“To make a start
out of particulars”
“I come back to the geography of it.”
Olson, Maximus to Dogtown, Letter 27
“and all the sweet remembered demarcations”
Jones, The Tribune’s Visitation
Ideas of place have been essential to my poetry from the beginning. Perhaps, an idea about place was the beginning, a few statements in Whitehead read and underscored in the Spring of 1958, first from Modes of Thought (“The notion of empty space, the mere vehicle of spatial interconnections has been eliminated from recent science. The whole spatial universe is a field of force, or in other words, a field of incessant activity.”), then from Science in the Modern World (“We have to admit that the body is the organism whose states regulate our cognizance of the world. The unity of the perceptual field, therefore, must be a unity of bodily experience.”) Location and site are hypothetical, dimensionless instances in grids of one sort or another. Place is the body’s province, hence one field of force—the self and its dynamic engagement with the stuff of experience—actively involved with another— the incessantly active spatial universe. In our involvement with it, our enjoyment of our joint perceptions of the body and its surroundings we give shape, offer place, that is, to the human universe. The poetics of place begin, then, with forms that represent that engagement of body with the unities it creates. And because place is the body’s reach, in its dynamic engagement with space, it has, to give Bachelard his due, an inherent roundness, or if you like, aroundness.
Places, those areas of collective perception we have names for (home, the playground, Omaha, Chicago, Texas, The West) are conventions through which we offer a kind of stability to the world’s welter, even though our experience of places is, as much as anything, about change. “You know, when I was a kid, the city ended here, and that,” you gesture toward an expense of highways, shopping malls and office buildings, “was cornfields.” And the names that hold these conventions together are as certain and arbitrary as myth and as essential, though they are in general, but especially in America, the record of one or another kind of political, economic or cultural ascendency. To the winner goes the naming.
American places are named for what was left behind (New England, New York, New Bedford, New Orleans), for an appropriated antiquity (Syracuse, Rome, Ithaca, Memphis), for religious or political figures, indigenous trees and with names taken from Native Americans, borrowings, expropriations and sometimes comic misunderstandings. The origin of a place name eventually becomes just one of the features of its place, at once determined and cumulative. Place names are responsible not just for spatial cohesions but for temporal cohesions as well. They hold the past in place, both the personal past and the historic past, as well as their places’ tacit geology, archaeology, hydrology, flora and fauna. Your primary place, home, is where the engagement of body with the spatial universe accrued its first fund of stuff, the stuff of identity, I suppose. It changes and you change in time, as well, so even what seems most familiar is a continuous negotiation, its own kind of accrual, an idiosyncratic poesis involving memory and perception, the curious mixture of early wonder and eventual familiarity, plus the mysteries of scale we readjust to as we grow. The same is true, with perhaps less emotional baggage, of places you may never have been, Gaeta or Kowloon, addresses to which we send bits of fact, lore, misunderstandings and longing. Paris, Venice, Prague, Jerusalem, Athens, each is its own storehouse of the propositions we encounter or create over time about them, then test and readjust as each is, in turn, engaged directly or encountered in successively richer texts.
Sacred places and sacrament need to be taken into account, as well. The sacred place— temple mount, cairn, fairy mound, altar, grave site, camino—is described by and circumscribes an additional set of conventions, transit points between this world’s welter and another, where recurrent acts and incantations take the body out of itself. Such places are frequently institutionalized, but in poetic terms they needn’t be. Duncan’s “meadow” in The Opening of the Field, the “everlasting omen of what is,” is such a place. So are Olson’s sea shore, Williams’ radiate field of Queen Anne’s lace and John Matthias’ East Anglia. For Dante and Chaucer, the book was such a place and text a kind of permission through dream or reverie into a significant elsewhere. Sacrament, Eliot, Auden, and Jones remind us, is an act of the body in an incidental place made essential by an acceptance of transformation. When you kneel, you kneel into the place of every communicant before you through time and join the company of that upper room for the first Last Supper through the office of a formalized poetic incantation. Ritual reenactments all stabilize the body and place by reducing the individual to a representative of the group and transforming places into a single, sacred place that is presumed to exist out of time and beyond change. Ritual can also reclaim place, as in the wild baptism in the last section of Williams’ “The Wanderer,” when the old queen muse washes the young poet’s eyes in the “filthy Passaic” and bids the foul, degraded river to flow through him, a baptism in the actual.
In Whitehead’s sense, an “event’ of consequence involves an actual occasion interrelated “in some determinate fashion” with one or more “extensive quantum.” For Whitehead, the extension involved the eternal or the universal, an overlay of the particular, in space and time, with eternal objects. My view is that for a poetics of space, an event of consequence involves an actual occasion in which there is a conspicuous overlay of perception with the complex phenomena of place. So the body, in its enjoyment of the space it unifies, can involve a heightened sense of cumulative experience, the actualization of place in time, that is, its history, archaeology, geology, the register of its name, its idioms, as well as the idiomatic familiarity of its appearance in the moment. The actual occasion is often but not always an excursion to a discreet place. It can be, as well, the outcome of a text, but in every case it needs for its eventual amplitude the additional valences that place entails. Just as a mere description, however fetching, of grass and trees does not engage the complex inter-relations involved in ecology, mere naming or sighting does not engage in any significant ways the complexities of place.
Because place exists in the joint dynamic of body and the spatial universe, it is also, at times, volatile or indeterminate. Such occasions, when body and perception are destabilized either because one or both are too closely seen or because the immediate is in itself unstable or because of the velocity of the body through space or space around the body, are special instances of place, which might be formulated in terms proposed to us by abstract expressionism or improvisational jazz. As complex, delightfully so, are the warps given to body in place by intimacy, the puzzles it makes of inside and out, of self and other, of opened and closed. From my own work, then—“place/ where the space is/ always closed, always opens” or “the known place where/skin moistens skin.”
It’s hard to offer just a few poems to illustrate these various notions concerning place. Two from the early sixties might be of use. “Mandan” is set in a South Omaha park above the Missouri River. The speaker is standing at the crest of the bluff over the river facing east. The park is named for the Mandan Indians whose villages were to the north, on his left. At his right is Fontenelle Forest, named for the bilingual, biracial Indian the whites called a Chief. His name, in French, is the name for the soft spot on an infant’s head before the bones in the skull have fused. “Memorial Day” deals with a derangement of place occasioned by the awkwardness of the body in the cemetery’s grid of graves and headstones. “Between the willow and the water faucet,” two familiar landmarks, “the way is lost.” The third poem, “Second Thoughts,” is relatively new and revisits the relation of place to desire. As I said at the start, place has been a preoccupation of mine since I began writing poems. All I can do is to shamelessly gesture toward a range of other poems—for an investigation of the drift of places, see “ Riversongs IV & VII” and “On the Conditions of Place”; for place and its relationship to proper and common nouns, “Factum, Chansons, Etc.” and “Figures in a Landscape”; for urban places and music in place, “And This Is Free” (in In Natural Light) and “Steal Away” (in Heat Lines); for the way that music can offer a fresh present to place, “Summer Night” (in Heat Lines); and for the fluidity of times in place, “And Called to Mind” (in Heat Lines).
This is fantastic. It’s not often that I come across a post or article meditating on place and what it means. As someone whose writing almost always centers around issues of place, finding this was the high point of my day.