Back to the Future

I just noticed again that the opening poem to my book, “The Body,” contains the phrase, “back east,” which I remember struck me as odd, even as I typed it out on the page. The poem was written in 2003, a full year before I would unexpectedly move from New York to California to start working on Rattle. Having spent my whole life on the east coast, there was no such thing as “back east,” but for some completely unknown, spontaneous reason, the tourist trap I was referring to felt “back east,” and I plopped that phrase down on the page.

Five years later, it makes complete sense — in fact, the reference might seem weird to me now if I hadn’t used that kind of geography. And yet, there’s no way I could have guessed that I’d be moving west, and I had no desire to do so. Is it just a coincidence that the phrase found its way into the poem?

This subject has vexed me for a long time. Because it seems to me that, whether reading or writing, there’s some interaction going on in poetry that more broad than the individual mind. It’s like a poem is tapping into a Jungian collective unconscious, as these phrases appear of their own volition, as if we’re the conduit of creation rather than the creator. When we write a poem, we access things we didn’t know we knew. But something must have known, it seems.

When I’m feeling mystical, I’ll call it the linguistic collective. It’s like there’s this river of words, that all have so many intertwined connotations that when you pluck one you pull up a string, and each subsequent word has a string of its own, until you harness the whole world.

When I’m not feeling mystical, that’s a load of hooey. The unconscious mind has its own language, it’s own syntax forever swirling below the surface. Mystery is just a lack of information. Our failure to understand the mind doesn’t make it more than meat.

But what about that “tourist trap back east”? Maybe I just liked the sound of the phrase, the assonance, all those t’s and st’s. Is enjoying a sound enough to make it true?

On the way home tonight, The Wallflowers came on the radio — “We can make it home/ with one headlight.” It always strikes me that the analogy in that chorus doesn’t really work: It’s set up as if it were a challenge to drive with a headlight out. They can get the relationship back on track even if it might be difficult. But the fact is, a lot of times when a headlight goes out you don’t even notice until the policeman rights you a ticket. A better analogy would be, “We can make it home with no 4th gear” (or maybe no 1st, like in Little Miss Sunshine). Now that would be a challenge, I tell Megan. But it wouldn’t sound good, she says. And she’s right.

More often than we’d like to admit, the sound of a phrase trumps its meaning. How many times have you heard an aphorism that sounds good, but doesn’t make any sense once you think about it?

So maybe it was just the sound of the phrase that made me write it, and it’s just coincidence that 4 years later it came to make sense.

Or maybe when we write, we enter a timeless, meditative state, in which there is no past or future, and everything that ever was is happening at once. And maybe that’s why we’re rewarded with leaps of imagination and startling conclusions — because all causes have already become their effects. There’s room in cosmology for imaginary, and even illusory time. Maybe “The Body” reaches forward into the always present.

Wow, what a load of hooey.

One thought on “Back to the Future

  1. Loved your Back to the Future article. As for me, I fall firmly into the category of “enjoying sound is enough to make it true.” I believe poems do not have to be factual, but they must be true.
    As far as mysticism goes, who knows–makes for a good story, which will somewhere along the way make for a good poem.

    Keep on writing…..

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