Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Lex Runciman, a poet from Portland, OR. Please enjoy his post!
The Idea of “In My Alternate Life”
You’re stuck in traffic – what do you do?
You could get angry or just curious (Flat tire? Accident? Road rage?). Maybe you start thinking about alternate routes and the consequences of being late.
Second example: you’re watching a sunny beach on television. Outside, a cold rain falls. At that point, you might fondly recall the warm felicities of a western Oregon August. Or, sweltering in August, you might register astonished disbelief at the recollection of a cold January.
What unites these examples is the ability to think outside the present moment. Memory in one direction, imagination in the other. This is what lets us forecast consequences and make choices. With imagination comes the ability to fantasize.
It seems likely that, at some point, almost every child looked at someone else’s parents and wondered, “Why wasn’t I born into that family?” The question might have expressed a wish; it might have expressed relief. Either way recognizes the seeming arbitrariness of fate.
And if you knew, as I have always known, that you were adopted just days after your birth, that arbitrariness of fate would register more pointedly. I have known such questions of fate for as long as I can remember anything at all. They have transformed from questions to speculative habits of mind. Thus, I hear the poem title “In My Alternate Life” as a familiar, repeated, long-held gambit.
My work at Linfield keeps me pretty busy, and the driving time from McMinnville to Portland often makes attending Portland events difficult, particularly in the evening. When I’m invited, or when I see advertised, a reading or play or concert I know I won’t be able to attend, I often think to myself, In my alternate life, I’ll be there.
“In My Alternate Life” leads off a collection titled Starting from Anywhere. It was T.S. Eliot who used the phrase “starting from anywhere” in his poem “Little Gidding.” But that phrase, when I first read it there, carried an immediate sense of apt connection: I have known for a long time that I could have, almost literally, started from anywhere – been adopted by anyone.
As for the particulars of the poem itself, they make a catalog of wishes, some broadly outlined, others more particular, all of them fulfilled. Mark Rothko’s painting, “Untitled, 1949”
is owned by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. A large painting, for it to hang in a kitchen would be, first, simply shocking; it would also dwarf any kitchen I’ve ever known. But wouldn’t it be something to have such a painting as routine as your morning coffee?
What about that “tea room in Abergavenny?” There is such a place: Abergavenny is in Wales. The town’s name itself is a pleasure to say. And I have been there, twice, for a few hours each time. In my alternate life, I give up nothing to have the pleasure of living there: I know the town well enough to find this particular tea shop, where, inexplicably, my favorite Rothko painting hangs. Whenever I wish, I sit in that shop, sip tea, munch a scone, peruse The Guardian, and glance up at the Rothko. As the poem continues, alternatives multiply. The poem’s speaker inhabits the multiple worlds cosmologists and quantum physicists suggest.
Even Walt Whitman understood that any poem composed as a list must figure out a way to end. In this poem’s list of fantasies, the particulars give way to ever-larger concepts, like boredom. And who might you like to talk with—there’s a question. As a Pacific Northwesterner, I like the idea of being able to command a starry night sky any time I’d choose; such command implies a control over clouds. It might also let me learn some constellations.
The jumps the poem makes near the end tend to slow things down. The last two lines each make a simple sentence about something large. Their content cannot be rushed, further slowing the poem’s momentum. Ultimately such repetition of pauses solves the technical difficulty of how to end: slow, slower, slower yet, stop.
If the poem succeeds, then whatever height it has tried to scale, it has reached the top.
Born and raised in Portland, Lex Runciman has lived most of his life in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Along the way, he worked as a warehouseman, shipping-receiving clerk, and a stacker in a box mill. Holder of graduate degrees from the writing programs at the University of Montana and the University of Utah, he taught for eleven years at Oregon State University and is now Professor of English at Linfield College, where he has received the Edith Green Award in teaching. He was adopted at birth. His fifth book of poems, One Hour That Morning & Other Poems is forthcoming in 2014 from Salmon Poetry (Ireland). He is also the author of Luck (1981), The Admirations (1989) which won the Oregon Book Award, Out of Town (2004), and Starting from Anywhere (2009). His work has been featured on Verse Daily, and individual poems have received the Kenneth O. Hanson Award and the Silcox Prize. He and Deborah Berry Runciman have been married forty-one years.
Lex’s poem ““In My Alternate Life”” will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Portland edition. Both books will be available April 1, 2013.