Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Landscape, Justice, Activism, Ambiguity: or Where Do Poems Come From?

I'm editing a mesmerizing yet distressing book about uranium production in the Colorado Plateau--a book that mentions, for instance, that "industry privatization, de- and re-regulation of related frameworks, and corporate self-monitoring are just some of the neoliberalized traits of the uranium industry." (Always good attitudes, eh?--and even better when radioactivity is involved. Ay yi yi.) But the author also talks about the clear class divide between the people who live in a region that depends on natural resources as an industry and the people who campaign for those natural resources as vital and important in their own right. I see this in the north woods as well: the ire that erupts between fourth-generation loggers and activists who want to turn working forests into parks. Yet, of course, the locals are always getting screwed by the corporations; the locals always live at the whim of the market; the locals are always the ones left with the Superfund sites and the cancer clusters.

One might claim to perceive a clear right and wrong in such situations. But the people of a region have more than economic ties to the natural resources they are hired to dig up or cut down. They are culturally bound to that labor: by family and community history, by stanza and story. Without mining we would have no Clementine. Without logging we would have no Paul Bunyan. Do stories matter when a landscape is at sake? No, and yes.

To me, such deep ambiguities are self-evident, but they are not so obvious to many activists. I say this as a person who almost always supports progressive causes, both environmentally and socially: I am a staunchly liberal voter. But I also recognize that, in large part, the fracking haters and wolf lovers do not live on the piece of land that will be directly affected by fracking or wolves. Those activists who do live there are often relative newcomers, not people with long cultural ties to the region. Does this make their arguments wrong? No, of course not. But these activists often tend to assume that the locals who cling to an industry are serfs cowed by corporate greed rather than individuals with histories and perspectives.

It is painful to be a poet who lives on both sides of this divide, and I have found myself writing so much about these people who are me, and also not me. My poems solve nothing, but at least they allow me to map the complications.

Ugly Town

Dawn Potter

The sun is under no obligation to shed its optimistic beams
on the ugliest town in Maine—not now, not in March
when I’ve steeled myself for gravel-picked mud and despair,
for broken branches and a plow-scarred dooryard
rimmed with a winter’s worth of dog turds, pale and crumbled
among the pale remaindered weeds.

But it does shine, that fool’s orb, for reasons best known to itself;
            and I slouch here in my yellow chair, both cold feet
parked under the woodstove, squinting into this cheerful, bossy glare,
            attempting to convince myself that unbridled nature
has, for once, chosen to be a genial master instead of the flogging brute
we expect here in the ugly town, where we don’t think

ski but shovel, don’t think flowers but floods.
Maybe I’ve been reading too many books—
too much Roth and Munro, too much Blake and Carruth,
all of them driven to detail bleak empty roads
and unmown lawns; evil alleys and poisonous rivers;
the fathers, dyspeptic, misunderstood; the mothers,

wiping schmaltz and ketchup from the shabby oilcloth; and meanwhile
            those thirteen angels on their magic seats, frowning and perturbed.
Of course there’s happiness too. No one denies the happiness,
but don’t count on it to carry you through. Keep your eye
steady, your irony sharp. Stay wary; it’s best to stay wary—
though not one of these writers, I can tell you right now,

has ever stayed wary enough, and they’ve paid for it in spades—
            a phrase that might, for dwellers of another clime,
connote cognac and midnight whist parties
but that here, in the ugly town, where most everyone
gambles by scratch ticket and goes to bed early,
means plain old digging:

in snow, in thankless stony soil, with a bent shovel,
with a belching backhoe; tearing up asphalt,
forking out a winter’s worth of choking black shit.
You can kill yourself when you pay in spades
for a neat square cellar hole—say, when you’re fifty years married
to a woman who’s dreamed for all those heavy decades

of trading her wind-licked trailer for a house with a furnace.
No, you haven’t had time, you haven’t had money,
all you’ve had is a middle-aged kid who won’t get out of the recliner
except to grab a beer from the icebox, all you’ve had
are those cars, one after the other, falling into seizures and dismay;
and if you can’t stop eating what you shouldn’t be eating,

at least there’s salt, there’s sugar, those reliable offerings
that remind you you’re still alive, that you haven’t yet
paid out every single spade. Yet it’s a lie, and you know it,
and I know it too because I tell my own brand of lies,
such as it’s okay to be easy on myself,
such as I mean well, such as it’s good enough

to chronicle the sweetness of this sunlight,
not to force myself to keep struggling to speak
when I don’t know how to think, when I don’t know how
to find the word, the only word, trembling, naked as a rat,
when I don’t know how to lay it down, wet and mewling,
among the schmaltz and the ketchup stains.

Someone might argue that here’s where a little wariness
would do me good, and not just me but all these writers
whose books I’ve been reading too often,
and even they might agree with you, on a bad morning.
But today, according to this obstinate sun, is not a bad morning.
Brilliance leaks and flows through window smears,

patches the dour carpet. The light refuses to let up.
It insists on itself, like a mean cat does,
gliding from nowhere to bite me on the ankle.
            The world is too much with us; late and soon
is what Wordsworth wrote, but it’s not what he meant.
            He was trying to say we were too distracted by our lives

to notice this sunshine, and here I am borrowing his words
            to explain that I am too distracted by this sunshine
to notice my life.  The world overtakes me,
            I’m not wary enough, and something bad will happen
if I don’t watch out. That’s the point to remember about writing.
           It doesn’t solve anything.

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)


Ellen T said...

Powerful stuff - sun and crickets mock grief.

David said...

That’s well and also bravely said, Dawn. It’s a complex, complicated world. (If there’s one thing government work is good at, it’s the showing pretty much every day of how true that is.) Writing doesn’t solve anything? Maybe. But then here’s the poetry of “Ugly Town” and its humanity.

Keith said...

We should all begin by accepting that we all were kicked out of the garden long, long ago. With the arrival of consciousness comes the burden of self-awareness; and yet we know not what we do. I am reminded of Hopkins:

God's Grandeur

THE world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Many, many moons ago, I "delivered a paper" (not the Bangor Daily) at a conference titled, "Environmental Rhetoric: the Nature of Human Survival." My premise was that deep down loggers and Spotted Owl saviors, fishermen and Greenpeace's Rainbow Warriors, miners and eco-terrorists, all want the same thing: human survival. OK, I'll admit and have been admonished, there are some eco-activists who could care less about human beings. However, I find that to be unfathomable.

Discussions about jobs on the one hand and indicator species on the other are both, at root, discussions about how we are going to survive. It has always been about finding balance out here, far outside of Eden.

Sheila said...

Thoughtful and thought provoking post. " ...these people who are me, and also not me." -- I'd be interested in reading more about this.