Essay by Trina Gaynon
A Poet Chooses What to Bring—and What to Leave Behind
When strangers ask, “Where are you from?,” I’m never sure exactly what they mean. Are they asking about my family origins? Or where I was born or grew up? Or why I talk with that funny accent? Or what I now call home?
I still don’t have an answer.
After twenty years in the Air Force, my father’s response to such queries was always “Home is where you hang your hat.” Military life is lived in rotations: For our family, four years each in Arizona, Okinawa, Texas, and England, six months in Idaho.
If you live in base housing, units are generally furnished. Neighborhoods are organized into noncom and officer housing. Schools are usually within walking distance. Church is a place you go to meet people, and there are only three congregations: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. One chaplain might provide leadership for all three. People come and go without much fuss. Each time you move, you shed possessions and their associations. After a while, every time you move, you hear doors snapping shut in your brain.
As a result, my childhood memories are spotty. Only the most joyful or traumatic travel with me, like the day I got my arm caught in the wringer of the clothes washer. At the time, we lived in a concrete-block house above the China Sea, with its sticky humidity, and I’d decided to help with the laundry on Mother’s Day. Clothes were washed in an agitator tub and then run through the attached wringer to squeeze out excess water. By the time I yelled, the rollers had stopped, my arm wedged between them. Once freed, the arm wrapped in ice, I was allowed to rest in the cool dark of my parents’ room.
In Okinawa, I started school, attended an obon festival, learned a few words of Japanese. It was there, in second grade, that I wrote my first poem—one of those things about spring, with a crayon picture of a Scottie dog under an apple tree. My mother taped it to the refrigerator. I was much prouder of it than of the spelling tests she usually put up, with a bright red 100% on each.
Our next move, when I was eleven, took place right before Christmas. On the journey from Japan to England, we stopped in California and Tennessee to collect our gifts from each side of the family. Daddy insisted that I could only take one stuffed animal on the plane to Europe: the pajama bag shaped like a hippo from my West Coast grandmother or the orange fox terrier from my country aunt. Tears didn’t change his mind, so only the hippo went with us.
Regardless of whatever rationale he might have had, my father became at that moment the voice in my head that always said no, that told me everything I wanted or dreamed of was out of reach.
When we reached England, my fifth-grade class at Alconbury Air Force Base had already drawn names for the Christmas exchange. Yet on the last day of school before the holiday, I found a small package on my desk. My teacher, Mr. Robertson, had given me a wooden doll from Denmark. She had to be the ugliest doll in the world, but I carried her through many moves, until her shredded cotton dress fell off. She reminded me that there would be a welcoming face wherever we went.
When we were stationed in foreign countries, my parents made an effort to expose us to the local history and people, but I preferred to expand my horizons in other ways. I begged my parents to let me stay home while they took my younger sister on family outings. Alone in the house, I filled hours with reading, alternating Chekhov or Michener with Silhouette romances. I imagined myself as an interior designer and decimated Sears catalogs for pictures of furniture (turquoise was big in the seventies) to go with my floor plans and descriptions of rooms. I designed clothing for Cher. I wrote more poems.
When I wasn’t reading at home, I found other places where books provided a retreat and a constancy amid my frequently changing surroundings. Every military base had a small library, and when we lived in England, walking there was one of my favorite rainy day activities. At the library, I could find new mysteries featuring Trixie Belden or teenage detective Nancy Drew. I remember coming across an anthology of poems edited by Louis Untermeyer, with Pegasus flying across the cover. In sixth grade, sitting between shelves in the adult fiction section, I scanned the racy parts of Frank Yerby novels.
That was the same year Mrs. Byrd, our English teacher, required us to create a poetry anthology, written in cursive with pen and ink. The poems I chose from various anthologies and hand-copied for my book ranged from William Allingham’s “Four Ducks in a Pond” and Rachel Field’s “Song” to Irene McLeod’s “Lone Dog” and Shakespeare’s “Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I.” I assigned each poem to one of Mrs. Byrd’s categories—Holidays, Moods, Nature, Nonsense, and so on.
“Lone Dog” was one of my favorites. I even bolded the internal rhymes when I copied it into my anthology:
I'm a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone; I'm a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own...
Perpetually the new kid in class, I was always ahead or behind in my studies. At military installations, everyone accepted the constantly changing rosters. Teachers developed systems for assisting a new student, a nonnative English speaker, a cut-up, or a hermit. These differences—so ordinary in the past—became exaggerated when I entered a public high school in Tennessee after my father retired.
When I found myself behind in geography, shame drove me to find solace in a paperback novel concealed in my Tennessee geography book. (Coach never did look up from whatever he was absorbed in as each student read a paragraph from the book out loud.) When I was ahead in science, boredom led me to hide a poetry book inside the biology text. (When she caught me, Mrs. Donohue kept me after class.) I holed up in the library during study hall and got a reputation for being the standoffish girl with the English accent.
I continued to add to my poetry anthology, switching from cursive to printing and from pen to pencil, carefully copying Rod McKuen, e. e. cummings, Conrad Aitkens, and many more. Carolyn Kizer’s “A Widow in Wintertime” was the first to inspire me to go looking for the complete works of a poet.
I also continued to write poetry. I had moved beyond Scottie dogs in spring to writing about ghost towns and mythological figures like Hecate. But it had been years since I shared a poem with anyone, even my mother. After seeing a call for poems in a Nashville paper, I sent a couple of pieces to the Indiana Society of Poetry. Even then, I realized that when an editor reviewed my work, it had garnered at least one reader. The Society accepted the poems I submitted. From there, with the help of the library’s Poet’s Market, I began to collect rejection notices.
My parents assumed I wouldn’t go to college and had made no preparations for it. I was faced with the unimaginable: living out my life in Tennessee, hiding in libraries when I wasn’t working at Ben Franklin’s or an insurance office.
Then my grandmother offered to put me up at her house while I established residency in California and enrolled in junior college. Having already said no to my requests to join the Peace Corps and attend the New York School of Design, my parents were relieved, I think, that I could leave home while still living with family and continuing my schooling. This time, they said yes, and I ran for the newly opened door.
My grandmother and her new husband, Grandpa Frank, came to my high school graduation and drove me back to California. I took only what would fit in their Plymouth—some clothing and a few books—leaving everything else behind. The bouts of homesickness came after dark, after long hours on my feet at a food service job at the San Diego Zoo.
At City College, I enrolled in a series of writing classes with Norma Sullivan, who expected us to try a variety of genres. Students emerged from meetings in her office reeking of cigarette smoke, but she always made comments that coaxed the work forward. I moved back and forth between nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, but the genre that most appealed to me revealed itself in the poems I continued to add to my homemade anthology.
I was studying Spanish and added Gabriel Zaid’s “La Ofrenda” in the original language, along with a translation by Daniel Hoffman, and Juan José Arreola’s prose poem “Cérvidos,” with a translation by W. S. Merwin. I even took a stab at translating Martín Fierro’s “José Hernández.” Then I discovered Robinson Jeffers’ “Love the Wild Swan” and, moving on to his “Medea,” fell in love with monumental poetry. I had been looking at poems as encapsulations of charged moments; now I realized that big themes and stories could also be told through poetry.
With the ability to pay my own bills came the right to take risks. I moved out of my grandparents’ house and tic-tac-toed my way around San Diego, locating myself by writing poems about my apartments. My favorite was a studio located in a building designed during the Egyptian craze of the early twentieth century. It was above a driving school and across from a bar and blue movie theater, and it featured a Murphy bed that dropped down into the room.
Although each apartment felt like home, many possessions I picked up along the way never made it to the next dwelling. During one move, a coffee table jumped out of a friend’s truck on the freeway and got smashed by the car behind it. I gave my first sofa to my sister, after she stopped laughing at all the lumps in the cushions.
As Elizabeth Bishop put it in “One Art”:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost…
For me, Bishop’s poem has an added poignancy, as I have long suspected that I leave people behind as easily as I leave possessions. I made only one visit back to Tennessee (where it was evident my parents’ marriage was foundering) during those years, and I rarely called my grandparents after I moved out.
I went from City College to San Diego State University to graduate programs at Berkeley and the University of San Francisco. When I left San Diego, I once again abandoned everything but my poetry books and writing. In the Bay Area, I moved six more times.
In the same way that I winnowed down my possessions with each move, I winnowed down my writing. I’d been writing both prose and poetry for years, since Norma Sullivan encouraged me to experiment with different genres. But with prose, I felt as though I always had to pry apart paragraphs to add layers to my work. Poetry compressed and compacted meaning in a way that came more naturally to me. I returned to my first love, where the music of language is an essential part of the message.
Now I’m back in Southern California, where I moved eight years ago to marry my husband David. In those eight years, we’ve moved four times. With each move, I have to write myself home, as I did all those years ago in San Diego. I set down my observations of plants (especially ones I grow), animals, daily routines, and the movements of celestial bodies.
I still turn to the work of other writers. Now, instead of copying out poems, I clip them from the journals I subscribe to or buy a book of the poets’ work. Settling back into Southern California, I’ve discovered a wealth of material by comparing my current suburban life to that in Josephine Miles’s poems. If I still added work to my poetry anthology, I’d include Miles’s “Fortunes,” which contains these lines:
Chills were hopping in my skin
As I asked for a cup of tea
And my friend gave me also
A bag of fortune cookies.
Not one, not a handful, but a bagful.
That kind of bliss
Which steams from a cup of tea
Steamed to me.
All the moving around has made me curious about world cultures. I struggle with whether or not I have the right to tell the stories of others. But I cannot resist exploring their mysteries through language. As I grow older, I’m less interested in mining my own biography. Rather than write about the child’s kimono that my mother kept for years, I start a series of poems based on Japanese folk tales.
I continue to winnow down furniture, clothing, and videos each time I pack or unload. To me, this is part of the cost and the reward for the new beginning that you get with each relocation. David is afraid I’ll regret tossing so much overboard; he still has the numbers off the Chicago house he grew up in.
There is little from my youth that I cling to: a black canvas bag filled with drafts of poems I call my juvenalia (naught but a handful of haiku worth saving) and my homemade poetry anthology. The poems and song lyrics I copied in pencil are now an unreadable smudge. The expanded anthology remains in a surplus military binder with blue cloth over a cardboard cover. That cover is fraying, the three holes that hold each page to the binder are ripping, and I never did manage to get the poems in alphabetical order by author. I shelve it with my journals.
Although I’ve spent decades parting with possessions, new books continue to gather in corners and on shelves of my home with little effort on my part. David and I joke that our bookcases hold the roof of our house up and the floors down.
Once in a long while, I try to weed out my poetry collection, all sixty-three linear feet of it. But somewhere inside me, that hurts.
- Songs to Save a Soul by Irene Rutherford Mcleod (B.W. Huebsch, 1915).
- "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop, Poetry Foundation website.
- Josephine Miles: Collected Poems, 1930-1983, by Josephine Miles (University of Illinois Press, 1998).
- "Hit the Road" © Alex von Auslösen; Creative Commons license.
- "Every Journey a Return Journey" © John Perivolaris; Creative Commons license.
- "Poetry Books" © Katie Cowden; Creative Commons license.
Trina Gaynon’s poems have appeared in the anthologies Bombshells and Knocking at the Door, as well as numerous journals, including Natural Bridge, Reed, and the final issue of Runes. Her chapbook An Alphabet of Romance is available from Finishing Line Press. Her work will be included in the forthcoming anthologies A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford, Saint Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints, Obsession: Sestinas for the 21st Century, and Phoenix Rising from the Ashes: Anthology of Sonnets of the Early Third Millennium.
Trina's poem “Underground” appeared in TW’s Winter 2013 issue as part of a spotlight on prose poetry.