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Where Do You Come From?
Si me preguntáis de dónde vengo . . . .
Back before I ever lived anywhere
anyone would have called a town,
a place with a traffic light-street
lamps at least, ones that kept going on
well past the point where the only streets
kissed like the two spokes of a crucifix-
I thought, looking down roads like those,
that I was seeing past and future both.
I think I know that I was not yet seven.
Streets were what I still called "roads."
"Towns," I thought, were where the streets
had numbers. Where there were cross-
streets. More than a few. And numbered, too.
So you could live at 5th and 10th,
pretend your house a dime store
like the Woolworth's down by the river
where all the shops were, though here
the kids who gathered, threw balls, also
went missing. But no one was ever lost.
Was it because not enough important
people died yet that our schools were named
only for the four winds? (Mine was
East School, one of those compass points
on which arithmetic and alphabet
unscrolled across an abacus of streets.)
The towns around us, we were taught,
comprised a proud presidential stew-
Madison, Jefferson, Monroe-but because
no football pride yet stirred, when asked
where we were from, we'd ladle out
a county name, a township's, even.
Or else, because why not, we lied.
It was back, that is, when roads
were still roads and not highways,
were dirt or gravel, had names,
if they had names at all,
like Route OP or QE-
key-wrecks on a manual
typewriter you would one day
try to teach yourself
to master, using every finger.
Behind the fields of corn where
no road went were shacks,
a "shantytown" you'd call it now,
to which you never went, never
really even dreamed of going.
Where migrant workers stayed.
"Stayed" is what you heard,
not "lived. "Stayed" is how you
learned what "migrant" meant,
learned it from what people said.
Meanwhile you picked asparagus
on your own, from roadside clutches
before all the roads got paved
and broad-band herbicides
put an end to wayside growing.
You collected morels of your own
in places only locals knew. That's
what you thought that "locals"
were, ones who could cross
or leave a field the way
they entered it, without fear
of buckshot, and find there
things no market ever sold.
Once a month at school you chewed
a goiter tablet: an acrid, anise-y
sweetness-not bad, in fact. But why?
"To Protect Against
Deficiencies of Iodine
Among the Inland Citizenry"
No one had yet thought to add
iodine to salt. And the only margarine
was white. Dyeing oleo yellow
to better resemble butter
was still illegal in
(Some things can be understood
only after you have lived
that close to sweet corn.)
Into this world my mother was hurled
the same day Leo Tolstoy froze to death-
she in a rural Green County bedroom
without heat, he ouside the Asfapovo station
waiting for a train, like the one bringing
Blaise Cendrars and the twentieth century
from Paris to Siberia. By the clock
it was 8 A.M. Both places. But time
wobbled back then. When the hands
of Julian and Gregorian time
pressed together, days were lost.
Still, it was snowing. Both places.
At his death Tolstoy was the same age
she would be the year she died,
baptized and confirmed and married
all by the same Wisconsin pastor,
a German-speaking radical evangelical
refugee from Switzerland (as Blaise
was, as her parents were)-her birth,
his death, both coming (though my knowing it
lay fifty years more in coming)
a single month before human nature
changed forever, or so postulated
Virginia's calendar of the new century.
Where we lived
when we were
we lived on
the land, they'd
ground on which
plots these were
(they said) for
those bound for
Everyone who counted backed it-
the return to wartime time-
and so Wisconsin buckled:
daylight savings came.
Or came back anyway.
But at first it came back
one state only, sometimes
one county only, at a time.
Over in Ohio, a thirty-minute
trip for groceries took you
though four time zones.
And the farmers never really
got on board. Why not? A)
it meant you milked both times
in darkness. B) it smelled of
Commie plots, like adding
fluoride to toothpaste-or,
what's next, drinking water?
C) it meant that schoolchildren
stood in subzero darkness
waiting for their buses to arrive
on new paved roads where cars
were going fast, so fast, so fast
(don't you know?) these days. . .
And then we moved to a place
where all the schools had names.
We lived on the far Eastside
on a corner lot opposite the new,
the one and only, high school
(it had a football team), built two years
before our house. And that's as
far as our town-okay, city-went.
A steep ridge behind the school
marked the place where the prairie
found itself again, its black glacial
loam continuing to plow yards
deep, and a hundred miles more,
into Lake Michigan. Summer before
my senior year I worked the crew
that built the streets that went beyond
my school that sent me another
thousand or so miles on.
1910: year of my mother's birth,
and 90% of North Americans
were rural. Now only 3%
can be said to "live on the land."
Perhaps that is partly why
half our states suffer sizable
populations of feral hogs,
none more so than Texas.
My buddy Beggsy took me up
to Mustang Ridge, a fossil name
in the onomasticon of Texas
but a place with sound if not sight
range of the new municipal
airport, carved from the bones
of an old SAC base with ICBM
silos underground, once a prime
Cold War target, but now boasting
Aeroméxico's four weekly flights,
the airport's claim to being
What we were looking for
were ancient submarine volcanic
vents from back when Central
Texas was all a warm and shallow
sea. What we found were convex
at times like mini-ice-age moraines
and at times concave like rootings
made by pigs. Where we found magma,
a rank smell came with it, a rough
thrashing of underbrush a god makes
assuming the body of a beast, treading
some hapless human girl in thrall
to all that wildness, mystery, heat.
Going one way past our house
in town the road (or street) dead-
ended in a quarry, flooded long ago,
appropriated as a swimming hole,
and dead-ended also the other way
in a thickly wooded city block
in which a single house stood,
cedar-shaked and widow-walked,
a triple-decker no one would condemn
as long as the widow lived.
(There were the pre-fab
jokes, of course, like
how you would know . . . .)
In due course, of course, down it went.
The city carved a new road through there,
a street whose S-curve X-ed out every ghost
and was "just the thing" to slow through-traffic.
Two A-frames, each with a three-car garage,
went up on either side. A few trees were spared.
Where the new Interstate
crossed the two-lane macadam,
a road we called East Avenue,
the plan was to put stop signs
at every on- and off-ramp,
but greater minds, the ones
for whom car lights are like
particles doing the wave
in Einstein's brain, foresaw
these four random corners
of a Middle American inter-
section spiraling outward
galactically and added
two lanes to the macadam
and elevation to the interchange.
That Sunday, the one following
the ribbon cutting, my father
piled all of us into his big-
finned Century for our Sunday
outing, and we drove and drove
up, round, over, and down
that wild, 4-leafed, I-road
cloverleaf, the likes of which
had never come this close to
any of our wild provincial lives.
What We Thought We Came For
I couldn't remember and you couldn't either
what left us so distracted, or were we just
sunstruck, leaving the bright coast at Fethiye
for the drive south and east and then deeply
inland, into the Turkish chaparral
looking every bit at first like ours
in Texas, all scrub cover but without
anything that could even pass for a tree
like a mesquite, and then all at once there
they were-tall, drapey pines like Douglas fir,
and then the ground went bare again, then turned
as red as Laredo clay and then was blanketed
as if it had been planted, with trees, every-
where trees, low and gnarly, forest-like
(though one you could see clean through like a scrim),
trees thick with green, almost leathery leaves
which when the wind turned them shook silvery,
and then a lake, a very large lake, large
enough to throw combers up, was arriving
on our left and kept on going as far as sight
went but with no sign of any people, no
boats, no shoreline developments,
and no roads even, only this lonely
unlined four-lane, divided motorway,
its surface blemish-free like buffed travertine,
and without shoulders either, nothing edged,
graded or graveled but merely deep raw
culverts along both sides, sometimes with rusted
machinery tipped on their sides inside them
like road kill but on a road too new
for that or mileage signage or power lines
or, oddest of all, we suddenly noticed
(as when back there you turned to me
and said that maybe olive-colored leaves
might mean they're olive trees), too new
for cars also, for we had not passed one
in what?-more than forty kilometers-
before we left this phantom of a road
cemented into its new economies
of scale we had no way to fathom (as
is often how we find ourselves in Texas
also), and then we turned at last onto
a quick-rising, rut-filled single-track
and back into coast-light but powdery, fainter,
where what we thought we'd come for
hovered like a horizon that brought up close
the high sarcophagi of twice-doomed Xanthos.
-from The Names They Found There
BIO: Kurt Heinzelman was the Founding Co-Editor of The Poetry Miscellany and is currently the Advisory Editor of Bat City Review. He has been publishing poetry for thirty years in such journals as Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Georgia Review, Massachusetts Review, Marlboro Review, and Southwest Review. His poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and selected for the Borestone Mountain Poetry Award. His first two poetry collections The Halfway Tree and Black Butterflies were finalists for the Natalie Ornish Poetry Award of the Texas Institute of Letters; a third collection, All the Salsas of Calamity, is forthcoming in 2010. His scholarship, which has won various awards, is in the fields of British Romanticism and economic and cultural history.
An Interview with Kurt Heinzelman by Matthew Huff & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Matthew Huff & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I'm interested in the Neruda epigraph you use at the beginning of "Where Do You Come From?" The title provides a question or a call from an unknown voice, "Where do you come from? "The Neruda quote then begins to answer the call/question, "If you were to ask me where I came from..." and the speaker of the poem proceeds to answer the rest of the question. How do you feel these elements affect the poem in terms of conversation? Do you agree with this reading of the poem as a conversation, or am I reaching?
Kurt Heinzelman: No, I don't think you're reaching. I didn't have the entire Neruda poem in my mind, only the way in which it invokes the desirability or necessity of articulating the kind of "region" one is from. That word is Neruda's, but I understood it in quite a different sense.
I had just finished translating a book of poems by Jean Follain published in 1953 called Territoires. Virtually all readers think of this as his breakthrough volume, and it had never been translated in its entirety. For various reasons I chose not to translate the title with its obvious English equivalent, "Territories," but with a different word altogether, "Demarcations," a word which more directly invokes the idea of mapping as opposed, say, to the "territory," that great non-specific wilderness which Huck Finn lights out for. Follain's book is an attempt to depict the particularities of the region in which he grew up, a very specific part of Normandy, and that's more like what I intended and felt in conversation with than the Neruda poem.
Despite his modest title, "Sonata," Neruda's poem has an epic grandeur in its delineation of the social and political and, to some extent, even geological violence out of which the nation-state of Chile emerged. My perspective is much more "provincial," to use a word that occurs at the end of my poem. It constitutes a series of remembered episodes from a boyhood that encompassed both rural and small-town Middle Western sites and that was, in many ways, even more naïve than most boyhoods. The young man learns the distinction between streets and roads, observes the summer migrant workers but can't quite grasp why they are living in shantytowns so removed from where he lives, tries to grasp the theory behind daylight savings time, witnesses his parents' strangely American immigrant rootedness, and exults with his father in riding the new cloverleaf intersection on a highway, a motorway, that is previously unknown to the boy. It's more like the innocence of One Hundred Years of Solitude, if I may make a rather grand comparison, than it is like Neruda's very determined, rhetorically plangent, and politicized piece.
MH & AMK: You do a great deal of work with semantics and understanding in this poem as the narrator moves from place to place. Using words that often appear to be interchangeable such as "road" and "street" or "stayed" and "lived" makes the reader consider the precise definition of words and their direct connotation within a poem. How did you begin adding this element to this poem?
KH: I think this way of discovering semantic difference was part of how, from the beginning, I understood "place," the need to articulate one's place-that is, one's own place in the region that one comes from. The agricultural use put to the old outhouse on our farm I found as interesting, in terms of demarcating the region, as the fact that my mother, the produce of German-speaking Swiss immigrants, neither of whom ever learned English, was born on the same day Tolstoy died, though half a world apart, and several days apart also, as it turns out, because the two regions, rural Wisconsin and rural Russia, used different calendars. In the twenty-first century, of course, in a town like my home town the schools would be branded with names, but we were still so provincial, so sub-capitalized, that the elementary schools only had directional names-East, South, etc. Language distinctions leave traces. My mother spoke German here in Wisconsin until she was a teenager, then totally forgot her German and forbade her sons from learning it. To her dying day her English used a German syntax, which often left her listeners waiting, longer than most English speakers are willing to wait, for the verb. This anecdote is not in the poem, but when I went to college one of the first things my professor said was that I wrote as if I were German. Language distinctions leave regional traces, yea, even unto the next generation.
MH & AMK: This poem appears to be somewhat autobiographical in nature and for the most part follows a linear progression; however, there are the two sections pertaining to the mother and/or Tolstoy where there is an obvious rift in the sequence. What's going on with these shifts in both content and time?
KH: You're absolutely right. Some of the sections come out of the sensibility of a little boy, and others, as the boy ages and leaves behind the rural part of his life for town (but never city) life, he acquires a more analytical, self-conscious voice. I didn't try to make these shifts consistent either from one section to another or even within a given section, which is perhaps a fault of the poem's being mainly, not just somewhat, autobiographical, far more than almost all of my other poems.
MH & AMK: The fifth section of this poem stands out in stark contrast to the form the rest of the poem follows. While most sections are more-or-less iambic in rhythm and are in much larger sections, this section has very short lines and utilizes what appears to be one-line stanzas. First off, what do you call a one-line stanza (we've adopted Jake Adam York's term, "stitch," here at POW)? And second, why the dramatic change in form with this section?
KH: I'm happy with Jake's term and, boy, do I miss not having him with us any longer.
The simple reason, I think, for the formal change in section five is that there is a transition beginning here, as one space, which is rural, morphs into one that is more town centered, and there is also a switch in ways of telling time, which occurs in the next section. So, let's say (now that you've raised an interesting question) that these one-line stanzas are "stitching" together a time-space continuum.
MH & AMK: The sixth section is also interesting in this same fashion, as each line features three syllables and creates a really unique rhythm and syntax. How did you arrive at this form for this small section?
KH: It's mainly three syllables per line but that formal order gets syncopated, doesn't it, toward the end of the section. Again, we're in the midst of a transition. Living on the land is already in the past tense. The old outhouse is gone, the land recultivated, and the poem is at pains to say precisely how this repurposing, as we might put it now, occurred. I found it amusing that human waste works such goodness as pickles, but only when dill, sugar, and vinegar have been added, and I tried to effect that amusement formally in line and syntax.
MH & AMK: Both poems use parenthetical asides quite often, some of them also in italics. I'm curious about how you chose this voice, or how it often differs from the narrator's general voice.
KH: Good observation, and I share your curiosity. I'm not sure why I made these choices, but I think it's often because that new, more analytical, more acutely conscious voice which I referred to earlier is wanting to break in and even, at some moments, to override the more naïve voice. And yet, having said that, I'm not even sure where I would locate "the narrator's general voice." Perhaps a touchstone is the last section, which contains neither italicized interjections nor parenthetical asides but tries to express in pretty much undiluted terms the boyish enthusiasm at the Sunday ride in the father's Buick around the I-road's cloverleaf but also to incorporate another, equally enthusiastic but more worldly view of "progress," which occurs in the "general narrator's" comparison of car lights to waves in Einstein's brain. What I'm saying is that I didn't mind mixing these voices up and didn't assign specific roles to each-at least not that I'm aware of.
MH & AMK: "What We Thought We Came For" is a really unique travelogue which hearkens back to the theme of belonging and placement found in "Where Do You Come From?" But it's one long sentence. What's going on here? Why this move in this particular poem?
KH: Is it one long sentence? Let me look at it again . . . . Oh my gosh, it is. Okay, then. As Ricky Ricardo says to Lucy, "You've got some ‘splainin' to do."
So, let me try "'splainin'" by offering some answers to your implied question about how uniqueness as a travelogue squares with the syntactical peculiarity of a single long sentence. First, I was aware in the writing of the poem that there was operating in the poem a process of thinking, or more properly, of remembering, or more candidly, a way of constructing memory of the past as a process of ongoing thought. So, it doesn't surprise me, really, that the poem ended up as a single sentence. I always recall fondly that old General Electric advertising mantra, "Progress is our most important product," but I always remember it, even now when I'm trying to quote it, as, "Process is our most important product." And this poem about driving, trying to find a destination in the process of doing so but seeing so many other interesting distractions along the way, is very much about process, about what we thought we came for, not so much about what we found in the end.
My second answer is that I try very much to make each poem its own unique experience rather than, as Shakespeare says in one his sonnets "to keep invention in a noted weed." Now, Shakespeare did very well wearing those weeds of clothing, so well that we still call his noted invention the Shakespearean sonnet. But I don't think I'm good enough or confident enough to brand my poetry, except in the way that Thomas Hardy makes all one-thousand-plus of his poems in unique forms. I think he repeats his verse forms only about seven times in his entire poetic corpus. Well, I'm not good enough for that kind of virtuosity either, but I aspire to his mastery of what we might call contrary forms
MH & AMK: In "Where Do You Come From?" you contrast various types of communities; in "What We Thought We Came For" you again contrast landscapes (this time between Texas and Turkey). Contrasts seem to occupy your work quite a bit. Why is this? How do the contrasts you observe in your world affect your process?
KH: Let me prefer William Blake's term "contraries" to "contrasts," and I'll cite his famous line "Without contraries is no progression." Many of my poems are "processes," to use your term (and I won't say they necessarily lead to "progressions"). By processes I mean that these poems are trying to think their way through issues, and I don't know any other way of thinking except through contraries. All metaphors are contraries-that is, a way of saying something by saying something else, often something contrarious. Even language use, linguists tell us, is a contrarious sorting of data. We know that, in English, a "hat" is called a hat not because of anything that's inherent in the object but because the brain, with astonishing rapidity, greater than any computer's power, sorts out the word "hat" from all the other things it could be in English-"cat," "mat," "sat," "hate," and so on. A French speaker sorts out the word "chapeau" in the same way, given the linguistic options available to her. This contrariness of language acquisition and use is one of the reasons that translation is so difficult: words resonate in different languages according to different sets of contraries. In music there is a phenomenon called sympathetic vibration, the way a string struck by pressing the piano's key makes other strings vibrate sympathetically. So, in language. The French word for "snow" is "neige," which in French is much closer to "nuage," cloud, than snow in English is close to the cloud from which is meteorologically comes. The principle of contraries is inherent in language as in thought. What other device is so central to poetic composition?
Thank you, Matthew and Andrew, for raising some excellent issues and for asking some challenging questions.