I was born on the Texas side of the border with Mexico in a town called Del Rio, where I lived until I was five. Between first and sixth grade my family and I resided in Wichita Falls and Abilene. We lived in Fairborn, Ohio for my junior high years; O’Fallon, Illinois, near St. Louis, for my four years of high school; and Fort Walton Beach, Florida, the summer before I started college at Texas A&M University. After graduating, I lived in Paris (never lived in Paris, Texas), Austin, Taos, and Houston. Then I moved to the Pacific Northwest where I remained for almost 10 years before my doctoral studies and a subsequent hire at Pace University. The litany of places is included here for a couple of reasons.
Undoubtedly due to first eighteen years as a military brat and my subsequent bouncing across the country and abroad, place pervades my writing and profoundly influences the way I move through the world. Secondly, almost all of these towns inhabit “Keep,” my current manuscript, which I will talk about shortly.
First, some background relative to poetry and place. My debut collection, Our Parenthetical Ontology, was driven by a somewhat nomadic past and focused on the abilities and inabilities of language to connect human beings, with pressing questions around place, language, and human (dis)connection. My next collection Elements used elements from the periodic table as points of departure. I considered each element in terms of its broader cultural, historical, and social significance. As a consequence, many if not most of the elements can be registered in terms of place, for example Minamata, Japan for “Mercury (Hg)” and Anaconda Mining of Montana in “Copper (Cu).” My third poetry collection, the last will be stone, too, meditates on death, using art about death (loosely) as points of departure. That collection was at least in part precipitated by the loss I felt leaving the northwest in 2004.
What is presently consuming me in terms of place is the work I am doing with my manuscript “Keep.” The first section of the manuscript engages with various vocabularies— philosophical (eastern and western), anatomical, neuroscience-related, and psychological—to construct a lens through to examine specific memories. I refer to those memories as “scattered thunderstorms” because of the way my memory works—in flashes or images recalled from the span of my life. The second section of the manuscript involves processing those “scattered thunderstorms” through the lens I constructed in the first section. Some of these fragments are inventive; as unreliable as memory can be, the reader cannot rely on these fragments as autobiography.
At the moment though I am most excited about the third and fourth sections of “Keep.” The third section works with dreams—dreams which parallel the places I work with in the second section. My thinking about the relationship between place and memory is probably most embodied in the seven “prouns,” which make up much of the fourth section. That fourth section is a meditation on the relationship of place and memory and on a koan that I discuss elsewhere.
Last March, I discovered Russian early twentieth-century artist El Lissitzky’s prouns at the Harvard Art Museums. I was intrigued by what seemed like the words noun, prose, and poem drawn together on the placard as one term. (I learned after the pronunciation is more like “pro-oon”). I discovered that Lissitzky was somewhat ambiguous in his definition of the term, a term that defined his distinct series of work in Suprematism. He once spoke of proun as “the station where one changes from painting to architecture” (Design is History). As I began my first proun, I thought of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s “Permanent Home.” Berssenbrugge, like Edward Said, has been important to me in terms of what I view as a very spatial orientation. So I began riffing off the beginning of “Permanent Home” for the first proun.
As a proun, I wanted to translate the experience of a visual language with spatial elements onto the page with writing. This seemed a logical next step not only for my manuscript but also for a history of preoccupation with spatial considerations. I enjoyed thinking about how I might be able to move between “architecture” and the page. In previous work, I am fairly adventurous. Poems appear vertically on the page, utilize white space by way of words strewed across the page, and stand in columns of text—just to name a few formal articulations. But in this manuscript I wanted to use the language itself as spatial elements, like bricks and windows, walls and road.
I turned my eye to the spatial, using a proun as a way to decipher thinking of place on the page. So far this is much less a formal display of the spatial than a desire to put geometries in the language itself in contact with ideas around place.
This process brings me somewhere new. “Place is not a vessel,” but “place does in fact provide some security.” I’m still figuring it out. But it seems a different path, where my aesthetic sensibility of attempting to push away singularity and pull multiplicity towards me echoes in the movement from place to place within the landscape of “Keep.”
Photo By: Justin Kern