Friday, February 1, 2013

Patrick Whitfill—It's Nothing, Really


                                                                   And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.                                                          —Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"                                                                    

I grew up in Plainview, down the road from Brownfield, which sits about twenty miles east of Levelland. The county I grew up in is Hale County. The town in the center of Hale County is Hale Center. Move in any direction in the Texas Panhandle, and the names of cities and towns reflect the predominant culture, which is another way of saying that the predominant culture in Plainview doesn’t exist. It’s important to invent one, and to do it as soon as possible.

*

Literalness and nothingness are the two most common traits of life in West Texas, with its endless vistas of flatlands, its repetitions of the same extended corn field, cotton field, corn field. This sameness breeds restlessness, boredom. Some nights, maybe after a basketball game, I’d look up and find myself parked on a turnrow between two cotton fields, burning ditch brush, trying to smoke a cigarette and drink a beer the way they do in bad movies. I watched a lot of bad movies.

*

We’re literal back home because we have to be. We keep things in the realm of the real because it helps us to believe we have some grasp of the country we inhabit and attempt to tame. Live there for a year, though, or even just a few months, and you’ll see how quickly West Texas starts a fight. The landscape makes the rules, and we pretend we have control. When that doesn’t work—and it never does—we throw up tents and beg, calling it a revival.

*

In poetry, I’m drawn to limits, boundaries and rules. Maybe I have an odd relationship toward hegemony, but I think that was passed down to me, almost genetically, like the need to talk to myself to figure things out. Form, for me—especially closed, received forms—gives me enough structure to make me feel comfortable. Write a stanza of a sestina, and you’ve set the rules. Once you have the rules, you get to cheat.

*

ForPlainview, TX: A Double-Take” began as a crown that simpered away and died at the fourth sonnet. Once I realized I didn’t have another sonnet left on the topic, I started to go into the earlier sonnets and steal my own lines and language. I moved the point of view from first person plural to second person. Originally, I had four “takes” on Plainview, and, as it stood then, each take digressed into syntactical confusion and odd amalgamations. I stopped then, looked again, and found that I had started to write the way I perceive the landscape back home, with a mixture of repeated images coupled with sudden, unexpected variety. That felt like home to me, that variation of the repeatable norm. I cleaned out the middle two “takes,” combined the parts I thought were strongest, and turned into a “double-take.”

*

Go out at night in Plainview, in Pampa, in Canyon, maybe after the rodeo, when the cowboys and bull riders are in town, and you’ll get a sense of the surreal, the ten-gallon hats, the horses trotting up 5th Street at midnight. Unless you’ve lived there long enough to understand that what we call normal isn’t a constant, it may strike you as odd, or, maybe antiquated. But isn’t normal just an agreement, a cultural contract?  In these poems, I wanted to mimic that sense of the acceptably odd, to show how different normal can get.

*

Sestinas fascinate me much the same way rodeo clowns do. In some ways, they have the same issues. Read Donald Justice’s “A Dream,” Carrie Jerrell’s “The Country-Western Singer’s Ex-Wife, Sober in Mendocino County, California,” any of the sestinas in Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox, or Derrick Austin’s “Blaxploitation,” and you’ll see poets playing with variation, bending the rules while stringing a narrative through the formal requirements. When a good sestina dodges that impossibly huge beast, boredom, it has me on my feet, cheering. Do it wrong, and something’s going to show up on your blindside and gore you with its horn.

*

ForPlainview, TX: A Double Take,” “Song for the Rodeo,” and “Curry” are a testament to living most of my life in a landscape composed in equal parts of the nothing that is there and the nothing that is not. Form separates the two, points down the line and says this one can cross over, this one cannot. On occasion, though, some impulse sneaks over. You fall in love with it a little, give it a name. You buy it something pretty. Carry it with you all the way home.

5 comments:

  1. These poems ring with great poignance and clarity. I live in central Maine, sometimes known as "Texas of the North." More trees, more snow, less dust. But also vast and lonely and literal. It's good to see such writing: human and landscape as tonal variants. Thank you.

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  2. And the absurd courage of epic that today you only get to experience live in so called 'primitive' societies like the horseman wrestlers of Mongolia, or the midnight road racers on the streets of Bangkok, girls, blood and all, or the bare-fisted professional fighters in Asia's country bazaars so battered by their courage their own eyes don't know where to look -- or East-side Story, if we dare to admit there are still places where you fight because that's what you do, and I don't mean just in Chicago but in Oslo, Kabul, Timbuctoo and Paris. But no community gets closer than the American rodeo riders in Patrick Whitfield's poem -- who haven't changed a jot since steer-roping and wrangling were as real as Grendel's mother.

    And still are, both in the heroic worlds Patrick Whitfield evokes in these poems and, even more so, in his timeless, gold-leaf language -- "shot in the parts that count!"

    Christopher

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  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    I've never been that far north, Dawn, to see Maine. I once drove to New York from Plainview, and that was my first experience with trees. Those "tonal variants" that you mention, yeah, absolutely. I remember back in grad school listening to Barry Lopez when he came through and gave his lecture on place and meaning. He said something that stuck with me ever since; that, in his dealings with indigenous people, he had heard more than one person say that the saddest thing about Westerners is that we have no sense of home. We don't stay in one place long enough to get to know it the way we could. I think I remember that quote because I took it personally and, personally speaking, it didn't apply. I lived in a stretch of 90 miles across West Texas for 30 years, and "tonal variants" describes that experience exactly. In fact, that's what I'm going for in all of my poems, all of the time: trying to capture that sense of the slight differentation from one hour to the next that happens on the plains.

    And, yeah, Christopher, I always try to forget about the violence in the rodeos, in West Texas, but I never fully can. In Plainview, up until just the other day, we had one of the largest meat packing facilities in the States. Words like "kill-floor" and "cattle-hooks" were common topics of conversation. When I first watched NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the weapon Chigur uses, it immediately reminded me of home. It wasn't even that long ago when the Boy Scouts would take the kids down to the kill-floor to watch it all happen. When I worked at the bank as a teller during college, the employees would come in on payday and cash their checks, the corners where they folded them up spattered with bloody fingerprints.

    And we cashed those checks, too. After a couple of months, I didn't even notice it, or, didn't notice it enough to let it bother me.

    And the rodeo's so much of the same, except more stylized, in some ways. More dangerous, too. But that's home. It's all over the place growing up, that teeming violence. When I was finishing high school, we broke into the rodeo grounds and someone--I don't know who anymore--fixed it so that we could hit the main lights. There were about a hundred of us there, drinking Coors and doing any kind of tobacco the stores would sell us. We had gone to watch a kid name Zach fight a kid named Jacob. It lasted about twenty minutes, the fight did. Jacob left blinded in his left eye. Far as I know, it was permanent.

    But that's home, too. And it wasn't new when we did it. And it's probably going on right now. It's brutal and honest and terrible, and somedays--not many, of course--I really miss it.

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  4. Dear Patrick,
    Many thanks for that wonderful riff on the bleakness of life in a local community with nothing whatever to make a person feel distinct what is more to make anyone feel noteworthy. The irony is that the cultures that have the least number of landmarks, waypoints, and, to put it bluntly, history usually have the richest myth-life of all. Try the little Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, for example, or the Lapps of the Arctic -- or right now the Tuareg warriors in the wastes of Mali. Then you'll know why the Arabs are such a force in the world today, and why they know not only exactly who they are but why they're so superior -- like God, like their God, like the True Spirit that makes even the most over-looked individual know who he or she really is, and what needs to be done.

    To be human is to be heroic, and if you're not given any worthwhile challenges by your home town or your society you'll make a myth that matters and, more often than not, that myth will involve blood shed, self-testing, and revenge. Then, if you survive, you can begin to say -- No, that's not what I meant at all.

    ~

    Thanks for the poetry that gives me the opportunity to say that, Patrick.

    Christopher

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  5. Dear Everybody,
    I spent all day yesterday trying to figure out how to "withdraw" my last comment -- with no success, alas.

    I'm a huge admirer of the Arabs, and it never occurred to me that people might think it was demeaning to place them in the company of Bushmen, Lapps, and Tuaregs, who are for me among the noblest human beings that have ever lived. Had I said Samurai, or Pioneers, or Desert Fathers, I would have been safe, as I think we all share an admiration for that sort of integrity, courage and independence. But I was talking about peoples whose cultures have been forged in harsh, featureless landscapes, and specifically about how such people tend to develop richer inner landscapes instead. I also suggested that such people tend to develop a closer relationship with God than those who grow up in more favorable environments, and a closer relationship to God in a hostile environment epic.

    The rest still makes sense to me, though how to reconcile all that with Patrick's account of the slaughterhouse in Plainview takes some work. The exigencies of the sestina, on the other hand, fit in perfectly -- like scrimshaw lost in the wastes of the Pacific, or Inuit artifice in the ice.

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