Novel Ideas

Flyover States (Part 1)

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[This post is the first of a series devoted to the 2012 International Conference on Romanticism. More soon will follow and pick up where this post leaves off.]

I’ve never been able to sleep on planes. Actually, I’ve never been able to sleep in any kind of moving vehicle, but planes seem to offer the most concerted sensory bombardment: the stale air, the narrow seats, the engine whine, the screeching babies, the body odor, the closet bathrooms, “and so on and so forth,” as Slavoj Žižek often says. I’m not about to veer into a Seinfeldesque send-up of air travel; I promise.  But seriously, though, what’s the deal with the pretzel bags? Who are they trying to keep out of these things?

Normally, I just suck it up and deal, but my flight to Sky Harbor in Phoenix would take over four hours from Port Columbus. Both departure and arrival facilities carry something explicitly naval in their names, and as I set sail for the 2012 International Conference on Romanticism (auspiciously themed “Catastrophes”) I brought with me a book that I’ve meant to read for a while: Breaking into the Backcountry, a memoir by Steve Edwards, whom I was lucky to have known during my time as a Masters student at the University of Nebraska.1

In Breaking into the Backcountry, Steve (I feel like I can break academic convention and call him by his first name, but I sincerely apologize to him if I’m being too presumptuous) reflects on his seven-month, solitary stay well off the beaten path along the Rogue River in Oregon. In leaving his native Indiana, he also left behind a life at an uncertain crossroads: a recent divorce, a post-MFA living eked out with the kind of motley assemblage of part-time jobs not unfamiliar to young academics.

A few years ago I wrote a poem called “Flyover States,” and it concludes with the idea of being just out of a picture’s frame as “a jet drags its horrisonance across the salt-stained sky.” I can’t entirely wash the musk of egotism from my self-citation, but it’s in the service of articulating just how Backcountry’s opening ennui speaks to me. Then, as now, the present “now” (both the then-now and the now-now) felt like a flyover state, the invisible map lines over the checkered land darkening thirty thousand feet below as the sun outruns a westward flight.

Steve draws from many traditions of Romantic writing, and although Thoreau receives the most explicit calls we just as well could talk about Steve’s Wordsworthian encounters with the backcountry locals or the memoir’s layering of temporally situated selves reflecting on their earlier incarnations, the classic me-now and me-then split of pieces such as The Prelude or “Tintern Abbey.” In the memoir’s penultimate turn to Steve’s reaction to hearing about the 9/11 attacks while buried deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, we see echoes of “Lines Written in Early Spring” as Steve, surrounded by his own grove of sorts, attempts to articulate and come to terms with “what man has made of man.”

The passage that stuck with me the most occurs in the chapter on solitude, which I hope Steve will forgive me for reproducing at such length:

Two thousand miles east of the homestead, my friends and family back home are asleep under this same moon. And I am here. And the deer drifting across the meadow are here. And the coyotes yipping down at Horseshoe Bend are here. I listen for a moment to their shrill, almost human cries. Then I realize they are human. Human voices yipping, howling, crying out—I hear them. And I hear drums, a steady beat. Pounding. Though I know that it’s probably just rafters who’ve brought their drums with them from Grants Pass or wherever they’ve come from, a part of me can’t help but imagine that it’s the river’s original inhabitants, the Rogue River Indian peoples, dancing, singing, pounding drums. Or maybe it’s their angry ghosts pounding the skulls of the whites who murdered them. I want so badly to sing and howl along, to add my small voice to theirs. But for now I’ve been called to solitude. Silence is my howling.

I read about two thirds of Backcountry on the flight out. I need to leave something for the trip back, not out of some shallow desire to kill time, but because it doesn’t feel right reading about Steve’s return trip and afterthoughts before mine has really begun.  I was surprised by my acceptance to ICR, which at this point is the most prominent conference at which I’ve ever given a paper.

On the plane I’m unsure of how I’ll fit in, how I’ll measure up to the bevy of brilliant scholars whom I haven’t yet met. I’m going to talk about Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets: how Smith’s deft use of voice in both text and paratext allows the reader to view Smith as a better version of themselves. I’m hoping that this represents a valuable way of fine-tuning our sense of authorship and reception (in the paper I examine two poets’ responses to Smith as an author) in Romantic poetry. I’m hoping that I’ll prove that I deserve to be a part of the diverse group that I call—perhaps preemptively, perhaps presumptuously, perhaps precociously—my colleagues.

I discovered at the departure gate that I’d booked the same outbound flight as had my neighbor, not two blocks away, whom I’d met at the British Women Writers Conference this past summer and who had moved to Columbus since then. She clued me in to the brigade from the University of Colorado attending ICR, and I became one of six sharing a suite at one of the hotels within walking distance of the Arizona State campus.

Because most of my roommates were driving down from Boulder, I arrived early. I couldn’t tell if the woman at the check-in desk with flirting with me. I’ve been out of that game for too long to know for sure, but when I mentioned that I liked craft beer she directed me to a bar a few blocks away. I texted the CU graduate student whom I’d met already (again, at the BWWC) that the gang should meet me there when they roll in. For the time being, I sat at the bar amid the din of the place, “in a crowded room where the glasses clink,” as Stephan Jenkins sings.2

I had time for a couple of those glasses before anyone else arrived, and in the spirit of new experiences I told the bartender to pour me whatever he liked best. Content with a sparse exchange of remarks, I sat a still presence among the bustle of bacchanals and revelry. “From where we’re coming, to where we go,” I wrote as a refrain, a burden, to call it by its literary name, for “Flyover States.” The stillness and the movement, the here and the there, the now and the not-yet-come, the burden of it all. Soon I’d move among strangers, strangers who soon, hopefully, would become colleagues and friends to whose voices I’d add my own, but for the moment I breathed deeply in a city where no one knew my name. I had been called here, and silence was my howling.

—Trey Conatser

1. I originally had planned to bring Miles Waggener’s Sky Harbor, but forgot to order it in time. I brought Maurice Manning’s latest, Common Man, instead. I recommend both.

2. Quoting Stephan Jenkins establishes, without a doubt, that the person doing the quoting came of age during the late 1990s.

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