Chain-link Hinterland Inverting Topographical Exploration

Alison Pick's "Hinterland," through its title alone, evokes a particular tradition of exploration. Those explorers who sought out hinterlands did so with the ocean behind them, squinting to charm the bits of light that snake their way through the treeline. Pick, however, orientates the speaker and, as such, the reader toward the sea; we must walk towards it, finding ourselves on a "shore/where artifice gives itself up." Pick's hinterland is one that is bordered by chain-link fences and littered with the by-products of human consumption, creating a tension between the historical, natural exploration we expect and the modernist-tinged one we receive. The hinterland, as such, becomes inverted two-fold: spatially, we must turn ourselves towards that which restricts us rather than nourishes us; and temporally, we must view exploration as something that defines the past rather than the future.

In order for Pick to invert traditions in topographical writing, she must do so in a way that also defines them. Here we receive a morphed version of travel writing, a Lewis-and-Clark-esque exploration of flora and fauna tinged by a modernist anxiety of influence: "Boulders, / tall grass, shrubs I can’t name, / birds I can’t name. . .Bottles, I know. / Condoms, I know." What is interesting about this passage is that, at least in the beginning, it quite resembles traditional topographical writing: it addresses an unknown physical feature in the landscape as any good explorer would. However, it is the lack of inquisitive nature, the acceptance of ignorance, that moves "Hinterland" away from traditional territory: much like how the speaker looks towards the sea, an entity whose surface hides its own detail, she decides to ignore the details surrounding her in favour of ignorance. Pick takes a modernist spin on topographical literature by defining those things the speaker does know as manmade, hedonistic trash. By contrasting unknown natural specimens and familiar manmade items, Pick tinges her poem with a Modernist anxiety of influence, suggesting that we have lost touch with nature and orienting us towards the past to find it again. Finally, instead of continuing explorations, the speaker "heads home:" home in this instance not being beyond the sea as it was for early explorers such as Columbus, but inland, towards the hinterland those explorers sought.

In "Hinterland" we receive a morphed version of travel writing, a Lewis-and-Clark-esque exploration of flora and fauna tinged by a modernist anxiety of influence: "Boulders, / tall grass, shrubs I can’t name, / birds I can’t name. . .Bottles, I know. / Condoms, I know."

One cannot help but be reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald's final line of The Great Gatsby when considering the temporal and spatial inversions of topographical exploration: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Near the middle of the poem, the speaker feels "the weight of being human where other humans have been." Here, we can reference both definitions of hinterland to explore the inversion of classic topography in Pick's poem. The first definition, "the uncharted areas beyond a coastal district or a river's bank," contradicts Pick's above line; not because humans had never before walked the uncharted paths of colonial explorers, but because those explorers failed to recognize the shared humanity between themselves and the native inhabitants. After all, we still consider Christopher Columbus the "discoverer" of the Americas, a title that suggests the continents were unknown to all humans prior to his arrival. However, the second definition of the term, "an area lying beyond what is visible or known" both inverts and reinforces Pick's statement. If we are to focus on the adjective "known," then the definition does not fit: the speaker will not feel the weight of other humans if she does not know they have existed in the same space. However, if we are to shift the focus to the adjective "visible," then Pick's poem fits more appropriately with the definition of its title. The speaker may not be able to "see" those that have walked before her, but she is nonetheless aware of them; her mental awareness, then, acts as a form of hinterland. This discussion of visibility and understanding underscores the underlying difference between topographical-esque poetry and topographical discourse itself: topography relies only on what is visible, while poetry seeks to use what is visible to transcend the material world completely. Ultimately, Pick's poem inverts traditional topographical literature, and the term "hinterland" itself, both spatially and temporally through the tension she creates between natural and manmade experience and the self and the other.

-D.

Credits:

Created with images by Sharon Mollerus - "Chain Link Fence" • nachans - "IMGP0860" • j van cise photos - "sand and foam ~ Southern Outer Banks"

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