Neil Aitken
     Home, country, grief, sorrow, longing, and yearning—these are the words most frequently encountered in Neil Aitken’s ethereal poems. Without bitterness or irony or archness, he ruminates about what it is like to be rootless. This is a poetry of silences, night skies, dark seas, half-light, dusk, wind, waves and wanderers. Aitken, in his collection The Lost Country of Sight, has created a timeless landscape in which places and people, more often than not, remain nameless. Where are we in these poems? As Flaubert said at the end of A Sentimental Education:  “He traveled. He came to know the melancholy of the steamship, the cold awakening under canvas, the stupor induced by scenery and ruins.”  The narrator in Aitken’s poems seems to live out of a suitcase as he travels the world, remembering Father. What was Father’s name? What was his occupation? What was his ethnicity? We are never told. He could have been South African or Bolivian. Through this withholding, readers/listeners are invited to insert their own life stories into the work, and so the poet achieves universal relevance. And yet this refusal to be more regional lends the poems a character that is all the more American, because this is a nation of transients, of outsiders not easily labeled or—for that matter—understood, by others or even by themselves.  But Aitken is not trying to analyze: rather, his poems sing, as poems should; these are pieces that sing of a longing to belong that is, emphatically and paradoxically, germane to our time and our place. 

In the Country I Call Home

I have two countries, Cuba and the night.
~ Josť Marti

There is no Cuba , no other half of night.
No dark woman in her deep robe of grief,
no wooden doors flung open to emptiness. Nothing
of music. No city in flames. All this absent.

In me, there are as many countries as names.
As many versions of the world.

If there is a country, it is a white-limbed tree,
a wind-drifted plain of snow. It is a country buried.
Or a man holding a camera to his eye. Or a silence.

If there is a country, there are two countries.
A double exposure. The other world ghosting the first.
The second full of dark haired strangers. Ink ground
from charcoal pressed to stone. Hard as raw rice.

If there are two countries, a third always rises.
Life preserver on the waves. A ship without reference.
Anywhere. Everywhere. A nation of one.

If there are three, there must be a fourth.
I will find it in your skin. Hear it resonate in your bones.
A ringing echo. Something of sound. It will be small.
Almost a hut. A thatch roof shack in the wilderness.
A hermitage for two. Almost a home.

Originally published in The Lost Country of Sight, Anhinga Press, 2008.

© 2010 Neil Aitken
Neil Aitken was a Featured Poet who read her poetry at the May 2010 Second Sunday Poetry Series