Dalva by Jim Harrison

The Guardian has a fascinating series called “Overlooked Classics of American Literature,” which is every bit as enlightening and useful to citizens of the United States as it is to our bibliophile cousins across the pond. On May 17, (or 17, May as The Guardian would have it), Tom Cox brought Jim Harrison’s 1988 novel Dalva to the overlooked classics discussion, lamenting how little known this novel is in the UK (although, apparently, much better known in France!) and in the process, not only brought a terrific novel back into focus–but set bells ringing here in our offices.

Jim Harrison was a early favorite and discovery of The Bloomsbury Review—and a long and fascinating fixed-in-time interview with Jim Harrison, “A Man Lit by Passion” was featured in a November/December 1990 interview conducted by Tom Auer the founder of Blooms. Those aforementioned bells sent me scurrying to the records and the files to discover that yes, indeed, we did a review of Dalva in the March/April 1989 Issue of The Bloomsbury Review—and as it’s always fun to look back into time and see how prescient (or not) we might have been, I thought it would be interesting to share that review with you exactly as it appeared then.

Dalva
JIM HARRISON
Dutton/Lawrence, $18.95 cloth, ISBN 0-525-24624-4
Washington Square Press, $7.95 paper, ISBN 0-671-67817-5 (May Release)

Can a man write a novel from a woman’s point of view? With Dalva, Jim Harrison says yes. This clumsily elegant story creates a credible, potent individual. Dalva is attractive, but more than desirable; intriguing but not cloying or mysterious. The usual pitfalls of the male novelist attempting to enter the world of woman—the self-conscious mannerisms of literary cross-dressing—are largely avoided here. Dalva is someone whom Jim Harrison has known or might have known, a woman who retains her individuality and transcends her fictional status as idealized object. For the Harrison fan, this latest of six novels is a welcome arrival—a big, bawdy, historical epic comedy that improves on the lonely clowning of Sundog and recaptures the socio-historically informed adventure of Farmer. For the uninitiated, the novel may be a bit long, but it quickly justifies the scope of Harrison’s ambitions.

Dalva is a rich forty-five-year-old who values, but doesn’t abuse, her inherited money or land. She is a sporadically employed social worker, a perpetual student of nature and psychology, an adept diary keeper and amateur historian, and anything but a sap. Of her first love, she comments, “I’m sure I loved Duane, at least at the beginning, because he so pointedly ignored me.” She is “thought by others to be overly attractive” and does not hesitate to sleep with lovers chosen sometimes on a passing impulse. Yet she is not preoccupied with her sexual exploits, or anyone else’s. She writes in her journal, intended for the son she was forced to give up for adoption at sixteen, about her divorced sister’s long overdue affair:

Sex has returned Ruth’s sense of playfulness. What she did is to have her priest in for dinner, along with his “bodyguard” or chaperon, the older priest with the drinking problem. It was a well-planned campaign to win her last chance to get pregnant: she poached Maine lobsters, chilled them, served them as an appetizer with a Montrachet…She said the old man never did fall asleep, so she had to settle for a quick act standing in the bathroom over the sink looking at each other in the mirror. Now all she had to do was wait and see if she was pregnant while the father went off to work among the poor in Costa Rica.

Dalva is also narrated by a second voice, that of a professional historian whom Dalva ambivalently allows access to the journals kept by her pioneer great-grandfather. Michael is a drunk, a flagrant intellectual, and a city boy with a Marxist chip on his shoulder. During his first week as historian-in-residence at Dalva’s family ranch in Nebraska, the professor spends an evening in a local bar.

Our pool game was interrupted by a tussle between two behemoths over one selling another a group of calves with something called “shipping fever.” They were bent on squeezing each other to death. The ozone of violence pushed me to a drink a little quickly, and I was forced to doze in a booth.

REVIEWER: Paul Kafka‘s first novel, Home Again, was published at Harvard University. He currently attends the University of Denver, where he teaches English literature. [Byline: 1989]

From The Bloomsbury Review©, Volume 9/Issue 2 ▪ March/April 1989

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If you are not yet a subscriber to The Bloomsbury Review, you can subscribe here. If you are interested in advertising, more information can be found here. And if you are already a friend of Blooms, and you would like to make a contribution to help enable us to continue our historical work, you can do that here. We are grateful for your continued interest in and your continuing support of our decades of serving and celebrating literature.

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An Out-Of-Bounds Essay

I Love to Think of Those Naked Epochs
~ Baudelaire
One night in Paris, my wife and I took a small room on the top floor of a hotel just off the boulevard St-Michel. It was an odd little room—no right angles anywhere, every wall of a different surface, stone, brick, plaster, paper. The furniture was Typical Hideous. But the furnishings did not matter. What mattered was that the room came cheap. And that my wife and I could lie in the bed and look out over a squabble of rooftops, chimneys, antennae, sky. And that I could turn the desk around into the window-niche and sit up late making notes in my journal, looking down into the courtyard, into the windows of my neighbors.

For a while, light enough to write by came down from the sky. Later I burned a candle. The desk created a little room of its own, at the edge between interiority and exteriority. I could feel the warmth of our room at my back, and, through the open window, the cool air of the evening on my face. On the roof-garden opposite, a young man in a flowered housecoat watered some plants, then stooped to pick up a cat. Behind one window, an old man sat before an easel, a dog napping at his feet. In another, shadows slow-danced behind a thin muslin curtain. The quarter is very old. It reminds me that everything has happened before. St Germain-des-Pres was overrun by Nazis, and yet it has survived to be beautiful once again, flowers tumbling in profusion from its iron balustrades.

So. An hour or two of composition. A time of deep stillness, into which the stars cast their tiny bolts of love. Then, a walk down among the crowds in the streets. Dinner in a Japanese restaurant on the rue St-Séverin, with fresh flowers in a little vase on our table, and the singular flame of a white tea candle. Then out into the crowds again, pausing to look at the dubious talents on display near the Metro—a man carving canaries out of carrots, a man putting out cigarettes on his palm. Come the morning, we would wander out into all the rain-bright colors of autumn, which arrived as we slept. Clouds bunching up on the horizon. A sharpness to the air. Brown crabby leaves blowing down on the sandy square of St-Sulplice, looking like Rilke’s “cheap winter bonnets of Fate.”

© Frederick Smock, Louisville, KY

The “Out-of-Bounds Essay” is a unique feature that appears regularly in The Bloomsbury Review. Each is an imaginary work of nonfiction, out-of-bounds only in the sense that they are not necessarily tied to anything specific in the magazine, neither tied to a review, an interview, nor a pre-determined editorial theme. If it should, it is the beauty of serendipity at play only. One of our long-time contributing editors, Reamy Jansen, oversees and edits the feature, asking his essayists for “fresh, offbeat, nonfiction prose that assays boundaries of fiction/nonfiction,” encouraging the writer to “even leap over” those boundaries, if she or he will. The single caveat is “no more than 300 words.” The Out-of-Bounds Essay is simply the literary equivalent of a musical prelude—a short work that ideally takes the reader on a small journey into what Emily Dickinson would call in her singular way, a “revery.”

We will be placing more of these rare-cut gems on the blog in the future. We hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy sharing them with you.

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If you are not yet a subscriber to The Bloomsbury Review, you can subscribe here. If you are interested in advertising, more information can be found here. And if you are already a friend of Blooms, and you would like to make a contribution to help enable us to continue our historical work, you can do that here. We are grateful for your continued interest in and your continuing support of our decades of serving and celebrating literature.

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A Selfish Rectification

Long before I became a volunteer here, many years ago when my East Coast publishing career was still alive, and at an (even more) addled time when I actually believed I had the potential to become an adequate writer (perhaps), I submitted a work for consideration to The Bloomsbury Review. Enough previous publications of other like writings elsewhere made me brazen, I suppose—and publication, although in lesser venues than Blooms, blew up my confidence as well as my head—so when my piece actually made the cut, I’m sure I was unbearable to be around for far longer than decency should have allowed. Rest assured that at my current age and station, having eaten enormous servings of humble pie, I’m much more pleasant to be around.

Be all that as it may, as I was sorting through various files here and found the published work, I was surprised to discover that, hey, it wasn’t that bad after all. Not that good, either—but we won’t go there. The other thing I discovered, bringing back yet more memory from the incident, was that there was an inadvertent typo in the piece. When I brought that to the attention of the ever-scrupulous Tom Auer, he was horrified and offered to rerun it with the correction. That’s just the kind of guy he was, even though that re-use of space would have been expensive. His genuine horror and sincere apology (and perhaps knowing in the back of my mind that in the scheme of American literary history, it wasn’t worth a single bean, much less a hill of them to reprint it), made me realize that to go to that trouble really wasn’t worth anyone’s expense or effort. And, as it turned out, a few months later, When the Bluebird Sings: An Oscar Wilde Journal (now defunct) asked to reprint it (with the correction) and so it did see the light of day as originally intended. And all’s well that ended well.

But in a selfish indulgence on my part—and in the surety that the good heart of Tom wouldn’t mind—I’m going to reprint it here just to have it associated with this wonderful magazine in its corrected form. More fool I, I’m aware, but it does bring me back to a time when I was younger and had the hubris to believe that the possibility of talent actually flowered once in my deluded bones. I hope you might find some enjoyment in it for what small insight into Oscar Wilde might be found lurking there.

The Last Days of Sebastian Melmoth

The sun
down this narrow Paris street creeps
and squares a small field of large
magenta blooms on the wall
in this room.
These blossoms do not green
or grow, but fade in the daily path
under the golden steps the sun takes
travelling the wall
to finally fall on this table
where no writing but begging will be done.
Even the friendship my pen once held for me
has flown and the afternoon
rises on dust in the shaft of sun
that shines and illuminates the fading blooms
where I, alone, room—
waiting for the last slipper of sun
to flee the last petal,
desert the plain table
and disappear into the dusk, ah,
where absinthe and lust
waits for me
down the narrow Paris streets
in the arms and eyes
of warm brown boys
whose arrows of love
martyr me.

© David M. Perkins

[Sebastion Melmoth was the name Oscar Wilde
assumed in exile after being released from prison.
]

From the 12th Anniversary Issue of The Bloomsbury Review, Volume 12/Issue 1, January/February 1992.

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If you are not yet a subscriber to The Bloomsbury Review, you can subscribe here. If you are interested in advertising, more information can be found here. And if you are already a friend of Blooms, and you would like to make a contribution to help enable us to continue our historical work, you can do that here. We are grateful for your continued interest in and your continuing support of our decades of serving and celebrating literature.

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Dalva by Jim Harrison

The Guardian has a fascinating series called “Overlooked Classics of American Literature,” which is every bit as enlightening and useful to citizens of the United States as it is to our bibliophile cousins across the pond. On May 17, (or 17, May as The Guardian would have it), Tom Cox brought Jim Harrison’s 1988 novel Dalva to the overlooked classics discussion, lamenting how little known this novel is in the UK (although, apparently, much better known in France!) and in the process, not only brought a terrific novel back into focus–but set bells ringing here in our offices.

Jim Harrison was a early favorite and discovery of The Bloomsbury Review—and a long and fascinating fixed-in-time interview with Jim Harrison, “A Man Lit by Passion” was featured in a November/December 1990 interview conducted by Tom Auer the founder of Blooms. Those aforementioned bells sent me scurrying to the records and the files to discover that yes, indeed, we did a review of Dalva in the March/April 1989 Issue of The Bloomsbury Review—and as it’s always fun to look back into time and see how prescient (or not) we might have been, I thought it would be interesting to share that review with you exactly as it appeared then.

Dalva
JIM HARRISON
Dutton/Lawrence, $18.95 cloth, ISBN 0-525-24624-4
Washington Square Press, $7.95 paper, ISBN 0-671-67817-5 (May Release)

Can a man write a novel from a woman’s point of view? With Dalva, Jim Harrison says yes. This clumsily elegant story creates a credible, potent individual. Dalva is attractive, but more than desirable; intriguing but not cloying or mysterious. The usual pitfalls of the male novelist attempting to enter the world of woman—the self-conscious mannerisms of literary cross-dressing—are largely avoided here. Dalva is someone whom Jim Harrison has known or might have known, a woman who retains her individuality and transcends her fictional status as idealized object. For the Harrison fan, this latest of six novels is a welcome arrival—a big, bawdy, historical epic comedy that improves on the lonely clowning of Sundog and recaptures the socio-historically informed adventure of Farmer. For the uninitiated, the novel may be a bit long, but it quickly justifies the scope of Harrison’s ambitions.

Dalva is a rich forty-five-year-old who values, but doesn’t abuse, her inherited money or land. She is a sporadically employed social worker, a perpetual student of nature and psychology, an adept diary keeper and amateur historian, and anything but a sap. Of her first love, she comments, “I’m sure I loved Duane, at least at the beginning, because he so pointedly ignored me.” She is “thought by others to be overly attractive” and does not hesitate to sleep with lovers chosen sometimes on a passing impulse. Yet she is not preoccupied with her sexual exploits, or anyone else’s. She writes in her journal, intended for the son she was forced to give up for adoption at sixteen, about her divorced sister’s long overdue affair:

Sex has returned Ruth’s sense of playfulness. What she did is to have her priest in for dinner, along with his “bodyguard” or chaperon, the older priest with the drinking problem. It was a well-planned campaign to win her last chance to get pregnant: she poached Maine lobsters, chilled them, served them as an appetizer with a Montrachet…She said the old man never did fall asleep, so she had to settle for a quick act standing in the bathroom over the sink looking at each other in the mirror. Now all she had to do was wait and see if she was pregnant while the father went off to work among the poor in Costa Rica.

Dalva is also narrated by a second voice, that of a professional historian whom Dalva ambivalently allows access to the journals kept by her pioneer great-grandfather. Michael is a drunk, a flagrant intellectual, and a city boy with a Marxist chip on his shoulder. During his first week as historian-in-residence at Dalva’s family ranch in Nebraska, the professor spends an evening in a local bar.

Our pool game was interrupted by a tussle between two behemoths over one selling another a group of calves with something called “shipping fever.” They were bent on squeezing each other to death. The ozone of violence pushed me to a drink a little quickly, and I was forced to doze in a booth.

REVIEWER: Paul Kafka‘s first novel, Home Again, was published at Harvard University. He currently attends the University of Denver, where he teaches English literature. [Byline: 1989]

From The Bloomsbury Review©, Volume 9/Issue 2 ▪ March/April 1989

▪ ▪ ▪ ▪

If you are not yet a subscriber to The Bloomsbury Review, you can subscribe here. If you are interested in advertising, more information can be found here. And if you are already a friend of Blooms, and you would like to make a contribution to help enable us to continue our historical work, you can do that here. We are grateful for your continued interest in and your continuing support of our decades of serving and celebrating literature.

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“No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.”

The line is from “Gravy,” a poem by Raymond Carver that still hangs over the desk Tom had to finally abandon on April 18, 2003, at age 50—at the same age Carver had to abandon his. Much too young for talents like these to leave us. But as the poem goes on to explain:

… it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”

The facts might not all jigsaw together neatly between Carver’s life and Tom’s—but anyone who knew Tom will recognize the spirit—the pure spirit of the words, and the goodness embedded there, and understand why Tom wanted to have those words close.

Remembrances are impossible things for me to write. Too many things rise and crash against my memory—only to be overcome by yet another wave and fulsome series of thoughts—people, places, things, ideas that call Tom to mind, and in turn pull in all the other lucky people who knew him, and all of them, you, having your own memories. Justice can’t be done—certainly not by me.

Tom’s official obituary has an impressionist catalog in it worth sharing:

Tom is also survived by the extended, long-standing family of the Bloomsbury team, a network of writers and supporters, the book community in Denver and the world, his beloved neighbors, his St. Vincent gang of pals and dear friends too numerous to name. The family would ask that you remember Tom as a humble and honorable man who loved his family, his cats, writing, Miles Davis, jazz, Jack Daniels, good books, poetry, hiking, basketball, the family cabin and all his wonderful friends…

Shortly after Tom stepped away from his desk—leaving behind his remarkable legacy and his phenomenal accomplishments as gifts to us all, his sister Marilyn spoke about him in a Colorado Public Radio interview with more grace and love than I can possibly do with my clumsy words. And to once again feel the unique personality, the charm, and the intelligence of Tom, if you haven’t read them yet, his reflections on the 10th Anniversary of Blooms, “The Glamorous World of Publishing: Who We Are & Why We Do What We Do,” and his reflections on the 20th Anniversary, “We Were Young and Restless. We Liked to Read Books. And We Thought We Had a Good Idea“—I urge you to read them. What a treasure.

So many of us still miss you, my friend. It was all gravy, having you with us—every minute of it.

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Dreams do come true.

Life—when we are not slogging through the interminable and annoying detritus of it; like taxes, traffic, flat tires, kitty’s hair-balls, and the relentlessly vicious onslaught of weeds in the garden, and all the other boring exasperations that fill our days—is made bearable by those ethereal intangibles called hopes and dreams. The Bloomsbury Review was built on a dream—a dream shared by the founder of Blooms, Tom Auer, and his indefatigable sister Marilyn. A simple one, really, that there ought to be a place where extraordinary books would have a place to be reviewed—books flying under the mainstream review media radar from independent presses, university presses, nonprofit presses (and those excellent books that the 800-pound gorilla publishers refuse to promote or advertise). We found the following in Tom’s files, a letter from Anaïs Nin, 1968, (which ties to another of Tom’s dreams, which I’ll get to in a moment):

I would like very much to help you with your thesis on Alan Swallow, but his letters are in a vault in Brooklyn and I have had the flu so I don’t think I’ll be able to do anything about it before I leave on a lecture tour.

As a factual contribution to the problems facing an independent publisher I have a lot to say. Alan Swallow’s problem was mainly that of obtaining reviews from papers who would not review small-press books, or books which were not advertised, and this applies to the New York Times as well as others. He was up against this all the time. It was only when he or I made a friend of someone on a paper that a review might appear. And of course, he could not afford big advertising, and consequently the book shops also would not carry books which were not widely advertised or reviewed. The only papers who disregarded such crass commercialism were the underground papers, such as the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Free Press, and others. We both collaborated on this, helping each other with new contacts, and new friends…

In this you read how Tom’s and Anaïs’ ideas converged in the flowering of a dream—a place where the independent publisher and the unsung author can be seen: The Bloomsbury Review.

The other dream—delayed by Tom’s untimely death—was an examination of the pioneering Alan Swallow—who was prescient enough to first give Anaïs Nin a published voice. The excerpt from the letter above was found in Tom’s massive research files into Swallow’s life. The dream did not die with Tom however—all of his monumental efforts were placed in the hands of W. Dale Nelson who recently published The Imprint of Alan Swallow:Quality Publishing in the West from Syracuse University Press.

Dreams converge. Dreams do come true.

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Thank you.

This is what over thirty years of publishing The Bloomsbury Review looks like. A lot of hands and a lot of bodies have taken turns rolling this boulder uphill, year after year, issue after issue—and that’s just on site, here in the office. Volunteer after volunteer, eager intern after enthusiastic intern, and one good-hearted soul after yet another outstanding good-hearted soul. There’s not enough space to mention their names, and there never could be enough good words in any dictionary in all the available languages in this world (or on any other) to describe how magnificent every single one has been.

The Bloomsbury Review has been made possible by this kind of friend and that kind of friend, and every unique, colorful, blooming variety of these individual friends have helped to make it all possible, and hold to our dreams. “Thank you” is much too pale a phrase to convey the resplendence of our gratitude.

Publishing of every kind has been undergoing a sea-change, as we all know—the digital age is remaking all that we have known and we are attempting to adapt in every way our stodgy old souls will allow. We hold to being “A Book Magazine.” We know from our thousands of readers in 20 different countries that our tangible, hold-in-your-hands magazine is something that is treasured.

With this post, we’d also like to sing out a special note of gratitude for those who give of their creativity, and their passionate commitment to what we do—within the publishing community—by generously making use of their ever-dwindling advertising dollars to help us actually get each issue done and into the mail and out the door. It genuinely could not be accomplished without their financial generosity.

These excellent books/people/publishers follow in no particular order, but with huge measures of gratitude to all:


University Press of Kansas


The University of Arizona Press


The Tattered Cover Book Store


Syracuse University Press


University of Nevada Press


Sounds True


Lucky Dime Press


Weekend Watercolor Workshops


The University Press of Colorado


Michigan State University Press


Central Asia Institute


Grove Press


University of Nebraska Press


University of New Mexico Press

Without the support of all of you, our special friends and committed colleagues, we would not be here. Thank you!

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The Rocky Mountain Land Library

Journey of an Idea
by Tom Wylie

The Landscape of Home
A Rocky Mountain Land Series Reader

Edited by JEFF LEE
With JOHN CALDERAZZO, SUEELLEN CAMPBELL & DAVID WAAG
Illustrations by EVAN CANTOR
Johnson Books/Rocky Mountain Land Library, $17.00 paper, ISBN 978-1-55566-393-1

“We don’t know how to do it, but let’s just start.” This is a statement of courage by people who set out to make reality out of a dream, especially when the dream is bigger than they are. Yet people do it all the time and we don’t think too much about it. Even so, close encounters with life stories in this vein can astonish. As you get beyond the audacity of it, you discover dedication and tenacity at work.

I have been a regular attendee of the Rocky Mountain Land Series programs at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado. Simply put, the series is a forum for authors, books, and readers on land and community, primarily in the American West, but occasionally going beyond the region. It is presented by the Tattered Cover in association with the Rocky Mountain Land Library.

The Landscape of Home: A Rocky Mountain Land Series Reader was published in late 2006 to celebrate the first five years of the series, which had presented more than 200 book talks and workshops since the fall of 2001.

The Landscape of Home includes readings from 25 of the books, organized into six sections: “Revisiting Western Roots,” “Living in the West,” “Working the Land,” “Moving Across the Landscape,” “Looking for More,” and “Seeking Balance.” The book is probably not for those who walk up to the rim of the Grand Canyon, give it a quick look, and leave. For the rest of us, it is our kind of book. The editors selected well; every piece is a good read.

In my conversations with Jeff Lee, host of the Land Series and director of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, I have come to see another aspect of celebration in The Landscape of Home that goes beyond the series. In its modest but masterful way the book is also a milestone celebration on the journey of an idea from dream to reality—the library itself.

The seed was planted in 1991. Jeff was a bookseller and his wife, Ann Martin, was a graphic artist. They both worked for the Tattered Cover. In their preparation for a book-buying trip to the London Book Fair that year, Ann learned of a place called St. Deiniol’s Library in the village of Hawarden in Wales. It is an independent residential library: bed, board, and books. They made arrangements to stay at the library for two or three nights before going on to the book fair in London. It seems odd, doesn’t it? Staying overnight at a library and taking some of your meals there.

William E. Gladstone, four times prime minister of England in the second half of the 19th century, founded St. Deiniol’s. His personal library exceeded 30,000 volumes, and in his old age Gladstone arranged to make his books available to all readers and scholars. He envisioned a library for the pursuit of learning in a country “home” where readers could stay, with time to think and write in a congenial setting. His vision was realized, and the library now houses in excess of 200,000 volumes on theology, history, philosophy, classics, art, and literature.

Ann thought about how they could do something like St. Deiniol’s back home. Unlike Gladstone, they didn’t have the money to endow such a library. Books, however, were no problem. There are more than 15,000 books crammed into their duplex, most in boxes. The idea of a residential library had been planted in their minds. It did not wither.

Jeff’s interest in books began at a young age, as it does with most readers. There were frequent visits to the library in Meriden, Connecticut, with his father. His early interest was history. At Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, he took a degree in geology with a biology concentration. He was spending considerable time reading outside his classroom requirements and also hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Soon he realized that he had no an aptitude for science, but something else was emerging while he was at the university. He began to connect land and learning. He also began to accumulate books.

Out of college after a year of factory work, in 1981 Jeff came to work for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Lakewood, Colorado. Within a year he found an ideal situation: revising maps with the topographic maps group. He was in the field 12 months a year in the Rocky Mountains and Intermountain West, moving from place to place with the seasons: north in the summers, south in the winters. Most of his work done in isolated towns without bookstores or libraries, places like Hanksville and Green River, Utah; Lovelock, Nevada; Leadore, Idaho. He brought books along but found bookstores when and where he could, buying books about the places where he worked, adding to his library. He remembers buying a “lode” of good books in Reno, Nevada, including Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land, still among his favorites. The books began to take up a lot of room in his USGS truck each time he changed locations.

Jeff was finding the authentic West in his reading and in his own nomadic exploration. The authentic West was not and is not the romanticized West our culture has created. That is the premise of Stewart L. Udall’s The Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of the Old West, one of the books presented in the Rocky Mountain Land Series. Udall is the writer the editors chose to open The Landscape of Home. His piece is “The Wild West Masquerade,” a synopsis of the origins and perpetuation of the “mythic” Old West. Udall quotes Larry McMurtry: “The romance of the West is so powerful you can’t really swim against the current. Whatever truth about the West is printed, the legend is always more potent.” Well, the Rocky Mountain Land Series and The Landscape of Home are swimming against the current and doing so quite admirably for those not blinded by the bent-truth legends. I could say, “blinded by the myth,” but I am not convinced that the romanticized West is really the mythic West. The true West is the myth we ought to live by.

Ultimately, what had seemed ideal about Jeff’s fieldwork began to show flaws. Always on the move, he realized he could not put down roots. In 1986 he quit the USGS, returned to Denver, and found a job at the Tattered Cover in its first location on Second Avenue in Cherry Creek North, and was soon involved in the store’s move to the First Avenue location. There his book collecting took a quantum leap. He began to acquire books about the land and people’s relationship to it.

He and Ann Martin were both working at the Tattered Cover when they met, and still are. They married in 1991, the same year they discovered St. Deiniol’s. The residential library idea lingered, incubating. In the meantime, not long after they returned from England, they started a mail-order business and put out their Stonecrop book catalog for natural history books. Jeff changed to a job at Tattered Cover’s book warehouse so he would have more flexibility to pursue this new project. Stonecrop was more than a catalog; it included author interviews and short essays by writers. Jeff and Ann liked the concept and stuck with it for three years, but could never quite turn the financial corner. They learned that the bookselling business is marginal, at best.

As Stonecrop was going down, Jeff developing his idea of what the residential library should be. “That was really the start of it,” he says. Jeff and Ann began talking to a lot of people with different backgrounds relevant to land and people’s connection to the land. As they felt their way along, the feedback they received was positive. One of the biggest steps in establishing the Land Library would be finding a physical site for it. It was crucial, but would take time and money. The advice they got was to keep working on the site search, but also start launching outreach programs that matched their mission of creating a greater awareness of the land.

The Rocky Mountain Land Series was the first program launched, a partnership that fit well with the Tattered Cover’s own programs. Joyce Meskis, owner of the bookstore, gave Jeff the support he needed. Almost all of their events occur at the LoDo (lower downtown) Tattered Cover, a second store added in 1994. Other Land Library programs followed: Conversations on the Land, Artists and Naturalists in the Classroom, and the Salida Residency Program. Most recently, the Publishing Program was launched with The Landscape of Home.

The theme of the book is captured by the William Stafford quotation in Jeff Lee’s introduction: “The greatest ownership of all is to look around and understand.” What a marvelous insight!

A book is, among other things, a child of its limitations. One should read and enjoy The Landscape of Home for what it is: a small (193 pages) commemorative collection of very good writing selected from books presented at bookstore readings and discussions over a five-year period. It is not intended to be a complete cross section of its genre. The limitations of the book are artifacts of the book business. What and who are included in the Land Series depend on the books being published, which authors are on book promotion tours, and the supply of authors living close enough to Denver to make the trip.

The book includes but a fraction of the knowing and understanding each of the writers possesses about “home” in the American West. And all their knowing is but a small fraction of the West’s full body of knowledge. The Landscape of Home sets before the reader a “sampler appetizer tray” as it were, each piece different but excellent. It whets the appetite for more. To give a sense of the writing in the book, what better way than the “sampler” method?

I’ve just seen 2,000 pounds of buffalo do a standing high jump of six feet. (Dale Lott, from American Bison: A Natural History)

I decided to follow a single ghostly voice in Colorado, to walk in Harriet’s footsteps, to see what she saw ninety years ago, to contemplate what she remembered and what has changed. (Ann Ronald on Harriet Fish Backus, the “Tomboy Bride,” from GhostWest: Reflections Past and Present)

An observation can provide information, foster knowledge, or evoke wisdom, depending on what the observer brings to the encounter. So it is that the grasshoppers have taught me, among other things, the nature and value of nothing. (Jeffrey Lockwood, from Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving)

“My Mom was great. When I was about 11 years old, I wanted a horse. But instead of just giving me one she gave me a broodmare, told me to find a stud horse and breed her, so that’s what I did. She knew I’d have to care for that mare during her pregnancy, then raise the colt. Only after all that, once I had a relationship with it, would I be able to ride. …” (Gary Ferguson quoting ranger Cavan Fitzsimmons, from Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone)

Our house burned down in 1976. … Long about then, the government said the mines had to have so many lady miners per male miners. The boss at the Bear already knew me from loading up coal, so he hired me. I became the first woman coal miner at the Bear. (Caroline Arlen relating the oral history of Mabel Lyke, from Colorado Mining Stories: Hazards, Heroics, and Humor)

The sun dance songs have a hymn-like harmony. Many of them begin very softly, build caressingly, to finally kick in, the eagle whistles joining. I fall asleep to them rising and falling. (Merrilll Gilfillan, from Rivers and Birds)

These samples are seemingly unrelated, but like strands in the web of life, they are drawn from interconnected parts of the western landscape and heritage.

There is a practical need to understand the land on which we live and to understand our relationship to it. There is also the almost ineffable need to understand what we are truly part of. These two things are what the Land Library is all about. Because they are viable, the dream for the library is also viable. Jeff feels they have done a good job of moving forward with very little money. That so many people have given their encouragement and active support to it underscores its vitality and authenticity.

Partnerships have helped. The Land Library, including the book projects, has so far relied largely on volunteer effort and nonmonetary donations. The donated work of the editors of The Landscape of Home, and of the authors and publishers, made it possible for all royalties to benefit the Land Library and its goals. When the Tattered Cover moved from Cherry Creek North to its new location on Colfax Avenue, the store donated enough bookcases to shelve the library’s books and a substantial quantity of its future acquisitions. As funding is developed, Jeff expects to put more financial support into programs that need it.

The Rocky Mountain Land Library is still seeking a suitable location. The idea continues to evolve, but the vision is this: a place where people can come and use the books, but that also ties people directly to the land in its physical setting, in an area of diverse ecosystems. It will be a residential library, a place to work, to study, and to gather in learning. Lodging and meals will support the library users. One component will involve writers and other library users in local community programs.

The Rocky Mountain Land Library derives its name from its location in the Rocky Mountains, not from any intent to focus only on this region. The American West is one major theme, but the library will go well beyond that. One of the dreams is that it will become a magnet for people from around the world who have an interest in the land and people’s relationship to it. Big dreams, to be sure, but the idea born in Jeff Lee and Ann Martin’s visit to St. Deiniol’s in Wales moves steadily forward. As Alexander Smith wrote in Dreamthorp, “A man does not plant a tree for himself; he plants it for posterity.”

The Rocky Mountain Land Library is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to encourage a greater awareness of the land. For information contact Jeff Lee at (303) 436-9219, extension 2729 or jeff@landlibrary.org, or visit the website at www.landlibrary.org.

WRITER: Tom Wylie is a writer and former National Park Service ranger and biologist. He lives in Centennial, CO.

From The Bloomsbury Review March/April 2007

Note: For an update as of 3/09/2012 read “Rocky Mountain Land Library: Nature Lovers’ Collection Of 30,000 Books Boxed Up, Readied For Permanent Home” at The Huffington Post.

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To Be Read Aloud

To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays
To Do
A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays

GERTRUDE STEIN
Illustrated by GISELLE PORTER
Introduction by TIMOTHY YOUNG
Yale University, $25.00 cloth, ISBN 978-0-300-17097-9

And now G comes after F. What did you say I said G comes after F.
++++Anyway it does.
++++G is George Jelly Gus and Gertrude.
++++Nobody is so rude
++++Not to remember Gertrude.

is for Gertrude. Gertrude Stein Gertrude that is. And Gertrude was born in 1874 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, but she lived most of her life in Paris. Lucky Gertrude. Gertrude wrote in a way that was her own and Gertrude’s style is catching. Catching because it catches you and catching because it sticks with you and catching because you can get caught in her style and it becomes very hard to stop as you can see.

Literature has never known quite what to do with Gertrude. She was an innovator and a genius and a tremendous influence on writers as diverse as Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson—all who made pilgrimage to Gertrude’s famous salon in Paris. It was the place to be. She was also a woman and a lesbian, two other characteristics people of her day did not quite know what to do with although she was a writer with her own style and innovative and a genius and had a salon in Paris where all the writers of her day went to be.

To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays was the second of Stein’s children’s books; the first, The World Is Round, was popular and was illustrated by Clement Hurd and Clement Hurd is famous for his illustrations for Goodnight Moon. To Do has a difficult publishing history however described in the introduction by Timothy Young. It never saw the light of day as an illustrated children’s book while Gertrude was alive but Yale has seen fit to deliver it to us as an illustrated book as Gertrude might have wished with illustrations by Giselle Potter whose quirky work has often been seen in the pages of The New Yorker.

Alphabets and names make games and everybody has a name and all the same they have in a way to have a birthday.
++++The thing to do is to think of names.
++++Names will do.
++++Mildew.
++++And you have to think of alphabets too, without an alphabet well without names where are you, and birthdays are very favorable too, otherwise who are you.

To Do is not the book to learn proper use of commas or question marks. Gertrude’s friends were not only writers but painters. She was friends with Picasso and Matisse and Braque, and her salon came about because “Matisse brought people, everybody brought somebody, and they came at any time and it began to be a nuisance, and it was in this way that Saturday evenings began.” And the cubist way of taking something apart and reassembling its pieces to present different views at the same time is Gertrude’s way with words. The words make sense, but are put together in sentences or something resembling sentences, where words are rearranged and stacked differently together to give you a way of seeing the sense.

Kids love it. I was outside talking with Marcus and Sonia, young next-door neighbors, and I told them I had to go do my homework. They said, “Homework?!” and I said, “Yes, I’m writing a book review of a great book called To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays would you like to hear some? They both said yes and I brought it to them and looked for the letters that began their names and read each story aloud to them (the best way to use this book) and they were delighted. The sounds made sense. Children hear better than adults.

In the press release for The World Is Round, Stein provided a statement for her readers: “Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.”

And that’s the way of it, I’m afraid. Buy it and read it or don’t. But like my neighbors, if you don’t, you would still be delighted to hear it, so maybe you could buy it for your birthday or the birthday of your young neighbors or children and enjoy alphabet soup. It’s delicious and will give you much to do.

The End means an end of course not the end of everything because everything else goes on and on and will never stop ever until it does but an end to a story is the end of the story full stop which means the end to this story has come to an end period full stop.

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A Thumb and a Wisp of Steam

An Interview With Alberto Ríos
By Leslie A. Wootten

My interview with Alberto Ríos occurred on July 7, 2010, at the Chandler, Arizona, home he shares with his family. He was feeling particularly relaxed after having finished his 28th year of teaching creative writing and literature at Arizona State University, where he is a Regents’ Professor and holds a Katharine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English. With the summer break and a fall sabbatical ahead of him, he was looking forward to completing a new book of poems and a novel.

Before launching into the interview, he and I chatted comfortably over cups of coffee at a large kitchen table surrounded by morning light. Given Ríos’ easy manner, the interview that followed felt like an extension of our chat. Except for the persistent buzz of an outdoor gardener’s Weed Eater, the rhythm of our murmuring voices was accompanied only by occasional riffs of laughter as we moved through the day.

Our session focused primarily on The Dangerous Shirt, which is Ríos’ 10th and most recent book of published poetry. His other award-winning publications include three short-story collections and a memoir. Having entered his sixth decade, Ríos is writing poems that contemplate aging with a particularly magnified lens. The stories are getting closer to home, no longer those handed down through generations and experienced in the mind. Instead, physical changes are settling in, making themselves heard and felt in the body. Through Rios’ deft writing, challenges that come with such changes become opportunities to alter perception and discover new ways of experiencing life. The 48 poems in The Dangerous Shirt light the way.

The Bloomsbury Review: Since we’re both music lovers, let’s begin our discussion there. Your poem titled “The Boleros” revolves around a particularly passionate style of music. Talk a bit about this poem and how music figures into the structure of this collection.

Alberto Ríos: I would say all of the poems in this book revolve around some kind of music, songs we are listening for underneath the white noise of the everyday. In the poem called “The Boleros,” songs come forward like a volcano. They come from beneath the surface, and they become the poem itself, taking over. The music is more subtle in poems that precede and follow this one, but the songs are there throughout, bearing great heartache and heart joy.

TBR: To set the mood, what music do you suggest people listen to as they read this book?

AR: Boleros, of course! Especially those from the turn of the century through the 1950s, characterized by such songs as “Bésame Mucho” (Kiss Me Much) and “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps). The boleros move directly into emotion, the kind of emotion that drives people.

TBR: There’s a line in the boleros poem that says, “Full of feeling, forced into you.” Why the word “force”?

AR: The word is sexually charged, but, then, Latin American music is more physical in its referentials, so I was picking up on that physicality and saying we’re all going to be recipients of this big song. The song is going to enter us; it will be an exchange, but also a way for us to move together.

TBR: If we are receptive.

AR: Yes, we need to be receptive, and it doesn’t matter what gender we are, the song enters us; we take it in. There’s a wonderful bolero, “Sabor a mí” (Taste of Me) that says, you can go away, you can leave me, but you will never be able to forget the taste of me. That’s persuasive, a compelling sentiment, and really very human. We get it, but [in this country] we wouldn’t typically hear the sentiment expressed in that physical way.

TBR: This is a good time to segue into the poem “The Hundred-Thousand-Thing Day.”

AR: Yes, that poem is a perfect example of listening for the song underneath the white noise. We do so much in a day, but sometimes one thing comes to the fore.

TBR: A moment.

AR: A moment, a glance, whatever it is. The amazing thing is we recognize it in the midst of everything else, no matter how small.

TBR: The poem ends with, “Her eyes, yes, that single word.” Is there more?

AR: This is the end of the poem but not necessarily the end of the action or narrative. The poem set out to say this can happen. What the recipient does with what comes to the fore, who knows? It is a gift and it is singular. The poem itself is a verb. We don’t know what the object of the sentence is going to be.

TBR: The boleros are forceful, and the glance is forceful as well, isn’t it?

AR: Yes, but not in the sense of muscular force, the way one gets shoved to the side. Maybe a better word is powerful, though we don’t know how to register that word anymore because it is overused. There is power in the moment. That is to say, the moment is electric. We are connected to the moment in a way different from how we were connected to whatever came before or after.

TBR: Akin to the pinprick that surprises?

AR: Yes, like a pinprick or bee sting, it is moment incarnate, singular and of itself. How many times does someone look at us in a day? Still, it’s that one look that may rescue something in us if we recognize it. Sometimes recognition is everything. I said the poem is a verb. Maybe this is an intransitive sentence with no object at all. The verb, that moment of yes, is the gift. not to say there can’t be a whole other outcome.

TBR: The whole other outcome you mention leads me to one of my favorite poems in the book, “The Injured Thumb.”

AR: [Laughing]

TBR: The smashed thumb says the heck with you, body-of-mine. You’re not giving me the attention or comfort I need, so I’m going to run away with a wisp of steam from the cup of coffee.

AR: A thumb and a wisp of steam. Such an action, a thumb and a wisp of steam getting together, is a function of the world, particularly the language and culture in which I grew up. This idea of things getting together might sound fanciful to a reader who speaks only English, but if you speak another language, a romance language in particular, you know that words are gendered. La luna (the moon) is feminine and el ojo (the eye) is masculine, so that the two together become something fertile. The world of this language is active rather than passive, and it is true with or without you, sometimes in spite of you.

TBR: As in sexual?

AR: One could call the combination sexual or vibrant, but certainly it is interactive. In English, words aren’t gendered, so there is no possibility of the fertility so prevalent in Spanish and other romance languages. English words are static, complacent, the opposite of generative. A gendered language such as Spanish suggests the world is not only capable of interaction but is actively engaged. The feminine (la) and masculine (el) are going to carry on a relationship by virtue of that gendered moment regardless.

TBR: The thumb and wisp of steam seem like a good match—unexpected but right.

AR: When we say people are drawn to each other, we think only in terms of humans, but these two entities are simply drawn to each other no matter what. As in all great love stories, they will worry about their problems later [laughing].

TBR: Some of the surrealists had entities engaged in unexpected activities.

AR: Yes, to an extent, though they often had an entity engaging in something by itself. In writing even earlier than the surrealists, in Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose,” for example, we see the nose come off and have adventures on its own. In my poem “The Injured Thumb,” the thumb isn’t alone; it is in the company of an other.

TBR: This discussion brings to mind Octavio Paz’s story, “My Life with the Wave.” We know the narrator falls in love with a wave and we know the two move in together. We also know the relationship soon falls apart. We don’t know who the narrator is—maybe human, maybe not—but most probably an entity very different from the wave.

AR: Such a combination unnerves us, of course. This country is predicated on the belief that we preserve and protect the individual, yet we have an image of what an individual is, and anything different from what we expect tends to scare us. A man falling in love with a wave and a thumb engaging with a wisp of steam are not what we expect. Our reaction is to disallow such commingling, refusing to give the interaction credence. We don’t give science a chance to explain, either.

TBR: A surreal image that comes to mind is Meret Oppenheim’s furred teacup. Any connection?

AR: Oh, absolutely. That combination is unexpected, offering up an active rather than a static agenda. While the furred cup is still a cup, we must suddenly imagine new uses for it because one cannot drink tea from a cup lined with fur. Certainly we must think of the cup differently than we did. A favorite surrealist image of mine is The Gift by Man Ray. He glued tacks to the bottom of an iron. An iron is so much an iron that the verb associated with it is also its name. An iron is to iron. You use an iron to iron your shirt, for example. Tacks applied to an iron’s surface alter its function dramatically. The critical verb no longer applies. Again, as with the teacup, we are pushed from complacency and must now think of an iron differently than we did, imagining new uses for it. In essence, this is what discovery is all about.

TBR: Discovery is prevalent in this collection of poems, especially in the small moments that come to the fore in the hustle and bustle of busy days.

AR: All of the activity that pushes us along is exhausting. What gives us energy and electricity isn’t the “everything.” Rather it is so often the singular, particular moment that engages us unexpectedly in a way that is suddenly, profoundly new. It’s so like what I was saying about the small moments in “The Hundred-Thousand-Thing Day.” Such energizing moments encourage us to move forward in a way that we haven’t experienced before. In my poem “I Fell to the Floor, and Kept On,” the character falls and doesn’t stop. Instead of the floor being the hard and solid surface we’re used to, it is suddenly something we fall into and mesh with in a unifying way. Such a moment embodies discovery and a new way of experiencing the world.

TBR: In reading the poem, I envisioned the falling character as an aging individual who was perhaps experiencing a health crisis.

AR: That is certainly viable, but regardless of our age and physical condition, we’ve all experienced falling. The question becomes, what is possible in that fall? This is just like Man Ray’s iron. If we are looking backward, we expect to hit the ground and stop because that is what we’ve done before. A fall is to fall the same way an iron is to iron. If we are looking forward, we are open to the unexpected, the possibility of falling not only to the ground but beyond it, perhaps to the center of the earth.

TBR: Would you say our reaction to something–a fall, for example–is what matters most?

AR: Yes, because the moment itself can seem so innocuous. Somebody tripping, for example, is a very simple beginning. There isn’t necessarily any great drama in such a moment, but it can certainly be a catalyst. How we experience the moment is ripe with possibility. If we stay too tethered to how things have been, we will find it difficult to see how things might be. And it is through the small moments, rather than hectic fanfare and hoopla, that we will most likely make discoveries.

TBR: In the poem “Fall Again,” which is not about tripping at all, we have a small moment that takes on another dimension when someone is walking amongst autumn leaves that hide the ground. It is as if the ground doesn’t exist under the leaves.

AR: While we presume there is ground underneath, it is not visible to the character—or us. This is what I call an epiphany of the half inch. Such an observation is not life changing, of course. As with many of these poems, the discovery revolves around a small bit of understanding. The question remains as to what the character—or we—will do with the discovery. It is the beginning of possibility rather than an end result.

TBR: The Dangerous Shirt has numerous references to science. In “The Leukemia Girls,” for example, there is the statement, “Science may be our best way of understanding the world,/But it may not be our best way of living in it.” Talk a bit about science in this poem. Is it magic or bogus or something in between?

AR: Science works on the notion of generalization, but we are individuals. For example, the merit of a particular medication is based on statistics—how well it works for most people, not how well it works for any of us specifically. In this poem, I wanted to focus on the individual rather than the statistic. I wanted to seek out the personal in the general, the simple, singular moment in all of the scientific complexity. So often, science is a remedy that enters and essentially invades our body, violating us in some personal way in an effort to fix us.

TBR: Reminds me of the boleros we talked about earlier.

AR: Yes, boleros enter us, too, but in a more symbiotic way, allowing an exchange, a way to move together, a way to converse—a love song. Can you imagine science as a love song? That it can enter suggests to me that science is directional, that there must be an opposite direction and an opposite movement with an equal amount of force. Why not start in the interior, inside the individual, and move outward? My aim here, then, was to seek out an obverse of science, to open the window of possibility, discovering that small bit, that half inch of understanding. When I talk about the leukemia girls, I am not talking about the statistics of their condition. Instead, I am talking about their unique and individual lives, the simple act of living that science so often overlooks.

TBR: Science of the interior is a fascinating notion. Is there such a thing?

AR: Well, science of the outside typically tells us how science of the inside works. To accomplish this, scientists gather symptoms and make educated guesses about what is happening based on an aggregate of reported symptoms. This occurs because our inside isn’t thought to have a vocabulary or voice of its own, so we tend to treat it as we would treat a child who gives us bits and pieces of a puzzle. A conversation with our stomach, for example, is not thought to be a viable option. In this book, I am exploring the possibility of speaking directly to the stomach and having it respond. This is not a silly notion but rather one that speaks implicitly to the nature of possibility as we’ve been discussing it. Because no words have yet come from there, our first impulse is to belittle them, whereas I try to listen with some new attention.

TBR: “The Leukemia Girls” includes the line, “All that’s left is to tell this story, to point at it.” Why is it important to tell their story—or anyone’s story, for that matter?

AR: Quite simply, we are all story-hungry. In fact, we crave stories, but stories are exactly what we are not getting. Too often scientists don’t make time to put what they hear into context. Instead, they reduce everything to statistics and generalities, thus creating an odd kind of cultural illness that is contagious. It has infected us. This is an old idea that should have been resolved long ago, but it is as insidious as ever. While we all say we love the individual, we don’t make time for the individual. This is an equation that doesn’t make sense.

TBR: Maybe science should just lighten up and run off with a wisp of steam as the thumb does in your poem “The Injured Thumb.”

AR: [Laughing] That’s exactly what it needs to do. I would love to see science become less detached and more emotionally involved. An example of such involvement is prevalent in Latin American folk medicine. Curanderas/Curanderos are healers who use such medicine as curatives. An essential key to their curative power, however, is that they first listen carefully to a patient’s story so they can determine what is really going on and what is needed. The magic of folk medicine, then, is not so much an herbal poultice or whatever the remedy might be. Rather it is the attention proffered, the simple fact that a medical person takes you seriously on a profoundly personal level. There is curative power in that. Such healers would listen to the leukemia girls in a way that scientific doctors would not have time or training for.

TBR: Medical doctors in our country are not paid by insurance companies to listen; they are paid for the medical procedures they order.

AR: True, and there is certainly value in medical procedures. Clearly, one form of medicine should not replace another. We need all the help we can get when it comes to our health. Actually, I think many of our physicians are well aware that if they listen carefully to what a patient says, they may very well discover clues that help solve an underlying physical problem. But who has time?

TBR: Psychiatrists are paid to listen, though they tend to treat ailments with medications.

AR: That underscores another differing approach. In Latin America, a number of emotional ailments are thought to have major physical consequences unless treated, usually with specific folk remedies rather than mind- or mood-altering drugs. Of course, nothing happens until the healer has listened to the patient’s story. One of the emotional ailments is susto, an intense fright, which is often treated with a barrida (sweeping) ceremony in which particular herbs are swept over the body. Mal de ojo, evil eye, is a hex put on someone via the gaze of a stronger, more powerful person. Sometimes treatment is as simple as shielding the recipient from the hexing gaze, or to have the evil eye individual touch the recipient to break the hex. This approach is not unique to Latin Americans. Other cultures around the world have variations of these folk ailments and treatments. A common thread is the listening technique, which is all but absent from the typical form of medical practice in our country. In time, perhaps years from now, physicians will more readily and willingly accept what healers have understood for centuries.

TBR: Let’s talk about the poem “The Birds That Fly From This Mouth,” where the narrator has perhaps had a stroke and can no longer articulate words, even though they are floating inside his or her head.

AR: It’s true that words no longer come forth as they used to for this individual. Consequently, it is necessary to find a new way to relate to the world. This poem opens the door to the quest of conceptualizing, of seeking and hopefully finding, a next possibility.

TBR: Is there a next possibility here?

AR: I think so, but it is scary because the end of possibility is close. The poem affirms that while there is time and space for whatever is next, the challenge will be discovering what characterizes this new realm and then being able to move into it.

TBR: Given the short time span, how might this occur?

AR: It may be necessary to alter perception, even though we don’t have a ready vocabulary for doing so. We do, however, have some experience with altered time perception. Einstein said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute—and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.” Both of these experiences are familiar. We understand them because we have had them. The theme of relative time is explored in Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Secret Miracle,” where a minute is a year. A similar theme is explored in Ambrose Bierce’s story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” In each of these works, time does not hurry.

TBR: This is a good time to discuss the time-bending poem “Womb-Rider.” What’s going on here?

AR: Although I would call “Womb-Rider” mythic, it plays with the nature of possibility as so many of these poems do. We give birth to babies expecting that the gestational period of nine months is going to create this tiny, helpless being that will grow over the course of many years to adult maturity. This poem talks about the journey to adulthood as happening completely during the gestational period.

TBR: Such a phenomenon isn’t plucked entirely from the imagination, is it?

AR: No. Science actually documents variations of this type of progression. There are accelerated aging diseases such as Progeria and Werner’s Syndrome where individuals age eight to ten times faster than normal, usually dying very young of “old-age” diseases. Then there is the reverse where a person is born old and ages backwards to infancy, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The Benjamin Button character is similar to the end stage of certain dementias where victims progress to the mental and physical capacity of infants. Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum explores this realm, too. The protagonist, Oskar, is born with an adult’s capacity for thought and perception. At a very young age, Oskar decides never to “grow up,” and he retains the stature of a child.

TBR: Instead of exhibiting a youngster’s sensibilities, the protagonist in your poem charms all the women in the village with the élan of a fully matured Lothario.

AR: Well, we have language that speaks to uncanny maturity in children, such as, “He is an old soul.” The poem extends such language into actuality. Language comes from somewhere even if we have forgotten its origin. That the event might once have been actual to begin with should not surprise us. This poem speaks to what we have forgotten is possible.

TBR: Language has a similar role in your poem “Good Bones Lent and at Their Work Still.” In that poem, though, a mother’s bones are palpable in her child.

AR: Yes, language tells us a mother will always take care of her child and hold her child close. This poem actualizes such language. Here a mother’s finger bones are her child’s ribs. Her cradling hands remain a comfort even when her son is an “old man” and she is long gone. Naysayers might take a hard line and say such a thing is not possible, but language has established that it is. This poem applies the language of a mother taking care of a child literally.

TBR: You are offering some imagery we haven’t experienced before, but when it’s presented to us as it is in this poem, we say, “Oh yes, I get it!”

AR: It’s seeing something that’s really been in front of us all along. It’s finding that edge in the middle—my favorite place for the edge to be. I like the challenge of discovering something new in the midst of what is familiar. I think of this as radical in the traditional sense of the word, radical meaning back to the root, the beginning. We don’t have to go to the edge or over the edge to make discoveries if we are bumping into them constantly.

TBR: The poem “Across This Bridge of Dreams” takes us to what should be the familiar territory of sleep, the root of our existence. Dreaming, though, has an edginess in this poem, feeling like a place where anything strange or wonderful can happen.

AR: Our waking days are full of possibility, and our sleeping nights are, too. We can’t know what is going to happen when we walk out the door in the morning, and the same is true about going to sleep. When we close our eyes and dream, we might encounter a scary “river of buried tigers” or an easy “walk on the bridge, a swim.” In a way, it’s like watching the opening credits of a movie saga. We haven’t read any reviews, so we don’t have any idea what we’re about to see, but we have our ticket and we’re going to stay for the show. The only thing we know is there is no regular.

TBR: It seems that we are busy whether we are awake or asleep. It’s a wonder we’re not exhausted all the time. Is this rush to beat time a cultural phenomenon?

AR: Sure, but as in global culture. Contemporary technology hurries us along all over the world regardless of country or ethnicity. Computers are great for this fast pace, but it has become difficult to read a book, play dominoes, or sit through a baseball game because such activities take so long. We feel like we’re committing a crime against ourselves, squandering time we don’t have, always feeling like we should be doing something somewhere else. I address this confusion in my poem “I Saw You Tomorrow.”

TBR: In that poem, the business/busyness of life is explored. The last stanza sums it up: “Out the door. Goodbye, you wave/To yourself, standing there.” Another poem that explores the business of life is “Beetles and Frogs,” in which even the natural world is in a constant frenzy. That poem reflects how we take a vacation to get away from it all but can’t truly rest because birds, bugs, and all creatures buzzing around continually remind us that “everything moves and will not stop.”

AR: This is a permutation of the gendered fertile and frenzied world I was referring to earlier, where so much is going on in spite of or contiguous to us. “Beetles and Frogs” is a quieter, more subtle version of the fast-paced human frenzy in “I Saw You Tomorrow.” The natural world has always been hard at work with a bajillion things going on in any given moment. We become the beetles and frogs of the poem and of the world. Living our urban lives, we tend to think we’re distancing ourselves from the natural world, but in a weird way, we are moving toward it.

TBR: Speaking of the natural world, let’s talk about water. This collection has a number of poems that address water as well as thirst.

AR: The book embodies a Sonoran-desert sensibility, my sensibility, and, as in anything that involves the desert, water plays a very big part. I have a personal stake in all of this. My last name, Ríos, means rivers. Coincidentally, my mother’s unmarried name is Fogg, and, of course, fog is also comprised of water. I think I write about water so much because I come from it. All this water, yet here we are in the desert known for the lack of it. What has always intrigued me is that water is in the desert but so often it is invisible. Certainly we don’t have the water one sees in such places as Connecticut or Minnesota, but water is nevertheless present here. For me, this invisibility is a great metaphor. I must look harder to see what I know is there. Such seeking is a good kind of work and is exactly what writers need to be doing anyway.

TBR: The poem “The Rain That Falls Here” begins with the stanza, “The rain that falls here is lost,/Having meant surely to fall somewhere else.” Is desert rain serendipitous?

AR: This desert is not positioned in the universe to receive much rain, so whatever we do get is precious. Is our lack of rain accidental? It certainly feels like an oversight, as if someone forgot to include us in the schedule. The lack of rain produces a desert and, with it, a different kind of bounty that is valuable in its own right. So often, though, we don’t appreciate the gift we are given. Instead we unfairly compare the desert to nondesert places. In this book, I write about the physicality of water because, as human beings, we need water. In fact, we are mostly comprised of it. The water resides in us, invisible but always present. In the way we must seek water in the desert, we must seek water in ourselves. If we can’t see it, we can nevertheless imagine it is there. An ocean resides within each of us.

TBR: When rain does fall, is it a little like those moments that come to the fore in a hectic day?

AR: That’s it! And those moments, those raindrops, play on us in a way different from the way they affect other people in other places where rain is plentiful.

TBR: In your poem “The Sweet Salt Air,” there is a line, “In the desert, water is always thirsty.” We want more of the moments—the water, the raindrops.

AR: The obvious response is that we want more water simply because it makes us feel good while also keeping us healthy and strong. The complex, more interesting challenge is that in the desert we cannot rely on water to be delivered to us. Rather we must search for it where it is not visible—underground, in crevices, in our own bodies. We have to be creative in our search. I love the idea that desert water taunts us. Heat on a hot road, for example, creates a mirage of water. We think we see water shimmering in the distance, but, of course, it isn’t actually there. If water can appear to be somewhere it isn’t then the inverse is true as well: Water can be where it doesn’t appear to be. Being comprised of water, we are excellent examples of the inverse rule. Water is where we are.

TBR: Talk a bit about water as an element of change.

AR: Water in the desert is a constant surprise. It falls down wet and comes up green. It pushes through our skin on a hot day in the form of sweat. It is always changing and, therefore, changes us.

TBR: Change is central to the food poems. “Tuesday Soup” is a good example. The soup is a risky experiment because it is a mish-mash of the prior weekend’s leftovers, a mixture of uneaten cast-offs that didn’t even make it into Monday’s leftover pot.

AR: Here again is the possibility of discovery and change that this book is all about. “Tuesday Soup” involves combining the remnants of what we are familiar with to create something entirely new. Our hope is that the end result will be as delicious as the original dishes, but there’s no way of knowing until we simmer it all together and taste what we’ve concocted. Our creation will most likely be one of a kind, something we’ve never had before and will never be able to duplicate again. This is a poem about food that has not been and will not be. This is the food of risk. To eat it is to be changed.

TBR A poem that also connects to this theme of change is “Feeding the Compost Heap.”

AR: Oh yes, one of my favorites.

TBR: Out of a hodgepodge blend of disparate ingredients comes something new, something ultimately “fertile,” a word that you have used to describe the world.

AR: Yes, fertile is the right word here. Like Tuesday’s soup, the compost heap is a combination of all kinds of incongruent items. The difference is that the compost isn’t for direct human consumption like the soup is. In fact, the compost’s ingredients are all gathered in one assembly hall, and they are quite upset about it. There is talk about a meeting and a strike. This new entity starts generating electricity as well as possibility, and it is a force to be reckoned with.

TBR: The whole idea of the compost heap is that it is fertilizer for what will become our food, as in gardens, helping vegetables and plants to grow.

AR: Yes, it’s taking what we don’t like—stuff we throw away—to get what we do like. It’s a fair exchange, a mutually beneficial exchange, assuming dung beetles live up to their name.

TBR: I’m sure there is quite a bit of science involved in composting, but we don’t usually get bogged down in the science of it. We just throw things together.

AR: Yes, we let happen what will happen. With compost, we purposefully heap all kinds of ingredients together not knowing what will evolve. Our action, though, places us yet again at the precipice of discovery. We have front-row seats.

TBR: In some of this book’s poems, characters aren’t particularly keen on precipices. I’m thinking of “The Old Wait” and “Those Before Me.”

AR: “The Old Wait” brings me to tears. I find it difficult to read even now. It was emotionally hard to write. The precipice I’m describing will come as no surprise.

TBR: That poem involves a couple facing “the old wait”—presumably aging—that finds them in many waiting rooms. The poem’s narrator talks about not wanting to move toward whatever is next but knowing it is necessary, especially since “Those who leave us leave/By sitting down as we sit down.” There is danger in getting too comfortable.

AR: There is definitely a serious underpinning to the poem. We all get tired, and the poem supposes the practice of feeling tired is a precursor to something greater. Sitting down is practice for not getting up.

TBR: The serious underpinning is also evident in “Those Before Me,” where an aging couple is strong together but not so strong apart. The narrator says, “Onward, I say, in spite of this, / Loudly, onward, steadfast,/But I do not mean it/The way I have meant things.” There is a fear of being alone, of going into the unknown. The characters in these two poems and others will move forward despite their reluctance.

AR: That’s just the way the poem about sleep starts as well. Sleep itself is practice for what we all know is coming. The book’s title poem, “The Dangerous Shirt,” gently, even humorously, underscores the imperative of moving forward even in spite of everything that tries to stop us. The shirt has been ironed and put on. Now, it is time to walk out the door because the alternative is not acceptable. The shirt applies a little subversive pressure. Stretching out on the couch will wrinkle a freshly ironed shirt, and that would be such a waste given the time it took to get ready. Besides, what is outside that door might be wonderful.

TBR: The possibility of discovery awaits.

AR: Yes, and this notion ties in to the book’s final poem, “What’s Left,” where all the negatives one expects in a day do not materialize. Instead, it’s one good thing after another. It’s a day of happiness. There is no promise and no guarantee this will happen in “The Dangerous Shirt.” It is possible, though, that we could be in for a pleasant surprise. It’s possible in the way that one seeks water in the desert and finds it, or recognizes the pinprick, the bee sting, the moment of yes that comes to the fore in a busy day, rescuing us in some small, crucial, way. The thumb and the wisp of steam will have their way.

INTERVIEWER: Leslie A. Wootten lives and writes in Casa Grande, AZ. Her previous interviews with Alberto Ríos, Ron Carlson, and Melissa Pritchard have been published in TBR and elsewhere.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Tom Story, Arizona State University. ©2011

From The Bloomsbury Review; Volume 31, Issue 2 ©2011

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