Guest Post, Alissa McElreath: Place

Can a place still hold its inherent importance in a life– its spirit and meaning, when the people who are inextricably tied to it are gone?

I have been turning this question over in my head and exploring the answer in my writing for some time now. Loss, and longing for Place: these have been themes for me that seem to reoccur almost unconsciously in my own work.

This summer I was able to step outside the “boundaries” of the written page to explore the question for myself when I finally travelled back to my mother’s home country, Greece, after too many years away. The last summer we were able to visit, eight years ago, my son and daughter were 5 and 2, respectively. That summer was also the last one that saw my grandmother alive and well, although “well” is not the right word, as the tumor in her brain that claimed her life one year later was already working its damage. My grandfather had passed away two years before, only a matter of weeks after my daughter was born.

With both my grandparents gone, there was no one left to lift their arms in greeting to us when our family of four tumbled out of the taxicab in front of their apartment building this past July. Yet I still craned my head to look towards the side balcony, where my grandmother had stood eight years ago in her soft housedress and waved to us when we first arrived. In the years since their deaths, I haven’t been able to shake the sense that a gigantic door in the universe somewhere had slid closed; that behind the door my artist grandfather still sits painting and there, in her kitchen, is my grandmother, making jam from the sour plums that hung heavy on the tree by the front veranda. In these intervening years, I couldn’t imagine Greece without my grandparents in it. If they were gone, surely the place was gone, too? How could one exist without the other?

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When I was a newish mother, I remember leaving my son for the first extended length of time when he was about ten months old. He seemed impervious to my departure, yet when I came back home a few hours later, and took him from his grandmother, he burst into violent tears.

Why had my return saddened him to that extent?

Later, when talking to an older and wiser friend, she told me what she had learned years ago and what I hadn’t known until then: that very small children separated for periods of time from their mothers (and fathers, too) often cry upon their return because it is only then, upon being returned to the familiar landscape of their bodies, that they realize just how much they missed them.

Perhaps his tears were a response to the knowledge that he had existed, for a time, in a space without the person most connected to it. The child misses his mother, without even knowing it. Place, existing separate from the attachment to the people most important to it, can be frightening.

Place is rooted deeply inside of us – it is like the ultimate time capsule. Its value lies not in just the geographical parameters that we can identify, but in the sounds, smells, and feelings that arise when we think about a particular location. A smell can shake us from the present and send us spinning back in time. A sound can make us pause and close our eyes, as we struggle to bring to mind some other place, some other time. Yet I always thought place had value the most because of the people who were tied to it. Like an empty house on moving day, place without the people who make it alive for us would seem hollow.

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I know, intellectually, that it is possible to miss something without even realizing it. Last year, for example, my parents came to visit one weekend and brought with them a box of correspondence – from old but good friends I had made during a semester I spent in London – that had been in the wardrobe in my former bedroom back home. I hadn’t thought about the existence of that box and its contents in over two decades, yet each letter, note, and postcard brought back a piece of me that I had been unconsciously missing, and filled me with questions:

What would have happened if the box had ceased to exist? What if it had been discarded, or destroyed?

How can you miss something you forgot existed?

Would I ever have remembered any of the things inside of the box, or the people attached to them, if the box had vanished?

It’s actually a terrifying thought — to miss something, or someone, only because a sudden reappearance triggers the memory of their existence in the first place. No matter how hard we might try and tell ourselves that things don’t matter, that we need to unmoor ourselves from attachment to place and possessions, the truth is that they do matter, in real and compelling ways.

I thought about that box of letters when I stood in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens this summer, in front of my favorite piece, this bronze statue of the Jockey of Artemision:

Jockey of Artemision

As a child and young adult, I had been to the museum so many times that I can’t count them all. I know I always rushed through most of the rooms until I came to the one that housed this statue. There, I would stare and stare at the horse and boy, and imagine what it must have been like to be the fishermen who found them in fragments at the bottom of the sea. When I was in college, I had a postcard of this statue taped to the wall of my dorm room. Yet, in the eight-year gap between visits to Greece, I had not thought about this statue once; in fact, I had forgotten about it entirely until I entered the room. Away from Greece for so many years, the jockey and his horse had simply ceased to exist for me.

I am not sure why that fact seemed so terrible to me as I stood looking at the horse and boy that afternoon. I think there, in front of that beloved statue, the enormity of what it had meant to be away from Greece – from my second home country, from a place that is so inextricably tied to who I am – hit me full force, and along with it, all the other losses attached to it. I was a child again, crying at the return of something precious.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Anna B. Sutton

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Anna B. Sutton.

Anna B. SuttonAnna B. Sutton is a poet from Nashville, TN. She received her MFA in Poetry from University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she worked for Lookout Books. She is a co-founder of the Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville, web editor at One Pause Poetry out of Ann Arbor, MI, and on the editorial team at Gigantic Sequins and Dialogist journals. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Barrow Street, DIAGRAM, Weave, Tar River Poetry, Sundog Lit, Pinch, and other journals. She recently received a James Merrill fellowship from Vermont Studio Center..

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Adrianne Kalfopoulou: Patching the Cloth

Athens Graffiti Art

“Violence does not promote causes, neither history, nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction; but it can serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention.” Hannah Arendt

“Maybe you should work against the moment,” he said to me when I spoke of writing a post that would go up on 9/11. I happened to be reading Hannah Arendt’s ON VIOLENCE.

I picked up Arendt’s essay in the midst of this summer’s dire news; bombings in Gaza; the Ebola virus; ISIS. Arendt seems especially contemporary: “Nowhere is the self-defeating factor in the victory of violence over power more evident than in the use of terror to maintain domination….” This was written in the late 60s during student take-overs in American universities and the Vietnam War. Her premise, that power and violence are opposites, that violence will turn into terror (rather than power) when “having destroyed all power” it “does not abdicate but on the contrary remains in full control.”

I was getting my American passport renewed and stood a few minutes waiting to enter the embassy in the full glare of the August sun that glanced off wide marble steps. The embassy’s newly renovated and expanded buildings spoke very clearly of power and its being “expansionist by nature.” The buildings surrounded by high barred metal fences are couched in an oasis of olive trees and nicely mowed grass knolls inside very carefully monitored gateways. As I waited inside there was a running story of Amelia Earhart on the plasma screen. That sense of expanse, of freedom dramatized too by the clips of Earhart’s pioneering voyages and courage created a stark contrast between the inner sanctum of the bordered space and the world outside of it.

I am privileged to be a dual national, but I experienced a visual split between my worlds. “Power needs no justification, being inherent in the very existence of political communities;” writes Arendt “what it does need is legitimacy.” And legitimacy is a consequence of support. She explains “the current equation of obedience and support” is “misleading and confusing.” Support is what we offer each other in recognition of our common vulnerabilities.

I live in Athens, Greece, and it has been over 4 years now of crisis-ridden moments, and tragedy too. Work against the moment. A man in the midst of August’s sweltering humidity was singing in the street, a worker whose voice rose above the drill as he sang, in Greek, I will melt for you, for you I will melt my heart… It was a sweltering day; it had been a sweltering summer.

Delphi Frieze

 

“Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together….” I have a torn linen shirt I am fond of and want to patch, but the nature of the tear means I need a particular weave to iron against the cloth so it might blend in. Next to the post office is a fabric shop run by an elderly couple. The husband of the wife who runs it is always there; he’s had a throat operation and can’t speak though he picks out merchandise for customers. I show her the tear and she gives me a patch telling me to feel the rough side of it, to make sure to iron it so the rough side would heat against the frayed cloth. She doesn’t want any money. I want to leave her 2 euros, she vigorously shakes her head, placing the inch or two of cloth in a tiny plastic envelope and telling me again to make sure I don’t confuse the two sides of the cloth.

«Καλο Μινα» she says, “Good Month” a wish given the first of every month in Greece. It is September 1. Later that day I buy a salad at the bakery next to work, the cashier asks if I’d like bread, I point to a dark brown bun, she says, “these are good too” and adds a lighter crusted bun, saying it’s on them, maybe I’ll prefer it. “To act with deliberate speed goes against the grain of rage and violence,” Arendt writes. “The faculty of action” is for Arendt the essence of the political subject. Work against the moment…

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

from “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” W.H. Auden

SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Ed Adams

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Ed Adams.

Ed AdamsEd Adams holds degrees from Goddard College and Antioch University. He has published poems in numerous literary journals including Barrow Street, Exquisite Corpse, Fence, G. W. Review, Lilies and Cannonballs Review, The Quarterly, in the U.S., Poetry Review, Shearsman in the U.K. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, book manuscripts of his work have made finalist for The Walt Whitman Award and for The Brittingham Prize in Poetry. He grew up in Philadelphia and in Rochester, and has lived for a while in New Mexico, in Taos and now in Santa Fe, where his daughter is attending high school.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

ASU Professor Andrew Pilsch Talks Net Neutrality

ASU Professor Andrew Pilsch is giving a talk on Net Neutrality on Wednesday night at 6 PM as part of the New York Times Café series. It takes place at the Student Center which is in the ASU Downtown Post Office.

Net Neutrality

Guest Post, Heather Altfeld: Unpacking the Library of Childhood: One Poet’s Fleeting Thoughts

Mokelumne Wilderness“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.”

—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

“What a tension of childhoods there must be, held in reserve at the bottom our being, for a poet’s image to make us suddenly relive our memories, reimagining our images by starting from well assembled words.”

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

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I went camping recently in the Mokulumne Wilderness, 8200 feet up in a remote region of Northern California. I had last been there with my three daughters and a boy who was fond of the eldest. He was the first of his kind, the first boy, to be invited on a family trip. His name was Magellan, which elicited no end to the commentary from friends and acquaintances. You let a boy named Magellan near your girls? But Sophie and Magellan were twelve, going steady, so to speak, banned by his parents from even the small gesture of hand-holding, and he was sweet with her, not-holding her hand as she climbed granite boulders six feet high and roasting marshmallows expressly for her as she lazed about in a camp chair by the trickle of late July snowmelt.

As the night grew frosty beneath the stars he began to tell us stories about growing up in Alaska. His father had taken him backpacking several times in the Alaskan wilds. His earliest memory of this was when he was about seven years old. “We didn’t take blankets, so when we got cold, we lay on the ground and covered ourselves really deep with leaves” he told us, with a mixture of apology and pride and embarrassment. He went on to say that he and his father also took very little food, eating what they found for sustenance. What they ate, exactly, he left vague and unspecific. “Sometimes we ate berries if the bears hadn’t gotten there first,” he said. This wasn’t a romanticized account; he was clearly grateful to be in the presence of such amenities as a campfire and not-dogs, to be “roughing it” with four girls who were more suited to the comforts of home.

I spent a good deal of that night imagining his seven-year-old self Christopher McCandlessing his way through the tundra, plucking berries of unknown origin, and I fed him the fare of a farmhand for the rest of the trip, trying to fatten him, I suppose, like a little Hansel. I’ve revisited his stories a number of times since, trying to crawl into his childhood for a while to see how it must have worked. What was the wilderness like to him, in that small body of his? How did its skies look from the spot where only his eyes showed through the autumn foliage, lying awake next to a father who was philosophically opposed to comfort, curled up in a pile of dry leaves? It is not unimaginable, of course; his experience was neither more memorable nor more terrible than the childhoods of Frank McCourt, or Jeanette Winterson, or the countless other orphans and refugees and neglected offspring who have given us their narratives as testimony to the infinitude of ways children can be both deeply vulnerable and deeply resilient. Even poetry seems to have developed a preference for the ‘true,’ the factual—the eyewitness testimony, the documentary footage—in place of the imagined. It is interesting to think about the impulses behind the ascendance of memoir in both prose and poetry, the prevalence of attempts to climb into someone else’s childhood, or back into one’s own, perhaps as a way of learning empathy, especially in an era that simultaneously whines about a lack of such emotion and demands it with a fervor that borders on militancy. Depicting childhood as a largely terrifying enterprise is common. The impulse seems to be to create empathy, and perhaps change, out of the recognition of suffering and grief.

But the imaginative landscape of the non-terrifying childhood, the sort of childhood that is shaped more by curiosity and exploration than by the kind of trauma and abuse that forces one to adopt a defensive posture, is also worth dwelling in. “Childhood is the well of being,” writes Bachelard, in his confounding, intriguing book The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood” does this amazingly well, and watching it with a large audience recently I was intrigued by the reactions to some of the scenes. We are so inured to injury and emergency, both as narrative devices and as existential certainties, that we forget, or else cannot believe, that most of the time life eases on without fanfare or tragedy. At one point in the film the girlfriend of the main character, Mason, passes him the cell phone while he is driving. She wants to show him a photo of a cute furry animal. Everyone in the theatre audibly sucked in their breath; a few people even murmured, “Oh God!” We were prepared for the Accident Narrative, the sudden swerve from the road, the sound of next scene’s ventilator capturing their breath. Earlier in the film Mason’s (second) stepfather, with a can of beer in his hand, volleys with him when he is late for curfew, and we brace ourselves for the Abuse Narrative. Indeed, we have already seen the child at the mercy of one beastly stepfather—it isn’t as if the film pretends such things don’t happen— so it is all too natural to expect more. We wait for the sound of his head to be knocked on the doorframe, and when we don’t hear it, the audible sound of breathing begins again in the theatre. As an audience, we seem most comfortable with the grand mess, the traumatic, than with the ordinary, with actual life.

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Much contemporary writing about childhood takes the form of memoir, and sadly, much of it feels like instructions for disaster, apocryphal childhoods that give us the bleakest views of the most painful experiences imaginable. This affords many of us perspective; the toils and griefs we face (my students refer to some of these as “first-world problems,” an expression that seems surprisingly apt) so often pale in comparison to the significant maelstroms known intimately by so many on a daily basis. I grew up in a home and during an era where the barometer of perspective for one’s ailments and sufferings was The Train—the one Train that stood in for what was really many trains, the trains that carried Jews from their homes and lives to the concentration camps. Like many Jewish children of the post-war era, I was instructed in Holocaust studies at a very young age, and learned that nearly any amount of suffering could be endured so long as you were not on the train. (My therapist since tells me that this isn’t a very effective strategy for rearing the young). It’s an interesting way to create endurance and self-reliance in a human being, though. On the other hand it can also be, and often is, a false crust whose main function is to disqualify any sorrow or grief that cannot measure up to the death camps.

When I was taking courses in Waldorf Education, our teacher training taught us to do “child study,” where we would envision a child in their natural “habitat” at night before sleeping, to try to understand their struggles in the classroom in the context of their lives. For a traditional Waldorf teacher, this involves lighting a candle and imagining the child surrounded by light in their home, as they are sleeping, and holding them in your thoughts for a few moments each night. Despite some of the more religious connotations of such experiences (Waldorf schools are founded on anthroposophy, and anthroposophy is described as the study of the soul) it is an amazing way to hear a child, to see a child, to go back into your own childhood, even, into the imagined and lived experiences of the self. I have even taken to doing this on occasion for my college students, whom I learn far less about than third-graders. The practice of noticing them, of being in their worlds, feels critical to the possibility of teaching them anything of magnitude.

Understanding someone’s childhood truly is entering a sort of portal to the lived experience, the locket of individuality. Poetry and film and literature do this for us. We get depth and perspective about our own lives and origins, transcending nostalgia with a kind of inherited memory. But so often we privilege the discourse of anxiety and awfulness over that of pleasure and hope and imagination, memorializing terror and trauma rather than imagining the inverse. This is a sensible reflection of our times in many ways, but privileging what is “true” over what can be imagined may be a miscalculation with grave implications for the poetic imagination. If we cannot envision anything other than what we have, it may seem we have no choice but to accept it, and as a result we actually can become inured to the pain of others. “We must admit there will be music despite everything,” Jack Gilbert tells us in his poem “A Brief for the Defense,”a beautiful piece that demands that the reader hear laughter even “in the terrible streets of Calcutta.” It makes me think of the moment in My Dinner with Andre where theater director Andre Gregory says to the playwright Wallace Shawn,

How does it affect them (an audience) to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events and violence and terror? Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? You see, I don’t think so, because I think it’s very likely that the picture of the world you are showing them in a play is exactly the picture of the world that they have already…so the play simply tells them that their impression of the world is correct, that there’s absolutely no way out, there’s nothing they can do. They end up feeling passive and impotent.

This is an argument I never quite stop having with myself, as a writer who works with, writes about, and sometimes writes for children. I do think that it is critical that contemporary writing stretch beyond the lived experience of memoir, and even beyond the ordinary experience of “Boyhood.” It is, for example, through the poetic prose of Joyce that his ordinary childhood is exalted in Portrait of the Artist. And often, the imagined lives of children are both instructive and important for writers and readers. Some of the most memorable childhoods are literary childhoods, lived by imagined children who live at the whims of their creators, imparting experiences and sensitivities that exalt childhood itself. Characters like Fern, in Charlotte’s Web, invoke a child’s ability to spend day after day in a farmyard, depicting the child’s relationship to a world that adults can’t often manage to see. Similarly, the worlds of slightly older books such as The Cricket in Times Square, with a cast of Manhattanite mammals living adjacent to a family’s newsstand, the young Mario privy to their world in ways that can potentially invite even the most cynical residents of New York (myself included, in the days when I used to live there) to revisit the crannies and alcoves of the tunnels with both curiosity and a kind of modest wonder, the sort of wonder that tells us that sometimes our impression of the world is potentially alterable. Many narratives describe the oddly seductive lives of orphans, who move through the world without the wisdom or love of parents and who, thrown thusly back on their own resources, often seem to find treasures the universe hides from others. Some are truly orphaned (the orphans of Narnia, to take one obvious example). Some are self-imagined orphans (for example, in E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). Some are more ambiguously orphaned: think of Pippi Longstocking, in Astrid Lindgren’s stories, whose father exists, but as a pirate in the South Seas, king of a cannibal tribe. The orphans instruct us in worldliness, resourcefulness, thrift, thievery, and lonesomeness: qualities essential for both children and writers living lives scalloped by fear or promise and who are forced to inhabit the terrain in between.

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Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom depicts both a true orphan (Sam) and a self-imagined one (Suzy). Sam has lived much of his life in foster homes, while Suzy at least in part aims to evade the bleakness that keeps Bill Murray and Frances McDermott awake at night in their separate beds, idealizing life without a family. “I love you, but you don’t know what you are talking about,” Sam tells Suzy, when she romanticizes his parentless life. He’s right, but so is Suzy: there is something magical about the idea of a childhood uncontaminated by the presence of adult surveillance, a surveillance that so often seems mostly intended to quell their (our) anxieties and to force the spontaneities of innocence into their (our) more rigid conceptual schemes. Some have argued against Anderson’s contrivances, against the almost candied atmosphere of the film. But do we have less to learn about the reverie of childhood from Moonrise Kingdom than from sober and strictly factual accounts? In many ways I believe Anderson has touched the essence of childhood. It is an imagined childhood that is in some ways privileged and idealized, with its lush settings, loving adults, art, music, and the overall sense of a trustworthy, benign universe—but I am unconvinced it is less worthy of attention or any less serious than less idealized accounts that insist on placing children in the underbelly of reality.

“I just imagined that I was a sleeping prince,” Magellan told us by the campfire, as he spoke of his sleeps in the wilderness. “Or someone who had to pretend that they were dead, because the bones of dead people are usually really cold.” Only a child thinks like that, in images that are both wholly metaphoric and entirely literal all at once. “It seems we only languish during maturity in order to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they vanish from our memory before we were able to learn their language,” writes Thoreau. Writing about childhood is trying to learn that language before it vanishes altogether from the conscious ear. It is the revelation of a tender and secret universe, one that teaches a child how to be a child, and reminds a reader how to hear and to see it, wearing those fresh and stinging eyes to look out at these strange lands.

Upcoming Local Event: An Evening of Poetry & Conversation with Nikki Giovanni

Nikki GiovanniMark your calendars on September 18 for this exciting opportunity to attend “An Evening of Poetry and Conversation with Nikki Giovanni.” The event will be held at the Mesa Arts Center’s Ikeda Theater and run from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. This event is free. Find out more at this link.

Nikki Giovanni is an American writer, commentator, activist, world renowned poet, powerful literary voice, and educator, currently at Virginia Tech. She is also one of the best known African American poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her poetry reflects her own evolving awareness and experiences, starting from child to young women, seasoned civil rights activist to lecturer and educator, with all the steps between. Giovanni’s poetry expresses strong racial pride and respect for her family while her informal style makes her accessible to both children and adults. As the author of over 30 books and a Grammy nominee, her focus is on the individual and the power one can have on oneself as well as in the lives of others. 

Also, check out this article and interview that ASU’s Project Humanities posted in february back before the event was rescheduled.