across water who gathered there over a gathering mist / is a migration.
— Cole Swenson, Gravesend
Bluewater permanent construction site of the mind,
Construction workers look like archaeologists
— Simon Smith, Gravesend
A HISTORY OF STRUCTURED REALITY television might trace the evolution from the acontextual to the culturally-located as the Big Brother house (locked away from the world, location undisclosed) gives way to The Hills, Jersey Shore, and The Only Way is Essex — to the idea that we will only be interested in others’ lives if we are also interested in their places.
In Massachusetts there is a town called Chelmsford, a few exits along from Billerica.
Billerica was a 10-minute drive from my childhood home, in the village of Galleywood, which was year-on-year losing its boundary with the edges of the town (now city) of Chelmsford, the administrative seat of the county of Essex, England.
When I moved to New York City in 2002, none of that helped explain where I came from. I tried analogy. Essex is to London and the United Kingdom as New Jersey is to New York and the United States. The county of Essex, like the State of New Jersey, has its beauty, but you have to hunt for it. We visited the city of Colchester not for its Roman walls but for its shopping malls. One of my high school classmates racked up £5000 in debt pimping his ride — a stocky red Renault Laguna — a feat, I later found, that was just as fitting for Paramus, NJ as Southend-on-Sea, Essex. Essex girls have a reputation not dissimilar from Jersey girls, the butt of the same jokes, while Jersey Shore’s tigerish perma-tans blend and blur with The Only Way is Essex’s tigerish perma-tans.
Each time I travelled between countries, I’d myself repatriated — or, rather, expatriated, because I was always wrong in the place I was. "Home" in the U.K., old friends chided my American accent, their ears exaggerating minute shifts in vocabulary (movies for films, high school for secondary school), occasional shifts in inflection. Back in the U.S., newer friends would marvel at how anyone could ever think this foppish English fellow anything other than awfully English. Someone once told me I’d internalized rhyme by growing up in the U.K., as if rhyme was something they put into the water instead of fluoride. Bad teeth, good rhyme: the British defined.
Yet place is always a construction — a structured reality. When we talk of landscape we’re referring to subjective perceptions of the world rather than topographical actualities, as Dennis Cosgrove and others have argued. And a poetry that seeks to write (in) place might well record the mind encountering both the environmental and the imaginative; in so doing, it might expose the fictions of borders and boundaries, their secret lives as made things, drawn lines. Place as it is seen.
"Gravesend," so runs the jacket copy to a recent book by Cole Swensen, “takes its name from the English town at the mouth of the Thames.” Gravesend is a town in the county of Kent, bordering Essex to the south, cut off from it by the meandering of the Thames towards the English Channel, which the French call La Manche, the Bretons, Mor Breizh, and the Cornish, Mor Bretannek.
Simon Smith’s Gravesend (Veer Books, 2011) comprises 23 poems “written while travelling by train from Charing Cross and Chatham,” along the train line that connects London to Gravesend (“all rails lead to Gravesend,” the book imagines). “The only ‘rules’ for their composition was that they should contain whatever occurred at that particular moment at the carriage window or on the train”: Gravesend records, notes, and transcribes the auditory and visual stimuli of the daily commute. Within its pages we are watching what Smith’s seeing has filtered, the events of place both as they have transpired and as his preoccupations have given them significance.
Gravesend is ostensibly a documentary engagement with England’s southeast, a transect not of landscape and people. Yet the title of the first poem, “A Theory for a Materialist Poetics,” somewhat ironically indicates that observation is only one aim of this project. Smith is motivated as much by material detritus as by any politics of labor — “today’s material never-ending list / Experience crammed in as far as the eye can see” — even as the method behind his poems reminds us that the world is conditioned by our circumstances of experiencing it. You are how you travel through place.
In Britain, those circumstances of experience often involve a jump cut-like juxtaposition in which the ancient abruptly abuts the contemporary. Stonehenge is a stone’s throw from a major road. The architects restoring the British Museum in the 1990s created a high-ceilinged glass-and-marble atrium rather than attempt a neo-Victorian continuation of the existing structure. Or, as Smith puts it in “Idyll”: “Paddle steamer (c.1901) on the stocks at Rochester, / Opposite Burger King the outline of a Roman temple.”
More than witnessing this quirk of British history, Gravesend comments on the politics of British juxtaposition: “Build an armada, build an empire / Next to inflating the bouncy castle.” Such connections are playful but not without their import in a collection whose terminus is:
Portishead’s ‘Western Eyes,’
This evening’s soundtrack – 20th March 2008 ‘This mess
Even as it resolutely refuses to believe the spin that the (triple-dip) recession has us all doomed to annihilation, Gravesend knows the economic downturn has repercussions for the arts: “How much do they give in the pawnshop for the lyre,” Smith muses in the archly nostalgic poem “Those Were the Days.” Although he’s ready to skewer the misplaced nostos of “Drivers wearing English Heritage socks,” Smith also asserts that his poetry is built on top of a rubble of inherited material, including the journeys of long-dead Romans, “Juvenal, Claudius, Caesar, heading west then north” through Kent and Essex. Like Herodotus’ ancient formulation of ’istorin, Smith’s sense of history involves personal discovery, what the writer has found out:
Or a few details from my own personal experience
Is History in real time not sampled
the exchange of containers from ro-ros to lorries
“Personal experience,” though, is not individual, Gravesend maintains; this is not the lyric subjectivity of the English Romantics but the bric-a-brac of international collision. Against authoritative grand narratives of history, Smith proffers citation-like events, roll-on, roll-off shipping containers dispersing along the roadways of Britain.
That’s not to say the self disappears. The soundtrack to this collection — aging indie icon Paul Weller gets a mention — reflects the spin of Britpop, the commercialization of punk and grunge. What remains is of value not because of Smith himself but because of the kinds of meaning we might chance upon. “The grey bin labelled ‘not working’ I misread for ‘networking,’” one poem records, exposing the confluence by which we expect even our trash cans to work by Bluetooth, to interface.
Reading Gravesend we come face-to-face with place as a product of history, itself a product of personal engagements and chances, the desire “I want my life to be a story once.” Amid these journeys we find the world changing, “knowledge // In storage my odyssey the lyrical to the digital.” This idea of “knowledge in storage” (repeated in the following poem) could be a criticism of how we’re less well read than our forebears. Yet it plays the other way, too: it reminds us there’s knowledge to be had in (data) storage. Smith hasn’t given up on the analogue, “the ring-pull moment of chance,” but he’s also riding trains that operate via Network Rail. Gravesend takes a chance with nihilistic detritus and so finds a poetics of interconnection, of confluence — a rhythm to the set aside.
“Ghost landscapes slip the train window”: we tend to think of ghosts as near human, replete with an average number of limbs — they, like we, are figures. Whereas Smith’s Gravesend is an archive of what’s glimpsed through the train window, in Gravesend (University of California Press, 2011) Cole Swensen is interested in the ghostliness of place, the way present scenery eludes our gaze while forgotten topography resurfaces, haunting us. Swensen’s poems emerge from “a superimposition of scenes in which / someone a century later crossing a street turns around too quickly and there you are.” There’s more to place, she suggest, than what meets the eye.
There you are — the phrase dislocates our sense of place precisely because it seems to so confidently affirm where we’ve found ourselves. And that is largely Swensen’s point here: our homes might well be home to more than we’ve bargained for — “Anne Boleyn continues to wander the grounds of Henver Castle, where she lived as a child” — while all the while remaining endlessly foreign: “on a quiet day I saw a friend I knew to be in Japan I once saw my sister on a train.”
Swensen writes a poetry of meticulous research, and where Simon Smith follows an aleatory commute, Swensen’s Gravesend owes its genesis in part to a series of interviews, either conducted by email with friends and interlocutors or in person, on the ground, in Gravesend itself. These latter interviews charmingly proliferate etymologies for the place name, including the apocryphal idea that it’s:
named after Mr. Silvaneous Grave
who in 1123 opened a store here
at the end of the road
leading from London to the sea.
Asking us to wonder how and why a place gets its name, Swensen goes beyond recording the idiosyncrasies of local myth; she blurs the edges of place. If we each know the same place and call it the same name, but do so for different reasons, are actually we living in the same place? Just what does Chelmsford have to do with Chelmsford or, for that matter, Gravesend with Gravesend with Gravesend? A ghost, Swensen observes, “erodes the line between being and place,” befuddles distinction. Or, as one of her respondents replies, via email, to her questions What do you think ghosts are? Do you think you’ll ever be one?: “They are laws of physics caught at that fractional moment of suspension that all laws pass through as they’re changing.” Swensen cedes the poet’s claim to know, the writerly position of authority, to the conversational, and in so doing allows into her pages a wonderful, communal suggestiveness, place as we are mutually, differently, glimpsing it.
Gravesend offers us a gorgeous meditation on the nature of the ghostly — it’s a book you could unapologetically buy for the paranormalist in your life — as it traces elegant distinctions between, say, paintings of ghosts (“so few,” one poem notes, “which is really rather odd / since there at last they could be seen, could slightly live / in the visible”) and ghosts in paintings, apparent and unbidden presences on the canvas, in the background. At the same time, these poems excavate our relationships to death, not as an existential state (or the absence of one) but as a ritual: “A grave / is a door laid flat in the earth, worked into a hinge.” What, the collection puns, is the “end” of the grave — what is it for?
Death, no less than the ghost, is unrepresentable, “constrained / to its effects on leaves on trees on things in the world.” We notice it because we’re left behind by it. In that sense, Swensen suggests, it’s less something that happens to us than happens to a place, which might explain why ghosts, like Anne Boleyn’s, anchor to a spot of earth rather than living on as itinerants. The point, though, is not that ghosts are defined by place but that they undefine, as it were, the places where we find them. If place emerges for Simon Smith as a result of the detritus that assembles it — a Britain of the flotsam and jetsam, an assembly-by-commute — for Swensen it shimmers the way ghosts do, both there and not there. “A ghost always has the architecture of a storm,” she asserts, impossible to claim and yet, if we notice it, beautifully structured, patterned, even. The motion of place, the displacement of place. How we’re seeing as much as what. There you are, always a little outside yourself, never quite here.
Here, apparently, “We have the character of an island nation — independent, forthright, passionate in defence of our sovereignty. We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel. And because of this sensibility, we come to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional.”
This was how British Prime Minister David Cameron articulated his sense of place in a January speech about Britain’s role in the European Union. For Cameron, place becomes definitive of identity: all island nations, even those composed of multiple nations, must by definition be sovereign, mad isolates; anything else would offend geography.
But what makes the channel "English" and the island a "nation"? There’s nothing innocent, of course, in Cameron’s imagining of all this resoluteness as a "sensibility", even if the 18th-century roots of such a term, as readers of Jane Austen will know, actually lie in the irrational rather than the logical. What Cameron conceals, even as he relies on it to make his speech, is the fact that language shapes place far more than geography. If here we’re “an island nation — independent, forthright” it’s not because of our topography but because of our landscaping, our far from innocent but utterly understandable tendency to mold place in our own image.
It’s why, in part, we’re used to fighting over territory (as the Los Angeles Review of Books’ "Gaza Poetry Roundtable" reminds us). Those "dark, Satanic mills" London’s Olympics opening ceremony made literal in a microcosm of this “island nation” offended certain Conservative sensibilities because they contradicted an image of Britain which refuses to admit, unlike Boyle’s own spectacle, that it’s a projection. Blake’s poem "Jerusalem" is all about the way we project ideas onto topography, yet each time we here sing it as a surrogate "national" anthem we bury that, repeating a myth of England’s “green and pleasant land.”
Smith and Swensen’s collections, by contrast, conceive of place as closer to a palimpsest than a definition. We’ll never, they seem to suggest, adequately sum up the places we’ve been, the places we’re drawn to. Like all great travel writing, these collections tell us more about the experience of travelling than the place travelled to. Anyone who’s ever been disappointed to find the restaurant recommended by the authoritative travel guide has closed down or moved on since publication date knows place won’t stay still. Perhaps the poems are here to make us aware of what it means to see. Or, as one respondent to Swensen describes an apparition, “it’s not that I didn’t see him; what I’m calling into question here is the notion of seeing.” When we’re seeing a place, we’re trying to stabilize a picture of it; Smith and Swensen would have us linger in the superimposition and the drift. And that is why we need their collections, a there or here we find ourselves.