Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Larry Levis "The Sacred Home"

I have wanted to write a post for some time about the power of place, its amplitude and special relationship to poets, as this is of concern in my own poetry. For instance, the landscape of Stayner, On, insinuates itself in many of my poems which is strange when you think I lived there for only four years before going off to university. Why not Bancroft where I lived for eight years? That country north of Belleville?

Certainly I have wonderful memories of those times and experiences, but it was my teen years where I first began to feel separate from my surroundings, and to think about my own special individual position with regards to the rest of the world. In other words, this is when, for me, the incipient writer was born, and yet, it was still a time of relative ease where actual responsibilities were few and far between, something of vital importance if a place is to act as both a spiritual and a physical touchstone for one’s poetry. Larry Levis, whose own poetry is woven together by consciousness and place, wrote a fascinating essay called “Eden and My Generation” where he addressed the aesthetics of place in modern poetry:

This involvement with place, from Romantic and modernist poets to the present, has come in part I think because a poet wants to locate himself or herself somewhere, to be “a man (or woman) speaking to men (or women)”; it is also a way of testifying to the demand and limitations of lyrical experience, to say “I was the man, I suffered, I was there.” The lyric wishes to be antidogmatic, nondidactic, honest. Williams articulated the idea this way: “It is in the wide range of the local only that the general can be trusted for its one unique quality, its universality.” And “the local” is that vestige of the “oceanic” which Freud says we carry within ourselves, withered, out of childhood. And it is there, in the place recalled by the poet, the sacred home.” (47)

I highlight this excerpt because it calls attention to both the local and the universal, and how they become conjoined through a poet’s attempts at locating his experiences, with all the insoluble problems of his specific historical existence, as Auden would have put it, in some place that is considered both sacred and secular to him. I am thinking of a Canadian poet like Al Purdy whose poetry was naturally drawn to place and places, especially Roblin Lake where in July of 1957 Al and Eurithe Purdy built a tiny A-frame cottage where they lived for 43 years. Take, for instance, the end of his much loved poem “Roblin’s Mills”:

Those old ones
you can hear sometimes on a rural party line
when the copper wires
sing before the number is dialed and
then your own words stall some distance
from the house you said them in
lost in the 4th concession
or dimension of wherever
what happened still happens
a lump in your throat
an Adam’s apple half
a mile down the road
permits their voices
to join living voices
and float by
on the party line sometimes
and you hang up then
so long now—

The speaker here excavates the past by describing personal autobiographical details of Roblin’s Mills, struck suddenly by the difference between how things are and how things were, and perhaps still ought to be, which testifies to his own feelings of alienation and isolation from the sacred place of his childhood. A later poem entitled “Roblin’s Mills [II]” is a variation on the same theme as Purdy tries to reconcile the protean nature of place with the nostalgic landscape of his memory:

The black millpond
holds them
movings and reachings and fragments
the gear and tackle of living
under the water eye
all things laid aside
but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on

Here, he uses the image of the millpond as an eye; however, it is not the eye that stares blankly outward, but the one that stares inward, containing all the contradictions and materiality of a past that bears little or no resemblance to his individual present. No other poet in Canada worked so well and so long in this tradition, with perhaps the notable exceptions of John Newlove and Patrick Lane, than Al Purdy whose poetry dominated the Canadian landscape in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Purdy was perhaps a victim of his own wild success because his poetry spawned open imitation which led to an awful lot of “post-card” poetry written about place in Canada that was superficially decorative— I am thinking of the faintly picturesque over the truly profound— which later made it attractive for Purdy’s critics to throw his work into the same category.

The American poet Hayden Carruth also bears witness to the natural world and the need to locate one’s self within it, but his poetry is not always so autobiographical. One of my favorite poems of this kind by Carruth is the poem “Abandoned Ranch, Big Bend” which casts its alienated human figures as the dispossessed without any connection to the land their forbears once tirelessly worked:

Abandoned Ranch, Big Bend

Three people come where no people belong any more.
They are a woman who would be young
And good-looking if these now seemed
Real qualities, a child with yellow hair, a man
Hardened in desperate humanity. But here are only
Dry cistern, adobe flaking, a lizard. And now this
Disagreeable feeling that they were summoned. Sun
On the corrugated roof is a horse treading,
A horse with wide wings and heavy hoofs. The lizard
Is splayed head down on the wall, pulsing. They do not
Bother to lift their binoculars to the shimmering distance.
From this dead center the desert spirals away,
Traveling outward and inward, pulsing. Summoned
From half across the world, from snow and rock,
From chaos, they arrived a moment ago, they thought,
In perfect fortuity. There is a presence emerging here in
Sun dance and clicking metal, where the lizard blinks
with eyes whetted for extinction; then swirling
Outward again, outward and upward through the sky’s
White-hot funnel. Again and again among the dry
Wailing voices of displaced Yankee ghosts
This ranch is abandoned to terror and the sublime.
The man turns to the woman and the child. He has never
Said what he meant. They give him
The steady cool mercy of their unreproachful eyes.

There is a presence emerging in this place “where no people belong any more” and the three characters, who appear to comprise a typical nuclear family, feel as if they have been summoned to testify to the savage beauty of a National Park. Nonetheless, the poet also notes this presence is emanating outward from the ruins of an old ranch, “the dead center” as he calls it, which has been swept clean of humanity and which gives the male character in the poem some pause as if he felt for the first time his own mortality come upon him.

For Carruth, this is the sacred home for people can still feel that deep-seated “oceanic” connection to nature early pioneers who came before them must have felt when they first looked upon and settled this desert region. However, he is also careful to emphasize the consequence for separating ourselves from the natural world has been a tremendous fall from grace for humankind:

Again and again among the dry
Wailing voices of displaced Yankee ghosts
This ranch is abandoned to terror and the sublime.
The man turns to the woman and the child. He has never
Said what he meant. They give him
The steady cool mercy of their unreproachful eyes.

Here in the poem’s conclusion, the image of the abandoned ranch is a powerful reminder that whatever reverence or sanctity visitors may feel when they first come to this place is interrupted by "the wailing voices of displaced Yankee ghosts" who testify to the theme of exile in the poem as Carruth believes the cost of separating ourselves from the natural world has been a collective loss for humanity.

I could go on to talk about other poets and other places but I think I will simply end here. As Larry Levis says in the same essay, a place in poetry “is often spiritual, and yet it is important to note that this spiritual location clarifies itself and becomes valuable only through one’s absence from it. Eden becomes truly valuable only after a a fall, after an exile that changes it, irrecoverably, from what it once was” (44).