As the first snows of winter begin to turn things white, erasing the shapes and details of the landscape we grow used to over the year, I’ve been considering perspective: how small changes act like a kaleidoscope and make the familiar abstract. A layer of white makes things starker, more reduced to a single basic element: the details of a cattail field are gone, and all that’s left is the idea of a field. Or something to that effect, anyway.
Shelley spoke about defamiliarization in his Defense of Poetry, in which he argued that poetry itself makes us see the world—the things we’re used to—in a new, strange way. That seems to be the goal of good poetry and stories, at least: to expand what language can do and show. There’s a semi-finite amount of words in the world, but infinite combinations, and writing should seek to make the boundaries of those combinations fuzzier, more fluid. Not necessarily the fireworks of a self-conscious plot twist or outrageous, attention-seeking leaps in form, but the quiet movement of the poem’s mind as it turns something over and over. Glass in a kaleidoscope, shifting subtly until there’s something new.
So it’s an old poem for today, one written on a Carolina coast where the world looked very different from the Jack pines and snowdrifts I see now, as I think about change and viewpoint.
5th Street and Market
This morning, kneeling in pursuit
of a cockroach, I looked out my kitchen
window and saw a street I didn’t know or
more precisely saw my street,
one that’s lined in gnarly oaks and
dripping Spanish moss,
columned mansions going graciously to
decay, but it was not my street.
No, it was a quiet backroad exit
just off a freeway a thousand miles
northwest from here: a road with ranches
strung with Christmas lights and plastic
deer cavorting in the yards: a road in middle
afternoon, with orange light and teenage
girls shooting hoops just out of view, thunk and
swish through the net a suburban prayer: a road
where boots are chapped on iron scrapers and if
the snow falls heavy it does it in the night,
courteous like an ex-lover come for their
final cardboard box, and just as cold.
Clouds sleazed their way before the sun.
I stood, and it was my street again.
I find the distance between here and where here
used to be is growing smaller although
I have not moved in years.
Geographic boomerang: Simon says find the pin
on a map and I place it—where? Prick the board
but that point goes through, as if through time
and memory: joined by the thread my mother
used to fix a button to my sweater.