I grew up in a state of newscaster accents that suggest a person is from nowhere. In poetry, accent refers to the syllables that carry stress and therefore make the patterns of spoken language. Scanning makes visible the stresses we speak; scanning is listening with the eyes. The lineage of this word, scanning, suggests not only looking around but also climbing. As a writer, I have always been climbing into and out of Illinois.
I knew of no poets who ever lived in the suburb where I was born until former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey moved there recently, long after I had left. I once sat across from her at a dinner. Neither of us had read a certain book that we assumed every writer should have read, so we agreed to read that book, and I did. And that book gave me permission to write everything I knew about a particular subject, knowing that my knowledge is partial and will become outdated.
As a young child, after we moved from suburb to South Side, I lived near four steel mills and the city garbage dump. One summer, millions of dead alewives dried up on the great lake’s shore where I swam, and the lake trout my grandfather had grown up with farther north were gone in the invasion. I spent those early childhood years in the backyard of the hog butcher for the world, and later, I attended college a few blocks from the home of Carl Sandburg, the poet who coined that phrase. Hog Butcher for the World, City of Big Shoulders, wicked, crooked, brutal.
My childhood house, with its beige stucco and red trim, was less than three miles from the house where Gwendolyn Brooks lived in her adulthood for more than forty years. Her family had moved north during the early wave of the Great Migration decades earlier. She wrote a primer for Blacks here, there, and everywhere. How many poetry books did she publish during the time I could have walked to her house—five? She said that Chicago was her forever. The neighborhood where Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy is located is almost entirely Black, with a few hundred Whites among its more than forty-thousand residents.
When I was seven, my family moved two hundred miles away for new jobs, part of a White flight that followed the later wave of the Great Migration. More than a hundred years after its race riot, this small city where I spent the next five years still had—has—the largest racial income disparity in the country. My parents were lawyers, and after the jobs that led them there ended, they opened an office a few blocks from the home of Vachel Lindsay, the poet who wrote about Abraham Lincoln walking portentously at midnight, a poem I memorized in high school.
The first poem I memorized, though, was Eugene Field’s “The Duel,” which I chose from 101 Famous Poems, a book with an oval portrait of each poet and a dark red cover that looked like leather. My grandmother taught me how to say the alphabet backwards, and then she helped me memorize “The Duel” as if it were a prayer. In the end, the dueling dog and cat have eaten each other up; they’re gone. Eugene Field died suddenly at the age of forty-five, even younger than my own father died. The suburb where Eugene Field Elementary School is situated is almost entirely White, with just a few dozen Blacks among almost forty-thousand residents. All the poems in 101 Famous Poems were by White poets.
When I was in fourth grade, I wrote a haiku about hamburgers that was read on the local radio station. Haiku was a lesson in syllables, and no one said much about its history or what was appropriate or appropriated. Decades earlier, when he was in eighth grade thirty miles away, Langston Hughes was elected class poet after the teacher taught that poetry was about rhythm, and his classmates assumed he must have a good sense of rhythm. Stereotyping is a different kind of stress, and the word stress goes back to drawn together tightly, too tightly. Books began to happen to him, though, and he started believing only in books.
The summer after fourth grade, the national Freedom Train pulled into the city where I was growing up. We saw Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves, Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medals, and Wilt Chamberlain’s basketball shoes. That year, two hundred miles away in the big city where I had lived as a younger kid, Sandra Cisneros was in college where my parents had gone to college, a Catholic college. She was having an affair with a professor who didn’t want to let go even after she graduated. In her poem “Loose Women,” the speaker says that people called her a bitch and a witch, the same things people—judges—sometimes called my mother. My mother started wearing a witch’s hat to the office Halloween party. When I was in college a decade after Cisneros, several professors were sleeping with students.
After we moved again, I spent my teenage years living next door to a hog farmer, a few miles from the almost entirely white small town where the poet Edgar Lee Masters spent his childhood and is now buried. Abraham Lincoln’s first love is buried there too, and the town has the only stoplight in the county. When my mom let me pick out my new school shoes for eight grade while my sister got fitted for a Thomas heel, I chose Converse Chuck Taylors like Wilt Chamberlain had worn. My first pair were maize-colored low-tops, and my mom was afraid my classmates would make fun of me for wearing boys shoes.
Gwendolyn Brooks visited Etheridge Knight while he was serving an eight-year prison term, and Etheridge Knight visited the college I attended in the railroad town with a medium-security correctional facility that opened while I was a student there. He wrote a fable in which all the inmates were Black and the jailers were not. When I taught at the prison in this railroad town for one semester a few years after I graduated, none of my students were White. None of this is a fable, unless a fable is merely that which is told.
My poetry professor in college grew up in an almost entirely White suburb, in the seventh wealthiest zip code in the country. In more recent photographs, I’ve been mistaken for this poet who helped me learn the difference between myself and the idea of me, a matter of phrasing and what I was willing to say about myself. I see the resemblance.
After graduate school, when I returned to teach at a small college in a different mostly White, affluent suburb, I lived thirty miles away— right next to the edge of the city itself—in a slightly more racially and economically diverse suburb where Charles Simic went to high school. He was drafted into the U.S. Army a few years after my dad, and they each spent part of their tour of duty in post-war Germany. My father taught eighth-grade English and went to law school at night, all before I was born. So much that happens before we are born shapes the options we have and think we have.
More than a decade ago, the year Charles Simic was finishing his term as U.S. Poet Laureate, I moved almost two thousand miles for a new job. At first, in this sprawl of a new lexicon, dialects still developing, I had a falling out with language and form. Both lineage and lineation seemed to have slipped my mind in some conceptual shell game of there’s no there there. These related words, lineage and lineation, allude to the thread to which one ties a small weight to one end. When the other end is held up high, perhaps from scaffolding or ceiling, the weight falls toward the center of Earth, and the thread becomes perfectly vertical, an abstraction with which to align window frame or wallpaper. Over this last decade, as I plumbed this new place far from the somewheres I knew, I began to welcome the off-kilter, the adjacent. In paragraphs, I began to find what’s nearby, close enough on the landscape of the page to matter.
Beautifully done, Anna. I didn't realize how rich Illinois is in poetry icons. Thank you. xoAReplyDelete