Where Do You Come From?
me preguntáis de dónde vengo . . . .
Back before I ever lived anywhere
would have called a town,
a place with a traffic light-street
lamps at least, ones that kept going on
past the point where the only streets
kissed like the two spokes of a crucifix-
I thought, looking down roads like
that I was seeing past and future both.
I think I know that I was not yet seven.
Streets were what I
still called "roads."
"Towns," I thought, were where the streets
had numbers. Where
there were cross-
streets. More than a few. And numbered, too.
So you could live at 5th and 10th,
pretend your house a dime store
like the Woolworth's down by the river
where all the shops were, though here
the kids who gathered, threw
went missing. But no one was ever lost.
it because not enough important
people died yet that our schools were named
only for the four winds? (Mine was
East School, one of those compass points
on which arithmetic and alphabet
unscrolled across an abacus of streets.)
The towns around us, we were taught,
comprised a proud presidential stew-
Madison, Jefferson, Monroe-but
no football pride yet stirred, when asked
where we were from, we'd ladle out
a county name, a township's, even.
Or else, because why not, we lied.
was back, that is, when roads
were still roads and not highways,
were dirt or gravel, had names,
if they had
names at all,
like Route OP or QE-
key-wrecks on a manual
typewriter you would one day
try to teach
to master, using every finger.
the fields of corn where
no road went were shacks,
a "shantytown" you'd call it now,
to which you
never went, never
really even dreamed of going.
Where migrant workers stayed.
"Stayed" is what you
not "lived. "Stayed" is how you
learned what "migrant" meant,
from what people said.
Meanwhile you picked asparagus
on your own, from roadside clutches
before all the roads got paved
and broad-band herbicides
put an end
to wayside growing.
You collected morels of your own
in places only locals knew. That's
what you thought that
were, ones who could cross
or leave a field the way
they entered it, without fear
buckshot, and find there
things no market ever sold.
Once a month at school you chewed
a goiter tablet: an acrid, anise-y
sweetness-not bad, in fact. But why?
"To Protect Against
Deficiencies of Iodine
Among the Inland
No one had yet thought to add
iodine to salt. And the only margarine
was white. Dyeing oleo
to better resemble butter
was still illegal in
(Some things can be understood
only after you have lived
close to sweet corn.)
Into this world my mother was hurled
the same day Leo Tolstoy froze to death-
she in a rural Green
without heat, he ouside the Asfapovo station
waiting for a train, like the one bringing
Cendrars and the twentieth century
from Paris to Siberia. By the clock
it was 8 A.M. Both places. But time
back then. When the hands
of Julian and Gregorian time
pressed together, days were lost.
Still, it was snowing.
At his death Tolstoy was the same age
she would be the year she died,
baptized and confirmed and married
all by the same Wisconsin pastor,
German-speaking radical evangelical
refugee from Switzerland (as Blaise
was, as her parents were)-her birth,
his death, both coming (though my knowing it
lay fifty years more in coming)
a single month before human nature
changed forever, or so postulated
Virginia's calendar of the new century.
Where we lived
when we were
we lived on
the land, they'd
ground on which
plots these were
(they said) for
those bound for
who counted backed it-
the return to wartime time-
and so Wisconsin buckled:
daylight savings came.
came back anyway.
But at first it came back
one state only, sometimes
one county only, at a time.
in Ohio, a thirty-minute
trip for groceries took you
though four time zones.
And the farmers never really
got on board. Why not? A)
it meant you milked both times
in darkness. B) it smelled of
Commie plots, like
fluoride to toothpaste-or,
what's next, drinking water?
C) it meant that schoolchildren
in subzero darkness
waiting for their buses to arrive
on new paved roads where cars
were going fast, so fast,
(don't you know?) these days. . .
And then we moved to a place
where all the schools
We lived on the far Eastside
on a corner lot opposite the new,
the one and only, high school
(it had a football team), built two years
before our house. And that's as
far as our town-okay, city-went.
A steep ridge behind the school
marked the place where the prairie
found itself again, its black glacial
continuing to plow yards
deep, and a hundred miles more,
into Lake Michigan. Summer before
my senior year
I worked the crew
that built the streets that went beyond
my school that sent me another
thousand or so
1910: year of my mother's birth,
and 90% of North Americans
were rural. Now only 3%
can be said
to "live on the land."
Perhaps that is partly why
half our states suffer sizable
populations of feral
none more so than Texas.
My buddy Beggsy took me up
to Mustang Ridge, a fossil name
in the onomasticon
but a place with sound if not sight
range of the new municipal
airport, carved from the bones
an old SAC base with ICBM
silos underground, once a prime
Cold War target, but now boasting
four weekly flights,
the airport's claim to being
What we were looking for
were ancient submarine volcanic
vents from back when Central
Texas was all a warm
sea. What we found were convex
at times like mini-ice-age moraines
and at times concave like
made by pigs. Where we found magma,
a rank smell came with it, a rough
thrashing of underbrush a
assuming the body of a beast, treading
some hapless human girl in thrall
to all that wildness, mystery,
Going one way past our house
in town the road (or street) dead-
ended in a quarry, flooded long ago,
appropriated as a swimming hole,
and dead-ended also the other way
in a thickly wooded city block
a single house stood,
cedar-shaked and widow-walked,
a triple-decker no one would condemn
as long as the widow
(There were the pre-fab
jokes, of course,
how you would know . . . .)
In due course,
of course, down it went.
The city carved a new road through there,
a street whose S-curve X-ed out every ghost
and was "just the thing" to slow through-traffic.
Two A-frames, each with a three-car garage,
on either side. A few trees were spared.
Where the new Interstate
crossed the two-lane macadam,
we called East Avenue,
the plan was to put stop signs
at every on- and off-ramp,
but greater minds, the ones
for whom car lights are like
particles doing the wave
these four random corners
Middle American inter-
section spiraling outward
galactically and added
two lanes to the macadam
elevation to the interchange.
That Sunday, the one following
the ribbon cutting, my father
piled all of us into his big-
finned Century for our Sunday
we drove and drove
up, round, over, and down
wild, 4-leafed, I-road
cloverleaf, the likes of which
had never come this close to
any of our wild provincial
What We Thought We Came For
I couldn't remember and you couldn't either
us so distracted, or were we just
sunstruck, leaving the bright coast at Fethiye
for the drive south and east and
inland, into the Turkish chaparral
looking every bit at first like ours
in Texas, all scrub cover
anything that could even pass for a tree
like a mesquite, and then all at once there
drapey pines like Douglas fir,
and then the ground went bare again, then turned
as red as Laredo clay and then
as if it had been planted, with trees, every-
where trees, low and gnarly, forest-like
one you could see clean through like a scrim),
trees thick with green, almost leathery leaves
which when the wind
turned them shook silvery,
and then a lake, a very large lake, large
enough to throw combers up, was arriving
on our left and kept on going as far as sight
went but with no sign of any people, no
boats, no shoreline developments,
and no roads even, only this lonely
unlined four-lane, divided motorway,
its surface blemish-free like buffed
and without shoulders either, nothing edged,
graded or graveled but merely deep raw
both sides, sometimes with rusted
machinery tipped on their sides inside them
like road kill but on a road too
for that or mileage signage or power lines
or, oddest of all, we suddenly noticed
(as when back there
you turned to me
and said that maybe olive-colored leaves
might mean they're olive trees), too new
also, for we had not passed one
in what?-more than forty kilometers-
before we left this phantom of a road
into its new economies
of scale we had no way to fathom (as
is often how we find ourselves in Texas
and then we turned at last onto
a quick-rising, rut-filled single-track
and back into coast-light but powdery, fainter,
where what we thought we'd come for
hovered like a horizon that brought up close
the high sarcophagi of twice-doomed
Kurt Heinzelman was the Founding
Co-Editor of The Poetry Miscellany and is currently the Advisory Editor of Bat City Review. He has been
publishing poetry for thirty years in such journals as Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Georgia Review, Massachusetts Review,
Marlboro Review, and Southwest Review. His poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and selected for
the Borestone Mountain Poetry Award. His first two poetry collections The Halfway Tree and Black Butterflies
were finalists for the Natalie Ornish Poetry Award of the Texas Institute of Letters; a third collection, All the Salsas
of Calamity, is forthcoming in 2010. His scholarship, which has won various awards, is in the fields of British
Romanticism and economic and cultural history.
with Kurt Heinzelman by Matthew Huff
Matthew Huff: I'm interested in the Neruda epigraph you use at the beginning of "Where Do
You Come From?" The title provides a question or a call from an unknown voice, "Where do you come from?
"The Neruda quote then begins to answer the call/question, "If you were to ask me where I came from..."
and the speaker of the poem proceeds to answer the rest of the question. How do you feel these elements affect the poem
in terms of conversation? Do you agree with this reading of the poem as a conversation, or am I reaching?
Kurt Heinzelman: No, I don't think you're reaching. I didn't have the entire Neruda poem in my mind, only the
way in which it invokes the desirability or necessity of articulating the kind of "region" one is from. That word
is Neruda's, but I understood it in quite a different sense.
I had just finished translating a book of poems by Jean Follain published in 1953 called Territoires.
Virtually all readers think of this as his breakthrough volume, and it had never been translated in its entirety. For various
reasons I chose not to translate the title with its obvious English equivalent, "Territories," but with a different
word altogether, "Demarcations," a word which more directly invokes the idea of mapping as opposed, say, to the
"territory," that great non-specific wilderness which Huck Finn lights out for. Follain's book is an attempt to
depict the particularities of the region in which he grew up, a very specific part of Normandy, and that's more like what
I intended and felt in conversation with than the Neruda poem.
Despite his modest title, "Sonata," Neruda's poem has an epic grandeur in its delineation of the social
and political and, to some extent, even geological violence out of which the nation-state of Chile emerged. My perspective
is much more "provincial," to use a word that occurs at the end of my poem. It constitutes a series of remembered
episodes from a boyhood that encompassed both rural and small-town Middle Western sites and that was, in many ways, even
more naïve than most boyhoods. The young man learns the distinction between streets and roads, observes the summer
migrant workers but can't quite grasp why they are living in shantytowns so removed from where he lives, tries to grasp the
theory behind daylight savings time, witnesses his parents' strangely American immigrant rootedness, and exults with his
father in riding the new cloverleaf intersection on a highway, a motorway, that is previously unknown to the boy. It's more
like the innocence of One Hundred Years of Solitude, if I may make a rather grand comparison, than it is like Neruda's
very determined, rhetorically plangent, and politicized piece.
MH: You do a great deal of
work with semantics and understanding in this poem as the narrator moves from place to place. Using words that often appear
to be interchangeable such as "road" and "street" or "stayed" and "lived" makes the
reader consider the precise definition of words and their direct connotation within a poem. How did you begin adding this
element to this poem?
think this way of discovering semantic difference was part of how, from the beginning, I understood "place," the
need to articulate one's place-that is, one's own place in the region that one comes from. The agricultural use put to the
old outhouse on our farm I found as interesting, in terms of demarcating the region, as the fact that my mother, the produce
of German-speaking Swiss immigrants, neither of whom ever learned English, was born on the same day Tolstoy died, though
half a world apart, and several days apart also, as it turns out, because the two regions, rural Wisconsin and rural Russia,
used different calendars. In the twenty-first century, of course, in a town like my home town the schools would be branded
with names, but we were still so provincial, so sub-capitalized, that the elementary schools only had directional names-East,
South, etc. Language distinctions leave traces. My mother spoke German here in Wisconsin until she was a teenager, then
totally forgot her German and forbade her sons from learning it. To her dying day her English used a German syntax, which
often left her listeners waiting, longer than most English speakers are willing to wait, for the verb. This anecdote is
not in the poem, but when I went to college one of the first things my professor said was that I wrote as if I were German.
Language distinctions leave regional traces, yea, even unto the next generation.
MH: This poem appears to be somewhat autobiographical in nature and for the most part
follows a linear progression; however, there are the two sections pertaining to the mother and/or Tolstoy where there is
an obvious rift in the sequence. What's going on with these shifts in both content and time?
KH: You're absolutely right. Some of the sections come out of the sensibility of a
little boy, and others, as the boy ages and leaves behind the rural part of his life for town (but never city) life, he
acquires a more analytical, self-conscious voice. I didn't try to make these shifts consistent either from one section to
another or even within a given section, which is perhaps a fault of the poem's being mainly, not just somewhat, autobiographical,
far more than almost all of my other poems.
The fifth section of this poem stands out in stark contrast to the form the rest of the poem follows. While most sections
are more-or-less iambic in rhythm and are in much larger sections, this section has very short lines and utilizes what appears
to be one-line stanzas. First off, what do you call a one-line stanza (we've adopted Jake Adam York's term, "stitch,"
here at POW)? And second, why the dramatic change in form with this section?
KH: I'm happy with Jake's term and, boy, do I miss not having him with us any longer.
The simple reason, I think, for the formal change in section five is that there is a transition beginning here,
as one space, which is rural, morphs into one that is more town centered, and there is also a switch in ways of telling
time, which occurs in the next section. So, let's say (now that you've raised an interesting question) that these one-line
stanzas are "stitching" together a time-space continuum.
MH: The sixth section is also interesting in this same fashion, as each line features three
syllables and creates a really unique rhythm and syntax. How did you arrive at this form for this small section?
KH: It's mainly three syllables per line but that formal order gets syncopated, doesn't it, toward the
end of the section. Again, we're in the midst of a transition. Living on the land is already in the past tense. The old
outhouse is gone, the land recultivated, and the poem is at pains to say precisely how this repurposing, as we might
put it now, occurred. I found it amusing that human waste works such goodness as pickles, but only when dill, sugar, and
vinegar have been added, and I tried to effect that amusement formally in line and syntax.
MH: Both poems use parenthetical asides quite often, some of them also in italics.
I'm curious about how you chose this voice, or how it often differs from the narrator's general voice.
KH: Good observation, and I share your curiosity. I'm not sure why I made these choices,
but I think it's often because that new, more analytical, more acutely conscious voice which I referred to earlier is wanting
to break in and even, at some moments, to override the more naïve voice. And yet, having said that, I'm not even sure
where I would locate "the narrator's general voice." Perhaps a touchstone is the last section, which contains
neither italicized interjections nor parenthetical asides but tries to express in pretty much undiluted terms the boyish
enthusiasm at the Sunday ride in the father's Buick around the I-road's cloverleaf but also to incorporate another, equally
enthusiastic but more worldly view of "progress," which occurs in the "general narrator's" comparison
of car lights to waves in Einstein's brain. What I'm saying is that I didn't mind mixing these voices up and didn't assign
specific roles to each-at least not that I'm aware of.
MH: "What We Thought We Came For" is a really unique travelogue which hearkens back
to the theme of belonging and placement found in "Where Do You Come From?" But it's one long sentence. What's going
on here? Why this move in this particular poem?
KH: Is it one long sentence? Let me look at it again . . . . Oh my gosh, it is. Okay, then. As Ricky
Ricardo says to Lucy, "You've got some ‘splainin' to do."
So, let me try "'splainin'"
by offering some answers to your implied question about how uniqueness as a travelogue squares with the syntactical peculiarity
of a single long sentence. First, I was aware in the writing of the poem that there was operating in the poem a process
of thinking, or more properly, of remembering, or more candidly, a way of constructing memory of the past as a process of
ongoing thought. So, it doesn't surprise me, really, that the poem ended up as a single sentence. I always recall fondly
that old General Electric advertising mantra, "Progress is our most important product," but I always remember
it, even now when I'm trying to quote it, as, "Process is our most important product." And this poem about
driving, trying to find a destination in the process of doing so but seeing so many other interesting distractions along
the way, is very much about process, about what we thought we came for, not so much about what we found in the end.
My second answer is that I try very much to make
each poem its own unique experience rather than, as Shakespeare says in one his sonnets "to keep invention in a noted
weed." Now, Shakespeare did very well wearing those weeds of clothing, so well that we still call his noted invention
the Shakespearean sonnet. But I don't think I'm good enough or confident enough to brand my poetry, except in the way that
Thomas Hardy makes all one-thousand-plus of his poems in unique forms. I think he repeats his verse forms only about seven
times in his entire poetic corpus. Well, I'm not good enough for that kind of virtuosity either, but I aspire to his mastery
of what we might call contrary forms
In "Where Do You Come From?" you contrast various types of communities; in "What We Thought We Came For"
you again contrast landscapes (this time between Texas and Turkey). Contrasts seem to occupy your work quite a bit. Why
is this? How do the contrasts you observe in your world affect your process?
KH: Let me prefer William Blake's term "contraries" to "contrasts," and I'll
cite his famous line "Without contraries is no progression." Many of my poems are "processes," to use
your term (and I won't say they necessarily lead to "progressions"). By processes I mean that these poems are
trying to think their way through issues, and I don't know any other way of thinking except through contraries. All metaphors
are contraries-that is, a way of saying something by saying something else, often something contrarious. Even language use,
linguists tell us, is a contrarious sorting of data. We know that, in English, a "hat" is called a hat not because
of anything that's inherent in the object but because the brain, with astonishing rapidity, greater than any computer's
power, sorts out the word "hat" from all the other things it could be in English-"cat," "mat,"
"sat," "hate," and so on. A French speaker sorts out the word "chapeau" in the same way, given
the linguistic options available to her. This contrariness of language acquisition and use is one of the reasons that translation
is so difficult: words resonate in different languages according to different sets of contraries. In music there is a phenomenon
called sympathetic vibration, the way a string struck by pressing the piano's key makes other strings vibrate sympathetically.
So, in language. The French word for "snow" is "neige," which in French is much closer to "nuage,"
cloud, than snow in English is close to the cloud from which is meteorologically comes. The principle of
contraries is inherent in language as in thought. What other device is so central to poetic composition?
Thank you, Matthew, for raising some excellent issues and for asking some
challenging questions.Poems - Bio - Interview