Friday, May 18, 2012

Ooh Las Vegas

Much as I love the Junkies (and Gram Parsons), my version of this song would likely be called "Ew. Las Vegas."

I've written about this before. Much as I like to imagine that our spare time at our conference will be spent having Rat Pack like good times, it's just not my kind of town. Part of it is that I don't have the money to make it my kind of town. Nicolas Pileggi, who wrote Casino, wrote Las Vegas is a city of kickbacks. A desert city of greased palms. A place where a $20 bill can buy approval, a $100 bill adulation and $1,000 canonization. He left out the tip for nonprofit drones visiting for a convention, that $5 will buy you a cup of coffee and some cards advertising hookers.
Also, I have a hard time turning off the part of my brain that worries, and Vegas -- rather than releasing me from it, as it's supposed to do -- makes it worse. I worry about the prostitutes. I worry about the people slumped over the slot machines, their eyes flickering back the numbers. I worry about humanity as a whole, and American humanity in particular, and then I worry about myself for not being able to relax and enjoy the whole thing.

The best I can really do there is try to leave my body and consider it all from a cultural anthropology point of view. For a writer, Vegas is great material. What doesn't kill you is fodder.

Still, all things considered, Vegas mostly makes me want to get out of town and see the desolate, haunted country all around it. High desert ranges, sagebrush, tiny towns that seem like no one could live there. Towns like Hernandez, New Mexico, which Ansel Adams photographed in this haunting 1941 shot. I haven't been to Hernandez, but there are desert towns all over the West that still look essentially like this.

Moonrise, Hernandez

          after Ansel Adams

What is there, beneath this stone-hewn sky,
          but to cluster and keep low?

Strings of whitewashed crosses
                      maintain ramshackle piety,
a stay against the leathered palm of sagebrush,
the whims of mountains, clouds
    solid as snowbanks,
                     their pewtered canopy
over huddled shacks
stitched by need
              into a town.

The moon drags her train over soil
pocked with clapboard and sheet metal,
               a past-prime bride abandoned
at the altar. Her light
catches on sharp edges, stray nails;
                pale threads tear loose,
become thin sheets and shirts
                clinging to the lines,
flapping like wingshot birds.

                If you come upon it, turn away.
Whoever comes here must claim these things,
              must wear this shirt, its wind-licked lapels
              stitched with aces.
You must wrap herself in these sheets;
                     hold your loneliness close.
You must scuttle among crosses where the dead
                     crouch quiet in the bracken,
                            listening to the wind forget their names.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Arbor Day Ironies

It was Arbor Day last week, the last Friday of April. Near my office, developers celebrated by clear-cutting a buttload of beautiful old trees.

I wanted to stand nearby and yell, "You're doing it wrong!"

I don't know what they're putting into the space they cleared, but I sure hope it's a Panera. God knows we could use another one of those.

As a belated tree-honoring, I'm posting a poem by Mark Haddon (best known for his novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) that makes me happy, in which the trees seem to emerge victorious. This is from his book, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, which is not only home to some interesting poems, it has one of the coolest covers ever (yes, that wheely thing at the edge actually rotates, allowing you to pick which of the title's figures you see).

I like this poem for
A) The amazing line about the school of fish, which is so perfect as a description of how a cluster of leaves moves in a wind.
B) Because it's a tree poem that echoes Joyce Kilmer's most famous tree poem. Which, to be honest, I think is a poem gooey enough to make people dislike both poems and trees. So to read a tree poem that has the same echo of humility about how paltry poetry is compared with the natural world--but that's understated and funny and non-goopy--was delightful for me.
C) Because in this poem, the trees win.


They stand in parks and graveyards and gardens.
Some of them are taller than department stores,
yet they do not draw attention to themselves.

You will be fitting a heated towel rail one day
and see, through the louvre window,
a shoal of olive-green fish changing direction
in the air that swims above the little gardens.

Or you will wake at your aunt’s cottage,
your sleep broken by a coal train on the empty hill
as the oaks roar in the wind off the channel.

Your kindness to animals, your skill at the clarinet,
these are accidental things.
We lost this game a long way back.
Look at you. You’re reading poetry.
Outside the spring air is thick
with the seeds of their children.