Today we welcome a post by award-winning poet Michelle Brittan Rosado, author of Why Can’t It Be Tenderness, part of our Wisconsin Poetry Series. In this essay, she explains how the spaces in her life have influenced her poetry.
“The poet of place,” according to James Galvin, “situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation.” Overlooking the masculine pronouns, I do think this can be true of poetry of place, that it can be a way to dissolve the self into an anonymous landscape. But I also think such poetry can be a map to find ourselves, a space in which to reassemble the annihilated and recover the displaced.
Many of the poems in my collection, Why Can’t It Be Tenderness, were written with particular landscapes in mind. One of these is the Vacaville-Dixon Greenbelt, a thousand acres of agricultural land protected from development, just outside of the Northern California town where I was raised. As an only child in the backseat of my parents’ car, I’d watch through the window the even lines of crops flanking the interstate: towering sunflowers, mature almond trees, dense strawberries close to the ground. The distance between my hometown of Vacaville and neighboring Dixon seemed never-ending, but out of that childhood boredom and restlessness came an eventual appreciation for spaces in between, both literal and figurative, and what could grow there.
Vacaville is, socially and politically, a unique mix where the liberal San Francisco Bay Area blends into the more conservative Central Valley, the agrarian way of life is adjacent to the gates of the Air Force base, and first- and second-generation immigrants have put down roots alongside established families. This is the heterogeneous context in which I began writing, and was the inspiration for the poem “Pastoral with Restless Searchlight.” This backdrop would also lead me to write more consciously about the in-betweenness of adolescence as well as the two halves of my family history. On my fathers’ side, I’m descended from California settlers, and on my mother’s side, my extended family lives mainly in Sarawak, a state in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Both the landscape surrounding Vacaville and the more distant Pacific Ocean instilled in me a fascination for what simultaneously separates and joins people: the greenbelt of land between one town and another, the world’s largest swath of water between two sides of a family.
The word threshold can be used to describe the space we pass through to arrive at one space from another, though a threshold seems like a much quicker passage than the landscapes of my youth. It is usually associated with a doorstep, a slim panel of wood at the foot of a door’s frame that we step over to enter a room. It suggests an instant change of scenery, an immediate transportation. But as John O’Donohue points out, the etymology of the word can be traced to the act of threshing, of separating the grain from a husk. It is work, a process of engaging with the land, of being an active participant in change, of producing something useful that can nourish us. Having witnessed the seasons pass along with the blooming and harvests and dying vines from the roadside, that sense of work has entered my approach to writing poems and utilizing the materials at hand.
Poetry for me has been a celebration of the in-between—which is where tenderness can be found, too. “Tender” has its roots in the Latin word tendre: to stretch, hold forth. When I began writing poems, I think I encountered the space of the page like it was a physical place, an endless belt of green, something beyond the window I could almost touch. Poetry has since carried me through uncertainty and knitted together what is broken apart. How merciful that language, land, and water have the ability to carry us when we have left what we know but have not yet arrived to where we are going.