The writer, Claire Hero, and I are neighbors here in the Mid-Hudson River Valley. I live in Poughkeepsie and she, across the river, in Esopus. We are also both transplants to the area. We thought it would be interesting to begin a conversation about our sense of the river valley and see where it took us. We were curious to find out how or if it had influence in our current writings. You’ll find New York’s Hudson here, but our talk moves out to New Zealand, Northwest Arkansas, Minnesota, Chicago and Worcester, Massachusetts. We hope you’ll enjoy the ranging and exploratory nature of our talk as much as we did.
Claire Hero is the author of the chapbook, Dollyland (Tarpaulin Sky); Sing, Mongrel (Noemi Press) and two other chapbooks: afterpastures (Caketrain) and Cabinet (dancing girl press). Her poems have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Handsome and elsewhere.
LG: I have been thinking a lot about how much I love the Hudson—and the trains that come with it and how it ties me to my home geography on the Arkansas, but how so often I feel daunted by all that the Hudson River brings--the historical significance of it (the Half Moon, the Hudson River School of Painters, etc.) and the enormity of its geographical properties (the estuary itself and the canyons that exist within it). Sometimes the information bundles that come with the river and this valley sort of stun me in my writing.
Btw, I like the notion of the frozen river between us! We are neighbors, for sure, but the river as some kind of division or organizing line is interesting. I always love how people say to me: "Oh...you really need to move to this side of the river." What they mean is the political left-ness of the communities to the west of the river, but they use "this side of the river" as a metaphor to talk about it.
How does this particular geography affect you?
CH: Stuns, yes. The Hudson River Valley reminds me so much of New Zealand. In part this is due to the silencing factor of the landscape. What is there to say about the sublime?
But I also like the Hudson Valley, I think, because it has always been a shipping lane. A thoroughfare. The means of exploration. It's like a poetic line.
LG: Yes, the sublime.... I think in some ways for me, the Hudson River Valley reminds me of a grander version of the Arkansas River Valley, partly where I grew up and where my paternal side of the family is from (originally, store owners and cotton farmers in the bottoms). We just didn't have that sense of grandeur. I mean Arkansas is, after all, considered--or at least for me in my childhood—part of the raffish edges of America! So in so many ways, it is easier to see it without the grandeur of early U.S. history and the connection to the ocean (hence, Europe) getting in the way. One of the things that I learned years after I had left home which helped me to reverse this notion of my home place as "backwards" was to read that there were so many accessible rivers that crossed and connected in the state of Arkansas that there wasn't an immediate need for roads. You could get anywhere more or less in the state on the waterways. Roads have always been a sign of progress, a measure of how successful or progressive a community is and its desire to connect with the outside and exceed the parochial. It was a kind of relief and delight to read that the delay in road building was at least in part because of the river roadways that naturally existed.
CH: Rivers as roads. The Hudson River has frozen this year, two feet thick in some places, but the shipping lanes continue. Things - information - passes through the Hudson Valley. We are a thoroughfare. We are a destination and a means through. We can stand on the Walkway and watch the river move through and some of us cross over and some of us jump.
In New Zealand I was intimidated by the landscape. It was too sublime. Either you call out your name and hear only echoes of your own mutilated voice, or you pass through areas so empty, so unfinished, that you realize your car could tip over the edge and no one would find you. In New Zealand I had to focus on the animals, which were entirely prosaic: sheep, millions of them, bleating each spring into silence.
But in New York, everything is wild. It bears the oldest marks of white colonization of any place I have ever lived; stone walls, like rivers, like arteries, pass information through the broken forests. Yet it doesn't feel entirely settled yet. Coyotes howl through the nights. There are whispers of bears. New York doesn't have billboards, not really, no signs to clutter up the view. The landscape feels almost languageless, in a way, as though anything could be scrawled across it, yet it is so wild, so lush, that you know that any mark you made would be, within the month, eaten by weed or water.
LG: Languageless. I completely agree. But here's the dissonance for me: It looks wild, lush and all, but the knowledge of how long people have been here--and particularly, the Europeans--makes me feel like anything I think about this river, this valley has already been thought, already been written about, discovered, or rendered into art. I especially think about the painters—Thomas Cole and the other Hudson River School. Cole was thinking seriously about this place, its water and sky, or as he referred to it, “the soul of all scenery,” about 200 years ago. While his concerns were mostly different than mine, I still find it daunting to think about the length of time people have been here and thinking hard on this place.
CH: "Already been written about, discovered." - To say that is to say we live in a fixed place, but the thing about places is that they are never fixed. They bleed through boundaries. Seeds, animals, humans: everything moves through, leaves traces, makes changes. I'm thinking about the problem of this dissonance in two ways: palimpsest and translation.
Place names, stone walls, brass plaques: these are palimpsests. I can see traces of the world that was here before, but somehow, I can't really touch it. A mile and a half from my house is the church where Sojourner Truth's owners went each Sunday. It's a museum now. Inside, an older woman in a floral hooded sweatshirt will show you cases with wampum and bone fish hooks, moonshine bottles and an egg beater, the remnants of a sleigh factory destroyed in 1901. None of these things help me understand where I have landed, yet somehow they congregate into an image. A sentence. A vocabulary for Esopus. And there are other palimpsests: the bones of animals on the shoulders of the road, the wasp globes in the trees that winter reveals, the remains of someone's picnic washed up on the river bank. In a poem like "reviving Coyote" I was trying to address such palimpsests: the coyote roadkilled at the end of my street growing through elements taken from women's Indian Captivity narratives.
Coyote slinks out of the road & into my hands. Out of my hands & into my mouth. With my teeth she bites the bark in two that binds her. With my tongue she licks the placenta off the words. Coyote steals out of my mouth & into my hair. Out of my hair & into my skin. In my skin she drags the forest floor, looking for the bodies. In my skin she hacks back the dark. (& who are those masked that ring round the wood?—) Coyote sneaks out of my skin & into my lungs. Into my nose. With my nose the earth is clean as paper. Coyote scrawls herself across it, crawls into my hands. With my hands she rends the voles in two. With my hands she opens a door. Inside I am waiting. Inside I offer her a kind of apple, some Indian cake, a bed of hides, & didn't we bed down, Coyote & I, in this shabby cave while the hunters searched for us in the vast boscage of the body? Didn't we couple in our fear? Coyote runs over my snowy terrain, marking my skin with her claws. How do I tell you that my body is the road upon which Coyote dies? How do I rear what births from my mouth?
CH: Then there's translation. Recently I've been interested in bacteria, specifically in invasion and translation. Bacteria exchange DNA with members of their own and other species in three ways, but the most interesting to me is translation, whereby a bacteria cell can absorb naked DNA left by a dead cell and add it directly to its own. This leads to change, to adaptation. The “evolutionary butterfly effect,” as explained by the Italian biologist Telmo Pievani, is “the uncontrollable propagations of nonadaptive effects beginning from a functional modification.” Or, as Emily Dickinson would put it, “Infection in the sentence breeds.”
I am an invasive species. Anything I wish to say about the Hudson Valley has to pass through a mouth that has opened in many places. These places change my language, my hearing, my sense of how to name the world and what the world includes. I carry place in my accent, my mouth which refuses to give up the Minnesota O even after years away, and in my vocabulary, which swaps and absorbs new names for old things. To be transient is to be always translating, it seems, so there are gaps, but there is also that possibility of infection, of a new organ arising from a new combination. This is what I was getting at in a poem like “[Dredge up].”
onto your tongue –
& the slow
joint to joint
with various organs &.
LG: The palimpsest and translation, yes. As you talked about the church turned museum and all of the traces (moonshine bottles, egg beater, etc.) that are left from the turn of the century, I began to think of the various ways I’ve experienced that in all of the places I’ve lived. Growing up for a time with my maternal grandparents on a large and working farm outside of Fayetteville, Arkansas, there were all kinds of traces of what had been there before. One of the enduring images in my work is a toolbox stowed in the bathroom that was full of arrowheads, fishhooks, grinding stones, and Civil War cannon balls. Each morning I would go into the bathroom and consider the mystery of that box containing the objects discovered from plowing. These physical objects in this particular place connected with my learning Arkansas history: my grandparents’ farm wasn’t so far off The Trail of Tears. A few years ago, while visiting my father, who lives in the Arkansas River Valley area, I went to look at the gallows where Judge Parker, the “hanging judge,” presided. I discovered not only that the names of those killed at the gallows were largely indigenous names, but that nearby was a bend in the river where you could have seen the tribes floating by on their forced relocation to Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears happened in more ways than one.
When I moved to urban places, I found these remnants in different ways. In Chicago, there are the storefronts and cornices that are left over from businesses long gone that you notice for their elegance and/or out of place-ness within the surroundings. For about a year or so I worked at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum as a docent. The house is located on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus and was a pretty stark difference against the surrounding architecture. To be sitting in this house that helped birth the Settlement House movement and early social work, but that was adjacent to the 1970s architecture of the campus, felt like a secret, in some ways. I had a sense of that neighborhood before the university had arrived. There was a quiet and solemnity among the 19th century furniture and art that created an energy against Halsted’s traffic bustle, co-eds and Greektown up the street. Teaching at the university when I was a grad student was a similar experience (though different sense of time) since we were teaching in classrooms with bolted down desks and these long, thin bullet-proof windows. The university had been built around the time of the Chicago Riots and that history was built into its very rooms. One of my early teaching tactics around analysis was to ask students why they thought their seats were bolted to the floor.
When I moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where I lived for eight years, I noticed the palimpsestic nature in the names of places. When you talked to a Worcester native about Rizutti’s Goodnight Café burning down, he or she might say, “Oh, you mean what used to be Old Billy’s Lounge.” There was even a certain pride among people who could name what the place had been called several businesses earlier. And as you said, I wasn’t quite sure that it helped me understand where I was, but it did accumulate as image and tone of the place.
I think you’re exactly right about translating. The mouth that has opened in other places. While the Mid-Hudson River Valley may seem overwhelming at times, I, too, think that I translate the place out of my various accumulations and sensibilities that come from elsewhere. You with your Minnesota O, me with my love of double modals and slower, circuitous talking and walking.
CH: I envy you your toolbox of mystery! My grandmother’s house was similar. She was a hoarder, part of the generation that went through the Depression. Everything, from button to jar, had value and a multiplicity of possibilities. Like words, they accrued and offered. They were for picking over and dreaming through.
You know, Lea, it’s funny that we’re both from river towns. I grew up in a river town in southern Minnesota, and I have been wondering lately if living beside the river made me restless. Is this why we are both so transient? Oceans are grand but annihilating, and lakes are stable but stagnant, but a river is somehow always new. It is passage and possibility. It endures and erases and alters. Often as a prelude to writing I go for a walk, and here in Esopus it means down the hill, past the overgrown orchard where the deer linger, to watch the Hudson. And even better, the Hudson is tidal! It moves both ways. Like a poem,