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Sub[urban] Creation

Jayne English

“A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.”
     —J.R.R. Tolkien

I grew up in the suburbs. Those places where you could only see distance if you looked up, because the houses and yards and hedges of your neighbors and their neighbors became the extent of your horizon. These views were vastly different from the ones that inspired Coleridge and Wordsworth on their walking tour through moorland and woodland, and along the coast of Bristol Channel. They weren’t like Emily Dickinson’s views at the Homestead, where she wandered through orchard and gardens, tending the flowers that thrived in her poetry. And they’re not the English countryside Tolkien knew as a child that charmed his Hobbits’ Shire.

Having places to explore as a child, places to wander across landscapes far broader and varied than the one I grew up in, seems important for creative inspiration. But even in the suburbs, there were things that kindled imagination. Like the small rock pile the builders left next to our house, where we found quartz rocks, smooth and dull on the outside but glistening with soft colors inside. There were Indian paint pots scattered there, and in my young mind I pictured Indian children, stepping deftly over the rock pile in softly moccasined feet. On winter mornings I was captivated by delicate designs the cold wind painted on warm windows.

Our creative powers have little to do with where we find ourselves geographically, and everything to do with the fact that we are “located” in the image of God. At a talk delivered to the William Blake Society, Malcolm Guite points out that Coleridge goes so far as to say “the image of God in us is imagination.”

Tolkien considered part of the creative process as creating worlds. He believed that being made in the image of God means that we “subcreate” through imagination. “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

In his blog about Tolkien and subcreation, John Carswell writes: “Subcreation is inherently focused on the other, on providing a beautiful territory of the imagination in which the other may dwell.” The poem “Neighbors, Throwing Knives,” by David Bottoms shows how this “beautiful territory” can be imagined in the suburbs when we “gauge the fine balance/between what is real and what is imagined”:

In the woods at the corner of our yards   
we hang the plywood squares,
the Magic Marker images of pronghorn, panther,   
grizzly, whitetail,
and step off the paces we use to measure   
our skill.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

                                                In our own hearts
we love what they might be, their shapes   
frozen in brush as though, suddenly,
they had turned from wood
and caught our scent drifting in a wind-shift.   
So we hunt this suburb, whet our aim   
to move among them in the little wilderness  

As an adult I once again find myself in a suburb. Here I watch the sprinkler pass through a shaft of light. I pick up the binoculars and am startled to see that each drop is now a gem in its arc of color. Tolkien writes:

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

In the suburbs, in the image of God, I write to splinter light to many hues.