|Tiger Swallowtail on lilac|
“The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible...”
- William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”
For twenty-eight years, we lived in the same house a few miles from Palmer. The house was built in 1935 for a Matanuska Colonist family and had been the residence of several families before us. While we lived there, gradually we became acquainted with the house’s past and with changes that people had made—some thoughtful and well-planned, others ill-conceived and strange. We also left our own ideas and preferences behind, in colors and windows, walls and appliances, trees and shrubbery.
What triggers ideas for writing? As Wordsworth aptly mentioned “incidents and situations from common life” provide focus yet routine can make noticing difficult. Once, in a writing workshop, the instructor asked us to describe our morning using only scents. The words for smells eluded me, especially since I hadn’t been paying attention.
I wish now I had thought more often of words for aromas and smells. If I had written the smells, I might now have more nuanced memories of experiences, like picking tomatoes when the sour scent of foliage coated my hands and later the soapy wash-water turned green. If I had written scents and smells when we lived in our Alaska house, I might now have a more refined vocabulary for the heavy sweet aroma of the old lilac at the corner of the house that, one summer, attracted a flock of Tiger Swallowtail butterflies. The visual connection is stronger though and, now, seeing a Tiger Swallowtail brings to mind lilac blooms.
Being reminded of a smell can trigger memories but that writing workshop exercise could have had a second part, and even a third: after describing the smells, continue writing toward the place where the ephemeral and the gut-feeling meet. Follow each digressive or distractive memory or thought. Smells (whether real or remembered) might be strongly visceral like the late-autumn, pungent rotting of highbush cranberries; or lighter and harder to describe, like dry-cold mountain air.
One winter night, I convinced my husband Chuck to drive with me into the Talkeetna Mountains toward Hatcher Pass because I thought that, from the 16-mile pullout, I could photograph the aurora. When I got out of the car lugging my camera and tripod, the snowy peaks were awash with moonlight, the aurora was inconsequential, and in a few minutes the subzero breeze chased me back into the idling (and warm) car. Driving home, we stopped where the constellation Orion hung above the canyon wall. Getting out of the car and standing beside the empty road, we inhaled an iciness that crackles nose hairs and smells like nothing words describe. Beside us, the flow of the Little Susitna gurgled beneath the moonlit ice.
This fragment omits part of the scene and thus story. Before getting back into the car at 16-mile, I turned my camera toward the Matanuska Valley which was framed by a vee of mountains. I clicked photos of a scattering of house lights and the flamboyant orange streetlights that extend for three miles along the Glenn Highway across the Hay Flats.
My only encounter with a moose had been on that stretch when the highway was still a two-lane road, unlit and built-up like a causeway, where suddenly a moose appeared in the fog at the edge of my low beams, standing still and licking the pavement. What I remember is the seemingly slow-motion arc of the car sliding, the interminable time between cranking the steering wheel and learning whether the auto would plunge over the edge or spin into a new skid. Again and again the car switched directions, as if zigzagging along a narrow icy highway was normal, until finally the engine died and the car stopped, as if that was normal, too.
Both moose and highway ended up anchoring a section of my poem Illumination:
Before the freeway was built across
the hay flats, it was a two-lane road
with high causeway shoulders
and inky black winter nights.
Before the steep-sided highway was scraped
to a moderate height with code-compliant
edges, my fog-dimmed headlights
gave little warning of a motionless moose,
a glancing impact and long icy skid.
Now string-of-pearl street lamps slice
the dark hay-flats night and moose stand
in orange light pools
like frozen dreams—that startled, plunge
into the glowing stream.
Illumination is in Unbound: Alaska Poems, published by Uttered Chaos Press (2013).
Our 1930s era house became a character in a number of my essays and poems, including Cabin Fever, an essay that appeared in Cirque (Winter Solstice 2010, Vol. 2 No. 1).
Katie Eberhart's chapbook 'Unbound: Alaska Poems' was published in 2013 by Uttered Chaos Press. Her poems have appeared in Cirque Journal, Sand - Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Elohi Gadugi Journal, Crab Creek Review, and other places. Katie has an MFA in Creative Writing. She currently lives in Central Oregon where she blogs about nature and literature at http://solsticelight.wordpress.com/