“Songs to Affect and Balance the World”: Poetry, Place, Home
Education is largely a matter of changing how we respond to the world around us. William James, in one of his Talks to Teachers, proposed that the “art” of teaching involves first understanding our “native” (or innate, natural) reactions to situations and stimuli, and then overseeing the process by which students learn different ways of responding. To James, speaking from the perspective of a psychologist, this meant either “substituting” one response for another or “complicating” a given response. The environmental humanities in general, and especially literature and its study, are also means of revising our responses to the world. Literature—the expression of natural phenomena and social forces through a particular consciousness—is interlaced with language, imagination, culture, cognition, and communication. Because of its interconnectivity, literature can complicate our responses to the world and present us with potential substitutions for habitual ways of reacting to objects and events.
For example, consider your reaction to the word “home.” Home denotes the place where one dwells, or the place where one belongs, or the place where one is from. Another definition of home, for many people, is the place from which we are estranged, where we no longer belong, whether through exile or emigration or alienation. In other words, home connotes connection but also disconnection, depending on one’s situation. Literature affords us a means of considering the nature of home from a variety of perspectives. As a literary scholar, much of my recent research involves representations and reimaginings of the Los Angeles River, one of the principal waterways in a metropolitan region home to over 10 million people. One of the premises of this work is that literature can “daylight” the meaning of rivers. A poem, for instance, might help us better understand the nature of a stream as strange as the L.A. River—51 miles of concrete or riprap bed and banks, with occasional islands of soft-bottom and trees, running through the middle of a hyper-developed cityscape. Understanding the river’s nature might inform and even reform our attitude towards the world we inhabit. And this might in turn afford us different ways of responding to “home.”
There are numerous and diverse versions of home up and down the L.A. River. In various places—near the river’s mouth in Long Beach, on islands in Sepulveda Basin, under bridges in San Fernando Valley—homeless human beings have built temporary encampments with tents and tarps. These sites usually allow unofficial access to the waters of the L.A. River, which consist primarily of output from the wastewater treatment system and storm runoff from the surrounding mountains channelized into concrete tributaries. Residents of the camps come to the river to wash up and brush teeth and clean their clothes. Along stretches through municipalities such as Atwater Village and Sherman Oaks, bungalows and apartment buildings line the raised concrete embankment, their gardens reflected in shallow pools. Sturdy fencing or vertical concrete walls separate these communities from the river, although adjacent bikeways often provide a view of the suspect waters below.
Despite these instances of streamside neighborhoods, the river has little to do with what most Angelenos call “home.” Massive flood-control projects of the twentieth century altered the river to such an extent that it was no longer considered a river. The health of the stream steadily declined, and its present engineered state resembles what some consider more of a sewer than a riparian habitat. Although governmental agencies and NGOs (as I write this, the organization Friends of the Los Angeles River is sponsoring the 30th annual clean-up of the river) are working to restore the river’s health, many metropolitan residents persist in deeming it “unnatural.” To do so, to think of the city and “culture” as separate from “nature,” is to accept a certain kind of alienation as part of human history. In that story, we were part of nature a long, long time ago; we belonged in nature, it was once our home. As we became more “civilized,” we increasingly moved away from nature and threw our lot in with “culture.” The strange case of the Los Angeles River—this river that is also not a river, with its peculiar course through history from a prominent feature of an unaltered landscape to an engineered flood control channel—presents an opportunity for reexamining the relationship between “nature” and “culture,” and for finding or at least imagining another way home.
As the place where we began, home is not only a location in space but also a point in time. Exiles, orphans, evictees, aliens, and emigrants had a home once but left it—or it left them, taken away by external forces. Such people have been displaced but perhaps they have also been untimed, disconnected from an important, incipient moment in their personal chronology. Once it has been lost, whether through violent displacement or willful wandering, home, as both a place and a time of beginnings, can seem unrecoverable. What if, however, we could begin again, could learn to think of home in a new way? In addition to being a place and a time, home is a cluster of ideas and feelings. Distinguishing between physical and cognitive structures of home, neuro-anthropologist John S. Allen proposes that “We may understand houses from the outside looking in, but home is made from the inside out.” Humans can “feel” at home in a place or moment in time because we have “home” in mind. For Allen, “since we carry home with us in a cognitive sense, we can reestablish a feeling for home in a new environment.” We each can contribute to the making of home by what we do and how we react to environmental stimuli. Home’s meaning shifts according to the measures by which we make it.
Such measures include qualities like contrast and scale. Allen writes that home is the place where we prepare for and recover from the “outside world.” In other words, home is an inside that contrasts with an outside. The inside can be relatively small or considerably extended. My first home—the house where I lived, but also the town in which the house stood, the state in which the town is found, etc.—acquired its “homeliness” by virtue of what it was: in Allen’s terms, a place where I rested, was restored, and established relationships with others. But my home’s meaning was also derived from what it wasn’t. Home was that small brick house in part because it wasn’t the aluminum-sided house across the street; home was Wyandotte because it wasn’t Trenton; home was Michigan because it wasn’t Ohio or Ontario. The place where time began for me means different things at different levels of scale and means what it does in contrast to the world beyond the boundaries of home as understood at different scales.
Literature provides us with opportunities for redrawing those boundaries. In the book-length poem Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California (2010), Susan Suntree explores the astronomical, geological, and cultural coming-into-being of the place that has long been her “homeland.” Her poem challenges our prevailing notions of home by expanding our sense of history and deepening our sense of place. Imaginatively “remembering” the beginning of time itself and the unfolding processes involved in the shaping of the cosmos, Sacred Sites effectively revises “home” according to a different scale, taking us into the process of the creation of the home-of-all-of-our-homes, a process that began long, long ago and continues today. As the poem travels through layers of time and space to the more recent and more specific—that is, as we reduce in orders of magnitude from the universal to the terrestrial—the Los Angeles River comes more sharply into focus, running through the poet’s homeland. We are reminded that the flow of those waters began ages before humans did; but we are also reminded that the river’s meaning didn’t begin until humans sang about it.
A long and ambitious poem written to tell the history of the creation of the L.A. Basin, Sacred Sites recounts the making of the universe and this planet, the coming of life to the basin, and the thriving of the first peoples to call it home. Suntree’s project consists of two Books contained within a single volume. Book One covers “The Origins of Southern California: Western Science,” and is further divided into six parts that follow a chronological and cosmological course, from the beginnings of “Light, Space, Matter” and “Galaxy, Planet, Moon, Rain” in the first parts to “Southern California Coming” and the appearance of a “Bountiful Homeland” in the last. Book One renders the most recent findings and widely accepted theories of astronomy, chemistry, geology, meteorology, biology into poetic language under a procession of all-cap time signatures, from the “no space” and “no time” before the Big Bang then suddenly, “14 BILLION YEARS AGO,” a “Colossal balloom!” and subsequent “seething radiation” of the “roiling gaseous universe soup.”
Gigaannum follows gigaannum: Ten pages later and “10 BILLION YEARS AGO,” stars begin to form in “a spiral galaxy, by mammals named: The Milky Way.” 5.5 billion years and one page later, the Sun “is born and set in orbit around the galaxy.” The years roll by, from billions to millions to thousands of years ago. “Gravity spins / elemental gas and rocky minerals into planets” and other heavenly bodies. Earth’s tectonic plates shift, cells divide, faults materialize, seas rise and disappear. The first Book ends around 3000 years ago, with waves of humans arriving and mixing in the Southern California sunshine: “From the western Santa Monica Mountains to the Santa Susanas to the Salton Sea / the immigrants mingle with those already here / to become the people of this place.” The concluding pages of “Western Science” emphasize the act of naming. The new peoples name themselves “according to where they live,” and name the villages where they live according to rock formations, tree communities, mountains, or the sound of surf. The land, the people, and their languages combine, producing a song. After a litany of village-names and explanations of their origins, the last line of Book One summarizes the poem’s action thus far and the overall project: “Named, it is home. / Singing its story, the land abides.”
Home is associated with naming, the abiding of place with singing. Throughout Book One, Suntree uses line-breaks, spacing, illustrations, parenthetical comments, elisions, metaphors and other poetic devices to “sing” the land’s “story.” As she explains at the outset in her Author’s Note, the text of both Books is laid out so as to “encourage readers to hear them as though they are listening to a storyteller or singer.” The song as a whole is about the deep past but also the deep present. Home is home because it is named as such; unnamed, it is not yet home. Similarly, through the singing of its story, the land abides. It is less clear who or what sings this story—possibly the same people who named Siutcanga, Tujunga, Hahamonga, and Yanga (all of which sites are identified through reference to the Los Angeles River). But by omitting direct reference to the beings who sang, the sentence leaves open the nature of the singer, suggesting that the land itself might sing its story, or that the people who sing are inseparable from the land that sings. Unsung, the land has no meaning, and cannot endure as “home.” Through singing, home begins, and lasts.
Suntree’s epic poem and other poetry of the L.A. River offer different ways of reacting to the concept of “home,” which might affect reactions to both at-home-ness and homelessness. A recent Los Angeles Daily News article by Ariella Plachta notes that a 2018 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found a 6 percent increase in the transient population of San Fernando Valley. Displaced, momentarily abiding, and usually unnamed, homeless such as Mark Kline (63) and Sharon Rice (60), who have set up a tent in an area known as “The Bamboos” near the river in Sepulveda Basin, essentially occupy “an out-of-sight-out-of-mind-type of environment,” as an LAHSA supervisor put it. Un-homed, people such as Kline and Rice often elude the empathy of their more permanently sheltered counterparts. Psychic numbness casts shadows on the world we occupy, causing us to react in certain ways; homeless people live in some of those shadows. Poetry, however, can shed some light on the situation, on the making and maintaining of home, and in that light, we can perhaps begin to see connections that we otherwise miss, and thus learn to react differently. Suntree’s Sacred Sites complicates our versions of home and those who belong here.
Allen, John S. Home: How Habitat Made Us Human. NY, NY: Basic Books, 2015.
James, William. Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983 (1899).
Plachta, Ariella. “Homeless live in the Sepulveda Flood Basin for seclusion, but winter rains are a crude reminder that ‘The Bamboosʼ is no resort.” Los Angeles Daily News. 4 March 2019.
Suntree, Susan. Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California. University of Nebraska Press, 2010.