Place for me is animal. Neither mountain nor monument can make me feel as present, as aware of my surroundings, as the glimpse of a deer leaping between trees, or the sight of a skunk skulking by the garbage cans. When I lived in New Zealand I was profoundly lonely. Mistakenly I thought the source of my loneliness was the distance between that sliver of island in the South Pacific and the country of my family, accessible only by a thirteen-hour plane ride. But returning to the United States to visit my family I found myself near ecstatic at the sight of squirrels and woodchucks and realized the source of my loneliness: there were few mammals in my borrowed country. New Zealand is home to only one native mammal – a flightless bat – and a few introduced mammals, like the possum and the rabbit, mostly accursed, bodies barely glimpsed around the borders of human habitation. And the ever-ubiquitous sheep.
I have never been at home. I have bounced around the planet, from the Midwest to both coasts to the islands of New Zealand, and no place has ever made me feel that I belong there, that it is mine or I am its. Sometimes I think ex-pats are born, not made, and even now that I’ve returned to the country of my birth – though living in a region halfway across the country from where I grew up – I still feel like an ex-pat. I like upstate New York better than anyplace I’ve ever lived, and yet I am restless. I pass through places and think, could I live here? I drive the winding roads of western Massachusetts, with their tobacco barns and dairies and broad-avenued college towns, and think, yes. Yes to Detroit, with its grand mansions graffitied by blight. To the bush towns of Australia ambushed by sand. To treehouse villages hidden in Costa Rica’s interior. I could live anywhere.
Or nowhere. I think of my writing as being about place, and yet the places in my poems – when I go back to look at them now – are elusive, imaginary. They are places that exist only within language: the forests of fairy tales and the architectures of apocalypse. I can build palaces of water or empires of grass and install my imagination there, for a time, to frolic and fruit and flower. These places of my imagination are shaped by the needs of my fancy. They are colonized, they are destroyed, they are devoured.
Sometimes the places in my writing are the body itself. When one moves a lot, one’s body becomes a space to inhabit, a home, and it too changes with the geography. It is how one negotiates a new terrain. We feel a place inside of us: the thin air of mountains, the irradiating sun of New Zealand, Minnesota’s arctic dryness, St. Louis’s unbreathable summer air, the humid lushness of New York. These are places I have moved my body in and out of, and though many of these places now look alike – the same chain stores and car models and food brands – it is the way one’s body responds to the environment that reminds us it is new and we are there. How do I write about myself without writing about place? I cannot forget that I am a body in the world, having that place pass through me.
And biology tells us that we ourselves are places. I am an ecosystem, what scientists now call a ‘microbiome.’ I am more bacteria than human. Or rather, what we understand to be human is a bound colony of others living within a community, held together by a shared desire for survival. These others communicate down the vast tracts of my veins. They negotiate my interaction with the world. In part the places I have traveled to have changed me. New flora, acquired by my contact with soil and animals, dictate how I communicate with the world, what passes into me and what passes out.
Over and over in my poetry bodies are transformed, changed, mutable. They don the velvet of deer, the hearts of pigs, the eyes of sheep, and step anew into the world. They make their way. They make a place.
Photo By: daawn