I have been an avid fan of Matthew Gavin Frank’s poetry for a few years now. I have found myself naturally drawn to his rapid pacing, esoteric style, and natural ability to illuminate place. In The Morrow Plots, Frank captures the enticing yet harrowing history of one of the most famous landmarks in Illinois.
This collection brings to life the Morrow Plots, the oldest experimental cornfields in the United States. Created in 1876 by the University of Illinois, the fields were established to research crop productivity and soil efficacy. The agricultural experiments were highly successful and have become a source of local pride.
Despite the scientific history of the fields, which I do believe Frank tackles with grace and a certain frankness (I’m not sorry for that pun), what truly drew me to The Morrow Plots was its ability to speak to the fields’ cultural history and darker past.
Frank’s poetry chucks the Confessional approach so popular in modern poetry in favor of stark Imagism. He excels at elevating the mundane to the heights of human experience. His writing frequently draws parallels between quaint imagery like cows and corn and the sprawling wisdom of small-town life in the Midwest. In “Types of Symphony,” the violence of small towns is exposed, yet our futile lives are shown to be held at the mercy of Nature, unable to overcome behavioral failings with materialism:
When the sun rises behind the black
around the cow brightens. This
is the rule. The milk pails
upturned by the night,
the river, the landowner in bed
biting his lip. No one is exempt. The wife
who has pulled their daughter awake
by her hair. In her scalp, needlemarks
of blood struggle
against her skin, nothing
a hairbrush can fix,
nothing to undo the knot.
Later in the same poem, the speaker introduces readers to the symmetry between life and death that is so apparent on farms, stating I can’t tell / if the cow is a sign of doom / or hope.
Frank’s collection makes frequent mention of the large number of murders associated with the Morrow Plots. Apparently the fields were excellent at harboring corpses. Horrific crimes around the university frequently ended with the bodies being dumped in the fields, and unclaimed remains were sometimes appropriated by the university for experimental use.
In reaction to the violence, he gives the fields their own spiritual character. Sometimes they appear to be serene and at others, downright malevolent. In his poem “Into Snow,” Frank asserts that the grisly history of the plots is impossible to avoid. The speaker is following a hearse in his car and can hear the body prattling around in its coffin. The field responds, engaging the speaker directly:
The braking is always sudden.
I would have reached
for your hand. A crow drops dead
bounces from the roof
of the hearse. The smallest
crash. Forgive me
for veering off the road
into snow. I was only trying
to look at the cows.
Despite the speaker’s apparent innocence, he is acutely aware of the spiritual aspect, declaring elsewhere in the poem Something is angry / at us for being here.
Beyond the story and personality of these unique fields, readers are bound to find a refreshing perspective of life waiting to be unpacked in each poem. The writing is exclusively Frank’s. Readers will quickly learn to open themselves up to the surprises in his enjambment and novel juxtapositions. Some of my favorite lines include:
everything in their hide
concealing the impala
genetics, the antelope
will comfort them.
We can blame these pigeons,
arrowing this unshaded corn,
for lending life to the screamless
And my personal favorite:
A mesquite jealousy
in humplessness, the stockings
we save for just an occasion.
Frank’s images do take some work. Having read the collection twice, I can safely say there remains more for me to discover. The writing in The Morrow Plots is fearlessly experimental and flows with a generous pathos. If you are looking for a challenging yet enduring collection, I highly recommend this book.
The Morrow Plots can be purchased at Black Lawrence Press.