This past July, I’ve made the hugest change in my life thus far, and that’s moving from my homestate of Illinois up to the Pacific Northwest. It took about a month of selling or donating furniture and assorted things in order to condense our possessions into two hatchbacks-worth of cargo; four days of driving with a yowling cat and very unhappy hedgehog; and what will probably be a lifetime of missing my family and remembering my childhood home.
It’s surely bittersweet, but I’ve always wanted a forest and mountains in my backyard; my fiancee just got me here faster than I would have alone. She’s a Seattle native (and when I say Seattle, I mean the Greater Seattle area. I’m only clarifying because Chicago natives would have a meltdown if I, raised in suburban Naperville, said I was from Chicago) and she was ecstatic when I first told her I someday wanted to leave Illinois. Seattle is definitely where she, and I, belong.
To commemorate this big move, I thought I’d share some of the reflection I did my senior year of college on living in Galesburg. It’s quite an interesting town of about 30,000, and I’d like to think there’s as many trains as there are people. My senior capstone for Creative Writing was essentially compiling a portfolio of our work from the past four years, and starting it off with a 25 pages of reflection. I broke my introduction into several chunks, and a few of them were dedicated to the town I spent those four years living and writing in. So here’s a couple of those:
“Sure, there are trains constantly announcing themselves down the Burlington Route; there is the Lincoln-Douglas debate site; there is Knox College and Dorothea Tanning and Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Yes, good. But look at these empty trainyards underneath the bridge, silent in waiting, if for just a moment. Look at the cemetery, which has done centuries of gathering up, of piecing together the continually gone. Look at the Main Street roundabout, which is the only roundabout I know that asks you to “yield” from within the circle. Look at Vac-World, buzzed and lonely by night, but present and thankful for it. Look at Romantix, faithful with steel doors. Look at Glory Days—barber shop by day, punk rock concert hall by night. World Buffet—a palace of culture tucked away, uncovered only with a little bit of trust and a truly empty stomach.
In my four years in Galesburg I’ve never set foot in Vac-World. I’ve only examined it from its exterior, documented its late-night aesthetic from a safe distance. Thought about how the awning light never goes off, not even at three a.m.; as if, inside, there were a secret door to an underground night club. For vacuums, of course—a whole flock of them, never sleeping, always drinking to forget the way they are forgotten. From what I can tell from the outside, the inside is a past era frozen in time. 1980s vacuums on display, as if they were collectibles, not to be taken out of their packages. They must have a cash register in there that still dings on command, an attendant who still counts change without the aid of a machine, who keeps a dish of pennies by the register for close calls.
In the center of the roundabout stands a statue of Carl Sandburg and his goat steed Nellie. Just recently the town has installed granite slabs of poetry around the statue—lines of Sandburg’s poems literally cemented into Galesburg. The statue is now officially dedicated—marked by a ribbon cut and everything—to the citizens of the town, “in honor of Galesburg’s most famous son.”
In her essay “The Lustres,” Lia Purpura writes that “a word is a way to speak about something that really, in truth, no word can touch.” Maybe these poems engraved into stone, of stone, cemented hard into legacy, speaking loud to surf the wind, proclaimed to the air we all share here, dedicated to the citizens in the cars that orbit this roundabout daily—maybe this comes a little bit closer to contact.
I’m not going to pretend to know what it means to belong. What does this word even mean? I don’t know if Galesburg will ever “belong,” just like I don’t know if I’ll ever have belonged in it. Or if Vac-World means anything, or Glory Days, or even Carl Sandburg, or me.
But I do know that at five o’clock, a church’s bells sing and chide to a church across the town, and that church bellows back, and soon, the trains join, coming in to announce themselves with steel grind and howl, and I am standing there as a tiny presence surrounded by this town’s faithful music—pulling me into place at the same time it swallows me gone.
I’ve come to the World Buffet—a restaurant located in Galesburg that features a buffet of “delicacies” from each part of the world, but is furnished much like a traditional Chinese restaurant—to think a little bit about the accessibility of poetry. The restaurant hosts booths and faux-marble-top tables on each side, separated by a walkway down the middle—its dividers embellished with cork sculptures of mountains and bamboo trees and dojos and pandas and storks pressed in between glass plates. The color scheme of the joint is a straw yellow, down to the shine of the overhead lights, with accents of deep red and mahogany; the only other color in the dining room is a dull blue glow emitted by two suspended tvs—playing some news channel with English subtitles. The restaurant sounds a backdrop of Celine Dion or Enya—deep, inspirational music to accompany the ingestion of heaps of steamy, worldly food. Being an “around-the-world experience,” World Buffet caters to every kind of resident of Galesburg, but mostly stoned college kids and middle-aged beer-bellied men wearing bald eagle t-shirts take advantage of it.
In the buffet room, like a capsized ocean, the ceiling is surprisingly blue, with built-in layers of wall, recalling the imagery of waves. Beneath this, of course, are about nine islands of food, not necessarily organized by their origins. The food selection is, indeed, quite worldly for a small joint in Galesburg, Illinois. Here’s the typical American pot pie and mashed potatoes and fried chicken and casserole, but there’s also sushi, General Tsao’s chicken, squid, Vietnamese egg rolls and potstickers. Of course, not every part of the world is represented, maybe because of skill level or the preferences of the mostly Chinese staff, or the lack of resources: there’s no Indian selection—no samosas or vegetable biryani or butter chicken—nor is there traditional Maori cuisine—food cooked in an underground “earth oven” (a Hangi), such as kumara and fern shoots and whitebait. So maybe World Buffet isn’t the greatest example here, but it’s one I do enjoy because it embodies Galesburg’s attempt at inclusion, despite its incompleteness: a small town, landlocked and, in some areas of expertise, clueless, is trying to make everyone feel welcome, attempting to represent all of its citizens, and that’s really beautiful.
I’m thinking poetry should maybe be like this—accessible to a non-poet audience, but still a little, well, “foreign,” if you will, or maybe just adventurous or maybe even a little frightening. Personally I am a bit frightened by the thought of swallowing those bite-sized, full-bodied squids, in the same way my mother is a little frightened of reading Richard Siken. And I think poets and non-poets alike should be a little frightened or uncomfortable by poetry. But I also think there should be a bit of recognition in a poem that we can follow, like a raft to carry us along, especially for those who wouldn’t even bother with poetry otherwise. Inexperienced white-water rafters go white-water rafting all the time—for the thrill, for the fear, for the feeling of being balanced on the edge of danger and safety. Why can’t non-poets or poetry-disinclined individuals dive into a poem the same way, not knowing if they are going to come out perfectly fine or scarred or unable to breathe?
Sure, there are going to be those individuals at World Buffet who have been eating squid heads all their life—this doesn’t faze them. But they also might stick their tongue out at the Wisconsin mac and cheese. And here’s the beauty of a buffet and poetry alike: we can pick and choose what to consume. But first, we must try every option, see what we like. Afterwards, we can have the waitress pick up the plate, we can put down the book. We have a whole world of food at our hands here.
As a safety net, the Chinese staff at World Buffet americanizes some of the options to make us more comfortable as “Americans”. Maybe from there, we Americans will gain the confidence to try something totally new. Does this translate to poetry? Of course. Bob Hicok writes from his life and doesn’t bother to research or investigate, I don’t know, outer space or Antarctica—things that he or we may not understand at first glance: he gives us what he lives, day to day, which generally speaks to the human condition we are all in on—no fancy fluff needed. Even the non-poets can follow. But sometimes we don’t understand, or we even understand way too much, and that’s the thrill, that’s the danger: that’s when we come out of it unable to breathe. And then we dive back in. We go back for seconds.”
I can’t even begin, yet, to fathom words out of my feelings of leaving my family in Illinois. But that, too, will eventually come.
Thanks for reading.