Where I Come From

 Overview

This is a poem that left a lot of my class scratching their heads. Although at first glance you might take it to be about the difference between urban and rural existence, the clue is in the first line: her descriptions are representing people and thus she uses pathetic fallacy to explore humanity. She is trying to draw a contrast between the beautiful simplicity and joy of life outside of the city and the more ordered and confined life within it. I’d also argue this poem contains a generally comment about the urbanisation of the world in Brewster’s lifetime and her distaste for it.

People are made of places. They carry with them
hints of jungles or mountains, a tropic grace
or the cool eyes of sea-gazers. Atmosphere of cities
how different drops from them, like the smell of smog
or the almost-not-smell of tulips in the spring,
nature tidily plotted in little squares
with a fountain in the centre; museum smell,
art also tidily plotted with a guidebook;
or the smell of work, glue factories maybe,
chromium-plated offices; smell of subways
crowded at rush hours.

                                                  Where I come from, people
carry woods in their minds, acres of pine woods;
blueberry patches in the burned-out bush;
wooden farmhouses, old, in need of paint,
with yards where hens and chickens circle about,
clucking aimlessly; battered schoolhouses
behind which violets grow. Spring and winter
are the mind’s chief seasons: ice and the breaking of ice.

A door in the mind blows open , and there blows 
a frosty wind from fields of snow.

 

Elizabeth Brewster (1922-2012)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Elizabeth Brewster was a Canadian poet and lecturing at a university. She was brought up in a very rural area of Canada in a lumber village called Chipman where the whole population would’ve known each other and 80% of the whole province, New Brunswick. However, she won scholarships that allowed her to attend university and then got the opportunity to travel and meet people from all sorts of different backgrounds through her work and studies.

Where I Come From - in text

This poem was written in 2000 when Brewster was 78 years old. At this point she is reflecting on her life and she creates a huge contrast between the people she has met from the city and her own rural beginnings. Her stage of life should help us out when we consider the ever-so-confusing final stanza.

 Themes

I think this one is again focused on conflict (or at the very least contrast) between urban and rural life. Nature is used heavily to paint a picture of how our background impacts upon our personality and approach to life.

I’d suggest that this is a non-traditional pastoral poem in that it celebrates and glorifies rural life, but it does so in a bit of a round about way by admitting to the disorder and chaos of life in such a way that we are left longing for it.

Content

She starts off by telling us directly what the poem is going to be about – the places she explores actually represent facets of people’s personalities. The lines immediately following highlight Brewster’s belief that people carry ‘hints’ of the jungles, mountains or seas that they have been brought up beside. This should tell the reader that she also considers this to be true of her own background – impacting upon who she is as a person.

Now she turns her attention to the influence of cities. I think you can take this in one of two ways: (1) as a list of things cities do to us, or (2) as a range of things different cities can do to us (so, different cities have different effects. I initially took it as (1), but can increasingly see the argument for (2).

If it is a list then it is overall a damning indictment of their influence. There are negative associations relating to smell (which I will explore below); nature being tamed; and the overwhelming domination of work on the individual. On the other hand, if we take it as (2) then there are negative aspects of cities’ influence, but you could take the fifth to eighth lines as being positive aspects (again, I will explore below).

In the second stanza, Brewster explores her own background. There is a sense of disorder and chaos, but it is presented in an overwhelmingly positive light. The stanza ends with a sentence that seemingly doesn’t fit, where she talks about our chief seasons. She is reflecting on the times of our life that have the most effect on us – youth (‘ice’) and old age (‘breaking of ice’).

So, what’s the end all about? I think she is talking about how she has become nostalgic in her old age and is being called back to her memories of her youth growing up in an isolated rural setting. If this doesn’t make sense yet, read on as I will try to break it down clearly using the language.

Language and techniques

Let’s start at the beginning with the importance of ‘people are made of places.’ Clearly we are not, this is a metaphor meaning that our personality is crafted and impacted upon by where and how we grow up. Look at the definitive nature of her phrasing – ‘are made’ – there is no doubt in her mind, there is no idea that we might be influenced by our background, but it is a certainty. This should leaves us in no doubt that when she is describing different places later in the poem, she is trying to comment on what impact they have on people. Thus she sets herself up for using pathetic fallacy throughout the poem.

We can tell that she is not simply shouting that her background is better than all others as she uses romanticised language to further her opening idea. When we think of ‘jungles or mountains, a tropic grace… the cool eyes of sea-gazers’ we should think of adventures and excitement – personally the phrases all remind me of some of my favourite literary characters: Allan Quartermain, Edmund Dante and Flashman (King Solomon’s Mine; The Count of Monte Cristo; Flashman – if you have a soul, you need to read them all – now… well, maybe after you’ve finished revising). Thus she has clearly enjoyed meeting people from other places and the different characters generated by the world. However, notice that all these romanticised places are almost by definition pretty isolated or rural.

She then focuses specifically on the opposite of these – city dwellers. It is telling that she starts with a simile comparing the influence of the city to ‘the smell of smog’, which is a deep, pervasive fog of industry leaving black smears on brick work and choking a city’s inhabitants. She is not trying to say city dwellers have a problem with body odour, but rather she is suggesting the pervasive impact of work and industry on personality – work is the focus and personal relationships and community suffer as a result of it.

If this sounds like an odd idea, let me give you a famous example of the perception of Londoners by those that live in the north of England. If you are riding the tube nobody meets your eye, nobody returns your smile or greeting and most have sunk into their own world with a MP3 player or their smart phones. You will journey to work and then to home without knowing or interacting with anybody – it is pretty soulless and lacks a clear sense of community.

Back to the analysis – next we get the ‘almost-not-smell of tulips’ which seems to be a fake sense of nature and combines with ‘nature tidily plotted’ (repeated twice) and ‘museum smell’ to create a sense of a place that is pretending to have character and beauty. If we take nature to represent our soul and our freedom, in the city it seems to be regulated and controlled/planned (rebellion against the uniformity in urban settings?) to the extent that it bares no comparison with real nature.  What does this say about people? It implies that people live within themselves and don’t really allow their character to flourish naturally, but are conditioned by the hardness and industry of urban life. Given that Brewster spent a good deal of her adult life in the cities this could also be a comment on the impact of the city on her own character.

Alternatively, if you think my second interpretation in the content section is more apt, these could be seen as positives from certain cities that allow a very precise cultivation of character – thus organised and ‘plotted’. The more I write, the less I am convinced by this.

The additional imagery in the stanza is focused again on industry and work. These are all unpleasant as we have the sweat and musk of a crowd of workers combined with the smell of death indicated by the comparison to ‘glue factories’ – if you’ve never smelt glue production then you’re lucky, it is horrendous (they melt down animal bones to make it, particularly horse hooves). These work in the same way as the ‘smog’ comparison and show the negative impacts of living in a centre of industry on character development – people’s emotions and reactions being governed by the rat race rather than by their true nature as they don’t have time to relax into it.

Bloody hell, this is going on a bit and the morning is slipping away from me. Stanza two is an exploration of the impact of her own home. Brewster presents us with a myriad of disorganised and chaotic imagery – ‘burned-out bush’, ‘hens and chickens circle’, ‘battered schoolhouses’, ‘farmhouses… in need of paint’. However, they are intermingled with true natural beauty as she paints a picture of a mess ‘behind which violets grew’ and the ‘burned-out’ neighbouring the ‘blueberry patches’. There is an undeniable simplicity to the imagery, everything is relaxed and not ‘plotted’ as in the city, but it spouts natural beauty nonetheless. This lack of order is a direct contrast to the imagery associated with the city and represents the fact that order and work are secondary priorities behind relaxation, community and enjoying life.

Now it gets confusing – well, hopefully not after you’ve read my notes. She directly instructs us that she is using pathetic fallacy in the final lines of the second stanza as ‘Spring and winter are the chief seasons of the mind’. Therefore, we are ignoring summer and autumn here and focusing on the spring of our lives and the winter. These clearly must represent our youth and our old age (spring is the season of birth and growth, while winter is the season of death and cold). Brewster is telling us that these stages of our life are the ones where we either are influenced or reflect on who we are and what we value in life. In our youth we are forming our idea of who we want to be in the world and thus take time to evolve our personalities to fit the life we want to lead. In our old age we evaluate our existence and look back on what we’ve done, examining regrets and proud memories.

She further ties this comparison to a ‘ice and the breaking of ice’. ‘Ice’ is clearly associated with winter and therefore old age, while the ‘breaking of ice’ comes in spring with milder temperatures.

The final stanza tells us ‘a door in the mind blows open’, which implies she has been drawn to a memory from her past. This memory now has a ‘frosty wind from fields of snow’ that represents her old age reviewing her life, but the imagery is rural and of her youth. Thus she is being drawn back to her rural beginnings and sees that as where she belongs as opposed to the cities that she has also lived in.

Phew!

Structure

Much briefer now.

One of the major things I’d comment on is the physical layout of the poem showing the separation in impact of the rural and urban. Notice that the opening line of the second stanza is indented to such an extent that it does not overlap with the first. This illustrates the vast differences between the two.

We also have a constant repetition of scent based description. Remember this is a nostalgic poem with Brewster assess the impact of places in people’s lives and her own, therefore she has used smell because it is famed to be the most powerful sense that we can recall and thus this is how she explores her contemplation upon the world.

Tone

Reflection really. I don’t think she is damning or angry about the difference between people from different places, but she reflects on what she thinks has had the most substantial and positive influence in her life.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

4 thoughts on “Where I Come From”

  1. I think that another interpretation of “ice and the breaking of ice” can be possible: ice could be seen as youth as “water” (ourselves) is “frozen” in this period (we make up our minds definitely), and then when we are old we break that “ice” into pieces to reflect about our life and decisions.
    Thank you for your analysis!

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