The first time I saw Minneapolis,
I’d driven six hours from Omaha
And got stuck in the rush-hour traffic
On I-35. This was in July;
In Cedar-Riverside, the film-noir rain—
Like a curtain on a soundstage—trapped me
Underneath an overhang, shivering
And wondering what sort of place this was.
The next morning, I parked on the greenway
By the university, sat, and watched
The river, brown and five thousand feet wide
Four states south, but clean and human-sized here.
Later I’d learn that even in the heat,
Every drop of water still remembers
The glaciers: The lakes icy five feet down,
The rain halfway to snow, sending up sparks
From the sidewalk’s concrete kiln. The river,
Too, I’m sure: Winter’s never far away.
Driving back to Nebraska in the glare
Of evening felt like a Little League game:
Something real, but not quite real, a practice
For a reality I’d never see.
Five years later, led by my vocation,
I came north again, during a July
In which the world felt new. Fresh from Florida,
I was amazed at the chill that crept
Into the August air, and at the leaves
That slowly caught fire weeks before autumn.
(The last week of August, summer shook us
Like a rag in a dog’s mouth—but it was
Nothing like Tallahassee, much to my
By October, the landscape was
A baroque, synesthetic symphony
Of colors: the red flames of the sugar
Maples, the bright, shifting yellow basewoods,
The white oaks turned variegated orange,
The hackberries faded like ’70s
Film stock. Driving to work, I absently
Looked into the ditches and started when
I saw a forest fire: grape ivy,
I think, escaped from someone’s yard. Without
A tree to climb, it creeps toward the highway
Like a lynx—like a burglar—like winter.
At dawn, the air, chilled overnight, hovered
Over the tepid, good-natured membrane
Of the ten thousand lakes and coughed up fog,
The way Mill City must have belched out smoke
In its prime, decades earlier. I’d learn
About the Washburn A Mill explosion
Of 1878, the flour
Spontaneously igniting, blowing out
The factory’s back wall, killing fourteen
Workers and damaging eardrums across
The city. Every year the foliage
Exploded in their memory, the fog
Settling over the river like that cloud
Of flour turning into dough in its
Waters a century and a half ago.
Minnesota conceals the raw menace
Of winter under the blooming fires
Of its majestic autumns. Gardeners grip
Their rakes in vague unease, but they forget
The year from year to year, and warm their hands
At the glorious hearths of the Midwestern fall.
Our last winter there, Minnesota tried
Its best to make us leave. Circles of ice
Blew down from the pole, wrapped around our house,
And rubbed against the windows, like a dog
Dragging her ass across new white carpet.
I was afraid that my axles would break.
My windshield wouldn’t defrost. Late one night,
My tires caught the flash-frozen asphalt,
And I almost skidded into the wall.
Deep breath. (I called in sick the next morning.)
The snow melted, then refroze hard and fast
To make a second earth, dirty white mountains
Pushed by the plow to the lawless outskirts
Of the parking lot, then fixed there until
Spring, or later. Sometimes I imagined
Them standing there, still waiting to be scaled
In June, the cottonwood renovating
The white pathways up to their damaged peaks.
I learned the color of the lake water
Just before it turns to ice: dark purple,
The deepest blue without becoming black.
The next morning, before the snow, it was
No color at all, just half-translucent—
A frosted window to hell’s ninth circle.
The wind had kicked up just before midnight;
Miniscule waves had frozen in mid-crest:
The bleak surface of some other planet.
Another blizzard blew through in April,
Fastened the sky to the ground with a white
Column of glue. I thought about Peanuts—
The way the snow engulfed them to the waist.
Every April, Minnesota holds out
The football, pulls it back away from us,
And cackles when we slam into the ground.
Even in the black vacuum of winter,
You can sometimes feel the spring set in:
The air doesn’t turn warm, but somehow more
Substantial, essential. Aquinas makes
More sense in April, as the world becomes
Itself again. The air starts first, a tongue,
Not quite frozen, peeling off a light pole.
Then spring announces itself with sound: Not
The cries of birds, who mostly flew south at
The first patch of frozen pond. (The ravens
Can endure the freeze, their caws ricocheting
Off the winter walls.) But as the snow melts,
Last autumn’s leaves, trapped for six months, begin
To agitate; October reasserts
Itself, as if to tell us there is death
Crouching under every resurrection.
I am sitting in a classroom, watching
Frayed flags ripple in a wind that would like,
I think, to tear us all apart, flying
Invisibly, subconsciously, down from
The Arctic to rip through every bulwark
We construct. It’s my last day in classrooms,
My last May to suffer gales like this one.
“Suffer,” I said, though really I don’t mind;
Every chilly spring day delays the heat
That grinds the cool air’s face into the mud
And laughs: a bully’s cavernous chortle.
I’ll stay after the final student leaves.
Why leave? I’m not sure I could say: Eight years
Of straining, eight years of exile, maybe,
Though that word seems sentimental. It’s been
A home, after all, whatever that means,
With all that means. A place can become you
Just as you become it. I’ve rubbed my self
On these Midwestern cities like body
Odor in a subway car. And I’m sure
I’ll do it again, the steaming ideal
Future evaporating to condense
And run down the window. Eight years later,
I’m more or less myself. I think I know
It now: To leave a place is to renounce
The person you’d imagined you would be.
Michial Farmer is the author of Imagination and Idealism in John Updike’s Fiction. His poems have appeared in Saint Katherine Review, FORMA, and Relief. He lives in Atlanta.