The Meter Reader: Austin Smith's Flyover Country employs "a nagging nostalgia"
Reviewed: Flyover Country by Austin Smith (Princeton University Press, 2018).
Like Austin Smith, I grew up on a small farm in Illinois (though in my case it was corn and soybeans, not dairy cows), and I suspect, based on the poems in his second collection, Flyover Country, that we share a nagging nostalgia for the Midwest, for landscapes covered in “nameless creeks swollen / with ag runoff and rain and sleep,” where “redwing blackbirds accost you” (“To go to Lena”). Nostalgia is a risky muse—it would be easy to erase the “ag runoff” from those creeks, to see them as a child sees them—shining and sleepy. Smith, however, provides both sentiment and criticism in these narrative poems, investigating as much as cherishing “flyover country,” a term which comes to encapsulate not only the Midwestern United States, but also other landscapes and lives, raising the question: can we really know that which we “flyover?”
Many of Smith’s adjacent poems form partnerships in this collection, entering into dialogue with each other: “The Raccoon Tree” and “Cat Moving Kittens” form such a pair in the first section, and point to one of the key questions Flyover Country raises: how do we handle the tension between personal responsibility and human shortsightedness? Both these poems address this question through a collective first person composed of prepubescent boys, providing a foundation for the second section, which deepens its analysis of masculine performance. In “The Raccoon Tree,” the boys approach an oak tree at night to meet
Who every winter
Hid in fear of us
Boys who came without fail
To fill its world
With breath and darkness.
While Smith’s speaker(s) is able to articulate the raccoon’s fear, the boys are less able to articulate their purpose for causing that fear: what does it mean to provide “breath and darkness,” neither of which is inherently sinister? The boys seem not to know, driven less by malice than by a ravenous curiosity about the natural world, about the uncanny night.
The boys demonstrate more empathy in the next poem, “Cat Moving Kittens,” which begins “we must have known,” the cat would move the kittens after “we’d found them // shut-eyed and trembling / under a straw bale / in the haymow.” The poem closes with the mother cat:
She made a decision
Any mother might make
Upon guessing the intentions
Of the state: to go and to
Go now, taking everything
You love between your teeth.
Here Smith conflates the boys with the state, pinions them to patriarchy, to power: his speakers admit their lack of innocence in the first line—and their empathy for the cat’s choice in the last stanza. Thus one of the central tenants of Flyover Country emerges: one can be complicit and empathetic at once and one is culpable for one’s actions, even when one doesn’t fully understand the impact of those actions (a point poignantly made in “The Windbreak,” where the speaker, on learning of his father’s potential cancer diagnosis burns brush, un-homing small creatures, only to find out later the diagnosis was a mistake).
The stakes are raised in the second section, which moves beyond the first section’s exploration of boyhood to a more head-on critique of the state. One of the most powerful poems in this section is “Cottonpicker,” in which the speaker examines the casual racism of the men around him: “if it hadn’t been / For us boys being there they might have / Said motherfucker instead.” Still, even though the “meaning had faded” with use, the word was like the men’s “pocketknives, / soft, oft-handled things / In which a blade was folded.” Violence is systemic, casual, and perpetuated in everyday actions, often without thought, Smith’s poems indicate, making the terror of state-sanctioned violence all the more intractable, as in his scathing portrayal of former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, in “That Particular Village.” In this poem, through the use of persona, Smith criticizes Rumsfeld’s response, “I cannot deal with that particular village,” to questions regarding a bombing of Chowkar-Karez, a farming village in Afghanistan in 2002. In the poem, the personified Rumsfeld states, “I can’t deal with that particular / Village in this life nor shall I be made to answer for / What happened there in the next,” indicating a frustration simmering beneath many of these poems: is justice or reprieve from violence possible, or must we always carry what we love in our teeth?
Flyover Country does not offer a satisfying answer to that impossible question as the third section retreats to a more observational mode, returning largely to the farm and childhood scenes prevalent in the first section in its catalogs of needful animals, humorous distractions (“Ode to Flour” is a gem), and search for solace. The crisis these poems point to but can’t resolve is most fully realized in “Country Things,” which begins with a list of animal acts of violence: “In the rafters of the barn the starlings are / Pushing the owls’ eggs out of the nest, / While the owl herself is out hunting.” These acts obviously differ from human-on-human violence, which can be disassociated from survival; the speaker notes, having heard the snap of a mousetrap, that “You are met with your own small act / Of cruelty, your contribution to the whole.” At the end of the poem the dead mouse, thrown into the backyard by the speaker, is devoured by the housecat that releases a bird, “who was only stunned, /And whose song you woke to this morning.” Thus, one life is saved by the sacrifice of another: there is no escaping this disturbing arithmetic. Yet, this reality is too much for the speaker of these poems, an unbearable paradox, and the speaker longs to be “alone / as some feathers / In the bed of a pickup,” “to be forgotten / that way, to drift” (“Feathers”). Or, in other words, there is a longing to fly over the complex problems of the modern age, even as the poems acknowledge and examine the impossibility of such an exit.
I admire Smith’s craft—his music, surprising similes, and expert use of the narrative form1; still, I am quizzical about the collection’s treatment of class and gender issues, which paradoxically seem at once to be central and peripheral issues in the collection: poems like “Cottonpicker,” “That Particular Village,” and “Drone,” for instance take these issues head on, whereas poems like “Cat Moving Kittens” take a more slanted approach. Other poems, such as “White Lie” reside more firmly in the personal. In reflection, I found myself wanting more poems like “Cottonpicker,” more examination of whiteness, class, and gender roles in the Midwestern United States—but this urge for Flyover Country to be a somewhat different collection of poems is based more on my anxieties as a writer and less about the book itself.
I do not think any one collection of poetry can—or should—be all things to all readers; nor do I think a collection that incites a singular response (I loved it! I hated it!) is the only measure of worth, even though such responses are seductive in their clarity; indeed what I like best about Flyover Country is how it has invited me to engage with the complexity of my response to it, to take time with its strengths and weaknesses in order to investigate my own biases and anxieties as a reader/writer. So, I return to the advice to “remember what you love:” what I love is poetry that invites me toward questions and ambiguities rather than pedantic resolutions. Certainly Flyover Country accomplishes this and more.
1 I am also curious about the way Smith’s formal choices and use of narrative interacts with the issues of nostalgia in his work, but alas, this review cannot go on forever. Reader, I encourage you to consider this issue on your own.
Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press). Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nashville Review, Smartish Pace, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.