This is an image of a wired and schizo Midwest, where the invisible horizon is dotted with WiFi signals and sit-com jump cuts, where the plains are dominated by broken pop stars and Sasquatch researchers. Ultramegaprairieland by Elisabeth Workman is a work in contrasts: on the one hand, you have the empty flatness of supposedly “fly-over” states that stretch for miles in all directions, and on the other, you have the ultra-dense ADHD pacing of an internet forum filled with coked-up avatars and remixed vintage cartoons stripped down to their most hilarious. From “Landscape with Porn Stars”:
A tree line of classifieds
cancans across Indiana,
and there in Arizona
a sexual affair with Sasquatch
blooms on blighted terrain.
This isn’t your traditional view of conservative Indiana. The “blighted landscape” is at all points covered with alliterative puns and internet culture references such that the “Midwest” becomes landscape, culture, people, and signal all forced into constant proximity
Midwestern prairie mush is more interconnected and entangled than we realize. It’s basketball hoops meets cornfields meets “penis noses and swine sound effects,” all dragged into the under- and aboveground web of fiber optic and copper wires. Throughout Ultramegaprairieland, there’s a sense that this barrenness is somehow being unraveled and populated with so much noise. It’s the noise of televisions and radios and hundreds of thousands of cars (Studebakers, rusting and barely held together Studebakers), but also of dial-up modems, Youtube videos, paranormal podcasts, and the deep hum of video game explosions. This is a landscape with “an abandoned warehouse in which the gryphon will pee.” It’s frenetic, it’s open source, it’s massively multiplayer. It’s Indiana in neon and pastel shapes.
The poem “Holy Anything” never explicitly talks about landscape or space or the Midwest in particular, but there’s still a schizo sense of place at the center of everything. It begins, “Oh where did I say America in her peculiar ‘helium voice’ was calling for the release for peripatetic anything at dawn?” The repetition of “anything” builds out this feeling of expanse through its encompassing vagueness. The poem seems to open itself to whatever we can fill it with, whether that’s “Vladimir Putin with edible tongue-numbing lingerie” or “black helicopters and vacancies for Remington Steele.” It’s radical inclusivity that creates this landscape in no-space. The poem continues:
Also, I have bubble levels on my long-range riffles, and they work with anything Dallas, with anything fleeing or swelling, missile-ing anything after menopause, magical laser beam cannon stiff blasting mode with a shadowy intro by an experienced Magical Girl whose monsters of the week are anything but diaphanous.
The speaker seesaws between specificity and generality, often in the same phrase. This contradiction between pointed and open can be brought out in Midwestern landscapes. They drone by driving down I-80, unchanging flat cornfields punctuated by barns and tractors, but invisibly draped over with constant signals and waves relaying information everywhere. There’s pretty good cell reception all through the state. Workman’s poems don’t outright explain this, but they work within a connected logic, where one thing can mold seamlessly into the next by the simple power of being in proximity. Radical inclusion and openness of object and idea is an internet aesthetic, a digital humanist move. It’s something like parataxis but more scattered. “Anything” acts almost as a chant, or maybe like a basketball pep talk, drawing whatever into itself like a black hole. The potential for connection is ever-present regardless of locality.
The connectivity we keep imagining is an inherently social connection. Although Workman’s poems don’t engage with the personal beyond pop stars and actors, the very fact of writing about TV shows, cryptozoology, Vin Diesel, and other cultural icons is a social move. These things are only understood in the context of how they’re talked about. It’s a conversation Workman is both taking from and adding to. Things like Bambi, zombie strippers, Shaun White, Golden Girls, warlocks, Chuck Norris, Sith Lords, puppies, Tiger Woods, and North Korea are memes containing deeply embedded social and cultural ideas about what these objects and people represent and mean in the larger world. Workman doesn’t just name these things; they infest the poems and riddle the landscape. In “How the Midwest Was Won,” she writes:
Lo, abominable Ahmadinejad astride
that Ted Kennedy unicorn of little rides.
It was Maria from her evocative couch
spewing handfuls of subterranean dust
at dinner parties with erudite motherfuckers
all across the Walmart Supercenter
on the Midwest City’s northern edge.
Walmart Supercenters contrast with Ahmadinejad and Ted Kennedy. It’s difficult to imagine a situation in which these things would ever come together, but it’s through the Midwest’s strange attractive ability to be both everywhere and nowhere that we can place them in the same stanza. We can almost understand the connections, even if it’s only in the sense that these hyper weird artifacts are made more weird and intense by their relationships. In Workman, the human dimension leaks through in the guise of references piled up ceaselessly, similar to the way we actually experience navigating the internet. In these references, and in these feelings and ideas these references create for each reader, is the sense of being a part of something larger.
Maybe the quintessential American poem in the whole collection is “Wheat, Grow Tall!” Nothing hits the nostalgia button like fields of flowing grains. But this isn’t the America of cigarettes, cowboys, scratchy denim, and old-timey leather boots. The poem starts out, “Till freedom forms the overfed // Till a miniskirt confidence imprints nonscientific innocence / on a coalescence of loners, omens, monster storms // Till the ledge hits legend, lemmings.” It’s almost like America is defined by its obesity and science debates, its loners and global warming fueled storms. The speaker continues,
Protons and spume and gunfights galore
golfing and flushing, ice fighting and flushing
And really needing
the extra protection across a landscape
battered by craters and dusted
with a crystallized primordial
Till prophylactic phantasms
mew from the margins
Till the thaw exposes what
This is an image of the Midwest of dads in jean shorts playing nine rounds, of shitting and not caring where or how that shit leaves the toilet, and of a landscape pocked by both economic and ecological decline. Despite everything, there is still possibility built into the ending of the poem in the form of a “thaw” that exposes something unnamed. In that potential and possibility we have something more than just huge carbon spewing trucks and abandoned manufacturing plants. The wheat may stop growing, but it’s at least change in a vista that never seems to change. Maybe one image of this potential future is enormous decayed Packard plants in Detroit or maybe it’s mesh networks and flash mobs. There’s a frenetic excitement wrapped up in the speed with which Workman drops references, picks up tangents, and skates along across the prairie. It’s not impossible to imagine this thawing and whatever comes next as being deeply engaged with the idea of long range connections.
But if we’re willing to accept that the Midwestern landscape is shot through in all directions with signals bearing human ideas and memes, then that flat empty expanse becomes something more like an echo chamber of competing voices. It’s an emptiness that’s terrifyingly full, so full that a single person couldn’t possibly hear or speak with every single avatar trying to get some attention. Workman’s poems give life to this idea: “Roam in glowing hamster balls / the rise and Mayan decline of Midwestern civilization.” Ultramegaprairieland is a book of poems about the stomach-dropping terror of pure distance, but also about the connected rush of an overfed medium getting fuller.
Photographs by Derek Sapienza