The Place of Place: Besmilr Brigham’s Run Through Rock*
In order to imagine a place
must we inhabit it?
and by inhabiting, raze the imagination
that made it?
Catherine Kasper (1)
Place, according to geographer Miles Richardson, is “both grounded in the physical world and . . . lodged in the world of symbolic discourse,” “something fixed and fleeting, something you can walk on and something you can speak.” (2) These two conceptualizations of place intertwine in “Run Through Rock, Why It Quivers” by Besmilr Brigham: an unresolved dialogue is set in motion between place as lived perceptual experience and place as a human and social construct. Recent theories of place by humanistic geographers and cultural anthropologists provide a helpful framework for understanding how some Southern poets such as Brigham depart from traditional representations of place.
During the past twenty to twenty-five years, humanistic geographers and cultural anthropologists have been re-visiting theories of place in order to reveal unchallenged assumptions about the relationship between place and human culture. The concept of place seems to allow only the slipperiest of holds. The more you try to pin it down, the more elusive it becomes. Place presents itself to us as simultaneously solid and symbolic, and any attempt to separate the two becomes hopelessly entangled in paradox. Key to understanding what is at stake in place theory is a theme articulated in James Clifford’s questions: “What does it mean, at the end of the twentieth century, to speak . . . of a ‘native land’? What processes rather than essences are involved in present experiences of cultural identity?” (3) Re-thinking place as a site of discontinuity with the cultures that inhabit it and with other places exposes the essentializing nature of that construction.
Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson offer a critique of discontinuity in a theorizing of the “contact, conflict, and contradiction between cultures and societies,” in which “space itself becomes a kind of neutral grid on which cultural difference, historical memory, and societal organization are inscribed.” (4) The tendency to construct places as relatively autonomous and culturally homogeneous can conceal power structures that affect social transformation. Citing examples of borderline cases such as “immigrants, exiles, expatriates . . . and the hybrid cultures of postcoloniality,” (5) Gupta and Ferguson contend that places must instead be considered as both internally diverse and externally interdependent with other places. Arjun Appadurai draws an analogy between the tendency to nativize, exoticize, and totalize the other, and physical incarceration. (6) This tendency poses that cultures are wholes and that “the intellectual operations of natives are somehow tied to their niches, to their situations. They are seen, in Lévi-Strauss’s evocative terms, as scientists of the concrete,” a concrete that can be inscribed “as the poetry of confinement.” (7) Appadurai points out that “natives, people confined to and by the places to which they belong, groups unsullied by contact with a larger world, have probably never existed.” (8)
A related question is that of representation and of multiplicity in addressing place and voice. As Appadurai observes, “[t]he problem of voice (‘speaking for’ and ‘speaking to’) intersects with the problem of place (speaking ‘from’ and speaking ‘of’).” (9) And according to Margaret Rodman, “[A]ttention to multilocality as well as multivocality can empower place conceptually and encourage understanding of the complex social construction of spatial meaning. . . . Places are not inert containers. They are politicized, culturally relative, historically specific, local and multiple constructions.” (10) Considerations of internal and external multiplicity and interdependence militate against totalized constructions of place and human culture, and against essentialized constructions of “observer” and “observed,” or of “we” and “they.” As Rodman points out, in an interdependent world, “there really are no ‘others.’” (11)
The larger philosophical issue is the dichotomy that arises continually in anthropological and geographical discussions of place theory. Richardson posits place as “a curious and uneasy product of experience and symbol.” (12) Others have restated this dichotomy in different terms. Yi-Fu Tuan explores the dialectic between the human desire for feeling “in place,” rooted and stable, and the desire to transcend place when that rootedness is infused with feelings of “bondage and powerlessness.” (13) And J. Nicholas Entrikin points out “the underlying polarity between the subjective,” (14) “a centered view in which we are a part of place and period,” and “the objective,” “a decentered view in which we seek to transcend the here and now.” (15) According to Entrikin, theories of place need to recognize the “tension between a decentered universalism and a centered particularism.” (16) Both views are needed, for “[t]he theoretical reduction of place to location in space [cannot] effectively capture . . . the sense of place as a component of human identity, and the opposing reduction tends to treat place solely as a subjective phenomenon.” (17) Both reductions can lead to an essentialized outlook regarding the relationship between human culture and place.
If both views are to be retained, it is equally important that the ensuing paradoxes should remain, without the need to resolve them into a stabilized balancing act or compromise, or, as Richardson puts it, to achieve a “muddled middle ground” (18) between them. Instead, he suggests an approach to the dichotomy between the particular and the general, and between the subjective and the objective, that “keep[s] phenomena whole.’” (19) By this, Richardson is not suggesting a philosophy of totalism, but rather an approach that does not reduce the problem to one side or another, or that insists upon a reduction of tension between the two. Instead, he suggests that we keep alive the paradoxical nature of the dichotomy by engaging in a continually circulating and unresolved dialogue between its terms. For example, he states that it is important to “ask how . . . we experience place and how . . . we simultaneously transform that experience into symbols, symbols that then communicate the experiential meaning of the place and, in so doing, bring [place] into being.” (20) Thus, experience and mind are involved in a continual process of mutual creation. For Tuan, paradox is inherent in the act of cognition: “Thinking involves the thinker in paradoxes. . . . [It] both connects and disconnects. It makes the near seem distant and the distant near. . . . [It] binds us to the world with the threads of precise and detailed knowledge . . . . And yet this knowledge, because of its remoteness from direct experience, makes the world seem abstract and distant.” (21)
Richardson hints at the possibility of an underlying identity of the opposed terms of subject and object, perceiver and perceived, experience and symbol, when he suggests a relationship of interdependence between the transformation of place experience into symbols and the creation of place through the communication of “the experiential meaning of the place.” (22) Mind both communicates with and constructs place. Might we not also consider cognition a place as well, sharing with the concrete world its materiality and participating with that world in a mutually constructing process?
In the poetry of Besmilr Brigham, place is vitally important, but not in the sense of describing a place so precisely that, as Helen Vendler puts it, readers will be “rewarded for our imaginative participation [in the poem] by a sudden moment of recognition, as some detail strikes us as pertaining directly to ourselves: ‘Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!’” (23) According to Vendler, the reader’s eureka moment prompted by the descriptive translation of place “is the effect every poet hopes for.” (24) This hoped-for realism may be true of the poets that Vender admires. However, Brigham’s work is more likely to elicit questions about the nature of place, rather than less complexly to invite recognition and its emotional accoutrements through a set of symbolic markers.
Brigham lived for many years in the small town of Horatio, Arkansas. Of Chocktaw heritage, she considered herself to be a Mississippi poet. Brigham is not simply a nature poet who extols and lovingly describes the natural world. She is a deeply philosophical poet who activates a dialogue between cognitively constructed reality and shared physical existence, and who blurs boundaries between putatively opposed realms.
Her poem “The Run Through Rock, Why It Quivers” (25) describes a place, yet Brigham does not constitute her experience of that place as continuous and linear. Instead, she represents place as occurring in and with consciousness, as well as experienced in the here and now. To be sure, the poem contains place markers such as “wet leaves,” a “run through rock,” “piercing stalks,” “birds flying in through dark,” a fallen grackle, “downpours of growing water,” a moon going through its phases, a field and wind, the sun charting its course through the sky, and a long “perpetual summer.” Amid this catalogue of natural objects and processes are a body, mind, and brain, which also participate in natural processes: the body “di[es] bare,” the mind forgets, and the brain hardens.
Yet the poem does more than simply bring human existence into the fold of a mutable and mortal natural order. It also posits a radical permeability, indeed, an identity, between human and nature—between the warm brain and the snow, between the dying body and the dying bird, and between the forgetful mind and the “repetitious tree.” The title as well enacts this reciprocal relationship between human and nature in the word “run,” which means “creek” but also puns on the more common meaning of “run” as human motion. And “running through rock” invites the image of a person merging with rock. Brigham also implies an intertwining relationship between subject and object that does not resolve into a hierarchy of an active subject perceiving and thinking about a passive object. The last few lines demonstrate this reciprocal relationship:
lying from light, where
light draws up
no color, no fire fiercer than
the brain (a warmth in snow
A stone falls from light, and light draws up a brain that is fiercer than color and fire, and that is like “a warmth in snow.” The brain exists in reciprocal relation to stone, light, color, fire, and snow. Moreover, the fierce brain, which constructs its world, is in this case not the active cogitator, but instead something that is drawn up by the light. The brain, instead of taking in an illuminated world as fodder for cognition, is itself lifted up by the light. And if we understand the phrase “draws up” also in the sense of rendering a picture of something, perhaps the light also creates a representation of the brain, a reversal of the normal order of active perceiver and passive object. Thus subject and object are engaged in mutual and reciprocal creation, and Brigham implies an underlying identity between the two.
The representation of place that emerges in Brigham’s poem is indeed a “wild range” in which the brain “run[s] loose,” as opposed to a static and passively represented place, an exterior locality that pertains to the self, as Vendler has it. Tuan’s words come to mind in our consideration of Brigham, the native. Brigham’s poem suggests a “deeply rooted” native self living in the eternal now of a “perpetual summer,” despite, or perhaps more accurately, because of, the radical impermanence in the hardening, forgetting, and dying around and within that self.
Brigham shows the self to be both in place and out of place, constructing place from the distance of mentation yet also inextricably implicated in a material place. The self in “Run Through Rock” is far from being the kind of incarcerated and immobilized native that Appadurai calls “creatures of the anthropological imagination.” (26) Instead, she embraces the internal diversity within places, assumes the continuity of place rather than the reality of constructed boundaries, recognizes otherness as ultimately illusory, and enacts a continually circulating and reciprocal dialogue between a constructing self and an encroaching place. In short, she acknowledges the “fixed and fleeting” nature of place.
(1) Katherine Kasper, Blueprints of the City (Denver: Transparent Tiger Press, 2000), 20.
(2) Miles Richardson, “Introduction,” in Place: Experience and Symbol, Geoscience and Man, ed. Miles Richardson, vol. 24 (Baton Rouge: Geoscience Publications, Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University, 1984), 1.
(3) James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1988), 275.
(4) Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference,” Cultural Anthropology 7, no. 1 (February 1992): 6-7.
(5) Ibid., 7.
(6) Arjun Appadurai, “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 1 (February 1988): 38-39, 41.
(7) Ibid., 38.
(8) Ibid., 39.
(9) Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Place and Voice in Anthropological Theory,” Cultural Anthropology 3, vol. 1 (February 1988): 17.
(10) Margaret C. Rodman, “Empowering Place: Multilocality and Multivocality,” American Anthropologist 94, vol. 3 (September 1992): 640-1.
(11) Ibid., 646.
(12) Richardson, “Introduction,” 1.
(13) Yi-Fu Tuan, “In Place, Out of Place,” in Place: Experience and Symbol, Geoscience and Man, ed. Miles Richardson, vol. 24 (Baton Rouge: Geoscience Publications, Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University, 1984), 3.
(14) J. Nicholas Entrikin, The Betweenness of Place: Towards a Geography of Modernity (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 7.
(15) Ibid., 1.
(16) Ibid., 2.
(17) Ibid., 24, 25.
(18) Richardson, “Introduction,” 1.
(21) Tuan, “In Place, Out of Place,” 9.
(22) Richardson, “Introduction,” 1.
(23) Helen Vendler, “Contemporary American Poetry” in The Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry, ed. Helen Vendler (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985), 17.
(25) Run Through Rock: Selected Short Poems of Besmilr Brigham, ed. C. D. Wright (Barrington, R. I.: Lost Roads Publishers, 2000) 109-10.
(26) Arjun Appadurai, “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” 39.