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A Few Prompts Drawn From Wandering/Home

By Camille Dungy
Two poets at Faulkner's pad (Dungy and Jackson in Oxford, MS)

Two poets at Faulkner's pad (C. Dungy and Major Jackson in Oxford, MS)

As I feared when I packed my life into boxes this spring, plenty is still lost to the inside of paper-walled containers.  My copy of Flight to Canada must still be boxed up in cardboard, also my third-favorite terrycloth robe.  Did I leave my good black bra in the old building’s washer, and where in laurels’ name is my signed copy of Native Guard?  I can’t even locate the sheet of return address labels my insurance agent sent.  Why would I bother to lose something as useless as that?  The husband asks where our checkbooks are, and I panic.  He asks where I’ve hidden his favorite sugar dispenser, and I tell him his guess is as good as mine.  I’m pretty sure the box of his baby pictures my mother-in-law keeps asking after is buried in that incredibly dusty storage closet.  Which means I’ll soon be back in the closet, stirring up dirt from the past.  Consider the possibility of having permanently misplaced your husband’s baby pictures.  Now write a poem.

Many of my friends are professionally inclined toward the psychological arts.  They’ve spent the summer assuring me that moving is considered one of the top three stressors in any person’s life.  They tell me that it’s normal to be out of sorts when you move from a familiar place into a new one.  Being ambitious, I earn little solace from hearing I am normal.  Faulkner, who most of us can agree was exceptional, disliked living and writing anywhere but at home in Mississippi.  I derive some comfort from that.  But it’s paltry comfort, for I must observe that, in direct opposition to Faulkner’s sojourn in California, in terms of the provenance of my childhood, here, in California, I’m already home.  Plus, Faulkner owned that big house from the porch of which his wife could declare fruitful phrases like, “There’s something about the light in August,” whereas the hubby and I are in transition, just renting this flat for awhile.   No use comparing myself to Faulkner, I suppose.

I have moved plenty of times in my relatively short life and, with rare exception, there are always months of writing-related blues while I recalibrate the flow between my body, heart, and mind.  The physical and psychic input of one house, always different from the input of the next house, make my poems happen very differently in each new place, when they happen at all.  Think of the way subtle shifts in the water in each new town defines the volume of your hair, the amount of money you give each year to Brita, the bulk of your arm muscles from scrubbing the lime stains in your tub.  Consider how much longer you spend in the new house producing a good lather while shampooing.  Consider how much longer you spend scrubbing the tub tiles after you finish shampooing.  Consider all the steps you must take before you drink a glass of water to refresh yourself after washing your hair and also your tub. Now write a poem.

Throughout my three years in the last apartment, I lived in a state of constant foreboding owing in large part to the fact that hardly an hour passed with no fire truck, ambulance, or police car siren.  My study was directly above the apartment building’s main entrance, so I overheard the buzz whenever an outsider was permitted to enter the complex.  Writing this, I realize that I’ve now lived over two months without once hearing San Francisco’s outdoor emergency broadcasting system’s weekly Tuesday noon test siren.  My internal forebodings had a place to hang their panic with all those sirens and security buzzers.  When was the last time I could say, when my stomach jumped in its regular schedule of panic, “Oh, that’s only the outdoor emergency broadcasting system’s Tuesday noon test siren”?  This is the sort of recalibration I’m talking about.  It will be months before I can identify the most convenient hangers for my anxieties in this new place.

In my old house, and in each old house before it, I eventually identified the right place to hang my coats.  Now, though, the designated coat closet feels wrong.  When I walk into this house, I toss my coat off wherever seems good at the time.   There’s no semblance of order. But I’m a poet with a penchant for sonneteering.  I’m a lover of order.  I take my coats off in thoughtless locations, but then, when it’s time to set out again, I have a hard time finding what I need.  Consider how such circumstances might conclude with the poet walking about with the wrong coat or no coat at all.   Is the poet roused to action by some alarm or slow to get going because of a strange and stultifying silence? Consider how these circumstances could conclude with the poet being freed or with the poet freezing. Now write a poem.

To spur the “write a poem” part of my day, I am, as ever, reading.  Eclectic summer reading.  The sort that has nothing to do with class assignments or research or editing jobs.  Summer reading of my own, ecumenical, choice. I find, especially in a new place with new windows and, therefore, new vantage points through which the world can see me, that revealing the reading I do entirely of my own accord can be awkward.  In one new town, where I had no friends and also no television, I decided to reread all of The Divine Comedy.  This led me to reread all of The Chronicles of Narnia.  This was long before those blockbuster movies were released but years after that “Aslan is on the move” bumper sticker craze.  Like Dante and the children in Narnia, I suppose I felt a bit like a stranger touring marvelous, and sometimes horrifying, new lands, and so I found myself mesmerized by both Dante and Lewis.  My literary interests, and what they revealed about me, made for stilted cocktail party conversation, I’ll admit.  All the same, because I have already written about losing my best black bra and misplacing my husband’s childhood photos and also his sugar, I see no reason why I should not continue the revelations by sharing some of what I’m reading in my new house this month.

Here’s what I read in July, listed in the order of digestion (though I have not included some terrific articles like one I read on gray whales returning to their breeding ground off the Baja Peninsula, and one on a diamond thief reliving his biggest heist, or more in that neighborhood):

1) Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry, edited and translated by Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover.

2) Having finished reading Black Dog, Black Night, and having appreciated the experience of being introduced to the book’s 22 contemporary Vietnamese poets whose work, with the exception of Linh Dinh, Troung Tran and Mông-Lan, I must confess I had not hitherto known, I decided to reach back to the familiar.  Thus, I reread Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

3) When that book was finished, I picked up the copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, that I‘ve kept at the ready, unread, since its release. Perhaps not the perkiest book with which to battle the blues.

4) When I finished The Road I thought I’d take my desolation in smaller chunks, namely the Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, from a new translation by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover released last fall.  What to do with the fact that two of the poems that moved me most in the book were titled, I wish I were fabricating for effect, “The Departed” and “Half of Life”?

5) Maybe this dislocation was an issue of translation, I considered.  Perhaps the question of desolation had something to do with genres I’d been reading, poems being so brief and novels so long.  So I looked to another shelf entirely to find my next book, and I started into Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays, though what I found myself most drawn to was her eleven-play series called, with variations, ”Father Comes Home From the Wars,”  and so I could not help but acknowledge the through line that was there all along, a through line in my reading that helped me realize I have been missing outdoor emergency sirens and have been busy constructing internal alarms of my own.

Consider the way choices reflect anxieties.  Or, consider the way anxieties reflect choices.  Is there any difference between the two?  Now write a poem.

A Man Returning Home

He is home from That
His wife cries all night, his kids are confused all day
Home from That
when he walks through the door, his friends’ faces are ashen
Home from That
he feels an itch on the back of his head
in the midst of a crowd
as if someone is watching

One year later, he suddenly chokes during a party
Two years later, he sweats from his nightmares
Three years later, he feels pity for a lizard
Years later, he has the habit of sitting alone in darkness

Some days he feels a stranger’s penetrating stare
Some nights, an aimless voice asks questions
He jumps
at a touch to his shoulder

–Hoàng Hung, from Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry

I placed this poem in my Admired Poems file because I was enamored of its use of the list.  I love the way the discomforts of this man’s life seem to simultaneously increase and decrease in magnitude.  The “aimless voice ask[ing] questions” might have seemed less daunting had it come earlier in the poem, next to the mention of his kids for instance.  But here at the end of the poem, when we find that physical comforts like “a touch to his shoulder” frighten him so, this voice becomes incredibly worrisome.  What is the voice asking him to do?  The line break after jumps is particularly effective given that the line “He jumps” comes in such proximity to the menace of those questions.  Now the idea of the man jumping seems terribly alarming, and though we ought to be calmed by the fact that he’s jumped at such a little thing, in the end the menace of the “touch to his shoulder” increases rather than dissipates. I also love the nonspecific word “That,” and how, in this version of the poem, the word is presented capitalized and in italics. Hoàng Hung allows the reader to decide what it is this man has returned from.  I have conjectures, but the specific answer to what “That” might be is significantly less interesting than the answers we get to what “That” has done to the man.  As with the details accumulated in the poem, the horror of what “That” might be accrues weight as the poem progresses.

Consider the way choices reflect anxieties.  Or, consider the way anxieties reflect choices.  Is there any difference between the two?  Now write a poem.

With the exception of an occasional cameo appearance, this will be my final post on Harriet.  I have enjoyed the opportunity to post on the blog for a number of reasons, not the least of which has been the opportunity to share news about writing that moves me.  Moreover, I have appreciated the opportunity to articulate for others, and thus clarify for myself, what it is that draws me to the work I care about.  For over a decade, I have kept a reading journal, recording for each book I read at least one page of reflections.  This has been a useful act for me as a writer and as a teacher as it forces me to more carefully articulate ideas that I might otherwise gloss over.  Though you might recall I was resistant to the concept of blogging when I first joined company with Harriet, the act of blogging has pushed me even further than my reading journal could, bringing me more rapidly to insights I would have eventually come to, but which I might have mulled over, in private, for a much longer time.  It’s July 31st, for instance.  Now that I’ve written this blog, now that I’ve identified some of what I’m missing in this new house, and now that I’ve told all of you what I’ve been looking to find based on what I’m reading, perhaps I can start looking for something different.  Maybe in August I’ll reread Frank Baum, discovering in the Wizard of Oz how I could have been happy, even at home, all along.

I’ll close with a C. P. Cavafy poem that seems to speak directly to how I might manage the concerns revealed in this post:

Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

–C.P. Cavafy, Translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

Consider how these circumstances could conclude with the poet being frozen or with the poet being freed. Now write a poem.

Comments (3)

  • On August 1, 2009 at 5:03 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    thanks Camille for the gracious goodbye and great pic! Happy moving! Annie

  • On August 1, 2009 at 11:25 pm Terreson wrote:

    Good post. Did I remember to say it is classy too?

    Terreson

  • On September 1, 2009 at 2:53 am Tara Betts wrote:

    I just have to say that I admire how this post catches how many subjects and tasks flow into one another and become evident in our thought processes. I mean, who really sits down to write and focus on one thing? Not many of us, I’m sure. Somehow, Camille, you show how all these details, to-do’s, and titles are rich compost for poems.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, July 31st, 2009 by Camille Dungy.