Mona Van Duyn

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What is the "quake last night" in Mona Van Duyn's "Earth Tremors Felt in Missouri"?

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Mona Van Duyn's "Earth Tremors Felt in Missouri" opens with the line:

The quake last night was nothing personal ...

Between the title and the first line, earth tremors have changed to a more violent "quake." This, of course, reminds us that earth tremors in one place generally mean an earthquake somewhere else. Missouri, right in the heart of America, is not a place one normally associates with earthquakes (or, for that matter, with strong emotions) but the southeast of the state is part of the New Madrid Fault, which experiences some seismic activity, and its inhabitants feel the tremors of quakes in more volatile areas.

The way in which the person addressed reassures the poet that the quake was nothing personal suggests that it mirrors some event in their lives which is personal, an argument or trauma which shook them in a similar way to the physical tremors. Even though the earth tremors were nothing personal, therefore, they had a personal meaning for the poet, emphasizing the connection between people who felt the same movement. Our connection to the earth is also a connection to one another: "what secretly moves you, moves me."

The connections in the poem therefore include the connection between the figurative quake between the two people, which remains unexplored and un-described except through metaphor, and the literal earth tremors, bringing into question the truth of the observation quoted in the first line, which initially seems obvious.

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Mona Van Duyn's poem "Earth Tremors Felt in Missouri" is a text that likes to play with scale, and the poem is written to make the phrase "quake last night" sound as though it refers both to a literal earthquake but also to a personal "inner quake." Precisely what this inner quake—or internal strife—refers to we are never told, though phrases such as "sensuous catastrophe" suggest that it is both a beautiful and difficult experience.

What the poem does tell us is that there is a "you" whom the speaker is addressing. Most likely this is someone that the speaker knows intimately considering they are together at night. Who is this person exactly? A significant other perhaps? Or a child? Once again, we are never told, though it is clear that the speaker feels an intimate connection with them: "what secretly moves you, moves me."

What seemingly begins as a literal earthquake turns into an existential crisis where the speaker is contemplating the nature of collective existence. This can best be seen in the third and final stanza which begins:

The Earth, with others on it, turns in its course

as we turn toward each other, less than ourselves, gross,

mindless, more than we were.

The tremor has apparently caused the speaker to question the manner in which human beings connect with one another in ways that are perhaps contradictory and not always clear. One question you should ask yourself when reading this poem is: "Is this a positive or negative reflection on human experience?" The answer likely will not be all one or the other, but this is the type of question that the "quakes" in the poem raise.

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In "Earth Tremors Felt in Missouri" by Mona Van Duyn, the "quake last night" probably refers to both a real earth tremor and an upheaval of emotions. The poem gives us clues about this. The first line says, "The quake last night was nothing personal." If it was not personal, it must have been real. Additionally, in the second stanza the narrator says, "But the earth said last night that what I feel, you feel; what secretly moves you, moves me." This reference to the earth speaking may indicate that the occasion of a real earth tremor has brought about these reflections. Part of Missouri sits on the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which is one of the most active earthquake regions in the United States. By using Missouri in the title, Duyn may have been emphasizing that the earth tremor that prompted these thoughts was a real event.

Edward Hirsch once wrote of Mona Van Duyn: she "has a gift for making the ordinary appear strange and for turning a common situation into a metaphysical exploration." That's what she appears to do in this poem. What starts out as a common earth tremor leads to an intense emotional interaction between the poem's narrator and whoever is being spoken to.

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