Terrain.org Articles.
View Terrain.org Blog.





image, Poetry & Place, by Peter Huggins.

by Peter Huggins

In painting, chiaroscuro, the use of light and dark, provides definition, contrast, the heightening or lessening of emotion; in addition, I would argue, it allows viewers a way into the painting. In poetry, place serves a similar function: readers can enter the particular world of the poem; however, if readers languish in the general world of no place, then nothing will happen for them, neither the excitement and explosion of language nor the complex connection of realized experience. Further, the imagination, it seems to me, starves on a diet of no place poems; even sitcom writers, surely an intellectually anorexic lot if ever there was one, have located their characters with their endless brouhahas in recognizable places—Seattle, New York, Chicago.

In this article, then, I will elaborate on these concerns and use some well-known poems as well as some poems from my own Necessary Acts.

image, James Dickey.
James Dickey.
Photo courtesy The Academy of American Poets.

Let me begin with James Dickey's "Cherrylog Road," a poem that has been much anthologized (and deservedly so) over the years. This poem takes place in a junkyard "Off Highway 106/At Cherrylog Road"; the speaker waits for his girlfriend Doris Holbrook to "escape from her father at noon" and join him in, of all places, "the parking lot of the dead." As he waits, he slips in and out of cars, a "'34 Ford without wheels," "an Essex/With a rumble seat of red leather", "A blue Chevrolet,.../Reared up on three building blocks."

After he passes "through many states,/Many lives," the speaker reaches

Some grandmother's long Pierce-Arrow
Sending platters of blindness forth

From its nickel hubcaps
And spilling its tender upholstery
On sleepy roaches,
The glass panel in between
Lady and colored driver
Not all the way broken out,

The back-seat phone
Still on its hook.
I go in as though to exclaim,
"Let us go to the orphan asylum,
John; I have some old toys
For children who say their prayers."

The details clearly suggest the Appalachian South, not too far removed from Atlanta. Who knows? Perhaps Cherrylog Road will soon actually be in Atlanta, like some poor hapless soul clutched in one of the grasping arms of Dr. Octopus.

Doris comes "With a wrench in her hand," so she can glean parts from the wrecked cars, "headlights/Sparkplugs, bumpers,/Cracked mirrors and gear knobs," and bring them home to her suspicious father who the speaker imagines lays for him "In a bootleggers's roasting car/With a string-triggered 12-gauge shotgun/To blast the breath from the air." But not this time. Doris slips into the Pierce-Arrow and hooks up (literally) with the speaker. Both leave by separate doors, Doris back "Down Cherrylog Road" and the speaker to his motorcycle, "Parked like the soul of the junkyard/Restored, a bicycle fleshed/With power," on which he roars "Up Highway 106, continually/Drunk on the wind in my mouth,/Wringing the handlebar for speed,/Wild to be wreckage forever." Even now, long after I first read those lines, they rev me up, their power and grace a testament to Dickey's precise rendering of place.

image, Richard Hugo.
Richard Hugo.
Photo courtesy University of Montana Writers at Work.

Equally precise in his rendering of place is Richard Hugo. A list of poem titles will suffice to convey what I mean. "G.I. Graves in Tuscany." "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg." "Montgomery Hollow." "Montana Ranch Abandoned." "The House on 15th S.W." "Letter to Logan from Milltown." "The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir." I love the way Hugo situates the reader with his titles; I trust him going in although I may never have been to Philipsburg or Milltown. Once the reader (not to mention the poet) is situated the poet can do about anything: ridge back a burned bar, redeem a ruined life.

In "Montgomery Hollow" Hugo notes: "You conquer loss/by going to the place it happened/and replaying it, saying the name/of the face in the open casket right." When we say the name right, when we know "every bend/and pebble and the weeds along [the road]," we own the place if only for a little while, and the pleasure of owning is more than worth the trouble of acquisition. To me this is little short of a miracle.

I want to mention one more poem in this context, a poem that seems to come directly out of the poet's native Warwickshire landscape: Shakespeare's "That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold." With great difficulty do I refrain from simply quoting the poem and moving on, and perhaps that would be a better thing to do. However, I would say this sonnet conveys the passage of time and the human condition as well as anything I know. The boughs are now indeed "Bare ruined choirs" but the speaker knows they were once full and will be full again though he himself may be "Consumed with that which [he] was nourished by." We do love the places we come from, and we "love that well which [we] must leave ere long."

image, Peter Huggins.
Peter Huggins.
Photo courtesy River City Publishing.

Running down the list of poem titles in my most recent book of poems, Necessary Acts, I see the various places from which the poems come. Those places include Mandeville, Louisiana ("In Louisiana, Late December, Thinking of Saint Augustine"), Savannah, Georgia ("The Waving Girl on the Bull Street Docks"), Moundville, Alabama ("The Bees at Mound State Park"), Hendersonville, North Carolina ("Wolfe's Angel"), Tuscaloosa, Alabama ("Putting on the Chicken"), New Orleans, Louisiana ("Killing White Rabbits at Tulane Medical School"), Sewanee, Tennessee ("Parable in October"), the Hebrides ("Fingal's Cave").

This is not an exhaustive list of places in the book, but I would suggest that these poems arise from these places and are rooted in these places just as day lilies or tulip poplars are rooted in the places from which they spring. I would even go so far as to suggest that these poems would not exist (or would exist in a radically different and probably diminished way) apart from their respective places. Place provides form, shape, and being to these poems, and I for one am extremely grateful, even thankful for that. Perhaps this is what Jack Bedell, poet and editor of Louisiana Literature, means when he says that Necessary Acts "smacks [him] in the jaw like real life." Perhaps a poem from Necessary Acts may serve to illustrate this point.

The Bees at Mound State Park

In the tall grass of the mounds
The bees defend their nests
With suicidal attacks:
They sting us, then die.
We would destroy their homes
With swing blades and gas fires
To make this park cared for,
Well-maintained in July's heat.

I wonder what the Mound Builders
Used to control the grass,
Or if they thought the grass
A problem. They must have stuck
To fire for in our burning
Of these mounds I hear
The grass chant, the bees sing.

I see the Mound Builders
Roll to the river. They sweep
Fire before them for a new crop
Of corn. The burning puts back
What they took out: this is
Their rule, and it works.
They do not change it.

As I bring these observations about poetry and place to a close, I am convinced that writing poems is the most humbling of activities. Whenever I find myself having difficulty with a poem, I resolve that difficulty when I see the poem taking place in a particular place. Indeed, many of the poems in Necessary Acts owe their existence to place. They are, as the last poem in Necessary Acts notes, like stones in a cairn whose "order, weight, meaning and heft" must be considered, for tomorrow "we will add new stones to these stones."

Read two additional poems by Peter Huggins  > >
Opens in popup window


Peter Huggins books of poems are Necessary Acts, Blue Angels, and Hard Facts; he is also the author of a picture book, Trosclair and the Alligator, which has appeared on the PBS show Between the Lions, and a novel for younger readers, In the Company of Owls.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



James Dickey Newsletter
& James Dickey Society

The Academy of American Poets' James Dickey Page

The Atlantic's James
Dickey Page

The Academy of American Poets' Richard Hugo Page

Listing Angels: A Review of Peter Huggins' Blue Angels




Read Peter Huggins' poetry also appearing in The Best of Terrain.org, Issue No. 11.


Read Simmons Buntin's review of Blue Angels, poetry by Peter Huggins.

New Poetry by Peter Huggins

Read two poems on the theme of "The Dark and
the Light."


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.