How has our sense of “place” changed during the pandemic? Are you a knowledge worker who migrated to a “Zoomtown” on Planet-COVID? Were you a cashier who’s now called a front-line worker because you sell groceries from behind plexiglass, COVID-19 having made the supermarket a danger zone? Were you worried about where you’d go, what place you’d inhabit when you lost your lease or your house to unemployment, to climate disaster? Did you wait in a socially distanced line to vote?
Reading has always been able to transport us from that Wordsworthian couch where we “lie / in vacant or in pensive mood” to lakeside daffodils, from Du Fu’s floating exile in the Three Gorges to a time of peace before the capital was a war zone. COVID intensified this by keeping us in exile from better times, on the couch imagining the places that haunt us.
I’ve been drawn by COVID’s muddling of place to revisit The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice, edited by Shara Lessley and Bruce Snider, published in 2017 by Pleiades Press. The essays in this eclectic collection share themes of isolation and memory and should be assigned reading for a pandemic crash course on processing grief, surviving isolation, battling loneliness, and now, cautious reemergence.
For poets, place is associated not only with setting, but with an emotional landscape (“no ideas but in…” places?). And now, for many of us, teetering on the verge of a COVID-induced case of agoraphobia, place has earned its spot on the list of “constructs,” i.e., shared ideas of meaning that rely on unevaluated habits of mind which dissolve under close study. In other words, we subjectively build our ideas of what race, ethnicity, family, gender, and other constructs mean. By calling them “constructs” we subject them to scrutiny, reevaluate our received perceptions, and open their definitions to a fluidity that reveals that constructs don’t exist without our making them. We invent them. The Poem’s Country shows that place had arrived at “construct” well before COVID. This collection (and the pandemic) shows us that places are as mutable as memory, easily photoshopped in the albums of our minds, deep fakes on replay, and yet essential, beloved, dangerous, rich.
Many of The Poem’s Country’s ”places” don’t even appear on maps. But not being on a map doesn’t mean a place isn’t a place. Here are some conceptual “places” this collection maps for us, places of the mind, constructs if you will: the internet cloud, “America,” the Earth as food source, the psychic space of post-traumatic brain injury, “MOTHER,” consciousness and mind, the place left behind by a military spouse, the site that is human body. Displacement, aquariums, silence. Reading The Poem’s Country now, we connect these with pandemic places, seen on the other side of plexiglass, of screens: the singing from windows in the empty streets of Milan, Link watching the sunset while wading in the sea in the Breath of Wild’s video game Lurelin Village, the relatives we couldn’t hug on the other side.
This collection also travels to places on maps, but places many of us, still cautious, might hesitate to visit right now (Guam, Iraq, Lambeth Palace), and many that we can’t visit anymore because climate crisis, or time, has transformed them (King Island in the Chukchi Sea or The Central Virginia Training Center, formerly known as The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded). Places that have been mutated by memory (a small town in Minnesota), inflated by myth (Compton), unfairly damned (Detroit), and places made important in poetry by the imagination of writers who experience them (Mt. Rainier/Tahoma). Maps legitimize our constructs. We can find King Island on a map, so it’s real, and we can see it through the words of Abigail Chabitnoy, for whom the island is of great significance as an ancestral home. In her essay “A Place for Ghosts,” she asks, “What is it to be of a place? To be removed from that place? To carry that place?” In a poem, place allows us to create, to recreate, to recover, to mourn, to embody, as Chabitnoy concludes: “Each poem is a wave, a shore, a piece of the landscape, is the landscape. An Island to the archipelago. To write place is to be in the company of ghosts, to carry home with me always, like the fog that settles in my bones.” This collection suggests again and again that poets and poetry are conjoined with such places—found on a map and indelibly mapped to the psyche.
The editors’ own essays are among the gems of the collection. Shara Lessley’s wide-ranging piece succeeds at engaging both perceived real and constructed locations. Titled, “One Cluster, Bright, Astringent,” it dwells for a time with Elizabeth Bishop in her Nova Scotia house, but also, through personal stories, “[i]n the strange planet called childhood…” The essay is built associatively, drawing connections between Lessley’s memories (often of discovering the universe beyond earth, and of ballet) and Bishop’s influence. Lessley writes, “about Bishop’s living years only fragments of fact exist,” indirectly echoing the fragmentary memories that Lessley presents about herself. Lessley begins the essay, “The year Elizabeth Bishop died I learned to read…,” and then a page later, “Nearly twenty years later, Bishop’s work is teaching me to be a better reader…” Then, seven pages in as the essay turns on its associations, memoir, and reflections on Bishop, we arrive at, “When I say Bishop taught me to be a better reader, I mean this: she taught me that readers of poetry should expect equal parts mystery and clarity, imagination and intellect… [Poetry] demands courage of movement, a willingness to start in one place and arrive at the unknown.” As psychic travelers, then, poets need to risk transportation, a “willingness” to be guided by their poetic ancestors.
Places in these essays have resonance, whether it’s Great Village, Nova Scotia, or a concept learned there. Places are charged with nostalgia, with traumatic memory, with loss, and with hope. Our phrase “the environment” offers a synonym for place, but while in the past poets have often turned to nature as a place of idyll and inspiration very few of these essays seem to celebrate the wild world’s continuing importance, except as a loss to be mourned. This makes sense given climate crisis: the record heat, flooded islands, orange skies, and empty reservoirs of the past several years. Meanwhile, urban places offer a wider range of individual and group identity.
In fact, for many today, the rural has never been an idyll, or was a conflicted one at best. Bruce Snider’s essay, “Trouble & Consolidation: Writing the Gay Rural” is set in the Indiana town where he grew up and recounts his experience of observing a gay couple who lived there: an undertaker and a high school teacher. This essay is lyrical, elegiac, and tragic in its conclusion: that the author would need a more diverse and accepting urban setting to nurture his personal and poetic life. Certainly, reading Snider’s book Paradise, Indiana could only enhance an appreciation for this playful and wise poet’s essay.
Indeed, The Poem’s Country spins, an axle with more than twenty spokes leading to the wheel of contemporary poetry written by this diverse range of authors, informed by place in myriad ways. Another of those spokes would lead to the work of Sabrina Orah Mark, whose initially mysterious essay, “If You Need Me, Mother Is the Poem Where I’ll Be,” begins to emerge, on rereading, as a prose poem homage to all who’ve had a maternal influence on Mark, as well as a giddy riff on the word “mother” itself. Its thirteen sections might be “Thirteen Ways of Looking at MOTHER.” It’s associative and playful like the best of Stevens. Claudia Rankine plays a vital role, “(Forgotten) rumor has it that a famous poet once referred to me as Claudia Rankine’s ‘tail’… She is my poet MOTHER.” The shortest section captures the maddeningly playful repetition of the theme, and brings a laugh, “For my 40th birthday I wanted two things. #1 to clean my entire house. #2 to have a word with Gertrude Stein’s MOTHER.”
Is it a kind of defiance to put an associative prose poem about a repeated word in a collection of essays about place? But in 2021, how can we not think of George Floyd’s, “Mama, Mama, Mama,” too? Or that, during the pandemic, mothers were left with no choice but to exit the workforce in droves as the majority of childcare and housework was left to them. For many women during this pandemic, MOTHER was not a happy place. This essay suggests to me, in 2021, that the longing and reconciling with the maternal is central to every cry for justice, every celebration of life. Mark concludes, “Just between you and me, I’ve already plotted the coordinates of my new collection. It is a perfect drawing of my MOTHER’s face.” Poets map the “coordinates” of the places, the faces, the themes that haunt them, that play with them, that inspire them, that bring them to revelations.
Eavan Boland, whose death was a brutal, early-pandemic blow, writes in the foreword to this collection, “For a long time the [Wordsworthian] theme of turning a place into a world persisted. Then something happened.” This collection, Boland proposes, “addresses that something.” These essays show us that this “something” is that the idealized natural places of Wordsworth are less important to the poetic imagination, and the concept of place has become as richly varied as the voices of contemporary poetry. Boland continues: “The subject is place and its intersection with poetry, but there is the widest possible range [of places] here: from meditation to assertion.”
Or maybe a “No-Place.” Christopher Kempf’s essay, “The Cloud, the Desktop, & the Poetics of No-Place,” wrestles admirably with the metaphors of the internet age and questions of whether we’re truly connected, whether we can have access to the “Romantic sublime” via our laptops:
The arrival of the internet—for myself, for my generation, for our species—was a setting forth, I think, from what Gaston Bachelard has called ‘the consolation of the cave,’ a taking of our way, with wandering steps and slow, through an unknown, threatening, yet potentially liberating, possibly revolutionary global village. We had swapped the shelter of our homes for the information superhighway…
During the pandemic many of us have had only our caves and our internet connections. In that way, Kempf’s essay can seem momentarily dated in its bemused contempt for the transformations brought about by networked computers. But his 2017 perspective can lead us to ask whether some of the hollow seductions of technology have not now saved us? Kempf couldn’t have known what was coming and his references to media theorist Marshall McLuhan still ring true as he warns us how we’ve been taken over by this constructed life. Kempf’s essay is prescient in its analysis of the metaphors we use for tech, the constructions of a “no-place”-place where many of us now dwell in connected isolation, pandemic or no.
For a poet reflecting on how a place might inform their poetic practice, this collection offers a virtual atlas of possible models: no two places are alike, nor are the ways of making poems that derive from them. Rereading it, dipping in at random, this collection never fails to provoke questions and spur insight. Many of the essays share a sense of being haunted by an enduring connection to a source-place of inspiration. As Mark Wunderlich puts it in his essay: “I have gone into the world, but I brought my home town with me, along with everyone in it. They sit with me now as I type these words into a machine. I am alive in a multitude of places, though I know with certainty that most of those places no longer exist.”
Poets don’t always have hometowns, but we all bring something with us. In The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice, in this range of ideas about poetic practice, “place” is wherever our poems come from.
[Edward Derby will be a student of Bruce Snider this fall. This essay was accepted prior to this development. – Ed.]