A physical voice begins to sound. It sounds. It continues to sound, and then ceases. Silence has now come, and the voice is past.
—Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
I wander through the labyrinthine streets of Salzburg following an eight-year-old memory. Wandering, to be sure, as I reestablish my bearings, yet I do have a casual destination in mind: a particular beer garden surrounded on four sides by centuries-old apartments, home to a remarkable deciduous tree (walnut, perhaps?) that extends a generous canopy of shade across dozens of café tables, upon which rest rock-salted pretzels and cold, half-finished beers. I remember this place as the point from which I departed eight years ago for a solitary hour and a half, leaving Opa behind under the walnut tree while I back-tracked through the tunnel we’d come by, arriving again at the Getreidegasse where I speed-shopped at Zara and H&M, replenishing my tired wardrobe with fashions unavailable in British Columbia at the time. I was grateful for that hour and a half. Opa and I were in the midst of a two-week vacation in Salzburg and Budapest, and though I was thrilled at the opportunity to travel with my grandfather to the homes of his past, I was unaccustomed to spending so much time in the company of another person, and the sixty-two years between us presented small daily challenges—our interests, histories and even our primary languages being so different.
At the upper exit of the tunnel, turn left. This is all I remember about the relationship between Zara and the walnut in the courtyard. Yet I have a general sense of where the courtyard is in relation to where I am staying. As I weave through archways and cobbled streets diagonally, intuition tells me I need to make my way partly around the Mönchsberg, closer to Mozart’s house, toward the barbershop Auntie Elfie worked in as a young professional. Zara will be on that narrow street and from there, the tunnel to the beer garden shouldn’t be hard to find. It is early and the streets are still fairly empty. I pass a shop in the process of opening. Racks of postcards and baskets of Mozartkugels spill from the door as the store blooms open for the day. I pause, enticed, but keep walking. It seems too soon to write home. After all, I have just arrived.
A few streets further, I come to a familiar place: a giant fountain, statues of horses. The museum on my left rises cool and fairly modern amid Salzburg’s gothic churches and Baroque architecture. I enter to get my historical bearings: where am I? molts into a different question: when am I? Floor by floor I browse the exhibits on display until I come to a small room where a timeline wraps the walls like a ribbon, folds and coils through the centre, and ends with today: I read. The history of the place deposits me in the present, where I am beginning to feel thirsty. On my way out I visit the gift shop. There is a six-foot-long poster on display, a reproduction of Johann Michael Sattler’s oil panorama of the city, which he painted over the years 1826-1829 from drawings he made at several vantage points atop the Hohensalzburg Castle. Close inspection of the details reveals that the city clocks and sundials all show four o’clock. I decide to buy it. Not the most practical tourist guide, but still remarkably accurate. It appears that in Salzburg, time’s alterations occur much slower, more carefully, less dramatically than they do in younger cities, or in cities that embrace the future at the expense of the past. The panorama tells me where I am, but it doesn’t tell me when.
The obvious answer to the question of when? is now. When am I? I am present in the simplicity of here-now, the truth of which cannot be described as a sequence of events. I can divide the second into the half-second, the half-second into the quarter-second ad infinitum, and still, I am no closer to pinpointing the simplicity of now. Over a millennium ago, Augustine described the hour as “constituted of fugitive moments” (232). In much the same way, I see home as constituted of fugitive places; it is through memory that we organize and collate these places into homes. My self-proclaimed venture into the poetics of place occurs now as the words are chosen, and now again as they are read. The record is particular and fugitive as the transient place described. The task of a “poetics of place,” then, is to use words as reliquaries, capturing place as it is occurring in such a way that it might retain its meaning when recreated imaginatively by a reader.
However, to say that poetry contains place would be like saying that a clock painted on a canvas succeeds in stopping time. There lies potential in words for a certain psychic alchemy to occur, where words become images, sensations, and ideas with emotional value in the mind of the reader. Take Augustine’s words from the opening of this essay: “A physical voice begins to sound. It sounds. It continues to sound, and then ceases. Silence has now come, and the voice is past” (240). Here is a description originally written in Latin, transcribed across fifteen hundred years and eventually translated into 21st-century English. The voice he describes is inaudible. I cannot know its timbre, or whether it reverberates in a room or fades on the wind, yet his tense creates a moment of encounter with voice, a moment which has duration, then ceases. As I read “a physical voice begins to sound,” I comprehend the phenomenon he describes and hear, in my imagination, a voice. This use of present tense makes me a participant in the hearing of a voice that sounds and ceases as often as the words are read. It’s almost like being there, then. For this reason, I have restricted my writing on place to the present tense, convinced that an account of place as presently unfolding has the greatest potential for meaning. This is an active writing that has within it a sense of uncertainty and of excitement. The alternative—the use of past tense, or memoir—breaks the complicity of there/then into action-facts and static places: “I left the courtyard and walked to the top of the tunnel. Turned left into a stream of people, which flowed in both directions.” All the reader has is a window onto a dead end.
Getreidegasse clutters as tourists begin their daily shopping. I walk slowly up its gentle slope, toward the dead-end breast of the mountain. Somewhere up ahead was Auntie Elfie’s barbershop, though Opa never pointed it out to me up close. I pass Zara, pass several tunnels that aren’t the right one. Then I find it and enter. I walk downhill through the arched channel, past window displays and perpendicular branching tunnels. I arrive at the walnut tree. It alone remains of all that was here last time. The courtyard is curtained off with scaffolding and plywood fences. The beer garden has become a construction zone and the earth is missing its skin. I walk part way around, peek through a vertical crack. There isn’t a pretzel in sight. I walk back to the top of the tunnel. Turn left into a stream of people, flowing both directions.
Augustine. The Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.