Jim Cummins, in addition to teaching poetry and lit at the University of Cincinnati, is the curator of the Elliston Poetry Collection, housed in a quiet spot on the 6th floor of UC's main library. The room is set up for readings, so we have a ton of chairs to choose from. He seems glad to hear how the trip has gone so far, so I take a little longer getting set up. Once the recorder is on, though, we get down to work.
A lot of Jim's work is really all about a psychological landscape. In fact I've been eager to see how what he has to say about place will fit with the more traditional sense of that word that I've been researching so far.
But as soon as we begin to talk, it's clear that his work is about place, maybe more internal, but driven and shaped by external, too. He talks about the writing of one of his books, Portrait in a Spoon, and about how the writing of that book took place in the basement of his house, late at night, after he'd read his daughter to sleep. He'd grope his way down into the shabby basement and "wrestle" the poetry to life. In a dirty town, in a small house, he found refuge in the basement and the poems found their way to him.
As a long time Cincinnatian, he has an interesting relationship to the city. He remembers vividly coming back to the city after having down graduate work in the seemingly sunny and primary-color-rich state of Iowa, and when he got back home, the dark and baroque Germanic architecture depressed him. He talks candidly - and not without a little stoic resignation - that this is his city, and a city that means a lot to him because of his own history with it.
Jim is an excellent host and map maker. Once we finish talking, he makes me maps for some places to check out, the giant brown Ohio River, and the streets of his much beloved Hamilton Avenue neighborhood.
I'm driving, mad, lost. It's not the map's fault. It's all me. I've got no one to blame but myself. The river, I think. The river can't be hard to find. It's got to be right over this hill. No, that's a muffler place. Then, maybe if I turn the map around and go back to from where I came. But where's that? Is this a one way? Officer, I'm only going one way.
Finally, I drive right to a gorgeous overlook. I check the map and realize it's all me, baby, the map was perfect. Two lovers are actually smooching on the brick railing that protects the public from a long and painful tumble through the dense and green hillside. (Though the railing doesn't stop a stray cat that leaps it and disappears.) This couple is going at it like they're in an Adrian Lyne movie, but I sneak by to get a good look at the river. It's a snaky delight from up this high. But I know from other trips that down low it's a big moving brown stink that really should just be covered over with some of Riverfront Stadium's old artificial turf.
But like I said, from up here, it's terrific.
The couple finishes their assignation, give me a sort of "Get soaked" look, and leave.
I grab the other map, commit parts of it to memory, then head out again, looking for James Cummin's neighborhood, the place he lives, a place where he has worked and written. If only I can find it.