Place-based poetry done right

Most of the poetry I've written in the last few years has been somehow place-based. I've been especially drawn to urban environments, seeing them as a storehouse of meaning ripe for interpretation and representation. As more and more of us live in landscapes shaped more by human hands than by nature's, reflections of the built environment help us see ourselves and our landscape through new eyes. Or at least, they do for me. I read a poem on Places today that does just that and represents the kind of poetry I aspire to create. It weaves environmental, social, and cultural themes together in a way that describes a vivid (and, in this case, poisoned) landscape of fermenting secrets and half-hidden violence. It's about the high cost of building the machine, and the sacrifices we make to get there.

The poem is by Katherine L. Hester, whose work I will be looking up as soon as I publish this. The poem is below, but you can read it straight from the source, too. You won't be wasting time if you peruse the Places site.

Hill Country Fossils

Maybe these limestone hills contain the bones we were built on, but we can do anything now, can create our own bones through deliberate science — the rebar and scaffolding poking through a skin of caliche, beer cans left bleached in the cedar, sucked empty of marrow; old tires furtively tumbled into the creekbed.

Being ours, they are better.

Here in these lovely houses newly built on the hills are windows we've learned how to lock, putting our trust in the mechanism of their delicate springwork. Here is the shotgun purchased at K-Mart stood up in one corner; the cell phone to be carried at all times as insurance; the things that would keep us safe from a world we no longer know how to be part of.

Out there in the hills lie the bones we would prefer not to remember. Their disorder says only that we are not what we would like to think we are. They insist there will always be something left that is stronger: the gouged and knobbed fossil that is record and remembrance; the skeleton of some animal found in the October brush, scattered and dragged.

The more that we build, the easier it is to forget: these limestone hills will always be the bottom of a sea that is no longer, and sunk somewhere within it are cabins chinked with stone; cold, with rattlesnakes waiting to wake beneath their raised wooden floors.

We are not the first purveyors of violence; there will always be someone waiting in a doorway for someone else who might not ever return.

Here in these hills, behind the subdivision rising, is a graveyard notched high above the elbow of the creekbed, and there in the family plots, shells from the ocean that used to exist have been left, as testament to grief, in reluctant recognition of that slow pilgrimage toward the embrace of these bones we were each of us built from.

Beneath these jerry-built houses lie tendon and rock and the spine of these ridges. This well-gnawed hank of land is our joy, and all that is left us.