“Summer At Blue Creek, North Carolina,” The New Yorker, November 10, 2008
“Summer At Blue Creek” is a poem of interesting details that go relatively unexplained. It’s a short poem (15 lines) of medium to short lines, so there also isn’t much room for context to flesh out these mysteries. They simply exist, lucanae the speaker encounters but cannot fill as he walks with his buckets down memory lane.
As I see it, two details stand above the rest in terms of their mystery, the fact that there “was no water at my grandfather’s / when I was a kid” and the fact that the rich folk down the road “arranged to have [their house] burned down.” Why has the grandfather’s well run dry? The question goes unanswered although it hints at poverty, at bad times. Money would allow for a new well; a defunct one suggests (pardon the pun) things have run dry. And what’s with the neighbors burning their house down? Are they collecting insurance money? According to Gilbert’s phrasing, it sounds like the fire was deliberate—but that’s about all readers can say about it. No additional comment is made, no additional detail.
Together, however, the well and the neighbors do provide the poem with an element of class struggle—and how ironic that the rich folk who set fire to their own house and have since moved on still have running water—but Gilbert does nothing more with it that than the above passages. The poem isn’t about the haves and the have-nots even though the speaker’s grandfather’s place is waterless and the “fine people’s house” had a “cool well”; it’s not about stealing although the little-boy speaker fills up his buckets with his neighbor’s water (obviously I read the fine people and the neighbors as one).
Other crisp details catch my attention, too, particularly the image of the speaker’s “mouth pulled out of shape” by the weight of his full pails and “the sound / the bucket made hitting the sides / of the stone well going down.” Each has great specificity, fleshing out the speakers recall, which isn’t without its gaps, of the event. As well, each is bound to the other by the implied image of the water: its weight contorts the boy’s mouth, its location causes the bucket to clang. This congruency seems to me important because it pulls the initial, opening-line image of water down through the poem without having to repeat water, water, water. The images work as reverberations of each other, resonating here and there without overtly divulging their source.
Aside from water, the speaker is in search of self—the present day, adult speaker is in search of his childhood self—although he comes up empty handed. He recalls the various details of this walk, which I presume he took more than once (the title is demonstrative of this presumption), but he cannot recall himself; he hears the bucket banging against the wall of the well, “but never the sound of me.” What’s more, what he does remember is not necessarily accurate (as is the case with many of our memories) since his re-experiencing occurs in third person, not first. He sees himself as though in a movie. Gilbert writes, “I see myself, but from the outside.” If this is true, then all he remembers of himself must be inferred. He cannot draw from experiential knowledge because it’s as though he was never there, never carrying the buckets. His childhood form has taken the role of a character he’s watching on film, not reliving by reinhabiting his body. The sounds of the bucket, the cow he passes—these are inventions born of his adult mind, not observations from his childhood experience.
The poem’s four sentence fragments further illustrate this oddity of the speaker’s memory. Two of the fragments are missing verbs, but each is missing its grammatical subject: I. Interestingly, the content of the fragments is set in the poem’s childhood experience where the “I” is absent, at least from a first person perspective; so, it only makes sense that it’s missing in these passages, too. Conversely, passages set in the present, whose “I” speaks and acts in the present, maintain their grammatical subject and the speaker’s presence.
A final note about “Summer At Blue Creek, North Carolina,” as a narrative, it absolutely tells the story of the summer, albeit via a moment in a time. But, it also tells the story of the speaker’s remembering. In effect, The poem becomes less about the memory itself than it does about the act of recalling it. While this could lead the poem into a dismal finale, I don’t believe it does. Its tonal consistency—factual, lecture-like but without pretentiousness—doesn’t allow it. The poem’s last line, “but never the sound of me,” isn’t spoken with regret nor even wonder but with complacency, as if to say this is simply the way it was—is.