On Place & When I Say Here
By Sharon Fagan McDermott & M.C. Benner Dixon
September 16, 2021
On Place by Sharon Fagan McDermott
The bungalow nestled in sands in the shadow of the sprawling Chesapeake Bay Bridge. That day I swam in the bay’s warm waters with my ten siblings and some of my cousins—Susan, Robert, Michael. We squealed, avoiding blobs of jellyfish that bobbed on the surface waves. Later, we scavenged the shoreline to marvel at the carapaces of blue, horseshoe, and spider crabs. The hum of traffic from far above melded with the ocean sounds as the tide washed over the beach. I was an ungainly, long-limbed twelve year old, freckled and unsure, called “difficult” by my mother at the time, because I “asked too many difficult questions.” Couldn’t I just stop thinking once in a while?
That night, twenty-five of us packed shoulder to sandy shoulder on the mildewed couch or flopped like so many puppies on the floor in the cramped living room of that bungalow. We stared at a fuzzy black and white television as astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. July 20, 1969. As Armstrong’s voice—scratchy with static—filled the air, my family looked at one another in amazement: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. I looked out at the sea of beloved family faces and felt buoyant. But I also had the urge to be alone outside with the moon. As Walter Cronkite began to narrate what was happening back at NASA, I slipped out of the bungalow into the balmy night.
A tire swing, which dangled from an old tree in the front yard swayed in the breeze. Traffic noises from the bridge subsided. It was so quiet, still warm. Only the tree peepers, hidden in the canopy, broke in with their nighttime song. Across the sand, eerie monolithic shadows from the bridge’s pillars spread. I grabbed the hemp rope and climbed into the swing. Pitched my feet back and forth, propelling myself into space, higher and higher. I stared at the infinite ink of sky scribbled with its silver constellations and held the vastness of the world against my thin body, feeling fragile. Awed. Everything in motion. All I needed in terms of feeling my place in the world suffused that moment—Mom, Dad and siblings just steps away, their laughter now spilling out of screen windows as they shared slices of lemon merengue pie in celebration. They were my home, my intimacy, my belongingness. But the moonwalk opened a portal to the new world—a glimpse at where the reaches of imagination could take us. Man had walked on the moon! And the idea of place was magnified infinitely. I drank in the salty air, overjoyed to be alive at this historic moment. Alone with the waxing crescent of the moon, I fairly vibrated with these dual places—home with all its safety and reliable support coupled with the vastness of the unknown, now marked by footsteps in the dust. I glued my eyes on the moon. Neil Armstrong is way up there, not even on the same planet as me! Both the gravity in my world and the leap of this new world infused me. My heart thumped harder; my legs pumped faster. With one hand gripping the thick rope, I reached out my other as far as I could stretch it, longing to close the gap between these vast spaces.
Where we are physically “placed”—in time, in geography, in family, in our lives—matters greatly. Our innate need to belong to a tribe, to be part of a larger community has remained consistent over centuries. While the level of connection and intimacy needed may vary greatly from individual to individual, our lives are enriched by a sense of the supportive networks and are shaped by our physical environments in ways we don’t always recognize. When teaching poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, I was often surprised by the volume of student poems I would receive that had no indications of where they took place. The poems floated in a kind of emotional ether, ungrounded and smoky, the speaker without a physical world or pillow to rest their head on. I used to joke with them: First of all, San Francisco is not Manhattan is not Chattanooga is not Pittsburgh is not New Orleans is not Detroit. When that drew blank stares, I would add: you would definitely care about place if you were standing on a hillside in Missouri, overlooking the muddy Mississippi with signs everywhere saying “Beware of poisonous snakes in the grass!” Paying attention to the “where” of your life is not only essential to you having a stake in your neighbors and your neighborhood, but invaluable in your written work, too. Place delineates the wonderful differences, the struggles of one place vs. another, the history of immigrants and where they chose to settle and why, the migration of freed slaves to the North and West, the forced trail of tears of too many Native American nations. Place allows your readers to understand a new-to-them environment or world and to stop viewing their lives in Pittsburgh, for instance, so narrowly and parochially. In fact, I was stunned during one memorable conference I had with an Intro to Poetry student when we discussed his latest poem about a duck that he named “Ducky” in the poem. The duck literally had no ground to walk on nor a body of water to swim in.
“Is the duck meant as a symbol?” I asked, trying to be helpful. The student looked surprised. Then sad.
“No.” he said. “It was a real duck. I was five. I was standing at this lake near my house with my dad. My parents were getting divorced. That day was the last time I ever saw my dad.”
The boy’s poem was unplaced, because he felt unmoored writing the piece. The un-placed world within it was less painful than putting a time and place “stamp” on the event in his writing. I asked him if he was ready to revise this poem or was it still too painful to approach and try to make it more concrete with images. He said it was important to him to write this poem well. We talked for over an hour. I asked him many questions, and he wrote images down as answers. The name of the lake. The town he grew up in. The farm stand down the road with the misspelled sign “Peeches” where they stopped and ate tree-warm peaches after their final visit to the lake. He even wanted to include his father’s brown leather jacket and how he smell of tobacco, which his dad always chewed. The revised poem became alive with images and because of this, it radiated pathos and loss. The poem, now situated in time and space, could now invite readers inside of the moment; we could watch that little boy grasp onto the only sweetness during those dark hours—the duck that sailed across the water toward him. The boy was so proud of his revised poem, though he admitted it made him cry to read it. But, he knew he captured something important by nailing down the essence of that singular place and time.
A final note on place. Living alone during this pandemic year, I had my own realization about a different notion of place. Not only did I come to even more greatly value and attach myself to my home, but I also began to finally explore the vast space between my childhood self and my adult self. While many poets first books of poems draw upon their childhood memories, my first collections were very much set in whatever “present” space I was immersed in at the time. But this year, between memory fragments that surfaced in dreams, Zoom calls with family, and my mother’s terrible brush with Covid 19, the past began to work its way onto my pages much to my consternation. And during this new-to-me exploration, closing the gap between who I remember I was and who I am now, I recognized something vital: The Past as Place. As writers we are in charge of the blueprint, the scaffolding, and the brickwork of memory. While my allegiance is to telling the emotional truth of my childhood, I am also very aware of how our writing choices shape the memory into a new world. The choices are everywhere—what to include and what to omit? What if the imagery is ugly or difficult to look at? How do I work with dialogue when I was too young to remember what was said? Do I have the right to write an unkind truth about a relative or family friend when it is part of my story? The list goes on and on, and these are important questions of Place. Traversing childhood again, I realized how many details are lost in those intervening years. What stage was the moon in that July night in 1969? What kind of tree was I swinging from? What I viscerally remember is being alone in the night on a tire swing, pumping my legs, hoping to reach the moon. I am exploring place on a different plain now, excavating and recreating the physicality and muscle of a moment.
In The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, the French philosopher and writer Gaston Bachelard wrote, “Childhood is a human water, a water which comes out of the shadows. This childhood in the mists and glimmers, this life in the slowness of limbo gives us a certain layer of births. What a lot of beings we have begun! What a lot of lost springs which have nevertheless, flowed! Reverie toward our past then, reverie looking for childhood seems to bring back lives which have never taken place, lives which have been imagined. Reverie is a mnemonics of the imagination. In reverie we re-enter into contact with possibilities…” Venturing into the past, venturing into our own written works requires a recognition of this dynamic, ever-changing landscape of our lives. “What a lot of beings we have begun!” indeed. But those unique “selves” did not grow and evolve in a vacuum. It is important to place ourselves in our writing and in our personal lives on this Earth, maybe reaching toward something vaster—a whole new world?— or maybe simply celebrating what surrounds us here in our own homes and communities.
When I Say Here by M. C. Benner Dixon
When I write the sentence, “He leaned his back against a tree,” I do not mean a palm tree. I do not mean a redwood. I mean a silver maple or a beech, maybe. I mean a black locust. When I say, “He watched a bird fly overhead,” it is probably house finch or a junco. And when I send my character back to his work in the garden, he will be pulling out purple deadnettle and ground ivy, chickweed and stickseed and curly dock. When I say, “Summer,” I mean July.
My imagination originates, like me, in Pennsylvania, with its old and unimpressive mountain ranges, its shale, its creeks, its spring potholes. Every time I start to write, these are my assumptions. When my husband first moved to Pennsylvania, he was horrified at the state of our sidewalks. Growing up in Southern California, he had never known ice as a destructive force; he knew little of winter’s heaving; he had never watched new concrete turn back into gravel, freeze by freeze. To his mind, sidewalks should last fifty years. In his defense, when he says, “The morning sky,” he means ocean-breathed clouds that burn off by noon. We are constantly having to explain things to each other about how the world works and how cold the ocean is supposed to be.
We are, all of us, creatures of place. Place inhabits our stories without waiting for an invitation. Our unconscious assumptions of place—the intensity of the sun or the sound of cars on brick streets—knit themselves into a location when we write. But when a writer takes the time to notice and name these trappings of place, the effect is electric.
Maybe this is why I was drawn to study Mark Twain in graduate school. Twain is best known for his wit, but his writing is profoundly atmospheric, too. It is located in specific places with specific trees, streets, and eyesores. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s people carry the silt of their location with them—the backwoods brutality of Pap, the parlor histrionics of the Grangerfords, the small-town sweetness of the Wilks girls, Jim’s dreadful patience in his cell—and each muddy current blends into the river that carries Huck along towards both freedom and peril, confusing him, teaching him, and pushing him on his way.
Even when Huck is alone, stewing on morality and mortality, his surroundings intrude into his mind:
The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.
It is hard to tell if Huck’s morbid ruminations are his own thoughts or the wind’s suggestions, but the distinction is pointless.
How do we distinguish self from place? We can’t. How much of my optimism comes from living in a place where even the harshest winter cannot stop spring? How else is human nature tested and proved, except by rainy days and ants in the kitchen, by the startle of a gunshot and the smell of the biscuit factory? By instinct, we draw metaphors from a bridge, a cockroach, a weed, a window. These things are the very architecture of our thoughts.
And yet, the connection is so innate as to be invisible. To understand our relationship to place, to be able to write with that awareness, we must be taught. Mark Twain learned the intimacy between place and mind piloting riverboats on the Mississippi. In his Old Times on the Mississippi stories, Twain recounts his training at the hands of a salty pilot named Mr. Bixby. Bixby insists that the cub pilot memorize the river—its bends and shallow places—so as to navigate it smoothly, even at night. Baffled, the apprentice asks his teacher how such a thing would be possible. Bixby turns the question back on him: “How do you follow a hall at home in the dark? Because you know the shape of it.” The knowledge that Bixby means to impart is as spiritual as it is spatial:
A clear starlight night throws such heavy shadows that if you did n’t know the shape of a shore perfectly you would claw away from every bunch of timber, because you would take the black shadow of it for a solid cape [. . .]. Then there ‘s your pitch dark night; the river is a very different shape on a pitch dark night from what it is on a starlight night. All shores seem to be straight lines, then, and mighty dim ones, too; and you ‘d run them for straight lines, only you know better. You boldly drive your boat right into what seems to be a solid, straight wall (you knowing very well that in reality there is a curve there), and that wall falls back and makes way for you.
Is it any wonder that Mark Twain—whose pen name is taken from this deceptive river—would write hoaxes and satires that seem to be one thing and then bend against all reason into something else? It is not.
Once we realize we are students, we can honor our teachers. Eventually, Twain stopped despairing at the enormity of learning the river and came to regard it as a sage:
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.
A dead language, he calls it, as if once it was spoken in the streets. As if we could revive it if we tried.
I have been trying. I have been greedy for the lessons of my teacher-places. From the day we first saw it until the day we signed the mortgage papers, I visited our house almost every night in endless architectural dreams: the staircase with its white railing, the ledge along the eastern wall, the cornered counter by the stove. The physical structure of the house occupied my imagination—or vice versa, perhaps.
It happened with the yard, too. Conspicuous in the middle of the clover-ridden back lawn was an enormous stump, its heart rotted out. As soon as I saw it, I had planted daisies, daffodils, and irises in its decayed center. My mind’s wandering eye transformed that nothing yard—a dense stand of Rose-of-Sharon on one side, an obligatory troupe of orange daylilies along the fence—into a garden. Standing on the winter-cracked patio, I could already see the seasons roll through my garden, from the first purple anemone to the last jalapeño, like parade floats, confetti and all. I had begun the act of ownership well before I had the key in hand.
I should show you pictures of the house now: the new tongue-in-groove porch ceiling I put up, the remodeled bathroom with its hexagonal tiles, the fruit trees and raspberries, mint and astilbe. But I have shown you, haven’t I? Literal ownership is never enough for me. I possess my places twice by putting them into words. My garden, my house—they are everywhere in the things I write, in my stories and essays and poems.
But I am too bold. These aren’t my places; there cannot be disseverment enough for one of us to own the other.
One of Mark Twain’s late unfinished works is an odd little science fiction story called “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes.”In it, Twain reincarnates a human being as a cholera germ. The microbe’s host is a drunken, unwashed, feckless man named Blitzowski. Our narrator admits that his human self would have reviled this “tramp,” as he calls him, but now that he is a bacteria, he feels right at home. “This is not surprising,” says the microbe, “for men and germs are not widely different from each other.” He means that they share a possessive attachment to place:
The germs think the man they are occupying is the only world there is. To them it is a vast and wonderful world, and they are as proud of it as if they had made it themselves. [. . .] Our world (the tramp) is as large and grand and awe-compelling to us microscopic creatures as is man’s world to man. Our tramp is mountainous, there are vast oceans in him, and lakes that are sea-like for size, there are many rivers (veins and arteries) which are fifteen miles across, and of a length so stupendous as to make the Mississippi and the Amazon trifling little Rhode Island brooks by comparison.
Such undiscerning love leaves us embarrassingly malleable. By the end, Twain’s cholera germ becomes infected with its host, growing more and more human in its petty schemes. To love a place is to become it.
And it makes me wonder: what do I really know about my places—Pennsylvania, the house, this season-cycling garden? They, who author me in return for my writing of them, have dropped no hint of how the story ends. On the whole, humanity’s attempted possession of place has been ungentle, deserving of some cathartic denouement. I think about this a lot—perhaps you do, too—it permeates my writing: an anticipatory nostalgia for lost rhinos and monarchs; sagging infrastructure skirting the ostentations of grotesque wealth; disease, heat, storms, drought. And hope. And persistence. These will become my assumptions, now, as certain as the locust tree.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Charles L. Webster and Co., 1885. Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/76/76-h/76-h.htm
—. Old Times on the Mississippi (series). The Atlantic Monthly, Houghton and Co., 1875. Documenting the American South, U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999, https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/twainold/twain.html
—. “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes.” Which Was the Dream? and Other Symbolic Writings of the later Years, edited by John S. Tuckey, U of California P, 1967, 433-553.