|Jan/Feb 2016 Reviews & Interviews|
The Upper Peninsula Misses You
ELJ Publications. 2015. 56 pp.
ISBN 13: 978 1 941617 38 0.
I mention in my blurb for Mark Magoon's collection The Upper Peninsula Misses You that I was an avid reader of his work before realizing the location of his poems was so often the U.P., Michigan's Upper Peninsula. My parents are from the U.P., and as I still spend time there twice a year, in summer and in winter, this made me even more eager to read the book. Magoon's U.P. is different from my own, and that was one of the reasons I enjoyed this collection so very much. Nonetheless, a reader does not need to be familiar with that semi-remote locale to gain great enjoyment from the work. This is a book about family and other relationships in addition to place, and the language used to describe what is inescapable in the land is used to describe what is inescapable between people as well.
The brief introductions to each act (as the sections of the book are called) are a good place to begin. In the first of these, Magoon describes how the Mackinac Bridge is all that connects the two Michigans and how the U.P. is torn between reaching out and choosing to be alone. This tension informs the poems that follow, including the two that appear in Eclectica: "Memorial Day" and "From the Fire." "Overcoming an Ice Age, Part I" and "Overcoming an Ice Age, Part II" appear here as well, and while the title links us to the ever-present geography of a land much affected by glaciation, these two short poems are about family viewed through the lens of sister states (also leading us back to the collection's title):
And now I tell you,
Sister Michigan, the Upper Peninsula Misses You—
she wishes she was head and you all shoulders to her chin.
She wishes only to lean upon, not to lie. Sister Michigan,
the Upper Peninsula misses you, wishes she never left.
The introduction to Act Two references the War of Toledo (a fascinating if small chapter in the history of the Midwest) and shows us how "her blood was copper, iron, ore." The blood of this "throw away" orphaned state "always runs and runs dry." In the first poem in this section, "Family Fossils," this blood that can't help but run dry is apparent where the speaker "drop[s] all the life down my body / and pretend I will never hit bottom." In "Remembering Where the Lie," the poems last lines are "I am all family wars / whether or not I enter them willingly." Like the historical U.P., some disputes are a part of our story whether we want them to be or not.
In the final act of the collection, we hear of ghosts left after what was "barely ever a boom." "And as is true of mining," this brief introduction goes on to say, "there are always many scars after silence." We go into this final section with ghosts and ruins in our thoughts and find them again in "A vertex is a special kind of point." A vertex is a term from geometry that has to do with meeting and intersecting, and I was fascinated to think about it in terms of ghosts and the past. In this poem—and in the book—what is past really isn't. The book has been telling us that throughout, but it's stated more explicitly here: past, present, and future meet when "my family lets the house turn lean to." The question "what makes a house?" asks a deeper question than the surface would suggest.
The last line of the last poem combined with the Philip Levine epigraph at the book's beginning work together to answer the questions raised throughout. "That the waves go out and nothing comes back," says Levine. "For a Friend," the book's final poem, ends with, "All that I ever wanted / was someone to give up along with me." Taken together, these give me a sense of a past that goes out and doesn't return, and while waves certainly do come back, perhaps it might be a more viable option to let go in other ways, to let go of the past while still keeping it safe.