When I first proposed a feature on place and poetry to Dan Cafaro, we were standing on Boylston Street in Boston in early March. The snow had just ended and all of the writers at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs were still negotiating the slush and wet and crowds of other bar and reading-hopping writers, flushed with cold and beer and the tizzy that writing conferences always seem to stir. I was excited about having poets write brief essays on places or the impact of place on their work. I hoped for their poems—published or new—to add to and complicate the conversation. I was interested in all of the ways that I knew other writers could address place that included and went beyond the place they wrote from, the place of their earliest imaginations, the places in their heads.
Place has always been essential to my own poetics. Maybe because I have lived geographically apart from my home place for over 20 years. Maybe because I always saw my home in Northwest Arkansas as peripheral to the world I read about. Maybe because I have a wandering lustfulness to be “elsewhere.” It is mysterious how the physicality of a place—the sensory experience of it—contains so much else that defies the tangible. I live with the mystery of my father’s home town of Van Buren, Arkansas, an early monument in my memory: its railroad tracks receding into blackjack oak and scarlet sumac, winding towards the Arkansas River, abutting the First Baptist Church with its spaghetti suppers and chlorinated baptismal, with its stained glass Biblical narratives and sweet humidity. Place engages sensory experience and evokes story, evokes lyric.
In reading the essays and poems of our featured writers, Michael Anania and Joe Harrington, we are reminded of the protean shape of place. Anania tells us that our “primary place, home, is where the engagement of body with the spatial universe accrue[s] its first fund of stuff, the stuff of identity…” The names of these places are like mailboxes to which information is sent, added to, and changed through our experience over time. Anania deals with the histories of place names in America and the varying baggage that they carry. We see both this accrual and struggle with home and identity in Harrington’s essay, “No_Some,” in which he writes of his mother’s life in the 40s and 50s in Memphis before her eventual death from breast cancer simultaneous to Watergate. The essay’s structure oscillates between “some place,” surrounding us with names: Troy, Rome, Patterson, North Memphis, Cotton Carnival, The Pinch; and “no place,” a land of not so abstract abstraction. Harrington writes, “Your childhood is its own geographical location that nobody understands. Place feeds on memory (story).” These two writers address the substance or “stuff” of place alongside “location that nobody understands.”
As I think of place and poetry here inside Atticus Review, I’m reminded of the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird in which Scout and Jem find Boo Radley’s first gift in the hollow tree: two shined up pennies, 1900 and 1916. In their deliberation about ownership, Scout tells her brother, “Grown folks don’t have hiding places” (Lee 39). This line seems particularly important given the shifting and occult nature of place with which both Michael Anania and Joe Harrington have gifted us. Their (our) places accrue and elude, are fixed in memory and constantly changing. The Boylston Street where this column was spoken into being among snow and high-spirited writers is now another place altogether in my own and our national memory after the Boston Marathon bombing in April. Our childhood homes often transform from the land of giants and magic to downsized or re-fashioned ordinary places as we mature—even as the initial pre-knowledge strangeness lingers. We travel or move to new places—Oaxaca, Worcester, Drumnadrochit—and change our minds. My hope, readers, is that we delight in seeking out these hiding places together.
In this issue:
“The Reach of Place” by Michael Anania
“Mandan” by Michael Anania
“Memorial Day” by Michael Anania
“Second Thoughts” by Michael Anania
“From No Soap” by Joseph Harrington
“NO_SOME” by Joseph Harrington
Photo by Ed Gaillard