Memoir-ish

While we are self-isolating, how about reading books? As it happens, I have a short chapbook of poems that’s being released just in time for National Poetry Month. Here are some thoughts.

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I enjoy reading memoirs–a well-written memoir reads like fiction or poetry, with interesting perspective and description revolving around not an entire life but one event or series of events that has a dramatic arc the way fiction does–and, often, some of the same ambiguities. Now that my chapbook on adolescent New Jersey girls in the 1970s is coming out (March 26, Prolific Press), however, I realize that readers are likely to interpret these poems as memoir. After all, I was indeed a teenager in south Jersey in the 1970s. That being the case, I might go only so far as to call these lyrical narrative poems memoir-ish.

barefoot girls cover

What people who read poems often forget is that the poem does not necessarily reflect the poet’s experience, only her interpretation, only the potential or the possible–the imagined. Poets choose personas as narrators when we endeavor to imagine other people’s insights, points of view, or experiences. Or even other beings’ or objects’ “points of view.” But of course, we can only imagine–we cannot really know anyone else’s lived experience. That gives poets and fiction writers and dramatists room to speculate, pretend, imagine: “What must it be like?”

This booklet tries to evoke various voices from a collective past but, I hope, will feel familiar to anyone who has ever been an adolescent. These poems emerged from Bruce Springsteen songs, from memories, from rumors, from attending a class reunion,  from experiences my 21st-c students had, and from my imagination. I filled in some gaps and created perspectives that would certainly not have been my own when I was a teen. And yet, any writer’s disingenuous if she claims her characters or narrators have nothing to do with her own perspective, that everything she writes is completely made up; if that were true, readers would feel left out. There would be nothing in the poem to relate to, nothing from which to derive personal meaning or insights. No “Aha!”

Any poem that can be called lyrical takes up the close point of view. Any narrative poem tells a story of some kind. An example is Patricia Smith’s book Blood Dazzler. Readers find it easy to believe that Smith resided in New Orleans, was there when Hurricane Katrina hit, because the poems are so authentic and personal–fierce, believable voices describing the devastation and its particular toll  on elderly and non-white citizens. But Smith did not live in New Orleans, and it doesn’t matter. It is an excellent and shattering work all the same.

Here’s one of Ren Powell’s posts on the unreliable narrator of our own lives. What we writers work with, often, is evoking the emotional memory, which isn’t the same as other ways humans recall events.

Yet it often fells more “true.”

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Murmurings

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Center Valley, PA, USA

On a crisp, abundantly clear day (for a change!), I opened the car windows to listen to the corn stalks rattling in the breeze. After an unusually wet year, the fields have been too wet to bring out heavy farm equipment, like gleaners. They would get stuck in mud. So the corn stands and, finally, dries in the rapidly-cooling air.

And rustles and swishes, and produces the susurration associated with tree foliage, only louder, harsher. The November sun heightens the contrast between the grassy-looking stalks and the crowd of shadows below the strap-shaped leaves. Zea mays: one of the incredibly numerous poaceae monocots. Field corn, in this case. It surrounds two sides of the campus where I work. On windy days, I can hear it murmuring. It has a wistful sound to it, each plant crackling softly against its many neighbors.

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Ascribing human emotions to non-human things is something poets often do and for which they have been occasionally excoriated (see the pathetic fallacy). It is really I, not the field corn, who’s feeling wistful. There’s no reason not to occasionally explore things such as the pathetic fallacy, anthropomorphism, or clichés in poems, though. Poems can be places for play, puns, irony, and over-the-top expressiveness…where else but in art do we have so much possibility for free rein and experiment?

With that in mind, what came to mind is a decade-old poem I played with long ago. I thought of it, located it in my files, and realized how well it suits this year’s rainy weather. It has never seen print, so this is its first public “share” to the small world of readers. Just to be wistful, and to listen to murmurings.

Fallacy Pathétique

Awful, the sobbing breast of the nearby hill
draped in funereal rain,
moping trees with bedraggled leaves
under dolorous skies.

How coarse and crass the indigent crows
mocking day’s solemnity
over pleading calls for mercy, compassion
from the myriad finches.

Do not quench sorrow but be drenched in it,
small streamlets fast-running
down ratty embankments dull with mud.
O, morning, mourning,

lease your grief to field and gravel and
the huddled owl’s
damp-pinioned back hunched in sleep.
Be terrible and bleak,

stained with the nouns and adjectives of despair,
run down the mountain
with a mouse carcass on your swift spine,
meet the road in a reeking ditch.

Endemophilia, toponesia, psychoterric states

Thanks to poet Annie Finch, I came across a thoughtful essay in Aeon magazine–an exercise in synthesis and interdisciplinary thinking that connects with Naess and his notion of ecosophy; and with Bachelard and others whose work I have lately been reading and thinking about. Liam Heneghan combines ecology, botany and topography with Winnie-the-Pooh and explores transience and trans-placement from several viewpoints. He looks at how so many of us are transplants, foreign “invaders,” culturally and biologically, and asks us to think about how we feel about place–home-place, in particular.

Not all of us connect with the concept of a home-dwelling anymore; but if we do so, that place is generally closely associated with childhood, observes Heneghan. He cites environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht and says:

…we do not yet have an adequate vocabulary to address our ‘psychoterric’ states — or how the state of the Earth relates to our states of mind. To balance the negative psychological state of ‘nostalgia’, a couple of years ago Albrecht proposed ‘endemophilia’ (the sense of being truly at home within one’s place and culture — or ‘homewellness’). To balance the term ‘topophilia’, a love of place, Albrecht opposes ‘solastalgia’ — the desolate feeling associated with the chronic decline of a homescape. Solastalgia names the emotions we have at the loss of species and habitats through climate change and other environmental changes. We should all expect a lot more of it.

I do know those feelings, and I feel happy to have terms for them! Yet I argue that we do have an adequate vocabulary for how the state of the Earth relates to our states of mind, and that vocabulary is artistic. I believe the finest expression of these kinds of emotional-memory sensations can be found mainly through art. My task for myself in the coming weeks is to gather a few examples of endemophilia, solastalgia, and other “psychoterric states” in poetry. I’ve already got a few in mind.

Please read Heneghan’s essay if ecopoetics or the notion of homescape appeals to you.