Today in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features five selections from MW: A Field Guide to the Midwest by Dot Devota. Listen to Devota read three of these poems here

The Hero

Even before having found a pen and some paper I had already written off life. At one year old I was crawling. My first memory: I stuck a penny into an electrical socket. My mother sprung from her ironing. In a sky blue sweatshirt and matching sweatpants she ran not to me but to the penny melting on my hand. Blue sparks! Life came into focus with a bolt of electricity, hot and external to my systems, overloading me with my limits. I heard nothing during it. Remember nothing of the pain. I realized I could never hurt myself as much as I could cause fear and hurt in others. The first memory is always of trauma. It sears the spirit. When one locks forces with the beyond for no other reason than to say hello, test the room to see how welcoming the reception. Mine was an electric shock—the world recognizing me as a capable machine.

My brother at 4 years old got very angry. We were behind our house. The backyard sloped dramatically. We were at the bottom of a staircase made of railroad ties. It split in half my mother’s two-storied garden, dead-ending in the grass a couple yards from the tennis court. Beyond the tennis court was a thin row of trees and thick brush separating us from the back neighbors whom my parents had called the authorities on more than once, citing their yard as “unsightly”. My sister and I thought it intriguing. Enough loose boards leaning against the house to build a new one. Their house was painted red with white trim, all of it chipping, like looking into a mouth to see rows of decayed teeth, exposed roots and nerves. As usual my brother was playing outside in his tighty-whities. Forgetting what I had said to make him angry, I said it, whatever it was, probably some threat, and my brother in defiance held up a stick long enough to touch the power lines feeding from our house and towards the unsightly neighbor’s. I instinctively raised my palms, held them flat and pressed, as if moving the air in his direction. Stop! Even though it was summer my voice turning to ice cracked as it formed. He raised the stick higher, closer to the wires. His armpits were smooth. It reminded me of the soft spot on a newborn’s head or the back of a pin cushion. He had found some power to arrest my full attention. Afraid lunging at him would further motivate him to do it, to strive towards extinction, I could only wait until he’d stand on tip toes and fry his bare flesh from the inside out, his heart stopping right there in our mother’s garden.

This happened near our basement patio. Sliding glass doors leading inside to my father’s refuge where, post dinner, he’d head with a bowl of salty popcorn. Down there he built his own bar, stocked with gin and ice, and next to the counter on the wall hung a plastic head of an old man with gray scraggly hair beneath a green corduroy trucker’s hat, his skin dark and weathered, and a tie made from a red bandana dangled from his throat. When you pulled it he’d spit water at you from between the gap in his two front teeth and recorded laughter played for 15 seconds. Outside on the basement patio my sister soaked sticks in mom’s decorative cast-iron cauldron until they were soft enough to feed to me, saying THIS IS WHAT WE DO, lying, WE EAT STICKS.

• • •


Part of the problem is that I can only present the feeling, over and over again, of what it was like to have been belched from the guts of the U.S. To have lingered stale in the air, then dissipated, reemerging like a gust of wind, picking up from the west only to again die down where the indigestion began. And how does one present feeling? By reeking of their experience? We have no authorities on the pathology of Midwestern consciousness. Nor do I believe necessarily in pathology as any abnormal distress separate from the practice of life. Writing this is going beyond one’s words, getting behind in one’s thoughts, and rushing to catch up to one’s failures. 

Anyway, who would put their name and careers on the line, dedicate their life describing the blandest environment and its life-threatening musk, much less stand downhill of it? I am unfortunate to have to take it on by no pressure whatsoever external to myself. I look to film noir for cues. More time spent smoking in doorways and checking out the broad than conducting interviews with witnesses, taking fingerprints, or filing paperwork. Justice is a fugitive at large.  Because I know to catch the Harolds and Maudes is to kill the real heroes, realizing our hope lies in doing the unspeakable. Who can do anything to prevent what gets done out of solutionlessness? Our time would be wiser spent filling in a crossword together. But even then we are finding words based on clues from other words without explaining why we need to find those words to begin with. Both are just grids to channel inordinate amounts of trivial energy. 

• • •


I was free to play outside for hours. I could go anywhere in the neighborhood I wanted and be home by dark without anyone asking me a single question. Life was perfect. My environment was stable but I was still a thinking individual—able to pick out the crap when it reared its head, when something didn’t seem fair because I was so used to it being fair, when things didn’t make sense I was sensitive to it because they had always made so much sense it didn’t take sense to think anything of it, except when life laid trip wire, when people began acting funny, when the shell no longer covered the entire science experiment, what bubbled out, what I noticed of others’ experiments, when something smelled as if it had been sprayed to smell that way, when I asked questions simply to see the contortions of one’s face as they repeated answers I knew they would give and yet their expressions were what I was after, how one would say what would be said by how it came out, when life spun into focus because I had called for it to, knowing it always existed right below the surface further extending forever downwards which meant within, infinite as outer-space. 

• • •


Where does the Midwest begin and where does it fall into chasms of ill belonging? Does it include Kansas? What about Minnesota? The questionable states fight harder for inclusion thus embodying the Midwest more. Our parents taught us only to be good people.  But the failure was that they still taught us to be people until we understood less about ourselves and more about “the species” which doesn’t exist, as I am the entire species. As the self diminishes the adult blossoms and I grew into dormant beings. 

I relied on hearing—how I was talked to, in what tones, inflections, decibel levels. Silence was the loudest. They didn’t have to discriminate aloud in their own home. What my parents were most silent about was what they hated more than anything. They were professionals afterall, and to be professional means keeping one’s mouth shut. When my mother looked at my father a certain way, I plugged my ears. When I see a play I’m not aware of the stage beyond the curtain and therefore am utterly defenseless against theater. Hating the animal for what lurks within the forest it leapt from. But then, the loneliness of it without the forest!

As I mentioned the aesthetics of the Midwest being numb, dulled, tracked, neutered, spade, comprised of little to no information, my eyes went weak like the legs of kids who caught polio and couldn’t treat it quick enough. I’d need other appendages to find any sort of strength of happiness. They say the blind learn to rely on their hearing, that other senses excel when compensating for the more important lame one, but instead I think the blind relay the art of the matter of living. If a situation could not be rendered first by sight then it would have to be a translation, and in the translation infinite ambiguities and complexities came forth as the sole murderer who murders by strangulation. You can listen in your own language, but to respond requires a foreign one.

And when translation fell short I relied on the bastard of translation. The mutt hopping around on three legs reminded everyone of the civil war. It began as a reading of people’s erroneous responses in an oppressive situation seemingly beyond their control. But mostly it was a lesson in smoking the horror from its hole and describing the basket in the earth that remained. Example by example, the bastard of translation was also a lie, and more horrendously I came to find out, the original insult. My reflection in a quivering lake, knowing I couldn’t see myself unless what was there for me to confront was an accumulation of what so easily escapes. 

• • •

National Geographic

So when that piece of pottery fell and broke on the floor my father accused me of having pushed it. It was an antique plate from Portugal. In the middle was painted a single flightless bird, a rooster perhaps. Displayed front and center of a built-in bookcase, the plate was held in place by the tension of unread books and old National Geographics kept in vinyl cases according to season and year.

I was 8. This occurred in our den, a small room off the garage with wood paneling and a TV where I would sit by a lone window in a single blue chair and during commercials watch the cars seldom go by through gauzy white curtains. I was alone, and therefore susceptible to wrongful accusations. Without witnesses. Alone. I was unable to state anything more than my innocence. Lack of proof doesn’t make a person more guilty, but it does make their word more powerful, and when the word is too powerful we refuse to believe too much in it. For anything to be true we require proof and believe proof is always accessible, if not a tad out of reach, but with help—in extreme cases from professionals—we can in fact uncover the sort of evidence to calm our worst fears: that truth is forever still at large. The broken plate was only proof of its own fragility. However, demanding proof in the case where one person doesn’t trust another is the very abuse of evidence of establishing any fact. In order to be believed people need a show. One must be convinced, for which a lot of hoopla is expected.

Instead of accusing me, if back then my father would have asked, “What do you think happened?” I would have responded:

I believe the plate finally gave in, father, breaking on the ground beyond repair. Things give in, too. I also believe the plate was, yes, pushed. The non-living alike are constantly in motion as well, moving and changing, shifting and settling amidst other inanimate objects. The world itself is pushing and pulling. Is it crazy to say that since we’re drifting at 2.5 centimeters per year, and that since we’re orbiting at 67,062 miles per hour, that since our orbit is actually a wobble as the moon stretches or squeezes us each tide, that for these planetary forces your plate broke? Is it any crazier to suggest this than it is to suggest a ghost broke it or that it jumped itself to know death? Or that a child alone in a room has any relation to death? We move away and closer simultaneously. How can this be you ask? And because you ask it is so. Possibility keeps alive everything out of its place. I began here myself blaming ghosts, for what ghost in its right mind would stick up for itself? To risk invisibility and forgo its reason for being just to appear before dishonorable dealings? What a human trait! They are beyond the world of our reasoning, absurd because it is born out of our understanding nil.

I stared at the plate whose bird had vanished and upside down now revealed only burnt sienna, as if a small piece of desiccated earth cracked open.

He had traveled to Portugal and brought back this as a souvenir before I was born, and yet who could be sure as to what might possess sudden value only in its unforeseen inexistence? Something, no longer there, had a second ago been centerpiece. It was the act of subtraction. He thought, “What is the meaning of this?” It feasted on him. The plate had little to no known value in our household—another decoration, a placeholder for empty space, which is not empty but is the lack of what we’re able to see. We considered the object for how it stood before us in all its seeming stillness—what we accuse of showing no signs of life. 

• • •


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