I love moving to a new place – how strange everything seems! The air has a different taste and color, the people dress differently, eat particular foods, the roads are wide and flat or narrow and winding. In the first few weeks, before I’ve become accustomed to the atmosphere, it’s like I’ve been dropped into someone else’s story. Paradoxically, this makes living feel more real, a texture that rubs against the senses constantly, saying, “You are in the world.”
So I’m walking down Commercial Street in Provincetown, Mass., and I can feel autumn coming in from the water. It’s 2008, and I’ve never been to Cape Cod before, let alone for seven months. The shops and food stands are closing down for the season, hanging signs in the windows that read “See you in May!” Mercifully, the public library will stay open all year: It is an old church that houses a half-scale model of a fishing schooner called the Rose Dorothea. On the informational plaques looking out over the sea, I read about the Portuguese fishermen, and the history of whaling.
Because I have the time, I take walks across the breakwater to observe the gradual deterioration of a dolphin carcass on the sand. And I walk around the pond where wrens and nuthatches will light on your shoulders or eat seeds from your hand. As if my body were made of flypaper, bits of time and history start clinging to my skin along with leaves, clamshells, whalebone, and feathers. Over the weeks and months, they build themselves (with help from my needle and thread) into a costume.
For years, I never thought of myself as a persona poet. In fact, I never set out to be anyone other than myself. But because all of our identities are constructed from bits and pieces, I eventually found that inhabiting other places, times, and voices gives me access to pieces of myself I couldn’t previously locate. In that year in Provincetown, during which I wrote many of the poems that went into Best Bones, I tried on the clothes of people whose oppression had been reified through the power of story and myth, immersing myself in pages from the history of marriage, childhood fables, and house keeping manuals written by servants and slaves.
This is my great comfort: That all the time, against the stories and structures that are heavy under the weight of centuries, rages the wildness and excess of our love, anger, and grief. The poems are a way to travel through time and space, to resist the stories we’ve been told about ourselves, to write in the margins.
Sarah Rose Nordgren appeared in Issue 56 of Hayden's Ferry Review.