there, where to by-pass Hwy 63 in favor of the less traveled 96; I can still tell you exactly what the fields of corn look like bending in the wind and whipping past at 70 mph.  I can tell you how it smells on that drive in spring when the farmers are out spreading manure; smells like money, as my mom always says.  In another mirroring, it also appears that we both came of age in the 80s and I'm sure we must have sat in the same gym or football stadium at some point in our high school lives at one championship game or another. 

I promise I'll get to the book review, I do.  However, first I have to honor my joy and amazement to know that there was another girl out there at the same time as I was, absorbing the world that I absorbed and learning to craft it into something called poetry.  This might not seem remarkable to someone born and raised in NYC or SF or Seattle/Portland or even Chicago or Minneapolis, but to me it is a bit of a paradigm shift, as I often felt that I was alone in my little northeast Iowa world of words (along with my cousin, Marta Ferguson, but she was in southeast Iowa and that seemed a great distance then).

Okay, on to Bobcat CountryThose would be the Marshalltown Bobcats in the title, and the book provides a raw, funny, poignant, and sometimes difficult look at a working-class coming of age in a small Iowa town in the 80s.  These are amazing poems in a voice as different from mine as I can imagine, no soft lyricism here.  I am in awe of Homan's ability to paint that working-class life in such bright and unflinching tones.

Here's the opening of "Welcome to Bobcat Country," and if you're from a small town, I bet there's a sign like this at your town border on the major roadway.

We drove to the border just to say we pissed in the Mississippi
River, six in a car to see whether a Lifesaver makes a spark.
We danced in headlights.

We had sex with boyfriends at the funeral home, slept with
the gym teacher. Snuck into the hot tub at the Holiday
Inn.  Watched porn at Niemeyer's and went swimming and
swimming and swimming, held each other underwater too

Our mothers chain-smoked, our fathers came straight home.
Everyone spoke the same language.  Everyone felt the layoffs.

I confess, Dear Reader, that while I didn't do most of these things, I knew people who did, and those last two sentences of this excerpt hit especially close to home.  I actually lose my breath a little there.

As you can see from this one excerpt, Homan is a master in the details.  Perhaps I rushed through this book, and I did rush, because I found my people and my places there.  Boys driving T-top Camaros, summer trips to Lake Okoboji, detasseling season, Hy-Vee stores, class rings, trailer parks, Cedar Rapids & Marshalltown & Hwy 30.

But just writing about my homeland wouldn't be enough to hold me.  Homan backs it up with wonderful craft and a wry, witty voice.  In fact, at times she expands outward and writes about that taboo subject, the subject of poetry and being a poet.  Here, her humor is at the best.  In the poem "For Poets (& Others)," she tells us that we would-be poets should never use the following words "blackberries, poppies, detritus / bifurcation, sluiced, slaked" and follows the list up with this one-liner:

"James Wright has already seen horses in a field."

Oh my goodness, I couldn't stop laughing when I read that, mostly because I knew I myself had been guilty of repeating and imitating to death the Wright brothers (James & Charles, no relation to each other, or course) and so many others..

The poem that hooked me and had me starting over from the front and reading straight through to the back in a rush is actually toward the end.  As I flipped through the pages trying to decide if I should read or just go to bed, I fell on this poem, which I have to quote in its entirety and I hope that Homan and her publisher will forgive me.

Iowa Poets

Attending the Writer's Workshop
does not make you an Iowa poet.
You never drove Highway 30 to Vet's
Auditorium for the Tourney--a line
of Camaros full of Busch Light and Cloves,
turquoise Geo Trackers with shoe-polished
windows.  You never detasseled corn
or worked as a checker at Hy-Vee
until college, returning summers
to get schnockered playing Three Man
in someone's basement.  Never showed
sheep at the state fair, saw the butter
sculptures like Tibetan monks.  No
four-wheelers or grill-your-own-steak
restaurants.  So, go ahead.
Write your poems about fields
and farmers and quiet, how
you can see the stars every night.
You'll never love them like I do.

I laughed and cried at this one.  It touches on so many of my own themes and is so protective of Iowa.  In fact, my sister was a checker at Hy-Vee and her daughter now shows pigs at the state fair, and seriously, the butter sculptures are something else! 

That last line reminds me of a children's picture book that I have.  It's called If You're Not from the Prairie and it's written by a man from the Canadian side of the prairie, I think.  In any case, the whole book revolves around that refrain.  "If you're not from the prairie, you can't know the wind" is one set of pages, "If you're not from the prairies, you can't know the sun" is another.  When I'm nostalgic for home, I take this book out (and now I'll be adding Homan's to it as well).

The poem also makes me think more about regionalism and my own grad school experience in Arkansas.   Several of my instructors were old-school Southern poets, strongly narrative, strongly male.  They didn't know what to make of my quiet farms and fields, my lyricism.  And yet, I knew I couldn't adopt a Southern voice.  I couldn't become an Arkansas poet.  That wasn't my story to tell.

Homan now lives in Chicago, and we have both risen from our working-class roots to something like the middle class.  And while our styles might be quite different, it is a delight to find a sister voice.  I praise it.
Support a Poet / Poetry
Buy or Borrow This Book Today
Bobcat Country
Brandi Homan
Shearsman Books Ltd., 2010


Sara said...

Oh, Sandy! Brandi's going to be so happy to read this! Lovely review. :)

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Sara. I hope Brandi enjoys it; there's a bit too much of me in there, but I just got so darned excited.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Brandi's work is great! I have mentioned her work quite a few times on my blog.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Karen, I thought it was your blog where I'd read about this book. THANKS!!!