Mar '03 [Home]

Guest Editor's Preface

Poetry Feature:  Departures

by George Wallace

. . .

I don't really know why I chose the theme "departures." At least, I don't have any great reason for it, other than the plain fact that it is a great theme, like many other essential themes in human experience.

When I solicited poems from people whose work I like, everyone I asked had departure poems, and sent me some immediately. It's not surprising really; this is a big world with lots and lots and lots in it. It is difficult to get through life without leaving some things behind, or getting left behind ourselves, once in a while. And, well, of course, sometimes that hurts.

Convention would tell you that departure is a sad thing. But if you think about it, sometimes you're glad you're leaving something, or that somebody's leaving. Let's be honest; it's a relief to be done with some things in this life, isn't it?

Either way, there are so many and so complex possible sets of feelings wrapped up in the human experience of departure. Who better to reflect on that than a group of talented American poets?

Of course, exploring the theme of departure can be a fine trick. You can't, for example, get too maudlin or you run the risk of nauseating the reader. I get touchy over that kind of thing, and I think other people do, too. I think there are a lot of poems that just get too weepy or angry or self-righteous or precious or sad.

On the other hand, you just can't get totally cold about it and stick the notion of departure into any poem:  "I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree / leaving" just doesn't cut it. Nor can I see what you could add to the terrible importance of a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater by a bunch of white chickens just by picking it up, tossing it into the back of a pickup and driving away with it.

Admittedly, those are pretty wide parameters for selecting poems for this anthology. I was a lot more discriminating than that in picking these poems, and the fine writers who contributed to this collection did a considerable job of fitting through the narrow aperture of my personal tastes and sense of good writing to get in. I hope this month's readers think so, too.

My own departure poem, which I like pretty well, has some association with Neal Cassady. I forget what the connection is exactly; he may have grown up by the river in the title. I hope readers like it, too.

~ .

swimming the little thompson
George Wallace

you said there is a kind of music which plays in every river
if we are to apprehend it properly we must learn to swim
down the colorado canyon you swam
your face streamed with lifewater and overflowing, death-defying departures
every departure is not a death, you said, every departure is not necessarily a loss
but you were the one with the destination, i was the one watching you go
the shattered laughter of big mountains on their way to the ocean was your music
you became insubstantial as a song or the river, you said
while the others wished to become solid as mountains, to approximate gods
i could not believe you then, how easily you danced with the season
i could not hold you then, or your words
the shards of your breathing, long after you were gone
i could not even approximate your omnivorous current.
the little thompson has always grasped at situations this way and that
i wanted to walk with you into the little thompson
the way you threw off the world.
the way you abandoned the slakepit acid breath of america to itself
and found freedom with your angel eyes
peering clear and beautifully at the sky, you
through america and out of and into it
looking into the straight blank faces
looking straight into the future without intimidation.
now time falls black as the crack of night, i am alone with the blind river
an egg grows in my belly, pendular
my cold friend, a stone impatient timepiece ticks in my ear, too
the rushing sound of rocks, bruising cascades
i fall into the river as you fell
somewhere someone is shouting at convention —
it is the mad lost babble which comes from the lips of drowning men.

(George Wallace is the editor of Poetrybay and co-host of PoetryBrook at WUSB. He has published eight chapbooks and recorded several CDs. His latest books are Swimming Through Water (La Finestre Editrice 02, distributed by Writers Unlimited USA 03) and Greatest Hits (Pudding House Press, 03). Creator of the four-city Big Sur marathon, he appears frequently in performance with David Amram, and recently opened for Levon Helm, former lead singer of The Band. He is a regular contributor to the magazine [Masthead].)