In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
–Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright
The above poem might be my favorite American poem. It’s often a toss-up between this and 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens.
Wright was a native Ohio son who lived in Martins Ferry amid the disappearing industries of that state. Steel, paper, rubber, glass. . .all of the things our country used to proudly make, were made in Ohio.
It was a necessary place. The manufacturing, beating heart of America. Ohio was blessed with three rivers much prized for being conduits to the St. Lawrence Seaway and its precious economy.
There was a time when Ohio had it made. Akron was the rubber and tire capital of the world. Cleveland a major manufacturing and rail hub. Youngstown was the city of steel; the town that made the cannon-balls that won the Civil War.
The Buckeye State also grew rich on paper mills and the manufacture of glass.
Those businesses have gone away now; the slow leak of a century’s diminishing economies took its unholy toll. There were cheaper places to do all that Ohio did and most of the manufacturing moved to right-to-work states or out of the country, away from the rust belt and lousy weather.
Ohio is a physically beautiful state; rolling hills and farmland once you escape the cities. . .the Allegheny plateau in the eastern part of the state, rich with hills and streams and bucolic greenery.
I started this body of work out of a need to tease my pal Stan Klein, who is a native Clevelander and then the odd mysteries of the state of Ohio took over. It is our middle and for the last decade or so, the repository for all of our anger as Americans; a battleground state, (politically and constantly) and a place of eroding hopes and mundane shades of ideological gray. It is home to some of the finest learning institutions in our country. Oberlin College, which has produced some of our finest writers and musicians and scientists, Ohio State, Miami of Ohio. . .the list goes on and on. Yet for all of its erudition, the only representative population of this state we see lately are the John Boehners and Michael Steeles of the world. The latter of these gents recently bounced from his job for “someone” on his staff blowing two grand on “faux lesbian sex” at a club in Vegas. Really. A sharper guy would have realized he was in Vegas and for about half that price, you can get real lesbian sex. Wise up, Michael Steele!
I’ve been to lots of towns in Ohio–Columbus, Toledo, Sandusky, Dayton–and they all have the same kind of decent, salt-of-the- earth Midwesterners I’ve known my whole life. The only unattractive trait being an unfocused bigotry against those they perceive to be doing away with their economic opportunity; foreigners, big government,unions, and the like; the usual suspects torn from the Republican-climate-of-fear playbook. They never blame each other, nor the local political constructs that succeed in keeping them docile and ignorant–people like Steele and Boehner. When Obama made the remark about scared and angry people clinging to their religion and their guns, it was about Pennsylvania (which is basically Philadelphia and Pittsburgh separated by Alabama) but it could have been about Ohio.
In recent elections, Ohio is the easiest state to rile up with rhetoric and through the right kind of prism, hey look an awful lot like the entire body-politic of middle-class America. It’s a political tool of image making that has served the swine who perpetrate it very well.
Truth is, most Americans are better off than Ohio. The rate of unemployment and disappearing industrial jobs bears this out. But do the citizens of this mysterious state ever get angry at the political structure that got them here. . .that let companies outsource their manufacturing and tech jobs? When do these development-deficient politicians get their feet held to the fire?
The answer is, “never .” They just sell anger and yell louder and sink this great state even further into the gray.