"The Thin Line of What I Know" by Matt Mason

I grew up in Iowa, a couple of miles from the very border between Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska, which meant for in-state tuition I went to university in Iowa, but far from my home. Therefore, I spent many the hour driving Iowa highways, including I-80. Going back even farther, my mother was raised on a farm, and we spent many the weekend driving back and forth the 50 miles from our place in "the city" to Grandpa's and Grandma's farm. So I know from Iowa scenery, which is why this poem, in Mason's new collection Things We Don't Know We Don't Know, out recently from Backwaters Press, is my new favorite in a long line of my favorite poems of his.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I am also working with Backwaters Press on a book, although a very different kind of book. In addition, you should know that I have been following Mason's poems for years, through many chapbooks. It's important for the integrity of this post that you know that along with Sharon Olds, Kenneth Koch, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Matt Mason is one of my favorite poets, that he was the featured reader at the first open mic I ever read in, at which he read a poem about Clamato, and everyone in Omaha thinks he is the bomb. i.e. This is not an unbiased review, but a true, heartfelt, and carefully considered one nonetheless.)

About the poem. I now live in the Seattle area, where we have mountains, water, rich and diverse history and contemporary culture, a refreshing lack of evangelical Christians, and really good beer available on every corner. It would be easy, so easy, for anyone to understand the beauty of someplace as postcard pretty as this.

But having grown up in Iowa, I know that this is not the only kind of beauty there is. In Iowa, one works at love, works at beauty, works the land, gets dust in the hair and mud under the fingernails, and feels a great love for one's home state no matter if it is ever mentioned in the media. There is a subltety to the beauty there, but there is a matching restraint to Mason's work that makes the rolling Iowa countryside a perfect subject.

There are two subjects of this poem, actually: my home state and a woman who lives in the capital, a two hour drive from Omaha, a woman who the speaker is driving I-80 to meet. The movement in this poem is both gentle and pressing, mimicking the movement you make driving that 120 or so miles - straight, undulating, quick, safe. The first stanza is full of numbered mile markers, counting the miles until the lovers meet.

The middle three stanzas then move us in a different direction, out over the round wide countryside. First a collection of whimsical, disposable detail, as Mason lists Iowa interstate landmarks like the Purple Martin Train or the water tower in Adair (not from Iowa? Doesn't matter, you get it, right?), all of which speed by at 65 MPH. But then the magic comes: after seven chatty lines of thirdrate sightseeing, from atop the Beebeetown observation tower, our speaker sees "the thin line of what I know/among all the foreign fields and hills/stretching from it like butterfly wings." We climbed more than a few flights of rickety old wooden steps in a middle of a cornfield just then.

Here Mason takes something familiar to his speaker and makes it mystical, makes it mysterious, makes it sing, surprising even the traveler himself. The trip has changed from counting miles before a kiss to wondering what he is passing, to naming rather than numbering destinations along the way, to seeing "trees along the road perform/all their acts: fat, naked, flowering, flaming, green, chainsawed." (Did you hear those sounds? Read it a few times out loud.)

And then, oh yeah, the girl. Our speaker gets back to counting down to her in the last stanza, but now along with the numbers on the mile markers, we have descriptions of the woman, from less to more sensual, until "cornfields fade/into [her] hair." The rapidly approaching woman and the Iowa countryside zipping by have merged, and let me tell you something: this is not a poem written to impress anyone; this is true love.

And this is only one poem in the collection, Mason's first bound book. If you are not as excited about it as I am, I am afraid you have not been paying close enough attention.

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