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Summer Writing Resident James Steck: Constructed Barriers


James Steck is the first writer of the summer 2020 cohort to spend his week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.

Read more about James' experience on site below, along with two poems composed during his stay: "Future Song" and "To Frank, Within the Pope-Leighey House." You can read more about James and his fellow residents here.

I did not know what to expect during my time at the Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House Residency. I did not have any plan outlined, no ultimate goal, no research to concentrate on. Rather I wanted to exist in a new space and to be somewhere that cultivated a new angle on what it means to constantly see the world through constructed barriers. Whether those barriers are self-created and internal or external and architectural, I think there is value in exploring what we attempt to have control over (the world or ourselves). However, it appears that control and true free will might be as elusive as the animals that visited me at the Pope-Leighey House. We can’t help but move in one direction through time, we can’t help but react to our past and to new stimuli, we can only reflect on what we experience.

I quickly found myself enamored with Frank Lloyd Wright's Pope-Leighey House and spent most of my hours there. I enjoyed being surrounded by trees and animals as opposed to people and concrete in DC. A fox came by to watch me pace along the outside of the house, and a groundhog came by to watch me write. Both make a brief cameo in one of the poems below. Most of my curiosity, though, was driven by Frank Lloyd Wright. I wanted to see how close I could come to finding his “ghost” through writing, and I ended up running circles in my own mind while trying to turn the house into something that has been and always will be gone. This ultimate feeling of frustration, of not being able to reanimate the dead, of not fully knowing a person who is immortalized--only through their constructs--was extremely frustrating. But this frustration proved to be a strong foundation for artistic expression.

I managed to reflect on my own life and on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. I tried to step into his body and view him from the inside out--through the lens of his architecture, which produced a lengthy piece of writing. “Future Song” was also produced during my time at the house and “Love Through a Window Frame” was another poem that I edited during the residency. Each of these pieces will fit into the manuscript that I am very close to completing. Spending hours alone only felt natural given the reality that we all find ourselves in. And despite the anxieties and the uncertainties of the current pandemic, I am grateful for the opportunity to explore another space that felt untouched and removed and quiet. I couldn’t help but think that the fox and the groundhog were grateful to see me, as well; I suppose they would not have stopped by to tap on the window or to watch me from the woods otherwise.

Future Song

Infinite trees

with infinite leaves

spread

to the horizon

and shutter in the wind thick air

vibrating.

Lightning above.

Infinite trees

we live below

look down and see our shadows.

We smoke with our backs against your bark

as your skin falls apart

behind us

hair is rigid on the neck

when we feel the static--

burnt wood.

Infinite trees

in a gasp of lightning:

some belong to families

others belong to houses

some belong to the woods

some belong to children

and some are crushed with vines

others don’t grow just right

some die slowly in the night.

Infinite trees

with infinite leaves

now saturated with rain--

your unyielding smoking wood

we turn into tabletop art--

can’t stop dancing beneath shade

or smoking with backs against bark--

widespread leaves

keep me down below

keep me from climbing

and keep me here.

The infinite trees

with their infinite leaves--

we are skeletons of wood

just like the rest

waiting for a future song

act of alchemy--energy--

your hand that has

just been touched for the first time.

Your smile

that is real beneath the leaves.

There is the smell of thunder

like wet smoke

like your skin absorbing the night

through a window

absorbing quiet humid streets

in the summer heat.

You know what the thunder smells like

but you don’t know me

until the rain is there in the dark.

I don’t know you

but I know what the thunder smells like too.

I’ve seen lightning twist wood around

into muscle or split it through the middle

set fire to the stillness.

And I could know the future

if I went far away--

looked at a blackhole so closely

in the warped time and space.

I could come back to the earth

and hold your hand again

and kiss you purple.

But old eyes can’t read lyrics

when eyes drift like leaves--

expedited time to hold your hand

if you were ninety then like the trees

and lived a life staring up

singing a future song

waiting for the air to vibrate.

So I reach over now

to set my glasses down

beside the wooden bed

and lay still

to wait for the lightning as well

next to the hyacinths

and the can of beer.

To Frank, Within the Pope-Leighey House

Your house is here, Frank.

I sit in your architecture.

I observe your texture.

A groundhog comes to the window

sticks his nose right on the glass

looks me in the eyes.

Could’ve been you.

I don’t know much

but it could’ve been you.

We measure our lives with algorithms

the groundhog just looks for food

I just sit and write here inside of you.

Your algorithm was on paper

in geometry

gliding graphite along graphs.

I sit here in your structure.

I step into your construct.

I see the backside of your ribs.

You don’t know my ribs, Frank

but I measure my time just like you.

You built order

among particles.

I sit in the architecture

of your immortality

Frank.

I teach high school.

I don’t know about building homes

I don’t have millions

nor does anyone know me.

I have no Wrightian style

no unique accent of verse

to be analyzed here.

But I see the backside of your ribs

and your heart is clear.

I see your stomach churn behind the wood

the veins in the grain

your still blood liquid here.

Are you in love

or just the groundhog passing by

or the red fox--ears perked--listening?

Is my presence unsettling

or do I comfort old fingerprints

on old brick bones?

I consider your dark eyes

smooth forehead

and thin lips.

I see how many years you’ve lived

within the rings of the wooden soul

and watch condensation drip.

If you knew decades ago

I would be here

aware of your time

aware of your wives and your

architectured life--

if I watched you in the morning

laying next to you--

had just woken up

watched you yawn in sync

with the dew

on your windows

outside

would that be Wrightian

or am I just measuring time?

There have been families inside of you

yelling

loving

children

death in a pond

and tea on the stove

sweat in the night

and hands

on the inside of your eyes

leaving stains against the glass.

I sit inside as a tourist

walks by

taking pictures

through that glass.

I am bothered, Frank.

I sit and consider you--

your skeleton I applied to.

We have a deal

you never agreed to.

We are together

you and I

and the wandering photographer

doesn’t know that I know when you were born

and if you are still alive in the past

in that other dimension--time--

I know when you die.

I know about

Catherine

Mamah

Maude

Olgivanna.

I know how Mamah will die.

I know the morphine within Maude.

Your architecture remains.

Leave skeletons alone.

This will do

we can talk like this.

I can warn you now

to not worry about death

to leave the houses unbuilt

to leave the woods to the groundhog and the fox.

But there is no message I can send

no rewriting an algorithm

no truth against the world

to reach into the reverse

and tap you on the shoulder

to feel something other than.

James lives in Washington DC and teaches high school English in Virginia. He sketches frequently and enjoys performing at open mics around the city. His poetry and artwork have appeared with small press print and online journals such as Beautiful Cadaver Project, Pittsburgh, Better Than Starbucks, Wordpeace, Tiny Spoon Literary Magazine, Goat's Milk Magazine, The Wild Word and others

Follow James on social | @jamodsteck

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