Sometimes we may need to take the unwelcome yet eye-opening bite into the raw onion of American history. On Thursday, writer, historian and poet Peter Neil Carroll walked into a room in the Science Center to find a warm and accepting audience. Carroll — who wasn’t published as a poet until 2008 — has written and edited 17 history books, including Keeping Time: Memory, Nostalgia, and the Art of History.
The talk, titled “Poetry as History: Lost Places in America,” focused on and included readings of poems from A Child Turns Back to Wave: Poetry of Lost Places, for which Carroll won this year’s Prize Americana for Poetry from the Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture. In his work, Carroll engages with the enduring spirit of geography through personal experiences of place. Dealing with America’s violent acquisition and past is no easy task. As a history teacher in the 1960s, Carroll became frustrated at his inability to provide his students with a more diverse context of American history, stating that to have a Ph.D. in American history in the ’60s required little to no knowledge of African-American history. American history at the time was commonly viewed through the lens of the “Puritan mission to have an American city on a hill, such as New England.”
Switching from academia to poetry enabled Carroll to find release from the meticulous constraints that he struggled with as a historian. In his poems, Carroll makes tragic and known landmarks and events in American history resonate on a deep and emotional level with his audience. For instance, he writes about European settlers who sought to “spread civilization and culture without the beasts who were already here.” This history of the spread of “civility” and alleged “improvement” is ingrained in the land below us, land that Carroll compared to an archaeological site that “continued to present new layers.”
Tackling historical and sensitive issues with direct language, his poems carry a confrontational tone, provoking emotional reactions in the listeners. Although Carroll did not necessarily attempt to convey guilt, his somewhat tired voice felt apologetic. The history underneath this great land is not so great if you peel back the layers, and if you physically go to visit these places, Carroll admitted, “they can make you cry.”
Carroll discussed other events that add layers to America’s story, including the Trinity Site in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was tested. He described the incident with the cynical one-liner, “tested here, proved in Nagasaki.” According to Carroll, the Native Americans who inhabited this country saw the power of the world as held in circles, alluding to a cyclic, more natural philosophy of life. Carroll explained that European settlers “put [them] in square boxes,” a reference to the square pieces of reservation land assigned to Native Americans by the U.S. government. After hearing Carroll’s poetry, one might find it hard to see the reservations as generous. More importantly, by painting history through poetry, Carroll has found a way to provide a more circular and natural understanding of what has so often been provided in rectangular and straightforward forms of textbook history. Rather than capturing history, his poetry shines a light on it, with substance and the potential for a new kind of truth.
Raw yet eloquent, the poems of Peter Carroll dig deep into the confines of America’s geography and bring to the surface the harsh realities of its history. The experience of hearing this linguistic excavation in his talk and poetry was indeed both special and informative. Even so, experiencing it through poems is not enough. According to Carroll, in order to truly fathom the experience of history, you “must allow yourself to go to a place, and although you cannot go back to the specific time, you’d be surprised [in that] the layers might reveal themselves to you. They must be felt.”
Carroll did convey some optimism that night, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “experience of universal truth” in nature. He went on to claim that the circular, universal beauty of this land “offers some hope” to the layers. Still, he acknowledges his own identity with the statement that he “cannot get this skin off.” Upon leaving the talk, we audience members could not help but feel a sense of guilt or displacement for our ignorance about the land we have always called home. In destabilizing our sense of history, Carroll and his poetry have effectively handed us the opportunity to build better layers atop the ones beneath us, layers filled with tolerance, integrity and, hopefully, more poetry.