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The Place That Inhabits Me

By Camille Dungy

I’d like to join the shout out parade with a bit of praise of my own.  I’m just back from participating in a terrific reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s, one of the East Bay’s most fantastic independent bookshops.  The reading was a celebration of the newly released anthology, The Place That Inhabits Is: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed (Sixteen Rivers Press).  It was the sort of reading, from the sort of anthology, I know I’ll feel good about for some time to come.

For one thing, I had the chance to read alongside some of my favorite poets and minds: Forrest Hamer, Sandra Gilbert, Chana Bloch, Alice Jones, Eliot Schain and Bay Area poetry scene mainstays Joyce Jenkins and Richard Silberg.

Then there was the opportunity offered by Murray Silverstein, the Sixteen Rivers Press member who organized tonight’s event.  Each of us were asked to read our own poem and at least one other poem from the anthology that communicated with our own. I had my poems all picked out, but as I was the 6th of 8 readers, I didn’t end up sticking to my original plan.  First Forrest Hamer read the Tung-hui Hu poem I had intended to read.  Then Chana Bloch read the Yehuda Amichai (in English and Hebrew no less).  Joyce Jenkins read the August Kleinzahler poem I’d considered.  I thought about reading the D.A. Powell poem, didn’t, then had the pleasure of hearing Richard Silberg read it when his turn came along.  No one chose the Zbigniew Herbert, the Aaron Shurin, the Brenda Hillman, the Walt Whitman, Lee Herrick, Marilyn Chin, Czeslaw Milosz, Kay Ryan, George Oppen, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Larry Levis, Amber Flora Thomas, or Jane Hirshfield I’d considered, but Sandra Gilbert did read the Carolyn Kizer poem before my turn came, and Alice Jones read Robert Duncan just after I had left the stage.

I left the reading awed by the breadth of the possibilities for the poetry offered by the land I call home.  Poems about the bay and the mountains, about Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco, the Koi Pond at the Oakland Museum, the Golden Gate Bridge from the perspective of a suicide.  Robert Hass says in the introduction to this 130-page wonder of a book: “It was San Franciscan Robert Frost who said that the land was ours before we were the land’s, and if we don’t wreck it altogether, we will be a long time saying what it is like to live here.”  Indeed, there is much to say, and many of us who work, fervently, to learn new ways to say it.  How stimulating it was, tonight, to be among such a chorus.

I have been on the road much of this spring, and everywhere I go people have asked me where I’m from and if I like living there.  “Oh my heavens, yes,” I say.  And then, sometimes I talk about how the rest of the world goes to the aromatheraphy store to buy vials of oils that smell of the ocean and of eucalyptus whereas we get these scents, daily, free floating through the air. But there are more reasons why I love this place, and some reasons why it frightens me.  It is wonderful to hold a book that articulates, through so many voices, how the diversity of all the life (and loss and wealth and risk) here won’t be shaken from the spirit that quickens me.  The poems in this anthology demonstrate why, whether I want to admit it or not, this place might not even leave me (or let me leave it) after I (and all I love) have gone.

A Place to Live

Even though—both of us knowing you could die any time,

both of us wanting to believe when you said this would be

the place you’d come to if you could—I seldom

come here and wait on this log turned almost into stone.

Even though keeping our word was life between us, given

all that in trust, still I seldom walk under these trees,

redwood and eucalyptus, the branches of Monterey pine

over the path opening farther than we could see the morning

you told me you’d surely try to come.  I’ve tried being here,

stopped and stood quiet to see if you could make it, but I’m

always either too early or too late and just miss you, in time

only for a voice that tells me living my life’s a way of being

faithful.  Even though the trees keep changing and love is

behind or ahead of me in the clearing I trust as I trust

this ground: the duff and dark needles underfoot, the light

through high green lace pulling the trees into the sky.

Jeanne Lohman, from The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed, Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 23rd, 2010 by Camille Dungy.