The Poem as Locus: Walking Through Donald Justice’s “Memory of a Porch”

Angela Narciso Torres, Series Contributor

Angela’s series attempts to explore through her own writing process and that of the other poets the ancient Roman construct of the “genius loci,” a guardian spirit that enlivens a place, igniting and inspiring the creative imagination.

The poet James Galvin has said that the poetry of place is really “a poetry of self-annihilation.” He writes: “the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it…The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as it were, inside out, so that the center of ‘knowing who you are’ becomes the circumference of uncertainty. The poem as locus mirrors this dynamic, since it is a measured place, possibly with stanzas which has an infinite capacity to contain everything outside it, including the poet.”

If the poem itself is a locus, then it follows from Galvin’s logic that a poet replaces self with poem, losing himself in it in order to find herself. In no other poem is this more apparent for me than in Donald Justice’s “Memory of a Porch,” in which he uses the economy of the stanza (from the Italian word meaning “room”), to affix a childhood memory onto a permanent world. While I would not consider Justice primarily a poet of place in the way James Wright, for instance, has been known for, Justice’s poems are often reminiscent of his childhood Miami. Known for his use of formal elements and of reinventing traditional forms, reading his poems often feels, to me, like visiting rooms from one’s past, at once familiar and strange.

Memory of a Porch

                                 Miami, 1942
What I remember
Is how the wind chime
Commenced to stir
As she spoke of her childhood,
As though the simple
Death of a pet cat,
Buried with flowers,
Had brought to the porch
A rumor of storms
Dying out over
Some dark Atlantic. 
At least I heard
The thing begin–
A thin, skeletal music–
And in the deep silence
Below all memory
The sighing of ferns
Half asleep in their boxes.

“Memory of a Porch” consists of five concise stanzas that alternate between quatrains and tercets. If stanzas are likened to the rooms of a house, then Justice’s first stanza is clearly the entry point, inviting the reader into a personal memory, the memory of, well–a porch. The porch, as we know, is the most public area of a house. An exterior room, it faces the street, inviting neighbors to stop by without feeling as though they have imposed.

As the poem progresses, the speaker invites us on a journey into the most interior of spaces, where deep memory and feeling reside. The first stanza reveals a memory embedded within a memory–the sound of wind chimes coinciding with the memory of a “she” who remains unnamed (one imagines an older relative—aunt, mother, or grandmother—speaking to a child).  The stability of four lines establishes a sense of being grounded, as if to say, “This happened” with the authority and weight of narrative history. The two-beat lines reinforce this certainty, yet the stanza ends with a comma, like a door held open for the reader to proceed to the interior.
This takes us to the second stanza, where the actual memory is recounted, though couched in a conditional clause. The stanza is a tercet, which some have deemed an unstable unit because it lacks the evenly balanced support of a couplet or quatrain.  Here, the function of the tercet, to my mind, is two-fold. First, it reflects the fragile nature of memory; its mutability over time. The memory, a seemingly innocuous childhood event, (the “Death of a pet cat/ buried with flowers”) breaks the two-beat pattern to emphasize the dramatic moment central to the poem. The second function of the uneven tercet is to roll the action forward to the next stanza, heightening tension by increasing the reader’s desire for the predicate of the “as-though” clause.  In a poem where only the subtlest action occurs, this becomes an important source of movement.
The predicate comes in a quatrain, returning to the stability of four two-beat lines. We are back at the porch, but now a darker emotion is introduced: “a rumor of storms/dying out over/ some dark Atlantic.” The gravity of those images stand in contrast with the simple childhood memory preceding it, amplified by the unevenness in stanza length. The heaviness of the metaphor suggests how memory can stir up emotional storms by the sheer act of remembering.  Did the child notice this metaphorical storm in the woman’s face as she recounted the death of her cat?  Does the rumor of storms represent the child’s feeling upon hearing the story, or the adult-child’s, as he recalls the moment? We cannot know this, but can feel certain that the speaker attributes the stirred up chimes to memory’s power to charge the atmosphere with deep emotion.
The third stanza closes with a period, grounding the moment further. The white space that follows is an immense silence, like the lull after a storm. The sense of quiet that Justice achieves with the use of white space can be most appreciated here.  Much happens in this space: reconsideration, followed by a return to the original memory, embodied in the sound of chimes from the first stanza. Here, the speaker qualifies what he remembers. “At least I heard/The thing begin—/a thin skeletal music—”.  Again, the unstable tercet. The speaker defers to memory as reflected by the halting phrases. The use of Dickinsonian long dashes contributes to the sense of trying to recover something lost. In this case, it is a “thin, skeletal music”—fragile as memory.
The white space that follows allows a pause, as one straining to listen. That silence is repaid by an even deeper silence in the last stanza.  “And in the deep silence/ Below all memory/ The sighing of ferns/ Half asleep in their boxes.”  Here we see a solid return to the two-beat line.  The stanza reveals what happens at a level “below all memory,” going to a deeper, darker interiority than the speaker’s own memory of the porch or the woman’s childhood memory.  The use of personification (“The sighing of ferns / Half asleep in their boxes”) rouses a deep, ineffable sense of melancholy and longing.  But more than that, it speaks of how memory transforms our perception of the world, as well as our inner lives, in that instant of remembering.
By using this structure of alternating stanza-shapes, Justice mimics how memories come back to us in waves, waxing and waning like the phases of the moon. What he has fashioned in this poem then is a container for memory, otherwise fleeting and evanescent. That he ends the poem in the box-like quatrain with the image of plant-boxes is no accident. The act of writing this poem, with its deliberate, alternating structure, creates a locus—a holding environment—affixing memory, and thus, the self, onto the glittering, hard objects of a permanent world.

Works Cited

Galvin, James. “The Poetry of Place: James Wright’s, ‘The Secret of Light. ’” http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetry-place-james-wrights-secret-light

Justice, Donald. “Memory of a Porch.” Collected Poems. New York: Knopf. 2004.

Angela Narciso Torres

Angela Narciso Torres‘s first book of poetry, Blood Orange, won the Willow Books Literature Award for Poetry. Recent work appears in Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, and Cream City Review. A graduate of Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Angela has received fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, Ragdale Foundation, and Midwest Writing Center. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she currently resides in Chicago, where she teaches poetry workshops and serves as a senior poetry editor for RHINO.


Towards a Poetics of Emplacement: Finding the Genius of a Place

Angela Narciso Torres, Series Contributor

Angela’s series attempts to explore through her own writing process and that of the other poets the ancient Roman construct of the “genius loci,” a guardian spirit that enlivens a place, igniting and inspiring the creative imagination.

1

When SRPR invited me to share my thoughts on the Poetics of Emplacement, I fretted about how I, a writer uprooted from her native Philippines and a Filipina-American who has lived in at least six different states and more than nine US cities, could even begin to locate the influence of place on my poetics. I was born in Brooklyn of Filipino parents, moved to Manila in infancy, and spent the first 23 years of my life there. I went abroad for graduate school shortly after college, and since those first few years in Cambridge, MA, have lived in various cities and towns across the United States, including Tucson, Arizona; Austin, Texas; the San Francisco Bay Area (fourteen years there, with an intervening year back in Manila and six months in Fayetteville, Arkansas), and most recently, north suburban Chicago.  If I were asked to describe my writing life in relation to place, the closest answer would be “nomadic, at best.”

Eudora Welty, discussing what makes for good writing in her seminal book On Writing, points specifically to a sense of place as the starting point: “place is where [the writer] has his roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view.” She goes on to explore the role of place as  “focus[ing] the eye of genius”: “Feelings are bound up in place, and in art, from time to time, place undoubtedly works upon genius. . . . It may be that place can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point. Focus then means awareness, discernment, order, clarity, insight — they are like the attributes of love. The act of focusing itself has beauty and meaning; it is the act that, continued in, turns into meditation, into poetry. Indeed, as soon as the least of us stands still, that is the moment something extraordinary is seen to be going on in the world.”

Welty’s quote led me to contemplate the troubling notion of “genius.” The dictionary defines genius as “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.” Historically, this idea of genius as springing from within, as inborn or innate talent that only certain individuals possess (think Mozart, Da Vinci, and their ilk) finds its roots in the Renaissance, when the human being was planted firmly in the center of the Universe. This idea was reinforced by rational humanism, one of the strands of the Age of Enlightenment that developed as a response to Middle Age religious integralism. While Welty talks of place as working upon genius to bring its focus to a point, the idea of genius as an inherent prerequisite to good writing remains.

Born sixty years after her fellow memoirist Welty, the author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), in a TED talk on creativity, reaches back to Ancient Rome to explore the origins of this idea of genius. She discusses the concept of “genius loci” which translates as “the spirit of a place.” Geographer Edward Relph defines it as such: “The term ‘genius loci’ is an ancient Roman belief that indicates that ‘every being has its genius, its guardian spirit.’ This spirit gives life to people and places, accompanies them from birth to death, and determines their character.” Gilbert goes on to explain how Roman lore believed this guardian spirit resided in the very walls of the artist’s studio, a kind of protector of one’s creative life, of one’s imagination. As such, Gilbert finds comfort in the idea of being relieved of the burden to keep coming up with “strokes of genius” each time she sits down to create art. The Roman concept suggests “having a genius” rather than “being one.” The artist’s sole responsibility, then, would be to show up for work at the desk or the canvas, inviting the genius of the place to infuse her with its divine power.

2

Being a writer borne of multiple homes, towns, cities, and at least two continents, this idea of a “genius loci”—a guardian spirit of the place residing in the very walls of the artist’s studio—appealed to me. If every place I’ve lived and worked in had its own resident genius, then I need not worry about moving from a place and leaving its “mojo” behind, especially if that place had been particularly rich and inspiring for my work.

The poetry I write is very much rooted in a sense of place. Although I started writing poetry in earnest over a decade after I left the Manila of my youth, many of my early poems reflect the Philippine landscape: its flora and fauna, the smells, tastes, and textures I grew up with, the color of the light through the haze of dew and smog. The fact that I wrote these poems on American soil could be a testament to the fact that the “genius loci” is not something that gets left behind, but rather, something that can be discovered anew wherever we find ourselves.

One of my favorite Neruda poems begins: “And it was at that age poetry arrived in search of me.” For me, poetry arrived much later than most. Although I’ve always loved reading, and however naturally writing seemed to come to me at school, it was not till I was a mother of three that I discovered poetry as my main form of creative expression. Then, we were living in a tract home in one of those cookie-cutter developments in densely populated Silicon Valley. The only writing time I could manage was after I put my three young sons to bed. Something about being enveloped in the blanket of night, the quiet of the house, the lack of street noise coming in through the thin stucco walls of the Mission-style home built to suit the year-round temperate climes of Northern California, provided a sanctuary that allowed me to travel home, if only in imagination. I like to think it was then that the “genius loci” emerged from the walls and compelled me to write “the first faint line” (Neruda again). Perhaps something about being removed from one’s familiars, and the deliberate act of invoking the sense of a place one has left, has a way of sharpening that focus, as Welty suggests. If hindsight is twenty-twenty, then hindsight magnified through a lens that spans an entire ocean and a couple of decades must be even sharper.

3

Five years ago we moved from the eternally sunny skies of the San Francisco Bay Area to a suburban neighborhood north of Chicago. We moved in January during one of the worst winters the area had seen in twenty-some years, we were told. In this house, insulated against the vagaries of Midwestern seasons, I carved out a writing room in the basement, far from the bustle of the household. This is where I finally completed my first book of poems. The book is a kind of loose poetic memoir that includes poems set in the Manila of my childhood, my life in Boston as a clear-eyed, ambitious graduate student, my years as a first-time mother in Austin, TX, and later as a mother of three in California.  It contains travel poems as well as poems that reflect on the various internal emotional landscapes of a woman whose identity has been shaped by her life in two continents as well as several cities and towns.

On the wall beside my writing desk hangs a printer’s drawer given to me by my neighbor M., who found it in her basement while spring-cleaning. It serves as a catch-all for trinkets I’ve accumulated over the years from various places I’ve lived: a miniature owl collection that grew when friends learned of my penchant for those nocturnal birds of prey, a smattering of souvenir thimbles, a small blue globe that actually turns, two tiny typewriters, a doll-sized bubblegum machine. There are various seashells the kids picked up from weekends at our favorite beach in Half Moon Bay, CA. A miniature ivory bookmark made from a piano key and painted with purple irises that a dorm-mate found in an art fair in Harvard Square. A vial of sand from Boracay, a beach in southern Philippines. More than a mere collection of tchotchkes, I like to think this printers’ drawer houses talismans that contain the genii of every place that I’ve lived. Like a collection of Aladdin lamps, they invoke the spirits of various locales that have shaped me as a writer. I imagine those genii happily cohabitating in the walls of my studio.

This collection of talismans also serves to remind me of the importance of “thinginess” in poetry: how objects can, and do indeed, invoke the larger life: feelings, spaces—both physical and emotional, relationships, entire seasons of life. I am reminded not only of W.C. Williams’s famous adage, “No ideas but in things,” but also something Seamus Heaney uttered once long ago at a reading (and here I’m paraphrasing badly): “Small things can bear the weight of anything.”

Or, as Marianne Boruch writes, “A poem is a box, a thing, to put other things in . . . . For safe-keeping. Okay. Or it’s a time capsule, or even a catapult, for poets with more public ambitions, overarching, or just arching enough. (Sorry, there it goes, getting bigger….) So again, just this: as a box, the poem contains. As a box, it is carried place to place. And closes. And has secrets. And can weigh quite a bit. You pack and repack it languidly or with exact intention. Or with hopeful indifference (back up, see languidly, again, and float there with a little more gravity). You forget to include your favorite things in that poem, or you don’t forget to forget, on purpose, putting old habits of beauty aside each time, so it’s new. Maybe it has to be new and sound different. It still weighs a lot. You can hardly lift it to the table, the porch, the car. But the truth is, you can always open the box. You can always look down into it, and take things out, and rearrange its not-at-all-like-little-furniture in there, the whole time lifting it, about to lift. Because the poem is lighter now; it’s going up. And now, it is up and out of your hands. You can hardly make it out up there, but you know the shape of its shadow down here where we live. It darkens the ground.”

So how have the various places I’ve lived in informed my poetry? I’m hoping that through these musings, I’ve somehow written my way toward some answers. Or at the very least, have found a way to contain them. Like my printer’s drawer of found objects, a poem contains. It is also portable. But unlike a box, it is borderless. No idea is too big, no thought too small, no place too remote, to carry around in a poem. And so we carry them–in our pockets, in our backpacks, to the grocery store, to the dentist’s waiting room. We fumble with them in the dark while putting our children to sleep, or park them on the bathroom rug in case something occurs to us in the shower. We unfold them on the train, in buses, at the airport security line, at the red light while driving to and from soccer practice. Sometimes they can weigh quite a bit. But that’s okay—unlike other boxes, they move surprisingly well. A poem is a box that can bear the weight. Of anything.

Works Cited

Boruch, Marianne. “Heavy Lifting.” In the Blue Pharmacy: Essays on Poetry and Other Transformations. Trinity University Press. San Antonio, TX.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. “Elizabeth Gilbert on Nurturing Creativity.” TED: Ideas worth Spreading. TED, Feb. 2009. Web. 09 May 2012. <http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html&gt;.

Relph, Edward. “A Pragmatic Sense of Place.” Environmental & Architectural  Phenomenology  Newsletter. http://www.arch.ksu.edu/seamon/Relph20th.htm

Angela Narciso Torres

Angela Narciso Torres‘s first book of poetry, Blood Orange, won the Willow Books Literature Award for Poetry. Recent work appears in Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, and Cream City Review. A graduate of Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Angela has received fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, Ragdale Foundation, and Midwest Writing Center. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she currently resides in Chicago, where she teaches poetry workshops and serves as a senior poetry editor for RHINO.