Nebraska 18 – ‘The Thin Line of What I Know’ by Matt Mason

Iowa flows across the windshield
like a relaxation video; I turn off the radio and listen
to wind rattle the window near my cheek.
Gravel scattered after the last ice popping
in the wheel wells, I daydream about being in Des Moines
already, with you.
The familiar mile-markers pass like hand-holds up a cliff:
Number 31, and six-eighty becomes I-eighty;
66, I’m halfway to Des Moines; 88,
two-thirds; 99, three-fourths; 121, eleven-twelfths…

At number 60, the Purple Martin Train lounges, a primped wreck, zig-
zagging and only a little purple.
On one trip, I stopped
and bought an “It’s Purple Martin Time!” button at the caboose-
made-museum. I only stopped there once;
like I only had one flat sandwich at 4-Sons; only made one trip
up the stairs of the observation tower near the Beebeetown exit,
one look from above at the little crease of interstate,
the thin line of what I know
among all the foreign fields and hills
stretching from it like butterfly wings.

I always mean to follow some of the signs,
detour through someplace
like Persia, Casey, Atlantic, Van Meter, Waukee, Prairie Rose State Park,
all just tin signs and exits to me.
I never go further off the interstate
than the Have A Nice Day water tower smiling from Adair,
never go past the gas stations,
never put my fingers
to the skin of the East
or West Nishnabotna Rivers;
never slow at mile 71,
where that pond, always flat and still no matter how windy,
stretches two drowning elms like bony arms
clinging onto the sky.

As the counties slowly metamorphose
from Pottawattamie to Polk, I watch the trees along the road perform
all their acts: fat, naked, flowering, flaming, green, chainsawed.
I know the corn by name,
fast-motion life flowing from conception by John Deeres
through green puberty, then fading,
then death at the teeth of their own creators;
the bodies removed, their ground left for crows and cows
to tidy and fertilize.

More of you forms
as the white-on-green numbers count upward.
At 14, I see your feet; at 23,
you have hands, a hazy middle, lips;
by 57 or 58, you are female; 85, your eyes
are grey like the sky; 96, the cornfields fade
into your hair. I know every mile ticking by, I know, can drive
by sense of touch.


This poem appears in The Wisconsin Review and in Mason’s Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know from The Backwaters Press

WordPress seems quite unable to retain the line positions for a poem, even though I transferred first into Notebook and then into this. So, my apologies.

Matt Mason is a poet based in Omaha, my home town, but from a long time ago. I am chasing these nostalgic Nebraska roots, and enjoying it. This is a poem that namechecks many places and I like that, especially as I lived in Iowa too, for a little time. The early line Gravel scattered after the last ice popping/in the wheel wells reminds me of driving on the gravel roads to and around Elk Horn, Iowa as a kid, recalling the noise and rising gravel-dust clouds in the hot summer.

I recently bought Mason’s book The Baby that Ate Cincinnati collection of poems ‘about parenthood and horror movies’ and hope to write about it one day soon.

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