Nebraska Center for Writers

AN INDELIBLE SENSE OF PLACE
by Marilyn Coffey

My formative years were spent almost entirely in south central Nebraska, as a "townie" in a farm community. That experience marked me with a strong sense of place that I carry everywhere.
When I arrive in a new spot, I check out place even before I check out people. And I measure it, usually unconsciously, against that place I knew best — rural Nebraska.
Often I write about the new spot. One of my strengths as a writer, I'm told, is my ability to describe, to render images vividly in words. So, I love to look and describe what I see.
Place — Woodstock — is my subject in a book of poems written over the three summers I lived and wrote there. In Woodstock, I wrote poems about pine groves, swollen mountain shapes, chilly streams careening over rocks, gypsy moths and café concerts.
In New York, I wrote about robberies, pet stores, asphalt playgrounds, apartments — New York subjects. But the comparisons I chose reveal my origins. For instance, I describe the sky as dipping its "snout" in the "trough of the city." Only a country woman would envision pigs in Manhattan.
Even away from Nebraska, I write about it. When in New Orleans I stumbled on a long poem by James Register called "New Orleans is my Name." In it, the city of New Orleans describes itself. The poem gripped me. I photocopied it and took it back to my room. That night I wrote a companion piece, "Alma is my Name," in which the town of my birth speaks. Trying to find the Harlan County equivalent to colorful New Orleans traditions led me down many an interesting path. Here are two small samples:
My cemetery is not walled.
My cemetery lies flat as a cornfield
accepting all who enter it
preventing no one from leaving

and "my chickens all have wishbones."

When I moved from New York to Nebraska again, place came to the fore in my writing with a rush. I wrote many descriptive pieces such as "White Magic" (below).
If my sense of place, and particularly my place of origin, were torn from me, I'd be rendered almost mute, for place stands at the core of my work.

Reprinted with permission
from Nebraska Humanist
Copyright © 1991
by Marily Coffey


WHITE MAGIC
by Marilyn Coffey


Virgin the road, veiled with feathery snow
& still, but for my boots crunch crunching.

Chalk white the beach, curled right & left
a huge snow swollen quarter moon, mute as night.

Frozen the lake, its whitecaps fused
into a milky disc, no wet splash heard.
Overhead a whitewashed sky, bleached of dusk
by an ivory wand. I stop. No sound. None.

From habit I stare at the horizon now gone,
watch silvery dusk pulse the creamy sky lake.

Is Alaska like this, white on white on white
until one's eyes spin patterns on the blank slate?

Behind me I hear a familiar sound: geese honk
honking in near unison. Their cries split
the silence: I squint, I stare.
I hear geese clearly, but they're not there.

I start to walk back when the first streams appear:
wriggling black silhouettes in slender strands
like ribbon streamers from a wedding veil.
Soprano, they call, and the answering flock,
alto, finally shimmers into sight.

And the cold snow sky & the frozen milk lake
& the chalk white beach & the feather strewn road
are cracked by black strings of geese flying by
by geese & the boot tracks I follow back.

Reprinted with permission
from Nebraska Humanist
Copyright © 1991
by Marilyn Coffey


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