Poet’s Statement: “Solastalgia” is a term coined to describe the experience of mourning environmental loss, of grieving your home while you still inhabit it.¹ An experience quickly becoming common to the majority of humans presently living — people of all languages, cultures, and beliefs.
This poem attempts to grapple honestly with what it means to remember (and to remember poetically) in an era where all that we claim to write in defense of is in danger of disappearing. An era where concrete, human actions are required beyond art, to avert or at least mitigate an ecological collapse that could easily put an end to most of what inspires us to poetry, and to countless lives (human and otherwise) beyond that. As such, it is at times less than poetic. But it is also a call towards a new sort of poetry.²
It was raining. My family had joined our dad on his annual business trip. This year, 2012, it was in Lake Placid, New Jersey. On the walls of the antique-looking Palace Theatre, along Lake Placid’s small streets, a poster for The Avengers galvanized me. Already, I had caught the buzz. I realized with most of the world that The Avengers was more than a hit. It was cinematic history—the iceberg that would sink Titanic from second to third among the highest-grossing movies of all time. But more importantly The Avengers made real a boyish dream I didn’t know I had or that I didn’t believe was possible: superheroes from separate worlds sharing one movie. And tonight, it was raining, so my family made its way to the faded-yellow-lights of the Palace Theatre and joined the tens-of-millions who that year experienced The Avengers.
After that night I anxiously measured time by the space in between installments of The Marvel Cinematic Universe. September and October weren’t months, they were a test of patience until the next Thor movie, or Captain America: Winter Soldier, or Guardians of the Galaxy. I spent these periods analyzing set-photos and reading fan-theories like a new convert devours the scriptures of his religion. And I wasn’t alone—I shared this fandom with millions of others.
You Got What You Came For
But then it started to rain. Matthew had hoped to just stand there on the front step, as he always did, while the old man fetched his papers. The man’s wife emerged from the garden, the first drops of rain falling on the little pink and yellow flowers embroidered into her denim shirt. She was too old and too Southern and too polite, she said, to let a young man stand out in the rain. He would just have to come in and have a cup of coffee. He followed her inside.
On Thursday afternoons Matthew walked the sloping pathway leading to Dr. Fallon’s low, angular house. The first time he saw it, he thought it looked as though the house was burying itself into the hill. That day—the day of the rain— his girlfriend had driven him there. She leaned over the steering wheel as she slowed the car, gaping at the big glass box. He scoffed when she asked if Frank Lloyd Wright designed it.
“It’s possible, is all I was trying to say.” She was still bowed over the steering wheel, so bent into it that she and the wheel seemed to be becoming one.
“Sure, it’s possible,” he said, pulling the lock on the door up and down.
“Don’t patronize me. I was just saying. It’s a strange house.”
“I’m going to be late.”
Lines of Fissure
After “A Woman Dead in Her Forties,” Adrienne Rich
Say the rain falls thin as thunder
over vacant gardens. Say the stars
are not just distant fires in which half-formed things
and you’d be wrong, but
say it anyway. Keep your thought clenched
to a smooth syllable, pebble beneath the tongue, and I’ll choke down
what I could never tell you – that it is only on the gods
that rain can fall so lightly. That for us, there is no garden
save for roots that clutch the flesh of corpses, and no gate
except some dog lies by it, waiting for years that trusted
apparition that will never
return home. If this was wrong
you would return home.
If this was wrong,
there would be home, still, to return to.
How does your position in the present affect your memory of the past? This question must weigh heavily on the mind of any person writing their autobiography. Doubtless, our values in the present predicate how we assess our childhood, our adolescence, and afterwards. But the subjectivity inherent to the autobiography is not a problem for the genre. Rather, the autobiography’s subjective quality is precisely what makes the genre worth reading. It means something unique to hear a person tell their own story. Three such stories are The Confessions of St. Augustine, Thomas Merton’s memoir Seven Story Mountain, and Terrence Malick’s semi-autobiographical film Tree of Life.
Because these works are about spiritual conversions, the authors’ perceptions of their pasts are affected even more by the authors’ identities in their present. The individual described at the start of each book or depicted on film is a radically different person from the author or filmmaker who is writing.
Poet’s Statement: This poem was inspired by an avalanche class in which I learned the many different types of snow, and how to read the history of a winter season in the layers of the snowpack. While snow layers are dynamic, they also contain a fixed record of memory, like the rings of a tree or the fossils in layers of earth.
Naturally, we humans may think of memory as something contained and encoded in our brains—as something we carry with us. But the woven synapses that fire to bring back images from our past don’t necessarily fire on their own. They often depend on us being in a certain place, stronger in its power to make us recall than even our own willpower to access our past.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions.
These are the first seven lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” I didn’t understand the poem the first time I read it, and I still don’t. Perhaps that’s just as well, because it seems to speak more in the tongues of reverie than of knowledge, of things almost sensed and connections just missed.
That being said, the poem still resonates for me in the dreaminess of its language and the intensity of what is felt — there is an immediacy there, I believe: the things we can almost grasp hover before us clear as day, perceptible, yet still out of reach. This is perhaps what we feel in nostalgia, or distortions of memory such as forgetfulness or déjà vu.
Picture where the shoe
leaves the pavement. Is it
here? or here? or here? Look,
the foot has gone a ways,
and the leg along
with it; see the knee
unbend, the leg extend
like a wing unfurling
over the concrete.
July 2004: I am nine years old, alone in the loft of a beach house somewhere in Cape May. It is the slow, muted afternoon of a family vacation—I imagine the rest of my family scattered throughout the house, my grandmother just below, eyes half-closed in front of a TV playing The Young and the Restless. The sun seems to come falling in through the semicircular window, and I feel big and alone and powerful in this room of light and dust. The TV is on, the volume low and the voices like whispers as I look through a telescope in the corner of the room. Because I can’t properly close one eye at a time, and because of the afternoon light, I find nothing of interest through the telescope except the shadow of my own eyelid blurred with the rough outline of the sun.
I find myself standing in front of the television, drawn in by the sound of someone saying “50,000 dead and up to a million homeless.” It is a PBS special about the devastation a future hurricane could bring to New Orleans. A city official walks through the French Quarter with the program’s host, armed with a surveyor’s pole. He extends the pole up to twenty-two feet, the camera pulling back to emphasize the pair’s smallness next to it. If Hurricane Ivan had made a direct hit earlier that year, the official explains, the city would have flooded as high as the pole. “We’re swimming here,” he says, “We’re like fish. If we’re alive.”
Dante’s political exile from his beloved Florence is mirrored in a greater Exile in his famous Comedy: the Pilgrimage of the fallen Man toward his transcendental Home. Dante knew his native Florence intimately, its colors, smells and sounds, but the Poet as he appears in Paradiso has never been to the highest heaven. Descriptions of sense data decrease as the poet ascends. At the very summit, Dante is forced to rely almost entirely on metaphors.