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.

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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.

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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.

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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.