Bruce Snider’s latest poetry collection, Paradise, Indiana, is a book steeped in place, from Midwestern farms, to taxidermy conventions, to interstates dotted with roadkill, to the Pick ‘N Save, where the narrator’s grandmother shoplifts.
Reading the collection sequentially, a moving narrative unfolds about adolescent love and loss set in the cornfields and rest stops of Indiana. Although the suicide of the speaker’s cousin, Nick, is the centerpiece of the book, Snider’s memory-driven poems are never morbid, indulgent, or sentimental. Each poem is like an absorbing snapshot, capturing the sights, smells, sounds, and emotions of the narrator’s past.
It is this force of memory—the gap between present and past, between the old self and the new—that gives these poems their heft and poignancy. The cumulative effect is formidable, not dissimilar to reading a compelling book of connected short stories or a novella. Snider’s gift is concision; there are so few words on the page, and yet he stuns us with how much depth he can impart. Snider makes every word of Paradise, Indiana count.
“We can neither love nor hate the place from which we come,” writes C. Dale Young. “These places divide us ‘like one of those snowy Indiana towns / with names like Paradise or Liberty.'” Snider’s poems are not only an elegy for his lost cousin, as well as his adolescent self, but also for a lost home: “25% of Hoosier women died, their long dresses and aprons catching fire” Snider writes in the poem “Indiana History.” But this rural community of Holsteins, female factory workers, and barbed wire is changing: “Two miles away / the Wal-Mart is going in, barns giving way / to Pizza Hut.”
To his credit, Snider knows better than to use his home state as mere decorative backdrop (after all, this is not a bad country music song or some nostalgic travel essay). Snider’s Indiana is shot through with both tenderness and authenticity; this place, with its “gutted saw mill” and “turtles tucked in burrows,” is as much a part of him as his own skin.
“Like many writers I mostly write what I’d like to read,” Snider told Brian Brodeur at How a Poem Happens. “I do believe in inspiration, but I also think …
“Nothing in Snider’s America is ever lost: not love, not beauty, not the first furtive kisses of adolescent boys,” says D.A. Powell. “In this paradise, no one form of pleasure takes dominion over the others.”
“These powerful eloquent poems explore the difference between the place we make and the place that makes us,” poet Eavan Boland says of Snider’s book.
We’re all divided beings, and Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana eloquently captures that division with all of the grit and comedy of a compassionate writer who’s narrowly made his escape. And like Lot’s wife, he just can’t resist looking back.
Because I could be written anywhere,
I loved the hard surface of the blade,
my name carved into barn doors, desktops,
the peeled face of a shag-bark hickory.
I pressed my whole weight into it, letters
grooved deep as the empty
field rows along Tri-Lakes where I’d seen
my cousin Nick buried in ground so hard
they had to heat the dirt with lamps
before they could dig. I gutted squirrels
my grandmother fried, hanging
skins from the window,
and with the same knife gouged a B
at the base of the frozen creek bank,
the season breaking
like the rose our teacher, Miss Jane,
dipped in nitrogen so it would shatter.
There were more atoms, she claimed,
in the letter O, than people in the entire state.
I could feel God inside that letter,
the vast sky refigured, buds scrawled
on the black limbs of trees.
Trucks carried spring feed down
Highway 9 as I wove through headstones,
tracing names in the late frost,
looking for Nick’s plot
with the wax white roses,
his lucky fishing lure. I could sense
him down there, satin-lined,
curled like the six-toed cat
we’d found bloated in the creek, alive
with lice and maggots. Sometimes
I was sure I could hear him, restless,
waiting for me, the Wabash
pushing its icy waters, my tongue
humming with the fizz. It never ended,
that stretch of road snaking back home
like an artery through my own heart
where an owl gripped a rat in its claw
over I-80. I’d put my hands in my pockets
and walk, dreaming of the places I’d go,
the things I’d do, the dump rising
to meet me at the edge of town,
chrome bumpers twisted as the owner
himself, withered arm swinging a fist.
I waited for something to escape—
mouse darting from a glove box, oil
from a cracked sump. I could stand
on a crushed Chevy, feeling it all
thaw inside me: asphalt
and barbed wire, cows and steaming
pails of milk, even the graveyard
rising, new stones nursing old griefs,
slow bones and winter’s cherry trees
making their long walk to leaf.
At Floyd’s Tuxedo Shop
Flipping me off, Nick smiles
in the mirror, his front
tooth chipped where the shredder
kicked back. Cuff links,
forest green cummerbunds,
everything chosen to match
our dates. Monkey suits,
Aunt Starr called them the week
before, handing him a pack of rubbers:
I don’t want no grandkids. For days,
we’ve been mocking
the box, laughing: lubricant,
spermicidal. Inside the shop,
mannequins’ blank faces stare
from displays, handsome men
in tuxes leaning toward us
the way, each spring, cherry trees
bend, crippled by years of pruning,
an answer to ripening heat. I’ll kiss—
at prom—Cindy Slater, hoping
Nick will see us, and later
tell the guys in gym
she smells like the science lab.
But today Nick and I help
each other undress, unbuttoning
to reveal a glimpse
of freckled chest, trail of hair
at the waistline. Back at the car,
he laughs, blowing up rubbers
between us, filling them
with his breath. As we drive,
he chucks them one
by one out the window, pale
balloons trailing behind us, mile
after quivering mile.
Some nights the streets divided me
like one of those snowy Indiana towns
with names like Paradise or Liberty,
the Kankakee sweeping its icy waters
past the winter carnival rising into the dark.
This was the stuff, they claimed, God made
us for: the whole town rumbling
with the smell of sweet ribs, the slaughter
house sprawling under angels
with plastic wings, a blow-up Santa.
Crowds gathered at the ticket booth,
a hog turning on its spit. My father
coughed a lit Camel through the cracked window,
Mom in the front seat, the whole car shaking
as they fought near the barbecue pit, love
unfolding its smoke and ash. It never ended,
that road back home past The Church of God
where the preacher said we’d one day rise
whole-bodied into the sky, the graveyard
frozen thick with children from
the cholera epidemic of 1906. I could feel
the sky crush down on me in the dead
of winter, but some mornings the fields
were so vast in their whiteness that the silos
towered like the future, ice-caked and glistening.
I’d put my frozen hands in my pockets
to keep them warm or watch my parents
walking arm in arm past the nativity
with its Baby Jesus, twice stolen, now nailed
to the manger, his cracked halo painted so yellow
it could be, if seen from a distance, polished gold.
After his death, Aunt Starr disappeared
in heaps of faux gold jewelry, a river
of coffee pots and purses, spare light
bulbs, Bible verses. She wrote scripture
on seed catalogues, prayed to
the God of another spatula, another
sponge, ten lawn mower blades
and her sudden lunge for the thrift
store bin. She stored potatoes on top
of apple cores, Reba McEntire
records and the penny jar. Her dogs
pissed on the floor, fouled
the recliner. Penciling one eyebrow,
she forgot the other. She ate,
in bed, her poppy-seed cakes,
came to Christmas with lard
on her shirt. Eighteen oven timers,
a dozen brooms, nine silver
vacuums made a misshapen
fortress in his room where
she now slept alone, dreaming of her
thirteen crock pots simmering
meat and broth and bone.
About Bruce Snider
Bruce Snider is a writer and teacher. He is the author of two poetry collections, Paradise, Indiana, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize, and The Year We Studied Women, winner of Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. A former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, he’s also the recipient of a James A. Michener fellowship from The University of Texas at Austin, where he received his MFA in poetry and playwriting. Bruce’s other awards include residencies at the Millay Colony, the Amy Clampitt House, and the James Merrill House as well as a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2012, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Pleiades Gulf Coast, and Gettysburg Review. He has taught at numerous universities including Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin, Saint Mary’s College of California, University of San Francisco, and Connecticut College. He is currently the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University in Washington DC for 2012-2013.
For more information about Bruce and his work, please visit his website.
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“Epitaph,” “At Floyd’s Tuxedo Shop,” “Paradise Indiana,” and “Fortress” © Bruce Snider. All Rights Reserved. All poems appear in Paradise, Indiana (2012) from Pleiades Press and were published with permission from the author.