The Midwest Quarterly, published at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, is a no-frills, no-nonsense journal of scholarly essays and poetry.
While its plain, orange cover may be unassuming, “this journal of contemporary thought” means business. All of the work in this issue is expertly written and engaging—from essays on Mark Twain to poems about the Alleghenies, these writers are wordsmiths of the highest caliber.
The selection of essays in the issue includes a variety of literary topics including “Food in Fiction,” the American political novel, and lies in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Each essay is insightful and well-researched in its own right; my favorite, though is Amy Fuqua’s “‘The Furrows of His Brow’: Providence and Pragmatism in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” In the essay, Fuqua draws parallels between American exceptionalism as outlined by Reinhold Neibuhr and Morrison’s novel Paradise: “Morrison’s founding families, like America’s Puritans, feel alienated from their original home, so they move their families to a new place (which they call Haven), build a community separate from others, and struggle to maintain its separate identity.” Fuqua goes on to lay out a compelling comparison between Morrison’s novel and America’s own foibles, complete with what Fuqua suggests is Morrison’s reconciliation of the exceptionalism problem.
The poems in the issue all share not only a common Midwest sensibility but a keen sense of imagery. The vivid portraits of Midwest landscapes in this issue are astounding. Though the narratives change, each poem seems to fit into a larger mural of the Midwest.
Take, for example, Richard Schiffman’s “The Clearing” in which the narrator meditates on a visit to a clearing in the woods early one evening:
so I walked to the edge
of the circle and spotted
a weathered pot shard
and brushed it off and held it
as the blood orange of the sun dangled
from a low slung branch
and I wanted to stay but night
was dropping its purple drapery
so I told myself I’ll be back tomorrow
although I knew it would not happen
Perhaps I should admit now that as a Midwesterner, I have a certain fondness for these kinds of images. But I would imagine anyone can see themselves in this beautifully written, if regretful moment. Schiffman’s pacing, imagery, and language walk us through the scene as if we are there with him, as if he will pass us the weathered pot shard when he is through with it.
There are a number of compelling Midwestern moments like Schiffman’s in the issue, which is what helps Austin Smith’s “I Dreamt I Kidnapped a Little Girl” stand out as one of my favorites. Smith writes:
But it’s not what you think.
Her mom was high, a washed-
out print in the chemical bath
of the TV, her dad years
gone, and I was only trying
to protect her. Driving away
she didn’t cry, nor did she
look back, but instead stared
at thunderheads building
in the west. . . .
From there the poem moves into the surreal and dreamy but what remains is a sense of rural, Midwest identity and imagery that only enhances the “plot” and makes the poem all the more fantastic—in more ways than one.
All in all this issue has a lot to offer for any literature lover. Whether you’re looking for insight into classic writing or fresh perspectives on an American landscape, this edition of The Midwest Quarterly definitely delivers.