red barn long shadows rust-colored hawk descends and vanishes ~ moon above neighborhood children sun above hills ~ the day before traveling I am already traveling
The prose poem seems a fraught and contradictory thing to its critics, a formless form, different in some way from flash fiction–more lyrical? More imageric? Lacking plot? Years ago, I went through a period of writing them, usually taking on a persona. Lately I find I am writing them again. Sometimes I think I’m writing a haibun, yet there’s no accompanying haiku. But mine do tend toward the lyric impulse.
And here’s a prelude to a prose poem draft, which follows (if you can be patient).
Perhaps it was not the most sensible thing to do, given my sore foot, but I had planned a trip to Poets House for a Finishing Line Press-sponsored reading by James Ragan and did not want to forego my visit. Ragan’s poems are lovely and often deep, and he offers a reading in the spirit of a raconteur. All the places I needed to stop were within three blocks of the A train, and therefore the main concern was going up and down subway stairs. It seemed do-able, and it was; though I am physically “paying” for my journey today, it was worth it.
The bus ride to New York and back takes about two hours, during which I read, nap, or daydream. We take the Lincoln Tunnel into town, a route familiar to me for decades, this time evoking memories that have been tucked away for ages.
Of course, some of this draft is invented–when I start writing, I often have no idea where I will end up. This one surprised me.
We were children in the years of Sunday drives, burning fossil fuels to tour the countryside and leave the city’s skyline, obscured in puce-yellow, lead-bearing smog, for tree-lined back roads and a picnic lunch. Sometimes over bridge, sometimes under the Hudson. Each crossing tested our bravery: fear of heights, of darkness. We had a song for the bridge which we sang while watching cables’ span. We were too small to see out the windows down to sailboats and barge traffic. The tunnel had no song. We hunched in the back seat, held hands, squeezed shut our eyes, expecting to drown. On the curved ascent in New Jersey my sister chose the house she wanted to live in—many-dormered, stone, with a round tower, it jutted over Weehawken. Once we’d learned to read, we realized it was the town library, which suited her imagined lifestyle. She would choose that even today, retire to live in a library and work part-time in a bookshop. She imagines I will join her there, perhaps I might.
Memory to prose memoir to prose poem. Founded on rocky physicality.
In a past post, from 2013, I mentioned some neologisms describing feelings about place.
Toponesia suggests nostalgia but adds to it a sense of loss for what has been erased, eroded, or developed to the point it is no longer familiar. When you return to your old neighborhood, for example, and discover that your house no longer exists and there’s a mall there instead, or discover that your old school has become a condominium. Many of us know this feeling: memory conflicting with current reality.
A sweeter emotion–if you can call these emotions (they may indicate self-reflection and consciousness as much as emotion)–is that of topophilia. An article by Hakon Heimer in Environmental Health Perspectives says
The term topophilia was coined by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan of the University of Wisconsin and is defined as the affective bond with one’s environment—a person’s mental, emotional, and cognitive ties to a place.
This feeling arose in me recently on a trip to New Mexico. The place in mind and heart is Ghost Ranch, which most people associate with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe–her house and studio are there (and are now a museum). But my association began before I knew of O’Keeffe; I was eleven years old, and the ranch was journey’s end of a long family road trip west.
The summer days I spent there somehow lodged inside me with a sense of place–and space–that felt secure and comforting, despite the strangeness of the high desert environment to a child whose summers generally featured fireflies, long grass, cornfields, and leafy suburban streets. Ghost Ranch embraced me with its mesas curving around the flat, open scrubby meadow where the corral block houses sat. Chimney Rock watched over me. Pedernal loomed mysteriously in the deep, blue-purple distance. I still cannot explain why the place felt, and still feels, like a second home to me. If I believed in the existence of past lives, I would say I had lived there before. Topophilia.
I headed southward on a recent trip to visit a friend and to see if I could find spring, since my Pennsylvania valley has been extensively clobbered by late-winter/early spring snow storms. In southeastern North Carolina, the air was cool but the plants were blooming. Spring at last! May it head northward soon.
On my travels, I took along Grant Clauser‘s collection The Magician’s Handbook. One of my best-beloveds has been learning sleight-of-hand and card tricks lately, and as a result I found it especially fun to “get” Clauser’s references to trick names and magicians’ moves in these poems. The poems demonstrate Clauser’s sense of humor, balanced with insights about contemporary life and a good use of metaphor, sound (nice alliteration in particular), and poignancy that never teeters into sentiment.
I thought my hostess in North Carolina would enjoy The Magician’s Handbook; she randomly read a few pages and liked the book so much that I gave it to her.
Poetry collections are terrific gifts for poet friends, of course; but it is particularly rewarding to introduce a friend to a poet’s work. I would not have discovered half of the writers whose work I love if it had not been for friends and fellow writers’ recommendations, although various public libraries and many a bookstore browsing session have been places of discovery, as well.
I like to read poems while traveling. On the one hand, it proves difficult to keep from being distracted by crowds, announcements, and departure times–which can make it hard to focus on the challenges a poem presents to its readers. On the other hand, poems tend to be brief enough that the inevitable interruptions do not completely disrupt the flow or content of the page; for that reason, I tend to struggle to read fiction while traveling. The brevity lends itself to gesture, so I can pick up on mood and tone and the sound of the poem (in my head–I don’t read aloud in airport terminal lounges). Later, when I am home again, I re-read the poems. That gives me a different perspective on the work.
So…I guess I will have to purchase another copy of The Magician’s Handbook for my re-reading pleasure. Meanwhile, my friend in North Carolina has something to read as a start to National Poetry Month, which is April!
Hey, that’s what friends are for! [And many thanks to BJG for her hospitality, Southern and South Jersey style.]
My desire has been to wander, but my inclination does tend toward staying at home. One reaches a point in one’s life, however, at which wandering will shortly become more challenging than it was in youth. Also, it gets far too easy to stay comfortably within one’s zone of familiarity, which limits transitions and other difficult things.
Recently, I went far away, found myself (among other interesting places) in a field and happily fell into familiar behaviors I follow at home. In this case, scoping out the local flora and minor fauna in the hills in July.
We were touring a small region of a small but extremely varied country: Portugal. The field featured small lizards that were so quick I couldn’t photograph them; dozens of types of wildflowers and grasses and their assorted tiny pollinators; robins, black redstarts, kestrels, and other birds I couldn’t identify. I am pretty sure we saw a hoopoe, which for me is exciting, though I expect it is not uncommon in Portugal.
As a humanities geek who loves Medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, I love the old cities; and the sea’s appeal abides, but the mountain regions appeal to the introverted gardener and naturalist in me. I was pleased with the quiet, with the pure air and blue sky, the twisting roads, the small farms. Most of all I was pleased to find so many plants and pollinating creatures in the field next to where we stayed for two nights, not far from the Peneda-Gerês National Park.
Some of these flower photos feature at least one bee or wasp or beetle-y thing. Below, a common sight on the mountains: heather, flourishing as well as it does in the British moors. Not much rain, but many misty mornings, even in July.
This region is wind farm country. There are large, electricity-generating windmills atop much of the range, and quite a few of the many small rivers are dammed to create electric power and places to fish and swim. There’s certainly very little air pollution up in the hills…I have visited few places so pristine.
More little critters among the field flowers. Easy to overlook, despite how vivid these photos may appear.
Nice to dwell, if only for awhile, in a place that offers a beautiful change of perspective.
Muse, verb–from Merriam Webster online
1: to become absorbed in thought; especially : to think about something carefully and thoroughly
2: archaic : wonder, marvel
: to think or say (something) in a thoughtful way
Muse, noun–from American Heritage Dictionary online
a. A guiding spirit.
Musing, on a hot summer day, evokes Whitman’s lines:
I observe a spear of summer grass, a meadow of milkweed, a small bee but a loud one buzzing about the hole where last year the grass wasp nested. Because it is a national holiday, the road construction crew next door has been absent, allowing me to hear the bees and the wind chimes and the bluejays screaming at the redtail hawks.
My poetry Muse, assuming I have one, has also taken a vacation.
In the meantime, there is summer novel-reading to do (Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan quartet, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed, and others). I do have my day job, but I have scheduled a travel vacation and am musing on what to pack, wondering what it will be like to be in a new place…wondering if my Muse will follow me as inspiration or will guide me in some new direction. Even at my age.
It’s always possible.
Invoking Whitman again:
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
You will find me outside, in the shade, musing on perfection.
Having just spent some time in Scotland, encountering Scots accents and language, and having read Kathleen Jamie’s book Findings while on my trip, and having visited castles and a distillery (even though malt whisky is not something I drink), I find myself thinking again about words. In particular, specialized words–those used by the ancient crafts such as beer-making, by vintners and distillers, weavers, farmers, and builders of defenses, ships, and of cathedrals, architectural terms and words specific to a trade: jargon.
Jargon, the word itself, comes from the French. As per the Online Etymology Dictionary:
jargon (n.) mid-14c., “unintelligible talk, gibberish; chattering, jabbering,” from Old French jargon “a chattering” (of birds), also “language, speech,” especially “idle talk; thieves’ Latin” (12c.). Ultimately of echoic origin (compare Latin garrire “to chatter”).
From 1640s as “mixed speech, pigin;” 1650s as “phraseology peculiar to a sect or profession,” hence “mode of speech full of unfamiliar terms.” Middle English also had it as a verb, jargounen “to chatter” (late 14c.), from French.
One of the things I like best about taking tours of and reading books about distilleries or castles and the like is the chance to savor those unusual and often strangely lovely-sounding special terms. The lyne arm. The tun. The potstill, the draff, the spirit safe. Wort and wormtub.
And there’s the donjon, the voussoir, the queen-post, the feretory…in addition to all those buttresses and gargoyles and portcullises. Not to mention the terms, many of them archaic, associated with the making of tapestries and the cooking of meals and the husbandry of sheep or falcons or cattle.
Or the laying of stones for roads or masonry walls, for the engineering of moats and the design of crenellated defenses. So many words, and only highly specialized historians know them today; whereas once, the mostly illiterate men and women who did the work used the language of their trades.
It’s still true today–perhaps more than ever–that jargon is used among the people in a given industry, computer tech or realty or politics. I suppose those words will as surely fall out of use, or evolve in their meanings, and perhaps more rapidly than the jargon of yore.
Obscure terms, highly specialized in their function as means of communication. Sometimes, quite beautiful to know.
I am preparing for travel, and then I will be away from my computer for about a fortnight; and then, I shall be recuperating from my travels! For the first time in quite awhile, I am taking a rest from blogging.
Though I fully intend to get back to these pages after my return. There is nothing like a journey to invigorate, to inspire reflection…the clichés about journeying and questing are well-earned. Another part of the journey that is less celebrated, however, is the need for pause and the space between journeying and being home (or at journey’s end–which may not be home).
One activity I’m sure I’ll be doing is walking, and some of that walking will be along the paths of Windermere. Perhaps I will even encounter “a host of golden daffodils”–it’s about the right season for that.
Maybe I’ll read Gloria Steinem’s latest book, My Life on the Road, as I travel. She’ll make me feel like quite the amateur.