PLACE AS PASTORAL
Writing about place is wonderfully unsettling, because place is never just location, but the people who live there, economics, ecology, history, ghost stories, and geography. I think of William Carlos Williams’ poem “Spring and All” as a type of modern pastoral. “By the road to the contagious hospital” there is disease, mud, and despair, but “among the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf” life cannot help but erupt. Place is never one thing. Place is a dichotomy, at least.
What it means to come from a place, but not be of that place can be lonesome. In fact, I started early drafts of “No Longer Two, But One Flesh,” “Posted,” and “Still Life with Rusted Out Washing Machine” (Issue 4) when I lived in Los Angeles. Listening to planes land at the Van Nuys airport and traffic on the 405 could not be further from the occasional call of a whippoorwill I’d heard growing up in the Appalachian Mountains.
Shortly after we moved to the city, I talked with a neighbor on our shared stoop into the evening, watching jet trails fade into the west, thinking there’s an ocean to cross before any chance of land. Maybe it was the coastal geography, earthquakes, or the influence of Hollywoodland, but living in L.A. was living on a literal precipice. For the next few months, I wrote rough first drafts from the edge looking for sturdy ground. Distance creates perspective, so I could write honestly about poverty and isolation, recalling winding roads littered with the try-hard trailers or my relatives. However, the following summer we visited the small coal mining ghost towns of my ancestors, and I was surprised to discover the beauty of the place emerged through language. Oral tradition is strong in the American South, and I saw the landscape through my grandmother’s practical and figurative language. Contagious hospitals were old coal mines, but wildcarrot curls were mountain laurel. Maybe writing about place is simultaneously memory and research, both offering just half-truths.