- Bone Chalk by Jim Reese
Jim Reese has won the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, he serves as only one of six artists in residence for the Department of Justice's Federal Bureau of Prisons, and he is the director of the Great Plains Writers' Tour. Reese is the author of three collections of poetry—These Trespasses (2006), ghost on 3rd (2010), and Really Happy! (2014)—and he has read his work in such varied places as the Library of Congress and San Quentin State Prison. When not teaching at Mount Marty University in Yankton, South Dakota, he is the editor of Paddlefish and 4 P.M. Count.
His first collection of essays, Bone Chalk, is an impressively rich mosaic of rural life in the Midwest. His prose is disarmingly honest, full of sharp-eyed observations, and he moves between humor and grief with devastating ease. To read Bone Chalk is to realize that you are in the hands of a gifted storyteller who is unafraid to ask questions of those around him. Reese frequently turns that gaze inward and exposes his own concerns and worries. Each essay frames small-town Nebraska life with intimacy, and we see how the vast expanse of the prairie influences the way people connect with each other. Bone Chalk is a mirror of rural midwestern life to be sure, but it also acts as a primer for those on the Coasts who want to know what it is really like to live in a small farming community.
In "Buckets, Indians and Habaneros," for example, Reese describes one summer in which he decides to take a break from graduate school and become a farm hand. He takes on a job that pays minimum wage because it gives him the experience of the country that he has always secretly wanted. As he states, "And if I was studying to be a professor, well, I still had work to do. Otherwise my students who grew up on a farm or ranch would see right through me. I knew a guy could be a thinker and a do-er" (111). This desire to enter a rural community is told with compassion and crisp detail. As he drives around a John Deere 3020, pulls weeds, and busts down an old barn for his boss, he makes this observation about country life: "I'm working for peanuts here, but the thought of letting Brant down, especially this early on, dismays me. [. . .] I know how to work. Doing this gives me a sense of belonging" (114). Such reflections neatly capture the tension between farm and city, rural and urban, community and individual that Reese so ably investigates throughout the entire book. Notably, in the title essay, Reese gets [End Page 91] to the heart of the matter when he realizes that working on a farm changes your understanding of reliance and responsibility. He writes, "maybe that's the thing city kids never admit to, that we're all just a little resentful we never had to learn some of the things that were so crucial to survival for some families [. . .] we never had to be relied on to do something for the good of the family" (101).
While there is great introspection about midwestern life threaded throughout this collection, there are also plenty of moments that make the reader laugh out loud. The hilarious "My Life as Willy the Wildcat" is a behind-the-mask look at what it is like to be a college mascot. Reese, who attended Wayne State College in Nebraska, describes what it is like to wear an oversized furry head and dance around at basketball games. Does he do this to meet women, please his parents, or is it liberating to take on a wild persona? As he states, "I was skinny. I thought I was funny. I was easy to toss into the air and catch. I wasn't afraid to get dropped on the ground, and I was wiry and high-strung, and that's what got me the job" (76). If much...