Online Edition: Summer 2009

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 Prairie Style

 C. S. Giscombe

 Dalkey Archive ($12.95)

 by Paula Koneazny

C. S. Giscombe’s Prairie Style, which won a 2008 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, is the final book in a four-part series that began with the limited edition book Two Sections from Practical Geography (Diaeresis Press) followed by Here (Dalkey Archive Press, 1994) and Giscome Road (Dalkey Archive Press, 1998). Prairie Style mirrors the series it completes, as it too is comprised of four sections: “Nameless,” “Inland,” “Indianapolis, Indiana,” and “Notes on Region.” In addition, a prefatory “Acknowledgments” section accounts for some of the sources for the language in the poems, and, as is usual for Giscombe, lists the locations where the writing took place: Pennsylvania, Scotland, Nova Scotia, California, and finally, a shifting location called simply “on Amtrak.”

Although true, it would be an oversimplification to say that Giscombe writes about place. It may be more accurate to say that he writes from places. His poetry is nomadic, both in inspiration and execution, always exploring what he aptly refers to as “range.” At the same time, his is a settled nomadism. Even though always about location’s ambiguity, what he refers to as “the verb for location” in Giscome Road, his poems do not just pass through. They are attentive to their surroundings; they stay a while and get to know a place. They never entirely move on.

Of the four books, Giscome Road is the one most interested in sheer geography; it takes place and takes up place on the page in a way that repeats the topography. Prairie Style, on the other hand, seems less concerned with mapping the page and more interested in space itself. It has more density (in the sense of compression) and more silence. Much of the geography of the Prairie Style poems remains outside the poems themselves, and the poet’s many concerns create multiple poetic trajectories: land and location (“Always the first question is Where?”) intersect with elements such as race, sex, architecture, music, language, and history. In an interview with Mark Nowak for the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet, Giscombe said, “I see that poetry, race, property, and geography are not one but form a very rag-tag and uncertain army, one with shifting ranks and alliances. What’s interesting to me here is that it’s possible or even necessary (at least for me) to read each one in the context of the others.” Thus, all features intertwine and overlap. They point to one another.

The impetus for Prairie Style, particularly the poems of the “Inland” section, may have been Giscombe’s tenure at Illinois State University from 1989 to 1998. Living in southern Illinois, he would have had to come to terms with the Inland Plains (also known as the Old Northwest) that lie east of the Mississippi. Considering Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio as the Old Northwest requires a leap of historical imagination, however such a leap may be built into a location, already-made. For example, the “Indianapolis, Indiana” poems of the third section focus on the history of the quasi-mythical Ben Ishmael tribe, “a tightly-knit nomadic community of African, Native American, and ‘poor white’ descent” that “arrived in the central part of the Old Northwest at the beginning of the nineteenth century, preceding the other pioneers.” The idea that a motley mixed-race group might have arrived before the official settlers of the territory disrupts the authorized version of the frontier story that recorded the push westward and the expansion of the polity called the United States of America. Color may not have initially determined who moved in, but it often decided who moved, or was pushed, out. Times have changed, but some things remain the same. In “Home Avenue,” a poem from the last section of the book, “Notes on Region,” the poet remarks that in Dayton, Ohio (Giscombe’s hometown) “nowadays black people live all over town except of course in Oakwood.” Everything hinges on that “of course”: two loaded words that will be understood in a certain way by virtually every American.

Just as Miles Davis’s version of the song “Human Nature” could be the sound track to Giscome Road, Nat King Cole’s 1948 rendition of the song “Nature Boy” plays through Prairie Style. In fact, Giscombe includes a poem with that title in the “Inland” section of the book. The word nature with its dual consciousness—both subject and context, simultaneously inside and outside—functions as a pivot around which the poems rotate, just as the prairie is the fulcrum about which the continent revolves. In “Call Me Ishmael,” Charles Olson referred to the Plains as “the fulcrum of America . . . half sea half land . . .” (Collected Prose: Charles Olson) and it is such duality (pushed to plurality) that the Prairie Style poems investigate. The poem “Nature Boy” and the speaker’s claim in “Canadian Nights” that “I’m still a nature boy” are new covers to a song that has long been a jazz and pop standard. Thus “Nature Boy,” itself a hybrid project, mirrors Giscombe’s overall re-contextualization of the prairie (the center). He revises the landscape from one settled solely by Euro-American homesteaders to one already inhabited by Nature Boy and Mistah Fox. Race enters the poems as story and history, one often looking very much like the other.

“Nature Boy” is seen in close collusion with “Mistah Fox,” who, although he doesn’t claim a poem of his own, trots through much of the book. The poet introduces Mistah Fox, wily as the Coyote and Br’er Fox of folklore, as a child and feature of the continent. Like Br’er Fox, he’s a product of miscegenation (as is Nature Boy), of Africa entering America. He’s a new twist on Native American and African trickster tales. In the poem “Very Far,” Giscombe writes, “I’d say Mistah Fox can match or resist the prairie with equal success,” a line that obliquely echoes one from Giscome Road: “I was / Africa & America on the same bicycle.”

C. S. Giscombe’s poems call attention to the shiftiness of language, in particular, to the shady border between reference and metaphor; they are all about comparison, about what’s there and what isn’t, what’s visible and what isn’t, what is stated and what is implied. For example, in “The Dear Old Northwest,” Giscombe employs juxtaposition in the service of allegory, where “Juxtaposition is a kind of melodrama. . . . Some are descendants of their own property; for others history is one miracle after another.” His is an ongoing acknowledgement that both environment and history are ambiguous, and where they most often meet is in a name. The title of the poem “I-70 Between Dayton and East Saint Louis, Westbound Lanes” reads as a cluster of coordinates, but once the poem gets underway, names enter that drag time (history) along with them: “Down to the left is Little Egypt, way off to the right’s Prairie du Chien and the Robert Taylor Homes of recent memory.” Now things get tricky. Is a name a fact or a story, or some hybrid of the two? If you look out the car window, what in the landscape of southern Illinois predicts the name Little Egypt? Why isn’t Prairie du Chien named Prairie of the Dog instead? What are the Robert Taylor Homes, and who is or was Robert Taylor? The poem suggests that landscape itself provides an insufficient explanation. We need history and culture for that.

While Giscombe’s poetic line has gotten longer and longer with each succeeding book, in this final book of his series, he reaches the end of the line, so to speak; the poems have become prose, and almost in contradiction, quite brief. White space floats above and sinks below each poem, rather than insinuating itself inside the lines. There are fewer visual gaps, but the silences are vaster. And like the prairie itself—where the space between one location and another appears both immense and non-existent, and one’s attention is riveted both on the very far away and the very close at hand—in the Prairie Style poems, our attention is drawn both to the horizon and the nearby fox in the brush. These poems read as a “commotion” in the landscape, a word that the poet himself used in the opening line of Giscome Road, one that aptly describes the relationship between the poems in Prairie Style and the places they reference.


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