Place plays a substantial role in establishing environment. Place can be used as a metaphor to define abstractions, as a backdrop that can help set tone or even as a character which can enhance movement and increase tension. Utilizing a sense of place can be an important factor in building depth in a poem and can be a significant tool for the development of characters.
For instance, in the opening poem “Cheap Gold Flats” the title alone gives the reader some sense of style for this neighborhood. And even though the poem begins in a neighborhood bar, the image of those “cheap gold flats” seems to hang in the air waiting for recognition. This is a two-part poem, “Part 1.” Philly Babylon” opens with the bartender and whether or not the reader has ever been in one of these neighborhood bars doesn’t matter, Di Piero very effectively sets tone and place by appealing to the senses:
“The bartender tossing cans, carton to cooler,
hand to hand, with silky, mortal ease,
while the 4 p.m. beer and shot standees
study the voiceless TV above our heads.
The worst and longest storm on record.
Iceworks canal the pavements, power lines down,
Cars pillowed helpless in the snow.
Bus fumes vulcanize the twilight’s
911 sirens” (3)
The reader can almost hear the clink of aluminum as the bartender tosses the cans, see them gliding as if he or she has watched the bartender perform this trick many times. The standees at the bar watch the voiceless TV as if this is a sacred place, which sets up the bar as if it were a sanctuary. We learn there is a storm. The wording here is particular “longest storm on record” not the worst, or the most snowfall, not even the greatest amount of damage, just simply the “longest.” Power lines are down, cars are “pillowed” which brings the drifts of snowed-in cars into a soft focus of airy snowdrifts with powdery white snow piled upon cars, angelic if form. The terms used to describe the storm and the setting does a lot to increase the feeling of seclusion in this opening section even though there is a group here there is little interaction among the characters.
“enter HAZEL, touching my elbow at the bar.
My Staticky Daily News breaks into the draft.
‘What’s my horoscope say today, honey?’
Dear Hazel, dear Pisces, don’t be hurt
Leave me alone a while, my mother’s dying,
I’ve been beside her bed for several days” (3)
This intimate moment in which Hazel speaks to him and touches his elbow creates an interesting transition by breaking the silence with speech and continues with an unexpected insertion of the horoscope. This is such a great sarcastic break not only of the silence in the bar but lets the reader into the state of mind of the narrator. The reader finds out that his mother is dying without leaning on sentimentality. This line also reveals something more about the narrator himself. Di Piero pulls from the anger and hopelessness someone would feel about the eminent death of a mother: the seeking of isolation, the anger, the want to crawl into some sort of escape. The storm, the icy pavement and power outages now become a metaphor for not only the death of his mother, but the narrators state of mind as well. The chill he is feeling and the silence of the people standing in the bar watching the voiceless TV seem more significant now that we know he is in the midst of this crisis. This setting of the bar becomes a silent refuge for him until the solitude is broken by this sympathetic “touching” of his elbow. He no longer can escape the emotions that he is holding in and they begin to come out on the page.
“and when she looks above her head, she groans
to see whatever it is she sees, so here,
take my paper, go home, forgive me.”
This passage does a few things. The mother looking up at some voiceless, soundless image harkens back to the men standing at the bar staring at the TV set. The “go home, forgive me” holds a double meaning. On one hand he could be talking to Hazel, on the other he could also be talking to his mother. The progression of place (the bar), the setting, (silent people standing around, frozen from the storm) and the actual emotional event the narrator is experiencing (his mother dying) all interconnect and foreshadow. Place becomes a character as important as the narrator, the other occupants of the bar, Hazel and his dying mother.
In “Oregon Avenue on a Good Day” Di Piero also uses the senses to set place but in this poem he relies on taste and smell to set up this memory in which place becomes a concrete character.
“Some nights I dream the taste
of pitch and bus fumes and leaf meal
from my old exacting street.
This time home, I’m walking to find
I don’t know what. Something always
offers itself while I’m not watching.”
And then onto:
“enameled aluminum siding, brick,
spangled stonework, fake fieldstone
and clapboard, leftover santa lights,
casements trimmed in yellow fiberglass
our common dream of the all
and the only this, that’s exactly
what I can’t find.”
“husband and wife inside, plus kids, suppertime,
pine paneling where scratchy exterior light
rises sweetly above a TV voice.”
Place is as much a memory as a search for something the narrator cannot find or cannot regain. I find it interesting that in this poem the TV has a voice. The scene of the family having dinner has sound and a connection, unlike ‘Cheap Gold Flats” where the TV is voiceless. I like the idea of “a scratchy exterior light” The use of “scratchy” to describe the light shifts the feeling of this section into a completely different texture. This ‘scratchy” light from the exterior seems to be an intrusion into a memory diluted by time that threatens to “shed light” on this illusive thing he believes he has lost; the thing he longs for that may only exist in memory and not in the true reality.
The poem “Hermes: Port Authority: His Song.” begins with the use of specific regional speech. The opening line is a type of hustler street-speak. Using a regionalism like this to open a poem is another way to set up place. The reader understands that this is happening in a city bus terminal and the character takes on a distinctiveness based on the idea of setting him in a city environment.
“Hey, mister, find a bus for you?
I burn my tracks, I stink.
I lay down in the dust.
“A dollar’s good. A quarter, too.
Any bus will do.
Wee got them all. There’s Teaneck,
The Oranges and Hackensack.
Atlantic City too.”
“”I’ll sell you pussy, nookie,
what you will. I’ll soap
your goodies in the men’s room sink.
O play me how you will.
Sleep tight. God speed your bus.
A dollar, quarter, dime will do.”
This modern day Hermes is a very different messenger of the gods. This is the voice of no place. This is the voice of invisible existence and of things unseen. People ignore these unwanted, grittier people within all cities. This may be why the cities are named instead of described; this creates a namelessness that is created by treating places as well as people in this way. As if this new voice of Hermes is a universal telling of how all things have become: nameless, faceless, and disregarded. This is the voice of the hopeless and lost.
Di Piero’s use of place as a character in Skirts and Slacks acts as another dimension for the characters and narrators to inhabit. Place not only begins to embody the character’s development but helps the reader to identify with even the most complex characters by giving the reader a solid anchor. But foremost in creating this place are the language choices that Di Piero embodies in these poems. This sense of collision that surrounds his characters is not limited to place alone.
In “Pocketbooks and Sauerkraut” an essay from City Dog, Di Piero states that: “What my culture did give me was a sense…of language as the embodiment of contingency … but language … was swampy, crazily shadowed, and veined with unintelligible matter.” (43). Di Piero has created place in these poems from this “swampy, crazily shadowed and veined” language, and as a result, place becomes not only a naturally occurring extension of character but a solidly formed presence which acts as a character in itself to enhance and support the actions of the narrator and other characters in his poems.
Natasha Tretheway’s domestic work, on the other hand, uses place in a very different way. Place in Tretheway’s poems is internalized by her characters. It is a sense that is carried within their movements. By using place as an internalized characteristic, she is able to create a persona that is expressed through the characters sense of their place in the world. In the opening poem of the collection, “Gesture of a Woman-in-Process” even the things around these women are part of them:
“Around them, their dailiness:
clotheslines sagged with linens,
a patch of greens and yams,
buckets of peas for shelling.”
“Even now, her hands circling,
the white blur of her apron
still in motion.” (3)
The women are consumed as a part of the things that make up this place. “Their dailiness”; “the white blur of her apron”; the “buckets of peas for shelling.” All of these things speak to their work. There is little shared that is personal about these women. The chores they perform, the place that they perform it in and how they go about their day is interwoven into who they are. This truly epitomizes the idea of “I am what I do.”
In “Domestic Work, 1937” The woman in the poem varies her movements and her temperament depending on place. Although she is doing the same work, her demeanor changes according to where she is:
“All week she’s cleaned
someone else’s house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper-
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she’d pull
the lid to.”
But when she is at home doing the same work:
“a record spinning
on the console, the whole house
dancing. She raises the shades,
washes the room in light.”
“She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.” (13)
It becomes very clear that place is internalized into her actions. Her demeanor, her lightness is apparent in her own home, so different from her demeanor in the house of her employer. There is a joy apparent in the duties performed at home that are not present when she performs these things in the house of her employer.
In “Three Photographs” Thretheway uses place as a subjective part of her characters.
In “1. Daybook April 1901” she uses the narrative voice of the photographer who begins:
‘What luck to find them here!”
This line turns them into objects within the photograph. Who they are does not matter. They are used merely as reference points to complete the photograph:
“two negro men, clothes like church,
collecting flowers in a wood.”
‘a blessing though their faces
hold little emotion. And yet,
they make such good subjects.
Always easy to pose.”
Even when she speaks of framing, it is still focused on the men in the photograph:
“how well this arbor frames
my shot—an intimate setting,
the bough nestling us
like brothers, How fortunate still
to have found them here
instead of farther along
by that old cemetery,” (6)
They are not positioned within the things in the photograph; the things in the photograph are positioned around them. It’s as if as objects they hold more significance for the photographer. Flowers in a field would be incidental in a shot of an elaborate vista point so it seems that the men in this photograph are only necessary in order to capture the true nature of the “bough” or the “old cemetery.”
In “2. Cabbage Vendor” the focus is once again how this narrator does his/her work:
“When I’m in my garden
tearing these cabbages
from earth, hearing them scream
at the break, my fingers
brown as dirt—that’s natural.”
The narrator labels this work as being natural. Later, when the narrator speaks of the photograph it becomes the unnatural thing:
“But he will keep my picture,
unnatural like hoodoo love.
I could work a root of my own,
Turn that thing around
And make him see himself
Like he be seeing me—
Distant and small—forever.” (7)
The idea that working the ground, pulling the vegetables is more the natural thing than her reflection in a picture is interesting in this passage. It brings again to mind the adage “I am what I do” which carries into the third and final portion of the poem: “3. Wash Women.” The narrator in this poem is looking at the picture. There is a different sense here as if the narrator’s connection stems from something other than familiarity. There is a communal sense of history and an understanding of that history that shifts between the narrator and the subjects in the photograph.
“The eyes of eight women
I don’t know
Stare out from this photograph
The description of the work is supposed. This is a much more somber poem than previous poems in this collection. This poem gives the reader a more intensely disconnected feel. The women simply stare. The narrator supposes the lightness and joy in the chores but the faces of the women seem to tell another story.
“I picture wash day:”
“I hear laughter,
three sisters speaking
of penny drinks, streetcars,
the movie house. A woman
like my grandmother rubs linens
against the washboard ribs,
hymns grow in her throat.” (8)
The narrator is giving us an imagined idea of these women working. It repeats the image of joyful work that we have seen in other poems in the collection until the poem comes to the final stanza:
“But in this photograph,
women do not smile,
their lips a steady line
connecting each quiet face.’ (9)
This is the first hint that this is not happy work. This is the first time the sense of these women is different from the outer expression they portray. They are “a steady line connecting each quiet face” which tells the reader that this internalized place is dark, prison-like and inescapable.
I find it significant that Thretheway uses place in this way. Many of the portraits in this collection are displaced persons. Slaves that do not belong to the homes they inhabit or the jobs they are perform. They seem to carry a sense of belonging only to themselves because of this displacement. They have been forced to fade into the background to survive and so in a sense they have become part of the place they inhabit. This is more of a social commentary than it first appears. In some ways, this idea of belonging to self and contented abiding within seems a very zen-like thing. But when the reality of slavery is considered this becomes a much different perspective. The fact that the people in the pictures are regarded as owned objects is significant. When viewed this way, the expressions on the faces in this picture become a reminder not merely of displacement, but of ownership. Slaves were often listed on manifests along with other “owned” objects: houses, furniture, china, bales of hay, acres of land and heads of cattle. Family members “willed” slaves to other family members at death and often used slaves to settle debts and disputes among landowners, trading them as if they were mere objects. So in effect, the only place for these women to have any power or strength is to revert to something internal that cannot be taken away from them.
The differences in the way Di Piero and Tretheway use place enhances the characters and the settings in each of their collections. Di Piero’s poems are city poems. They have a beat and a strut, which narrates a type of separation from place so that it becomes something that enhances the poems as a separate character. Tretheway‘s characters don’t belong to the places they inhabit, so they carry these places inside themselves whereas Di Piero’s characters, imprisoned by their own actions, emotions and choices, pull out of the scenery around them like a 3-D image.