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Poets of Franklin County

Poets of Franklin County: Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno

One night, as he sat on the verandah in the hill station of Mussoorie in the foothills of the Himalayas, Montague poet Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno overheard someone call out in a language he didn’t know. Perhaps it was Hindi or Kashmiri or any one of the several hundred languages spoken in India. Without knowing what was being said, Sawyer-Laucanno could sense an urgency that indicated that something was going on.

It was a passing moment that could have been forgotten except that Sawyer-Laucanno, who had been invited to read as a guest poet at 2007’s first International Mussoorie Writers’ Conference, was already feeling, “Kind of ajar from my usual environment.”

Overhearing this incomprehensible phrase made Sawyer-Laucanno begin to think about language and, “How we come to name things.”

“I know a few languages and I often have puzzled out why we have all these different names for things and how they each mean something different,” Sawyer-Laucanno said. Certain words in certain languages “have so much more resonance,” he added.

As an example, he cited the English word, “home,” which, “Is so much about breath.” He paused to repeat it, letting the “om” in the middle of the word expand. “Casa” in Spanish or “maison” in French both translate more simply as “house,” without carrying the emotional content of the English word “home,” he said.

Sawyer-Laucanno, who taught architecture and writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 25 years, has always been interested in language.

“I enjoy the way words change things. ‘Collision/collusion,’” he said, quoting one of many pairs of words in his long poem series, titled “Mussoorie-Montague Miscellany,” that play with the permeability of meaning by being almost, but not quite, matches.

The book, published this year by Talisman House in Greenfield, moves in what Sawyer-Laucanno described as a circular architecture. The poems, all untitled, vary in structure and intent: some are built from lines that stay against the left margin; others sprawl across the page, allowing white space to enter the poem’s meaning. Some tackle philosophical questions, others focus in on everyday objects or occurrences, such as choosing a mango in a crowded bazaar or enduring a breakneck drive to Delhi, barely missing colliding with a water buffalo.

Yet all of the poems contribute to the exploration of what it is to be conscious, alternately seeking language to describe experience and resisting that urge: “seeking only a rock/on which to sit,/ a rock we won’t name,” Sawyer-Laucanno writes, ending that poem with the line, “Not naming is also naming.”

“I puzzle wakefulness,” he writes in another poem, aptly describing the overall sense of exploration that permeates the book.

At first, Sawyer-Laucanno thought he would put together the writings from his travels into “a little book about Musssorie and that would be that. Then I came back and I ended up in Montague,” Sawyer-Laucanno said, laughing delightedly. “And suddenly Montague began to filter into Mussoorie.”

“I think that when you live in a place for a long time, you forget to look at what’s in front of you. I came back and, all of a sudden, I saw everything again ... The most common sorts of things that would happen throughout the day — walking down the river with my little dog — became a very meditative exercise,” he said, “as opposed to just taking the dog for a walk. And that began to infiltrate the book.”

The Connecticut River entered the poems, alongside the Ganges. The pumpkins and geese of western Massachusetts joined the beedis and jangling bracelets of Mussoorie. Culling from many different pieces and fragments, including “the poems that went nowhere, poems that belong nowhere,” Sawyer-Laucanno began to assemble “Mussoorie-Montague Miscellany,” working to get down to what he described as “the essence of things.”

“I really wanted to fix on the essence of what it is to be in a place, in time, in space,” Sawyer-Laucanno said. “That’s the basic philosophical underpinning, I guess. It’s sort of a meditation on time, place and space.”

He was also interested in calling attention to language itself. Yet, he pointed out, “The only vehicle we have to describe language is language and language is imperfect.” He chuckled. “I’m very aware of that.”

One of the poems ends with the last line of Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus”: “What we can not speak about we must pass over in silence.”

“I taught that at one point,” said Sawyer-Laucanno. “I used to really try to figure out: ‘How do we get out of this conundrum of using language to describe language?’”

He laughs. “There’s no way to do it.”

Not and tell anybody else about it. Which is, after all, a writer’s first impulse and a writer’s job.

Ask for Christopher Sawyer-Laucanne’s “Mussoorie-Montague Miscellany” at local bookstores or find it online through Talisman House, Publishers at www.talismanhousepublishers.com

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. Crapo is seeking published poets for her column. She’s interested in books written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

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