The Waters of Kalamazoo County

           Things reverberate.  You leave a place for many years, you come back, and things fool you into imagining those decades never passed.

            Michigan teased me that way when I returned to the U.S. in 1998.  Years working in human rights and book review freelancing in New York City had originally pulled me from Michigan.  Then, from '87, the eleven years in central Europe:  Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech republic.  I'd learned those languages, read their poets, and lived in various towns, villages, and cities – enough to begin to see through eyes other than my own American eyes.  Things had happened in central Europe, with secret police, girls, institutions, editors, publishers, and of course that landscape.  By the time I felt obliged to return to the U.S., the Slovak writer, Pavel Vilikovský, observed to me that in some key ways I could not ever really return to the culture I'd left eleven years earlier.  We were smoking cigars and drinking brandy as we often did when I visited his Bratislava apartment.  But it wasn't the love of these pleasures he had in mind when he rued that in too many ways I'd become a central European.

            In the U.S., especially through the '60s and '70s, I'd still believed it possible to find or to create refuge – escape and what we then called alternative culture.  It was an old conceit.  The original pilgrims who fled Europe for the New World had all too similarly been seeking their own willed creation, their legendary "City on a Hill."  As those Puritans had abhorred what they saw as the worldly evils of their time, and sought to distance themselves across an ocean from it all, in the '60s we had the war in southeast Asian and race riots in American cities; in the '70s we had a relentless materialism erasing regional differences for a mass homogeneity of franchise outlets, shopping malls, and auto-based sprawl.  It had become so simple – and pure – to imagine escape and alternative.  My contemporaries, were finding refuge in flip versions of the pilgrim search – now not in dour black congregations particularly, but in famously colorful hippy communities – in Tennessee valleys, the woods of northern California, and defunct mill towns of western New England.  My own longings set me in southern Appalachia.  Then southwest Michigan.  Its abundance of small lakes, fruit orchards, vineyards, berry farms, and gently rolling hills all added up to a piquancy I thought could last.  Nearby Lake Michigan wafted its "lake effect" unto this climate and the white-steepled ubiquity of small towns Paw Paw, Three Rivers, Dowagiac, South Haven, Niles, and Alegan.  They all still vestigially resembled old New England towns, founded as they had been by settlers from the overflow population of New York state, Vermont, and Massachusetts in the years following the Erie Canal's 1825 opening to the then-called Northwest Territory.  Within one generation those largely pilgrim descendants had linked the territories of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio in a grid of canals.  A young prairie lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, would be chief legal advocate for the new enterprises – railroads – that would abruptly antiquate the canals.  Nearly two hundred years later you could still find traces of the old earthworks for both the original watery and iron road networks.  Amtrak sped by now, and interstate highways.  The little towns had to find other uses for their old depots, or tear them down.  The abandoned roadbeds turned out productive mainly for asparagus in spring, berries in early summer, mushrooms in fall.

            Leaving southwest Michigan for New York City in 1982, in 1987 I left for central Europe.  Gradually I absorbed Hungarian poets Radnóti, Kosztolányi, Ady, Nemes Nagy, Jozsef, Petri, and Rakovsky.  Then their peers in Slovakia.  And Czechs and Moravians.  Words, phrases, images, couplings, combinations, and rhythms from these poets began to match people I met, landscapes I loved, and history which in most unplanned ways I became part of, from the Vltava river to the Tatra mountains, from socialist housing projects in Brno and Pest to the old lanes, coffee houses, wine cellars, and outdoor beer gardens which, in their time, had met Gyula Krúdy in Buda, Sándor Márai in Kassa, and Joseph Roth all across his Habsburg wanderings.

            In the cultures of central Europe, no one really has any escape anywhere.  If refuge figures at all – in the summer picnic of Beethoven's sixth symphony, in the Istenhegyi garden poems of Rádnoti, in the manic dreams of Kafka – some clearly tangible other outside context always cradles and also informs them.  No central European poet can ever locate oneself fully outside and from there simply look in.  Bad history, latent other weather, or variously other caging factors always reverberate.  One can't elevate oneself.  As Rilke perhaps most famously showed, one can't simply list feelings, the way a Geiger counter measures radioactivity, or a normal American buys stuff – as if addition or accumulation ever could add up.

              So time itself seemed to have collapsed for me in 1998, back in Michigan again.  I'd become a different person, but the place felt much the same – as if my boyhood itself hadn't receded particularly far back anywhere else in time – as if I'd only had some oddly compelling dream that seemed to have taken me somewhere away from this "Wolverine State."  Old license plates used to call it "Water Winter Wonderland."  Now they termed it "Great Lake State."  And one sight, smell, and another here just tugged further recall of more sounds, other aromas, multiply earlier memories.  Michigan's mineral redolence of sandy loam rooted the scrub pines of the center of the state where vaster swaths of mammoth white pine legendarily had towered.  A hundred years later and you could still see much of the timber from the original primeval forests, converted as it had been from the 1890s on into the Queen Anne, Victorian, and other styles of large wooden houses yet centering every Michigan town.  The cut over land back then got sold to Swedish, Polish, and German immigrants.  It was hit and miss as to who had gotten the good land, who the bad, when many bought their acreages sight unseen from the agents in Europe who represented the combined American steamship, railroad, and landholding interests.  Where soils proved acidic, you could yet see the brackish marshes and swamps that often still pooled the flat, central parts of the state, scraggled over with their copses of poplar, birch, alder, and sumac.  The waters deepened farther north – "Up in Michigan," as a young Ernest Hemingway put it – with their sweet-smelling lakes along back roads dipping into ancient glacial moraines ever rimmed with quartz, granite, and white sand beaches tufted in fern and reed.  In a diagonal from the Saginaw Valley, across Lansing, and south, dark loamy humus nourished the recurring blankets of corn Mr. Kellogg and Mr. Post had made famous in Battle Creek.  I'd forgotten all these ranker, fungal smells.  Red and auburn painted wood barns under green-shingled gambrel roofs might alternate with newer pole barns of zinc and aluminum, but they all stewed the same manure perfumeries into the air.  Summer sun cooked this brew, with fields of clover aromas mixed in, exactly as it had all done forty years earlier in my boyhood.  All over the state, too, road tar baked and oozed in the same, still July and August afternoons.  Hawks drifted high up on the same heated updrafts.  For mile on mile silence reigned when spring plantings were over and harvest combines had not yet chugged out for the grains and grasses in their quilts of saffron, amber, chartreuse and emerald.


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