When you love a place and lose your foothold in it through self-exile, or the inevitable economics that annihilate real estate across a family’s generations, or simply because it has changed, what you write about it risks whiny longing, the tang of sour grapes. A whiff of elegy, however, seems OK, as long as it doesn’t idealize. Years ago, I wrote a poem about the Little Peconic Bay, and I’m pretty certain the path I took back to it changed my writing for the better.
As a kid, I’d spent a lot of time on the South Fork of Long Island; the setting had been a wellspring in my earlier work, but with the poem “Peconic” arrived a new impulse that seemed governed by memories that were more eerie, their descriptors’ tone shaped by desolation, danger, and death. Abandoned fishing nets, the viscera of fish in a kitchen sink, severed deer feet in the dunes, terrifying myths about horseshoe crabs, the competing shame and relief of being land-bound while others embark on a menacing sea. Settling on these particular moments was an important aesthetic juncture; wherever this project seemed to lead, each increment tended to veer from nostalgia into more mysterious, unexplainable realms. As I approached the closure of the sequence (ten seven-line, numbered cantos in trimeter), I realized that I was reclaiming while trying to say goodbye to a beloved and evocative landscape by conjuring its most haunting moments. Beauty was now accompanied by a sketchy sidekick.
The challenge of writing “Peconic,” however, wasn’t in deciding over which images to hang spotlights; rather, it was in mustering the faith—as I felt my way along—that they might reveal some unintended cargo in being reconjured. Though a writer’s receptiveness to new or dormant emotions that memories might broach sounds pretty boiler-plate, shaping their nuanced spiritual freight in ways that are neither saccharine nor too gothic needs mentoring. At certain junctures in my development as a writer, I admired, absorbed, and parroted poems that evoked in the settings of their childhood narratives some proximity to general creepiness, horrors embedded in the everyday. Poems in Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City, and Dave Smith’s The Roundhouse Voices provided gritty inspiration propelled by contemporary voices that I could emulate, poets who were neither sentimental nor interested in beating themselves up, wallowing in angst. To be sure, the Peconic Bay in the late 1960’s-early 70’s was my favorite place on earth. It was paradise, and that was the problem. Especially when it came to writing about it.
During the last decade, however, it was William Wordsworth and Eugenio Montale who nudged me closer to a way of remembering Long Island that was neither unrealistically dark nor selectively euphoric. As an adult trying to dial in the perceptions of a self long gone, my return to mine the aesthetic discord of childhood (via those two poets) also taught me about the roots of aspiration, how these muses—these homes—shape the future.
Wordsworth and Montale shared the blessing of growing up in spectacular natural environments. For Wordsworth, it was the peaks and vales of the Lake District in the northwestern portion of England known as Cumbria; and for Montale, the Ligurian coast of Italy’s northwest extremity, the string of towns known as the Cinque Terre. Reverberating through the work of both was the echo of that parental binary Wordsworth describes three-hundred lines into his great poem, that he, “…grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.”
Translator William Arrowsmith said that although Montale’s decision to leave his childhood home in Monterosso for the urban literary bustle and intellectual cafés of Florence was deliberate, the poems in Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) prove that, “Liguria is not, could not, be abandoned.” Though it wasn’t exactly beauty he had exhausted, Dave Smith says in “Cumberland Station,” his poem about returning to the ancestral railyards in his native Cumberland County, Virginia: “I hope I never have to go through this place again.” Even though we are looking over his shoulder as he grimly, compellingly writes his way back there as if in a dream.
Arguably, the anchor of Wordsworth’s investigation of memory and one of the most frequently cited segments of The Prelude is the “spots of time” sequence. What makes it so provocative is its foundational scene of the thirteen-year-old Wordsworth waiting on a desolate hillside above Hawkshead for his brothers to bring him home from school for Christmas vacation. It is a landscape and climate cinched to his memory by three sensory bolts: a stonewall, a sheep, and a hawthorn tree, which he characterizes as “companions.” The trinity of images is explicit enough, but the auditory experience seems just as formative. The blasted tree “whistles,” the wall has its own “bleak music,” and we can only imagine the implicit bleating of the sheep on the windy fell, the only other warm-blooded agent in the scene. By its end, we learn that a few days after Wordsworth arrived home to Cockermouth, his forty-two year old father died, and the three brothers “followed his body to the grave.” The aesthetic miracle of this memory and its details is that they have become, despite their origins, a healing force in later years, a mysterious “beneficent influence.”
Montale’s and Wordsworth’s poems from Ossi and sections of The Prelude share the plaintive refrains of debt, where any attempt to evoke is buttressed by the poets’ doubting their worthiness as the recipients of such gifts, no matter how terrifying some of them should have been (see Wordsworth’s narratives about watching the authorities drag a corpse from the lake or his being hounded by the shadow of a mountain after he stole a boat). The persuasive rawness of thought in each convinces me that the poets are deciding within the construction of the line, despite frustration, what they need to do with their art, and what these places have done for it. Montale writes,
If only I could force
some fragment of your ecstasy
into this clumsy music of mine;
had I the talent to match your voices
with my stammering speech—
I who once dreamed of acquiring
those salt sea words of yours
where nature fuses with art—
and with your vast language proclaim the sadness
of an aging boy who shouldn’t have learned how to think.
“Mediterraneo” is a sequence of almost epistolary dramatic monologues, addressed to the paternal sea, the recipient of Montale’s churning thoughts and images. Wordsworth turns to the River Derwent, which ran, as the poem explains, in back of his childhood house at Cockermouth. What is unmistakable in the lyric prayers of both poets is a cathartic energy that both describes while it addresses; evoking and invoking these bodies of water and their surroundings in memory ultimately brings the poets closer to themselves, their ambitions for their art. In his poem “End of Childhood” Montale seems less satisfied with the ambiguities and acknowledges the chore of remembering (which, in “The Prelude” seems so facile, so fluent). Of being a child-denizen of the Ligurian coast, he writes,
We rarely crossed the nearest ridges
of those peaks; even now our memory, exhausted,
lacks the courage to cross them . . .
...But we came back home from those mountain paths.
For us they became a flickering
alternation of strange realities,
but governed by an elusive rhythm.
Each instant, burning
into future instants, left no trace.
Just being alive was adventure, fresh, too fresh,
hour by hour, and the heart racing, always faster.
There were no rules,
no measure, no sure way
of dividing joy from sadness.
Reconciling or appreciating in our memories the tensions between “beauty and fear” or “joy and sadness” are as difficult as contending with those skirmishes between confession and complaint, elegy and anthem, or grief and grievance (a paring I steal happily from Dave Smith). Especially when it comes to physical environments, and even more so when we’re thinking about a time when time didn’t matter. Montale’s longing for oblivion, escape, or passage to another plane of being is more elusive than Wordsworth’s faith in the paradoxically restorative value of fear or trauma and how they are transformed in imagination over time (the fulcrum of all of his great works). Though both poets suggest that memories are not immune to the ravages of subsequent experiences, something in their essence—simultaneously melancholic and ecstatic—endures to enhance their aspirations as artists. As I committed myself to “Peconic,” I remember being seduced by the glimmer of this redemption in one of Montale’s earliest poems, “Seacoasts” (“Riviere”), with which he chose to conclude Cuttlefish Bones:
Today I come home to you
a stronger man (or I deceive myself), although
my heart almost melts in memories, happy
but also bitter. Sad soul of my past,
and you, fresh purpose summoning me now.
Ralph Sneeden’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Ecotone, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, The Common, Slate, and elsewhere. The title poem of his first book, Evidence of the Journey (Harmon Blunt, 2007), won the Friends of Literature Prize from Poetry. He teaches English at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. In the summer, he directs the Damariscotta Lake Writers’ Conference in Maine. (updated 4/2017)