My mother divested herself of all kinds of things last year—furniture, dishes, adulterous husband. On one of my visits she loaded me up with a bin of old papers and photos. I quickly divided them into four piles: one each for me, my sister, and my brother, and one for disposal. Then I left my pile in a corner of my bedroom for two months, not knowing what to do with it.
I looked through it recently before putting the stack in the ultimate Place of Repression—our chaotic attic—but plucked out one item for my office. It’s an old black-and-white postcard of Calder High School in Liverpool. My mother attended it as a scholarship girl in the fifties. A few years ago, I wrote a book of poems about Liverpool in that era, published as Heterotopia (“other place”) in 2010. Because I grew up on family stories of Vronhill Street and the Calderstones, that place and time still feels vivid to me: not vanished, just not easily accessible, an otherworld you can sometimes enter through the back of the wardrobe. See? I brought home a postcard.
Stories, poems, photographs can be time-travel devices when they absorb you sufficiently, though like doors to Narnia, the mechanisms aren’t entirely dependable. I’m always hoping to enable that step-into-the-fairy-ring effect, but other contemporary poets can be ambivalent about soliciting reader immersion. I’m currently teaching a seminar on poetry and place and we began with books about the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. All of them conjure up the pre-storm world, the terrible nightmare universe of flooded New Orleans, and the damage remaining. At the moment we’re reading Nicole Cooley’s Breach, in which narrative (a strategy of absorption) oscillates with fragmentation (anti-absorptive, insisting on our awareness of the poems as self-conscious assemblages). There’s a lot to say about Cooley’s compelling collection but for now, a glimpse:
Old Gulf Coast Postcards
Between the already-over and the now-gone, on a corner of the wrecked
downtown, in the Gulfport Pharmacy, my daughter and I spin the black rack—
Broadwater Beach. Biloxi Harbor. Pass Christian where two girls
splash in a Technicolor ocean so blue it burns your eyes.
Last year turned historical: Welcome to Dauphin Island! Greetings
from Waveland! Climb aboard the red and white ship
SS Hurricane Camille, docked at a wooden pier no longer outside.
At The Real Southern Ante-Bellum House, the azaleas
gleam play-doh pink, bunched and bursting off the columned porch.
We spin the rack, and I remember driving to Gulfport with my mother,
beaches my daughter will never see. Harbor, coast, skyline all relic.
Between the gone and the not-recovered, no one
steps out of their house to wave. No porch lights gleam.
Cadaver dogs sniff the dirt. At the edge of downtown, an ancient, twisted oak
lies uprooted, on its side, a sign labeling it Alive.
(online at the Poets for Living Waters site)
“Old Gulf Coast Postcards” works hard to situate us, from title through subtitle to the pharmacy’s location to captioned postcards depicting sites that no longer exist. It also works hard to disorient us through paradox: “between the already-over and the now-gone…between the gone and the not-recovered.” Nobody inhabits this unlocatable heterocosmica (“other world”), she tells us (although heterocosmica is my favorite new word, not one that Cooley uses!). The postcards offer a “Technicolor” vision where flowers bloom in unnatural Play-doh hues. Though these details suggest a childish or idealized perspective, Cooley emphasizes the continuing validity of memory when she ends the poem with an uprooted old tree labeled “Alive.”
I have no idea whether uprooted old oaks—live oaks?—can survive and be replanted, but in any case, I don’t think the poem’s final gesture is quixotic. Cooley doesn’t finish this poem’s final couplet because all fictional or poetic worlds, no matter how vivid, are incomplete. Actual people can’t live there anymore. Its poetic invocation is not mere fantasy, though, because fantasy is never mere. Somebody has to imagine persistence or that tree will certainly die. There’s a reason Cooley alludes to so many fairy tales and fantasy universes in this book. They retain crucial resources when so much else seems to be lost.