NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Border States by Jane Hoogestraat
(BkMk Press, Kansas City, Missouri, 2014)
Jane Hoogestraat (born 1959 in Mitchell, South Dakota) was educated at the University of Chicago and Baylor University. She taught English and Speech at Mary College (now the University of Mary) in Bismarck, North Dakota and, since 1989, has been an English professor at Missouri State University in Springfield. During her tenure there, she served six years as the Director of Graduate Studies for the English Department and from 2007 until 2015 as the English Department’s Literature Co-ordinator. She died on September 8, 2015.
Border States is her first full-length poetry collection and was selected by Luis J Rodriguez for the award of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. In his Foreword, Rodriguez writes:
These are poems with the spellbinding power of the Amercian midwestern landscape, tapping into its emotional well, not just the physical beauty and expanse...
The people, the soil,the tumultuous skies are unforgettable, as are these poems, and that’s the most important aspect of language in verse – the way it makes you feel and think, a binary connection. This is how the sounds and sentiments get imprinted onto a soul.
A note from the publisher states that the poems in this collection reflect on varied American themes such as diversity between geographical locations, people, cultures, vernacular, rural life, folk music, history, and the poet’s search for identity and meaning in contemporary American life.
Hoogestraat’s poems bristle with history (we are never far from the American Civil War and other border wars) but it is the depiction of the harsh, relentless landscape that one remembers most of all. In A Hymn Heard Through A Distant Window, she writes:
The darkness was Protestant that year, but not
with individual conscience, the hymn of the South,
or the priesthood of the believer. Haunted,
driving north, I watched the horizon gray
over Oklahoma, the rim of fires drifiting down
from Manitoba. I stepped out hours later
to the first cold of September, a season’s end.
One senses that learning to live in these places is a struggle. The poems are peopled with white temple churches, a kind of stark religiosity, the disaffected at Evening Mass, Primitive baptists, First Churches of God (Pentecostal), monasteries, etc. Throughout these pages, Hoogestraat writes about wind turbines, flat land, dark small streets, spartan rooms, acres of power generators, endless roads, stalks of frozen switchgrass, dead cornfields, a whole gray world of fatigue and cold and minor meltdown. The weather is often stormy, even the summer is described as dark. There is snow in April, cold mornings and slate skies.
The book is divided into four sections which are predominantly organised according to a specific location which is primarily the American midwest. The first section focuses for the most part on midwestern life in the states of Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. There are references to the Missouri Compromise – the solution by Congress of a sectional crisis caused by the 1819 request from Missouri for admission to the Union as a slave state, despite its proximity to existing non-slave states. In other poems we get a feel for the undulating prairie plains and fields of wheat of Kansas and for the small farms of Iowa. In the third and fourth sections, more than half of the poems are set in the northern high plains of North and South Dakota.
Hoogestraat grew up in the middle of America – a place for which most Americans have no reference point for at all. It is a landscape that some might find desolate rather than beautiful. She grew up under such an open sky that she once remarked that she would feel a little claustrophobic if she were to live in any other setting.
Music is mentioned a great deal in this collection. There is radio music, a Schubert Symphony, a Mass, lieder and heavy bass Muzak. Satie and Brahms put in an appearance in Background Music and Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World” gets a mention in Harvesting All Night:
His largo captures all we know
of native melody, the indigenous music of the plains
that will outlive everything we’re losing, everything we are.
In an interview with Marie Mayhugh, Hoogestraat freely admitted that she often had classical music playing in the background when she wrote and frequently had a musical phrase in mind, even in poems where there was no direct reference to a specific musical work.
The other thing we learn about Hoogenstraat is that she did a lot of driving. You have to if you live in these states because of the great distances between centres of population. The driving becomes self-evident in some of the titles such as Driving Through Kentucky and Off 1-29 in South Dakota. In her interview with Marie Mayhugh she said that at one point she felt that she was in danger of having too many poems about driving and travel in the collection because of time spent in the car on the northern high plains. She said that she thought about poems a lot while she was driving and sometimes carried a digital recorder but the poems did not come instantaneously – only after a long period of reflection. The poems, we are told, were written over the course of many years – Hoogenstraat began work on the manuscript four or five years before her death.
The poem Off 1-29 in South Dakota describes a young girl at a truck stop who is on her own but writing. It originates from a distinct memory that Hoogenstraat had as a child when she was sitting with her parents at a truck stop in South Dakota. She remembered watching a young woman who was sitting alone in a booth, drinking tea and writing and recalled her father commenting that she didn’t look as though she were dressed for the weather:
To be so alone in light clothes in winter
frightens me, solitude with no blessing,
the endless interstate, the blizzard, no thunder
to prepare the heart for calmer weather.
Later in the same poem she writes:
In summer, heat lightning without thunder
cracks open miles of landscape, to measure
the harsh, extreme swings of climate, weather
that marks this country desolate...
For me, the best of the poems appear in the final section where Hoogenstraat writes with warmth and affection about her parents, in particular, her father, and her nieces. To some extent, we are taken out of the stark landscape that inhabits the other sections although in the opening lines of White River Dust the atmosphere that pervaded the earlier sections still threatens us with its presence:
The gateway to Pine Ridge is through the Badlands.
There I first heard the roar of silence, saw loss
pressed in stone layers, knew the despair of distance.
Border States is not only about geographical boundaries, it is also about the different cultural states that exist within those boundaries and the inner complexities of people who may be on the border of a culture but who do not quite fit in. In other words, it is also about states of mind – the things that divide people as well as the things that unite.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).