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Tap into Your Totem Pole

“…what you might call an inanimate totem: a thing matched to your sensibilities so exactly that you will never quite be able to get across what it means to you.” – D.H. Tracy

What I love most about writing is the fact that I will never be able to exactly convey my thoughts, emotions, and ideas with language. When I reread what I write, I am acutely aware of the fact that I have failed to express myself completely, no matter how hard I try. But I keep at it anyway, hoping that someday I’ll come close.

Language is no match for the complicated and wonderful world that occupies our minds.

In class on Tuesday, I was thumbing through an old issue of Poetry magazine while my students explored literary magazines that I had brought in for them to browse. I stopped at the name “Stuart Dybek” – he’s the author of one of my favorite short stories, “Pet Milk”. Curious as to why this fiction writer was being mentioned in a poetry magazine, I stopped to read the book review. He’s actually the author of a poetry book!

In that review, I encountered the quote at the beginning of this blog post. I stopped to consider it for a few minutes.

When I think of a “totem”, my mind wanders to history lessons from elementary school. I think of New Jersey’s Lenni Lenape Indians (I can’t remember for sure if this tribe actually had totem poles, but this is what I imagine).

I think of my personal totem pole: a cork board in my bedroom where I post almost anything that can be stuck with a pushpin (ticket stubs, cards, beach passes, dried flowers, etc.). Totem poles are visual representations of everything we hold close to our hearts. Someone who views your totem will immediately know something about you.

But D.H. Tracy, in his review, describes totems as “empty park benches, sidewalk cracks, screen doors”. More specifically, Stuart Dybek’s totems are “Chicago’s laundromats, hotel rooms, alleys, basements, and churches…”.

I love this idea. For Tracy, totems are not things we create or construct. Rather, they are things that already exist, things with which we can identify. These items hold some sort of truth for us, and we are helplessly drawn to them, sometimes with neither reason nor explanation.

Poets frequently use these totems in their work because they feel they can express more by describing the totem than trying to describe the feeling it evokes or inspires. I think – if we knew how to describe the feeling with words – we wouldn’t need the totem in the first place!

What are your totems? What of your surroundings inspires a certain mood or feeling? Do you feel kinship with a rusted shopping cart or the waxed surface of a new car? I find myself drawn to certain landscapes: the industrial wasteland just west of Jersey City and east of Newark, a fall afternoon that’s so bright I wonder if the sun knows it will be showing less of itself, young women wearing high heels and waiting for trains.

I can never fully explain to you what those things mean to me, but I can only hope that – by describing them – you will feel something. You may not feel exactly what I’m feeling, but my goal as a writer is to steer you in the right direction.

(Photo by Evelyn Proimos)

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