The Psychic Landscape
By Alexander Long
Above all else, memory and imagination rule the psychic landscape.
The psychic landscape is the most grandiose and necessary metaphor poets have, for its tenor and its vehicle are interchangeable.
Place in a poem—that is, the psychic landscape—is more an index of an emotional center from which to leap, via the imagination and personal vision and personal mythology, than it is a place in which to live out one's daily existence.
Place in a poem—the psychic landscape—if properly rendered and recreated, can never be found on a map or in a tourist pamphlet.
A poet's sense of place—that is, the poet’s psychic landscape—is more a symptom of a poet's relations with, connections with, and departures from others' psychic landscapes. It is through such a comparison—the perhaps slight but essential differences of “my home” held against “your home”—that we are forced to acutely realize where we are as we write a poem. But "home" itself is an idea, a myth, an imagined place the poet attempts to return to via the poem, via the exercise of the imagination, via the taxation of memory.
Simply put, we have lost something, we grieve it, we want it back. This it is just as often a person as it is a place.
To put it yet another way, if Stevens is correct when he writes “Death is the mother of beauty,” then we could also assert that exile is the mother of the psychic landscape.
This seems to me all the more urgent as the world shrinks into the pre-cyber age and leaves behind, perhaps reluctantly, the post-industrial age. We all need our own place, our own base of operations, our own room, as Woolf put it. We may not know this yet, but the more we are "connected" via technology, the more our singular sense of home disintegrates. We are all home, but my home is just like yours now. It is not so much mine, and not so much yours. It is ours, but it is only the illusion of the communal. It is tract housing and McMansion developments. Wal-Marts that span blocks and are right around the corner. A democratized Middle East, a Springfield-Meets-Baghdad. Starbuck’s. Al Jazeera run by Rupert Murdoch. The grotesquely false vicariousness of reality television, of Survivor and American Idol. The illusion of the communal, the illusion of the genuine. The illusion of the individual. The illusion of home. The illusion of reality.
In contrast, the psychic landscape, at its essence, is an authentic illusion of reality found most urgently in poetry invested in place.
But we’d be wise to remind ourselves of this crucial distinction: the poet invested in the psychic landscape is not necessarily a “regional” poet, nor is he/she an ecologically concerned poet, nor an urban poet. It may be that such poets as Philip L
evine or Mary Oliver write from centers rooted in particular places, and are therefore more readily engaged with their respective psychic landscapes. Notice, however, just how dissimilar Levine’s psychic landscape is from Oliver’s. Or Hart Crane’s New York from Lorca’s. Or Robinson Jeffers’s California from Christopher Buckley’s. Or Robert Lowell’s New England from Frost’s. Or four poets from my generation and neighborhoods of Philadelphia: Kate Northrop, Major Jackson, Beth Bachmann, and James Hoch. These poets were for years my geographic neighbors, but their poems couldn’t be coming from more distinct worlds.1
The psychic landscape allows us to live side-by-side in distinctly different, yet simultaneously unfolding, worlds.
The poet inhabiting his or her own psychic landscape must engage with the intimacies of his or her memory, particularly as memory gestures towards nostalgia, and by proxy, elegy. Where else, after all, does memory turn?
For the poet concerned with and wanting to inhabit his or her psychic landscape, the imagination—guided by memory—must confront and attempt to overcome perhaps our greatest reality: loss.
The Barren Field
Consider Czeslaw Milosz’s “Outskirts”:
A hand with cards drops down
on the hot sand.
The sun turned white drops down
on the hot sand.
Ted holds the bank. Now Ted is dealing.
The glare stabs through the sticky pack
Into hot sand.
A broken shadow of a chimney. Thin grass.
Farther on, the city torn into red brick.
Brown heaps, barbed wired tangled at stations.
Dry rib of a rusty automobile.
A claypit glitters.
The particulars of Milosz’s landscape strike me as especially familiar, homelike. But, I have never been to Warsaw, let alone its outskirts. I was born nearly thirty years after Milosz wrote this poem. Geographically, culturally, biographically, and historically, I couldn’t be more of a foreigner. But when I read Milosz’s cycle “The Voices of Poor People,” I do not feel so much like a tourist. I feel strangely at home. I can only intuitively know Ted, and I do. I feel the pneuma of the place, as if there were something eschatological—fluid as that is—about the space Milosz creates in this devastated outskirt of Warsaw.
One could argue, as I am sometimes tempted to do, that there is nothing distinctively Polish in these stanzas; that Milosz provides little-to-no particulars pertaining to the historical context and circumstances that catalyzed the poem. One could argue that we might as well be in Philip Levine’s Detroit, Gerald Stern’s Pittsburgh, Richard Hugo’s Phillipsburg, James Wright’s Martin’s Ferry, and so on. One could argue that Milosz hides the historical context from his lines, which he does. Such claims seem perfectly reasonable responses. There is only one problem with these responses: we are not anywhere but Warsaw. “Outskirts” is the final movement in the cycle “The Voices of Poor People,” and at the end of each movement, Milosz provides a city name and date. Each movement is set in Warsaw between 1943 and 1944. By the time we reach “Outskirts,” Milosz has placed us in a Warsaw that has been razed, liquidated, and ghettoized. Those who have remained in this post-apocalyptic outskirt survive by playing cards and drinking moonshine:
An empty bottle buried
in the hot sand.
A drop of rain raised dust
off the hot sand.
Frank holds the bank. Now Frank is dealing.
We play, Julys and Mays go by.
We play one year, we play a fourth.
The glare pours through our blackened cards
into hot sand.
Farther on, the city torn into red brick.
A lone pine tree behind a Jewish house.
Loose footprints and the plain up to the horizon.
The dust of quicklime, wagons rolling,
and in the wagons a whining lament.
Milosz makes something happen to time; he takes it back and makes it his own. Months, then years, flit by like tossed cards. Milosz shows us how poems can alter time’s otherwise understood and unavoidable pattern.
Why? Not to distort history, but to clarify it. Not to praise the dead, but to bring them back and see them as they are, or were. Milosz revises Dante’s psychic landscape: this is not the hell for sinners. This is the hell for survivors. In an interview with Ewa Czarnecka, Milosz tentatively addresses the phenomena of survivor’s guilt:
The magnitude of trauma of those times is a subject in itself. There was the ghetto, for God’s sake, and the liquidation of three million Polish Jews, a sin that cries out—on the earth, in all of Poland—to be absolved. I think this is a difficult subject to discuss.
The quicklime implies the whining wagons’ cargo: bricks, wood, Zbigniew, Ola, et al. Milosz maintains and demands a certain historical locality: Warsaw, 1944.
Still, Milosz is not so much a nihilist. Certainly, there are indications of the eschatological in “Outskirts” and in all of “The Voices of Poor People.” The cycle is much closer to Hades than Heaven. But there is music:
Take a mandolin, on the mandolin
You’ll play it all.
Heigh-ho. Fingers, strings.
So nice a song.
A barren field.
The glass tossed off.
No more is needed.
Look, there she goes, a pretty girl.
Cork-soled slippers and curly hair.
Hello sweetheart, let’s have a good time.
A barren field.
The sun is setting.
Music, and the prospect of a tryst, maybe even love. A surprising, but inevitable, way to end the cycle. The barren field in the fifth stanza connotes a space of emptiness, despair, displacement, and homelessness. In stark contrast, the barren field in the final stanza connotes a more bucolic space that engenders physical pleasure and (perhaps) emotional intimacy. The seemingly offhand pick up line, “Hello sweetheart, let’s have a good time,” means and changes everything.
This flirtatious gesture (it may even be lecherous) is absolutely necessary because it is the pivot upon which Milosz’s psychic landscape turns from the utterly despondent to the ostensibly hopeful. Both incarnations of the barren field are indexes not only of Milosz’s psyche but of all those who have survived. The field is barren because there is virtually no one left. Those who have remained must endure the barren field.
A poet concerned with the psychic landscape must endure and accept his or her own barren field. Milosz utilizes the barren field as a metaphor to teach us (and himself) how we can create our tabula rasa in medias res.
In fact, as Milosz’s poem shows us, any poet attempting to inhabit his or her own psychic landscape creates a tabula rasa in medias res because he or she must repopulate his or her psychic landscape with those who have never left, have yet to exist, and have disappeared.
Within the psychic landscape history—when used responsibly, as if one’s life, if not more, were at stake—can become a tool at the poet’s disposal, no different from iambs, line breaks, stanzas, and figures of speech.
For history is loss’s blueprint and, by proxy, the poet’s groundswell. The psychic landscape materializes
within the poet’s imagination after the place—what History and geography can merely verify—has been lost. Poets recreate and repopulate this landscape, and it is an overwhelming, ever-shifting epiphany. Larry Levis calls such an epiphany a realization of a fall in the Edenic sense. A fall implies the front-loaded assumption that a wrong has been acted upon someone. Oftentimes, this wrong is nothing more than living out one’s life: a motiveless trespass.
History has taught us that the trespass is. Otherwise, we’d all be “home.”
For the poet truly concerned with place, exile is realized and transformed, and becomes his or her psychic landscape.
The psychic landscape expands verifiable history, but cannot expand the geography of the place. “And if we want,” Gaston Bachelard writes, “to go beyond history, or even, while remaining in history, detach from our own history the always too contingent history of the persons who have encumbered it, we realize that the calendars of our lives can only be established in its imagery”.
Calendars, too, have no dominion in the psychic landscape. That is, time (like history) becomes another amorphous toy for the poet, not unlike place. Anything can happen for everything has already happened, and nothing has happened yet. But the people, those who have helped create the landscape into the poet’s memory? How does the poet do them justice?
An Abandoned Vineyard
Larry Levis’s poem “Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard” contains many past lives to whom he attempts to restore dignity. Ten lines in, Levis steps from the literal landscape into his psychic landscape:
Fifteen years ago,
I worked this row of vines beside a dozen
Families up from Mexico.
No one spoke English, or wanted to.
Levis gives specific notice of how far back into memory he is going. He also offers vignettes of personal history and of the Mexican families, particularly as their respective histories pertain to their respective exiles. Because Levis resituates his poem geographically and chronologically, he can imaginatively fill in the crucial details of these other lives. But, for Levis, they are not “other” as separate; rather, they are essentially a part of him in memory, while simultaneously being apart from him in the present tense of the poem.
This poem’s project of stepping into memory requires the speaker to journey back into exile and toward a place associated with an innocence of sorts. Levis’s present is essentially barren. Levis’s past, however, is occupied with suspiciously endearing characters who swear politely in Spanish, and at no one in particular. Levis forces us to know these migrant workers by more than name:
And Angel Dominguez,
Who came to work for my grandfather in 1910,
And who saved for years to buy
Twenty acres of rotting, Thompson Seedless
While the sun flared all one August,
He decided he was dying of a rare disease,
And spent his money and his last years
Who found nothing wrong.
Tea laughed, and, tipping back
A bottle of Muscatel, said: “Nothing’s wrong.
You’re just dying.”
These workers are living out a very real exile in geographic, socioeconomic, and psychic ways. Consider what other ostensible psychic landscapes might contain from these men: what would Angel’s poem capture and reclaim? Tea’s? Would we, readers of English, be able to grasp and inhabit their psychic landscapes? Would they sound more like Neruda or Borges or Paz or…?
In the psychic landscape, Milosz’s Ted and Levis’s Tea could be blood relatives, perhaps even the same the person.
It may be compelling, perhaps even beneficial, to carry out such a comparative exercise; but whatever we may realize from such an investment matters little because we are only reading a Levis poem. He has inhabited his own psychic landscape so he can bring those he grieves back from his past—and his past only—to a place where time is no longer an entity to reckon with.
In this way, the psychic landscape assists us in understanding something else about mortality: the poet concerned with and invested in the psychic landscape possesses a provisional power to raise the dead. But it is only the manifestation of the dead as the poet imagines them alive. The further the poet dissociates himself from memory (a dangerous enterprise), the more responsible he or she is to exercise his or her imagination so as to fabricate new memories for those who have died and for those who grieve them. And if the poet chooses to do so, he or she will invariably situate them all in a place that could be referred to as home, but bears little geographical resemblance in any historically verifiable way.
The psychic landscape, therefore, is energized by a trance that is—at its core—elegiac, which presumes grief, which in turn presumes loss. There is only one bearable corollary for loss: the imagination realized, controlled, expressed, and offered. The psychic landscape compensates for what is ordinarily classified as a “real” loss.
Loss is a catalyst for, not a detriment to, the psychic landscape. Only the poet who understands and accepts this paradox will enter—and repopulate—his or her psychic landscape.
Tea's line—“Nothing’s wrong./ You’re just dying.”—also hints at the meaning of life: that it ends. Awareness of life’s end catalyzes imagination and memory. Then, and only then, does the psychic landscape begin to take shape.
The psychic landscape also grants imagistic latitude. In a poem, we cannot receive an image without a voice. Imagery and voice are the psychic landscape’s most essential elements. Clearly, Levis’s voice is quite distinct from Milosz’s. The same should be said for their contexts. But their psychic landscapes exist in the same universe:
I can still see the two of them:
Tea smiles and lets his yellow teeth shine—
While Angel, the serious one, for whom
Death was a rare disease,
Purses his lips, and looks down, as if
He is already mourning himself—
A soft, gray hat between his hands.
This vision of memory is necessary because it has passed, and so have Tea and Angel. The specificity of detail—the yellow teeth, the soft, gray hat—may catalyze us into recreating our own lost.
In other words, the essence of the psychic landscape is contagious, but its particulars remain indisputably singular.
Not Just Philipsburg
“All memory,” Richard Hugo writes, “resolves itself in a gaze.”
Once memory is resolved, one can begin again. But if we are aware of that fact, we realize that we’ll always be beginning—however cleanly—in the middle of things.
As I hinted at above, the tabula rasa in medias res is another essential paradox that helps create the psychic landscape.
In his poems in and about the life and lives in Montana, Hugo casts himself mostly as a visitor, often as an outsider. Unlike Milosz and Levis and other poets more explicitly invested in nostalgia and elegy, Hugo realizes, controls, and transforms his psychic landscape not after he has left, but as he arrives.
The psychic landscape welcomes the recently displaced as much as it listens to its long lost natives.
Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg” begins in medias res of displacement, in the moment just after a fall:
You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.
One does not stumble upon his or her psychic landscape on a “whim.” Or does one? Hugo’s speaker is not a local, which affords him the necessary distance to see the place and its people through a lens freed from personal history and, therefore, nostalgia. Hugo’s speaker cannot yet find his place in the landscape; so, to distance himself from himself he employs second person address. One could call it call an ekphrastic self-portrait. Hugo does this so he might feel Phillipsburg more clearly, closely. His observations may seemingly involve only the surfaces of things, but they more acutely intuit Phillipsburg’s pneuma because of that distance. The speaker is a visitor—lost, perhaps—but he “gets” Phillipsburg as much as the “only prisoner…not knowing what he’s done”:
Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?
The town inside never dies for the poet invested in—or entranced by—the psychic landscape. That is why Hugo’s speaker so urgently, but fatalistically, rattles off question and after question. Each question, in fact, provides an implied answer to the one preceding it. The answer? Yes, you’re an outsider; yes, you’re lost; yes, you’re home. The irony is only bitter, or sweet, (either way there’s resonance) because Hugo’s speaker has just arrived to Philipsburg, “on a whim.” Yet, Hugo’s speaker immediately understands how such a town matches his state of mind and being.
The psychic landscape waits for us to arrive just as much as it expects us to leave.
At Sea, Exile
Nazim Hikmet’s “The Icebreaker” provides a nuanced element of distance: an immediate poem of exile. Hikmet’s poem—like the others mentioned here—unfolds under the genuine artifice of real time. Hikmet’s speaker journals his present, which is now carried by the frozen sea being cut by the ship ordered to carry him away from his native Istanbul:
The icebreaker leads the way,
our boat shudders in its wake.
I watch from my cabin porthole,
the sea is frozen solid white.
I come from Istanbul—
I grew up by the warm, salt sea.
We like our colors, light, and life clear-cut.
Hikmet’s M-dash signals the necessary shift from which the psychic landscape manifests itself: from exile to nostalgia.
But unlike the poems previously discussed, Hikmet’s speaker desires to speak on behalf of his fellow Turks from whom he’s been exiled. Strangely, what he recalls is a litany that reads more or less like a
We like our colors, light, and life clear-cut.
We have poppy fields,
but liveliest of all is our sea.
How is this description any different from any port city? Apart from the poppy fields, what Hikmet’s speaker describes might as well provide a voice over as I walk along the Hudson River in Manhattan on my way to work. What if instead of “Istanbul” Hikmet’s speaker said “Lisbon” or “Athens” or “Buenos Aires” or…?
Indeed, such a line of inquiry is moot, or worse, misguided. But what such a line of inquiry points out is the pedestrian nature of what Hikmet’s speaker recalls as he sails somewhere on the Baltic, somewhere between Leningrad and Stockholm. This is a fact we can’t overlook, for Hikmet’s inclusion of the note “1959 Leningrad-Stockholm” at the end of the poem curries our attention.
What’s at stake here, in other words, is nothing less than the psychic condition of exile, which Hikmet captures in the present tense. Notice how his nostalgia unfolds consistently—insistently—in the present tense: “We like,” “we have,” “Our sea is…”. The pain of the present tense—what we might tentatively call reality—is that Istanbul is fast becoming a memory. But Hikmet’s speaker is too torn, too devastated to acknowledge that fact:
We never forget its fragrance.
I watch from my cabin porthole,
the sea is frozen
Hikmet’s psychic landscape exists—as it does for all poets—solely behind his eyes. But what separates Hikmet from most is his reach for a communal identification with his Istanbul. Exile—in Hikmet’s case, quite literal, and a very different exile from Levis’s, for example—catalyzes his conception of his psychic landscape.
The psychic landscape is as much a wound as it is a salve for the wounds of his exile. The psychic landscape is an affliction and an obsession; it is a refusal of loss and a denial of the present that, for Hikmet’s speaker, is couched in the present until the poem’s final word: devastated. For Hikmet’s speaker, there hasn’t been enough—or there’s been too much—time for him to absorb the blow of exile.
The psychic landscape provides the poet a place where severe losses can be observed, dissected, razed, and raised.
Because loss is a given, the poet is forced to create a home that is more renewed than new. The psychic landscape, then, is necessarily more vibrant than what was actually lost. And is more real.
1 Issues of prosody certainly contribute to the obvious differences found among these poets. The purview of my discussion intends to reach beyond what’s commonly referred to as craft, and instead toward the vision from which the poet’s craft helps construct.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Czarnecka, Ewa & Aleksander Fiut. Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz. Trans. Richard Lourie. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Hikmet, Nazim. Poems of Nazim Hikmet. Trans. Randy Blessing & Mutlu Konuk. New York: Persea, 1994.
Hugo, Richard. Making Certain it Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984.
Levis, Larry. The Dollmaker’s Ghost. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1981.
—. The Gazer Within. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.
Milosz, Czeslaw. The Collected Poems: 1931-1987. Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1988.
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1997.