The Poetry of Place

Two of the books I received for review consideration in 2018 came from poets who live and write in the Mojave Desert of southeastern California: Starshine Road by L.I. Henley, and Waking Life by Cynthia Anderson. Henley writes of growing up in the Mojave, of walking down dirt roads as a child past a house filled with sketchy humans to catch the school bus, while Anderson focuses on the desert as an ever-changing presence, balanced between reality and mythology.

These books caught me by surprise, not just because of their subject matter, but because of my own history with the Mojave Desert. My grandparents built a cabin on top of a hill in Landers, fifteen miles north of Yucca Valley. Before they retired, the cabin served as a weekend and holiday getaway for their children and grandchildren. I spent many happy days in the desert while I was growing up, exploring the area around the cabin, and going on adventures with my grandmother in her ancient El Camino. 

In June 1992, the Landers quake destroyed the cabin. I went to see the destruction in August of that year, and I haven’t been back since.

These two books evoked nostalgia for the Mojave Desert that took me completely by surprise. I remembered the brightness of the stars at night against the blackest sky I’ve ever seen, kicking up anthills and running from the huge, furious ants as fast as I could, and peering into the faces of desert tortoises. I remembered sitting at night with my grandmother and watching fake bombs from the Marine base explode over the eastern mountains. I remembered the looks on my parents’ faces when I stomped on a scorpion in my bare feet. And I remembered the heat, silence, and the smell of the creosote bushes.

In The Geography of Home, editors Christopher Buckley and Gary Young write, “Language is a country, and the heart is a country, and at their shared borders we encounter the geography of home.” Young writes in his poem, “Our Life in California,” 

            Here our faith is tested

            by the air that passes us ceaselessly

            and takes each lost breath as we stumble through the hills.

I close this post with a poem I wrote inspired by my grandmother, Isabel Tweedie Goss, which appeared in the October 2016 issue of Gravel:

With my grandmother in 1991.

Isabel

​She sleeps with scorpions,
says they tickle. At night
experimental bombs poke
holes in the darkness to the east. 
 
Her grandchildren think
her lizard shack’s a big house. 
That’s what she tells them.
She keeps a saltshaker in the garden,
 
talks loud and writes in secret. 
Isabel swims in dust,
gives up housekeeping. 
Cuts her hair, coils and frames it,
 
tied with a red ribbon. 
Stuffs it in a drawer. 
Loves the dry air
that killed her husband,
 
tells her grandchildren
to sprinkle salt
on a bird’s tail to tame it. 
Smokes two cigarettes
 
while the boy and girl
tiptoe around the house, spilling
salt everywhere. 
Bird after bird flies up;
 
she watches through the window.
An old wife has a right to her tales. 
After too much coffee
the night splashes against the door,
 
trailing phosphorescence.
Isabel studies the Mojave sky.
It’s almost big enough for her.
If her grandchildren come
 
too near, she kisses them
hard, on the mouth. They
squirm through Maxwell House
and Lucky Strikes. Isabel
 
thinks about the child
she gave away, the secret shame,
and shrugs, happy or not,
exactly where she wants to be.
 

3 thoughts on “The Poetry of Place

  1. Thanks for the powerful poem, and for evoking my own memories of visiting your grandparents’ place in the Mojave. I remember us climbing huge boulders and pretending they were whales, and a time that Thomas caught a tortoise and brought it back to the house. And the dry, stark desert beauty. The freedom to run around unattended in all that vastness.

    I’m planning to go back sometime and camp there, perhaps on a drive to visit Yuri in Tucson (and once the government shutdown is finally over! I hear they had to close Joshua Tree a few days ago due to vandalism…).

    Take care and thanks for sharing.

    Annette

    Makino Studios • art that connects • 707-362-6644 • http://www.makinostudios.com >

  2. Pingback: Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 2 – Via Negativa

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