Several years ago, I took a course on Modernism and Post-modernism. One of the topics of study was T.S. Eliot’s widely read modernist poem, “The Waste Land” (full text here). The themes and intricacies were so intense that we spent a solid three weeks reading, digesting, mentally churning, and understanding the poem. Three weeks may seem like overkill to many people, but “The Waste Land” truly deserved every minute of it, and it allowed me to really comprehend Modernism.
Originating around the turn of the 20th century, modernist literature broke ties with traditional forms of poetry and writing. It veered off the course of optimism to question the world with a cynical, broken outlook, a kind of “psychological realism.” Eliot’s poem typifies the movement’s use of multiple viewpoints and internal monologues. Art took on a similar approach; Cezanne and Picasso’s Cubism with its fragments and broken images offered a painter’s subjective viewpoint of a world that was becoming ever more confusing and disrupted.
After those three weeks of study and discussion, we were given the task of assembling our own modernist creation. It could be in any format, but given that I love writing poetry, a poem in the style of “The Wasteland” was my take on the assignment. Like Eliot’s poem, my poem’s structure utilized five sections and multiple viewpoints/personas. It spoke to the theme of immigration, or leaving one’s familiar, loved home for a strange and cruel one. The poem is below, along with its interpretation (so that you don’t have to spend three weeks reading this one =))
ad fontes – reflections
The air on my worn feet feels like –
what do they call it? – ice
Colder still is the withering
grip on memory
ice shuffles forward, losing whatever heat is left
to wooden planks
Gray as the sky
through my gray eyes
loneliness invades my
threadbare cloak and
enters without invitation
the blue tunnels
beneath translucent skin
Here I can be nothing but
slow purpose and no belonging
even these grind to a halt
against robotic existence
But no matter for these stony faces
moving in straight lines
past and through this withered soul
They have become, if anything,
part of the nothingness.
wept into the dust that until now
we trampled on
then taking its life and warmth as permanence
now, begging forgiveness for our insensitivity
Begging to stand firm in the gusts of change
ignoring the fact that our roots already swing
irreparably in the wind
Pulled up by the cold metal fist
In the torch’s flame does burn
just as a wick drenched in cheap oil
blackens the white paint above
even we have become foreigners to each other
Somewhere between there and here
the wind has lost the sensations of home
In my infidelity I have forsaken my earthen cradle
as I entered this loveless marriage
to you, the unknown
Still, at least, their feet have made
this desolation their own
Imprinted into concrete are their own sorrows
their own uncertainties
whereas my heart bleeds salt
only to mix with
the chill that traverses my body
Amma’s hand doesn’t feel the same
in this place
she squeezes it tightly but something
is wrong something
is missing –
Their eyes look into mine as they float by
Why are you here?
This is my place.
Go back to your own.
their eyes are more colorless
than their skin
they look at me as one looks
at an outcast
Did I do something wrong, Amma?
Why did you bring me to this place?
Please, Amma take me h—
and in that breath I knew.
Amma, are you angry with me
for losing my h—
for losing my home?
take me back and
I will find it for you again.
My words are unheard
as they have been since I stepped
onto the threshold of uncertainty
Caustic tears snaked down my cheeks
draining red warmth and leaving bleak gray
Out of insatiable thirst I drank them
only to be further burned
Wisps of smoke took the place of my
once firm hold on life
All that I knew and loved
was swept away by unbearably cold winds
memory itself fades
like the sun on this winter day
My beloved is gone, changed by time
trampled by new feet
What I would give to feel not the horrid
cracked metal path
but the soft splendor that I left behind
when I abandoned innocent knowledge
and entrusted my future
to that uncertain hand.
Notes on “ad fontes – reflections”
Title: “Ad fontes” means “to the fountain,” or “to the source.” This poem is about an immigrant woman’s reflections on her life, which was changed forever when she left her native land. The source of stability and happiness is her own country; the source of uncertainty and unhappiness is her move to America. She constantly longs to return to the source of happiness but knows it is too late.
Section I: The perspective is of an old woman who has immigrated to America and has been living amidst the people and places for a long time. She never was able to adjust or adapt to the new environment; she always felt foreign and alone despite noticing how others around her (i.e. other immigrants) have blended into their surroundings. However, they also lack something, for they are as unhappy as she is. The only difference is that they are now numb to their unhappiness whereas for her it is constant and throbbing.
Section II: The speaker is the same woman when she is younger, perhaps in her twenties or thirties. She laments leaving her homeland and speaks intimately of the land, almost as if it was her lover that she abandoned. She uses “we” and “us” to convey this relationship. The relationship, however, is lost when she cheats the land she once took for granted and leaves for a new land. She feels like an infidel, an adulterer. In doing so she has uprooted herself, literally, as she enters into a “loveless marriage” to the new land.
Section III: The perspective returns shortly to the woman in her old age. This is evident from the last line of this section, which parallels the second part of Section I (“Gray as the sky…skin”). The theme of others around her adapting to their surroundings, even if they do so unhappily, is again present.
Section IV: The perspective is now of the woman when she was a young child and was first brought to America. She is with her mother and feels like she is being punished for something she did wrong, namely for losing something. She feels like she has lost her home, and consequently is being punished for losing such a valuable possession. This of course is not the reason she is brought to America, but to the mind of a child this is quite possibly the only logical explanation for what she is feeling.
Section V: The perspective shifts for a final time back to the woman in her old age. She reflects on the effects that immigration has had on her life and her sense of self-understanding. Nothing is fixed, certain, or logical anymore. Even her memories of happiness are faded and crumbling because of old age. Even if she could return to her homeland, it would not be the same as when she lived there many years ago; time and people have irreversibly changed it. She is lost between two worlds, one which alienated her from all she knew to be true, and the other which can no longer bring her happiness and comfort. The last part of this section hints to the reader that this speaker is the same lover from Section II (“My beloved is gone…”) and the same child from Section IV (“that uncertain hand”).