I don’t think a body can experience a proper homecoming without first enduring a certain level of homesickness. What better way to return to the setting of one’s birth and childhood, to measure the height of its hills, the well-lit monuments, the pizza joints and train tracks. Some sickness is necessary. A small fever to stoke the imagination, born as it was in that place where you were born and grew. You wonder who you possibly could have been back then. Come a certain age, origin stories are the main myths we seek.
Johannes Hofer, a medical student, was one of the first to define nostalgia. In 1688, he wrote a dissertation that defined it as an affliction of those who had left their home and were at times struck by fond memories. Some were even crippled by the longing that accompanied these memories. Hofer said that acute symptoms were often piqued when the afflicted person was exposed to some sort of trigger that reminded him of home, like a song, a smell, or a certain food. Armies therefore attempted to restrict nostalgic triggers so as not to bring melancholy on the soldiers. These were young men, after all, many of whom were away from home for the first time.
I was born in New Jersey, but then, after finishing high school in 1993, I moved away for college degrees in New York, North Carolina, and Vermont, and then settled in the state capital of Raleigh, North Carolina. Living and learning and writing in North Carolina, I was indeed a poet in a place, but I never quite felt at home there, essentially. Sometime in 2010, in the rising heat of another North Carolina spring, I found myself holding the collected poems of William Carlos Williams, my favorite New Jersey poet, and opening the book spontaneously to To Elsie. I’d read the poem once or twice before, but on this day I felt a new kind of nostalgia—not for New Jersey specifically, but for a place that held the origin stories of my own imagination.
The pure products of America
mountain folk from Kentucky
or the ribbed north end of
with its isolate lakes and
valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
and promiscuity between
devil-may-care men who have taken
out of sheer lust of adventure—
I could picture the landscape of the northern end of the state, those lakes and valleys where I often camped as a child in the state forests along the Appalachian trail. By this time in 2010 I was in a year-to-year teaching job at North Carolina State University. On the day that I stumbled upon To Elsie, I had also scanned an automated job listing and seen an advertisement for a tenure-track position teaching in the northern part of New Jersey. I’d seen lots of academic job postings, had applied unsuccessfully for many of them over the years. This one, however, if it worked out, would mean that I’d be going back home. Could I see myself living in New Jersey again? Didn’t I love some of that life? Didn’t I hate it there growing up? Yes, I had felt hatred of my home state of New Jersey by the time that I left it. I had grown sick of the traffic, the aggressive drivers, the country’s highest per-capita population density, the heaps of dirty snow that lingered on into late winter in parking lot after parking lot after parking lot. Now here I was sick for it. It got to where the smell of an ocean, a well made pizza, Springsteen on vinyl—any of these would trigger my nostalgia.
I applied for the job.
I’ve always read “To Elsie” as a poem-length diagnosis of an American consumerist culture which makes no attempts to establish or keep contact with its roots, its history, leaving it therefore unable to articulate anything meaningful in connection to place, to nature, to the land. The poem’s opening sequence labels a number of “pure products” in its catalogue of grotesque characters both rootless and troubled. Deafness, muteness, isolation, promiscuity, devilishness, lust for adventure. The “sick” people in the poem include, as Dr. Williams suggests, narcissists destined to never move beyond their own interior locations. They are in touch only with themselves, their desires and impulses.
…young slatterns, bathed
from Monday to Saturday
to be tricked out that night
from imaginations which have no
peasant traditions to give them
I am struck by how Williams positions the imagination so front and so central to his argument. I also can’t help but think of childhood. That, plus “the pure products” is an image that recalls, for me, the simple and innocent experiences of young children. Williams himself was a pediatrician, bustling around the nearby towns of Rutherford New Jersey making house calls, treating young patients and delivering babies. When I was a child, I suffered from asthma and had to carry around a little plastic rescue inhaler. As a ten-year-old I thought the word “homesickness” referred to how one felt at home. And whenever I got sick I would lay around thinking that, yes, I am coughing or my throat is sore, but, ultimately, what I have is homesickness. Sick at home.
After seventeen years, having lived for so long 600 miles south of my home state, I had become homesick for the origins of my imagination, for its “peasant traditions,” whose powers had now dimmed in my psyche which had left me stagnating as a poet. The older I got, the more I worried that perhaps I had fallen out of touch with the original spirit and archetypal roots of my imagination. “To Elsie” got me thinking of the place where I was “produced.”
I am the product of what would generally be considered a working class family with plenty of rooted traditions. My Polish people came from farms before settling into a suburban town with a main street that spoke their language in half of the shops. My Italian ancestors likewise moved from the country before finally settling in a brick row house in a mostly Italian town (later my parents would settle us in a slightly more suburban spot). The snippets of Polish and Italian that I learned, having grown up hearing my grandparents speak in other languages, would effectively die out with my parents’ generation who were more interested in assimilating than continuing to speak languages that would only serve to alienate them from their peers.
In my childhood home there were only a few handfuls of books, most notably the World Book encyclopedias from the year of my birth. These encyclopedias contained vivid maps that were printed on clear plastic pages, and one could view them separately or as a single, many-layered image. Mountains, lakes, cities, all layered in the book so as to form one larger final map when viewed as a whole. In my 30s I worried about losing the individual layers added up in the imagination on top of that first, original layer. All poets are at some point homesick for the purity of their childhood creations. The origin story recaptured and expressed through the faculties of adult expression. The tiny war-theaters I sculpted in the dirt where my plastic, green army men stood ready for battle perched on piles of earth. The gigantic yellow-jacket nest left to grow in a second story loft of our barn—our family battled it for weeks before I was allowed to haul it to school for show-and-tell (it was marvelous, the size of a laundry basket). That was also the summer I decided to smash with a hammer my precious matchbox cars so as to finally and ultimately get a look at how they were made, and what they would look like after a serious accident. And in between were the countless crayfish and millions of minnows of boyhood. All of these pure and unadulterated scraps.
After reading To Elsie I realized that I was homesick not for my modest childhood house, but for my own imagination’s peasant traditions, which had first taken root in the wilds of my childhood head. From as far back as I can remember I answered the ubiquitous question all children are asked by well-meaning adults with, “Artist. I want to be an artist when I grow up.” Drawing and sketching most days under the dining room table I grew lonely, as I suspect most kids do from time to time. If I wasn’t drawing I was outside from dawn to dusk, in the woods, on my bike, or playing sports. As an adult, now, I miss the spontaneity and gusto with which, whenever I was outdoors, I hurled my small body at whatever was in front of it.
Early summer in Raleigh means it’s already hot. It was June of 2010 when I stepped outside between classes on campus and, checking my cellphone, saw that I’d missed a call from the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at William Paterson University. She was calling to offer me the job as Assistant Professor of English, teaching less than a mile from the Great Falls of Paterson, NJ. I was moving home.
…and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth
while the imagination strains
going by fields of goldenrod
in the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us
It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off
and adjust, no one to drive the car.
As poets, we are always “straining after” the images that may sustain us. If we are lucky, these images will mingle with the unconscious, the archetypal, the idiosyncratic nature of our individual perception and we will produce a worthwhile poem. A writer out of touch with this “traditional” part of her psyche is a homesick writer. I know this because I have been back “home” for a few years now and I remain homesick—not for the places of my youth (many of which I have since revisited), but for what I witnessed as child and still cannot express.
There is a case to be made that, in “To Elsie,” Williams is grandstanding for (the making of) poetry itself throughout the poem. He is charting the symptoms of a poetry deficiency (some of us are gravely ill!). Maybe one can recalibrate the compass for one’s imaginative north and use that to recalibrate the senses and, ultimately, one’s art? Until then, one may be unable to fully “witness and adjust” beyond the “isolate flecks” given off. Alas, meaning arrives slowly because of all our movement. Home, then away. Life somewhere else for awhile.
Christopher Salerno is an American Poet, Editor of Saturnalia Books, and Associate Professor of English at William Paterson University. He is the author of four poetry collections. His most recent book, Sun & Urn, was selected by Thomas Lux for the Georgia Poetry Prize and will be published in early 2017 by the University of Georgia Press. ATM, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2013 Georgetown Review Poetry Prize, was published in 2014. His second book, Minimum Heroic, was selected by Dara Wier for the Mississippi Review Poetry Prize in 2010. Other honors include the 2013 Midwest/Laurel Review Prize for a chapbook of poems, Automatic Teller, as well as a 2014 NJ State Council on the Arts Fellowship Grant. His first book of poems, Whirligig, was published by Spuyten Duyvil Publishing House (NY) in 2006.