I think about windows. Roads lit by a streetlight going on and off. The railroad tracks. These things follow me wherever I go: Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee. They’re like pick-up trucks and grain elevators and old barns. Place to me is perspective. Where I am is what I see, and that “where” is hugely expansive and complicated and not.
Less than a block from the house I live in now is a train track. The town I grew up in, Sikeston, MO, had a train track that divided (and pretty much segregated) the city. The townspeople called the part of town on the other side of the tracks “Sunset.” There’s a similar division here in Greeneville, TN, but it’s more about social class than race. We live on the poor side of the tracks. I think a lot about trains and tracks. They populate my poems like liquor, coffee, and birds do.
My daughter used to love to watch the trains go by when she was younger. She doesn’t as much any more, even though I call her over all the time when one’s coming by. I’ve had friends hit by trains—one who damn near lost an arm playing chicken. I read my daughter stories about trains as courageous little blue things. We watch Thomas on the television sometimes; we bought her a track last year for Christmas.
Ford Madox Ford wrote that impressionism was like looking out a window and seeing a landscape, but you also see your reflection in the glass, which turns out not to really be your reflection but the face of someone behind you. I’ve always thought he was looking out a train window there, but my memory is foggy. Place for me is that place: a window, a reflection, movement, a train—something that I’m not getting quite right.
Out my window right now I can see the mountains. They used to make me claustrophobic as someone who grew up at the flat top tip of the Mississippi delta and who has also spent a good deal of time looking out at the long rolling expanse of Oklahoma. I couldn’t see past the mountains, and I always wondered what was going on over there on the other side. Now I can feel how deep they are, how far back they go. Now I know what’s on the other side, and beyond that, and then the ocean far away somewhere.
I carry all of these places with me all the time. I’m always caught between what I’m dragging around in my head and this other “thing-ness” of a place—the feeling of its people, its roads, its food and the songs its people hum when they don’t realize anyone is listening.
If I think of a window I always think of a road outside that window. If I think of a road I think of a map—my own geography. I think of my father and mother in Southeast Missouri—all the interstates that run from here to there and out from there—I-81, I-40, I-55. I think of how straight the section line roads back home are, how winding the mountain roads are.
I used to be terrified to drive a crooked road. Now I get a special kind of pleasure making the people riding with me a little bit nervous. Once I catch them grabbing on to something, I feel like I’ve done something right. I think of the snow in northern New Hampshire and Vermont where my wife grew up. I wonder what the mountains will mean to my daughter. I think about the Mississippi river, the house in Alabama on the gulf my family rents for vacation. I wonder what the water means to all of us.
I feel like this essay is all over the place. I guess that gets it right, though—I am all over the place. But I’m here, too. At the computer. And my daughter is asking my wife for something to eat, and I can hear that perfect sound a toaster makes going down. It’s always right here and now, after all, but that’s not right either because I’m also with my father looking at a white Ford three-quarter ton truck he traded for today and texted me a picture of. I’m with so many of you from one moment to the next.
My daughter and I took a walk downtown this morning with the dog. We kept finding balloons everywhere—it was surreal. She kept a green one because it’s my wife’s favorite color. We both wore sock hats, and I don’t remember ever looking at our reflections in the store windows. But we were all held there for a while in the glass as we passed—I’ve seen it before. Then another train came through. We ate biscuits on a little bench.
Looking back, we’re always right where I remember.
Photo By: Jeramey Jannene