Still breathing, still taking in
the sources ask for participation
purged of all performance1
Let me revise
They manifest a tantalizing effect
or inklings always knit of identity
and initiate an
1 ‘And they are having
an educative effect
perfectly manifest to me—
a manifestly civilizing effect’
How Not To
You saw the shadow of me in your
design, wandering across open greens
and wooded paths. You saw the land
as my eye would anticipate it. If I were
there I would make the trees. Then you
would sit with me there. I found you
when I searched for architects.1
You found me when I was stacking
up stones and watching mud dry
into my hands.
1 ‘I was chiefly taught how not to study’
At the edge—
stretching in front of me—
a swatch of shadow
exchanges its dark for light
again and again:
1 ‘As I travel, I see traces
of influences spreading
from it that no one else
passed over again
feeling past passages
I cannot unknot
the words from this place1
1 ‘I’ve read enough already
to choose from
to read over again
without going wrong’
It might look like a wavelength, but
it seems like a shrug. It shimmies
left, and then right, across my belly.
It has the color of the inside
of my eyelids. When I pay
attention, it is the sound of all the
words given to the air , every one
at the same time.1 It reverses the echo,
it feels the flesh receptive.
1 ‘This rather than anything
you have seen, or which
you have read’
I first started writing footnote poems after reading Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, a novella that chronicles one man’s internal dialogue while he goes about his day riding the escalator at the mall where he works. Baker makes use of footnotes to help his narrator expound on (and ramble) beyond the actual actions (or lack of actions) he is taking in the narrative. In one sense, Baker uses footnotes the way we expect footnotes to be used: they function as an aside that adds information or context to the text as it unfolds. The footnotes in The Mezzanine, however, physically overwhelm the space of the page and thus heighten our sense the protagonist’s anxieties. In a sense, the “primary” text (as we’re used to experiencing it) is entirely displaced by the footnotes.
The decisions I had to make when reading this work made a pure linear approach to reading it impossible and had substantial implications on how I’d experience the narrative. Should I read the footnotes first? Last? As they appear in the text, thus interrupting the flow of the “main” narrative? I immediately started trying out footnotes in poems for precisely that purpose – to make the reader (including me, when I read them aloud), have to make decisions for how the poems progress, apart from the traditional linear trajectory. It also forces the reader to ask whether or not the footnotes are meant to be “a part” or “apart from” the “primary” poem.
The poems included here come from a manuscript that makes use of the language of the prose works of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), landscape architect of Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system, and many, many other recreational spaces in the United States. I cite all of his language clearly, thus enacting a kind of textual dialogue about landscape and language across the centuries, bringing his voice to the contemporary moment when many of our parks are in decline. Roughly a third of the poems in the manuscript are poems in my own voice footnoted with lines and phrases from Olmsted.
The poems here, in particular, come from a brief expository chapter focused on Olmsted’s studying and reading habits and his own self-education through the works of others. This section of the project, called “Study and Reading,” focuses on my relationship with Olmsted’s works, and that intimacy that repetitive engagement with another’s words produces. I found moments in the text that resonated with my experience of reading and studying his works or that mirrored my own self-education through others’ texts. I wrote the poems around these moments, and footnoted particular lines with Olmsted’s text at key moments of resonance. Those connections are for readers to explore and I hope, especially, that readers enjoy trying out different systems for reading them, depending on individual ideas for how and when footnotes should enhance/interrupt the reading.
Moriah L Purdy grew up in New England but later followed the migratory patterns of many birds to the Mid-Atlantic, first to the DC area for an MFA at George Mason University and then to the eastern shore of Maryland for a job at Washington College where she is the Assistant Director of the Writing Center and a lecturer for the departments of English and Education. Her poems, visual poems, and collaborative projects have been featured in DIAGRAM, Word For/Word, Fringe Magazine and other journals. She shares some thoughts on poetics and pedagogy at her personal blog at http://moriahlpurdy.wordpress.com.