Instructions for creating England

My speculative poetry students have been asking brilliant questions during the past two weeks: what’s Tracy K. Smith’s attitude towards a posthuman future in Life on Mars? How does assigning a higher priority to the natural world change Marvin Bell’s sense of what death means? How do Jeannine Hall Gailey’s villainesses differ from their counterparts in Ovid and Hans Christian Andersen, and why? What does James Merrill admire in that other weird spiritualist, Yeats, and what does he reject? This is also a course in research writing, so each student is pursuing a topic and teaching some part of it to the rest of the class. Their presentations have been wildly interesting, though, of course, pulling coherent papers out of a mess of tough questions is a hard thing to do—we’ll see next week how well the actual writing is going.

I’m “working” on my own essays pretty minimally right now: using my classes, for sure, to read and think about research, but not putting fingers to keyboard much. My students’ efforts, though, made me want to try. So, briefly: I’ve been dunking my toes in Lubomir Doležel’s Heterocosmica on and off for a couple of years now, interested in his descriptions of how novelists construct and readers enter fiction’s incomplete possible worlds, and trying to figure out how and why poets summon up possible worlds, too. They certainly do in epic and other long narrative modes, but my gut says that lyric poems can also constitute virtual universes, although they’re even more incomplete. I suspect, for instance, that one reason I prefer reading single-author collections to anthologies, and why knowing a poet’s biography deepens my pleasure in the verses, is that increased data helps me fill in more details of whatever place a poem evokes.

That’s a reader’s approach to poetry’s possible worlds; the writer’s involves a series of technical problems. How, in the space of a few lines, do you absorb a stranger into some alternate spacetime? During those class presentations last week, I realized that one of the poets I’ve been teaching addresses that problem quite overtly. As Chase talked about Todorov in relation to Sally Rosen Kindred’s Peter Pan poems—is Kindred hesitating between realities, as Todorov says fantastic stories do, or do her poems inhabit some straight-up version of the marvelous?—it clicked for me how much her chapbook Darling Hands, Darling Tongue concerns literary world-building. Look at this passage from “What Wendy Darling Tells Her Brother” (full version here):

Don’t you remember
the smell of her—lemon and ash—
her skin’s speckle like wrens’ eggs
and the warm wind of her moving in
off the edge of the bed, to hover
by cool sheets and bring her hands
down on your face
like rain?

Kindred’s Wendy, as the stand-in for the poet in this collection, is struggling to create successfully absorbing fictional universes. In this case, she wants desperately to remind her brother about England and the parents he’s half-forgotten. One of her strategies is to call up sensory detail as vividly as possible–sight, smell, touch. Simile and metaphor are portals, too. Michael in Neverland knows what warm wind and rain feel like, so they might help him remember or imagine. From Wendy’s current vantage, England isn’t exactly real (tangible? available? important?), but the storyteller misses it all the same:

And though it wasn’t real
it was home. And though it was in time
it was ours, the mother and father
who draped the air, their bodies strange
and soft with yearning.
It felt right to have a mother, to live
in the lap of a world I hadn’t made.
Don’t you remember?
It felt just like this story
that I am telling you.

Stories transport us, and certain ones transport us to “the lap of a world” safer and better than the mundane existences we often seem to inhabit. For Kindred, reality is relative and fragile. Wherever you are, you might try hard to believe in an elsewhere–maybe that effort to believe defines you–but your longing can never be fully satisfied. Not only do Neverland and England shimmer a bit, mirage-like, but Kindred’s also invoking the universe of oral storytelling from the pages of a handbound chapbook. This gap between print and voice is one engine, in fact, of lyric poetry’s power: nostalgia for sound, or attempts to represent its complexity in little black characters, drive verse’s turns and repetitions. In Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, the loss of a voiced world also entails all the losses of growing up.

Where are we? How does it feel to be not there? I type these questions into a blog-box, writing and not-writing, reading and not-reading, having just tipped from a long winter into a spring with snow in the forecast. I think Todorov is wrong about genre: fantasy is bigger than he allows, and often entails not just hesitating between explanations but understanding that our wildest speculations can be more real than, say, our social security numbers. There’s no knowing what matters, after all, until you lose it or find a way to step away from it. The oscillations of my professorial life show me that, too. Fantasies about writing’s Neverland, viewed through the portal of teaching English, clarify what’s at stake in both universes.

Heterocosmic

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.