THE SUNDAY POEM
Miriam Sagan Explores Seven Places in America
by Michelle Aldredge
“Miriam Sagan’s Seven Places is a lovely collection of verbal souvenirs, resonant snapshots plumbing the mists, the touches, the footfalls that evoke place,” writes art critic Lucy Lippard. “Before I started reading I knew some of these places. Now I know them all. I can walk there.”
Art has the ability to make the familiar new again, and this is particularly true of the places we inhabit and take for granted in everyday life. Artists and writers, whether local residents or visitors, can remind us of the special qualities of a specific landscape.
As the poems and essays in Seven Places in America show, every place contains layers of meaning, created by memory, history, culture, and topography. While native cultures saw the sacred in everyday sites, as evidenced in the mounds they built, American industrialists saw the commercial value of the same land, and responded by building canals, locks, and dams. A farmer will not see his town through the same lens as a store owner. And as Lucy Lippard points out in her fascinating book The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, even gender affects our relationship to place. “Women, when alone with nature, are subject to a particularly contradictory experience,” writes Lippard, “liberating on one hand, threatening on the other.”
Seven Places in America: A Poetic Sojourn is the result of Miriam Sagan's travels and "her journey to create a land-based or site-specific poetry."
"Some journeys took me more than a thousand miles, some just a few hours. But all were forays into the unknown," she writes in the introduction of her book:
"As a writer, I was looking for the freshness of seeing things in a new way. As a middle-aged woman, I was looking for a sense of self outside of my roles as mother, wife, daughter, and teacher. At times I didn’t know what I was looking for, and at times I was a pilgrim on a quest. On all my journeys I was looking for borderlines, most particularly the border that earthwork artist Robert Smithson called the 'slurb'—the border between the suburban and the wild."
In 2006 Sagan was a writer-in-residence at Everglades National Park, followed by a residency at THE LAND/An Art Site in Mountainair, New Mexico. "I began with a long poem which then resulted in a low-impact sculpture, a poetry pamphlet and postcard, and several lectures in galleries and academic settings." This was followed by a 2009 residency in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
Miriam Sagan at Fridgehenge at the Santa Fe dump (Photo by Hope Atterbury)
Here is Miriam describing the project:
"Alone, I was bolder and also more self-indulgent than within my family. I could drive long distances by myself, and also eat something odd for supper at 4 pm. It was a delightful benefit to become reacquainted with a kind of essential self. This self was at home in unfamiliar surroundings, developing in quiet and darkness."
"It wasn’t always easy to explain what I was doing. Some of my friends loved to hike and camp in nature, but I wasn’t doing that. Writers I knew enjoyed the leisure and pleasant surroundings of an artist’s colony, but this was different than that as well. People would ask me if I was frightened—presumably of something like an alligator or the company of my own mind. Implied too in the questions was the implication that the questioner would be bored to death doing this. But that was what I sought—a simple, even funky, habitation where I could be alone."
“'Where is the nearest jelly doughnut?'” my father wanted to know when I called him from the Everglades. I found this amusing, because not everyone considers the doughnut to be an indicator of civilization. But my father and I are both fond of them. The nearest jelly doughnut might be in a box in my temporary kitchen, at the end of Flamingo, in Gallup or Holbrook, at a country store or a local farmers’ market, at a fast food place in exurbia or the Dunkin Doughnuts a few blocks from my usual house."
"It is not possible to shed the old self just by changing geography. But it is possible to expand that self so it includes not just a jelly doughnut but a more permeable boundary between self and landscape—the terrain of a poem."
On the Erie Canal, "Aqueduct in winter, Little Falls, N.Y." / W. M. Tucker -- From: Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views, Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library.
As someone who shares Miriam's fascination with the Erie Canal, ancient burial mounds, and oddball tourist traps, I enjoyed all of the seven locations described in Sagan's book, but I particularly liked her poems about the Everglades. Here is Sagan's poem "Native" (a Sunday Poem bonus only for subscribers):
does not belong
not just the proverbial snake
liberated from a pet store
to stalk the glade
eventually too big
for stork to eat
competes for nests
with the local fish
bear, turtle, panther
molded from mud
into the Fourth World
climb from the pit into air
I also come from elsewhere
This special Sunday Poem article on Sagan’s Seven Places in America explores these ideas of landscape, time, history, and geography through poems about the Erie Canal, Everglades, Petrified Forest, burial mounds, and more.
I’ve also included a few, carefully curated photographs to accompany Miriam’s work. I discovered the work of photographers Lisa Elmaleh and William Henry Jackson during my visit to New Orleans and am glad to share some of their work here.
Read six poems from Miriam Sagan's Seven Places in America and see the photos I selected to accompany the feature right here at Gwarlingo.
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Barry Underwood is offering a special, Gwarlingo edition of MacDowell (Theatre). Only a few archival pigment prints remain, and one of them could be yours for a $300 donation (well below market value).
Last Chance to Own This Special Edition Print by Barry Underwood
While photographers like Edward Burtynsky, Robert Adams, and Joe Deal have produced straightforward documentary images of environmental damage, Barry Underwood’s unique combination of photography and site-specific installation art represents a highly original, 21st-century approach to the tradition of landscape photography. Underwood re-imagines an ordinary landscape in the same way a brilliant cinematographer or set designer can turn an everyday moment into a memorable, visual experience. (Think Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Richard Long meets Ansel Adams.)
Inspired by land art, cinema, and landscape painting, Underwood’s photographs are both surreal and familiar. His landscapes emit an eerie, alien beauty, but it’s impossible to know if these strange scenes are the result of some natural phenomenon or, instead, the result of some terrible environmental disaster caused by humans.
Many of Underwood’s installations are created at artist residency programs, such as Banff, The MacDowell Colony, and Headlands Center for the Arts. This particular installation was created and photographed at the amphitheater at The MacDowell Colony.
Barry is offering a special, Gwarlingo edition of MacDowell (Theatre). Only a few archival pigment prints remain, and one of them could be yours for a $300 donation (well below market value). This unframed photograph (seen above) is printed on 17″ x 22″ FineArt Baryta paper. The actual image is 16″ x 20.25″. This is a limited-edition print available only to Gwarlingo supporters.
Support Gwarlingo and collect a special-edition photograph in the process. MacDowell (Theatre) would also make a great holiday gift! Thanks to Barry Underwood for donating his work to Gwarlingo.
Click here to purchase this special-edition print online or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org before the remaining few prints are sold out!
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