Tuesday, May 23, 2006


I am sitting in the backyard peering out at past splotches of sun and sweet-gum shade, wondering when the puppies—Archie and Dixie—will be sleepy enough to head inside for a nap. Archie is sunbathing, and Dixie has made a bed of lilies into an actual bed. A jet, headed to Covington, roars overhead as a baby robin, perhaps, chirps into the air, its pitch descending and falling like a two-note guitar solo until its mother returns, sating its need for a moment.

From his position in the middle of the yard, Archie stares at me and then at Dixie, blinking his eyes with a heavy squint. Dixie dashes toward him, making him stir slightly before settling in the sun further up the small hill that constitutes our backyard. I, personally, am sitting on an old wooden fold-up chair that was once used in the Catholic school Michelle attended, lamenting our lack of patio furniture.

In the distance, a late-model Honda rolls past, blipping and thumping with snippets of hip-hop music that trail away from us—proving the Doppler Effect once again. A slight breeze jostles the bamboo-like stalks of a plant my wife recognizes that I can’t identify, and a caterpillar arches itself as a single leaf waves up and down in the wind. I think of phoning her in her office overlooking the Ohio to ask her again what those plants are called, but choose, instead, to relax here on the porch a while longer, as Archie sprawls prone on his back, pushing with his front paws at the tennis ball dangling by threads from his mouth.

The other night at dinner in a restaurant somewhere in Cincinnati, my wife suggested that I discuss here the way moving to the Midwest has impacted my writing. At first, I dismissed the idea, thinking that there’s no way to say how this place with its mild winters and pleasant autumns has affected my writing. I’m still not sure of the impact that San Francisco has had, even though I lived in the Bay Area for a little more than 5 years. In fact, in my work, there seems to be a peculiar tendency for me not to write about a place until after I’ve left it. Poems I wrote in Pittsburgh were suffused with the imagery of live oaks, shopping centers, and interstates that I took from Dallas. The poems I wrote in Miami echoed the autumnal chorale of colors and the brutality of winter that I took from Pittsburgh. The poems I wrote in my second stay in Dallas bristled with the vibrant subtropical flora and fauna of Miami.

And now, I seem to be writing about the paved hills and consistently temperate climes of San Francisco. Yet, even though I can’t say what impact living in Ohio will have on my writing, I do know that, one day, this place will suffuse the pages of my poems and stories, and I believe that this is important.

Nowadays, it is remarkably easy to look across the country and conclude that any two places are similar. You can eat the same fast food, order the same espresso-based coffees, shop for toiletries at the same department stores, and pick your wardrobe from the same designer regardless of where you live. Yet, I believe such generalizations, though easy to make, are faulty.

Now, I could easily lament—as I’ve heard countless critics do—the growing sameness of our culture or suggest that setting a poem in San Diego is now tantamount to setting a poem in Greenwich, and you might believe me. But, the very core of poetry is in the detail. People in South Dakota, for the most part, do different types of work than those in West Texas. They farm different crops, vote for politicians with different names, and for the most part, worship different denominations of the same religion. Granted, there are similarities, but if you focus on such things as why full-sized pickups are so popular, you’ll miss opportunities to take a reader someplace he or she has never been. Indeed, even if you compare a McDonald’s in Miami to one in Cincinnati, you’ll find differences. Patterns of speech will vary slightly. They layout of the restaurant will differ a little bit. Perhaps the interior will be lined with different photographs meant to highlight the history of one location or another. Personally, I believe that a poet must notice such differences; otherwise, you’ll just be writing about one lizard or another, calling everything by boring names. Sure, there are lizards everywhere, but where can you find a horned frog? Where can you find an anole?

In a poem, this makes all the difference in the world. I mean, who really wants to read, again and again, about that pretty nameless plant? Would it really smell so sweet?


Blogger 32poems said...

thanks for stopping by my blog.i'm brain dead at the moment. will bookmarks yours and come back to visit.

10:29 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home