Death, Sex, and Resurrection in the Violent Midwest: Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana
by Danny Caine
In “Civilization and its Discontents,” Sigmund Freud writes, “there are two essentially different classes of instincts: the sexual instincts…and the aggressive instincts, whose aim is destruction.” Both instincts pulse throughout Bruce Snider’s elegiac Paradise, Indiana: Bloated animals drift ashore in myriad bodies of water. A bikini top falls to a bedroom floor. Every secluded location is an opportunity for a tryst, whether a fishing shanty or a pickup truck cab. Snider underscores the violence and eroticism of the Midwestern landscape with a profound sense of grief and loss, resulting in a strikingly cohesive collection that is haunting, evocative, and at times subversive.
Haunting the collection is the suicide of a precocious teenage boy named Nick, the speaker’s cousin and lover. In the first part of Paradise, Indiana, Nick rises from the grave thanks to Snider’s reverse chronology in arranging the poems. The first mention of Nick by name occurs in “Epitaph,” second in the collection: “my cousin Nick buried in ground so hard/they had to heat the dirt with lamps/before they could dig.” The next poem finds Nick killing himself in the closed garage, his new car running. Two poems later, in “Romance,” Nick is alive and well, wrestling with the speaker in grandma’s living room. The relationship only becomes more erotic, more charged as the book progresses, so the second portrayal of Nick’s suicide, “The Ambiguity of Stone,” feels even more raw than the first.
Between the two depictions of his death, Nick charms, rebels, and laughs his way through an Indiana landscape suffused with Snider’s sense of place. Beginning the collection with Nick’s burial, though, casts a haunting air over every wrestling match and secret tryst. Every sexual instinct has a backdrop of death.
Glimpses of life in rural Indiana permeate the collection, enlivening and highlighting the grief and sexual longing/confusion of its characters. In “Romance,” the cousins’ grandpa slaps the flank of a post-coital bull, saying simply “Bullseye.” In “Chemistry,” Nick and the speaker vandalize the house of the town’s gay mortician, sprinkling the garden with tampons and writing on a window, in lipstick, “up the ass.” Homophobic vandalism returns in “Closing the Gay Bar Outside Gas City,” “where FAG and AIDS/ are sprayed in flaking paint,” Here the speaker muses on nature overtaking the former club where “two condoms/coil like sleepy salamanders/in the back.” Ultimately, this cocktail of sex, grief, death, and violent nature convince him that “In Indiana nothing lasts/for long.” The line is especially haunting from the speaker standing outside the crumbling, vandalized gay club; the scene can’t help but reflect on Nick.
Snider assembles his pieces of sex, death, and longing with technical aplomb. Secret rhymes and rhythm pulse throughout the collection. The first poem, “Map,” is a Ghazal, each couplet closing with the word “Indiana.” Throughout the collection, Snider’s enjambed lines create tension and spool into alternate meanings. In “Late Harvest,” the first poem that indicates the sexual nature of the Nick/speaker relationship, Snider writes, “the bruised ones that come/apart so quickly when/you put them in your mouth.” The lines grow more erotic and evocative under the service of Snider’s line breaks.
In “Parts,” Snider writes “In the back of that car, all elbows/and mouths, we knew nothing/corrupted like happiness,” with a pleasing stanza break between “nothing” and “corrupted;” the duality of the words come alive in the white space between them. Entire poems vibrate against each other like Snider’s lines, too, as when “At the Midwest Taxidermy Convention” finds a mirror in a stuffed pet squirrel in the adjacent “Romance.” “At These Speeds,” during which “the glove box filled with the manual’s/sweet talk” becomes Nick’s suicide weapon, is followed by the first of six poems titled “Afterlife,” whose first lines read: “The cold day grinds like a starter/that won’t turn over, key gripped.” Nowhere is Snider’s sequencing more heartbreaking than when he follows “Ambiguity of Stone,” the clearest chronicle’s of Nick’s suicide, with “Crusing the Rest Stop on Route 9,” describing a failed attempt at picking up a truck driver in a rest stop. Such meaning-making through line breaks and poem sequencing demands that Paradise, Indiana be read in full and in order.
The sequence as a whole bucks poetic tradition as it grieves and longs. The final poem, “Gutting the White-Tail,” is a graphic description of the gleeful aftermath of a deer kill: “Nick cuts breastbone to tail […] Gathering the ropy mass/he rolls the stomach out onto the frozen ground./The rest comes quickly.” This is Hemingway stuff. There are echoes of James Wright, too, in poems like “To Interstate 70:” “Cornfields interrupt/the hard beauty of the gas pumps, the gleaming Conocos of the heart-/land rising.” Snider’s Midwest of empty interstates, cornfields, and animal viscera has historically been straight-guy territory; these are manly poems that are also about falling in love with another man. In this way, Snider breathes life into James Wright’s Midwest, claiming it for a different type of manhood.
Through this subversion, Snider creates a clear, consistent, and haunting view of Indiana, best seen in “Credo,” near the end of the collection:
I believe in his foot hitting the accelerator.
I believe in the traffic light, its green fuse over every street.
I believe in cows hemmed in by rain and milk.
The secret places we go: old Yoder Road, lots behind the gutted saw mill.
Heaven, Nick jokes, is the back of his car.
Bruce Snider’s Indiana is all these things at once: cars, nature contained, sex, death and resurrection. Paradise, Indiana, is an essential chronicle of a grieving, horny Midwest.
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