The Imaginative Past

By Susan Rich

I love the word nostalgia for its host of vowels; its formal lingering on the tongue that enacts a kind of longing. I love the concept of a simpler time although I can hardly believe in it.

My poem “Sunday Afternoon Retrospect” is an ode to an idealized past filled with pickle barrels, typewriter bells, and milkmen. A time of Sunday afternoons when my father and I walked along Haymarket Square for Italian ices – blue – our favorite. It was a time when I could still explore my neighborhood streets any hour of the day or night and feel brave, rather than afraid.

Adolescence seemed as if it would last forever. And then, suddenly, middle age stole its place. How did this happen? How did I become old enough to create a past? Rotary phones and pink curlers, penny candy and tilted pinball machines. Yet I also grew-up during Boston’s violent school desegregation, the rise of Louise Day Hicks, assassinations of the Kennedys, of Dr. King, and my own father fired for documenting discrimination at his workplace. Nostalgia?

Perhaps I love to write about nostalgia because it’s an excuse to sweeten the past, idealize the life that was far more complicated than the poem or story needs to completely admit. At the time, the historical shifts of the 1960s were less real to me than ice cream trucks and go-go boots. I was four when the young monk from Saigon protested the war by self-immolation. I watched it on our black and white television set during dinner. Perhaps that’s why I chose to live among book towers borrowed during library visits, play neighborhood games of freeze tag, and keep company with own imagination.

I must tell you our family never drank milk delivered by a milkman. My childhood spanned the decade when much of the U.S. transitioned away from locally sourced foods. But mornings when I walked by our neighbor’s house I’d notice four, curved glass bottles topped with red and blue paper lids. The mystery of such beauty delivered to the threshold of a life has stayed with me.

And as with milkmen, I believe the music of a poem is just as crucial as its words – ca-ching! actually, more so. Take for example, “Miss me like Walter Cronkite,” where the parade of consonants evoke an unflinching demand to be listened to. The absurdity of any poet comparing herself with a legendary news icon is both humorous and sincere. In the poem, I wanted to apprehend optimism; a belief that anything could happen with the assistance of rabbit ears.

To a large extent I’ve filled “Sunday Afternoon Retrospect” with ephemera. I’ve relied on the objects of another time: jukeboxes, rotary phones, and milk to draw the reader into the fantastical past. Like Joseph Cornell’s celebrated boxes, I’ve considered the imagination as an echo chamber where various elements bump up against each other thereby increasing their plausible meanings. Finally, I’ve attempted to integrate a sense of play that is both interior and exterior in nature. Like the wooden enclosure around the box, the poem needs to leave out more than it allows inside its structure.

Recently I’ve been reading about the habits of green iguanas. In Florida, the reptiles tumble from the trees, deep asleep, when the temperature falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. For a few days they can withstand the climate change. When the temperature rises, they simply wake up and go back about their business. All is well unless there are too many days without warmth. If this happens, their corpses litter the tropical streets. Nostalgia is similar. It allows for a kind of shared moonscape. A delicate balance of dream and despair. Remember the beauty of Smith Coronas? Yet no one likes to change a typewriter ribbon or rely on carbon paper for copies. And yet, the syllables satisfy our tongues; we hold on to them like old-fashioned penny lozenges.

I imagine writing a poem that begins: Iguana, Iguana, Iguana.


Susan Rich is a Seattle based poet. Her books include Cloud Pharmacy, The Alchemist's Kitchen, Cures Include Travel, and The Cartographer’s Tongue, winner of the PEN USA Award and the Peace Corps Writers Award (White Pine Press).  Her work has appeared has in the Harvard Review, O Magazine, and Poetry Ireland. She is the co-editor of the anthology, Strangest of Theatres: Poets Crossing Borders (Poetry Foundation). Visit her on the web at