Tuesday, March 3, 2009
The End of America
As part of the Positions Colloquium in Vancouver last August, the colloquium organizers published a limited edition collection of poetics statements from those of us who had gathered. We were asked also to provide a brief excerpt of the work we would be presenting. Since that collection was a conference-only publication that may no longer be available (and since I’ve had a busy past week), I thought I’d just put my piece from the collection up here. I hope the statements by the other writers will be available again in printed form at some point.
The colloquium was the inaugural reading for the long poem, The End of America, that I’ve been working on since September 2006 (the start of my second year living in California). If anybody would like an e-mail copy of the 17-single spaced pages that make up Book One of the poem and are excerpted from below, let me know. I think it’s ready to be seen at this point. And also, anybody who would like a free copy of my most recently published book of poems, Felonies of Illusion, for potentially writing a review, please let me know that too.
Oh, and re the photo above: the country around here really does look like that, from some angles. From other angles it looks like a parking lot.
from The End of America, Book One
So many people searching
for the end of America: from here
it’s not much, white jeep
cutting tracks through sand, black-suited surfer
fighting into the water, surfboard raised high,
runners, walkers of dogs and babies, blinking lights on the turret
of the Encinas Power Station, a constantly changing
breeze through the palms. Coast Highway slow through town.
Cars, which can’t imagine traveling. Beach fires prohibited
except in marked pits, a note to the crucial
need to fear fire. I grab one more instance
of love and rage, impotent and powerful
by turns, looking for more
than I already know. The end of the land, instant myth,
becomes a place to look from, or look away, to walk,
to head on out. All those poets
who seemed certain what they wanted, the ocean
a source of world, result of cosmos,
mystery under the crest of a wave.
Too much is not forgotten but never known,
history no more than the present webbing
distortion of what’s temporarily remembered. Money back,
no cash down, no payments this year, good annual rates.
A roadmap has a poetics also, on some level a conscious one. But the degree to which the poetics of the roadmap seems a cultural given makes a self-consciously explored geographical poetics necessary, not so much a response to prevailing hierarchies as a reshaping of them.
I’ve taken a few positions in my life—sometimes even insightful ones—but more often positions have taken me. Rarely has that been more true than in writing The End of America, a project that has helped me explore what it’s like to live in a place I never expected to live. Anyone who knows me well can attest that my sense of self is greatly shaped by my east coast urban experience. Like many poets I’ve often needed money, and when after many years of searching I was offered a position I could stand to take, I took it, but since my options weren’t multiple it’s not so clear who did the taking. And so this east coast poet found himself in North County San Diego, miles of strip malls proliferating among the dry natural beauty of hills and mountains over which no one has been able to build a railroad. People vote 60% percent Republican here. The local papers argue that George W. Bush’s problem is that his overspending desire to democratize the world makes him too liberal. Luckily so many people live here these days that 40% non-Republicans adds up to several million. Still, I work at a college in hill country and live two blocks from the ocean in a suburbanized beach village around which houses sprawl in every direction except into the water. It’s from conditions like these that The End of America began.
Actually the project wasn’t even my idea. I was talking, as I do often, to poet K. Lorraine Graham about my exhaustion from new conditions at work and not having energy for writing. She suggested that I should just write down what I see. And so The End of America began, a few lines every few days. A geography, not a landscape, in the sense that a geography includes how culture and economics and power interact with the natural world. Not a catalog, though it catalogs at times, and not a view from outside, but one that’s inside and outside both, alienated in a home that isn’t home.
The title has two meanings. I literally live about 1000 feet from where America, at least in one direction, ends. Beyond it is water. Of course many of us are keenly aware of the difference between America and The United States of America. And not only, I hope, because America as a geographical location includes many peoples, cultures, nations, islands and even several continents. For myself at least, and maybe others, the mythical ghost of America as a place where justice and freedom are possible haunts me long after the corpse has been buried. The project struggles with a concept: the end of America, one that many people assert, or want, even as the United States and Canada and Mexico and much else remain operating entities. Sometimes I think I’m working out a dystopic response to Whitman, wrestling with his vision of a free America in the original Leaves of Grass while trying to critique the grandiosity with which he wanted the United States to swallow the world.
There are four books so far, each getting along towards whatever completeness they’re going to have, and each with a different way of exploring the relation between aesthetics and meaning. I’m not sure yet whether there will be further books. An idea that wasn’t my idea, defined by a position that may have taken me more than I took it. That defines fairly neatly some of the problems faced by those of us who, as poets, recognize that the world’s condition is not one we have chosen and one which we often struggle against, but one that we nonetheless live within while simultaneously working through a poetics of what might otherwise exist. Our writing is our first example of what this other place might be.