The Tension Between Personal & Regional History: Stephan Delbos on Peter Ludwin’s A Guest In All Your Houses


a-guest-in-all-your-houses

A Guest In All Your Houses, Peter Ludwin, Word Walker Press

American West coast poet Peter Ludwin’s first full length collection, A Guest in All Your Houses is a successful book of poetry, meaning that it creates and maintains a coherent world, in this case the American Southwest. Ludwin’s biography of traveling and time spent in the deserts of Texas, Arizona and Mexico give the poems a truth of description that comes only from experience and subsequent meditation. “Terlingua,” an elegy for an artist named Miguel Arguello, is an example of how Ludwin’s well-earned poems gather strength from precise description of memory and the land in which the memory was formed:

Stay as long as you want, you said.
I remember waking from the ground
in front of the old adobe studio
that housed your Grand Canyon canvas,
my rest shattered by a terrifying shriek.
I turned to see a red-tailed hawk
perched in the caliche road, brazen
as lechiguilla, a member of the agave
family that can shred bare skin.

Typically for Ludwin, this poem places the narrator within a vaster, more powerful realm of nature. While nature in these poems is not always terrifying, it is always awe-inspiring, endowed with the power of the sublime. Ludwin’s use of authentic place and plant names gives the poems an authenticity which would be otherwise unavailable. The reader may recall Pound’s explanation of the use of foreign languages in his Cantos: if a meaning isn’t clear immediately upon reading, it will be explained somewhere close by. Fortunately, A Guest in All Your Houses includes a series of notes explaining the significance of key vocabulary and the historical events which inform many of the poems.

History is the main driving force of these poems, some of which act as voices for Native Americans or early settlers. The final section of A Guest In All Your Houses, “Fugitive Kind,” is the most powerful of the book. The poems describe and memorialize Ludwin’s time spent in Terlingua, Mexico, and many of the people and places which have stuck in his memory, gaining significance with time and reflection. “Collie” is one example,

Each time I see her bus I want to abandon
everything and move right in: flat
tires fused to the ground like adobe,
the ramada a cloak of weathered tin
propped against it for shade…
[…]
Down in the tangle of the bosque
snakes lie deep in their dens.
Benign in frost season, they do not
hear her gather mist of the river,
cache old memories in mud.

Ludwin’s narratives pulse with history and emotion which might undermine their stability if he did not ground his poems in setting and specific details, bus or bosque. Like the fossils and stone formations which often appear in A Guest in All Your Houses, or the “old memories in mud,” Ludwin’s poems both preserve the past and offer a key to reopening it.

Repetition is the inherent danger of composing a book of poems revolving around the same subject or place. A Guest In All Your Houses reflects a trend in contemporary American poetry of creating such books, as if any one book of poems could be the definitive source on a certain subject. Ludwin for the most part avoids repetition, but his book will be most interesting for those who have a hunger for knowledge about the Southwest, for it contains the well-crafted poems of a man who has spent significant periods of time there, steeping physically and emotionally in the local color. The most successful poems in the book use setting as a stepping stone, or rather, a plateau from which to grapple with lived experience and examine the emotional difficulties of memory. In his best work, Ludwin has found a language to express, in concrete terms, the tension between personal and regional history and in so doing, has created a book of poems which both informs and inspires.

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