Roots in the Soil: The Mythology of Poetry and Place

At dawn a small mist cool as pearls hangs above the lake.[1]
Lake Cottage

I see the sun crown the trees on the far side of the lake each morning. Its light streams sideways into the grove of mountain laurel outside my bedroom window, making the laurel’s nymph-like limbs cast plaintive shadows across the moss. At dawn, the grove is an emerald under the canopy of century-old oaks, a gem lodged in my deepest memories. I linger over the sight until the sun rises just high enough to dispel it, then get out of bed feeling as if I’d just experienced morning in its most elemental, most spiritual sense. My mother’s Irish ancestors descended from the Celts, a people who often chose oak groves and water-spots as their places of worship because of the sense of sacredness they felt when there. I always believed that my grandmother purchased this particular lake-side property out of a similar, perhaps ancient, sense of the spiritual vitality she felt here. She and my grandfather were very private people who craved an escape from the labor of their everyday lives, and the small shingled cottage he built on this property provided them with exactly that for over fifty years.

Once out of bed, I light the 1940’s stove and set the white enamel percolator on the front burner. I walk out on the porch to watch the pearl-cool mist, as Anne Carson describes it in Plainsong, lift off the lake. The cottage is quiet. The lake is quiet. A couple of fishermen drift in the bay, catching nothing. The canoe racer silently laps the lake. The heron suns herself on the rock that juts out of the cove, her black wings spread wide. And so begins my writing time.

Poets and artists have often sought such places of refuge to escape from everyday life. My refuge is this lake cottage where as a child I spent my summers, as did my mother before me, away from school and schedules. It’s where I came as an adult to escape professional and social commitments of everyday life and to dedicate time to my writing. Joan Miró had a similar refuge in his own mother’s homeland of Mallorca. It, too, was the place where he spent summers and vacations as a child, and in fact became an increasingly important refuge for him in the early 1940’s when German troops invaded his one-time domicile of Paris, and the political outcome of the Spanish Civil War made his native city of Barcelona equally dangerous for him. For Miró, the vast blue Catalan sky and rugged landscape provided both creative inspiration and spiritual shelter for his art: two essentials that turned the island into a home for his work. In the 1950’s, having come to equate the island with freedom, he settled in Mallorca for good. He famously found inspiration there for his painting and sculpting, completing some of his most important pieces. Indeed, it was undoubtedly the near-limitless space the place afforded him, markedly different from his cramped hotel rooms, studios, and apartments in Paris, that gave way to the expansive spirit portrayed on his canvasses here. For Miró, the vast blue Catalan sky and rugged landscape provided both creative inspiration and spiritual shelter for his art: two essentials that turned the island into a home for his work. His 1950’s withdrawal from the urban centers of Paris and Barcelona in favor of the quiet blue jewel of Mallorca places him in a long tradition of artists who abandon the lives they know to pursue a spiritual quest of sorts, seeking a place that would provide them with such shelter.

Rainer Maria Rilke is another who famously withdrew from the busy cities he knew to find a place to fulfill his artistic quest. He once described his native city of Prague as a “miserable city of subordinate existences”[2] and, though initially drawn to Paris, he grew to dislike what he saw as the mundane artificiality and fruitlessness of the everyday life exhibited in its streets, which he describes in his Fifth Duino Elegy:

Squares, oh square in Paris, infinite showplace
where the milliner Madame Lamort
twists and winds the restless paths of the earth,
those endless ribbons, and, from them, designs
new bows, frills, flowers, artificial fruits—, all
falsely colored, —for the cheap
winter bonnets of fate.[3]

Rilke found the freedom he sought in the open, wind-filled expanse of Duino,[4] in the castle of his patron, Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, which to this day tops a rugged cliff high above the Adriatic. Unlike Miró, he could not call this his homeland, and did not even have the luxury of choosing the exact locale of his escape: living in genteel poverty, Rilke often relied on the favors of his wealthy patrons, and in 1912, he spent the off-season here. He began writing the Duino Elegies after climbing the castle ramparts one night and hearing what was to become their first line spoken out of the violent north wind: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?”[5]

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  1. Carson, Anne. Plainwater: Essays and Poems. New York: Vintage, 1995. 248.
  1. Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage, 1989. xi.
  1. Ibid. 179.
  1. Ibid. xii.
  1. Ibid. xxxiv.

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