“Miriam Sagan‘s Seven Places is a lovely collection of verbal souvenirs, resonant snapshots plumbing the mists, the touches, the footfalls that evoke place,” writes art critic Lucy Lippard. “Before I started reading I knew some of these places. Now I know them all. I can walk there.”
Art has the ability to make the familiar new again, and this is particularly true of the places we inhabit and take for granted in everyday life. Artists and writers, whether local residents or visitors, can remind us of the special qualities of a specific landscape.
As the poems and essays in Seven Places in America show, every place contains layers of meaning, created by memory, history, culture, and topography. While native cultures saw the sacred in everyday sites, as evidenced in the mounds they built, American industrialists saw the commercial value of the same land, and responded by building canals, locks, and dams. A farmer will not see his town through the same lens as a store owner. And as Lucy Lippard points out in her fascinating book The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, even gender affects our relationship to place. “Women, when alone with nature, are subject to a particularly contradictory experience,” writes Lippard, “liberating on one hand, threatening on the other.”
This special Sunday Poem article on Sagan’s Seven Places in America explores these ideas of landscape, time, history, and geography through poems about the Erie Canal, Everglades, the Petrified Forest, burial mounds, and more. It also features the book’s introduction, in which Sagan describes the project and the places she visited throughout the United States.
I’ve also included a few, carefully curated photographs to accompany Miriam’s work. I discovered the work of photographers Lisa Elmaleh and William Henry Jackson during my visit to New Orleans and am glad to share some of their work here.
An Introduction to Seven Places in America
by Miriam Sagan
“Place is a special kind of object—an object in which one can dwell.”
–YiFu Tuan in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience.
Over a three year period, I left home numerous times to go some place unfamiliar. Some journeys took me more than a thousand miles, some just a few hours. But all were forays into the unknown. As a writer, I was looking for the freshness of seeing things in a new way. As a middle-aged woman, I was looking for a sense of self outside of my roles as mother, wife, daughter, and teacher. At times I didn’t know what I was looking for, and at times I was a pilgrim on a quest. On all my journeys I was looking for borderlines, most particularly the border that earthwork artist Robert Smithson called the “slurb”—the border between the suburban and the wild.
I grew up in northern New Jersey. (Interestingly, so did Smithson). As a child, I lay in bed late at night reading about the archeology of Troy, the Maya’s sacrificial well. Surely something lay beneath my suburban existence. I just couldn’t find it. Digging a garden, we turned up a broken Dutch tile edged in pale green. I was as excited as if we’d found a Viking burial. Throughout my life, and in many ways, I continued to look for what was buried.
Seven Places in America really began with my relationship to the National Parks. When I was almost twelve, my family took a vacation by train to the Grand Canyon. What I saw completely changed my New Jersey eyes. For many years I visited the parks, and wrote in them. This process became formal with a residency at Everglades National Park and continued with the Petrified Forest. The Everglades was itself a series of boundary lines. My private theme for being there was how one kind of space turned to another, water to land, agriculture to everglade. National Parks tell the visitor where— and how—to look. They direct our attention to marvels, but my process was also to look in nooks and crannies, off the beaten path, at destruction as well as beauty. In the Petrified Forest time was a concrete thing. Erosion showed geologic time as clearly as a wall calendar. But space and time do meet. The geographer YiFu Tuan notes that space has a temporal meaning and that time is also a measure of distance. In this intersection, I wrote my poems.
Two of the places were art sites—The Land in Mountainair, New Mexico and Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia, New York. Both pieces of land were beautiful but essentially ordinary—except for the fact that so much attention had been paid to their topography and meaning by so many artists. Both places felt saturated by vision. The land had been marked, changed, and interpreted, by other people. Working on these sites was like walking into a collective dream. Robert Smithson said “the physical site is a destination…a ‘tour’; recalled through snapshots and travelogues.” By definition I was a tourist in these new places where my residence was brief and temporary. And my souvenirs were words.
My project had two sites that I thought of as lines—and interestingly both involved rivers. One was the Santa Fe River, just a few blocks from my house, and one was the line of archeological sites of the civilizations that built the mounds along the Ohio and Mississippi. These were the more personal sites for me—I had determined them and although both sparked plenty of interest I wasn’t a designated writerinresidence at either. Both close to home and far away, these were more places to wander through than to live.
The last place of the project was the Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon. By seeming coincidence, it combined many aspects of the other places. It was a designated place with a purpose, like the national parks. It even had three reflection spots for each writerinresidence to write about. These long term ecological reflection spots, like the art sites, were repositories of multiple visions. And like the rivers, Andrews was a place about watersheds, a small place in the larger context of ecosystem. I went to Andrews innocently. Unlike my other forays I had little idea or theme when I went. I had done no reading, or research. It was late autumn, cool, rainy, dark. If the forest had an unconscious mind, I had fallen into it, or perhaps into my own. When I woke up I realized that I had been working on a book all along. And that I had only understood this once the book was done.
“Solitude is a condition for acquiring a sense of immensity” writes YiFu Tuan. My longest residency was two weeks, not a long time by the standards of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, or by May Sarton’s Journal of A Solitude. However, In my own life, two weeks felt substantial and lavish.
Alone, I was bolder and also more self-indulgent than within my family. I could drive long distances by myself, and also eat something odd for supper at 4 pm. It was a delightful benefit to become reacquainted with a kind of essential self. This self was at home in unfamiliar surroundings, developing in quiet and darkness.
It wasn’t always easy to explain what I was doing. Some of my friends loved to hike and camp in nature, but I wasn’t doing that. Writers I knew enjoyed the leisure and pleasant surroundings of an artist’s colony, but this was different than that as well. People would ask me if I was frightened—presumably of something like an alligator or the company of my own mind. Implied too in the questions was the implication that the questioner would be bored to death doing this. But that was what I sought—a simple, even funky, habitation where I could be alone.
“Where is the nearest jelly doughnut?” my father wanted to know when I called him from the Everglades. I found this amusing, because not everyone considers the doughnut to be an indicator of civilization. But my father and I are both fond of them. The nearest jelly doughnut might be in a box in my temporary kitchen, at the end of Flamingo, in Gallup or Holbrook, at a country store or a local farmers’ market, at a fast food place in exurbia or the Dunkin Doughnuts a few blocks from my usual house.
It is not possible to shed the old self just by changing geography. But it is possible to expand that self so it includes not just a jelly doughnut but a more permeable boundary between self and landscape—the terrain of a poem.
mixed media, 1988
The trailer is pale blue and white
With pink striped awnings, a pink flamingo
On the door. Saguaro cactus with an owl in the yard
And a Madonna in a blue stucco shell
Or an inverted bathtub.
A kitschy statue of a boy in a sombrero
Pulls a burro…this is the border
But between what and where?
I admire the “American” trailer as always
Next to the Women’s Room at the Albuquerque airport
My usual point of departure
This time for Fort Lauderdale, where I’ll sleep
At a Ramada lit by tiki torches
Fake Polynesian effect around the pool
Where plastic flowers entwine
With real multivariegated leaves
And dreams border on the subtropics.
I had house guests, once,
Who wanted to see “the real” city of Santa Fe
Which they’d heard had gotten fake
By real, they meant the old fake, not the new—
Fred Harvey thunderbird designs in silver
Or rugs woven, pots painted, for the tourist trade
But old enough so the motive fades
And makes an image of the authentic.
They didn’t mean they wanted to see the “real real” city
Of gang graffiti, drunk drivers, or my usual trips
To the orthodontist or Ross Dress for Less.
And at Jackalope—Folk Art by the Truckload—
They were confused
By my enthusiasm
Pulling out of a cluttered bin
A necklace of tiny plastic birds and animals
With a “carved” turquoise plastic bear
And my delight—look!
Fake Zuni jewelry!
I bought the fake and hung it on my neck
I’d always wanted a fake fetish necklace
Made in Asia.
I was at Zuni once
Before Easter, in the rain
The hornos were steaming in the plaza
Smoke filled the air
Streets ran mud, and I did buy
Inlaid turquoise and silver, a dragonfly
Concrete and yet approximate
Like any souvenir.
4. Shark Valley
I’ll take no photograph
of what I can remember
low-lying sedge, bayhead island
and the gumbo limbo
sounds like a carousel
was used to carve
these trees usually found
below the Tropic of Cancer
a nest of baby
a dozen or more
not yet the toothy beasts
but watched over for years
by their mother hidden in amphibious shadow
where water meets air
past fifty myself
I’m still trying
to perfect the mix
of getting somewhere
and being there…
navigating by the black mirror
faint stars of the sixth magnitude
cormorant’s eye turns turquoise
motel shuttered by hurricane
on the card table, The Collected Wallace Stevens
a nonrepresentational painter and a horizon line
the glass-bottomed boat, electric blue aquarium in the bar, the
at the museum of science
homing instinct, a magnetic chip in the brain
the sea was not a mirror
silver palm reflected in the dark pool
Compresses time and distance
In the perfectibility of (man)kind.
For us, Providence created the gap in the mountains
Where once continents collided, then drifted
A housewife on the barge, curtains, geranium, a cat,
The canal, which, man-made
Becomes as uncontrollable as the sea
Without a Sabbath.
Past Chittenango, New York
Where Frank Baum was born
And what better utopia than Oz?
Where today there is a yellow brick road sidewalk
And a sign: Got Life Insurance?
“Wicked Witch Never Saw It Coming!”
Neoclassical temple in the park.
In the book, the enchanted boy
Becomes Ozma, the glittering princess
Oddly satisfying to my childhood mind
Like the army of girls with knitting needles.
Ideas of liberation towed along
The path with mules and barges
“Failure Is Impossible.”
Dark water is shallow
Weedy with fish shadow
And a song.
Locks defy sea level
And white blossoms float along in early summer.
Sell beer, ice cream, moccasins
At the rock shop
Slag glass glitters in piles
Swirls of color without
The price of prehistoric teeth
On E-Bay drops
When they’re reclassified
As crocodilian, not dinosaur
The fans want
Those giant lizards
Tiny glass jars
Hold desert scenes
Painted in sand
Blue mesa, red rock, the view
From the bus
(Could that be us?)
And a cactus
In a painted pot
From somewhere else
Once in the Everglades
I saw a cormorant, smart bird,
Beat a catfish it had caught
Break the invasive species’s spine
And swallow it
Not whole but bit by bit
Hunger that looked like wrath
A tourist took a photograph
Red ocher on burial bones.
A mound in Pickerington, Ohio,
Between houses on a suburban street.
Enon Mound. By the library
In the middle of Indian Mound Estates.
who hasn’t felt
the rat’s bite loss of grief
and wanted to slaughter.
Cahokia. Green mound 72.
20,000 marine shell beads
shaped into a platform
in the image of a raptor
53, 24, 22, 19—mass burials
girls + women
451 arrow points
(heads cut off
what the shaman sees from the air
serpent mound or
St. Louis, Missouri
tall grass prairie
persimmon, paw paw
lotus, pokeweed, bloodroot
this figurine—possibly of a woman
transforming corn into flour
or causing rain
tracked on my sneakers
to this bed
conical mounds, platforms
snake gourd vine
to return over and over
to an image
as if it were real
About Miriam SaganI am a poet, not a naturalist, but my poetry often creates a “map” of a place, incorporating geography, geology, archeology, ecology, natural history, memory, and perception. I am interested in borders, what earthworks artist Robert Smithson calls “The Slurb,” the collision between the suburban and the wild.
I recently completed a book entitled Seven Places in America: A Poetic Sojourn. The seven places were the start of a journey to create a land-based or site-specific poetry. It began in 2006, as a writer-in-residence at Everglades National Park. The next place was THE LAND/An Art Site in Mountainair, New Mexico. I began with a long poem which then resulted in a low-impact sculpture, a poetry pamphlet and postcard, and several lectures in galleries and academic settings. In 2009 I had a residency in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. This Petrified Forest residency led directly to the production of a poetry postcard series of Three Views of the Painted Desert, which I donated to the park.
Following in this vein, I spent June of 2009 as a writer-in-residence at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia, New York. I was the only writer to ever work there, in a place usually reserved for sculptures. The result was a free pamphlet give away to visitors, a “Poetry Trail Guide” to the outdoor museum. These are poems linked to specific sculpture as well as those based on nearby geology and the utopian movements of 19th century New York State, including the Seneca Falls Declaration of The Rights of Women. Here again I was asking the poetic question–where does this place begin and end–in geography, in time, in the imagination. These, with three other locations, form the basis of the book.
In 2010, I went to Iceland with Gullkistan Residency for Creative People in Laugervatn. This allowed me to begin stretching the boundaries of the geography of my work. In Iceland, I wrote a long cycle of poetry based on my experiences of glaciers, geysers, waterfalls, volcanos, wildlife, people, culture, history, and literary sources such as the sagas. I would like to do something similar during a residency at Denali. I would like to bring together my work in the national parks with a cycle of poems begun in Iceland–“White Nights in the Book of Darkness.” I remain very interested in extreme northern light and landscape.
To learn more about Miriam Sagan and her work, please visit her website.
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All poems and excerpts © Miriam Sagan. These poems and excerpts appear in Seven Places in America (Sherman Asher Publishing, 2012) and were published with permission from the author. All Rights Reserved.