Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed

Is a poetry of place even possible anymore? As more and more of the countryside is eaten up by housing tracts, as television and recorded music continue to iron out regional accents and musical traditions, our attempts to display terroir in art sometimes seem like boosterism. Everywhere I go in America, I find individuals who are bravely devoted to their local bands, beers, pubs, coffee houses, chilies, cheeses, churches, mountains, and hiking trails. And yet... and yet... I wonder if there is anywhere in America where the complex interplay of landscape, language, history, and culture could give us a poet like Garcia Lorca or George Mackay Brown or Seamus Heaney: greatness that is also local.

I wonder about this because it is a greatness I look for and quietly long for, although it embarrasses me to admit it. The longing is complex; it is a combination of homesickness and poem-sickness. It begins as a childish encounter with your surroundings, and increases exponentially with an awareness of the foreign: British children's books, Bible stories set in exotic lands of election and exile. My awareness of place was also sharpened because my family flew to New Mexico every summer to visit my grandparents in Santa Fe. I exchanged my green suburban valley for a lofty desert plain, Martian-looking volcanic mountains, piƱon trees, adobe houses, Indian pueblos, and austere and fiery cooking:


California showed up in my poetry early on. I was nine (or was it ten?) when a long drive back from Oregon took me past Mount Shasta and then miles of orchards. The contrast of lemons and snow made me a little dizzy and I wrote a poem about a fairy lady who lived on a snowy mountain and was courted by a prince from the lowlands. I christened the imaginary country Ralay Calee, which at the time sounded wonderfully musical. The obvious echo of "Cali" skipped my mind. "California," of course, is a made-up name to begin with--it originates from a Spanish fantasy novel--so it intrigues me that I thought of my own home as a natural fairy-tale setting. As I got older, I wrote poems about exploring the creek near our house, about the summer and the trees, about the orchards and the city. I fell for Hopkins, who, crucially perhaps, is something of a wannabe regionalist--a fundamentally suburban poet who was deeply affected by place, to the point that each poem breathes the air of the place where it was written. North Wales in particular was his "mother of muses": his mature style was born there, and for the rest of his life a trip there would get his fitful creativity flowing again. When he struggled to describe what he wanted in a poem, he invoked old Anglo-Saxon rhythms; but also a kind of "starriness" and "quain" (I can't define it either!) derived from Welsh-language poetry. Sprung rhythm made verse "stressy," but Welsh chimes made it "starry." An obsession with assonance is part of it--I have followed mine from Hopkins to Lorca to Dylan Thomas to Sylvia Plath, and I am not over it yet--but there is a certain elusive note which I (perhaps foolishly) think of as "Anglo-Welsh," in the bell-notes of "The Candle Indoors," in the dark owl-notes of "The Moon and the Yew Tree," and especially in the crazed virtuosity of "Author's Prologue." Dylan Thomas also excels at an Elizabethan sort of virtuosity--see "The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower"--but "Author's Prologue" is different. And so strikingly hypnotic that, if you look to the right of the youtube video, you can jump directly to Sylvia Plath chanting away under its peculiar spell. (in "On the Difficulty of Conjuring Up a Dryad")

Where was I? I really need to come back to the New World.

Christian Wiman wrote a nice little piece on the Orkney Island poet George Mackay Brown. It begins thus:
For contemporary American poets a poetry of place almost always means a poetry of missing places. Whether because of itinerancy or the pace of change, American poets don't inhabit the same places they inhabited as children, much less the places where their parents and grandparents were children. Some tend in memory a kind of ambered past which no longer has anything to do with an actual place (think of Philip Levine's Detroit); others actively seek out sites on which to feed their feelings of dislocation and dispossession (Richard Hugo's drive-by elegies are an example). And if the proliferation of poems written about distant family history may be partly explained by current literary fashion, it's also a genuine expression of personal and cultural need, an attempt to inhabit some more permanent past, as if by rooting themselves in a place of their own making, American poets might grow more knowingly out of it.

There are also poets like Tony Hoagland, who makes his living writing plangent-yet-prosy verse about the rootlesness of Americans: the title of his latest collection, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, should tell you what you need to know. Hoagland always seems to be writing about "America," an undifferentiated blob-place consisting of a single endless interstate punctuated by fast-food joints. He writes about reality, certainly, but I for one can only read so many Hoagland poems before I become irritated and start wondering, "Why don't you turn off the TV? Why don't you find another form of Saturday recreation that doesn't involve going to the mall?" But my anger is misplaced--even self-righteous. Hoagland is writing precisely for the rootless, for people who have no spiritual traditions to help them resist the consumerist bacchanal. They may have gone far in their formal education, but they missed out on certain civilizing influences. How are they supposed to reject the world and its works and pomps? If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?
My parents were disconnected from their parents. We were middle class. There was no religion in my family. So there was an absence of ceremonial knowledge, there was an absence of inherited knowledge, there was an absence of family stories, and there was an absence of instruction. (transcript)

As an unhappy teenager, Hoagland clung to poetry for stability. And he says that poetry continues to hold him in place: "I am a very typical American: I'm de-racinated, I'm rootless, I have no root system. At least a very typical middle-class American, I suppose. Poetry has been that culture for me."

Even when American poets settle down and choose one state as their home, they can sound commitment-phobic. This is the playful trope in Joan Logghe's poem, "Something Like Marriage": "I’m engaged to New Mexico. I’ve been engaged for 18 years. / I’ve worn its ring of rainbow set with a mica shard." We may enjoy living in an area, but we are always ready to cut it loose if a more tempting opportunity beckons. When I say "we," I mostly mean Americans with a strong family history of emigrating, which includes moving around the US. There are also Americans who dig in and stay put, sometimes never traveling 50 miles beyond their birthplace. Those of us with a family history of migrating tend to look at these people as stuck and probably bound for poverty. Something is always telling us to trade up, to get out before everything goes to hell. There may even be some good old-fashioned fear of death involved: just as contemplating marriage can make you vividly aware of "til death do us part," contemplating making a permanent home suddenly steeps your surroundings in the solemnity of death. I have a friend at UK who is married, has a new baby, owns his own house, and is firmly determined to live in Lexington for the rest of his life, barring some unusual catastrophe. I remember him driving past the university hospital and saying, calmly, "I'll probably die in that hospital." He even sounded pleased.

In The Place That Inhabits Us, one Ann Fisher-Wirth has a poem asking her family to scatter her ashes around Point Reyes. She sounds like she means it. A strain of hopeless, headlong love runs through the anthology, and occasionally it hardens and dignifies the poem's utterance, so that it seems backed by necessity.

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

Three Oaks - Eyvind Earle

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

This is Dana Gioia's "California Hills in August." An understated poem, with rough four-stress rhythm, and a final stanza which reverberates deep in my heart. Or here's Adrienne Rich, taking a break from politics:

I am stuck to earth. What I love here
is old ranches, leaning seaward, lowroofed spreads between rocks
small canyons running through pitched hillsides
liveoaks twisted on steepness, the eucalyptus avenue leading
to the wrecked homestead, the fogwreathed heavy-chested cattle
on their blond hills.

In the same poem, speaking to someone absent, she sounds a familiar note of exile: "This is no place you ever knew me." A Californian could say that to the familiar ghosts of most of history's writers. California is neither Asia nor Europe, though it stands about halfway between them. On the coast, a sense of oceanic dizziness coexists with a particular, almost painful, beauty. The dizziness might be represented by Whitman's offering:

Facing west, from California's shores,
Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound,
I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the
land of migrations, look afar,
Look off the shores of my Western Sea—the circle almost circled;
For, starting westward from Hindustan, from the vales of Kashmere,
From Asia—from the north—from the God, the sage, and the hero,
From the south—from the flowery peninsulas, and the spice islands;
Long having wander'd since—round the earth having wander'd,
Now I face home again—very pleas'd and joyous;
(But where is what I started for, so long ago?
And why is it yet unfound?)

This was included in a division of the book titled "Like One Eternity Touching Another," from a poem by Yehuda Amichai, describing the hills north of San Francisco touching the ocean. I think in a flash of a tiny valley where a salty wind raced through the long grass, shush, shush, small dairy farms sheltered, a pond for cattle was a slice of sky, and the ocean reflected itself into that strangely bright air; and I ate the best strawberry in my life: red as a Chinese wedding dress, still warm from the sun. Hang on for dear life, the Pacific seems to say.

The Bay Area is one of the epicenters for Language poetry, which is notorious for making the reader do most of the work of determining meaning. This sort of disorienting and disjunctive writing is not much in evidence here. Few of the poems in this anthology deviate from the standard American style of colloquial free verse narratives. Some of them are more rhapsodic free verse, some of them are even metrical (Dana Gioia, Kay Ryan, Thom Gunn, and (oddly) Ursula LeGuin all appear), but there are perhaps two or three poems which really distort sense and syntax. Gertrude Stein might have had a field day "describing" the Golden Gate Bridge, if she hadn't ditched Oakland for Paris, but the charm of this anthology is precisely in the little jolts of recognition: I grew up there! I know exactly what that plant smells like! etc. This anthology isn't on the cutting edge of formal innovation. As I read, I often turned away from the poetry to consider the place--sometimes because the poem was good per se, but often because, although mediocre verse, it pushed the right buttons. Some of the poems were both evocative and finished, though, like Kay Ryan's "Green Hills":

Their green flanks
and swells are not
flesh in any sense
matching ours,
we tell ourselves.
Nor their green
breast nor their
green shoulder nor
the langour of their
rolling over.

I like to read that over and over again, it is so weirdly musical; such a perfect little artifact. This slender anthology is giving me ideas for what I might write, and I think it is a worthy addition to the oak-mast and leaf-duff of California poetry, which is still relatively thin. I could say more: about Gary Snyder, the Beat legacy (if you can call it a legacy; more like a meteor trail), Czeslaw Milosz at Berkeley... I could quote lines and phrases: "the valley of the ghosts of orchards," "Altamont of my rib, aqueduct of your chest," "California, easy to lose, bound with rivers." There's too much to talk about.

There was one poem, "Wild Fennel," which described a terrain so familiar that I was convinced the author (Catharine Clark-Sayles) had been walking near my family's house. She tells of walking at the feet of the "western hills" in the damp chill of early spring, stopping with her husband to watch the red-winged blackbirds "where they nest in last year's reeds." She reaches into the "fine feathery greenness" of wild fennel to sniff the sweet anise scent, and finds some tiny seeds that the birds have missed. She eats one and offers the other to her husband who takes it with "a look as old as Adam"-- a nice touch. The blackbirds, too, with their "metallic cries" and "flickering red patches" offered their own pleasant jolt of recognition: she records them saying "Here, here, I am, here" whereas I have always heard them saying "Oh my go-osh," like so many Valley girls. I am far from home, and I don't know where I will be living even next year, but I know that a certain stretch of California, from the Russian River to San Luis Obispo, is the place that inhabits me.


K Rachelle said...

Yay! An update!
Or as I hear the girls at the University say - Oh. Emm. Gee!

Lovely imagery... Makes me want to head right back to California.

some guy on the street said...

You've got me trying to immitate red-wings. It's an engaging and perpetually unsatisfying game --- like eating marshmallows, but for different reasons.

If more occurs to me, you may count upon me to write it; I'm so glad your pause has been this fruitful!

Sheila said...

Oh, wow. I so agree. I find my desire for Northwest poetry, both to read it and to write it, has only grown during my "exile" in Virginia. I like Virginia; I really do, but I miss home.

Only there isn't that much Northwest poetry out there. My great-great-grandmother wrote some, though! I found her sonnet "To Mount Saint Helens" and felt very connected to her ... even though her mountain looked very different from anything I was alive to see.

You've got me wanting to write something, if only so I would have something to read that speaks of home.