Monday, June 21, 2010

Pennsylvania's Landscape as the Human Body

This week in the park I read a book that I forgot I had. I'm not sure where I found it, but it is very timely considering my current class's study of landscape. Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania is a collection that explores Pennsylvania's rich literary history. Editors Marjorie Maddox and Jerry Wemple are both professors at state universities and have put together a collection organized by region. I quickly skipped ahead to the fifth section marked "Southwestern Pennsylvania: The Three Rivers Region and the Laurel Highlands" and was instantly struck by the first poem by Diane Ackerman. The poem is called "Lines Written in a Pittsburgh Skyscraper" and it examines the diverse cultures, communities and landscapes that one encounters in Pittsburgh. The first stanza begins with the body and includes the lines:

I know that the body
is a river, whose bones and muscles
and organs are flowing.

I recently wrote a similar passage in a nonfiction piece describing the Pennsylvanian landscape in correlation to the body. It is fascinating to see your own experience reflected in the work of another poet (especially an established, successful poet like Ackerman). I was also struck by her nod to the history of coal mining, again personifying the landscape in corporeal terms: 

My students are the children
of coal miners, who watch the ground
swallow their fathers each day,
sometimes even digesting
the trapped men, turning their bones
back into lime, into coal.
It is the oldest fear:
that Earth may recall you.

That last line of the stanza really struck me. I love when a poet brings something back to the universal, in this case, the fear of death. It's also interesting that she is looking on the death of coal miners as an educator. The region boasts many colleges and universities, so she really goes a long way in this poem to incorporate all the aspects of Pittsburgh culture.

I often read poems about Pittsburgh with submissions to Weave, but we rarely manage to accept a piece. Before today I could not really articulate why, but reading this poem makes me realize that place-based writing should incorporate the universal. You can't simply name drop a few neighborhoods and inside-joke commentary on one particular scene. I think the poet should reflect upon the place and communicate it's essence as if the reader had never been there. If the reader has, the poem is that much richer and relatable, but relying solely on a region's residents as an audience seems counter-productive. This place should be transported to the reader, as if they themselves are inhabiting the space. Perhaps Ackerman's technique of using the body to describe her experiences will help readers physically place themselves in Pittsburgh's landscape.

Sitting here in one of Pittsburgh's many parks, I wonder how I might write this place. How could I describe the subtle changes in my surroundings, depending on the weather? How can I communicate my ability to know when rain is coming? Should I try to count the number of birds I hear? Is that possible? My experience in this place are layered: both corporeal and almost other-worldly. It seems like a large undertaking, but perhaps my initial instincts to express my surroundings through the body might be a useful and universal place to begin.

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