Issue 208, Spring 2014
I felt like a ghost in the green hybrid, driving slowly around Marfa in the dark. It was my first night there: Michael, the caretaker of the residency houses, who was also a painter, had picked me up at the El Paso airport that afternoon and driven me in amicable silence for three hours through the high desert until we reached the little house at 308 North Plateau Street; I remember the address (you can drag the pegman icon onto the Google map and walk around the neighborhood on Street View, floating above yourself like a ghost; I’m doing that in a separate window now) because I had to have my beta-blockers mailed there twice during the residency, pills I take to reduce the vigor of my heart’s contractions, and which have the paradoxical effect of causing a minor tremor in my hand. When I arrived at the house—one floor, two bedrooms, with one room converted to a writer’s studio, no internal doors—I had set down my bags and, although it was only late afternoon, gone immediately to bed, not waking until a little before midnight. I lay in the alien sheets slowly remembering where I was: having slept through most of the ride, and then what was left of the daylight, I felt as though I’d moved from Brooklyn to the Chihuahuan Desert without transition. I tried to remember the light snow that morning in New York, beads of precipitation on the oval window streaking as the plane took off. It was Thursday; had I been at home, I would have heard the sound of the poor picking glass out of the recycling set along the street for Friday morning. Here it was quiet enough that I should have heard my heart beating; I imagined it was inaudible because of the drug.
I’d planned to walk around, not drive, but the dark outside was total. I was stunned by the panoramic sky, the impossible number of stars—any remaining jet lag dissipated at the sight. The thin winter air was cool but unseasonably warm; it was probably in the forties. The sound of the garage door opening tore a hole in the night and I sensed, whether or not they were there, small animals fleeing all around me at the noise. I backed out of the garage, remotely closed it, and began to whisper through the streets, as nervous and alive as a teenager sneaking out on some kind of furtive mission in his parents’ car. I found my way downtown and circled the nineteenth-century courthouse and turned onto the town’s main commercial street; no one was out. I parked under a streetlight and walked past the dark storefronts, a mixture of small-town municipal offices, abandoned spaces, and upscale boutiques. Marfa had been an “art tourism” destination ever since Donald Judd opened the Chinati Foundation to the public in the eighties, a museum just outside of town that presents Judd’s large-scale works in permanent installation, along with work by his contemporaries. I’d heard New York artists speak of making pilgrimages, that collectors fly down for visits in their private jets, but it was difficult to picture encountering them here. An interesting building across the street attracted my attention and I crossed to take a closer look; later I would learn it was the old Marfa Wool and Mohair Building. I walked around the side of the building, along the railroad tracks, and, stepping over various desert shrubs, approached one of the side windows to look in.
At first I saw nothing through the glass, then slowly made out hulking shapes, shapes that further resolved into what looked like giant flowers of crushed metal or perpetual explosions. I cupped my hands around my eyes and held my forehead to the cool window and slowly recognized what I was seeing as a series of John Chamberlain sculptures, which are largely hewn from chrome-plated and painted steel, often the mangled bodies of cars, an art of the totaled. I’d seen a few of his pieces in New York, had been indifferent, but they were powerful now, their colors becoming more discernible in the faint glow of some kind of security light. Maybe I liked his sculpture more when I couldn’t get close to it, had to see it from a fixed position through a pane of glass, so that I had to project myself into the encounter with its three-dimensionality. I stepped back a little and regarded his work through my own faint reflection in the window. Or maybe I like his sculpture more when I’m lurking at night among creosote bushes in the desert, nerves singing, my life in Brooklyn eighteen hours in the past, receding.
I heard the norteño music, accordion and bajo sexto, before I saw the beams of the approaching truck. Instinctively, stupidly, I took a knee on the gravelly soil so as not to be seen doing whatever it was that I was doing beside the dark building. A woman in the passenger side was singing along to the radio, maybe drunkenly, her window down: lo diera por ti, lo diera por ti, lo diera por ti. When the truck passed, I stood up, brushed the dust off my pants, and walked back to the car. I drove across the railroad tracks and turned right onto a larger road; there was a gas station open. I stopped, bought a four pack of butter, tortillas, eggs, and a large can of Bustelo espresso, and then drove silently back to the house on North Plateau. Right before I turned into the garage, my headlights reflected green off the eyes of a small animal, probably a neighbor’s cat or dog, but maybe a raccoon, if they had those in Marfa. The tapetum lucidum, the “bright tapestry” behind the eyes, bounces visible light back through the retina, making the pupils glow. I remembered the red-eye effect in the photographs of my youth, the camera recording the light of its own flash, the camera inscribing itself in the image it captured. Once inside the house I heated and ate several tortillas while I waited for the coffee to percolate in the rusty stove-top espresso machine, then took the pitch-black coffee to the desk in the studio, set up my computer, and began to write.
Thus, instead of beginning my residency by rising at six a.m. and walking several miles in the early-morning dark, then working until lunch, walking again, then working again until dinner, at which point I’d take a third walk—I’d outlined this strict schedule to my best friend, Alex, who had nodded politely, before I left New York—I went to sleep at sunup, having finished the tortillas as the first light filtered into the kitchen. It was five p.m. when I woke and, because I’d already woken in the bed once the previous day, it felt like the morning of my second full day, not the late afternoon of the first; I was already falling out of time. I walked into the bathroom and got out my razor and looked at myself in the mirror to find much of my face was covered in dark, dried blood; for a moment I was dizzy with fear and confusion, then realized I’d had a nosebleed. My first thought was of a brain tumor because I’d recently written a story in which the narrator was diagnosed with one, but, after calming down and consulting Google, I realized it was no doubt altitude induced; I’d had nosebleeds as a child when we vacationed in Colorado. I washed the blood off my face with a rag but couldn’t bear, after the shock, to draw a razor across my neck.
The sun was setting by the time I sat down at the desk to start my day. I had my lunch of scrambled eggs around one a.m. on the little porch, looking carefully for the first time at the house where Robert Creeley began to die; he’d held a residency here in the spring of 2005 when his pneumonia worsened. I kept my porch light off. The house looked identical in layout to mine and it was occupied: the resident, Michael had told me on the way in from the airport, was a Polish translator and poet of whom I’d never heard. (There was a lunch planned for the next day so all the residents could meet one another if they wished, but I’d already sent an e-mail to Michael with my regrets, explaining that I was focused on work and keeping strange hours.) There was a light on somewhere in the house, probably the studio; the rest of the windows on the street were dark.
When I was about to go back in, having stood and opened the screen door, I heard the creak and bang of the screen door on the porch across from mine, the noise setting off a chain reaction of barking dogs. I hesitated; having hesitated, and knowing I’d been seen, even in the dark, I felt a pressure to turn around and signal some kind of greeting to the other nocturnal resident, who hadn’t put his porch light on. I did turn, plate and silverware in one hand, and saw the cupped flame as he lit his cigarette, thought I could make out a beard and glasses. I stood there awkwardly for a moment and then he raised his arm and I raised mine, feeling as I went back in, and feeling ridiculous for feeling it, that I’d just waved to Creeley.
The only book I’d brought with me to the residency, knowing that the house was full of books, was the Library of America edition of Whitman, its paper so thin you could use it to roll cigarettes. I’d brought that particular volume because I was teaching a course on Whitman next fall, assuming I wasn’t on medical leave, and hadn’t read him carefully in years—and hadn’t read much of his prose at all. Those first days of the residency, days that were nights, I would sit at my desk and read Specimen Days, his bizarre memoir, for hours. Part of what makes the book bizarre is that Whitman, because he wants to stand for everyone, because he wants to be less a historical person than a marker for democratic personhood, can’t really write a memoir full of a life’s particularities. If he were to reveal the specific genesis and texture of his personality, if he presented a picture of irreducible individuality, he would lose his ability to be “Walt Whitman, a kosmos”—his “I” would belong to an empirical person rather than constituting a pronoun in which the readers of the future could participate. As a result, while he recounts a few basic facts about his life, most of the book consists of him describing natural and national histories as if they were details of his intimate biography. And many of his memories are general enough to be anyone’s memory: how he took his ease under a flowering tree or whatever. (Whitman is always “loafing,” always taking his ease, as if leisure were a condition of poetic receptivity.) As a memoir, it’s an interesting failure. Just as in the poems, he has to be nobody in particular in order to be a democratic everyman, has to empty himself out so that his poetry can be a textual commons for the future into which he projects himself. And he is always projecting himself: “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence; / I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.”
The most riveting and disturbing and particular passages of Specimen Days are about the Civil War. What disturbed me as I read was what I perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the delight he took in the willingness of young men to die for the union whose epic bard he felt he was destined to be, and his almost sensual pleasure in the material richness of the surrounding carnage. Maybe I was projecting, but when Whitman walks the makeshift hospitals delivering to the wounded gifts of money that the rich have asked him to distribute, when he gives tobacco to those who haven’t suffered damage to the lungs or face, I thought he was in a kind of ecstasy. From the distance of my residency late in the empire of drones, his love for the young boys on both sides whose blood was to refresh the tree of liberty was hard to take. When I could no longer focus my eyes on the page, I would lie down on the hardwood floor and listen to recordings of Creeley, scores of which were available online; again and again, I played him reading “The Door” in the early sixties, static like rain on the recording, New York traffic sometimes audible in the background. And then I would listen at intervals to the one extant recording of Whitman, made by Edison—he recites four lines from “America”—a digital transfer from wax cylinder.
Days passed like this: Turning in around sunrise, waking a couple of hours before sunset, my only contact with other humans the few words I exchanged with the attendant at the gas station where I continued to buy groceries, although there was an organic market in town, or with the elderly Mexican woman, Rita, whom Michael had recommended, who sold burritos out of her house (I would drive to her house and buy a burrito soon after I woke, then reheat it for my midday meal at midnight; soon this meal was the only one I reliably took). With the exception of one other wave on the porch when Creeley came out to smoke, I didn’t see the resident in the reflection of my house across the street, nor did I see anybody else. I had poor cell-phone service and largely kept it off, exchanging some e-mails with Alex, and I talked to nobody from home. Before bed in the hour before sunrise, I would walk the perimeter of the town, ranchland spreading out beyond it, hawks or maybe buzzards starting from the trees at the sound of my footfall on gravel. As the sun came up, I could see the white dirigible in the distance, a tethered surveillance aerostat containing some kind of radar, searching for narcotraficantes passing over from Northern Mexico, maybe also for immigrants, a strange helium-filled thing on the horizon that began to enter my dreams.
Eventually a few people in town wrote me: a friend of a friend who wintered in Marfa asked if I wanted to get a drink; another resident, a novelist I’d met briefly before, asked if I wanted to go and see the Judd; I was invited, through Michael, to a party for an artist who was passing through town. I was keeping strange hours; I was working furiously; I was under the weather, having trouble adjusting to the altitude; I’d love to see you sometime in the coming weeks—I paid little attention to what excuses I deployed as I declined. Again I would find myself standing razor in hand as the sun set and again I would decide not to shave, wondering how long it would take me to grow my neighbor’s beard, obscure my face. Again I would see a woman watering an ocotillo in her yard at dawn despite the desert cold as I took my last walk of the night, and again she’d fail to see me wave.
And I was at work, but on the wrong thing. Instead of working on the novel I’d proposed to a publisher in New York—a novel about an author who fabricates his correspondence, forming an archive of letters that he can sell to a fancy library—I was writing a poem, a weird meditative lyric in which I was sometimes Whitman, and in which the strangeness of the residency itself was theme. Having monetized the future of my fiction (I received a big advance, money I planned to use to fund Alex’s fertility treatments, but that’s another story), I turned my back on it, albeit to compose verse underwritten by a millionaire’s foundation. The poem, like most of my poems, and like the story I’d promised to expand, conflated fact and fiction, and it occurred to me—not for the first time, but with a new force—that part of what I loved about poetry was how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain, how the correspondence between text and world was less important than the intensities of the poem itself, what possibilities of feeling were opened up in the present tense of reading. I set it in Marfa, but in the extreme heat of the summer: “I am an alien here with a residency, light / alien to me, true hawks starting from the trees / at my footfall on gravel, sun-burnt from reading / Specimen Days on the small porch across / the street from where another poet died / or began dying . . . ”
. . . They are dead in different ways,
these poets, but I visit them both because
a residency affords me time, not sure where
the money comes from, or what money is,
how you could set it beside a soldier’s bed
then walk out across the moonlit mall in love
with the federal, wake up refreshed and bring
tobacco to those who haven’t received
wounds in the lung or the face. Tonight
I listen to their recordings at once
in separate windows, four lines from “America”
might be recited by an actor, but the noise
of the wax cylinder is real, sounds how I
imagine engines of old boats would, while
“The Door” incorporates distress into the voice,
could be in the room. The former says
he waits for me ahead, but I doubt I’ll arrive
in time . . .