“The more I traveled and wrote, the more I realized that here was a place I could write out of, where I could explore the territory of my childhood because the landscape around me was the territory of my childhood, or so it felt. What I was seeing and smelling often transported me to the sights and smells of my five-year-old self, my ten-year-old and even early-teen self, filling me with the wonder I sometimes basked in as a boy. But when I wrote out of those places, I was compelled as well to reencounter the troubling, even traumatic aspects of my childhood.”—Don Schofield
By Don Schofield
THESSALONIKI Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—March 2019—I first came to Greece in 1976 as a tourist, at the age of 26, the summer before I started my MA in literature. By that time, I had read umpteen books on Greek mythology and its significance—Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves, Carl Jung, etc. I also had swatches of Bible stories wafting in the shadows of my memory from all my years in Catholic children’s homes. What a delight it was then, when I first came to Greece, to encounter men named Odysseus and Socrates, women named Artemis and Penelope and, wherever I traveled, real shepherds tending their flocks, real fishermen mending their nets and real donkeys bearing their burdens along dirt paths.
But the Greece I first took in more than 40 years ago did much more than make me feel as if the figures from my secular and religious education had come to life. During that two-week stay, on a couple of islands and in Athens, something hit me much deeper. It took me four years and a second graduate degree to begin to understand why Greece grabbed me so intensely.
By the time I’d gotten my MA from California State University, Sacramento, I realized that my calling in life, my avocation, was to write. It wasn’t enough just to study literature and the archetypal myths, not enough to talk about the creative process and how essential it is in cultivating wholeness and the powers of self-expression, which is what most of our seminar discussions and cafeteria symposia circled around back then—the glories of creativity. I wanted more than talk. I wanted to write, and not novels or short stories, but the most demanding genre of all (or so I thought back then), poetry.
I was lucky enough to have come across an excellent poet and teacher, Dennis Schmitz, who introduced me to a kind of writing that focused not so much on making great contributions to the literary canon or revivifying archaic motifs, but on using language to explore personal experience. Through his guidance I read contemporary poets like Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, and Sharon Olds, writers who used concrete, straightforward, and deeply moving language to explore their troubled relationships with others, past and present—lovers, friends, siblings, children and, for me the most galvanizing, parents.
But still something was missing. It wasn’t until I entered the University of Montana MFA program and began working with Richard Hugo that I started getting inklings of what was lacking.
Recognized by many in his day (and still) as one of the best creative writing teachers in America, Hugo taught music, taught process and, most importantly, at least for me, taught place. He would say in his workshops, “When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. If you believe the first, you are making your job very difficult and jeopardizing your chances of writing a good poem.” He also taught us wide-eyed young writers, eager to get his feedback on our latest poems, to be patient and prepare ourselves for what he called “the long haul.” Diligent work in the weeds of language, where we would discover and cultivate our own writing process, was far more important than the verse we were workshopping in our twenties. As he would put it, “The most important things a poet can learn about writing come out of the process of writing.”
Through listening to Hugo, I learned to assert music over meaning when writing a poem. In time, I found that meaning would come through no matter what. That’s just the way the mind works. Over the years, I slowly developed my own writing process, one that I’ve continued to use and refine for over four decades. How’s that for the long haul?
But the most important lesson I gained from my Montana master, the understanding of which ultimately led me back to Greece in 1980, right after I completed my MFA, was the importance of place. Let me explain.
Born in Seattle, Richard Hugo was known as a regional poet, one of the best. According to his approach, a poem has two subjects, the “triggering subject,” which initiates the piece and becomes its “base of operations,” and the “real subject,” which is discovered in the process of writing the poem. Triggering subjects for him were often abandoned towns, with their forgotten residents and seemingly irrelevant detail—”the water tower, the bank, the last movie announced on the marquee before the theater shut down for good, the closed hotel”—places located somewhere in the vast isolation of Montana or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Philipsburg, Argo, Kicking Horse Reservoir and many other abandoned or semi-abandoned locales triggered poems that became famous in Hugo’s oeuvre.
The more I got to understand his use of place, the more I realized Hugo, unbeknownst to him, was pointing me not to my native region of the Far West but back to Greece. It was this landscape (and seascape) that had grabbed me so intensely, even more so than the echoes of mythology and stories from the Old and New Testament. Once I returned, intent on remaining for a few months, maybe even a year or two, I started traveling widely, ranging from the fertile valleys of Thessaly to the barren, stone-riddled, stepped slopes of the Cyclades. Little did I know I’d stay for more than three decades—and counting.
What I slowly began to figure out in those first years was that the flora and fauna, the geology and climate, even the way of life of rural villagers, reminded me of my childhood in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. Unlike California, where the places I’d grown up in had become mostly unrecognizable, Greece of the 1980s, in many places and many ways, was very much like the Central Valley in the 50s and 60s. The more I traveled and wrote, the more I realized that here was a place I could write out of, where I could explore the territory of my childhood because the landscape around me was the territory of my childhood, or so it felt. What I was seeing and smelling often transported me to the sights and smells of my five-year-old self, my ten-year-old and even early-teen self, filling me with the wonder I sometimes basked in as a boy. But when I wrote out of those places, I was compelled as well to reencounter the troubling, even traumatic aspects of my childhood. So that’s what, at least in part, I began to write about, in the spirit of the poets who first drew me to writing, Levine, Kinnell, Olds, and others. And now I too had a landscape that I could go deep into, and so could go deep into myself.
Let’s look at an example of what I mean, a poem where focusing on place enables me to explore my relationship with my father, especially his death and how I responded to it, then and now:
A bump in the road. Hell, a nice shape,
but it reminds you of your father, where he’s buried.
South of Larissa
the roads are too narrow
to go fast, too many tractors
along the shoulder, too many roadside
fruitstands. This highway’s so straight, so endless,
it could be Hwy 99
north of Fresno, each bump
that one bulge in an otherwise
flat route through orchards and towns, the place
I imagined as a boy they’d bury my father.
He botched that death.
Instead curled up and let the strokes come
one by one, let his hands dangle from the bed
like rotting pears. I wrote of his dying, again and again,
how I could touch the full length of his absence,
feel his pulse fading
for years. Now I drive to understand
why the light here is the light of the San Joaquin
in my childhood, why walnut trees here too
are painted white, why men climb thin ladders
to throttle the branches and walnuts fall
like tears. I know I’ve botched love,
wanting something more from words,
forgetting that art only goes as far
as love goes, so at every
washed out muddy place I’d be up to my elbows
trying to make him anew—roots for ears,
sticks for arms, shattered glass for eyes
and teeth. I’d want to leave him
in wind, rain and the splash of passing traffic
to die another slow death . . . but, no,
I’d lick him smooth like a stray dog
licks the placenta from pups born dead,
thrums dirt with her paws to cover them up,
resignation and terror in her eyes
as she limps off to find some food.
And all repeats, mile after mile,
towns and orchards, orchards and towns,
that dog, I imagine, pausing at a fruitstand
to sniff an empty chair,
her tail vaguely wagging—is that
as love moves on.
It’s easy to see in “Driving” how, by engaging the landscape and milieu of Thessaly, I enter into my own young life in California’s Central Valley. But the details of that landscape trigger me to do even more, to imagine a story that enables me to reencounter my father and my feelings toward him, a moment that becomes intensely physical. In the poem I want to remake his body, and have him suffer the abandonment he made me feel when I was growing up. But neither the poem nor the place will let me stop there. In the last two stanzas, reexperiencing the pain of his death, I identify with a stray dog that has just lost her young (a scene on the side of a road I actually witnessed), and thus I recover, at least to some extent, compassion and love for my father.
In the next poem, place once again triggers the memory of a lost parent, this time my mother, who also abandoned me. Here too details in the landscape provide elements that enable me to reconstruct a parent’s body and tell a story. But in this poem, I invade my mother’s narrative (learned mostly from family members over the years) in an attempt to become part of her story and thus make myself an integral presence in her life, something that never happened in real life. In this way, through reimagining her story—and mine—I find a degree of belonging and wholeness.
Rocky cliffs. A few
sparse pines. The sea
wide as waiting arms.
Yet those arms would pound these cliffs
as if to purge some deep hurt, wind rip
thorn-topped rock walls, rattling
upright slabs as if to blast open
this field. Mother,
the snakeskin I found
a ways back, the way it crumbled to my touch,
makes me think of you as I descend
this ravine, makes me kneel to finger
the earth for shards, remember
the world once whole.
You kicked me out, a boy of four
with only your story as recompense:
thirteenth child, huddled in the closet,
your lumbering father thumping the boys,
fondling the girls. In my version
I’m in there with you, muffling your sobs,
wiping your tears, stroking your tangled
hair as your brothers leave, sisters,
finally your mother
leaving you with his new wife
till you too fled, husband
to husband, easy to hate
each one, dream your whole shift
of a new cop or driver full of empty
sweet talk. I know each one
touched you with want till you sent him away.
Look how far I’ve come,
alone after so many lovers,
scraping the rocky earth for a glimpse
of painted breast, gentle curve
of knee—I’d assemble
your whole body out of shards,
hug you tight as you once
In my version
we’re both a bundle of shards
rocking on the sea’s constant motion
all the way back to the source.
There are a lot of reasons why I’ve made Greece my home for better than half my life, many go well beyond childhood and the personal. But still what tops the list is how much this land nourishes me as a writer. The fact is that, by having learned to look intensely at place—thanks to the teachings of my Montana master—and letting it engage my memory and imagination, I have found a sense of belonging here that I never experienced while growing up in California. In some strange way, in leaving America and relocating here, I’ve come “all the way back to the source.”
Author’s Note: “Driving Thessaly” appears in Before Kodachrome (FutureCycle Press, 2012) and “Archaeology” appears in Approximately Paradise (University Press of Florida, 2002). The quoted passages by Richard Hugo (some paraphrased) may be found in The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). All photos are by the author.
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