In Austin Smith’s sophomore collection, Flyover Country, there are bucolic echoes of what made Smith’s first collection, Almanac, so exceptional: abandoned barns, barbed wire fences, and haunted cornfields imbued and personified with the qualities of longing and the desire for redemption.
While some of the poems contain that memorable, roughshod, and downtrodden pathos, Smith makes sure not to repeat what he’s already accomplished. Unlike so many regional writers who choose to set a good portion of their poems in forsaken geography, Smith flips the traditional narrative of flyover country as it applies to the American Midwest or Plains region that much of Smith’s work grounds itself in, and he opens the term up to a more international interpretation.
The term flyover country is examined in two distinct ways, one of which is familiar to the contemporary reader: a rural landscape that feels forgotten in comparison to larger cities and urban settings; and one of which Smith uniquely examines: flyover country as a mindset and as an act of colonization and aggression. We see this in the poem “That Particular Village,” whose epigraph is a quote by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “...I cannot deal with that particular village,” he says, in regards to one of the many Middle Eastern villages bombed by U.S. drone strikes.
I can’t deal with that particular
Village in this life nor shall I be made to answer for
What happened there in the next.
Rumsfeld’s imagined answer to a young poet questioning him about his rhetoric while on a golfing vacation is an act of complicity and active erasure. The village in this poem is not just the village of Chowkar-Karez in Afghanistan, but also the village in which Frederick Douglas was beaten by the ignominious slave-owner, Edward Covey:
I can’t deal with that village
That particular village, right now because I live
In Mount Misery, the former plantation
House where a young Frederick Douglas
Was sent to have his teen spirit broken
As Smith weaves these villages together through an imagined dialogue with Rumsfeld, we see how the term flyover country becomes a critique of whiteness, its accompanying privilege, and the ways in which white supremacy has colonized most of the world with violence. Not only are certain places dismissed or disregarded but they are actively bombed and attacked by an elite few who take refuge elsewhere and whose:
Children, none of whom will have to go
To the holy wars.
“Swatting Flies” showcases Smith’s lyrical gifts when he writes:
The only thing that stopped you
Killing them was
When the blue square grew
So clogged with the dead
The living felt a breath of air
That made them take flight
Like people who flee a house
Moments before the drone strike.
This link between Smith’s boyhood in rural Illinois and what is happening in the rest of the world illustrates how the flyover country of the American Midwest is not so much a victim as it is the aggressor and beneficiary of privilege. While the rural Midwest may not receive the same attention as larger American cities, its citizens certainly don’t go to sleep at night worrying about their homes exploding.
Even while Smith is critiquing the Americanized definition of flyover country, he does so with sympathy and without condescension. In “Three Radios” we see how one family has experienced generations of world-changing moments from the comfort of their homes, far away from the world-at-large. We see the speaker’s grandfather listen to the 1941 attack on Peal Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, which causes his grandmother to “shush it / and anoint it with lemon oil.” The third radio is a snapshot of the speaker overhearing the radio broadcasts from September 11th, 2001:
My father heard the anchor
Cry out when the second plane
struck the other tower.
Only then did he turn
The radio up, the antenna
Trained violently toward town.
As brief and short as it is, it lets the reader imagine the passing of sixty years and empathize with the kind of mindset that might grow from that experience, while simultaneously critiquing the fear that it can cause, too; and how the flyover country of the American Midwest is not so much the forgotten victim as it is often the supporting force of an elite that commits injustice and human atrocity in the name of fear and greed.
In a rule-breaking ghazal titled “The Streets of Turin,” Smith takes us to Italy where we see that:
The horse had just come from the country
And was spooked by the commotion of Turin
Because it wore blinders and could not see
All the horse knew of the city of Turin
The philosopher Nietzsche runs to the horse’s aide as it is being beaten. The poet tows the line between creating sympathy and critiquing the lifestyle that “blinds” one from the rest of the world when living a rural existence for so long without being open to the experience and stories of others, confirming that it is hard to remain open to that which challenges our privilege and worldview, but challenging our worldview is paramount.
In “Outside The Anne Frank House” the poet examines a new ethos of flyover country:
I shuffle forward
With the others, thinking
Of all the lines we form
On Earth and what for.
Here, parallels are drawn between Anne Frank having to hide and seek refuge from the Nazis and the civilians of Middle Eastern countries under attack by privileged super powers. The poet comes to terms with his own privilege—the ability to tour and look at a life that was all but privileged. In the reality of this poem we see how flyover country doesn’t represent the dismissed or forgotten, it represents those who have been flown over with bombs, oppression, and the worst of humanity’s history.
Regionalist writing often contains images of brutal realism and sometimes-solipsistic narratives, but Smith injects flyover country with a new facet of inclusivity and makes it more of the world. It sheds light on the world’s citizens who are at an even greater disadvantage. While the poet recognizes the beauty of where he is from, the poet reckons that knowledge and scenery with America’s horrid past as it pertains to injustice and the violation of human rights.
Flyover Country does something extraordinary. It demands that we think of the flown over details of the every day, including:
of small towns...
of hand mirrors...
as well as
the other side
of the coffin pillow.
It also challenges us to take responsibility for our participation in the world, to think about how our actions play out in larger contexts and within world issues no matter where we live. Flyover Country reminds us to love, to protect, and not forget the hungry, the hurting, and the oppressed. Our humanity depends on that.
John McCarthy is the author of the forthcoming collection Scared Violent like Horses (Milkweed Editions, 2019), which was the winner of the 2017 Jake Adam York Prize. He is also the author of Ghost County (Midwestern Gothic Press, 2016), which was named a Best Poetry Book of 2016 by The Chicago Review of Books. John’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Literary Review, Copper Nickel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sycamore Review, TriQuarterly, and in anthologies such as Best New Poets 2015 and New Poetry from the Midwest 2017.