‘Who in their bleakest hour has not considered Iowa?’
‘Who in their bleakest hour has not considered Iowa?’ Thus begins Caitríona O’Reilly’s eighteen-line poem ‘An Idea of Iowa’ from her new collection Geis (2015). Her question might be appropriated to last night’s Iowa caucuses, the opening act of a marathon race to the White House. With billions of dollars poured into the campaigns of prospective presidential candidates from wealthy donors, feverish grassroots supporters and big business, sleepy Iowa might seem like a strange starting point. The Hawkeye State prides itself in being the ‘first-in-the-nation’ to nominate the would-be Republican and Democratic candidates for the general election in November. To outsiders the privilege afforded to a state with six times as many pigs as people and 10 million acres of corn is somewhat bewildering. Florida, Texas, New York and California won’t hold their primaries for at least another month, and often the field of presidential hopefuls has been sufficiently cleared by the time the larger states have their say.
With the media spotlight firmly, and almost exclusively, on Iowa for the past few months, jokes about its obscurity have come from comedians and pundits alike. Last week Stephen Colbert joked that the ‘Iowa caucuses are just eleven days away, which means we’re just twelve days away from not talking about Iowa for another four years’. And the BBC ran an article comparing Iowa, rather unfortunately, to a little known Winter Olympics sport: ‘Iowa is like the Luge (frozen, thrilling and then forgotten for four years)’.
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O’Reilly’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Idea of Iowa’ emerges from the same overstatement, and indeed overinvestment, in ‘the plain state’. At a reading of her new collection she confessed that she had never visited Iowa, but that she was inspired by an episode of The West Wing in which the quixotic White House staffers criss-cross the state in the lead up to the President’s re-election bid. If this is anything more than a witty anecdote it is deftly and delicately handled in a poem that idealises and self-effaces the idea of Iowa:
Who in their bleakest hour has not considered Iowa?
We live in a place where everything leans in
as if to confide in us, and learn, too late, it is a trick:
the frieze, the whole entablature must topple,
as the drunk on the bus, in the course of his life story,
anoints us with cidery spittle, as the ash
from a thousand fag-end sunsets settles on us.
But Iowa. A darkening indigo shimmer above tracts of corn,
yellow as far as the eye can see, yellow as the sun
in a child’s first drawing, as the cere of the bald eagle
hanging with locked wings on thermals.
Iowa is rising. Free of the deadweight of ice, […]
O’Reilly’s kaleidoscopic imagination flits between seemingly disparate elements. The Greek Revival architecture reminiscent of Washington gives way to the vast fields of Iowa: ‘the frieze, the whole entablature must topple […] But Iowa. A darkening indigo shimmer above tracts of corn’. The thaw begins in Iowa, note the pun on ‘frieze’, ‘Iowa is rising. Free of the deadweight of ice, / It gains an inch a year, a vast loaf proving.’ In contradistinction to ‘a thousand fag-end sunsets’, Iowa is awash with colour in O’Reilly’s dream-America. The state-flag, a bald eagle with a ribbon in its cere, and the regiments of corn-fields serve as appropriate emblems.
Yet O’Reilly’s fidelity to the archaeology and geology of the landscape traces a longer history through Iowa than its contemporary political significance:
Who thought of it first? (Indian grass, prairie moonwort,
the Pleistocene snail? A place where wars are fought for honey?)
Named for a people asleep, a people with dusty faces,
even its hills are so much dust: loess, the millennial
accumulation of cracked flood-plains; winds.
The lilting word she loves to repeat, ‘Iowa’, comes from the Native American Ioway tribe, which in turn is derived from ayuhwa meaning ‘asleep’. The word was mistranslated by European explorers as ‘dusted faces’. Iowa becomes a stratified accumulation of depletions: glacial deposits and sedimentation form the yellowish-grey Loess Hills, the mischaracterised and displaced aboriginal inhabitants ‘with dusty faces’, and the rich yellows of the cornfields grow over the dustier yellow landscape, ‘the ash / from a thousand fag-end sunsets’.
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Now that the dust has settled and Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton have been the declared the winners of their respective caucuses (though the latter only narrowly) the presidential primaries move to the Granite State, New Hampshire; and Iowa will lie dormant for another four years. A collection of Presidential Primary poetry would be slim in pages and slimmer still in sales. However, the idea of American political campaigns claims poetry as its natural register. According to Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, ‘You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.’ In the Democratic primaries idealism often trumps pragmatism, and in this year’s Republican primary Cruz trumped Trump.
The measure of O’Reilly’s poetry is that its politics is not emblazoned as a bumper sticker. O’Reilly has offered a curious connection between her immersive, environmental celebration of Iowa and the capricious realpolitik of Iowa. The latter might appear only in glimpses: ‘We live in a place where everything leans in / as if to confide in us, and learn, too late, it is a trick’. Digging deeper, O’Reilly unearths an Iowa that exists beyond four-year political cycles, an Iowa that is formed and reformed by geological cycles over millennia. In Justin Quinn’s The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800–2000 Caitriona O’Reilly is numbered among the contemporary Irish poets who have abandoned ‘the nation as a framework for Irish poetry – on the level of theme, technique, forebears, etc. – what one commentator has called the post-national moment’ (Quinn, 1). ‘An Idea of Iowa’ and Geis as a whole might be understood as pre-national and post-national in equal measure. But an important qualification must be appended to Quinn’s forecast. If O’Reilly’s verse has evaded narrow national frameworks it nevertheless voices a refreshingly subtle political – at times eco-political – aesthetic. Without being apolitical or apathetic her verse leaves governing to the prose writers.
Jack Quin is a PhD candidate at the University of York working on the later poetry of W.B. Yeats and the relationship between modern poetry and sculpture. He holds a BA and MA from Queen’s University Belfast.