Situated: Finding Place, People, and Nature in Reading by Rebecca Ethridge

Friday, 18 December 2020

Like many this year, I found myself uncomfortably situated inside my home in isolation that seemed to grow longer and longer each day. I had plans for the first half of the year. I wanted to prepare myself for my MFA program: read as many poetry collections and write as many poems as possible. In isolation, however, I struggled with that preparation. What once settled me displaced me because my mind could not focus and I could not fathom what we were collectively experiencing.

At first, I turned to what distracted me. I re-watched Star Trek Voyager (perhaps because I felt as lost as that crew did in unfamiliar terrains of space) and played Animal Crossing on my phone (perhaps because collecting things meant connecting with people in on our seemingly new online world). Meanwhile, I continued to work as an educator at a local community college’s writing center which moved its tutoring services online. My job also tasked me with organizing and running an online writing workshop so that our students could have some way to connect and create during this time. I felt ill at ease leading writers through creative writing exercises while feeling uncreative myself.

However, through our virtual conversations, I saw how everything inspired my students, from the windows of their rooms to the books they were reading. My students showed and reminded me how every step in the creative process is productive, including those moments where we might feel a lack of creativity. Reading became one of the most important elements in reigniting my creative process.

During this time, I have come to realize that reading, for me, means being situated—situated in place, people, nature. While I am reading more slowly this year, I am comfortable with that fact and enjoy the process of reading more deeply. I relish words and take them in one by one as they rest on the page, feeling more whole and creative for it. Below are a few of the books I have read and relished this year. I hope they situate you just as they have situated me.

The Geese Who Might be Gods by Benjamin Cutler

In January, I attended my last in-person reading for the year at Malaprops bookstore in Asheville where Western North Carolina poet Benjamin Cutler read from his new collection The Geese Who Might be Gods. Cutler’s work transports readers into the wonders of nature as he connects and juxtaposes that world with our human world. His poems are situated in relationships, in Appalachia, in people’s views of the world. There is mystery and wonder in every line. I have many favorites in this book, but one of which I will share here, “Peeling Bark for Bread” (p. 3), reveals the human world’s relationship with loss and the beauty that can arise from that same loss. This poem aligns a moment from the Sami people of Northern Scandinavia’s history with a moment from the speaker’s own history. Where the Sami people carved the inner skin of birch and would leave it dry before grinding it into flour for bread, the speaker of the poem carves the bark of a Gulf Coast Pink dogwood to make bread. The speaker’s mother is horrified at the destruction the speaker does to the tree, but the speaker notes that “within a year, / splintered edges smoothed to lips—open and silent— / which, with each green season, have drawn inward / until all that now remains is the suggestion of a kiss / or something unsaid.” I continue to be moved by the speaker’s belief in how we can learn and grow, how nature turns loss into resilience, and how “when bloom-time comes, / flora rises bright—as full as leavened loaves under the sun.”

Fanny Says by Nickole Brown

When I could not meet with people in person, I found myself situated in people while reading em>Fanny Says by Asheville poet Nickole Brown. This oral history told through poetry explores the life and language of Brown’s grandmother, Frances Lee Cox, or Fanny, as we come to almost personally know her. Brown examines her grandmother’s way of speaking, her profanities, colloquialisms, and idioms. In “Fanny Linguistics: Malapropisms” (p. 19), for example, Brown studies how Fanny mistakes some words for others: “Unpack chester drawers to find / chest of drawers, / Tandalaon to Tylenol, / furrl to foil, / gazebo pills to placebo, / salmonella candles to citronella.” While there is a sense of playfulness in her language, Fanny also does not say what she means or what she needs to say. Brown records this irony in “Fanny Linguistics: How to Say What You Mean” (p. 75): “Now, if something real sad happens to the lady next door—the cancer took over, there’s nothing left the doctor can cut away—say, Ain’t that a cotton-pickin shame, but if her husband’s running around while she’s pumped with chemo, close the door, talk only in a whisper, even if no one else is in the whole house. Start the conversation with I ain’t one to say nothing, but you wouldn’t believe; end with We better not say nothing, no, not a word.” This poem reveals a woman who is as quietly tough as she is equally ready to speak her mind and tell it like it is when the situation calls for it. Brown is unafraid to call attention to the inappropriateness of Fanny’s language, too. We see this in “A Genealogy of the Word,” where Fanny uses the n-word like a fact of life, ignoring how the word is a racist pejorative. Brown reveals these hard truths about her grandmother to remain faithful to her grandmother and also to herself as an oral historian. I have returned to this collection many times, and I remain overwhelmed by Brown’s care for accuracy, honesty, compassion, and love when revealing her grandmother’s identity.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

When I could not go outside and hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass situated me in the natural world. Kimmerer is, at once, a botanist and a poet. Through plants, she shares stories that combine indigenous wisdom with scientific knowledge. Kimmerer teaches readers how they have the knowledge to communicate with and to the natural world. Nature’s language, as well as ours, is a gift we must keep giving to one another. “It is human perception that makes the world a gift,” she writes. “When we view the world this way, [the natural world] and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuring generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences” (p. 30). Kimmerer impresses the importance of caring for the natural world as she discusses how the natural world cares for us. We must learn from nature, who gives us gifts and to whom we must give back. “We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale and the exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back” (p. 104). Nature is the first gift, and our stories the second, and both can teach us how to be whole and humble, how to appreciate and care for the earth and one another.

Rebecca Ethridge is a first-year MFA candidate in poetry at UNC Greensboro.

Category: Creative Nonfiction, Essays, Students

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