Poetry professor Shara McCallum leads a poetry walk down to the river. The walking tour started at the Stadler Center for Poetry, and the participants and Prof. McCallum made various stops to along the way to observe our beautiful environs and to read poetry that was either inspired by or speaks to Lewisburg's beauty. In the above pictures, the writers stop and admire a Civil War memorial on University Avenue and read Eavan Boland's "Heroic," a poem in which a young girl looks at a war memorial and contemplates its significance.
After meandering past the war memorial and through allewyays, the writers arrived at the west bank of the Susquehanna. Here, they read several fluvially-inspired poems, including Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and sat for over an hour to admire the river and to begin to develop a poem inspired by the beauty they experienced.
Journal prompt: Reflect on your experirences today at the river. What were your impressions of the space? How did writing on location influence your experience of writing? How does your reading of Blue Highways fit into this?
I expected today's walk by the river to be very peaceful, uneventful. People go to a river to listen to the water run and watch strings tied to poles, waiting for them to go taut. But my expectation of an eventless walk was interrupted by the reality of walking through a “natural” landscape (as natural as a deliberately-cultivated garden can be, anyway). As I walked through the grass, I felt something slither by my foot – a Garter snake, over a foot long but thin as my thumb. After observing the river for awhile, thinking about metaphors like veins, Life, Death, and how very sparkly it was, even on a dull grey day, I stood, took a few steps, and again was assaulted by a commotion by my foot – the buzzing of dozens of flies interrupted from their dead-songbird meal. And as I walked to take pictures, I exchanged looks with a ground hog, then followed its baby up the bank of the river.
Not exactly uneventful. This kind of spontaneous interaction with the surroundings reminds me a bit of Blue Highways. William Least Heat-Moon does not, for the most part, deliberately seek out an “experience.” All he planned before taking his trip was to go in a circle. But along the way, he has interacted with the places he has encountered, often through the landscape and history. However, one significant piece missing from my experience, which deeply enriched his, is people.
As I sat on the bank of the river, I was aware of several people or groups of people. One, my fellow writers, hidden in their own nooks along the river. Two, a man on a yellow tractor, mowing the garden lawn. Three, the people living in the houses behind me – not seen so much as felt, since I worried that I'd overstepped the garden's boundaries and sat my rear in their backyard. Four, the motor-boaters and kayakers making their ways up and down the river. And five, the motorists on the bridge, whose steady hum drowned out most of the sound of the river (with help from the mower), making its motions more noticeable.
I was aware of these groups of people, but I did not talk to them, not even the other students. I did not stand and strike up a conversation with the man mowing, ask him how he came by this job, how long he's been in the area, where I could find a four-calendar diner or the best fish sandwich. I did not see neighbors in their yards, but if I had, I wouldn't've approached them. I expect that my time at the Institute will help me delve more deeply into the history of this region, and also to experience it not just as a student tourist, but as someone looking to observe the community around me more deeply. However, there is a very “now” aspect of the valley that I'm not sure we are getting. I wish I had worked for the Daily Item or volunteered regularly for some local charitable organization, but I haven't and so I don't know the people of Lewisburg and the surrounding area. I don't know how connected they feel to the history here, or what bits of lore are common knowledge. Or what cafe ranks the highest (Cherry Alley, maybe?). Heat-Moon does speak to the people, everywhere he goes, and this gives a less academic, more immediate sense to his writing. Because of this concern, I am hoping to base my portfolio off of the community study and interview, seeing an interview of two people as a sort of Cliffs Notes to understanding part of the Susquehanna river valley.
It was a beautiful day to experience the river - to really think about it, but also to just let yourself go limp in the heat and just soak it in. Shara took us to a great spot on the bank, a space I’ve ran by and glanced countless times but never ventured into. Being right on the river while writing was a really pure influence; I feel like descriptions and details that I would never conjure up sitting within four walls were the first ones to strike me. For some reason, the humidity is what really struck me today. The day wasn’t even suffocating in that oppressive, smack-in-the-face-as-soon-as-you-walk-out-the-door type humidity that we know so well in New Jersey (and Pennsylvania). But it was the one of the first days that the air felt like that. Hot and humid; which is the favorite phrase of the Eyewitness News Accuweather Forecast for the tri-state area, June through August, which means summer, which means a long-awaited change has finally happened. And so I found myself writing about the climate, an aspect I’m sure I wouldn’t have explored had I been writing in a removed location.
A stickyhot day, but not a true stickyhot day.
Not framed by stickyhot,
with the greenhouse memory inside yesterday
and all around tomorrow.
Not July’s runny slumber-song,
days set to slow-simmer and sweat-it-out.
But early June’s shaky new summer legs
picked up and put down like barefeet on blacktop.
…the river in the air,
syrup-still currents sugar-rot my bones.
I like this idea of humidity, of the air being thick with water all around us, the river seeping invisibly beyond its banks. It seems like a great start for a few poems.
I see a connection between my experience of writing by the river and the accounts in Blue Highways. In both cases, the writer is describing, physically, what’s right there in front of them. I found myself jotting down details in a list-like form just so I would have a word snap-shot of the space I was in. Blue Highways showcases similarly straightforward descriptions of place. But there is always something more. The physical landscape always draws us into something deeper, or we draw something deeper out of the landscape. I found myself following this same pattern of thought; I would remain in the realm of physical description for a while, but something else was inevitably drawn in, whether I stated it explicitly or it merely glimmered through in my word choice and phrasing. In Blue Highways, Least Heat Moon’s expansive connections through history, anthropology and literature are pretty explicit, but there are also subtler connections with his personal life. To be honest, what I just christened as subtleness in Least Heat Moon’s writing reads more like trite and groan-evoking philosophizing with a hearty dose of haughtiness, but we’ll get to discussing this book soon enough…
I guessed that writing in actual proximity to the Susquehanna would create a different (and probably more fruitful) creative experience, particularly since I tend to work best with visuals. But I really hadn’t expected to feel such a strong reaction to actually seeing and being in the places that I have walked through many times over the past several years. The fact that I had sat and walked in, had conversations in, made memories in these places actually made it more difficult to see areas of Lewisburg and clearings near the Susquehanna with a completely open mind. I felt like every direction I looked in was drenched in my own selfish memories. As we walked, I saw small paths along the river my friend and I used to take at night. When we stopped and sat near the river to write, I glanced over at the bridge and remembered when we walked to the new diner at 3 AM. Along the bridge were Lewisburg’s famous lampposts—they are patented and don’t exist anywhere but Lewisburg and somewhere in Disney World, I think. The memories tied to these lampposts might seem silly or overly sentimental, but they really create a comforting ambiance that is particular to this small town in central Pennsylvania. Once I met a young man who had tattooed the Lewisburg lamppost on one of his wrists. He had lived in town all of his life, and for him these lampposts were symbolic of his home. As I looked past the lampposts lining the bridge, I saw the old railroad crossing behind it that my friend had daringly walked across (partially). He loves crossing things. Particularly dangerous things.
All of this bothered me, though. I got worked up because I could not look at the river and the often-overlooked corners of this town without attaching some personal story or feeling with places and objects. I wanted to be able to separate my memories from everything else, but I realized that this was impossible. The question instead became: how do I allow my memories to become a part of everything else? Or how do I share them? I think the problem was that I struggled to let my own experiences and memories become a part of the greater experience of residents, travelers, and students of Lewisburg area. I think that I was selfishly, and futilely, trying to hold onto my memories like they were only mine. I didn’t want to share. But in order to make this experience valuable, I guess I need to find a middle ground. My own experiences and memories of the Susquehanna during my years as a student at Bucknell are not invaluable, but at the same time, I can’t let my own experience blind me to the rich history and layered experiences that already line this part of the river. I guess that I would like to write like William Least Heat-Moon, exploring the histories of towns and talking to people about their own individual experiences. Yet, I don’t think that even he could completely lose himself in his writing—his impressions were still there, riddled with his past and his own experiences up to this point. I guess the difference is that he has dexterously discovered that middle-ground for which I am searching.
I sat by the Susquehanna yesterday, and I suppose that meant I should have been thinking about it exclusively. Or at least, predominantly. But when I was actually there, I found my thoughts wondering.
The Susquehanna isn’t a river I have an internal map for, you see, at least not a personal one. I think that means it has less hold over my thoughts, as well. That’s one of the more interesting quirks of deep mapping, I think: there’s landscape, and then there’s how people remember landscape. In a relational sense, geographic features must measure physical against experiential size. And this particular river, broad and stately as it is, serves mostly to remind me of other rivers.
That will change quickly enough, I think, as I see more of it. These next weeks I will be getting well acquainted with it. Rivers I have seen:
Anacostia, Potomac, Patuxent, St. Mary’s, Mississippi, Missouri, Red, Arno, Gambia.
I remember them. Still, a passing knowledge isn’t the same as having scraps of geology writ large across one’s synapses. I think my heart might not belong to rivers. It has been set to braided creeks flowing under leaning trees, to small blue lakes, and very sometimes ocean waves.
So yesterday I sat breathing in the hot humid air drifting up off the Susquehanna, thinking about what other rivers I’d seen. I was thinking about how little I knew any of them, really. And then I thought, all of them are known well by somebody. That made me smile.
At the end of Chapter 6 of Eastward, Least Heat-Moon writes: “I thought how Bob Andriot was rebuilding a past he could see and smell, one he could shape with his hands. He was using it to build something new. I envied him that” (14). Sitting on the peaceful banks of the Susquehanna River yesterday afternoon and watching the birds flit through the trees and the clouds, I began to compose the first poem of my portfolio. Writing in a natural environment where life blooms in all directions greatly differs from writing in a stark, white dorm room. That afternoon, everything needed to craft a poem was right at my fingertips, and as I molded all I could see, and smell, and hear around me, characters and narratives flowed unimpeded from my imagination. A writer is very much a craftsman, one who carefully collects images, names, experiences, and words. In those moments, I felt like Bob Andriot—a shaper who creates with my hands—and my goal in this poetry portfolio is to help people see the world differently the way that Andriot’s craft helped Least Heat-Moon to see that a history lies beneath the house’s artificial façade. I, too, am erecting a house constructed of materials that I will gather as I venture through the Susquehanna Valley. In the end, I hope to have a body of work that rebuilds the past and the present, so that my readers can enjoy an experience with meaning that resonates beyond the page before them.
The location of the park directly beside the river provided a great place to sit and just stare out into the water. Adding to that effect, the day was perfect weather for contemplation. I was struck by the sheer amount of greenery that was around the river and myself. Generally, when I write poetry, I have difficulty with grounding the work, typically heading off immediately into metaphysical considerations. However, by sitting in that environment, I could start with portions of my observations and then wander into the metaphysical, helping the readings of the poems by establishing some form of setting to them.
In many ways, I have trouble thinking of the landscape in the manner that William Least Heat-Moon does at times. While to some degree the environment does dictate many of the lifestyle choices of the population, the people with whom he talked seemed to have a much greater tie to the land that most of the people I know. However, living along a river could drastically alter the relationship between 'land' and human. Dependence upon the river for some things, but also a degree of fear of the water and its powerful potential. Personally, I have difficulty quantifying my ties to the landscape where I live, and most likely, I would never have thought of taking some of the literary paths Least Heat-Moon chose. This is not to say that his ideas do not have validity, but they require a significant redirection of thought in order to replicate.
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