The Road Back is the Way Forward: An Essay on Place

by | Jun 18, 2014 | Creative Nonfiction

Michael Anania, who has said just about everything about “The Reach of Place” in his contribution to these pages a while back, has been for decades my friend, fellow poet, first reader, and even for a brief time my editor at the old Swallow Press.  His interventions in my work are too many even to remember, but one of them had to do with offering a title to Bob Archambeau when he edited the first book to be published about my poetry.  Michael is good at titles. Word Play Place, he said. And Word Play Place it was.  No punctuation. No hierarchy among the three. But readers asked, nonetheless: Which is primary?  Does one first need a place to stay, a word to say, or a game to play?  What bay, what day, what way of speaking about water or the time? And is there ever a case where wordplay cancels place?

Forgive the terrible rhymes! They leap at me, grinning with bared teeth, the piranha-revenge of verse because I’ve been writing prose – in fact, a novel.  Parts of it return to places I’ve treated off and on in poems for more than thirty years. Here’s a brief sampling.  My character, Timothy Westmont, at this point twelve years old, has been told he must go to a summer camp . . .

. . . but he never wanted to attend this camp or any other. What he liked to do in the summers was to play with his visiting cousins in the ravine near his home.  Robert and Richard shared his enthusiasm for imaginative games.  They would all dress up in costumes concocted from a chest full of accessories ranging from his grandfather’s Spanish-American war swords and discarded bits of uniform to plumes from women’s hats that had gone out of style in the 1920s and 30s.  The amazing thing was their ability to sustain the games they played through hours and hours of improvised plot and dialogue.  In later life Westmont wondered how they had done it.  Once in character, their world of knights or pirates took over so thoroughly that they inhabited it to the exclusion of any intrusion of reality at all.  Westmont tried now and then to compare memories with others of his generation about childhood games, but no one else seemed to have played them with the intensity he had.  He loved these games, and he loved his cousins because they loved them as well.  Sometimes he’d try to get some other child interested in the kind of thing the cousins did together, but no one else seemed to get the idea.  A few would try, but with a kind of embarrassment.  Finally these other friends would throw down the sword and cape and say – “let’s go play ball with the others down the Glen.”

The Glen.  Even the word was wrong.  Westmont’s parents called it “the ravine,” not “the glen.”  But because Old Glen Echo Drive ran through it, everybody else in the neighborhood called it the glen.  Westmont was an outsider, and he knew it.  He also knew that he was the butt of jokes among the tough kids in his neighborhood because of his summer games with the cousins.  In fact, he was often afraid of getting roughed up by those who called him names.  One time his cousins didn’t tell him he’d forgotten to take off his cowboy hat safety-pinned into a tricorne with a wonderful bright yellow plume until they’d reached Gray’s drug store soda counter and they were all ordering their Cokes.  Robert and Richard thought it was a good joke on Westy, but the neighborhood kids browsing the movie and hot-rod magazines at the store never let him forget it.  “Westy,” they’d say through the long fall and winter following the cousins’ return to Washington D.C. where they lived, “how’s your pirate hat?  How about a game of Horatio Hornblower?  How about a blowjob? How about we break your sissy teeth out?” 

Given that the tough kids in the neighborhood had now, as it were, discovered him, it took a certain amount of courage to go down in the ravine in costume. Still, it was there that the best forts, lookouts, and ambush sites could be found.  One summer during a bad windstorm the tall cherry tree in his back yard was blown down in such a way that the trunk tilted over the wall at the edge of the family property and many large limbs actually plunged on down the hill into the ravine. Once the storm was over, Westy and his cousins costumed themselves as officers in Lord Nelson’s navy and played at boarding enemy ships or abandoning their own in a typhoon or following a ferocious attack by the French.  After two days of this, they ventured, still in costume, on down the ravine to continue their game as sailors shipwrecked on a frightening alien shore.

The cousins skipped through many summers down the narrow Glen Echo Drive with the alacrity of Tin Man, Straw Man, and Cowardly Lion tripping along the yellow brick road to look for the Wizard of Oz.  But Westmont set off to camp only with a heavy heart and a sense of serious obligation.  Richard and Robert had signed up for camps of their own one year – they were two and three years older than he was – and the following year Westmont felt that he had to follow suit.  Robert, the oldest cousin, had even said during one of their last games together, “Maybe we’re getting a little old for this.”  It had been clear to Westmont that Robert’s improvisational skills had been starting to flag.  He could see for himself what was coming.  Although he held out for a year, he finally agreed that he would follow Robert and Richard into what was represented to him as a way to meet new friends and learn new skills. But he understood pretty clearly that this was mainly intended as an unwanted initiation into a proper adolescence.  He had loved being a child.

Anybody well-acquainted with my poetry will recognize at least some of this, especially from early poems in Turns like “Double Derivation, Association, and Cliché: From the Great Tournament Roll of Westmisnster” and the accompanying “Clarifications for Robert Jacoby,” which contains these lines:

I wonder if you remember all those games

We used to play: the costumes,

All the sticks & staves, the whole complicated

Paraphernalia accumulated to suggest

Authentic weaponry and precise historical dates,

Not to mention exact geographical places,

All through August and September – the months you

Visited . . .

The scene in the poem, however, has been transferred from the primal place – Glen Echo Ravine in Columbus, Ohio – and dropped into a place I later chose, or that chose me, as inhabitant and celebrant: the East Anglian region of England – as feminine a place as the dark glen itself, the family home of the woman I married. In my novel, there is a point at which Timothy Westmont suffers a violent confrontation that alters his life to the point that it becomes, as he grows up, much less than it initially promised to be. One of the neighborhood bullies nearly succeeds in killing him at the camp. When he recovers and returns home, severely traumatized but not knowing it, he insists on going down in his beloved ravine:

When the antibiotics kicked in and even before his cheekbone had properly begun to heal, Westmont put on his favorite costume – a Horatio Hornblower outfit – that included his three-corner hat with its yellow plume. Taking along his grandfather’s Spanish American War sword, he gingerly stepped down the slippery shale on the hill and entered Glen Echo Park. He was away for some time, and, of course, his parents worried about allowing their son’s single-minded ritual to take place at all. But he returned by dusk, saying that now he “felt much better.”

In years to come, Westmont’s cousins, Robert and Richard, would say that in their view, having heard from Westmont’s parents about their son’s convalescent descent, “Westy never came up out of that ravine at all.” There was some truth in that. Among other things, Westmont never afterwards paid much attention to Robert and Richard themselves, though his parents stayed in contact. He would say, when their names were mentioned, “Oh, all that’s over now.”

As for me, I indeed came up out of the ravine.  But “all that” was never over, never could be.  The road down is still the road back, and the road back is the way forward.

***

I’m choosing two poems to print here.  The first, “Swimming at Midnight,” is one of the earliest poems I’ve saved and reprinted several times, written at Stanford in, I think, 1963.  The second is the poem from which I have quoted above. The two provide a pretty clear bridge between my childhood in Ohio and the period during which I lived in England.  Longer poems might well provide even better examples, and for readers engaged by these two, my Collected Longer Poems is available from Shearsman Books.

 

 

Photo By: Christian Scheja

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