by Jesse Lee Kercheval
Suddenly everyone seems to be talking and writing about poetry of place. Some of this stems from the current interest in eco-poetics. Magazines like Terrain, Ecotone, Orion and others feature poetry of place, rooted in the natural world, as a means to explore what humans have done to the planet. In other discussions, poetry of place is put forward as the opposite of what is seen as an obsession with the overly personal or confessional in poetry. Open a window, this thinking seems to say, there is a whole world out there. Or as a solution for abstraction in poetry, as in, There is a whole world out there, please describe a piece of it for us. In this sense, poetry of place can be seen as a modern variation on the Imagists. But more and more, I see poetry of place prescribed as a holistic cure for the digital everywhere but nowhere world people feel we live in now—poetry of place as the antidote to Facebook and Twitter.
I am currently in the middle of co-editing, with Uruguayan poet Laura Chalar, a bilingual anthology Taken by the Light/ Copado por la luz: Poems about Uruguay that will be published in December in Uruguay by Editorial Yaugurú and then in the U.S. in April by Dialogos Books. And that has me, too, thinking about place. Personally, I do not think of poems of place merely as the cure for something that currently ails poetry or the world. Place has been part of poetry for as long as there has been poetry. But what struck me as I considered work for the anthology is how much I have learned in my life about other countries, particularly the world’s great cities, from reading poetry. Some cities I have visited, some not—but I feel I know them. That is the idea behind this editorial feature, “Cities Built From Poems,” with poems about Havana, Montevideo, Moscow, Paris, and Warsaw. Capital cities, though in the case of Moscow, not not always the capital of their country when the poems here were written.
Some of the poems included here have large, Whitmanesque takes on their cities, such as Uruguayan poet Alfredo Fressia’s “Montevideo, La Coqueta” (translated here by Katherine M. Hedeen and Víctor Rodríguez Núñez) in which Fressia writes “In Montevideo you always suffer a bit more than in the rest of the world.” Other poems are about a particular neighborhood or street, such as the Third Zachatyevsky in the poem of the same name by Russia’s great Anna Akhmatova (translated Katherine E. Young), or “Williman,” the remembered childhood street of Uruguayan poet Andrea Durlacher, (translated by Laura Chalar), or Trocadero Street in Havana in the poem by Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (translated Katherine M. Hedeen).
But attachment to place is not always an easy matter of birthplace or language. Poets love and write about cities not their own or in languages other than those spoken by the people living there. Jules Supervielle was born in Montevideo, but writes about that very experience in French in his poem “Montevideo” (translated by Laura Chalar). French was the language in which he wrote all of his work in a lifetime spent shuttling back and forth between Montevideo and Paris. Abraham Sutzkever’s “Out of Amused Solitude, at a Flea Market in Paris” (translated by Maia Evrona) is a poem about Paris written in Yiddish by a poet whose life was filled with loss and displacement. “I have lost everyone,” Sutzkever writes in the poem. Like many people, poets often find themselves in one place while longing for another. The Russian Constructivist Vladimir Mayakovsky, in his poem “Farewell” (translated by Katherine E. Young) writes, “I’d like / to live/ and die in Paris,/ if there were not/ such a spot – / as Moscow.”
For a further, much more in-depth consideration of poetry of place, I recommend the wonderful new anthology of essays The Poem’s Country: Place & Poetic Practice, edited by Shara Lessley and Bruce Snider.
In the meantime, I offer this poetic world tour.
Jesse Lee Kercheval is a 2016 NEA in Translation Fellow and is the author of fourteen books including the poetry collection Cinema Muto, winner of a Crab Orchard Open Selection Award; The Alice Stories, winner of the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize; the memoir Space, winner of the Alex Award from the American Library Association. She is also a translator, specializing in Uruguayan poetry. Her translations include The Invisible Bridge: Selected Poems of Circe Maia and Fable of an Inconsolable Man by Javier Etchevarren. She is also the editor of the anthology América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets. She is currently the Zona Gale Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the Program in Creative Writing.