Poems of Place

April 19, 2022



The first thing I thought of when I saw that the Russians had attacked Lviv was Adam Zagajewski’s poem “To Go to Lvov.”  In fact, the only things I know about Lvov/ Lviv come from his poems, and from his prose  book Two Cities, about Lvov and Gliwice.  Zagajewski was just a few months old when his family was forced to leave Lvov, a beautiful old, cultured town, a World Historical Site, for Gliwice, an industrial German city traded to Poland at the end of World War II.  Zagajewski’s family kept the city they’d had to leave alive with stories, and the poet absorbed their vision:  “My grandfather, despite walking right next to me in Gliwice, was in Lvov. I walked the streets of Gliwice, he walked the streets of Lvov.”  This in turn made me think of poems where place looms large–real places like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, Frank O’Hara’s New York City, Alice Oswald’s Dart, about the river.  But I also think of wholly imaginary places, like Xanadu in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” or Dante’s vision of Hell in the Inferno, or the metaphorical ship in Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. And then the places in between–actual places summoned up in memory, like Zagajewski’s Lvov.  The place could be as small as a room or a garden, as large as a city or mountain range or ocean–Frost’s “Once By the Pacific.”


I’d like to know what poems of place you think of.  Please post them here, and choose one to read at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).  I’ll send the zoom link on Friday.  Let me know if you have any questions about how to post a comment here–just go to the red link on the right, then scroll down–about being on the mailing list if you aren’t already, about working with me privately, or pretty much anything else about poetry.


To Go to Lvov

To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green
armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas
of a Venetian café, the snails converse
about eternity. But the cathedral rises,
you remember, so straight, as straight
as Sunday and white napkins and a bucket
full of raspberries standing on the floor, and
my desire which wasn’t born yet,
only gardens and weeds and the amber
of Queen Anne cherries, and indecent Fredro.
There was always too much of Lvov, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun, at night the Orthodox church’s silence was unlike
that of the cathedral, the Jesuits
baptized plants, leaf by leaf, but they grew,
grew so mindlessly, and joy hovered
everywhere, in hallways and in coffee mills
revolving by themselves, in blue
teapots, in starch, which was the first
formalist, in drops of rain and in the thorns
of roses. Frozen forsythia yellowed by the window.
The bells pealed and the air vibrated, the cornets
of nuns sailed like schooners near
the theater, there was so much of the world that
it had to do encores over and over,
the audience was in frenzy and didn’t want
to leave the house. My aunts couldn’t have known
yet that I’d resurrect them,
and lived so trustfully; so singly;
servants, clean and ironed, ran for
fresh cream, inside the houses
a bit of anger and great expectation, Brzozowski
came as a visiting lecturer, one of my
uncles kept writing a poem entitled Why,
dedicated to the Almighty, and there was too much
of Lvov, it brimmed the container,
it burst glasses, overflowed
each pond, lake, smoked through every
chimney, turned into fire, storm,
laughed with lightning, grew meek,
returned home, read the New Testament,
slept on a sofa beside the Carpathian rug,
there was too much of Lvov, and now
there isn’t any, it grew relentlessly
and the scissors cut it, chilly gardeners
as always in May, without mercy,
without love, ah, wait till warm June
comes with soft ferns, boundless
fields of summer, i.e., the reality.
But scissors cut it, along the line and through
the fiber, tailors, gardeners, censors
cut the body and the wreaths, pruning shears worked
diligently, as in a child’s cutout
along the dotted line of a roe deer or a swan.
Scissors, penknives, and razor blades scratched,
cut, and shortened the voluptuous dresses
of prelates, of squares and houses, and trees
fell soundlessly, as in a jungle,
and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye
without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry
mouth, I won’t see you anymore, so much death
awaits you, why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.
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  • Reply Martha Zweig April 20, 2022 at 9:54 am

    Poems-of-place is not a category for me, so nothing comes to mind. In my private anthology of favorites, though, I came upon this one. I know nothing about the poet.

    At the rise of the moon
    bells fade out
    and impassable paths
    —Frederico Garcia Lorca, The Moon Appears

    The dark village sits on the crooked hill.
    There is a plot of impassable paths towards it,
    impassable paths overcome with bees, the stigma that bees bring.
    There is a bottle neck at the base of the hive.
    There is an impassable knowledge that your eyebrows bring, beside the poor library,
    the wicket-man, there’s a man who sells peacock feathers on the roundabout,
    they scream all night from where they are plucked.
    The village is slanted, full of tragedies with slate.

    I am walking towards a level crossing, while someone I love is jogging into the darkness.
    Come away from there—I am yelling,
    while the black dog rolls in the twilit yard.
    Small white socks bob into the night like teeth in the mouth of a laughing man
    who walks backwards into darkness, throwing drinks into the air,
    like a superstitious wife throws salt; we all have our share of certainties.
    The glass and salt my petulant daughter,
    The glass and salt my crooked pathway; impassable glass and salt.


    • Reply Sharon April 20, 2022 at 8:41 pm

      When I got to line 5–blam! And I love the small white socks/ teeth. Wow. I don’t know the name either, but I googled her: young, English, poetry editor for Granta, first book published by Faber and Faber.

  • Reply Hermine Meinhard April 20, 2022 at 6:51 pm

    Thank you, Sharon. I love this prose poem by Ilya Kaminsky.

    Traveling Musicians

    In the beginning was the sea—we heard the surf in our breathing, certain that we carried seawater in our veins.
    A city famous for its drunk tailors, huge mausoleums of rabbis, horse owners and horse thieves, and most of all for its stuffed and baked fish. In Odessa, language always involved gestures—it was impossible to ask someone for directions if their hands were busy. I did ask once: a man was holding two huge watermelons, one in each arm. But as I asked more questions, his face grew red and ah! one watermelon fell on the ground as he attempted to gesticulate through the conversation. He was not disappointed, a man of fifty staring at the juicy watermelon meat right there on the sidewalk. He laughed like the most serious child I ever knew, telling me the story about the country where everyone was deaf.

    One of the opening poems from Dancing in Odessa. And I love the strange surprise at the end where we seem to enter the country of the deaf.
    I’m not able to come tomorrow. (I sometimes tutor at 4:00 on Fridays.) But will return! (And I am on your mailing list.)

    • Reply Sharon April 20, 2022 at 8:33 pm

      Thanks, Hermine. I love this one too. And I’m really glad to have you in Fridays at 4. See you soon.

  • Reply Anne Myles April 21, 2022 at 9:27 am

    Glad to know this poem — I’ve heard of Zagajewski but not read him yet.

    I’ve been thinking, and realize that the poems of place that stay with me are not city poems (though I’ve lived in a number of major cities) but landscape poems, and those are what I write too. I find myself thinking of Elizabeth’s Bishop’s Nova Scotia, Robert Hass’s California as places that live in me through poetry. Paul Goodman’s poem “The Lordly Hudson” hit me hard in my youth — its music and the recognition of the beautiful Hudson River landscape that I loved, more than I loved NYC; I memorized it and would recite it to myself. That would be one of my most memorable poems, to follow up on last week. https://thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry/2008/09/the-lordly-huds.html

    but now I’m thinking in particular of the South Jersey poems of Stephen Dunn, who died in 2021. We were colleagues at Stockton College for five years in the late 1990s, and he was a very kind man (and recognized me as a poet when I’d mostly stopped seeing myself as one — I’m haunted by the missed opportunity there; he was a great teacher too). But I especially loved to find the South Jersey places in his poems — the places I lived in and knew — and to be aware that he was consciously trying to bring that area into poetry; it had been no one’s subject before, and he knew that was an opportunity. That was some thing he spoke about. I can’t find a poem only about place, but here’s one I like — it’s about Brigantine Wildlife Refuge, which I’d visited with my parents since I was a child and which was a couple of miles from my house. You drive around it in a one-way loop. Reading the poem puts me back in that exact scene, the flat marshes with the Atlantic City skyline on the horizon.

    Walking The Marshland

    Brigantine Wildlife Refuge, 1987

    It was no place for the faithless,
    so I felt a little odd
    walking the marshland with my daughters,

    Canada geese all around and the blue
    herons just standing there;
    safe, and the abundance of swans.

    The girls liked saying the words,
    egret, whooping crane, and they liked

    when I agreed. The casinos were a few miles
    to the east.
    I liked saying craps and croupier

    and sometimes I wanted to be lost
    in those bright
    windowless ruins. It was April,

    the gnats and black flies
    weren’t out yet.
    The mosquitoes hadn’t risen

    from their stagnant pools to trouble
    paradise and to give us
    the great right to complain.

    I loved these girls. The world
    beyond Brigantine
    awaited their beauty and beauty

    is what others want to own.
    I’d keep that
    to myself. The obvious

    was so sufficient just then.
    Sandpiper. Red-wing
    Blackbird. “Yes,” I said.

    But already we were near the end.
    Praise refuge,
    I thought. Praise whatever you can.

    And one more, inland, in a different voice, “The Metaphysicians of South Jersey”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=40514

    • Reply Sharon April 21, 2022 at 10:36 am

      Thanks for these wonderful examples–exactly what I was thinking about, how places live for us in poems–whether it’s places we’ve been or places we’ve never seen, or that exist only in the imagination.

    • Reply Martha Zweig April 21, 2022 at 12:11 pm

      Sounds to me like the Pine Barrens, which I visited in astonishment at least twice: as a teenager & with my father & my daughter when she was small.

      • Reply Anne Myles April 22, 2022 at 8:39 am

        Yes, where the Pine Barrens are when you go inland. It’s quite a magical region in its way. Dunn lived in the tiny, tucked-away barely-town of Port Republic, which seemed almost mystical to me.

  • Reply Sharon April 21, 2022 at 11:10 am

    from Pat Collins:

    Heres my addition.

    It’s by Marie Howe from “What the Living Do”

    The Fort

    It was a kind of igloo
    made from branches, weeds, a dome
    with an aboveground tunnel entrance
    the boys crawled through on their knees,
    and a campfire in the center
    because smoke came out of a hole in the roof,
    and we couldn’t go there. I
    don’t even remember trying, not
    inside. Although I remember
    a deal we didn’t keep – so many
    Dr. Peppers which nobody drank,
    and my brother standing outside it
    like a chief: bare chested, weary
    from labor, proud, dignified,
    and talking to us as if we could never
    understand a thing he said because
    he had made this thing and we had not,
    and could not have done it, not
    in a thousand years – true knowledge
    and disdain when he looked at us.
    For those weeks the boys didn’t chase us.
    They busied themselves with patching
    the fort and sweeping the dirt outside
    the entrance, a village of boys
    who had a house to clean, women
    in magazines, cigarettes and soda and
    the strange self-contained voices they used
    to speak to each other with.
    As we approached the clearing where
    their fort was like deer in winter
    hungry for any small thing – what
    they had made without us.
    We wanted to watch them live there.

    ~ Pat.

  • Reply Sharon April 21, 2022 at 11:10 am

    This is lovely–and I don’t remember reading it before. Thanks.

  • Reply davidbarker109 September 19, 2022 at 7:57 am

    Thanks for the sharing wonderful examples Sharon. Poems of place are a great way to capture the essence of a location.

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