A poem close to home

October 3, 2013
Poet Joshua Weiner (Ralph Alswang)
Poet Joshua Weiner (Ralph Alswang)

About two years ago, inspiration struck local poet Joshua Weiner as he walked beside Rock Creek, down the hill from his Woodley Park home.

“I was thinking about how many different kinds of experiences happen along the creek,” he says. “It’s the scene of love and murder and recreation and natural history and different kinds of human history.”

At Politics and Prose on Saturday, Weiner will read the poem that resulted from that walk, “Rock Creek (II),” which is the first work in his new book, “The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish.” The book also includes Weiner’s initial attempt to write about the aforementioned tributary, “Rock Creek,” a short piece about his sons playing in the water.

“Rock Creek (II),” in comparison, is much broader, covering thousands of years from dozens of perspectives. And yet, “It’s a single place, and in many ways a single moment,” Weiner says. (The best way to approach the poem is to let go of your sense of linear time, he adds.)

If that sounds confusing, don’t fret. We asked the poet to help us dip our toes into an excerpt.

poem

The “tolerant” trees might be resilient in the face of pollution or drought, but Weiner selected the word for its larger meaning. “One of the actions of the poem is to release the connotations of words that are used in one kind of context, perhaps a science context, into another kind, in this case a political or social context,” he says.

In just a few lines, Weiner zooms forward and backward in time with dizzying speed. The disorientation is intentional, he says. “The poem creates a kind of form in which different points in time coexist, and tries to speak to the difficulties that we are experiencing now in relation to what took place here in D.C. hundreds or even thousands of years ago.”

The ambiguity of the phrase “time to grind” points to the fact that the mills on Rock Creek processed a variety of materials, including flour and lumber. It also suggests that these mighty industrial structures simply ran out of time to exist.

While preparing to write the poem, Weiner discovered that Military Road got its name during the Civil War, when the Union Army used it to set up fortresses to protect the Capitol.

Rock Creek was much wider and deeper before mills silted it up, Weiner notes.

Before he did research for this poem, “my kids played in the Stoddert Soccer League, but I had no idea who Stoddert was,” Weiner says. “That kind of paradox — of one’s name never being forgotten but nobody really knowing who you were — seems almost like a condition of history itself.”

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sat., 1 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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