Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 50, February 2015)

Sean Hill
What Spills Over and What Urges the Spill
Some Whys and Wherefores of Dangerous Goods


In August 2005 Lauren and I decided to drive west, to take a couple of weeks and wend our way west from Bemidji to Vancouver. We spent several nights in Glacier National Park—every time I framed the landscape with my viewfinder I took a postcard-worthy photo. We spent a day in Calgary where I saw possibly the most striking woman I’ve ever seen. And we had the worst Chinese food I’ve had in my life in Cache Creek, BC, where we also saw a pickup truck with BC license plates a Confederate flag decal in the rear window.

In the early evening of the first day of our trip home to Bemidji, as I sat in the passenger seat of the big white Ford Crown Victoria while Lauren drove through Hartline, Washington, I saw two common nighthawks flying low along the railroad tracks. It felt like a gift to see these acrobatic aerialists flying so close to the ground in a straight line. I got a good look at them, and in that moment felt the urge to share this with my friend, the poet Nicky Beer; I felt the urge to write her a poem and send it as a postcard.

That was the beginning of my postcard poems project. The rules I set for myself were: (1.) I had to be traveling to write, as I’d been for the first postcard, and (2.) I had to sight a bird and feel the urge to write to a specific friend, affix the poem to a postcard, and mail it while traveling. Not every trip yielded a postcard poem. I wanted to write poems that explored the dramatic situation of the postcard rather than capturing the essence of Postcardese—those short sentences that seem to leap from subject to subject. Sans envelope, a postcard is out in the open the way a poem is.

I bought a postcard a few years back from an antique store in Madison, Wisconsin. I was drawn to the picture of a blue lake beside a country road, with the caption “Greetings from HOXIE, ARKANSAS.” It’s addressed to a Mrs. G. J. Kushman in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It reads, “We came across Arkansas on 62 Hiway yesterday now are on 63 Hiway to Memphis. We left Jonesboro Arkansas, Water standing in fields. And some farmers are discing, some picking cotton Maybe seeing you Susie & Adolph” and is dated Jan 29. The postmark is from Marked Tree, Arkansas, and dated Jan 29, 1959. They got down the details of their time on the road on this postcard—a brief note to let Mrs. Kushman know where they were and what they’d seen—and mailed immediately. Nothing too personal here, and yet I feel like I know something of these people.

I wrote a dozen or so of those postcards to friends before the project shifted to more fanciful postcards addressed to or written in the voice of abstractions such as Wrong Address, Destination, Regret, My Third Crush Today, and Reconciliation. Because they draw on the images and language of specific times and places these imagined postcards feel like postcards in which the speaker relates my filtered, scrambled, and repurposed experiences to the addressee.

When I write poems I’m attempting to use words to construct a system of resonances that get at some encounter, observation, or thought I’ve had in the world. If one thinks of history—the study of the past involving humans—as the understanding of relationships between past occurrences, then those relationships or connections are similar to the systems of resonances I’m after when writing poems.

I write poems as a communication to and with history, the future, and now. Language is a kind of correspondence with the present. Words like “hornswoggle” and “greenhorn,” which show up in my poem “Postcard to Nostalgia,” are the language of yesteryear, as they say. “Postcard to Nostalgia” is a poem in which “nostalgia” is personified and addressed, an apostrophe of sorts. I hope this language resonates with the fact the we feel homesick—nostalgic, from the Greek nostos for “return home” and algos for “pain”—for not only home in a place, but maybe more significantly for home in a time. The sickness induced by not being able to get back to a time one feels affection for, a time of happiness.

In 2000 James Allen published a controversial book titled Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Allen, an antiques collector, selected photos from his collection of 145 photographs of lynchings and postcards made from those photos. “In humble admiration of the work of Emmett Till’s mother”1 is how Allen has introduced his drive in collecting the photos and publishing the book. He goes on to say, “Putting a face on murder and racial hatred in America for the entire world to see, we published this book.” One of the postcards was made from a photograph taken at the 1920 Duluth lynchings. My poems “June 1920” and “A Photograph Taken in Duluth” are sorts of ekphrastic poems based on that image. I imagine I came across this postcard when looked through the book when it came out, but I didn’t focus on that horrific incident until I moved to the small northern Minnesota town of Bemidji, and found a correspondence—a close similarity—between myself and Charles W. Scrutchin, an African American attorney who moved to Bemidji in 1898, about one hundred and five years before I moved here. Scrutchin successfully defended one of the men who survived the Duluth lynch mob yet still had to stand trial. Finding a historic connection made adjusting to Bemidji easier for me. The poems I addressed to Scrutchin and another one of his clients, Sam Kee, are like postcards to history.


Displacement keeps me from sinking, allows me a vantage from which to witness and write. Fascination—to be held as if spellbound—is an act of displacement, an irresistible narrowing of attentiveness displacing broad attention.

displacement is the moving of a thing from where it belongs—its place or position.

I’ve moved myself away from my hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia—where my family feels I belong, regardless of how proud they may be of my going out into the world. My distance makes my grandmother anxious.2 For her, even across town is too far.

I was born with crooked feet, and learned to walk in braces that set them straight. They turned inward; I was pigeon-toed. I like that I was born with the feet of a bird. The names for such conditions can be wonderfully figurative. When both feet point off in the same direction it’s called windblown feet. If you ask my family they would say ever since I started walking mine have seemed caught in the wind.

My great grandfather, named Flagg, was a peripatetic preacher.

displacement is the enforced departure of people from their homes, typically because of war, persecution, or natural disaster.

I want to write a children’s book about a “displaced person” titled The Peregrinations of Tulip, loosely based on the life of my friend the Iranian-born novelist and filmmaker Laleh Khadivi.

“Displaced person” is a term used in the context of conflicts and catastrophes the world over—and the title of a Flannery O’Connor short story. She called my hometown home; that’s where her people were from, though she was born in Savannah. In her “Displaced Person” the protagonist, Mr. Guizac, is a WWII refugee from Poland who, despite his skill and work ethic, runs afoul of his benefactor, Mrs. McIntyre, because he is unfamiliar with his new community’s mores regarding race.

During the settlement of Liberia by Americo-Africans there were skirmishes between the settlers and the natives, the indigenous Africans.

displacement is the occupation by a submerged body or part of a body of a volume that would otherwise be occupied by a fluid or the amount or weight of fluid that would fill such a volume in the case of a floating ship, used as a measure of the ship’s size

Displacement is what spills over and what urges the spill. I don’t know how old I was, but I remember as a child first noting the slight rise of the bathwater when I eased into the tub. This was before I learned about the Greek scientist and inventor, Archimedes and displacement or the Middle Passage or poetry. As the story goes, the king asked Archimedes to determine whether a goldsmith had cheated him by mixing in a less precious metal when making a crown. Archimedes struck on the solution for the question of density and volume when he lowered himself into the bathtub and the water rose. The answer was displacement. In his excitement Archimedes ran into the street naked shouting “eureka,” which is Greek for “I have found it.”

Considering that fascinating buoyant mode of transportation, the boat, is how Europeans and Africans first came to “the New World,” how many ways can “displacement” be understood? And how does establishing a triangle trade route and the Middle Passage contribute to our nation’s historical geometry? Does ballast on boats and insurance policies for dire straits at sea balance the arithmetic? And how does the colonization of Liberia figure in here? How do indigenous folks in Africa and the Americas fair in the figuring?

My great grandfather, Flagg, was born in slavery.

Since I left home I’ve arrived, often travel-addled, on the shores of several new-to-me towns and cities I intended to make home for some period of time. My sense of home is complicated these days.

displacement is the amount by which a thing is moved from its natural position

Displacement can be measured, the distance from home to here—from the original tub or basin. Or maybe I mean from the watershed to where I’ve made my way downriver, journeying, in my case, not sold. That’s displacement, the story of my traveling toward to the ocean (where we all inevitably gather) once I came into this world.

displacement is the unconscious transfer of an intense emotion from its original object to another one

Home is an emotion one wakes up to one morning. Home is the feeling you meet as you drive into town for the second time. Home is the tug you feel looking out the plane window as you fly away for the first time. Home is the sound the ground makes under your feet with every step.


Fish have swim bladders. Birds have keel bones. And I have a flat breastbone, a sternum, to which my ribs attach creating a place for my heart to beat and my lungs to breathe. Boats have sails, which catch the wind, a current of air, and a stern, the rearmost part from where they’re steered. “Stern” is the foremost part of “sternum” but they don’t share roots—one from the Old Norse for “to steer” and the other from the Greek for “chest.” I also have an imagination and can see a boat in my mind’s eye; it rides the line between two fluids. Swim bladders buoy, and the muscles that provide power for lift could not if not anchored to a keel bone. And my father, an anchor so to speak—who would lift me over his head into the air when I was a boy—loves fish; he’s had aquariums all of my life. My father and I share the fact that fish transfix us—fish and women may be our only transfixing points of connection. They fasten us in place, hold us to the world for a while. At some point in my childhood, before women, I must have made the connection between the way fish moved in his aquariums and the way birds moved in the air; I think I remember hearing a nature documentary narrator say that penguins fly through the water, making that connection for me, articulating it. Penguins have keel bones; their keels help them balance in the water—their freedom in moving through space. Because I tend to spend most of my time above water, literally at least, I see more birds than fish. And a few of them roost, paddle, squawk, chuckle, and fly on the pages of Dangerous Goods—an Anna’s Hummingbird, the Shearwater, Pigeons and Sparrows, and a Barn Swallow and its kin, Crows, Ducks, Gulls, Ibises, Canada Geese, an American Kestrel, American Coots, European Starlings, the Ring-necked Pheasant, Wild Turkeys, the Egret, an Osprey, and a Cockatoo. Like poems, they move through space, turning and plunging, and live in the air—but poems are articulated by teeth, tongue, lips, and breath. Joints are articulations, and poems have those in a manner of speaking. And I have neither a swim bladder nor a keel bone, but I have space to fly.


1In 1955 Mamie Till, whose fourteen-year old son Emmett was the victim of a lynching in Money, Mississippi for little or nothing, chose have an open-casket funeral in order that the world would see her son’s mutilated body.
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2Since I wrote this sentence my grandmother has passed on.
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