I remember, some years ago, a gathering of writers talking about “the local”—mostly about how it had disappeared or become irrelevant. Did I say this was the 90s, when everyone was trying to out-postmodern everyone else? In any case, the idea that “the local” was forever henceforward to be trumped by mediation—by our cell phones and streaming video, for Christ’s sake!—struck me then and strikes me now as having suffered, for some of the same reasons, the fate of platform shoes and disco balls. More to our immediate needs, I’d say, would be a theory that makes sense of the way locality is mediated by the technology of mass communication, and the way it mediates that technology. Does my digital tablet make me forget where I’m from, and in fact, make where I’m from disappear? On the contrary, when I’m driven through the Hudson valley now, everything else disappears for me but the crushing sense that I’ve re-acquired a part of myself. We could be driving the world’s biggest and fastest supercomputer, and it wouldn’t make any difference: the local trumps the gadget.
Darrell Bourque, from Church Point, Louisiana, understands the pull of the local in the most intimate ways. He’s written some of the most persuasive poems about being from this specific place. Even here, in a poem that resonates with the pressure of “character” as well as the pressure of “form,” there’s a sense of a media mythology grappled with and subdued by a specific feeling for place (Marfa, Texas, where location shooting for Giant, James Dean’s last film, took place). Digging a little deeper shows that this is no idle exercise: the relationship between place and myth was vexed from the start. Most of Giant was in fact shot on a Hollywood sound stage. Much of what was shot in Marfa was Hollywood illusion—house façades, miniature oil wells. And the difference between James Dean and “James Dean”—the constructed story, the configuration of visual and theatrical seductions—is the very crux of mediated myth. And then there’s Marfa itself. To quote Wikipedia’s entry:
The town was named "Marfa" at the suggestion of the wife of a railroad executive. Although some historians have hypothesized that the name came from a character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, etymologist Barry Popik found that Marfa was actually named after Marfa Strogoff, a character in the Jules Verne novel Michael Strogoff.
So oddly the backstory of Marfa and that of James Dean seem made for each other: a shady mix of Dostoevskian darkness and Vernean potboiler. That these are brought together, first, by the Hollywood mythmaking machine and then, again, by Darrell’s poem, shows how the two media like to tear at each other, and at any fabric reality might be constructed of. Indeed, the very idea of the fantasy involved in the phrase “on location” points to this deeply intermediated rupturing—a function, perhaps, of the incommensurability of the visual and the verbal. At the core of that disruption, maybe, is something like “the local,” that location we’re never quite perfectly on. (JM)
On Location in Marfa
No one knows for sure what came to rest in James Dean’s eyes
when he looked out his window from the Paisano Hotel.
He made it his business to seem to have few ties
to anything, or no ties at all. What fell to him always fell,
it seems, just to the side. That water froze
in the fountain in the patio last winter,
that the grasses here burn in the summer, he chose
to turn his collar to, chose to pull down his hat
so he could look up from under the brim to those
who entered a sight line and insisted on some contact.
All the maps inside his head, all the muffled cries
he couldn’t cry; all the ways of getting away swelled
in him and then stayed. The last straight road that lies
open and waiting for him, the one story he had to tell.
Darrell Bourque is a former poet laureate of Louisiana. His Megan's Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie (University of Louisiana Press, 2013) recently was named the best poetry book of the year by Next Generation Indie Press Awards and is a finalist in the Forward Review's Best Poetry Book of the Year. His most recent work is the Yellow Flag Press chapbook If You Abandon Me, comment je vas faire, An Amédé Ardoin Songbook (2014). He will receive the Louisiana Writer of the Year Award from the Louisiana State Library at the Louisiana Festival of the Book in November 2014.