Tuesday, March 24, 2009

About Poetry and Place
Breyten Breytenbach, whose name is as interesting as his poetry, wrote: “One travels through many lands and one’s words go with you as swift, half-tamed birds, and at night they return to warble what they have eaten.”
The other night in a moment of clarity, I paused at the front door of our apartment building on University Avenue and noticed that the Ghanaians had painted their restaurant in national colors – from white to red, green, and yellow – and that Quaker Oats had put up a new billboard that said “Go Humans Go.” Funny how things that were once wonderful in their difference to the conventional now seem quotidian. The Lhasa Salon and Beauty Tek that flank the Ghanaian Restaurant have become normal, regular parts of the topography of the place. Yet now as I stood there braced against a young tree next to the parking meter ticket machine, it seemed once again strange. Even more estranging was the pacing of eminent anthropologist Paul Rabinow’s ubiquitous teaching assistant (the one who has a Ph.D in both theology and anthropology) as he softly shushed his new born baby while his cooing wife entertained guests in the Salvadorian place twenty steps from our backdoor. Gaymon Bennett (I’ve since found out that is the TA’s name) broke into a lullaby, but the baby kept wailing.
In January moving from New York to a new environment seemed impossibly good. I was actually surprised a month or two later that living among yogi naturalists and dreamy anarchists in a peaceful and quiet neighborhood didn’t necessarily mean that I would never be grumpy. Even space so perfectly organized did not necessarily guarantee my satisfaction.
Last night J. and I stalked Joanna Newsom and Gary Snyder up in the Nevada County Sierra. We wanted to see what sort of place could produce the poetics and practice we like to emulate. Nevada City is a mining turned wining and dining town not far from John A. Sutter’s mill where gold was noticed back in 1848. The town sparkled with truth in sharp greens and greys, the downtown a march of old brick and hard-wood buildings tight and square with stenciled signs. The scent of sourdough bread and wet ponderosa pine filled the air when we were there, eating local Cajun food while listening to Jonny Cash. In the bathroom of Ike’s Quarter Cafe we saw signs of Woody Guthrie, a dislike for neckties, a band of thirteen year-old local rock stars called “13” and known as the “best band in the galaxy.” The food was expensive and local and the toilet seat was made of wood. The place was like the poetry Robert Hass, our poet laureate, prefers: “poetry is a late night coffee shop: it makes you feel truth and social belonging.” Driving home for the last time out of the foothills, I put my hand on the back of J.’s head as close as I could to her brain and pointed out Mount Diablo and Mount Tamalpias rolling back on opposite sides of the San Andreas Fault and San Francisco Bay. We were floating home like two Canadian geese, I was hoping she would chatter and chirp like an excited four-year old chickadee as she sometimes does; instead we listened to Peter, Paul and Mary and thought about what it means to be happy and how maybe a nice place is like good poetry: it prepares the ground for a strong politics and just society, and it makes you understand just a little the naiveté of cynicism.


Post a Comment

<< Home