April 16, 2014

Book: Longing for something out of reach

‘The Land We Dreamed: Poems’
By Joe Survant. University Press of Kentucky; 160 pgs., $19.95.

Nostalgia was originally a mental disorder. Fascinating, right? The word was invented to label an aching homesickness felt by Swiss mercenaries who were fighting far from where they grew up. For generations, it was a derogatory term, implying weakness. Of course, we now use the word freely. It is common to dive into our memories of another time and yearn for a different year or place; yet, returning to the past is an unattainable dream. Our personal moments of nostalgia — along with the ever-popular desire to live in another era — hit at a lament for a simpler time. Joe Survant’s latest collection of poems brings all of these ideas to the surface.

“The Land We Dreamed,” Survant’s final installment of a trilogy that chronicles rural Kentucky, toggles perspectives, creating opportunities to go through the possible emotions of people on Kentucky land, from hunters in the Ice Age to late-18th century settlers. Reading through the lens of a French Jesuit missionary, Native American tribes, historical figures and pioneers, the poems describe a world attractive with purity and promise, yet terrifying with violence and death.

Simple descriptions overlap, creating a complex scenery of emotions, and “The Land We Dreamed” takes a slow pace, bringing a reader through a narrative word by word. And because Survant’s spacious poems remind us of a time when land was freedom, open to travel and mobility, it underscores how this promise of possibility has been squashed. Now land is full of places, points and destinations. Although our regional identity equals a sense of security, a sense of belonging, we still fantasize about virgin space — open landscapes full of possible Edens.

Full of history, albeit enhanced and imagined, the book is a fresh way to consider regionalism and take another look at the question we in this country have never resolved — what (or who) is a foreigner?

Growing up in Owensboro on the Ohio River, Joe Survant was Poet Laureate of Kentucky from 2002-2004. His connection to the state runs deep, and his writing repeatedly circles back to ponds, rivers and the geography of the region.

And maybe we need a fellow Kentuckian in this time of social media distraction and global connectedness to show us, once again, the importance of place. Pondering the past residents, situations and stories of a state can only enhance an individual’s identity. Because, when it comes down to it, by connecting stories, we assemble an understanding of who we are. Where we live is an integral part of the tale. Place is the groundwork for feelings of romantic longing, nostalgia and memory. As one of the book’s fictions states, We must awaken and / remember who we are, / before we pass away / and are forgotten