Extended Definition of Rural/Small Town to Urban/City Diaspora in the US
by Matt Mauch, Faculty in English
I have no memory of the town I was born in, in Iowa, and moved from, to a small Minnesota town where the two houses I grew up in still stand (my aunt and uncle drove through this summer and sent photos of both, is how I know), shortly before my first birthday. I have a lot of memories of the much smaller town we moved to in Iowa, where I graduated high school and spent six consecutive years.
I had one life one day and another life the next, having no choice but to move to a strange and even smaller town in Iowa instead of Minnesota. There were border battles even then, even among we kids. There was no lake, no roller rink, no mall, no McDonald’s in my new town, my new home.
What I’ve carried with me most since I left that small Minnesota town is a sense of unrootedness. If not for social media, I would have contact with only one person from the small Iowa town where I graduated high school. It used to be four, but one died, one moved, and the other has dropped off the map, pretty much, not necessarily intentionally, but in a “life is busy and our paths aren’t crossing and won’t unless we make them do so” sort of way. Forced to move from the Minnesota small town to the Iowa small town, I think I learned how to be alone.
I often wonder about those who have lived their lives in essentially the same place, maybe moving away for school or something else for awhile, but soon returning “home” and once again immersing themselves in the life they’ve known all their lives. Childhood avenues, ways, wherewithals, and friends become adult avenues, ways, wherewithals, and friends. They have memories less frozen, I imagine, by the agency of the past. Every day, week, month, is sequel. I imagine their lives like a wonderland, and think of them, when I think of them as flora, as the gorgeously tentacled live oaks of the south, dripping Spanish moss like a kind of ambrosial syrup I can never taste, deeply rooted, taking from the blessing of sun as they offer the blessing of shade. When I think of myself as flora, I think of myself as moss—damn near rootless and most often dormant, but in the right—perfect—conditions, sprouting up between cracks and thriving with the softest and silkiest carpet of emerald green, an island not unlike a mirage.
Is it better to be a live oak or better to be moss? From either vantage point, it’s easy to adopt the assuredness of the speaker in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” who after acknowledging that each pathway is “just as fair . . . the passing there / Had worn them really about the same, // And both that morning equally lay,” nonetheless asserts, “Two roads diverged in a wood and I — / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” Better perhaps to adopt to the more measured pondering of Mark Twain, who in “Two Views of the Mississippi” asks, “What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”
Notwithstanding the general itinerant nature of most of my life, it is only that very first move that I was old enough to remember, from the small Minnesota town to the small Iowa town, that I associate with, for lack of a better word, trauma, as it is the only move that I was forced to make, that did not involve my consideration or opinion, and in fact denied both, and was delivered as a fait accompli against which I could only rend and wail, and fruitlessly at that. The moves I’ve made since have all been made with my agency, with me in the driver’s seat, and most were candle-to-the-flamishly a way to reach for something better, to make a life for myself as best as circumstances allow.
Then one day I came across the word “diaspora,” and down a rabbit hole I went. I felt like I belonged to a diaspora, if not a couple or a few. I felt like I had belonged to this and that “population whose origin lies in a separate geographical locale.” Diaspora was a word that captured a sense of myself that I had never encountered before. To have a word. To have a name. The power of language. I had never known that, yet because of it I felt more complete, more self-actualized (if anybody even uses that term anymore). At the same time, I felt great trepidation at sharing my sense of having found myself in a word, given the origins of the word. Language, of course, changes, but the journey “diaspora” made from “the involuntary mass dispersion of a population from its indigenous territories, in particular the dispersion of the Jews” to “today there is no set definition of the term because its modern meaning has evolved over time” made me uncomfortable adopting it publicly, as part of my identity, no matter that the “Internal diasporas” header on the Wikipedia page says, “In the United States of America, approximately 4.3 million people moved outside their home states in 2010.”
So maybe I wasn’t alone at all.
I remember when I discovered the poems of Karen Solie, a Canadian, and found uncanny similarities between what fuels her poems, what she is searching for, and what fuels my poems, what I am searching for. I also found a commonality between her life and mine: our incomplete migrations from the small to the large.
The overlap in Solie’s poems and mines is an overlap I first noticed when I was on a reading panel with Kris Bigalk, a poet who grew up on a farm in southeast Minnesota. Our panel, by title, had something to do with “poets from rural or small places who now call large cities home.” Driving back from the conference, Bigalk and I couldn’t stop talking about how many things our poems shared—and not necessarily obvious things. We reprised the panel a year later, after I had discovered Solie, and with the added understanding Bigalk and I noticed even more similarities between our work. There were three of us now whose poetry was looking at the world in a particular way—a ways that feels connected to our life paths.
The similarities are not on the surface the poems. Nobody would put Mauch, Bigalk, and Solie poems side by side by side and say, after a cursory reading, that we are of the same cloth. But seeing the work from the inside, it’s impossible not to recognize the kindred nature of our work. There are the many anachronisms—as if the poet can’t help but keep the past alive. And the anachronisms are unapologetically dealt with, as if they aren’t anachronistic at all. There is the sojourning—as if making one’s home in a place outside of one’s birth/tribal place in the particular way we have comes with a consequence, that one is never settled, that motion and travel, both physical and in the mind, take the place of “home.” There are continued attempts to speak newly, to find new language, but trying to speak that new language through the English language, and so failing each time. There is the sense that it has taken and is taking each of us a long time to tell our stories because our stories are liminal—our relocation from small place to large place while seeming to be a settled matter has really push-pulled us between states, and we are always mid-sojourn, and so draw from anachronism as equally as we attempt to speak newly in order to describe what this in-between-forever-ness is like.
The words I want to use for this state of being go beyond diaspora to include emigrate and refugee. We feel we have escaped. We feel we were forced to escape to survive. What we have left behind is now more foreign than the urban world we find ourselves in. If we go back to visit we no longer feel a part of what we once called home. We have permanently resettled in cities where we are not a part of the fabric in the way the natives are. But emigrate, refugee, and diaspora said aloud, said in public, feel reserved for others, further isolating us. Though we acutely feel that we inhabit these words, we are also reticent to use them, as if even the language itself doesn’t have a place for us. So we go to poetry, and in our poems, poem by poem, we speak of it.
The kinds of small places we come from aren’t the kinds of small places likely to survive as viable places that will continue harboring the kinds of families we come from. As urbanization continues, the small towns that survive are the small towns with tourists, the bedroom- communities, or other such appeal. What we left, when we left, was trending toward desolate and has become more so. The family farms that once thrived have largely been replaced by corporate operations. Most of those who still call themselves farmers are employees. The small towns and their family-run businesses based largely on the family farm economy now have mostly boarded main streets. Those who still live there long-ago abandoned local economies, opting instead to travel to the closest large town or city to shop for discounts at big-box stores. Each town used to take pride in its school, but as the towns have emptied out, the schools have consolidated, and another sense of identity is lost.
We come from settlements on great expanses of land whose promise has been largely unrealized, making the grounding a groundlessness. Sisyphus rolled his bolder up only to see it roll down. We rolled our boulders, our pasts, our senses of place, along a flat plain and stopped when they bumped into the city, the refuge where we make what we call our homes, not tethered to them like the natives born there who never left, but satellites now and evermore.