I was born in Niles, Michigan, and lived there until I left for college. Lately, I’ve been thinking about Niles a lot. Not coincidentally, in a few days I’ll be returning for my high school reunion—a reunion that I had no intention of attending until about a week ago, when I finally decided that the calculus of potential regrets works out in favor of not skipping it. I’ve mentioned before my feelings about Niles (calling the town “angry and sad and mean”), but recently I’ve begun to look for other ways to make sense of Niles and my childhood there. I’ve been looking through old pictures and yearbooks. I’ve been connecting with old acquaintances. And I’ve been reading literature.
If you want to try to make sense of Niles through literature, you have two choices. The first is Ring Lardner (1885-1933), who was a sportswriter, newspaper columnist, and writer of short fiction. Lardner grew up in Niles, but spent his professional career in Chicago and then New York. My junior high school was named for him. Scholars argue for the strong influence of his style on subsequent American literature, but there is something sadly dated about his prose. He doesn’t get read much anymore, except perhaps by baseball historians (who are, almost without exception, the worst). Niles shows up occasionally in his work, but always briefly and usually as the place that gets left behind. When it comes thinking about life in Niles in the second half of the twentieth century, Lardner isn’t much help.
I am more interested in reading Niles through the lens of contemporary poet Diane Seuss. I was introduced to her work by a mutual friend who recognized our shared Niles connection. Seuss grew up in Niles and, after years in New York and elsewhere, now teaches writing at Kalamazoo College. She has published two excellent books of poetry, It Blows You Hollow and Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (winner of the 2009 Juniper Prize for Poetry). I have never met Seuss, although I have interacted with her on Facebook. I know her better through her poetry and various interviews I have read.
First, let me make it clear that Seuss is not a “poet of Niles”—or if she is, it’s only in the same way that Bruce Springsteen is a “poet of New Jersey.” Niles matters for Seuss just as Jersey matters for Springsteen; however, the concerns of both artists are so much broader and deeper than their respective natal geographies. Seuss writes with authority about so much else: desire, sex, scars, language. And her geographical preoccupations go well beyond Southwestern Michigan, including a stark set of meditations on Drummond Island.
But in this essay, I am interested in looking at Niles through Seuss’s eyes. And indeed, I will admit that—at first—it was hard for me to read her work for anything else. Maybe you can imagine how it feels to me, after all these years, to find another person who is also struggling—in language—to make sense of Niles. Someone who is wise, perceptive, and in love with words. Someone who has turned Niles into a source of art. It’s a thrill, of course. And I am tempted to find myself in it.
When I read Diane Seuss, there is a part of me that searches greedily for scraps from my own biography. I look for shared experiences and for places that I remember. I thrill at the mention of Happy House, my favorite Chinese restaurant from childhood (“have you ever seen a Chinese place with buttered dinner roles and funeral home placemats” [“You Like It Don’t You, You Like It Hard and Cold”]). I smile knowingly at the evocation of “burn barrels” (“Viceroy”). I collect these moments eagerly, feeling almost as if I have cracked Seuss’s code—a code that is thrilling because of its obscurity. When I come across references I don’t recognize, I feel left out, like I missed something essential about Niles (although I recognize that, even if Seuss and I were the same age, we would still have lived in different versions of the town).
And what is her version of Niles? Well, it’s more like Twin Peaks than Grover’s Corners. From an interview: “[Niles] is another spooky, freaky place. I rarely go there because it makes my tuning fork buzz.” From a prefatory note: “I wanted to get at the weirdness of small town life rather than the nostalgia.” Seuss’s version of Niles is gothic. For her, the town is suffocating, sinister, unheimlich. In this way, there is a kinship between Seuss’s Niles and the rural Southern towns of Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Indeed, Seuss draws this parallel explicitly in “Stiffs” when the speaker notes that “I’m from the south / of the north.”
It is in “Stiffs” that Seuss offers the most chilling indictment of Niles. The speaker in this poem imagines returning home after years away. Feeling out-of-place in the world of academia, she fantasizes about using her hometown as the escape from her current life. She thinks about her old boyfriend, “a tree trimmer”:
He was struck by lightning last year, hit him in the belt
buckle. He dangled upside down in the tree for hours
until they found him and cut him down. Critical condition
for a night, then he swaggered out of the hospital
and headed straight for the Nugget, bragging that his dick
saved him from disaster one more time. Backwards cap,
he’s still looking good. I could move back.
The tree trimmer is not an unappealing option here. Nor is the freedom that Niles would offer to “write ungrammatically.” But as seductive as this fantasy is, the speaker knows there is more to the town. The swaggering authenticity of the tree trimmer is sexy, but Niles isn’t all bravado and beer and sentence fragments (and lightning). There is also an ugliness:
The underworld there makes this place look
like a bowl of cornflakes on a sunny morning. Skull buried
under the dismantled boards of the old fruit stand, you know.
People nearly making good, then getting drunk to celebrate
and killing some kid in a head-on, rotting in jail
with their chins in the air, no remorse.
It is by remembering the darkness that the speaker, by the end of the poem, recognizes that Niles offers no escape. The fantasy of Niles and the “lowdown archangel” that is her old boyfriend is, finally, “a lie.”
I love this poem because it feels so familiar. This is not just because I recognize the defiant drunk drivers or the Nugget (although I will be there with my classmates on Friday night). But I also recognize the imaginative act of this poem. I recognize the train of thought. By the standards of my hometown, I’ve lived a nontraditional—perhaps even eccentric—life: accumulating degrees, working (precariously) in academia, moving frequently, refusing to marry and to have children. I’ve chosen this life, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t fantasize about the alternatives. I have a pretty clear picture of what my life would have been like had I never left. While that picture is mostly ugly, it is not entirely so. There is enough comfort in the picture—as there is in “Stiffs”—to keep the fantasy alive. Niles may be gothic, but sometimes I am too.
It is in the darkness of Niles, almost necessarily, that Seuss’s desire for transcendence appears. It is no accident that, in It Blows You Hollow, the myths of Niles are intertwined with deliberate evocations of the metaphysical poets. These poets begged for an escape from sin and desired—erotically, ecstatically—a reunion with God. Seuss finds these same desires in the world of her childhood, translating the language of John Donne and George Herbert into the language of the baby boom. In “Hit,” she rewrites Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14” using the pop culture tropes of mid-twentieth century Americana (“Batter my heart, three-personed / mud wrestler”). “Viceroy,” in which the child speaker stands outside in the smoke of Niles from “the burn barrels, the paper mill, mushroom factory, leaf burning,” ends with some of my favorite lines, an echo of Herbert’s direct and earnest pleas for salvation:
Do you see, God, how I do not want to have to die
to get to come home? Being your child,
I want to be so alive that you gasp when I arrive.
You acknowledge the grape juice on my lips.
You light your Viceroy on the sparks in my hair.
These are gorgeous lines, an exaltation of life beyond the sooty air of Niles. Did I ever feel so alive in Niles? To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if I was that kid. But I wish I had been.
It is in this way that I brush up against the dangers of reading Diane Seuss on Niles. Her vision of the town is so seductive, so powerful, that it begins to color my own memories. Reading Seuss, I find myself having to be careful–it is too easy and too pleasurable for me to become enveloped in her vision. Making sense of Niles through Seuss’s poetry is an exercise in both self-recognition and resistance. And it is through this tension that I have found myself–recently, finally–thinking about Niles.