On Distance and Clarity

Why is it that moving away from a place brings it into focus? I felt like I could only really start to “see” Florida after I left, by which point I was already deep in my complicated relationship with my home state. For a long time, I wanted to rinse any trace of a southern accent from my voice, especially in college, and I would respond with “Thank you!” when people would tell me they were surprised to find out I’m from Florida. I’ve come to feel more protective of my wayward home state since leaving, especially of the people and landscapes of Central Florida. It’s a place that resists interpretation as long as you look closely, or hard enough. In her book South to America, the scholar Imani Perry writes that to come close to capturing the Florida she knew, Zora Neale Hurston “had to do more than anthropological work; she had to create fictions. Art gets closer to the sensuousness of talk and presence…They say that Southern speech is songlike, but in fact our songs are language-like. They are better mimics of our living than dictation could ever be.” I cannot claim to even approach Hurston’s (or Perry’s) genius, but I feel a kinship in the impulse to “create fictions” to capture something real about the place. 

 Florida contains a multitude of Floridas which are invisible to people who have only ever visited, or read about the politics, or been to a theme park, or traveled to visit their parents or grandparents in a gated community near the Southern tip. The interior is dense with greenery, some of it cutting to brush up against (saw palmettos); Spanish moss hangs from long-branched live-oaks and from the almost comically tall, skinny loblolly and longleaf pine trees that grow well in the sandy soil. Inches-long banana spiders hung out in webs strung from trees surrounding my best friend’s house. Almost all interior public places (including malls and movie theaters) were air-conditioned to refrigerator-like temperatures in summer; so, because of the humidity, condensation would run down the windows like on the outside of a glass of ice water. Somehow, I found all of this boring until I left. 

I think the relationship to one’s adolescence might be like the relationship to a physical place one has moved away from. A number of the poems in the first section of my new book Good Grief, the Ground are set in Florida and adolescence. With distance from both the place and that time in my life, I began to see things about both that were invisible to me at the time because they were just the way things were. (The ubiquity of pickup trucks: invisible; the fact of a church on every corner: invisible, or at least unremarked.) I like poems that operate on tension, and the tensions between a now-and-then, there-and-here are often productive doorways to walk through. 

I’m interested in how distance from a time and place can provide a better “view” of it, but also suspicious of that framing. When we feel like we can’t “see” things while we’re in them, we say we have no “perspective,” as if time or distance were a physical vantage point, like being in an airplane above the landscape rather than down in it. Only that’s a bad metaphor, because airplane height tends to render the view almost abstract. (Think of how the view from a plane window over flat farmland sometimes looks like a washed-out Mondrian). Tempting to say it’s more like standing close to a painting or photograph, then stepping away and having a detail snap into place that you couldn’t parse before when your eye was up against pixels, brushstrokes. But of course that’s not right either, since an image is something other people can perceive, too – maybe not exactly the same way you do, but let’s resist that particular rabbit hole for now – while memory is personal, no one remembers the same event the exact same way as someone else, so memories become a story we half-invent to tell ourselves, until we try to put language to them and offer them to other people. 

When I think back on my inability to find much of my Florida youth worthy of my own examination at the time, I think also about David Foster Wallace’s famous metaphor for the invisibility of what we’re immersed in: In response to the question “How’s the water today?” a fish asks “What’s water?” This metaphor feels apt for so many things; of course what we’re immersed in can only remain invisible as long as it isn’t a threat. For example, not enough white people are able to “see” our whiteness, and to therefore begin to ask “What’s whiteness?” and then “How can I work to dismantle the workings of white supremacy around me?” Wallace’s metaphor insists the vehicle (water) and therefore the tenor (one’s surroundings, fill in the specifics) are almost objective. But memory, we know, and therefore our constructions of our lives, is deeply fallible and even (sometimes dangerously) moldable, revisable. Every time you take a memory off its shelf in your mind, the clay is wet again and you leave fingerprints on it, dents in it. Ironically, the most “accurate” memories are the ones we never recall, since the more we return to a memory, the more we change it in the act of “handling” it again. A memory gets charged with or coated in another layer of the context of each remembering (re-member: to put back together, as opposed to dis-member), until it’s a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Languaging a memory is of course a major way to leave fingerprints on it. 

These are things I’m obsessed with, and poems seem like a good tool for thinking about memory and obsession, because poems can hold questions and contradictions and fabricated gestures and “real toads” (Thank you, Marianne Moore). I can look back at Florida and youth from a distance in time and space and think I “see” things more clearly from this “vantage point,” as if I’ve reached some promontory in the landscape with a better view. But at the same time, I have to hold the contradictory concession that the more I think about that place (Florida), and that time (youth), the more I am constantly in the act of revising them, or rather of building a kind of movie-set version of the place, some platonic connect-the-dots version that’s just a place in my head (or my poems) that happens to also be called “Florida.” 

One of my obsessive thought loops has to do with this knowledge that where and when I am now will only feel clear (by which I mean patterned? Part of a story I know I’m inventing but that nonetheless feels real?) to me later, in the future. I’m never going to achieve some moment where my present life (or location) comes into sharp visibility to me while I’m in it, no matter how hard I try to think or write my way into a clearer view of it. And I need to remind myself that I should approach that future “clarity” with a healthy amount of mistrust, too. 

Maybe this project of trying to “see,” twinned with the disappointing acknowledgement that I can’t, is the engine of a lot of my writing, and an engine in a lot of writing I feel drawn to: attempts that know they’re only attempts, but that still know the attempt (to see) is worthwhile even though (because?) it’s doomed to fail. Maybe this is part of why it’s so hard to write about the “now” while it’s now, or to write in the immediate aftermath of something. 

Louise Glück, in her poem “Nostos,” writes “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.” And memory is flawed, but it’s still the engine of the poems I love that are rich with the delicious, layered texture of time and distance. I think Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” is a perfect poem, and it’s a perfect example of the kind of poem I’m obsessed with that takes a then-and-now vantage point. “What did I know, what did I know…?” Hayden’s speaker looks back and sees what little he knew, and the poem also manages to bring that destabilizing question into the poem’s present, so that the implication is almost: what do we ever know? Perhaps I know more now (about myself, about the place I grew up) than I did when I was younger, but still my vantage point feels far from certainty, and I need to be more suspicious of what looks like certainty in my writing. But I don’t mean to say that this not-knowing is tragic or should push us to throw our hands up and give in to nihilism—no, instead, I want to look at the enormity and wonder of ever more mysteries opening up around me and within me—a wilderness as thick as the Florida interior…an expanse to write into. 


Margaret Ray

Margaret Ray grew up in Gainesville, Florida. She is the author of GOOD GRIEF, THE GROUND (BOA Editions, April 2023, winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize, selected by Stephanie Burt) and the chapbook SUPERSTITIONS OF THE MID-ATLANTIC (2022, selected by Jericho Brown for the 2020 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship Prize). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2021, The Nation, Threepenny Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. A winner of the Third Coast Poetry Prize and a shortlister for the Montreal International Poetry Prize, she holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and teaches in New Jersey. She’s on Twitter (for now) @mbrrray, on Instagram (sometimes) @m_rrray, and you can find more of her work at www.margaretbray.com

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