Poetry and Place
In this collection, we examine the significance of place in contemporary American poetry. Here you'll find a range of poems, commentary, and essays that revolve around what we mean by the idea of "home" or of "homelessness" resulting from travel or displacement. Some works deal with a specific time and location, while others focus on a more socially-constructed view of place through the lenses of pop culture and identity. In the end, we hope this collection both confirms and challenges your notion of place in American poetry.
For a more thorough exploration of our theme, check out W. T. Pfefferle's anthology Poets on Place: Essays & Tales from the Road.
Vicksburg, Mississippi Here, the Mississippi carved its mud-dark path, a graveyard for skeletons of sunken riverboats. Here, the river changed its course, turning away from the city as one turns, forgetting, from the past— the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up above the river's bend—where now the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed. Here, the dead stand up in stone, white marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand on ground once hollowed by a web of caves; they must have seemed like catacombs, in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor, candlelit, underground. I can see her listening to shells explode, writing herself into history, asking what is to become of all the living things in this place? This whole city is a grave. Every spring— Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders in the long hallways, listen all night to their silence and indifference, relive their dying on the green battlefield. At the museum, we marvel at their clothes— preserved under glass—so much smaller than our own, as if those who wore them were only children. We sleep in their beds, the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped in flowers—funereal—a blur of petals against the river's gray. The brochure in my room calls this living history. The brass plate on the door reads Prissy's Room. A window frames the river's crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream, the ghost of history lies down beside me, rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.
Under Grand Central's tattered vault —maybe half a dozen electric stars still lit— one saxophone blew, and a sheer black scrim billowed over some minor constellation under repair. Then, on Broadway, red wings in a storefront tableau, lustrous, the live macaws preening, beaks opening and closing like those animated knives that unfold all night in jewelers' windows. For sale, glass eyes turned outward toward the rain, the birds lined up like the endless flowers and cheap gems, the makeshift tables of secondhand magazines and shoes the hawkers eye while they shelter in the doorways of banks. So many pockets and paper cups and hands reeled over the weight of that glittered pavement, and at 103rd a woman reached to me across the wet roof of a stranger's car and said, I'm Carlotta, I'm hungry. She was only asking for change, so I don't know why I took her hand. The rooftops were glowing above us, enormous, crystalline, a second city lit from within. That night a man on the downtown local stood up and said, My name is Ezekiel, I am a poet, and my poem this evening is called fall. He stood up straight to recite, a child reminded of his posture by the gravity of his text, his hands hidden in the pockets of his coat. Love is protected, he said, the way leaves are packed in snow, the rubies of fall. God is protecting the jewel of love for us. He didn't ask for anything, but I gave him all the change left in my pocket, and the man beside me, impulsive, moved, gave Ezekiel his watch. It wasn't an expensive watch, I don't even know if it worked, but the poet started, then walked away as if so much good fortune must be hurried away from, before anyone realizes it's a mistake. Carlotta, her stocking cap glazed like feathers in the rain, under the radiant towers, the floodlit ramparts, must have wondered at my impulse to touch her, which was like touching myself, the way your own hand feels when you hold it because you want to feel contained. She said, You get home safe now, you hear? In the same way Ezekiel turned back to the benevolent stranger. I will write a poem for you tomorrow, he said. The poem I will write will go like this: Our ancestors are replenishing the jewel of love for us.
Some nights I sleep with my dress on. My teeth are small and even. I don't get headaches. Since 1971 or before, I have hunted a bench where I could eat my pimento cheese in peace. If this were Tennessee and across that river, Arkansas, I'd meet you in West Memphis tonight. We could have a big time. Danger, shoulder soft. Do not lie or lean on me. I'm still trying to find a job for which a simple machine isn't better suited. I've seen people die of money. Look at Admiral Benbow. I wish like certain fishes, we came equipped with light organs. Which reminds me of a little known fact: if we were going the speed of light, this dome would be shrinking while we were gaining weight. Isn't the road crooked and steep. In this humidity, I make repairs by night. I'm not one among millions who saw Monroe's face in the moon. I go blank looking at that face. If I could afford it I'd live in hotels. I won awards in spelling and the Australian crawl. Long long ago. Grandmother married a man named Ivan. The men called him Eve. Stranger, to tell the truth, in dog years I am up there.
Fred Sanford's on at 12 & I'm standing in the express lane (cash only) about to buy Head & Shoulders the white people shampoo, no one knows what I am. My name could be Lamont. George Clinton wears colors like Toucan Sam, the Froot Loop pelican. Follow your nose, he says. But I have no nose, no mouth, so you tell me what's good, what's god, what's funky. When I stop by McDonalds for a cheeseburger, no one suspects what I am. I smile at Ronald's poster, perpetual grin behind the pissed-off, fly-girl cashier I love. Where are my goddamn fries? Ain't I American? I never say, Niggaz in my poems. My ancestors didn't emigrate. Why would anyone leave their native land? I'm thinking about shooting some hoop later on. I'll dunk on everyone of those niggaz. They have no idea what I am. I might be the next Jordan god. They don't know if Toni Morrison is a woman or a man. Michael Jackson is the biggest name in showbiz. Mamma se Mamma sa mamma ku sa, sang the Bushmen in Africa. I'll buy a dimebag after the game, me & Jody. He says, Fuck them white people at work, Man. He was an All-American in high school. He's cool, but he don't know what I am, & so what. Fred Sanford's on in a few & I got the dandruff-free head & shoulders of white people & a cheeseburger belly & a Thriller CD & Nike high tops & slavery's dead & the TV's my daddy-- You big Dummy! Fred tells Lamont.
They are walking in the woods along the coast and in a grassy meadow, wasting, they come upon two old neglected apple trees. Moss thickened every bough and the wood of the limbs looked rotten but the trees were wild with blossom and a green fire of small new leaves flickered even on the deadest branches. Blue-eyes, poppies, a scattering of lupine flecked the meadow, and an intricate, leopard-spotted leaf-green flower whose name they didn't know. Trout lily, he said; she said, adder's-tongue. She is shaken by the raw, white, backlit flaring of the apple blossoms. He is exultant, as if some thing he felt were verified, and looks to her to mirror his response. If it is afternoon, a thin moon of my own dismay fades like a scar in the sky to the east of them. He could be knocking wildly at a closed door in a dream. She thinks, meanwhile, that moss resembles seaweed drying lightly on a dock. Torn flesh, it was the repetitive torn flesh of appetite in the cold white blossoms that had startled her. Now they seem tender and where she was repelled she takes the measure of the trees and lets them in. But he no longer has the apple trees. This is as sad or happy as the tide, going out or coming in, at sunset. The light catching in the spray that spumes up on the reef is the color of the lesser finch they notice now flashing dull gold in the light above the field. They admire the bird together, it draws them closer, and they start to walk again. A small boy wanders corridors of a hotel that way. Behind one door, a maid. Behind another one, a man in striped pajamas shaving. He holds the number of his room close to the center of his mind gravely and delicately, as if it were the key, and then he wanders among strangers all he wants.
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I am sitting contented and alone in a little park near the Palazzo Scaligere in Verona, glimpsing the mists of early autumn as they shift and fade among the pines and city battlements on the hills above the river Adige.
The river has recovered from this morning's rainfall. It is now restoring to its shapely body its own secret light, a color of faintly cloudy green and pearl.
Directly in front of my bench, perhaps thirty yards away from me, there is a startling woman. Her hair is black as the inmost secret of light in a perfectly cut diamond, a perilous black, a secret light that must have been studied for many years before the anxious and disciplined craftsman could achieve the necessary balance between courage and skill to stroke the strange stone and take the one chance he would ever have to bring that secret to light.
While I was trying to compose the preceding sentence, the woman rose from her park bench and walked away. I am afraid her secret might never come to light in my lifetime. But my lifetime is not the only one. I will never see her again. I hope she brings some other man's secret face to light, as somebody brought mine. I am startled to discover that I am not afraid. I am free to give a blessing out of my silence into that woman's black hair. I trust her to go on living. I believe in her black hair, her diamond that is still asleep. I would close my eyes to daydream about her. But those silent companions who watch over me from the insides of my eyelids are too brilliant for me to meet face to face.
The very emptiness of the park bench in front of mine is what makes me happy. Somewhere else in Verona at just this moment, a woman is sitting or walking or standing still upright. Surely two careful and accurate hands, total strangers to me, measure the invisible idea of the secret vein in her hair. They are waiting patiently until they know what they alone can ever know: that time when her life will pause in mid-flight for a split second. The hands will touch her black hair very gently. A wind off the river Adige will flutter past her. She will turn around, smile a welcome, and place a flawless and fully formed Italian daybreak into the hands.
I don't have any idea what his face will look like. The light still hidden inside his body is no business of mine. I am happy enough to sit in this park alone now. I turn my own face toward the river Adige. A little wind flutters off the water and brushes past me and returns.
It is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige.
By this time, we are both an open secret.
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