There's something undefinable about the Midwest, and, of the Midwest, there's no place as impossible to nail down coherently as Minnesota. There's our Protestant stoicism and our mind-your-business privacy balanced against Minnesota Nice. There's the extreme you-can't-make-this-up winters balanced against the lovely are-you-kidding-me? summers.
There is, in Minnesota, a stronger shared civic code — a broadly similar notion of what one should and should not do — than in any other state I've lived in, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find any place with as varied an artistic landscape.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, an old St. Paulite, nailed it a century back, noting "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Perhaps such a statement could come only from someone born in an area with two cities connected like binary stars.
All of which is to say that the Belt Publishing anthology "Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology" does an admirable job of highlighting excellent Minneapolis writing without falling prey to the temptation to define the it of Minneapolis or even of Minnesota writing.
For someone who spent his first 25 years in the Twin Cities, I found that the pieces here that show what I couldn't have seen then offer the most — from Marlon James' brief piece about relocating for his job at Macalester College in St. Paul to Gwen Nell Westerman's incredible poem "Dakota Homecoming."
There is, in many of the pieces, a welcome and warm recognition, from Doug Mack describing the Mississippi River, to Kelly Barnhill writing about wild places and big Catholic families, to Dobby Gibson's always excellent poetry. A good percentage of the pieces here weirdly show how Minneapolitan I actually am, with authors describing their backgrounds in bands, as Prince fans, as cyclists.
More exciting, however, are the pieces in "Under Purple Skies" that offer description, a sort of witnessing — a tremendous attention paid to one of the world's best cities. Kao Kalia Yang's beautiful "Little House With the Shared Wall" offers a portrait of the early years of a marriage in an old house. Lindsay Nielson's "Run for Me" mostly takes the form of a letter describing one amputee's run — what she sees and thinks and feels — to a diabetic who's lost mobility.
Danez Smith's "I'm Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense" closes the anthology, in which Smith writes, "I know something that doesn't die can't be beautiful," and you feel it like a boot to the chest.
In nearly every piece, I almost couldn't help feeling a little Geiger-like clicking yes! as the city I know and love was described anew, over and over, in ways I've never seen articulated.
The same root word illuminates both "attention" and "tender," a fact relayed to me by a Minnesotan, and reading "Under Purple Skies" bears out that bit of trivia intensely.
Weston Cutter is from Minnesota and is an associate professor at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.