On April 15, two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. They hit the crowded gallery of fans by the finish line, near Copley Square. The bombs killed three persons and injured more than 250.
The bombs exploded just before 3 in the afternoon, during the recess in my afternoon seminar. I first learned of the events from a friend who texted me, “Is your family okay?” Not having a sense of why they would not be, I instinctively checked CNN’s website. “BOMBINGS IN BOSTON” headed the homepage. The live-blog described a chaotic scene: scores injured; smoke everywhere; the street slick with blood; emergency personnel rushing to secure the area and save the wounded; unending sirens. A video showed the explosions ripping through the crowd.
I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, a quiet settlement eight miles from Copley Square. The Marathon’s route follows Commonwealth Avenue through Newton into Boston. My house is a block from the Marathon’s 20-mile marker, in the middle of Heartbreak Hill, the most notorious of a series of four steep ascents that runners must endure as they pass through the city. Patriots’ Day, which commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord, fought against the British in 1775, is a state holiday in Massachusetts. School is cancelled in observance of it. Little League is not. So, every year, after an early-afternoon ballgame, my father and two brothers and I would go out to the grassy embankment that adjoins the road-route. We watched the race, loafing there with neighbors and strangers. Even where we were, spectators thronged. Peddlers hawked souvenirs and toys, and, always, a clown teetered on stilts. My father bought us cotton candy and balloons. We cheered the runners and often mischievously doused them with water as they passed.
When we eventually tired of the revelry and sun, we returned home to watch the end of the race on television, runner after runner breaking the sturdy tape and collapsing. The tape crosses Boylston Street between Old South Church and the Boston Public Library, a few yards from the shops on Newbury Street, near the steps leading out from the Copley train station underground.
The Copley area is mostly marked by expensive boutiques and franchises, and is populated by the professional folk who can afford them. I still attend the Library to do work during holidays from college, but the proliferation of commercial institutions in it has mostly effaced the city’s native history, culture, and population, and so I spend very little time in the area. This aversion, however, is a recent development. Copley retains immense psychological importance for me as the site of many adolescent events. Arriving downtown on the Green Line from Newton, I whiled away many Saturday nights with friends and girlfriends, browsing CDs at the comics store, slurping smoothies, strolling the leafy streets, or just loafing on the road-side benches. My mother and I often lunched on pita and hummus at a tea-shop nearby. My grandmother bought me half-price paperbacks at the Borders on Boylston. In 2008, my family went to the Library to see an exhibition of maps of Boston, from its founding until now, depicting the city from a bird’s-eye view.
These memories were called to mind by the pictures of the attacks and their aftermath, the words “Boston” and “Boylston” and “bombing.” In my mental vision of the location, the pictures were superimposed over the remembered images, inflecting their warmth with carnage. On Facebook and Twitter, friends from home were posting about the attacks, asking friends to check in, updating others about the unfolding events: the shutting down of cellular service; the chaos downtown; the death count. On the website of the Newton Tab, there was a picture of the intersection a block from my house, where, out of a superabundance of caution, police were detonating a suspicious object.
When my seminar resumed, and we returned to our discussion—of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos—I found myself incapable of listening or speaking. I mean this in its full bodily sense. An irrepressible fear set in that my father and brother had been injured in the blasts, that more attacks would ensue. I remember nothing of the remaining hour but the great gloom that filled me; I cannot remember having known a gloom that was greater. What I felt was a combination of utter emptiness and violent turmoil, as though I were inside myself a sailor ship-wrecked, raft-less, and alone, heaved by the Atlantic dark. I suppose the turmoil I felt was actually the oscillation between intense sorrow and nothingness, blankness and blindness, the onrushing and outrushing of all of me from me. I could not listen or speak because I could not do anything but receive. The images and words were incoming. The memories were coming up. The tears were coming up and nearly out. The throat and the ears were stopped. The eye was stymied. Intellection stopped.
When I left class, I called my father. After a few rings, a woman answered. I hung up. This did not mollify my persistent fear that he and my brother had been hurt. Standing in front of Frist, I called him again; this time, no-one picked up. I reconciled myself to the certainty that he had not been downtown, because he never went downtown to watch the race. Two friends who are also from the Boston-area approached me then, both sullen in down-face, easily distinguished from the other students who strolled blithely by. A third friend joined us, as gray. They confirmed that their families were accounted for. We worried for friends who were not yet. We shared memories of watching the marathon as children, of strolling along Boylston and through Copley Square as teenagers. We talked of Boston and of Massachusetts. A few of us went together to a Nass meeting, then, but I could not bring myself to participate. Instead, I watched live coverage of the bombings on-line, frantically checking updates on social media and live-blogs, re-checking.
Until Friday evening, I spent all of my free time attending to the news, as what actually happened was gradually elaborated. The dead were named. The folks who had tied life-saving tourniquets were named. Suspects were suggested on the basis of photographic evidence and then, on Thursday, were named by the FBI as the brothers Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, of Cambridge.
Thursday night, the brothers killed Officer Sean Collier, as he sat in his cruiser. They hijacked a Mercedes SUV and kidnapped its owner. They drove around Cambridge, until the owner fled and alerted the police, who then engaged the brothers in a massive fire-fight on a quiet side-street in suburban Watertown. In the battle, Tamerlan was killed, but Dzokhar managed to flee. As the police combed the surrounding area for him, a ‘shelter-in-place’ order was put in effect for all of the surrounding towns, including Newton. In the early evening, the authorities relaxed their order without having found him. They could no longer keep the whole region on lockdown. A homeowner went to his backyard to breathe. He saw blood on the tarpaulin that covered his boat. He lifted it and saw Dzokhar lying in the hull, wounded and nearly unconscious.
His capture was an immense relief to me. Friday had been nearly as distressing as Monday had been, for the chase and search brought violence nearer to my home. Watertown neighbors Newton. It separates Newton from Waltham, where I went to school. Every day of high school I went to school along the same roads by which the brothers fled. The police command center was set up in front of the Target where I bought kitchenware for my Spelman room. Friends reported having heard some of the firefight Thursday night. My family was on lock down all of Friday.
This spring, I wrote my Junior Paper on the mid-20th century poet Charles Olson and his poem, “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld].” Perhaps more than any other poem Olson wrote, “Letter 27” proclaims the ethical importance of knowing and standing astride one’s own place. Olson begins it by giving situation to his discourse: “I come back to the geography of it.” The two stanzas that follow dispel the ambiguity of “it”, describing a pair of memories, the first of which depicts Olson’s father as he shoots his golf by the sea, while Olson, apart, plays ball “until no flies could be seen” and then returns home to his mother. The second turns from this calm, crepuscular scene to a memory of overwhelming violence, in which Olson’s father attacks a “druggist” who had apparently made a pass at Olson’s mother.
Olson abruptly truncates his recollection of this second memory, and does not supply the needed “wore” to the end of its last line: “under one of those frame hats women then.” “This,” he declares—against the Platonists and anyone who would abstract his memories—“is no bare incoming/ of novel abstract form, this/ is no welter or the forms/ of those events.” “This”, which is equivalent to the prefatory “it”, begins a series of similar demonstrative assertions that attempt to define the ontological status of memory; and, then, against the “abstract form” of the “human,” Olson asserts the nature of American selfhood as “a complex of occasions,” which themselves are structured by “spatial nature.”
The concrete memories are almost forgotten in these assertions, but, in closing, Olson feels a need to return to them and their geography. By anxiously describing how his geography “leans in” on him, he indicates the dangers of asserting the primacy of the local: complacency, complicity, excessive retrospection, stasis. As Olson celebrates the local, he also asserts his particular personhood against even Gloucester, so it might become present, so it might “change.” So, he ends the poem by “compell[ing]” Gloucester to yield to him and his poem. This struggle is the duty of every citizen and is what constitutes the city as a living human settlement. “Polis,” he announces, “is this.”
Olson had begun his study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, with this declaration: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America.” By space he meant place, geography, the landscape we can scope. For Olson, place is where all of our things are. It is the site of all our life’s events. It constitutes our eye’s horizon. It is what determines a man’s present person and the range of his possible futures.
Olson’s favorite quote was from Heraclitus. He paraphrased it in “Maximus, to Himself”: “I stood estranged/ from that which was most familiar.” Philosophical abstraction, beginning with the Greeks, had led man away from the immediacy of the experience of the body. He had his body from his mind, and so know longer knew that his words were shaped by the breath that carried them, his thoughts by the air he breathed. He knew no longer the place of his birth, his upbringing, his dwelling, and what he did know he dismissed as uninteresting, inessential. He no longer knew nature nor the quarters of the weather. Water and wind were alien.
Olson was brought up in Gloucester and lived the last years of his life there. It is a port-town, Massachusetts coast-line Atlantic. Every day, even today, hundreds of men set keel to strong breakers, going out eastward in schooners to catch fish. The city depends on their haul to survive. Olson admired this vocation as a youth and tried his hand at sea, but it “was not finally [his] trade,” so he turned to writing. Many of his poems praise the seamen of Gloucester for their continued familiarity with all of the elements, “the agilities/ they show daily.” For they must know to foretell a storm by a single squall; to right bow in choppy waters; to see a fish’s fins glinting in the dark deep; to track the westward motion of the sea and of the sea-floor.
Gloucester is the center of Olson’s epic, The Maximus Poems. As William Carlos Williams did in Paterson, Olson fronts the local in it. In the early 1950s, when Olson was serving as rector of Black Mountain College, North Carolina, he would send missives to one Ferrini, a Gloucester poet-friend, excoriating him and his fellow citizens for forsaking their city for national commerce, politics, and literature. So Maximus begins, with these letters transmuted into verse. Olson sets out to construct the proper Polis, defined as the entire diachronic complex of citizen-city-landscape, by enacting his gloss of the Herodotean sense of history, as finding out for oneself.
The fisherman, for Olson, is one exemplar of this mode. Another is the postman, who knows all he does about his place by traversing it. Olson’s father delivered the mail his whole life; and Olson apprenticed for his father during his teenage summers. But in Maximus, this mode is arrogated for the poet and posed as generally applicable. It is a commitment to reacquainting with what is near and familiar. Thus, Olson figures the topographical features of the seashore as the lineaments of all that has occurred there, most centrally the town’s history and his own memories. He also explains and analyzes the city politics that have happened there, from the first settling of Cape Ann in 1623 until now, and he elaborates the complex social relations among Gloucester’s citizens—fishermen, councilmen, craftsmen, poets—and the economic relations that undergird them. Always the bearing of these forces on the individual citizen is primary. Western culture, especially its literature, is only ever present actually, when it is emphatic in the event described, and never allegorically.
Olson took the poetic and ordinary prioritization of the local to be not only epistemologically but also ethically imperative. It is precisely because what is near and familiar is more immediately knowable that it must be known. It is not abstract but present. It is what acts on us, daily, and what we can possibly act on. The local, especially of childhood, is valuable inasmuch as it is found in each person as fact. No value is conferred to it by assessment. Though it can be repressed or dismissed, it cannot be forsaken, as memory also cannot be forsaken. For the topos of our existence is always coming into us, even against our conscious will, so long as we live and sense anything at all. So, he understood the work of his Maximus Poems as both a titanic act of finding out for himself who he was in his place and a pious act of acknowledging Gloucester as the source of his existence and progress through life.
Olson’s decision to make Gloucester the subject of his epic can also be construed as a rejection of cosmopolitanism and acculturation. He spurns London, Paris, New York. In “Letter 27,” he announces that “this,/ Greeks, is the stopping/ of the battle.” The heroes of Maximus are not Greek gods or Roman emperors or even American founders; they are the residents of Gloucester, Roger Conant, John Burke, Jeremiah Millett. In Maximus, Olson defiantly refuses to accept as important what American and even Western culture has deemed important. He refuses to accept culture’s assessment of Gloucester as some obsolescing backwater town. He refuses to accept culture’s assessment of Gloucester’s citizens as luckless and forlorn, unworthy of poetry, unworthy of the epic. Gloucester has its own history, culture, and population; these exist in relation to its distinctive topography, geography, and weather patterns. Gloucester, above all, is a human settlement, in which human beings interact with each other and with never-ending nature and work to improve their own lives.
I have been thinking about Olson’s decision in relation to Princeton’s culture. One characteristic difference of the relationships we develop here from those we have known in high school and earlier is that, almost without exception, we are not familiar with our friends’ hometowns. (The same is true with respect to their families; and in many ways, families and hometowns are similar givens in our lives.) But I have found that it is rare to even know where a friend is from. Hometowns are often thought to be reasons for shame or places of minor interest. In a broad scope, racial and sexual diversity is prioritized over geographical diversity, even though—especially at Princeton—prejudice is so often determined by whence someone comes. It seems to me that we are even encouraged to forget or efface whence we come, as a contingent obstacle to the construction of a harmonious Babel. Instead, we are encouraged to construct our identities by bricolage, out of the sterile selection of residential colleges, eating clubs, majors, and most of all Princeton and its traditions (even when they are a few years old). In this way, Princeton can be seen as an atopia or hypertopia, an institution of no place, such that identity is entirely structural, or an institution of so singular a place that the identities that count inside it cannot refer outwards. By promoting institutional sources of identity at the expense of preexistent ones, such as whence we come, the University actively severs itself from the organic development of society. It only happens to sit on land. There are no fishermen.
It may be characteristically American that we accept the University’s invitation to forget our prior selves and to celebrate doing so. Whence we come, or came, is considered expendable for the sake of self-advancement. From the very beginning of the college applications process, it is made clear that attending Princeton is an indubitable advance on our prior lives. Princeton advertises itself as Freedom from all that. It represses the givenness of home, the necessity of origins, in order to ostensibly liberate us to the winds and all possibility. Upon graduation, we become elective immigrants, abandoning origins out of strong desire and not fear, able to choose where to sink our roots. Yet the tree of life that has grown within us for so many years, if it grows, must grow again from seedling. It may again stand firmly in the earth, but that time is many years from now.
There is also the danger that we will root ourselves in fallow soil. The tree we are may never stand as strong. For the paradox of Princeton’s effacement of geographical particularity is that its effect is not an opening up but a conforming. It makes us humans, in the abstract. It retards our ability to live with concrete, particular humans. It directs us to the world’s few financial and cultural centers—New York, Chicago, Boston, London, Paris—where we engage in activities that further alienate us from ourselves, participation in the international market and the accumulation of cultural experiences most of all. The institutions of the market and of culture also only happen to occupy land. Their attitude is also structural and abstract.
Many conscientious folks have tried to juxtapose the atrocity of the Marathon bombings with the atrocities that have been occurring daily in Syria. They did so to demand that Americans expand their sympathies beyond our own—relatively minor—tragedies to encompass the tragedies of others. They asserted that Americans’ response to the bombing was selfish parochialism, resulting from fear of losing something of their own. They appealed for justice on the basis of the abstract category of the human.
I took this as a challenge to my response to the bombings and the provincial loves it expressed. In subsequent weeks, I have considered whether or not it could be true—that my extraordinary sorrow was mere selfishness. The bombings happened ten days before my paper on Olson was due, and Olson’s extremely compelling arguments about Gloucester have helped me think about my response. I suppose my response was selfish, in that it responded to the violation of something about me that I take to be sacred—namely, my geographical origins. It might have also been selfish, in that it was initially connected with a fear of losing family, friends, and what has been called innocence.
But, if Olson is right about the importance of one’s own place, then it was not merely selfishness that caused my sorrow. For one’s own place is like one’s parents. It so conditions one’s growth into personhood that it can be said to constitute the self. Place is thus, like a God or a parent, the given basis for all of one’s activities and so demands piety as a source of one’s own life. Under the immense, conforming pressures of Princeton, it can be very easy to forget one’s geographical origins—at least as easy as it is to forget one’s parents. But forget as one might, one’s place remains a decisive force. The repression of it encouraged by the University, like the repression of childhood memories, is ultimately impossible and only leads to neuroses and ignorance of the true nature of one’s being; this, I take it, is one reason Olson analogizes geography and memory in “Letter 27.” I suppose I had, before this semester, to some degree, repressed the importance of Newton, Massachusetts in my life, taking it as a given that was not a force. Studying Olson compelled me to begin attending to my real place as something alive in me, and the bombings completed this process, by painfully extracting it from below all my accumulated cosmopolitanisms to announce its absolute significance everyday. What my despondent response to the Marathon bombings corresponds to is a response to the violation of something sacred. The Temple’s destruction is disturbing not because I could have been killed or the wood is expensive but because the omnipotent deity resided within, and in the ruins of his sanctum lie the ruins of our selves. One’s origins exists in the ethical realm of not selfishness but the self. It was in fact my self that was attacked.
This is what I meant by describing Olson’s poetic activity in Maximus as pious. Piety involves attending to the sources of one’s existence. Olson assumed a pious disposition towards Gloucester, averting his gaze from the idolatrous figures of New York and elsewhere. He quite literally worshipped his Polis but not idolatrously, tending to it, so that Gloucester might survive in perpetuity, as a son repays some of his maternal debt by caring for her in old age.
We have all forsaken our places for Princeton. I forsook Newton and Boston for Princeton. The lesson of Olson and the Boston bombings is both not to and that one cannot, for gods exist irregardless of our attention to them, and are life-giving and immortal. Now, our endeavors have estranged us from these deities. The bombings announced this. Olson’s Maximus is one man’s attempt to reacquaint himself with own his divine place. When we read the Poems, they compel us to recognize that knowing the names of the simple streets and trees of the places we have abandoned is as vital for knowing ourselves as knowing the Athenian agora or American Senate is. They thus compel us to recognize not only the virtue but also the transformative value of reacquainting ourselves with our origins. For Olson’s investigation of Gloucester reveals to him parts of his unseen self and the actuality of his relationship with the place. Olson deduces from this transformation that his act of reacquainting must be an act of inhabitance, or action. Returning to one’s origins gains an ethical significance: attending also means caring for and participating in, which is to say not only knowing origins but acting towards their improvement, engaging in the life of our hometowns, and taking responsibility for their failures and excellences. It is a question of living and living with others in one’s proper place.
I have spent the past two summers abroad. I had thought I would spend this summer in New York, interning at a magazine and intercoursing with Princeton friends. Instead, I will be living at home, in Newton, researching the life and work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was born in Boston and, until his death, lived nearby in Concord. Before the bombings, and before meeting Olson, I might have despaired at the prospect of such a summer, the fallow nights with no destinations but basements and empty streets. I shall not despair of it now. I shall signify it as a blessing. I shall stroll at all times of day and know the morning-sun’s light in my parts, as it dapples the pavement, and the moon’s. I shall stroll in any weather that comes here. I shall stroll to the town’s library and learn of the town’s history. I shall learn the names of streets and parks and buildings, and the names of the streets and parks and buildings they replaced; and I shall learn, as well, the names on the headstones, under ivy, in the graveyards and the fields. I shall greet the citizens of Newton as fellow-citizens, not estranged. I shall greet my old friends and thank them. On one evening, as the horizon divides into its shades, I shall invite friend and fellow-citizen to stroll eastward with me, down Commonwealth Avenue to Boylston Street. As we set out into the breaking dark, the descending sun through the branches and leaves of trees shall dapple his face and her face each, and I shall delight in this shadow-play silently. We shall together rejoice in the unkempt presence of each other, yapping about the weather and our city, without mind for anything beyond. But we shall stop our stroll near where Boylston runs into Copley Square, stilled by the sound of a soft sibilance. We shall cease our speech and listen to the sound. We shall stand there in silence in Boston, in Massachusetts. It is the sound of all of our dead.