This is the second in an ongoing series of blog posts about the poetry of place. Upcoming posts will focus on factories, mine fires, canyons, South Africa, and Oklahoma.
My favorite place in the world is Carlsbad Caverns, early in the morning, before the crowds arrive, after hiking down the 750+ foot trail. Of the four times I’ve been to the Caverns, three fell during the time the elevator that ferries people down from the surface was out of order, which meant that in addition to hiking down, I knew I’d have to hike up.
I am most at home lounging in my bed with my cats, watching Netflix on my computer, and compulsively checking Facebook. I am not regularly hiking what is described as a “strenuous, steep” path uphill for any period of time. And I confess, each time I hiked Carlsbad Caverns, I was wheezing and sweating despite the coolness of the cave, stopping every few hundred feet to catch my breath. But to be in this place that let me be part of its sanctity, a natural sanctuary, and to use my body to climb out of it—that felt like worship.
How do I relate this to poetry? When I was young, my family attended a fundamentalist church at least three days per week, and because my parents held various leadership positions, we often spent all day there. I grew up in sanctuaries where I made tunnels of church chairs and played hide-and-seek in their shadows. I made that space my own as much as I could, though I never once thought to climb the pulpit.
Now, as an adult removed from that world, and as a poet, I see the ways that pulpit was designed to keep me off of it. And because so much of my young life was consumed by religious exercise and fervor, these are the metaphors I know, no matter how far an uphill climb it is to use them effectively and without guilt.
The first time I went to Carlsbad, the very first thing I heard once I entered the famous Big Room was a small child pulled along by his arm, asking his mother, “Why are we moving so fast? It’s so beautiful.” Writing, for me, is slow going. There is much wheezing and sweating, and even more sitting still, balking at the task in front of me. In those quiet spaces of doubt, however, the earth underneath the earth unfurls itself. The water drips down from the ceiling, drop by drop, creating.
All images courtesy Sarah Gzemski.