ESSAY: The Poetics of Space: The Ethics of Site-Specific Poetry

Entrance_U.S._Naval_Air_Station_Alameda_California

by Cosmo Spinosa

I have always been fascinated by ruins. Not just ruins, not just what has fallen out of use and has been abandoned, but what happens to those places called ruins after they have been abandoned that makes them ruins–the reclamation of nature, the manicured structures, lawns, and roadways disintegrating, the rust, the crumbling asphalt, and the trespass. That land is developed, planned out, built on, and then vacated, sometimes for no reason at all, and then is left to the elements. The chain link rusts away creating its own barbs, weeds and plants grow uninhibited over old buildings, people break into what used to be a barracks or a basement or a walk-in refrigerator and use those spaces however they want. The abandoned structures often become the raw material for my poetry, a study of decay.

I am thinking specifically of a space that I would like to say that I have come to know well but that I no longer visit. Most of my writing comes from recalling a place and meditating on it after the edges have become dull and I only have brief and flashing memories of it. I let the unfocused details enter my poetry because they are probably misremembered for the better. That meditation on a space after it loses the details that position it within a historical, social, and political reality, that erases specificity and allows for generic and abstract meditation is what I will term non-specific site poetry. Under this umbrella, there exist other types of poetries–ecopoetics, “nature” poetry, the poetry of the everyday, and many others. What concerns me in this essay, however, is site-specific poetry–that poetry that is written with visible signifiers of a specific site, which takes into account its history, social factors, and other realities. One main differentiation between the writing of a specific site versus a non-specific one is the naming of it. As soon as I name the space that I write about, it is immediately put in dialogue with all other writings of that space. It has a different weight and significance than the writing of a non-specific site. The sort of writing that comes out of site-specific poetry has to take into consideration much more than its counterpart. Likewise, the writing around these spaces must be dealt with in an ethical way, as I will talk about later on.

The place that I’m naming now is the Alameda Naval Air Station. If you look at a map of the island of Alameda (a human-made island), you’ll see that the Naval Air Station covers about half of the land in Alameda. This land is and has been largely unused for many years now. Today its uses are primarily industrial, but it also contains low income housing and some other civic structures. However, to a person visiting this place for the first time, the Naval Air Station appears to be a ruins.

Let me briefly recount the history of this place as I have researched it. The Alameda Naval Air Station was originally a marshland. The land was bought and developed into an airport. Around WWII, the government seized the land and turned it into a base. In the 90s, the base was shut down and the government made promises to give the land back to the county. The land is currently undergoing remediation because of jet fuel and other contaminants found in the soil. This is a rough outline of the base’s history, focusing not on the political or social connotations, nor on the people who have lived there, but on the land itself. Though it now houses people and businesses, the base is, for the most part, still unkept and largely abandoned. The housing I mentioned above is usually placed right alongside decrepit, caved in apartment complexes with fences all around them. The businesses are hedged along with huge and unused airplane hangars.

As you have probably already put together, there are many social, economic, and political implications to this place I have called a ruins, and I admit that I am ignorant of many of these implications, other than knowing that they do exist. Calling this place a ruins, as I did initially, is a generalization. To someone studied in other fields, there is a whole slew of issues attached to this place. On my first few visits there, I remained naive to those problems.

My original intention in visiting the Naval Air Station was to write a collaborative project concerning place, coupled with photos of the base taken by an ex-girlfriend, who is also a poet, photographer, and friend. We walked around parts of the base together, and she took photos of whatever interested her while I tried to remember the details and the affect of the place we were wandering around. We walked, mostly silently, for about two hours, taking pictures, noting landmarks and their decay, and trying to understand what this place was and what it had been. Most of the details that I gathered then no longer register as memory, but what I do remember from that day is a deep sense of loss and sadness. I don’t know why, but for hours after visiting the base, it seemed that Sarah and I hardly spoke a word to each other. It hangs in the air, this sadness for a place, a long time after, as if it had entered into you. It is almost like visiting a cemetery or a church, that though you are abstracted from its significance, not believing in that religion anymore or having any dead there, you are still drawn into the trope of its meaning and can’t help but feel its lingering effects.

What, specifically, is the trope of this place? And why do we feel its lingering presence during our visits there and after leaving it? When the photos were developed in black and white, streaks of light and what looked like fog crowded around the pictures’ subjects, as though the haunting presence that we felt had pressed down on the film itself. And it is hard not to make a connection that people have died here, that bodies may have been dumped here after it was abandoned, and that the land itself and its history is somehow damaged. I revisited the base alone many times afterwards, and with each trip it became more clear why it felt so haunting to me the first time around.

Even without death, without violence, or any other thing that may be lurking psychically in the base, there is the fact of the land and people. The land has been damage to the point that it is ruined for use. It is ruined for its original function as a marshland, which with its indigenous flora and fauna, functions as a cleaning system for the waterways. It has been ruined for use by the city that houses it because of the pollution and waste that has been dumped into it by the federal government. Moreover, and more important than any of this, it is a depressed area, and the people who do live in it are constantly accosted by the fact of its ruin, having to live in the midst of decaying and abandoned apartment complexes that could so simply be rectified and turned into a community, if not for all the red tape. It is a depressed area that very few people even know of, overshadowed by the wealth, success, and privilege of the rest of the city of Alameda. All of these factors, and many more, haunt this place. Entering into this place, I had no idea of what it signified socially, economically, politically, or otherwise, and had to educate myself about it. I am writing this as a privileged outsider and can only grasp peripherally the complications of the space that I am attempting to address. This is, perhaps, the whole point of writing this essay at all.

We often enter into a space not knowing what it signifies, like when driving into the Oakland hills, we find ourselves in a redwood forest where we can no longer hear the sound of cars and people and the busy life of the city at its foot. Sometimes it is unsettling and sometimes it is beautiful. Sometimes what we had been so quick to pass off as ruins are filled with people living and working and trying to make a better life for themselves. Space is full of these variables that make it both: both a ruins and a home and the site of a marshland as well as the site that housed a nuclear submarine at one time. There are always histories to be uncovered in space, and always something more to find there. It is nearly impossible to consider all of these variables and complexities at once. The base is simply one illustration of how these varied histories simultaneously exist.

Writing into a specific place, one is taking part in the history of it. And at times, this means taking part in the violence of rewriting its history. Space becomes an open signifier and our writing of it is a way to engage with its multiplicities. And though when we make the poetic choice of privileging one aspect of this signifier over another, of writing into space as it relates with language, ecology, the everyday, or any other coinciding theme that can be read alongside space, those alternative themes and poetries linger within our writing as a trace. Not only are we writing into the history of space when we choose to write about a specific landmark or site, but we are also writing into the writing of that landmark or site.

The naming of a space, and the subsequent writing around it, is an action that has to be weighed ethically. When I write about a tree by a lake, this tree and lake has the privilege of anonymity. There are no markers that signal to the reader that this tree or lake are infused with a social reality or are attached to a specific space. When I write about the overgrown hedges and weeds crawling up the side of a former barracks at the Naval Air Station, this image is additionally charged with the significance of the space that I address. I am not saying that one is better and one is worse, only that with the specificity and naming of a space comes all of the complexities that may be attached to it. Perhaps the reason that my project about the base was ultimately a failure was precisely because of the complexities that it embodies. I went looking for a ruins and found something that was partially that and partially a history and a site where people lived and worked and still do, and so much more. Perhaps it was my failure or lack of skill at being able to rectify all of the various functions that this space serves. Perhaps I realized after my ten or fifteen visits to this place that I did not fully understand the stakes of writing about a space that was so complex. It is easy to turn a blind eye to the intricacies of a place, to make it mean what you want it to mean, to commit the violence of rewriting space as something you see, and not the reality of what it is. It is easy to tell partial truths. But addressing a specific site asks us to be judicious towards it, to attempt to represent it as best we can for its complexities, and not to generalize or belittle it, to consider the lives, the meanings, and the struggles that come along with it, and to be truthful to them.

Cosmo Spinosa lives in Oakland. His poetry is forthcoming in Barrelhouse and has appeared in PeacockAries, and Vertebrae, among others. His critical work has appeared on The Volta. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Mills College.

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