The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
—Czeslaw Milosz, “Ars Poetica?”
[E]ntrance into the liminal is fundamental to the life of writing....In the work of such a person,
what lies beyond the conventional, simplified, and
“authorized” versions of a culture’s narratives
can find voice.
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
(Hirshfield 1997, 205)
“Ask yourself a question,” friend and poet
Jennifer Atkinson advised me this spring
when we were talking about ways of inviting
poems to come. “A question for which
you have no answer.” I nodded, thinking
of my fieldwork in Maine. I have plenty
of questions like that. Could my poetry
writing help me explore what is just out of
sight, and beyond understanding?
My poetry has quite naturally turned
to the natural world and the people of
my major folklore fieldwork area—the
western mountain and lake region of
Maine—where I have been writing about
the Richards, a family of loggers and
homemakers, woodcarvers, storytellers,
and knitters, as well as about others in
the community: hunters, river drivers,
schoolteachers, and more. The challenges
of doing fieldwork in logging country, in
a town of twelve hundred souls about 40
miles from hospitals and other services,
also claims its space in my writing, both
of poetry and ethnography.
|Sunrise on Greenvale Cove, Rangeley Lake, 2004. Photo by Margaret Yocom.
Why, for example, I’ve asked myself,
do some women in Rangeley love to hang
out their wash at the first sign of winter’s
passing, when clothes will actually dry
outside and not just freeze? Yes, as they tell
me, the laundry smells fresh. Yes, the air
whispers Spring! But it’s cold in March, in
the mountains, and that cold makes itself
known through red, chapped faces and
hands. Is there more? Something unsaid?
Something there on the margins? Like poet
Renée Ashley, I am “drawn to what flutters
nebulously at the edges, at the corner of
my eye—just outside my certain sight.” As
she writes about what she wants in a poem,
she speaks to my practice of poetry as an
I want a share in what I am routinely
denied, or only suspect exists. . . . I
long for a glimpse of what is beginning
to occur, both in the margins, the
periphery of the poem, and in a life.....[I want poems that are] a means
to suspect or intuit the consequences
of what we do not know....I need
to see some movement from the
corner of my eye and get curious,
want to know what it might be, what
fleeting, unnameable, shapeless-but-in-
motion thing—acknowledged but
uncertain—is skirting my certainties.... (Ashley 2007, 60)
by Margaret Yocom
Wires hum with snow melt.
Crows and a west breeze
call from spruce and fir.
One patch of soil pulls
down sudden March sun
to the near garden.
Our house has become
small, his words too wide.
lemon. Steam rises
from towels. With clothespins
I craft northern lights.
No one asks a thing.
If I open my coat
I am the shape of wind.
[“First Wash” was originally published
in the Beloit Poetry Journal, 58(4) (Summer
2008), p. 16. Reprinted by permission of
Still, I worry, sometimes, about this new
ethnographic lens of mine, this poetry.
Should I be using my imagination to explore
these questions, to reach toward what
seems unsayable, unnameable? Some answers
come from the people in Rangeley.
Rodney Richard, reading a draft of my
poem about his father, William, exclaimed
with pleasure, “Well, I’ll be damned!” and
pocketed a copy. The Rangeley Public Library
honored me along with other writers
of folklore and poetry at their 2006 Literary
Gala and at a reading of our poetry.
Jane Kenyon, who made her home in
rural New Hampshire, says that naming
is part of the work: “The poet’s job is to...
put into words those feelings we all have
that are so deep, so important, and yet so
difficult to name. The poet’s job is to find a
name for everything; to be a fearless finder
of the names of things; to be an advocate
for the beauty of language, the subtleties
of language” (Kenyon 1999, 183).
And I believe her. With other poets and
ethnographers, I’ll do my best to keep
watch, write it down, and get it right.
Margaret R. Yocom, an associate
professor of English at George Mason
University, Fairfax, Virginia, teaches
traditional narrative and storytelling,
traditional arts, gender, ethnographic
writing, and folklore and creative writing.
The director of the Northern Virginia
Folklife Archive, she established the
concentration, minor, and Masters
program in Folklore Studies in 1977. She
has written about ethnographic fieldwork,
regional study, family folklore, gender,
material culture, and folklore and creative
writing. Her most recent work includes
“But Who Are You Really?” Ambiguous
Bodies and Ambiguous Pronouns in
‘Allerleirauh’” in Transgressive Tales:
Queering the Grimms (2012) and
“‘We’ll Take Care of Liza and the Kids’:
Spontaneous Memorials and Personal
Response at the Pentagon, 2001” in
Spontaneous Shrines and Other Public
Memorializations of Death (2006). She
is the assistant editor of Ugiuvangmiut
Quliapyuit: King Island Tales (1988),
and she co-wrote Logging in the Maine
Woods: The Paintings of Alden Grant
(1994). Her poetry and creative writing
has appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal,
The Folklore Muse, and elsewhere.
Her current book projects features the
traditional art and storytelling of the
Richard family of Rangeley, Maine.
Active in public sector folklore, she is the
folklorist at the Rangeley Lakes Region
Logging Museum and is on the executive
boards of several cultural groups. She
serves as American Folklore Society
liaison to the Association of Writers and
Ashley, Renée. 2007. Writing on the Brink:
Peripheral Vision and the Personal
Poem. The Writer’s Chronicle 39(4): 60–65.
Dunn, Stephen. 2001. Walking Light: Memoirs
and Essays on Poetry. Rochester, NY:
Hirshfield, Jane. 1997. Nine Gates: Entering
the Mind of Poetry. New York: Harper-
Kenyon, Jane. 1999. A Hundred White
Daffodils. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.
Myerhoff, Barbara. 1976. Number Our Days,
directed by Lynne Littman, Community
Television of Southern California, Los
Stafford, William. 1998. Crossing Unmarked
Snow: Further Views on the Writer’s Vocation.
Ed. Paul Merchant and Vincent
Wixon. Ann Arbor: University of
Yocom, Margaret R. 2000. Exuberance in
Control: The Dialogue of Ideas in the
Tales and Fan Towers of Woodsman
William Richard of Phillips, Maine.
Northeast Folklore: Essays in Honor of Edward
D. Ives. Ed. Pauleena MacDougall and David Taylor. Orono: University
of Maine Press and the Maine Folklife
Center, pp. 265–297.
Yocom, Margaret R. and Gaylon “Jeep”
Wilcox. 2000. ‘Just Call Me Sandy, Son’:
Poet Jeep Wilcox’s Tribute to Sandy
Ives. Northeast Folklore: Essays in Honor of
Edward D. Ives. Ed. Pauleena MacDougall
and David Taylor. Orono: University
of Maine Press and the Maine Folklife
Center, pp. 405–409.
This article, excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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