I have been driving for twelve hours, having left Someplace, Missouri, late that morning. I am tired—nearly weak—from the endless miles of highway. I am hungry. The burgers I ate in Fargo six hours ago are now a vague memory. I am also frustrated from the two hours I spent at Canadian Customs, while both my car and I were strip-searched for dangerous weapons and illegal drugs. The Customs agents were probably even more frustrated than I was—my contraband being more volumes of poetry and cartons of Lucky Strikes than they had ever seen in one Chevy wagon. Anyway, I feel sorry for them. But at least I broke the monotony of their lives on a cold November night. What is there to do all night on the Canadian-American border?
Somewhere in all this space, in all this darkness, I move toward Winnipeg—my Chevy, a tiny white tracer bullet piercing the night. I am moving toward a woman I am in love with.
I do not think anyone knows where I am right now—not my family back in Pittsburgh, not my friends in Pennsylvania or Kansas—only the woman I love who knows I am on my way. And, of course, the Canadian Customs agents, who have probably forgotten me by now and are nodding off in their little offices back in Pembina, dreaming of contraband.
Then it happens. Without warning, long sheets of red and green and dusty yellow lights begin flashing, unrolling themselves across the Canadian darkness. I blink hard several times. Try to shake out and rub away the tiredness and disbelief from my eyes. The reds and greens and yellows spilling out of some great cosmic bottle against the Canadian prairie dark. Again and again, flashing then disappearing into the folds of darkness, then returning in all their brilliance.
Stunned by this cosmic light show, I pull the Chevy to the side of the road, shift into park, turn the lights down to parking lights, keep the motor running, get out and move to the front of the car. I cross my arms against my chest, lean against the cold of the chrome bumper and metal hood and feel the engine’s warm breath against my body. Hungry, tired, alone, weak, maybe lost—I am on the edge of panic. I stare at the night sky being spliced by a rainbow of lights.
Then I remember that the landscape below this border is filled with nuclear silos—perhaps World War III has begun and these are the lights of nuclear warheads exploding from their silos? Or maybe this really is Armageddon? Maybe this is the Seventh Angel pouring his bowl of color into the night air? So I wait for a pale horse and its rider, the hoof beats of the Apocalypse. But there is no sound, nothing but the hum of the Chevy’s engine. I am alone on the Canadian prairie, reduced to mere shivering in the darkness, half-frightened, frozen in my own hunger and silence, in my own human smallness, in this indifferent and holy landscape.
Somewhere in this panic I am able to gather my senses and remember the physics of this moment: these are high-speed particles from the sun excited to luminosity upon their collision with molecules of air! These are the northern lights, the aurora borealis: the Roman goddess of dawn and the Greek God of the North embracing in their erotic flashdance of light.
At twenty-three, I understand, for the first time in my life, my own insignificance, my own smallness and dislocation, my own meaninglessness. It is at once frightening and liberating. I am part of nothing, I am part of everything. I stand there in the Canadian cold and dark for seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, my whole life. Eternity. I think of the words of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:
And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind. (“Poetry”)
And though Neruda is speaking specifically about his first encounter with poetry, for me his words limn those moments in our lives when we stand somewhere in the landscape between mind and soul.
A few years ago, in a shoe store in Fargo, in the ordinary exchange of words needed to conduct a shoe-sales, the young saleswoman looked up at me and said politely and pointedly: “You’re not from around here, are you?” It was more a declarative statement than a question. More a reminder: “You’re not from around here. Never have been. Never will be. Remember that.”
I have never been mistaken for a native Iowan, or Dakotan, or Minnesotan. No, I’m not from around here. I’m not one of you.
And when asked where I’m from, without hesitation, I still say without hesitation—Pittsburgh—though I have not lived there for more than half my life.
And this is the crux of the matter for me: I will never be a Midwesterner, and I am no longer an Easterner. I live in and occupy some territory in between the two, a landscape somewhere in time rather than space.
I will never forget that moment, standing on the darkened plains of southern Manitoba, paused in the cold November night, the Aurora Borealis splashing its colors across the Canadian sky, when I became “[D]runk with the great starry void,” felt “myself a pure part of the abyss,” and “wheeled with the stars” and “my heart . . . broke loose on the wind.”
From that moment on, my home would lie somewhere between two worlds: constructed of memory, built in the geography of the imagination, located in the landscape of the heart.
Thom Tammaro lives and works in Moorhead, MN. Most recently, he co-edited with Alan Davis the anthology Visting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan (New Rivers Press, 2018).