You are travelling
into fantasy terrain
in a white Buick,
eyes fixed on the road,
the central reservation,
and the dust rising,
so you might dream it
or remember it perhaps,
with Sonny Terry
and Brownie McGhee, the light
dazzling and constant,
to Sonny Terry's
harmonica, with blind eyes,
into the desert,
if that is desert
before you on the straight road
and not a mirage -
- a filling station,
a Navajo store, a bar...
Did these once exist?
And if they did, what
was it about Sedona?
What was your name then?
Were you ever there
or anywhere where time is?
Was Sedona real?
And this photograph,
or that photograph, is that
your tongue, your closed eyes?
Occasion and source
This is one of those poems that starts about 4 am after an hour of lying awake. I have had a few broken nights recently since I sprained my wrist about eight days ago. I wake as I might normally do but the wrist hurts and I can't get into a position that is comfortable so I read what I can in that condition having put aside whatever is too heavy or carrying too long a narrative and resort to the brevities of Twitter which is a godsend if only because there are so many fascinating scraps of writing and imagery on it.
The poem itself began after reading a line by Alice Bishop, an Australian writer and editor I hadn't heard of before. That line, in prose, was: "Her eyes, they're roadside scrub and well-fuelled flame". I thought that was lovely. I didn't know who the 'she' referred to was but Bishop's avatar showed a well dressed young woman leaning against a cliff by a dirt road, turning away from the road. The image together with the line offered something deeply packed and intriguing.
My first instinct was to do something I hadn't done before, which was to take the line and build something from it, while fully acknowledging the author by tagging her in, but that is a complex procedure on a platform as tiny as Twitter, especially at four in the morning. Nevertheless I played with it as a possible first line and a half (my longer narratives recently have all been on the 5-7-5 syllabic pattern and usually comprising ten verses) but then dropped it because I felt anything I might say about the female figure in Bishop's line, however I removed her from that context and placed her in one in my own imagination, she might turn out to be a second-hand figure for me. I could see her but couldn't smell her. It was in the process of thinking that and droppping the idea that the clue to a subject of my own arose.
In 1997 Ian Duhig, the late and much loved Julia Darling, Athony Thwaite and I were doing a British Council tour of Arizona. We had the use of a white Buick and drove up and down the state to various reading venues. On one occasion we got lost on a road fringing the desert and ran into the beginnings of a dust storm; on another we drove through Sedona with its red rocks. I remember feeling vaguely unhappy in Sedona, as though I were lost within myself.
This was what I needed to get started. I just had to visualise being on the road again, almost any road, a road at any rate through a desert in some compartment of the memory and I immediately felt I was on to something. A possible montage of images opened up like a chaotic map with no clear road only the sense of being on the road. I could smell the road. I began writing.
Redrafting and shaping
So the verse with which the first draft started and which is now second emerged. There is the careful driving and the dust though I don't actually remember a central reservation. Maybe it was an odd linguistic slip referring to another part of the same journey, a visit to the Navajo 'reservation' that inserted itself here, though that experience was something different in kind and I wrote about that at the time.
All this is composed impromptu, verse by verse, each verse immediately appearing on Twitter as a free-standing text. (I should explain that, for me, there is a certain creative tension in writing in this half-exposed manner. It is something to do with being on full alert, at the edge of things, not quite in the court of the self.)
Having finished a run of eleven verses (the ten I had did not seem quite complete so I added an eleventh) I copied the lot out with a few changes and left it overnight.
When I woke up and re-read it I felt the poem wasn't quite right.
The problem was twofold: the first problem being the reiteration of information - the white Buick in particular; the second a matter of pace, flow and opening. The questions and recapitulations half way through had the effect of stopping the poem before restarting it.
The electric charge that should carry the poem through was fading before recovering.
So to the bureaucratic details.
- The first verse moved down one. and the verse that followed it in the first draft (and one white Buick / automatic, a tape deck, / mountains either side) was cut, though I liked it in itself.
- The two verses following that verse still do follow it in the new version above, but the one after it has been moved so it is now the penultimate verse of the whole.
- The one that followed that one originally is now the first verse because it floated a little free of the narrative where it stood but made better sense as an introduction.
I am writing this down as much for myself as for anyone else in an attempt to understand articulately that which I do instinctively. That can only be done in retrospect. I could not write with a retrospecive formal consciousness. One has to keep moving forward.
More importantly perhaps I talk about the core feeling of the poem, the driving force of it, as a memory of desolation but 'desolation' is an approximate term: it is the poem that is the real feeling and that feeling unpacks itself as it goes along, dragging a lot of other unnamed unidentifiable, almost incidental feelings in its wake. And that is, I suspect, what all poetry is even once one discards the well-known items of 'lyrical' baggage.
The point is you can't take the baggage with you. You have to discover it along the way.