Habitat: To Have, To Hold, To Dwell
Hello, I’m Shelley Armitage bringing you a special Radio Readers BookByte in celebration of National Poetry Month. In honoring poetry this month and as a poet myself, I want to share this little piece I wrote. It’s called “What’s in a Title?” and refers to my forthcoming poetry collection entitled A Habit of Landscape.
Sometimes they come like padded cat’s feet, sometimes crashing down in a sinus headache before dawn. Some writers think of them first (they become guides) and for others they’re an afterthought.
I remember when an artist friend of mine did me the honor of naming one of her pieces. It was made of pig gut—twisted, stretched, dried into a provocative elliptical form now dangling from her Kauai (Hawai’i) house ceiling. This was the same house she had to tent and treat because of the pervasive termites that plague the tropics. But never mind. She made an artwork of the termites too—their piled high excretions. Now there was a title just waiting to be evacuated. But that’s another story.
Titles are an honor. We should be humble before them. A Habit of Landscape, despite its awkward and plainly inaccurate syntax, came to me on one of my many walks. At the time it had nothing to crown. But I think it was inspired partially by a comment the nature writer Barry Lopez made years ago. Of his Oregon home of thirty some odd years, he said he never walked in the forest there that he didn’t experience something new. His habit of landscape was just part of his noticing eye, his witness.
Maybe I took inspiration, too, from the Laguna writer, Leslie Marmon Silko, who reminds us that the western notion of landscape suggests something separate from us—something out there. But Silko says “viewers are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on.” This idea of kinship I’d like to believe in. And so in wondering what my subconscious might be trying to tell me about this lingering title, I went to the dictionary. And I discovered that “habit’ and “habitat” share root origins.
Each emerges from Latin root words meaning “to have,” “to hold,” “to dwell.”
I guess this title went looking for a book. I suggested it for Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place. But I got vetoed by my Oklahoma Press editor. Too vague. She wanted that Texas connection (even though I aimed for the place based universal).
But now it seems fortuitously that my stubborn little title has gathered together some poems which perhaps best suit it anyway. My little poems—some of them hanging around from fifty years ago, most of them brand new—gathered nicely under this shelter. Whether about family, adoption, Panhandle places, old lovers, each has some root in the universal place, language. In being placed. In being in place. To have, to hold, to dwell.
I’m Shelley Armitage for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club for National Poetry Month. For more about A Habit of Landscape, go to my website www.shellyarmitage.com