Exploring Utah’s redrock desert through poetry of place.
Poetry matters because it
offers an alternative reality – it refuses the logical,
aspects of industrial culture; aslant, it invites us to feel
our way in the dark.
– Editors, Uncivilised Poetics
If you were around Salt Lake City in the 1980s when poet Mark Strand taught at the University of Utah you might remember that he was called “The God of Poetry,” not entirely as a joke. Strand was a U.S. poet laureate, a Pulitzer Prize winner and he also won a McArthur genius grant. One thing I remember, though, is he didn’t like living in Utah that much. He longed for the sea, and for a more big-city, indoorsy social life. The books he wrote while he was in Utah — The Continuous Life and Dark Harbor – describe a sense of exile. You can hear it lines such as these:
It is the sound as well as its size that I love
And miss in my inland exile among the mountains
That do not change except for the light
That colors them or the snows that make them
or the clouds that lift them, so they appear much higher
Than they are.
Strand himself thought the setting of his poems didn’t matter much, and that the words matter more than the subject of a poem In an interview published in the book Poets on Place he remarked, “Even if the poem is set in a particular place, the particular place is erased by the imaginary place that is suggested by the poem. The poem takes the place of the actual world.”
I think Strand was wrong about this. There’s no doubt that his poems are worth reading even for someone who has never set foot in Utah, but as a reader I get an extra kick out of finding familiar places in his poems. For instance, when Strand writes, the light-footed deer come down to the graveyard, / And the magpies cry, that’s a place in Salt Lake City and I’ve been there. Suddenly the poem is less of an abstraction, and the words create a kind of alchemy with my lived experience. The mental images are richer because the words pull a whole landscape out of my own memory to mix with what the poet is describing.
In fact, I enjoy this kind of reading experience so much that I’m always on the lookout for poetry that somehow expresses the Utah landscape. Most poets who live in Utah put a little of the experience of place into their writing. However, there are some books of poetry where the sense of place becomes a dominant theme. Here are some of my favorites:
In contrast to Strand’s alienation, Terry Tempest Williams’ encounter with the Utah landscape in Desert Quartet is intimate and erotic. Williams is not really a poet, though these four essays on Earth, Water, Fire, and Air read like prose poems. Williams experiences the land as a lover, and on a hike in Canyonlands National Park she finds that the landscape has developed a pulse, the rock seems more accessible and yielding than the human species, and, The arousal of my breath rises in me like music, like love, as the possessive muscles between my legs tighten and release. I’ll have what she’s having. The book is illustrated with erotic drawings by Mary Frank. If you give it to someone as a gift, make sure it’s the right person.
Alex Caldiero a.k.a. “The Sonosopher” is an eccentric genius who has lived in Utah since 1980. He is currently an Artist in Residence at Utah Valley University. A few years ago someone had the brilliant idea of inviting him on a river trip down the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon. Caldiero kept a poetic journal which has been published by saltfront (a locally published environmental humanities literary journal) as “Who is the Dancer, What is the Dance.” As the days pass, the river becomes a god-like presence in a world defined by sound:
The rocks paint
The river paints
The sky paints
and every thing responds
The sounds of the desert likewise inspired Nancy Takacs, another local poet who won the 15 Bytes Book Award for poetry in 2016 for her poetry collection Blue Patina. In Red Voice, the nymph Echo gives a human voice to the landscape. In the first poem we meet “Echo the River Guide,” traveling through the same territory as Alex Caldiero.
They were the orders I brayed when the raft
headed for Skull Hole,
my crew paddling in unison to ride its lip
In amethyst shadow.
Skull Hole is a terrifying rapid in Westwater Canyon. The captain of the paddle raft is screaming orders, and the rock cliffs pick up the tones of panic in the voice of the echo. Again, it changes the poem to know exactly how frightening yet exhilarating that place is.
Navajo poet Sherwin Bitsui was a keynote speaker at the 2016 Utah Humanities Book Festival conference on “Poetry, Ecology, & Place in a Technological World” where he presented a session on “The Song Within: Poetry as Landscape.” His poems about the landscape of “the rez” confront the clash of ancient and modern. Bitsui’s poems juxtapose images in complicated ways, and in a few lines he can evoke a whole history of place:
Pioneers wanted in,
and the ends of our feet yellowed to uranium at the edge of fear.
Perhaps the redrock deserts of the Colorado Plateau are the most obviously poetic part of the state, but I’ve always had a special fondness for the Great Basin. Liane Ellison Norman is a poet who grew up at the Great Basin Experimental Range near Ephraim where her father Lincoln Ellison was an ecologist. In Breathing the West: Great Basin Poems, Norman finds poetry in local history and in her father’s scientific passions, and a deep-time geologic history:
On the Wasatch Plateau, above timber, the fish that once
Swam in Lake Bonneville still brush against my face
Landscapes hold memories of many kinds. Rebecca Lindenberg’s Logan Notebooks which won the 2015 Utah Book Award for poetry is inspired by The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon,a diary of poetic observations describing life at the imperial court of Japan 1,000 years ago; Lindenberg’s poems document contemporary life in Logan, Utah, and it’s amusing to find entirely recognizable things in the poems:
Today, according to the radio, the air quality in Logan will be the worst in the nation.
Brian Komei Dempster experiences Utah’s Great Basin as a landscape of exile during a journey of self-discovery to the Japanese internment camp near Delta, Utah. His poems examine questions of identity as he imagines the experience of his ancestors. His poetry collection, Topaz, won the 2014 15-Bytes Book Award for poetry.
The tank needling below half-full, I smoke Camels to soothe
my worry. Is this where it happened? What’s left out there of Topaz
in the simmering heat?
If I had to pick one single book to exemplify place-based poetry of Utah it would be David Lee’s wonderful So Quietly the Earth. Lee was Utah’s poet laureate from 1997 to 2003. The Entrada Institute gave him the Ward Roylance Award in 2005 for “increasing appreciation and understanding of the Colorado Plateau.” Compared to Lee’s previous poetry, this one is more spiritual and more overtly environmentalist, the landscape and the poems that arises from it inseparable. Lee’s words can be just breathtaking:
In the rust-colored edge of my life
I come here to find myself.
That’s the redrock desert in a nutshell. Give some of these books a try. The poetry of place is a guide to secrets hiding in places you thought you already knew.
Amy Brunvand is a University of Utah librarian and a published poet.
Books mentioned in this article
Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book (written in Japan sometime around the year 1000)
Mark Strand, The Continuous Life (Knopf, 1990), Dark Harbor:a Poem (Knopf, 1994)
Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape (Pantheon Books, 1995)
Sherwin Bitsui, Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press, 2003)
David Lee, So Quietly the Earth (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)
W.T. Pfefferle. Poets on Place: Tales & Interviews from the Road (Utah State University Press 2005).
Liane Ellison Norman, Breathing the West: Great Basin Poems (Bottom Dog Press, 2012)
Brian Komei Dempster, Topaz (Four Way Books, 2013)
Rebecca Lindenberg, Logan Notebooks (Colorado State University, 2014)
Alex Caldiero, Who is the Dancer? What is the Dance? (saltfront, 2016)
Nancy Takacs, Red Voice (Finishing Line Press, 2016), Blue Patina (Blue Begonia Press, 2015)
Uncivilised Poetics (Dark Mountain #10, 2016)