Thinking is a situated activity. Knowledge of myself and knowledge of my surroundings are inextricable. Maybe this is why so many of my poems are situated in specific, named places: the way I felt, the way I thought, when I was there, in that place and time, cannot be separated from the place itself. And even though the poem I write is of course not a record of my thinking on that past occasion, but a record of my thinking over the memory months or years later, still the attempt to re-enter my own past head must begin with a mental return to that place, a summoning-back, as nearly as I can, of how it felt to think and to be there – wherever there happens to be.
Hence the several place-name titles in my New Poetries VI pieces, including ‘Swimming at Ovens Mouth’, ‘Swimming the Deerfield at Stillwater’ and ‘Echo Lake’.
In visiting these memories to make poetry, however, I’m very aware of the risk of producing something which excludes the reader. This risk is a part of all art, of course – even the most fictive poem may still indulge the writer’s private emotions and beg its wider concern from the reader – but the problem seems especially acute with memory poems written about named places. They can have a postcard quality of ‘wish you were here!’ self-delight.
My first strategy for avoiding this pitfall while preserving the time-and-place specificity which is such a part of my creative process is to begin quite literally with the place-name: I try to approach it as naively as anyone who hasn’t been there would, and begin to construct the poem’s meanings around the meanings suggested by the name itself.
The poem ‘Echo Lake’ – a lake in my home town in Massachusetts and one of my favorite haunts when I’m visiting – begins and ends with the same image, and contains other images of subtle repetitions and expansions, so that the whole poem rings, very softly, with echoes: ‘Crows pass, // a slow communication.’ The poem is based upon a particular winter walk a few years back, when I spent a day rambling through the frozen woods around the half-frozen lake. But in writing the poem I tried to obliterate anything like specific detail in favour of the enigmatic and suggestive, inviting the reader to live a while in the scene, thinking their own thoughts, instead of merely passing through a description of someone else’s bygone.
Pushing that metaleptic aspect of my imagery, keeping it strange but ultimately relatable, is a big part of my poetic effort these days. ‘Swimming at Ovens Mouth’ begins ‘The sun and moon / dawdle in the evening crowns’: for me those crowns are the black, jagged shapes of pine trees against an evening sky, but they could as easily be brightly colored sunset clouds, or the broad undulations of the horizon. The point is not what they refer to, but that the intelligence of the poem sees them as crowns: glittering symbols of power. Ovens Mouth is a stretch of tidal creek in Maine, and, if I’m being honest, my wife (to whom the poem is addressed) never swam there: she swam a mile or two away up the rather boringly named Back River. But ‘Ovens Mouth’, suggesting an entrance to where things are made and unmade, the edge of some enormous rawness, was too beautiful a name to pass by in the interest of mere historical accuracy.
Maybe I’m always on the lookout for resonant place names. An hour we spent swimming with friends in a stretch of the Deerfield River called Stillwater, not far above its confluence with the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts, was memorable mostly for being cold and tiring. But I knew the name was a potential opening into meaning. The water does look still, with no ruffles and few swirls, but the moment you launch yourself bodily into it a powerful current begins towing you away. The physical experience of being in that water, in light of the place-name’s optimistic lie, suggested all sorts of things about human resentment of time and death.
So although ‘Swimming the Deerfield at Stillwater’ is built from a real memory, set in a real place and full of real people, it is, I hope, essentially an unfolding of the strangeness that we should name a stretch of moving river Stillwater.