Monday, January 27, 2014

The Poetry of Place

This is a revised version of the article that first appeared at The Master’s Artist.

Sunday nights have become evenings devoted to British television. My wife and I watch Downton Abbey, and this month it’s been followed by Sherlock. To say we’re hooked on both shows is not an overstatement, although I behave more like a normal fan while my wife, well, doesn’t. And in March comes the new American season of Call the Midwife.

The first season of this “Upstairs, Downstairs” type of production ended with the start of World War I; the second season started in 1916. We’re now in season four, and it’s the 1920s. While there are all sorts of plots and sub-plots (it’s a big, complicated story), the story always centers on the house, which, as the house of an earl should be, is huge. The idea of place is important in this story, because the place is changing, as are the people and the times they live in. The old order is giving way to the new, although the new is still largely unknown.

Poet Patrick Hicks, who teaches creative writing at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, knows about the importance of place. He has an entire book of poem about place, and the place is London. This London is a collection of 47 poems, almost all about London (the handful that aren’t directly about the city are inspired by London). Hicks loves the city, but it’s not a heedless, careless kind of love. It’s a love that sees all of what the city is, what is has been, and where it might be going.

The collection is not chronological but the poems do travel in time. We stand with Boudicca as she revenges her people with the sack of Londinium; we’re with Shakespeare at the Globe Theater and the crowd at a hanging at Tyburn; we experience the fire of 1666 and we see the boys off for France at Charing Cross Station, and I’m reminded of scenes from Downton Abbey:

Seeing the Great War at Charing Cross Station

It is 2007 today, but it feels more like 1917.
Squinting through a kaleidoscope of history,
an army is here, rifles slung over their knapsacks,
they are spun toward no-man’s land.

These soldiers walk on healthy legs,
they have yet to be baptized by the oil of war.
Women cheer them off into a termite existence,
where they will become little wasps
caught in pus, and mud, and bones.

Kisses are blown,
like from that blonde over there,
the one next to Delice de France–a pastry shop
that sells croissants dripping with the blood of jam.

I watch her boyfriend, dressed in a trenchcoat,
step into a train, waving.

His hand is swallowed from view
and he is gone,
simply gone.

This sense of beauty and harsh reality pervades the poems. Hicks wanders the streets above the bones of the plague victims; he sees the grave of the unknown soldier at Westminster Abbey; he experiences the great stink of 11858 when the odor of the Thames nearly emptied the city. He sees the tawdriness of the strip shops in Soho, and stands with the Ripper in a Whitechapel alley.

He knows this city, and knows it well, but loves it almost in spite of itself. It’s a city that speaks at some deeper level, and he knows he finds himself there.

The Same is Different Every Day

A fisherman in Galway once told me
the sea is different every day,
and this truth baptizes me
whenever I navigate London.

If we learn a city well enough,
our ghost lives on every corner,
time becomes a pool,
and we submerge ourselves

again and again,
pearl-diving for streetsigns.
On might rivers of asphalt,
my restless feet hopscotch through time,

neither here, nor there.

We spent our last two vacations in London, and I’m already thinking of a return this year.
This London makes me want to go back, to see the British Museum with its all things un-British, and Tennyson’s (and now C.S. Lewis’s) stone in the Abbey, and the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower, with all the famous bones buried below its floor stones. And I will take these poems with me, and read them aloud.

Photograph of Tower Bridge by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i stand
in the whispers
of old places
and feel the
ghostly time