My 20th high-school reunion is this weekend, and I’m rushing around this morning packing my bags for the trip back to Wisconsin. I think you’re supposed to dread class reunions but other than wishing my bangs were a half-inch longer, that I wasn’t mid-breakout, and that I had, um, exercised more diligently for the past 20 or so years, I’m looking forward to it in a pretty uncomplicated way: Friends! Home! Bars! Cheese! I hardly get back to my hometown, Appleton, these days — my parents moved from there when I was 19 — but it’s still a main place with me: Not home exactly (that’s the bungalow with Lowell), but an epicenter.
The novel I’m writing is set in a sort-of Appleton; a city both like and unlike the place where I grew up. It’s strange because I inhabit that town imaginatively almost every day, but in other fundamental ways I no longer know the other city, the living city, as well as I wish I did — both because of what I’ve forgotten and because the city itself has grown, changed, moved on. And the faux Appleton that’s built up in my head is pervasive (persuasive?). This morning I was thinking about where I’d get coffee on this trip; I’ll be staying at a hotel downtown, and I thought, “Oh, you’ll just walk down to that little bakery down the street.” Then I remembered that the bakery doesn’t exist; I made it up.
In honor of the trip, and of homelands that both are and aren’t, here are two parts from James Tate’s “I Am a Finn,” taken from his book Distance from Loved Ones, which you should have along with his selected poems (which is to say, this is a longish excerpt; please don’t be angry with me, Mr. Tate!):
I am standing in the post office, about
to mail a package back to Minnesota, to my family.
I am a Finn. My name is Kasteheimi (Dewdrop).
Mikael Agricola (1510-1557) created the Finnish language.
He knew Luther and translated the New Testament.
When I stop by the Classé Café for a cheeseburger
no one suspects that I am a Finn.
I gaze at the dimestore reproductions of Lautrec
On the greasy walls, at the punk lovers afraid
to show their quivery emotions, secure
in the knowledge that my grandparents really did
emigrate from Finland in 1910–why
is everyone leaving Finland, hundreds of
thousands to Michigan and Minnesota, and now Australia?
But I should be studying for my exam.
I wonder if Dean will celebrate with me tonight,
Assuming I pass. Finnish literature
really came alive in the 1860s
Here in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
no one cares that I am a Finn.
They’ve never even heard of Frans Eemil Sillanpää,
Winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature.
As a Finn, this infuriates me.
Photo from Wiener Fest 2009 in Whitelaw, WI. Taken by Sarah Filzen.