inlooking #005: Hill and where
20220326: razor blades, ranches, rabbits
What’s brought to mind by the scene above? What does it say to you? What does it promise? How would you describe it in a piece of writing? And what kind of piece does it belong to? Read on for answers—of a sort.
Beyond the rise
Tears for Hazel-rah
Hours spent nowhere
in session, in season
I’m teaching again. (Thumbs up, me, as it’s been a while. Life, etc.) I’m doing another session (season?) of my class on writing about place, which is usually fairly popular, and always a lot of fun. We read a ton of amazing writing about place, looking not so much at how to set a scene (though we do get into that), but rather more at writing that actually takes place—or a place—as its subject.
Here are two great short essays to give you an idea of the kind of things we read and deconstruct in the class, the better to construct our own things of similar nature:
Joan Didion’s essay “At the Dam” about the Hoover Dam, eternity, and the end of the world
Pico Iyer’s piece “Where Silence is Sacred” about cathedrals and monasteries and the places of worship we carry with us wherever we go
It’s a five-night course (Mondays, this time), which means we get to dive into everything from fiction, travel writing, and essays, to fantasy, science fiction, and poetry as well, and get to talk about psychogeography and (new for this iteration, as I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I work on a longer piece on the topic) the history of the very idea of place itself.
Our relationship to the places in our lives has undergone an enormous amount of change just in the last two years. There’s a way in which the healthy and able-bodied among us took for granted the space and places of the pre-2020 world, and even the barriers to those less mobile were for the most part fixed targets, knowable problems we could potentially devise solutions to. But COVID changed all that. Shelter-in-place orders took the world away from everyone, and even now, stepping out one’s door can be a potentially lethal undertaking.
I’m really interested in looking more deeply into these kinds of changes, and mapping them to other evolutions in society and the human race. So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, see you in class.
I’m writing again, too. Or rather, being published. This time it’s a very personal personal essay in The Rumpus’s Voices on Addiction column, but it comes with a trigger warning: It concerns addiction, as it says on the tin, but there’s a healthy portion of self-harm tossed in to liven things up, as well. If none of this puts you off, go here to read. An interesting thing about this essay: I wrote this piece out loud, for a reading at my MFA program at Bennington College. That is, I knew the first place it was going to have an audience was at a reading, so I wrote it by speaking each sentence out loud before I typed it down. The result was a very particular kind of piece, with a very particular kind of energy, but I think it worked really well, so I’m sure this is an experiment I’ll be trying again.
The header image this time is our back yard (#yesfilter). The yard stops at the trees; the hill and tractor belong to the neighboring cattle ranch. Over on my Instagram, I post a picture of this hill—from the same angle, with the same field of view, taking in a bit more of the yard than you see above—probably a little more often than anyone but me is interested in. But I love this hill, in part for its many faces, in part because that’s the one direction in which we don’t have immediate neighbors, in part because our cow friends come and graze just on the other side of the fence from time to time, and in part because it speaks to me of limitlessness, even though it’s only a wee little hill. It’s like the small but not insignificant barrier that must be overcome at the beginning of a character’s adventure in a fantasy novel (not that all stories need that barrier). Its scrim says to me, There could be anything—absolutely anything—beyond this low rise. It somehow expands my world by bringing the horizon close. I wonder if this is, in part, due to the COVID-wrought changes I mentioned above. We moved here in the middle of the pandemic, and it’s possible the hill represents escape to me, in a way. But it’s more than that. I’ve always loved mountains, and I wonder, too, if I ask less of my mountains as I get older—or, conversely, if I am able to wring the same sense of wonder from a low pasture hill as I used to get from winding my way over the continental divide. More on this in future letters, I’m sure.
readings and devotions
Speaking of psychogeography, I’ve just finished reading Lud Heat, Iain Sinclair’s 1975 meditation on London through the lens of the six early-18th-century churches built for the city by Nicholas Hawksmoor. It’s weird and good and nothing like his terrific account of walking around London, London Orbital. (And by “walking around,” I mean walking around, as in, circumnavigating.) Of the two, London Orbital is the more accessible. But Lud Heat is the more psychogeographic, the more sorcerous, the more dérive. If the idea of reading a place deeply appeals to you, reading its myths and magics, reading the echoes of those who made it and marked and who came before, this is certainly something to explore.
A few other recent additions to my “read” list include…
Never Mind, the first Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. This one (which needs its own trigger warning for rape and incest) is gutting, but so well turned. St. Aubyn has such fine control of language he’s a real pleasure to read, and packs a lot into the novel’s 128 pages.
The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene’s 1940 novel about a “whisky priest” on the run in a Mexican state that has outlawed religion. I love novels about hopeless drunks (Under the Volcano is a favorite—also set in Mexico!), and this is a top-shelf example, one that also investigates the ways in which devotion can be an entirely selfish act.
Watership Down (technically a re-read) is one of the finest adventure novels ever written. I had tried to read this to my twin girls a few years ago, but they weren’t ready for it. Now, at age nine, they ate it up. Had to Tweet about it when I finished:
histories of nowhere
As you read above and can tell from the class I’m teaching, I am obviously taken with ideas of place. Like many people, our family hasn’t traveled much over the last two years. But we were on a plane recently and I was struck by the nowhere of air travel, the way you board a plane and spend hours in no place at all, in order to get from one place to another. Just as people leave their mark on places, places leave their mark on people as well, and I started to feel like those hours in noplace help us shake off the effects of wherever we’re coming from, and serve to mitigate the shock of transition from one place to a different one. “Nowhere” is of course another way to say “utopia,” and while I’m not at all sure modern plane travel is a utopian experience (in the sense we’ve come to understand it, as a kind of near-perfect society), there’s a way in which spending time nowhere can be a kind of purge, cleansing one of the effects of the world. Resort hotels understand this, although they achieve it in a fictive way that isn’t necessarily balanced against the context of place in which they exist. Slippery subjects. Of which I’m sure I’ll write more at a later date—and from another place.
Til next time,