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Editor’s Note: Mid-Atlantic Light

by Albert Kapikian

The source of lyric knowledge, the source, that is, of the intoxication we label literary inspiration, has yet to be explained, much less agreed upon, but it is almost always described as not bound by traditional laws of transmission. For writers of the Mid-Atlantic, the medium for this two-way transfer, whatever it may be, is its light. Whether in stormy suddenness or quiet twilit beckoning, for these writers, the light that sculpts the landscape mantles the region’s meanings as well, inscribing not only its objects, but also its observers, with the miracle of self-forgetfulness, and, like inspiration, as if not to overstay its welcome, rests for a moment and is gone. Because the Mid-Atlantic is home to four full seasons, our gaze, in our working and waking hours, follows this changing light. To the north and south of us, the light seems to stay longer in one place, and like the literary reputations of Amherst, Massachusetts, and Oxford, Mississippi, it stays in holding patterns around their respective luminaries for longer periods of time. Here, however, literary reputations tend to shine for a moment and disappear. Maryland’s J.R. Salamanca, for example, whose book Lilith, published in 1961, and, made into a movie with Warren Beatty in 1964, contains, along with his other books like The Lost Country and Embarkation, some very fine writing—and yet his work is all but forgotten.


All the historic capitols of the country are here, too, as well as its current capitol and White House—physical proof, on the one hand, that enormous status can disappear and, on the other, that election results along with the term limits built into the Constitution often bestow and withdraw tremendous prestige in an instant and make for a region where alighting and leaving, even for its long-term residents, is de rigueur. Here, too, is an America in miniature, a place of extremes, where, if you do not find a middle ground—cultural or geographical—you must at least cross that middle ground again and again while navigating between its poles. This phenomenon can produce a certain kind of sensibility, a middle sensibility—not to be confused with middling or compromising—but one that can navigate these extremes and, therefore, lose itself in its surroundings, become quiet in the presence of its people, its places, its light, and, when inspired, be illuminated from the inside by the same light by which objects around it are suffused.


So if the literary Mid-Atlantic has no libretto, it does have a leitmotif. There is the myth of light as inspiration—Apollo, the god of poetry, is also the god of light—for it is only the poet, after all, who, as Randall Jarrell said, ventures out in the thunderstorm hoping for lightning to strike. In the Mid-Atlantic, the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, with more than 150 tributaries and nearly 12,000 miles of shoreline covering six states and the District of Columbia, is where this light is born, and the rivers and tributaries and towns and cities and low-lying wetlands that drain the Appalachians, as well as the stories and poems that come out of it, are its local habitations and its names. This light that links up and that alights and leaves just as quickly is not best defined by state or demographic boundaries, but, in this middle place along the East Coast, by the way it inscribes itself on the commons of the Chesapeake Bay. Ecologically it is one place—it was for the indigenous societies and cultures of the 17th century, as well as for Captain John Smith—and so too it is for its writers; its inhabitants, observers and chroniclers alike can sometimes be seen pausing for a moment, whether standing under a vast wash of tender rose on the Potomac River or among L’Enfant’s or Olmsted’s visions around the U.S. Capitol, gazing at the clouds blown raggedly apart, held spellbound by versions of the same splendor, all of them part of the Chesapeake Bay’s circulatory system of light.


In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner called the Mid-Atlantic the “typically American region” for its “varied society.” He wrote that it was “a region mediating between New England and the South…Even the New Englander…tarrying in New York or Pennsylvania on his westward march, lost the acuteness of his sectionalism on the way.” This mediating quality is still everywhere present—if talking about the sky, for example, now as then, nowhere else in America are the annual migrations of birds encountered as they are in the Mid-Atlantic. In many respects, it is a heterogeneous intersection, and so for Mid-Atlantic writers, refrain can mean stop as much as it can mean repeated stanza. They are conscious that the writing of literature requires that they meet the things they are most scared of coming the other way, and if their power is the power of the meaning withheld, so is the region’s. Their work embodies a region whose light, if it represents the impulse that calls poetry into life, also represents the moment before artistic creation, and whether it is described as a mood, a coloring, a magic transformation, a spell, an intoxication, or a knack to put oneself in the place where the throat catches, it is also the source of lyric inspiration, which involves the mutability and change that begins in the unknown and, like poetry itself, communicates, as T.S. Eliot said, before it is understood.


As people who are always noticing, whether or not they are noticed in return, these writers have the negative capability of the region and, because of that, are sensitive, absorbent of its invisible currents, bathed, that is, in its light, whether by its bay or by its tributaries in all their lights and beautiful changes—clear, placid under the sun, nicked with white when the wind picks up—the changing light of the region forces attention, and out of attention sometimes literature is made.


Americans have always had a sense of place—in a globalizing world perhaps now more than ever before. For writers of the Mid-Atlantic, it is not that they are trying to render the region in writing, but what has been said of great books may be said here, too: the region reads them, its light a kind of marginal annotator on their lives and their work. The light and the readers of the light are appearing and disappearing acts both, and in a place where perishability is accepted, they are part of the same public space. Potomac Review speaks from this place, and because housed in a community college, the community college is also its region. Words have roots and routes, so just as there is no rootless writing—writing requires precision and care, particularizing exactness—the literary journals that house a place where the careful construction of those words is honored is also a rooted place. Potomac Review lives in its community college, registered the most diverse community college in the continental United States in recent years, so its region is the Mid-Atlantic, but also a region of welcome to everyone. It is a region, then, not in the sense of bringing back an idyllic time that never existed because it excluded so many, but rather a region of restorationwhere, for example, free COVID testing is provided for county residents and food and personal hygiene assistance for students—in a dialectic of welcome, where the third part of the dialectical triad, therefore, is also welcome, and with eight notable Best American Essays citations in the last four years, an example of the fact that excellence is not inconsistent with such welcome but might even be constitutive of it.


Community colleges are open admissions colleges and therefore an example of welcome that extends to the entire country, a moral example for both sides of our current cultural divide, a much-needed vision that iterates itself in every county in the country—a topos, a region, therefore, not limited to one region, however “region” may be defined or understood. The region of Potomac Review, beginning with the aerial or wide-frame camera shot, is the Mid-Atlantic, and narrowing in, the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, but it is also the community college where the homeless, tempest-tost, still find welcome.


America is said to be built up and separated by tribes, special interests, and that to bind them together it needs common places, myths, and heroes. If so, such a place, such a region, might be the community college, because it is a place that does not impose barriers, but whose boundaries begin and end in welcome. The community college, a region conceived in welcome and constructed in welcome in an ecology of welcome with a common love of welcome, does not partake of regionalism, but is a commons, and, as such, a respecter of all difference, for the commons itself takes no position; the price of admission is only the willingness to look for common ground in the structure that has been made for the American experience, but that can disappear if not modeled for the next generation. For just as poetry sounds for the depths prose can’t fathom and uses language to gesture beyond language, the commons must admit, too, that its most important transactions are ineffable ones. The greatest poems, after all, have secret corridors and are full, therefore, of dark trails that even their authors, sometimes by choice, have not completely traversed.


The literary journal that comes out of the region of the community college must welcome submissions from anywhere, by anyone, at any time, hoping to model, too, the empathy required for citizenship, itself a necessary region in the spirit of each citizen in a democracy. The experience of being pierced once by beauty, by an artist’s rendition of another’s life, creates the capacity in a young person to be pierced again, and that ability to be pierced, learned, for example, in the sudden revelation of a world seen through another’s eyes in a short story, creates the capacity for empathy, the capacity, that is, to see others, at least from time to time, without a hidden agenda, without bargaining, the capacity to say something kind to a stranger and mean every word of it.


The world rendered by poetry is both its disclosure and the means, or terms, of its disclosure. Technique is the test of sincerity, the subject matter “wholly other,” shrouded in a “cloud of unknowing” that it does not purport to pierce but through the midwifery of its music. In the throes of creation, it is the cadence the writer is catching, trying to catch. The writer’s walk forces attention, so it is generous, and genuine, a world made out of attention to the world. For cadence does not purport to explain the world, only to trace it. So, too, at the community college, we listen, and participate in, the cadence of welcome, not for its disclosures, but for its commons, a region that does not exist until everyone is invited. The Potomac Review classroom is an open one, title passing from speaker to speaker, the lectern coeval with whatever the voice in the round. As it has been said, knowledge is not gained except in the company of others. The unseen comes to light when insights come spontaneously, unbidden, unforeseen. A light is called into being that comprehends and unifies us all.

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