Poetry Spotlight – Matthew Gavin Frank

Author Photo linocut

OK, what did I do when I first read the brilliant poem – Elements of the Pasty and Its Relationship to the Lake – about two of my favorite things in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of the Black Warrior Review? I did what any poetry fanboy would: jumped to the bio section to find out about this writer and discovered that Matthew Gavin Frank is a Midwest writer teaching up in Northern Michigan University not far from where I grew up. When I contacted him, he was kind enough to let me reprint it in its entirety below.

I have read the poem many times and I am still in awe. I love the way it bounces between food, facts about the Great Lakes, and tidbits of life from the mitten states that make me homesick. It weaves several narrative threads together loosely in a way that each section adds and informs to the other sections around it. It manages to have plenty of facts, but still weaves a spell, a story, that is more mythic than the sum of the parts. Just read it – you’ll be glad you did.

Martin Ott

Elements of the Pasty and Its Relation to The Lake

It’s not like this with Cream of Mushroom soup and La Choy Fried Onions.  In the pasty, in the singular shell, dinner shares space with dessert.  We start with dinner and eat downward.  It’s not like this with Hot Dish, with casserole, with pizza with a Saltine crust.  In the pasty is an eating toward—a sinking into the bottom of food.  In this way, eating mimics drowning.  Ambiance mimics drowning.  In the pasty, is difficulty breathing, is eyes adjusting to the mineshaft dark and to the daylight, is anticipation, is harbinger, is a whole new world beyond the chuck and the rutabaga, is apples-and-cinnamon, is an eating toward, and an eating toward sweetness.

*

It’s not like this with backyard swimming pools, the facedown hair fanning the surface, the beach ball rolling pink over green.  In Lake Superior, drowning is an expected tragedy.  It’s dark at the bottom of a lake.

*

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (GLSRP), “Overall since 2010, 210 people have drowned in the Great Lakes (74 in 2010; 87 in 2011; and 49 to date in 2012).

‘Just unbelievable how these drowning numbers just keep rising week after week,” said Dave Benjamin [GLSRP Executive Director of Public Relations].  “At this rate we could see well over 100 by the end of the year.’”

*

After days in mineshaft darkness, my uncle, or somebody’s uncle, or so many of our uncles swear by backstroking in Lake Superior.  It has to do with currents, tides, white-caps.  It has to do with everything wet and huge and cool enough to float on.  If a body of water this large isn’t killing us, Uncle says, it’s supporting our weight.

*

Like the dessert section of the pasty, the number 100 is something to reach for, to attain.  100 is a milestone.  A goal, sweet and morbid.  A perfect, even number.  Nothing is more even, more steady, than the hands of the drowned.  Not even 100.

*

Like the mine, Lake Superior supports its own agriculture.  Off the shore of my hometown, in 2010, the body of Rod Nilsestuen, Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture was found floating in Lake Superior.

*

My uncle has a bumper sticker that says FUCK CORNWALL, THIS IS MICHIGAN.  If my uncle doesn’t have this bumper sticker, then he has black lung, and if he doesn’t have black lung, then he’s depressed due to a lack of light, and if he’s not depressed due to a lack of light, he can call this only soul-sickness, can only lament the ways in which we’re not jacketed in pastry dough brushed with egg yolk, a crust that will protect us from birds who scream from the dark, from the lack of air that, in the beginning, seemed to exhilarate.

*

ANIMALS DROWN AT LAKE SUPERIOR ZOO, reads the headline, and Uncle laughs.  It’s his one day off.  He’s just come back from his swim, for lunch.

*

This is goal-oriented eating.  The meat as a means to an end.  Macerated plums on Thursday.  The brake to a shaking hand.  In the bath of the headlamp is the pasty and the hand that holds it.  The batteries here are strong.  Once we bite through the crust, release the steam, the heat, the wet, something of the ghost and something of the future, things begin to go cold, dry, the batteries here are the only things that are strong.  Tomorrow, I want to lie in bed all day.  I wish I lived closer to the Lake.  I want to lie in bed all day and listen to whitefish court other whitefish.  I want to hear people swimming safely.  It’s good to have a goal.

*

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from 1843 through the 1920’s, pure native copper just about leaked from the earth, exploded from it, and towns were established and boomed, and folks ate food and drank liquor and men spread their legs and women spread their legs and with food and liquor and spread legs made descendants who can visit these towns in the name of communion and reunion and union and none, and we call these gatherings heartfelt and we call these gatherings historical, and we use words like ancestry and inheritance and we stand on the rock piles and bluffs and tailings of Central Mine and Gay and Mandan and Cliff and Delaware and Phoenix and we eat pasties not because we need to, but because they are some sort of souvenir, some kind of shaft that leads, definitively down, toward something like heritage or lake-bed, something makeshift, but geologic and collapsible, and we pretend that these towns are not popularly preceded by the word ghost.

 

*

 

The old Phoenix church, in 1858, was called St. Mary’s.  Later, it was disassembled and rebuilt and renamed The Church of the Assumption.

*

We assume there are meanings in names.

*

Superior derives from the Latin superiorum or superus, meaning: situated above, or upper.  Lake Superior has the greatest depth of the Great Lakes, which means something to a miner.  It’s something to one day descend into.  It’s a milestone.  Lake Superior has the highest elevation of the Great Lakes, though Uncle backfloats upon it.  To the drowned, Lake Superior lives up to its name.

*

Here, to float upon is better than to float within.  The upper implies the angelic, though implication is often misleading.

*

 

The Ontonagon Boulder, of the Upper Peninsula’s village of Old Victoria, is a 3,708-pound massif of native copper.  It can now be found in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, where, should a tourist decide not to read the exhibit’s plastic 3×5 placard, he or she will wonder about the specialness of this big, ugly rock.

*

Ontonagon, in the Chippewa language, translates as “Lost Bowl.”  Regarding the pasty, I’m not sure what this should mean.  Regarding the Lake, this is convoluted metaphor at best.

*

According to a travel brochure titled, Visit the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s world famous “Copper Country,” Old Victoria is “a very picturesque ghost town.”

*

The atomic weight of copper is 63.55 g/mol.  The atomic weight of iron is 55.85.  The atomic weight of sulfur is 32.07.  The atomic weight of gold is 196.97.  The average pasty—a baked pastry shell, half of which includes a savory dinner of stewed meat and root vegetable, half of which includes dessert—weighs two pounds.  The average human lung weighs about 14 ounces, so much heavier than this underground air, so much lighter than the pasty.

*

Lake Superior is comparatively obese, but not lazy.

*

While many immigrant miners in the Upper Peninsula were from Cornwall, many more were Finns, Austrian, Croatian, Italian, Canadian, and Swedish.  Each group impacted the pasty’s regional evolution, with seasoning, with ingredient.  Culinary arguments were fierce. Regardless, each version varied little (those who lived near Superior often used lakewater in the dough), and each version was easily portable, heavy and hearty, but clutch-able in one hand, and each version, in the cold of the deep, could be heated up on a shovel held over the candleflame of the miner’s headlamp.  The pasties are cooking.  The canaries are screaming.  Someone coughs.  That means they’ve not yet drowned.

*

The U.P. pasty, when compared to the Cornish variety, contained larger chucks of vegetable, a higher ratio of vegetable to meat, encased in a thinner crust.

*

The U.P. pasty as thin-skinned, even in all of this winter, the weather, and the water, closer to the blood.

*

The U.P. pasty as a little of this, a little of that, as Yiddish, as Fanagolo, as Esperanto, and the language through which we all can communicate up here/down here, as a means to understanding, as overused symbology, as cliché, as Kumbaya, as all things savory sharing space with all things sweet.  As reminder.  As anchor.  As something even a really big lake can’t wash away.

*

Often, a homestead requires leaving home, and then never leaving the homestead.  A life of two places.  For the subsequent generations, it requires never leaving home in the first place.  The pasty as perspective, encased in a hard crust.  As riding a snowmobile before you can walk.  As backfloating over 100 bodies.  As your great-grandson doing the same thing.  As I remember when I…

 

*

An 1861 proverb proclaimed that the more ingredients one crams into the pasty, the more protection one has from the devil, as the devil may fear that he may end up as just another ingredient for the filling.

*

In Superior National Forest, over two dozen attractions—islands, campgrounds, inland lakes, waterfalls, trails, jumps (the Devil’s Washtub jump, while technically outside of the Forest’s boundaries, claims lives each year as folks attempt to leap from a cliff, over a series of jagged rocks, into Lake Superior)—are named after the devil.

*

On the playgrounds of the turn of the century U.P., schoolboys would sing:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

Ate a pasty five feet long,

Bit it once, bit it twice,

Oh, my Lord, it’s full of mice.

*

The pasty sits fixed in the hands of the miner, poised, poisoned.  The Lake unfixes itself, runs from the hands we eat with.

*

Breton may have said, They lowered a humpback into a copper mine to determine

the quality of its air.  The human lung can hold only six liters of breath, which is nothing compared to Lake Superior. Where are the headlamps when you need them?  My uncle took them into the mine.  He says, Whales are the canaries of the ocean.  He says, the pasty is no kind of savior.

 

*

Regarding the Quincy Mine Shelter, from the aforementioned brochure, “Hopefully this historic site will be restored.”  An eating toward.  Before we die, we take the elevator up.  As with surfacing from the Lake, it takes a few seconds to recognize the sun.

*

The pasty as doubling-back on itself, as a confused plot line, as a figure-eight, Möbius strip, infinity, a late bite downward, toward the sweet, the sweet being closest to the hands.

*

In the candle-shadow of the pasty and the birds and the shovel, coughing, we can’t tell where umbra becomes penumbra becomes antumbra.  We can’t tell hands from feet.  We can’t tell if that’s a shadow dying, or a man.  We can’t tell if the body is broken, or celestial.  We can’t tell that Lake Superior has been called the Earth’s youngest major feature—at only 10,000 years old, a side-effect of last retreat of the glaciers.  We can’t tell that the Lake is tantruming like a little sister, can’t tell that retreat is sometimes an answer and, to a superior lake, a Big Bang.  We can’t tell that our uncles, still young, look so old.

*

So, we eat.  And, in swimming after eating, test our ability to stave off the drowning.  On the beach, the smell of cooking dinner.  Of greasy waxpaper unwrapping from pastry shells.  In them, the sounds of lakes masquerading as oceans.  Sometimes, the sun is out.  In it, we must come up to the surface of the earth.  We must retreat to the shore.  It’s lighter there.

About the Author

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of Pot Farm (The University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books), Barolo (The University of Nebraska Press), Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), and the chapbooks Four Hours to Mpumalanga (Pudding House Publications), and Aardvark (West Town Press).  Recent work appears in The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, The Normal School, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. He was born and raised in Illinois, and currently teaches Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North.  This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish-thimbleberry ice cream.

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