The City Our Eyes Cannot See

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I love “found poetry” for the unexpected connections it forces the poet to make. When I occasionally attempt to craft such offerings myself, I lean heavily on the variation of the genre pioneered by Annie Dillard in her beautiful, droll, and surprising collection of found poems Mornings Like This. The basic idea is that one selects a source text (the more obscure or unexpected the better) from which to selectively cull and rearrange phrases to create an altogether new piece that—assembled like Frankenstein’s monster from cast-off parts—takes on an unexpected life and meaning of its own. On a technical note, punctuation is entirely malleable.

The City Our Eyes Cannot See
(From the Washington DC Official Visitors Guide, Fall/Winter 2014-2015)

Under the white dome, senators (one born in each year) meet to shape the
black granite walls and the beautiful cherry trees. Across the street, where
President Lincoln breathed his last breath, you’ll find yourself dreamily
following him, mesmerized by his tales of snow-lovers who have died in battle:

We are in the heart of one wounded soldier, surrounded by quiet woods and
gardens. And if the bells chime, you can see the stars even during the day.

When the sun goes down, the singing and the silence will lead you to uncover
hidden secrets that only locals know: outposts to the north, a moonlight glide across
the ice, gilded mirrors, Italian marble fireplaces and crystal chandeliers, private nooks
and cozy corner tables, a waterfall, and plenty of open space. There are more than thirty

two secret doors that whisper home. But don’t be fooled. The ghosts of Christmas past
would agree: Doors close quickly and can separate you from your party and the dream

of realities.

Profile photo of Doug McKelvey

The remote descendant of Scottish horse-thieving ancestors, Douglas McKelvey has already bested the dubious achievements of his predecessors by authoring five published books, writing and directing a passel of video projects, and penning lyrics for more than 250 songs recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, and Jason Gray. Under the alias “DKM,” McKelvey co-creates the ongoing “Subjects With Objects” collaborative gallery project. He currently serves as president of International Conspiracy & Trade Co. (This is not a joke, but probably should be…), and is hard at work completing the manuscript for a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel and developing with Ruckus Films a feature comedy-drama based on the shenanigans of notorious car thief Rabbit Veach.


6 Comments

  1. Kristen P.

    DC is my current home, and so much of this resonated with me. There are indeed secrets that only the locals know – in fact, the “gilded mirrors, Italian marble fireplaces and crystal chandeliers, private nooks and cozy corner tables, a waterfall, and plenty of open space” can all be found in one oft-overlooked gem in the heart of the city: The National Portrait Gallery.

    Thank you for finding beauty in my city.

  2. Peter B

    Man, I think I’ve done that without realizing.

    Not brilliant like this, but it’s comforting to think this patchwork beast has a name.

  3. DougMc

    Kristen–I took my family to DC for a week in December and we exhausted ourselves visiting as many of the sites as we could fit in, but never made it to the National Portrait Gallery. We’ll have to put that on the list for a future trip. It is a beautiful city and we all enjoyed the adventure.

    With the found poem it was my hope was to start with the visible city and move through it into another sort of city not so easily seen. I suppose the poem owes something to the mythic vision of Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale,” though I only just now made that connection after reading your post. Thanks for the comment.

  4. DougMc

    Peter–Now you’ve made me curious to know in what form and context you created found poetry without realizing it was a named sub-genre. Would you mind elaborating? Or even sharing a piece? When I’ve taught high school creative writing classes, I’ve always had them create a found poem, and for whatever reason, it tends to yield some of their best offerings. I’ve decided it’s because of the way it forces them to make those more abstract connections between thoughts and images than they might when writing in their own words, but hey, what do I know?

    Also, if you enjoy this sort of thing you might check the Rabbit Room used books to see if you can snag a copy of Dillard’s “Mornings Like This.” I think I spotted one on their shelves some time back. For one thing, it’s Dillard, and for another thing, it’s Dillard at her most experimental.

  5. Tom Murphy

    Doug – You just opened my world to creating poetry. Never knew this was a sub-genre.

    At a Laity Lodge retreat last year with Sally and Max McLean, the activity was to do the same, but visually with images from scraps of magazine.

    Thanks for writing bud…

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