The alien past

There are shared themes between the science fiction and archaeology books I’ve been reading lately. There’s a sense of otherness, of alien intelligences glimpsed across a void.

Göbekli Tepe

Photo by Vince Musi from National Geographic

As little as we know about the builders of Newgrange in Ireland, we know even less about the builders of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. What we do know about these monuments is that the first were built about 11,000 years ago, during the earliest years of the Eurasian Neolithic. In other words, Göbekli Tepe predates our current understanding of when agriculture began. (And yes, it also predates Stonehenge — by six or seven thousand years.) It’s hard to imagine what motivated tribes of hunter-gatherers to create such monumental architecture, full of animal sculptures and mysterious standing stones. It’s also hard to conceive of why each succeeding structure grew smaller and less sophisticated over time.

So this is where archaeology, science fiction, and poetry all converge. As a poet, archaeology enables me to explore that alien otherness while remaining grounded in the scientific reality of human experience.

More about Göbekli Tepe:

Renovating Building 112

Workmen are remodeling our office.
     They gather by the dozen
          to eat breakfast – sock caps low
over foreheads, face masks slung
     around necks. One tells a joke
          I can’t hear, and their laughter
rumbles over plastic chairs, cash registers,
     condiments, the salad bar.
          From my corner booth I can see
cranes that tower over evergreens
          marked with bright pink ribbons
               for the chainsaw. I look back
and they’re gone – nothing left
     but napkins stacked neatly
          on the center of the table.

I wrote this poem almost exactly four years ago, when I frequently stopped for coffee or breakfast in a Microsoft building between my bus stop and my own building. My product group has moved to another satellite campus since then, but I was back in Building 112 this morning for a meeting and overheard a team of corporate movers swapping stories about their accident-prone supervisor. I finished my coffee, looked up, and they were gone. I immediately thought of this poem.

I owe the poem’s current form and other improvements to feedback from David Wagoner while he was the Poet in Residence at Richard Hugo House.

Traveling (through the Dark) from Portland to Tillamook with William Stafford

To get to Tillamook, Oregon, head west from Portland and veer left onto Oregon Route 6. The next 50 miles are a winding, sometimes steep road that takes you up and over the Coast Range, through parts of the Tillamook Burn, following the Wilson River down into a valley full of dairy farms that supply the famous creamery. My relatives have lived in Tillamook for as long as I’ve been visiting them (more than 30 years now), and I’ve traveled this route more times than I can count.

I first fell in love with William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” when I read it in college. One of the most frequently taught and anthologized of his poems, I’m sure this poem was the first encounter with Stafford that thousands of other aspiring critics and poets had since its publication in 1962.

I may analyze poetry I read to pick up techniques and hone my craft, but the poems I love are frequently those with which I feel a more personal connection. (There are also hundreds of analyses of the poem online, so I won’t do so here.) Even though I liked “Traveling through the Dark” quite a lot, it didn’t become a favorite until I made that personal connection.

Reading You Must Revise Your Life just a few years ago, I learned that an experience on the same road between Portland and Tillamook that I’d traveled so many times had inspired Stafford to write the poem.

Rationally, I object to either the poet’s intent or biography influencing the value I place on a poem. It also seems downright silly that my “Oh, oh! I’ve been there!” reaction would influence my affection for a poem.

Nevertheless, the simple fact of shared experience with the poet makes William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” one of my most beloved poems.