Rituals of Return

Great Falls in Passaic, New Jersey

I’m headed up to northern New Jersey next weekend, to attend a reunion of my elementary school class, which graduated in 1970.  Most of us hadn’t seen each other in 40 years, and a chance Facebook search by one of our classmates about a year ago has culminated in next Sunday’s face-to-face with most of the class able to attend.  The school was located in Paterson, New Jersey (has since moved to Paramus) and the bulk of class had been together from grades K through 8–that is, by the time we dispersed in 1970, we’d spent nearly two-thirds of our 14 year-old lives together.

Two moments from those years now seem particularly relevant to my subsequent development as a poet: (1) a class trip to the Great Falls in nearby Passaic; (2) a guest speaker from Paterson who talked to our 6th or 7th grade English class.

I first saw the Falls from the same perspective as shown in the photograph at right.  These were the first waterfalls I’d ever seen–the roar was immense.  These were the same falls that, in 1778, inspired in Alexander Hamilton visions of American industry;  later, Hamilton chose the site for the new nation’s first planned industrial city, a “national manufactory,” which later became Paterson. These are the same waterfalls that William Carlos Williams featured in his description of Paterson, the man:

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river
animate a thousand automations. Who because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their
disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires-unroused.

—Say it, no ideas but in things—

One long-ago school outing to the falls, and I can still hear them wherever I may be. Somehow, that class trip recalibrated my bearings decisively, and my subsequent readings of WCW’s epic have always seemed deeply personal in a way that other poetic masterpieces are not. I hope to be there again on Sunday morning, just prior to our class reunion, with WCW and an empty notebook in hand.

Great Falls, Passaic, NJ

The guest speaker in our grade school English class was Louis Ginsberg.  He was described to the class as a Paterson journalist, a writer, a poet, and the father of poet Allen Ginsberg.  I had not heard of of Allen Ginsberg, but I remember feeling very special that this man had taken the time out of his busy day to visit our class.  Also, I remember wondering whether Louis Ginsberg’s references to his more famous son were painful to him as a writer.  It was then that I inferred   that, in order to ensure your status as a poet, you’d have to write in such a way that your father could defend you before a group of children.  The idea’s similar to the (fabled?) requirement of Roman engineers, that they had to stand for a time under every bridge they built.  I think there may be a lesson to poets in that, though I’m not exactly sure what it is.  Maybe I will figure it out, Sunday morning when, again, I’ve returned to the falls and, only after regaining my bearings, reunite with the others.

Image 1: Great Falls (Passaic River) in Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: Great Falls HDR 1 by EJP Photo


~ by matt on 19 January 2010.

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Natalie E. Illum...

is a poet, performer and disability activist. Bring her stumbling to your city.

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