Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Driving Across the Basin & Range

Photographs trigger memories of where and when I took the photo. I sometimes go back through the photos taken on a journey, and write from them, making a new narrative of the same road trip. Images bring back memories, even of small things like a bumper sticker seen on back of a beat-up pickup truck, and the memories turn into written impressions.

Poetic journal writing, like writing from photographs, is open-ended. The genre itself celebrates impermanence and flux, outlinging by example that daily life is not rigorously formed, with an Aristotlean beginning, middle, and end. Rather, moments each melt into the next, and you don't end a poem with a big conclusion, you just stop writing. The poem ends when you can't see to write anymore, after dark. It's low-technology, but that just makes it more portable.

Writing begins in observation, like photography. It can continue towards becoming a sketch form, like a plein aire painter; but also like photography. You can polish it later, like a sculpture made of stone or wood. But it all begins in observation.

The haibun sequence below is one I wrote on the hoof, as it were, but also added to and revised for a year after the actual experience. (Basho revised Oku no hosomichi carefully, once he was back from his long journey, to make it a better work of art, and less purely a journal.) Sometimes the words take awhole to percolate through the sediment before they come out, as a stream. Looking back over photographs of that road trip—that one day in which I drove for more than 9 continuous hours, driving up one range and down again, 3000 feet up, 2000 down, 2000 up, 4000 down, till by the day's end my ears ached from all the pressure changes; I began the day in western Utah, and ended it in San Francisco, having driven all the way across Nevada on Hwy. 50 to where it joins the interstate at Reno—added layers to the imagery, and memories were brought out by viewing the photos. Sketching is another way to evoke more layers, and add to a piece.

All of the photos I've mixed in here were taken on that long day's drive. The vast majority of them were taken from the truck, out the lowered window or right through the windshield, without slowing down or stopping: high-speed grab-shots, adding up to a record of changes.

Presenting it this way, as photos and poetry together, changes the way it's perceived. When I first presented it, as just poetry, it became quickly obvious that a lot of readers thought I was making things up, when all I was doing was recording observations. They had never seen this kind of land, not even in their dreams. While obersvational writing does require imagination, at the very least to find the words and metaphors necessary to convey the mood of the place, it's astonishing how often people forget that the universe is wilder and stranger than anything we can imagine. Ignorance tends to see wildness as fiction, when in fact it's all there to be seen by anyone passing through.

driving across the Basin & Range (haibun)

A black pickup truck in an open landscape. Somewhere in western Utah, on Highway 50, at the edge of the last Mormon-named farming towns, that last sign that says, “Next Service 124 Miles,” and you make a quick prayer to Somebody that you have enough gas in the tank, the water jugs are filled, the radiator doesn’t leak, all the engine fluids are topped up, spare jar of oil in the toolkit in back, and you floor it, leaning into the acceleration, as the asphalt streams out before you, flat and level and straight as an engineer could make it, a geodesic across the desert, spinning out, spinning off, across the moving rim of the horizon, into a vessel of grey light.

daring scimitar
of lone driver, lone drive—
bullet-hole memory

All these bowls have old names. Off to the south-east, under clouded-over skies, a mirror of flat alkaline lake; none of these lakes go anywhere, they’re all low-terrain catchments, so the rains wash mineralized salts from the hills, and the only way the water can leave is to evaporate, leaving behind crusted salts and desert varnish. So toxic, so salted, they’d kill you, or your engine, just as quick. The road is silent, but for the sound of wheels. You take your hands off the wheel, and let the truck drift smoothly onto the yellow line, straddling the dashes, aimed at the long distances that never seem to get closer.

drink where salmon
have never returned—
sweet wine of sweat

You stop, every so often, to take a photo, and to get out to stretch your legs, and pee. You have to stop: the rhythm demands it, in words no one has ever said. The photos come out bland and lifeless: empty shots of nothing, no sense of scale, grey fields with thin dark lines across them; it’s all flat and too distant to give any sense of dimension. You'd need to drop a skyscraper into the drowning pan, to give it perspective. Even then, it would just melt into the Big Empty, reflecting in the salt mirrors as it dissolved.

this melting fog
in a sheath of open sky—
unspoken rains

You pull over, after hours of nothing moving anywhere, in the middle of nowhere, and just at that moment, a car zips by going the other way: the only car you've seen in an hour. Isolated cars single free ions in a sea of vacuum; too few to make a decent probability wave. Suddenly, a call overhead, a flap of hawk wing. What’s there to catch out here, brother wind? A lonesome jumping mouse? Surely nothing that doesn’t taste of salt and sweat and endless silence.

getting out of the truck,
stopped in your tracks by sky—
birds fly up forever

At each summit, rain or clouds so low to the road you can stretch out your hands and grasp veils of fog. Or snow, in the higher passes. Slot canyons the river-carved roads up the sides of each range, then the sleety summit with robot weather stations white sentinels by the roadside, maybe a picnic area where slick tables huddle and shiver. The further west you drive, the colder towards night it gets, and nowhere to camp. Tall wind-shaped bonsai pines curve out from the rocks, in the wind's lee. Another hawk, another field being watched for voles. Then you come out over the vista over yet another long, low basin, each more desolate than the last, your ears aching for respite, and at last, for the touch of a hand.

circle of pines
veiled by blowing snow—
eyes of the earth

When you stop to listen to the wind, there is only the distance. The long silence between outbreath and inbreath, ritual pause, as whole worlds fade away then come into being again. This lowering sky. Long ago there were other voices here; the rocks, embedded with ancient seas and other low skies, remember them. You'd have to take your hammer and chip the outcrop just so, at this oblique angle, to find the polished strata where the vibrations are buried, fossil tracks in ripple marks of a shallow-duned sea that sank long ago into the dreams of snails.

scratching to get out,
light-taloned feet of old birds—
fresh rain ringing stones

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Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

There is an eeriness to these shots, a quietness that makes them memorable.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks. I like that, it's a nice way to put it.

It's amazing what the ambient weather will do, to the land, to the lighting.

That particular day in late October 2004, it was cloudy and rainy all day long, actually until just before I got to Reno. So, I drove through the entire span of the storm, in addition to all the amazing land I was passing through.

6:28 PM  

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