by Lola Haskins
A few months after we got married, my husband and I set off for Brazil on a motor scooter. We lived by presenting ourselves as famous norteamericano singers to nightclub managers—first in Mexico, then in the Caribbean. Through a chain of events that isn’t part of this story, instead of reaching the land of Antonio Carlos Jobim, we ended up in England where we lived for a couple of years before returning to Florida where my husband had grown up. We thought of the Florida move as temporary, but, except for a further two and a half years in North Yorkshire (from the time our daughter was one until she was three) it turned out not to be. Still, though we did decide not to emigrate to the United Kingdom permanently, we’ve been traveling back there (together, then separately) ever since, with the result that I have a permanently split heart. When I die, part of me is going to be scattered on the windy top of Skipton Moor and the rest will sleep under a bench by a moss-draped live oak in Gainesville, Florida.
I think it’s almost inevitable if you’re a poet, that at some point you’ll want to write about the places you love most, the ones that have gone so deep inside that the only way to get them out is through your skin. That said, for a long time I was convinced that, in my case at least, it wasn’t possible. I can trace the onset of this conviction to a drive between Utah gigs during which my friend Guy, who heads the Arts Council there, told me that every Utahan poet he knows is eventually moved to address the landscape, but that, in the end, none of them succeeds. When I got home, I figured out—or thought I did—why not:
Only those shallow as creeks in drought misunderstand
our helplessness before landscapes that reach the throat.
The rest of us know that cliffs or clouds can be addressed
only on their own terms, and in languages that have nothing
to do with words. There’s a school for this, in a country
which is a long train ride off, and from birth some of us
have aspired to study there. But when our applications are
returned with blank pages inside, we don’t know what to do.
So we watch for signs– the tone-marks of a hawk’s angled
wings before she drops to grass; the directions a dying wave
has fingered onto the sand. We would have despaired long ago
were it not that once in awhile, one of our tongue-tied number
vanishes. And returns glorious– fluent in storm cloud, sage,
or boiling lava. A child’s aptitude for language may surface
early, as when his mother notices smoke skirling from his mouth
as she points at the sky, or red rock appearing in his hands
when she says canyon. Wanting to keep him close, she may
not tell him about the train. It will not matter. He will find it.
Perhaps there are teachers among us. There’s a man I’ve
been following for hours, who walks the narrow trail as if
he had no feet. I think by that, and by the way his hair
brightens at the base of his neck, he may know. I gather
my pace, to see if it was he singing overhead, but he
must have been speaking sky, because when I turn
the corner, a cloud is rising off the stones, rimmed
with an eloquence I have encountered only in dreams.
Part of me still believes this. And yet, I’ve felt compelled to write about the places that speak to me anyway, I think because I feel so defined by them. It’s strange, though. I’d have thought the hills and mountains I grew up with would be me, or the tide pools where I used to watch starfish and anemones by the hour, or the redwoods that grew, like Jack’s beanstalk, up and out of sight. But instead, what lives inside my shirt are the moors. And the salt marshes, swamps, rivers and woods of my Florida.
I write most often about Florida, because so many Floridians don’t identify with her. Rather than say, “I’m Pete from Tampa,” someone who’s been living here for years will say instead “I’m Pete from Boston; go Sox!” This lack of identification is confirmed by the fact that the most common kind of air freight leaving the state is bodies going north for burial.
Besides that initial motivation, I’ve felt for some time that though early explorers like William Bartram and modern prose writers like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings made us come alive, no one has yet done it in poetry. Some very fine poets live here but most of their work either focuses elsewhere or seems to me lacking in Floridian-hood, with the result that the manatees and alligators and Spanish moss in their poems come off like exhibits in some exotic zoo. Recently, I heard a superstar from out of state perform a poem about manatees that, for all her energy, sounded exactly like research with line breaks. Sitting in the middle of her enormous audience I kept thinking—this isn’t what we need. What we do need, what we’re crying out for in Florida, is a poet who’s gotten her feet wet and her skin swarmed, and not just once.
I know I may not succeed in being that poet—in fact, I may fail miserably—but since I, at least, meet those two criteria, I’m determined to try. And I think poetry may be the most important way to address Florida right now because it can stir emotions that, with luck, might edge us toward the political attitude adjustments which, Lord knows, we need. Besides, you can get effects in poetry that I don’t think are possible in prose. For example, in the manuscript I’m writing now, I’ve replaced punctuation with spaces, first, to paint more visually, and second, to imply that the starts and stops that periods and commas imply are artificial in the natural world. And in the process, rules be damned, I think that sometimes just saying it is what’s called for, as illustrated, I hope, here:
runs along the underside of an overhanging ash
a finger tracing an inner arm
above me long pale leaves are trembling
my small boat is no one on this water
And while we’re on the subject of blending into the natural world, it seemed to me an interesting challenge to try to write a book of poetry as if it were a plein-air event, so that when we read it, we’re not looking at pages, we’re looking at a tea-colored creek bed or a beaten-down sleeping place in salt marsh. Once I saw a Japanese brush-painting master, a tiny eighty-year old woman in a tight red kimono waisted with an obi, kneel on the floor and slash her brush twice across a scroll with such passion and determination she made me gasp. Though she’ll never see it, I wrote this for her:
Two eyes and a curve
cross the lake
So few lines, so eloquent.
One more advantage that poetry has over prose in place-based writing—and I think it’s an important one—is that, though most books of poems are consistently voiced, poetry is arguably freer than prose to vary style, even wildly, to mirror subject matter. Such variation feels especially appropriate in the case of Florida, which has more and more complicated ecosystems than most people know. So, for instance, by placing long dense poems before brief, almost Asian, pieces, one can open tangled maritime forest to flat, sunlit sea, leaving the reader to imagine for herself what countries may lie beyond that far, bright line.
Lola Haskins is a poet, non-fiction prose writer, and frequent collaborator with artists from other disciplines (such as visual artists, dancers, actors, and musicians). Her poetry has appeared in The Atlantic, the London Review of Books, The New York Quarterly, Georgia Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She is the author of ten books of poems, the most recent, The Grace to Leave, due out in 2012 from Anhinga Books. Her ninth book, Still, the Mountain (Paper Kite Press), won the Silver Medal for Poetry in the 2010 Florida Book Awards. Other collections include Desire Lines, New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions, 2004), Extranjera (Story Line, 1998), The Rim Benders (Anhinga Books), Hunger (University of Iowa Press, 1993) which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, Forty-Four Ambitions for the Piano (University Press of Florida, 1990), Castings (Countryman Press, 1984), Planting the Children (University Press of Florida, 1983) and Across Her Broad Lap Something Wonderful (State Street, 1989). Her prose writings include Fifteen Florida Cemeteries, Strange Tales Unearthed (University Press of Florida, 2011), Not Feathers Yet: A Beginner’s Guide to the Poetic Life (Backwaters, 2007), an advice book for people interested in poetry, and Solutions Beginning with A (Modernbook, 2007), fables about women illustrated by Maggie Taylor. Her essays have appeared in photographer Woody Walters’ Visions of Florida (University Press of Florida, 1994), The Wild Heart of Florida (University Press of Florida, 1999) benefiting the Nature Conservancy. Her most ambitious venture in prose is an as-yet-unpublished collection of personal essays beginning in state parks, called Wind, the Grass, and Us. She is currently working on nature poetry growing out of the time she spends in kayaks and in the woods. Retired in 2005 from teaching Computer Science at the University of Florida, Haskins lives in Gainesville, Florida, and to our great fortune she is a faculty member of the Rainier Writing Workshop.