“Summers at Blue Creek, North Carolina”

Apologies from both of us for the long hiatus in posting – I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, but there’s always so much to do… I’m still toiling away on a huge review backlog, but in the meantime, here’s a seasonally appropriate poem that’s been my most re-read poem for the past few weeks:

Summers at Blue Creek, North Carolina

There was no water at my grandfather’s
when I was a kid and would go for it
with two zinc buckets. Down the path,
past the cow by the foundation where
the fine people’s house was before
they arranged to have it burned down.
To the neighbor’s cool well. Would
come back with pails too heavy,
so my mouth pulled out of shape.
I see myself, but from the outside.
I keep trying to feel who I was,
and cannot. Hear clearly the sound
the bucket made hitting the sides
of the stone well going down,
but never the sound of me.

– Jack Gilbert

The simplicity and precision of the language are so pleasing and effective. Like the narrator, we’re easily led into imagining the whole scene – dusty summer heat, the child’s methodical toiling – but can’t gain access to the interior of any of it, the inner life of the child who’s the kernel of the scene. And so at the end there’s this sudden, disorienting, frightening absence of even the outer signs of life (“the sound of me”). The empty shapes of the buckets, the burnt-out foundations, the well, all echo this absence. The adult narrator’s attempt to draw up or tap back into his earlier consciousness parallels the process of lowering the buckets into the well. Reading it this way, I can’t help but imagine “the sound/the bucket made hitting the sides/of the stone well going down” – a physical detail that confirms the reality of the scene while heightening the eeriness of the absence of consciousness – as a kind of plumbing, an attempted sounding of the depths.

I’ve been particularly fascinated with this poem because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about development of self-knowledge that comes with the formation of an adult personality, and the corresponding distance that it’s created between my earlier self and the self (I think) I know now. I can remember a lot of the things that I thought when I was younger, and why I arrived at those thoughts, but not really how I arrived at them – I’m so hyperconscious now of my thought processes that I have trouble imagining now how it would feel to not be constantly running over them and teasing the wires apart and trying to trace them back to their sources. Younger self was not a very self-analytical beast, for the record. It’s temptingly easy to imagine a semi-verbal, unreflective little animal still hunkering down somewhere in the middle of me.

Really, though, it’s quite probable that I haven’t changed as much as I think I have, and that I’m still running on almost all of the same basic processes and impulses, it’s just that I’ve learned to recognize and suppress or manipulate a significant-seeming subset of them, enough to fool myself into thinking I’m a lot more self-aware and self-civilized than I actually am.

I’m not sure that this train of thought ended up going anywhere, perhaps appropriately…

– E

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