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 PorchMiami, 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 CitedGalvin, 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‘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.