Friday, June 22, 2007

hold the past lightly

my grandmother, as I remember her

my friend, you write to me, do not let it hurt you...

but you know I am straining my eyes, striving mightily to see between the veils of time, and it hurts, my heart, my eyes, and the bleary way I wander reminds me of homeless people, and I wonder if they are similarly trapped between flickering images, faint eidetic ghosts of what once was.

You can do that with people, too, you know. I know you know. You can look into them and try to see who they have been and who they will be, the way I have peered into the faces of my children and imagined them, fully bloomed like flowers from seed, and I was always wrong, because we do not transform like flowers, no. We add layers and layers of oursleves inside and out, multiple superimpositions, and we touch each other from faraway parts of ourselves sometimes, corresponding layers that another standing next to us might not even see. And to see and see and see into one another, where the seeing never ends but opens up forever into more faded images hardly recognizable except for the vague sense of familiarity.

I have been looking for someone to divine in me an image I hold of myself, of a girl, maybe just five, singing Beethoven's Ninth, trying to bring finality to the piece, and knowing that Beethoven suffered that same affliction--the music just kept going on forever. Sometimes I have seen something vast and powerful or shockingly beautiful or terrifying in another, that has not yet been, or has long since gone.

Why are you looking at me like that?

I am looking for you. I am looking for you in you.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

the shrine of the muses

5th century scroll which illustrates the destruction of the Serapeum by Theophilus (source: Christopher Haas: Alexandria in late antiquity, Baltimore 1997)

it begins when you are four or five. you realize that your inheritance lies in the vaults of drawers and under beds and folded between crisp sheets, what those around you have forgotten or have ceased to value. you alone recognize the importance of the singular, transient object--the I Like Ike pin, the fading photograph, the scratchy record--it is time slipping between the fingers of God, and you want to hold it, catch the sand before it disperses. these last few days you sit at tables and wait as box after box is delivered to your solitary desk where you are only allowed a pencil and stamped paper. you are looking for something specific, something definitive about place and landscape, something that may have slipped through the hands of time; but instead of sifting through the sand for gold, you are distracted by each fragment, the day is cold, windy…January, visited Eileen, warm, sunny…

it is exactly like a dream--you are wandering the cool depths of the library at Alexandria, looking for the words of the saints, and though you never find what you are looking for, you keep finding more than you are looking for. it is hot and sunny, or it is raining like hell, and still each moment of waking, normal life you are thinking about the archive, thinking about what lies in those vaults that you may never know exists…every moment of the day limned in the longing for the clean, desolate table where you wait for another box.

if you wonder at humanity (and you often do) you wonder most about this--this trait of documentation, of cataloguing, of searching for what is gone. you are not perplexed by the violent, the desirous, or the boisterous or prayerful or banal--you are perplexed by the card in front of you, the identification of a box that contains nothing but the itemized expenses of a trip to a place of no consequence.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


this is where you were, slowly shifting into the dust, leaning into the horizontal waves of sand that pounded the boards day after day, an exterior slowly disintigrating. and then she came, and recognized something beneath that skin, something redeemable, something recoverable.

i remember the dust here, barefoot in the dust and the fear of rusty nails, but there was no fear of loneliness, because though flanked by siblings, in this memory i have no idea where the they are, and hear only the wind, not their voices, and see only this parched, eroding earth beneath these bare feet, not their faces.

it is all vague, like this photograph, perhaps precisely because that is what remained after all--time came like some gentle mother and removed those memories, those thorns, but here are these flaking images, heaped in piles, reeking of pain.

we have scattered like leaves, and only i will return again and again to this place, searching for something i buried long ago. i dream it is a cat, i have buried her half alive and forgotten her, but I can't stop searching this earth for the almost imperceptible mewing. no, it was something purloined from the TG&Y, a small toy buried so that no one would know. no, it was something far more valuable. see it there in the yard, a shoot eruptng from the dry soil, not a rusty nail, not a carcass, but a tree with stars shooting out of its boughs like fire.

she had seen it all, my mother had. she had that skill of seeing far into things, and she had seen the house fall down around us all. i have forgiven her for everything, and still i go on gouging the hardpan with my fingernails.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

caprock storm

© Gene Moore

I don’t know. But for years I thought that something like this was an explanation for a recurring childhood dream of mine, of a landscape image like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, no action or people, just a suspended dreamscape of a vermillion canyon wall under a cobalt sky, with white clouds hanging like cotton balls…In high school I decided I must have seen, when very young, a dramatic postcard or a National Geographic photograph that had made a strangely profound impression. Later, in college, I resolved on the more metaphysical explanation that the dream was a genetic memory and anticipated the rush of recognition in my wandering through the West.
-Dan Flores, Caprock Canyonlands

We dream of landscapes, and grieve and regret them. Sometimes a landscape becomes embodied in the form of a man, and you fall in love with him, possibly have his child, and spend years trying to dream that drum of prairie rain, that relentless thunderstorm out of your head and heart. This one had inscribed the horizon with a needle on the copperplate of his soul, and inked it and rolled you through the press with God knows how many pounds of pressure until every scratch was like your own memory, was engraved in your blood. Now I imagine him, that same landscape he etched in me reflected in his eyes, with cold precision--five hundred miles away for a few days, and I can breathe, and I know I will always miss him.

I don’t know if he saw the landscape in himself, if he looked toward his own cavernous depths with the same mix of longing and fear that I did, if he saw at the same time the beauty and tragedy--like the stories that littered the Caprock, rough-edged myths you could sharpen a blade on, only more heartbreaking. But there comes a time when you long to never be another Iphiginea, or Cassandra, or Andromache, or Clytemnestra--when you just want something that is simple, painless, perhaps, even (possibly) comedic.

But in the wetter years, the high drama of summer on the Llanos takes place in the afternoon skies…All along the front of the Caprock the canyons act like moisture tunnels, pipelines that funnel this warm, moist air into beachheads of dry air meteorologist call “drylines” atop the plain, spawning massive weather cells. Most are ordinary thunderstorms, but if the cell begins to rotate and sucks moisture up, the canyon wind tunnels at ever faster rates, at some level of critical mass the entire cell will go spinning off to the northeast, trailing tornado funnels behind it. -Dan Flores

Thursday, June 7, 2007

what would I be looking for when I did not find...

interpreting life through the tea leaves of fragments, it forms odd composites. Tonight I am thinking of Sudek and the war, furious at this war and that war and the wars we wage among ourselves, and the fear that war is as much who we are as love, and a part of me nods and knows that is true and I am not afraid but just resigned to the dark side of life that takes away what you most love when you least expect it, and you are looking for that thing the rest of your life, like some condemnation to hell, while others shop in malls or online and watch the fashionable TV shows, you reside in the black shadows of a pain so exquisite you would release yourself from it, but cannot because what you love might be out there, might be found.

I had to search. Far outside the city, toward dawn, in the fields bathed by the morning dew, I finally found the place. But my arm wasn’t there--only the poor peasant farmhouse was still standing in its place. They had brought me into it that day I was shot in the right arm. They could never put it together again…(josef sudek)

From Sudek's sketchy account of his crisis in 1926, we get a picture of a restless and troubled man accepting a casual invitation that leads him near the very spot where years before his hope for a normal life had been shattered. Leaving his friends, in mid-concert he wanders somnabulent until near dawn he comes to the exact place where, nearly ten years before, his life was forever changed. Unable to abandon hope of recovering his lost arm, he stays two months in that place, cut off from his friends and his world in Prague. Finally, his mourning complete, reconciled, but permanently estranged, he returns to Prague, where he immerses himself in his art. (charles sawyer)

Monday, June 4, 2007


But maybe I have a solution--why others find sex in my work and I do not: It came from an artist who called on me recently…he said, in effect, that I had seen natural forms with such intensity, with such direct honesty, that a tremendous force, like sex, which enters into it, permeates all nature, could not but be revealed.
--Edward Weston

walking at forty-one you are aware of light. you wait to go out until the sun has hidden behind the edge of the hills so that the boughs of trees are illuminated in great swaths of gold, and the birds skip among the branches, light striking their wings like fire. You are aware that you are not the person you thought you would be, you are certain you will know less and less as the days go by about who you really are, because the questions come faster than the answers, each one tugging at the threads of the self you have painstakingly stitched over the years. It’s okay, because there is more outside to notice, you are less concerned with the unfamiliar face staring back at you in the mirror than with the light, and the dreams that might emerge shyly once you learn to sleep again.

At thirty-eight you had written: begin with this image: spirits laundering the shrouds of the soon-to-be dead (p. 46) unknown vol. I came here to name the things that disappear--the grasslands and coyote that populate the landscape inside my right eye--here you could sink the blade deep, the earth would gasp with the memory of rough hands that caressed the rump of an old roan, a horse you loved. In my left eye lives longing and desire, syllables cast upon the ground like sticks and gathered up again for kindling. The left eye would start a prairie fire and watch it burn, sacrificing everything it loves to the skin beneath those hands.

writing at forty-one, there is no more shouting, only whispering. It is time to learn to listen.


Sunday, June 3, 2007

archaeology v: looking for Larry McMurtry

mom at the lake, 1970

the air conditioner has gone out, and we sleep restlessly with the windows open in the hope of a breeze with crickets chirping all night outside. We go swimming and wear our swimsuits the rest of the day inside, still damp and smelling faintly of chlorine. Our shoulders and cheeks are burned. We take long, languid naps with the blinds drawn. I am filled with longing, with overwhelming nostalgia for those lazy summer days at the lakehouse at Possum Kingdom.

If there is a time in our childhood around which we form like pearls, these lakehouse days were mine. I was almost born there, because my mother refused to go to the hospital. Eventually she must have relented, but I think her longing to be near the elemental fecundity of the lake slipped through her veins and into me. How many times had I sat on the edge of the dock examining schools of minnows that shimmered beneath the surface. The smell of the boat house got under our skin, and we carried that smell back up the steep steps to the house, and into our dreams. In the narrow hall between the bedrooms, seated before a small bookshelf, I first realized that words were a code that had to be cracked, and I sat for hours as if before the Rosetta Stone, trying to find the patterns. I knew that if I were to be given one word, I might be able to learn all the secrets hidden there.

Years ago, after reading Horseman, Pass By, I embarked upon a mission to find Larry McMurtry. His book town, Archer City, was not far from Mineral Wells and the Crazy Water Hotel and the lake where I spent my childhood. We drove into Archer City crushing hundreds of the thousands of tarantulas which flooded the two-lane highway. We slept in a (also un-air conditioned) bedroom in a Bed and Breakfast, and wandered bookshop after abandoned bookshop. The townspeople at the Dairy Queen eyed us suspiciously, pegged us rightly perhaps as drawn their prodigal son, to whom it seemed they had a rather contentious relationship. In the end I found him at the desk when I went up to pay for my copy of The Black Prince. I struggled to recall who Iris Murdock had been married to, and he informed me it was John Bayley.* I didn’t have the guts to say any more about my mission, about wanting to connect to this eccentric Texas writer who expressed yearnings so similar to those I felt, who grew up saturated perhaps by the smell of the lake not far away, by the crazy water that coursed beneath the land. I just drove off with unrequited longing, down the quiet road where with the solitary street light on a cable swinging in the breeze, a cinematic moment from The Last Picture Show.

On the way back to Austin I passed through Possum. I tried in vain to find the lakehouse, but everything had changed. The lake of my imagination was gone. We stopped along the shore just to look at the vast expanse of water. I felt nothing. A sudden cold front blew in, and it began to rain, pelting us with hail. The temperature dropped from over a hundred down to the forties in a matter of minutes. I drove home, made it the four hours back to Austin, but I was utterly lost.

*thank you for keeping me on my toes...