7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin)

Sabrina Dalla Valle

Kelsey St. Press


Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

The Mojave, the westernmost desert in North America, stretches across interior southern California and most of southern Nevada, a vast landscape punctuated by a few hard-scrabble towns and suburban cities. As a child living in Los Angeles I routinely went there on camping and climbing trips, but also to search out abandoned sites and dumps, hunting for colored glass that had been scratched and worn by the desert wind. Our neighbor had homesteaded a property in the desert outside Twenty-nine Palms, California, but lost track of it over the decades. I tried to find the house, but was never able to determine its exact location, the structure she built in the 1940s long gone. This pattern of building and loss is not atypical: many travel through on their way east or west, but few have stayed.

Over a century ago, the writer Mary Austin came to the region and wrote a now classic book about desert life, The Land of Little Rain. In the 1910s, the utopian community, Llano, sprang up in the Antelope Valley near where Aldous Huxley lived for a time. In more recent years, artists have settled in Joshua Tree and surrounding communities. Noah Purifoy’s outside sculpture park is there. While artists have flocked to this place, the poets have been slower to arrive. Even amongst the recent boom in ecopoetry, there has been little innovative poetry about the Mojave, really very little about any desert place. North American poetry has for too long been enraptured with the wet, peaty moss of Whitman’s “This Compost,” also the title of Jed Rasula’s eloquent book on the ecological outlook and engagement of the Black Mountain poets. There is little of the drylands in the Black Mountain oeuvre.

In 2009, the University of Nebraska Press published Tom Lynch’s Xerophilia: Ecocritical Explorations in Southwestern Literature, which makes important strides in defining an identity, a literature, that’s adapted to a dry climate, with discussion of work by Edward Abbey, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Charles Bowden, Gary Paul Nabhan, Terry Tempest Williams, Ofelia Zepeda, and Ann Zwinger, among others. This work sets up important guideposts for thinking of regional difference, but leaves out the hardscrabble Mojave and the experimental tradition in American poetry.

The arrival of Sabrina Dalla Valle’s debut volume 7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin) offers a reorientation, away from the well wooded to an arid land. This exacting book, which moves between poetry and prose, offers a meditation on existence, through language and science, as perceived by the author’s life in the desert. Dalle Valle composes this contemplation in seven prose daybooks interspersed with seven sections of poetry that invoke the night, creating an ambitious record of the author’s time in the desert with the quotidian details of life set against reflection on mythology, astronomy, and the cycle of life.

The book opens with an epigraph by Octavio Paz, translated by Dalla Valle, a small section from his 584-line poem “Sunstone,” which takes its structure from the circular Aztec calendar. These lines reveal the powerful subjectivity of the lyric subject, traveling through sounds, through languages, through the world, through bodies. I take it as opening to the world, to the vastness of the human experience and knowledge, but also a poem of embodiment in a shifting world, which, for Paz, was the arrival of modernism in Mexico.

“Preludio,” the first section of 7 Days and Nights, opens with a reference to the Nag Hammedi library, a series of Gnostic texts buried in the Egyptian desert for more than fifteen hundred years until they were uncovered by a pair of farmers in 1945. The poem moves into a meditation on dark matter and the void, before arriving at “It is in the still sense of how things/ are related. Dwelling, important too:/ enough windows to see a world beyond,/ walls with permeability, a few doors, and/still more, an architect for our building.” Dalla Valle’s prelude suggests the power of the desert to hold an ancient text, to hold stories that are not easily told or understood, and notifies us that her dwelling within the desert is about the mind finding a place to work, finding a place where the body might look out, might contemplate the vastness of our history, the vastness of the universe.

Dalla Valle largely sticks to such macrocosmic themes. In fact, her book resists speaking in any great detail about the narrative of her own life; we know little about her circumstance or background. There are hints of things and a few references to family, but the larger project of this book seeks to position the writer’s mind and words in a constellation of scientific, spiritual, and artistic touch-points in which the desert—both the desert where she lives and the desert of the mind—is the stage. Her book interrogates the very nature of the desert environment, to ponder, as she has it: “Deserts will show you/how to read the story.” Her story is not mundane or small or overly specific, but instead intellectually ambitious and classically minded. As the subtitle suggest, she’s thinking about the origin of human thought and language.

Steeped in the work of Rudolf Steiner and Jean Gebser, the author tries to make sense of consciousness on both personal and societal levels, with the desert as a conduit to other cultures, times, and languages. The seven days and nights in her book aren’t contiguous, but each day is clearly delineated by hours, starting at 7am and generally ending at 11pm, and the date is not specified. Often, each hour signifies a different kind of record, from personal narrative (“My dog pushes open the bedroom door, enters, and draws me from sleep.”) to a description of a sea monster (“The Leviathan is the oldest sea reptile. When hungry, it exhales heat from its mouth and makes the deep waters boil.”) to a bit of etymology (“In French, the homonyms vert, verre, and vers have the same root, but different meanings: “green,” glass,” and “verse.” Language has transparency.”). Her daybook suggests a collage, a cut up, but lacks the density of a poet like Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, who selected this book for publication. Although subverting linear form, Dalla Valle’s language is always legible, with concise diction and clear syntax.

While the life of the mind and the ways of language are well articulated, Dalla Valle is discreet about her own life. Only the owl can read her secrets. Her tracing of a larger “origin” is serious: the author is busy contemplating the origin of the universe, of the Gospels, and of language. This inquiry is balanced with details about current events (from the death of David Foster Wallace to the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords) and information about the Mojave, the desert where she lives, including its climate, topography, flora and fauna, and a bit about exploitative mining operations in Boron, military operations, and solar fields. She writes: “Our usual hike in the canyons, my dog and I stumble upon something new: Agemone corymbosa, the Mojave Desert poppy—six white ample petals, thin as tissue. Our breath could disintegrate them. Beckoning, solitary, we will have to hike many miles to find another.” This detail adds material subtlety and difference to the book’s prose. The animals, the stars, etymology of words shape a desert life that eschews narrative and confessional, a daybook and dream book that suggest resistance and intelligence.

The author closes the book with a hint of the story not told: “As the new year dawns, it becomes obvious,/ we have no choice but to return to the beginning.” She returns to the evocation of the ancient Coptic texts found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. She writes near the end of her remarkable debut: “Open desert will lead you to the story.”

Dalla Valle writes of the desert with poignancy and respect, but I couldn’t help to want more details, to read of her walking further out into the Mojave, to better understand the ecology and the somatic limits of the topography. She deftly frames her book with larger references to desert findings and desert activity, slowly revealing the details of her own desert. She writes at one point of a burial ground halfway between Death Valley and Mount Whitney, and it made me want to know more about the dead of this land, more about the voices that have passed from active use. What mysteries are buried in these sands? What of the languages and traditions of the people who subsisted for millennia in the Mojave? In her restraint, she leaves out the messiness of the body, but also the messiness in language.

I return to the Paz poem at the beginning of Dalla Valle’s book, filled with the body, with sex, the strain of colonialism, violence, and action. I wished for the embodiment of “I travel your body like the world…” The body here, indeed bodies in general, feel otherworldly, as though they exist in another space. Issues of class, race, and gender are largely absent. I was reminded of Adrienne Rich’s time in the Mojave, which evoked a strong response in her. 25 years ago, Rich hiked in Joshua Tree National Park, observed the spring wildflowers. She spent the rest of her time reading Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems. Rich read the book in an attempt to come to terms with Stevens’ work, among other things. She writes: “There in the high desert I finally understood: This is a key to the whole. Don’t try to extirpate, censor, or defend it.” For Rich, it was coming to terms with the “deforming power of racism… over the imagination—not only of this poet, but of the collective poetry of which he was a part, the poetry in which I, as a young woman, had been trying to take my place.” I’m interested to see how Dalla Valle’s writing expands as she seeks to find her place in the collective poetry of this century.

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Orange Roses

Lucy Ives

Ahsahta Press

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

I started reading Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses in the local library; I enjoyed the architecture of the building, the clerestory, but the screaming children did me in. As I walked out, I thought about the modernist ambitions of the library, a concrete brutalist bunker with touches of the International Style. I thought of the modernist ambitions of Lucy Ives’s book, complete with its own architecture of interwoven temporalities, prosodies, and rhythms attempting to engage and understand the space between somatic and intellectual existence, the time between planning and realizing, between counting ahead and being in time, in space, in language. This doesn’t touch on the careful architecture of Ives’s book, which in thirteen pieces, whether poem or lyric essay, creates a text both variegated and toothy.

Both the library and Ives’s book rely on the clerestory as a way of making some sort of meaning, directing the reader’s gaze, allowing us to see a space above the street and below the sky. The slice of life we see in Ives’s texts references philosophy and literature, urban living and relationships, and some sense of being young in the world. This is a book dealing very directly with seeing and images, illusions. Although the book opens with this George Oppen quotation, “Approaching the window as if to see/what really was going on,” it’s evident that when reading this book we can never approach the window itself. We are architecturally removed from seeing directly by Ives’s sly constructions.

Many pieces in Ives’s book seem like they’ll follow the confines of a conceptual frame before fizzling out, running off course. In the middle of “Orange Roses,” the long poem at the center of the book, we find: “For me conceptualism could be something like, ‘Write a 1200-page novel set in 1872, detailing the travels and observations of a French novelist in the North American countryside.'” As exemplified in this poem, Ives’s poetic concerns cycle through a series of questions related to self/artist in society, narrative and the role of characters, and the role of authorial identity. There is a frequent desire to slip away from the present. This poem, which spans 16 pages, brings together the range of a poet’s notebook by gathering quandaries, aphorisms, memories, images, quotations, and lists. Through the details we can surmise that the subject of this poem is likely a graduate student in comparative literature living in New York, going to the gym, gallery openings, and partaking in other mundane city activities. There is almost an absurdity to the routine here; the banal necessarily part of this thought stream. At its most kinetic, “Orange Roses,” embodies the energy of New York School bon vivants without the parties. This poet seems removed from the parties of today or tomorrow.

Near the end of “Orange Roses,” Ives writes: “I have never known how to write poetry,” and after reading this, I recalled Marianne Moore’s own take on “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle./ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in/ it, after all, a place for the genuine.” Moore closes her poem: “In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand/ the raw material of poetry in/ all its rawness and/ that which is on the other hand/ genuine, you are interested in poetry.” Ives’s raw material is the refreshing stuff of life, the mind and the body. The genuine is trickier territory, but I think for all her concerns with imitation and transference, this is a book about the wonder of discovering yourself as writer in language. The practice of writing, here, is genuine, complete with a sense of bewilderment. I’m not sure whether Ives would endorse Fanny Howe’s notion of bewilderment as a poetics and ethics, but I think the book wrestles with these questions.

The book’s opening text takes on this quandary; titled “The Poem” it’s comprised of eight prose stanzas. Thick with contradiction, it starts: “The fallacy of the poem is beautiful because it is already the embodiment of a reader, presaging the eventual arrival of a releasing eye”; it doesn’t matter what the poem argues, or tries to argue, for the fact of reading brings beauty to the proceedings. The engagement with the text is rendered as an aesthetic situation, but this moment is short-lived. The reader’s realizing eye in turn reveals “figures of the landscape,” half-clothed and “in their…witness thereof.” The second stanza closes with a reference to 19th-century industry: “steam tugging incessantly forward,” serving, rather beautifully, as a bridge to the third stanza, about John Keats, his benefactor Richard Woodhouse, and questions of name and character. We are told: “Thus has the name, ‘Keats,’ as ‘Character,’ been relieved of duty: Keats has no ‘Identity,’ therefore no relation to which his name might confirm.”

Take this to be a warning as you start reading Orange Roses, to be wary of any narrative claim or aesthetic claim. Ives goes further; in the third page of “The Poem” we find: “For the vision of the artist arises from illusion, in the form of an illusion, with illusion as its base: illusion is there/ Returned, demoted, to an identity with itself. Art does not/ represent the ‘Wahrhaft-Seinde,’ but rather point to that which cannot imprison truth.” Ives’s book isn’t only about the shaky role of truth in art, but also about the act of making poems too. In the close of “The Poem,” she writes of the ordering of The Sonnets, stating that it “does not have to do with ‘chronological… development,’ but instead, with ‘a pause,’ and ‘[b]alance and a sense of humor about himself,’ the fact of ‘cut[ting] up’ already serving as a metaphor (for life)/(in its own right)”. In Orange Roses, there’s a constant swing between the role of experience (and the thought it produces) and the complexity and instability of the poetic process. This uneven terrain defines much of this book (as well as life): although there is great pressure on the role of the poet to consider aesthetic and political questions, there is the pleasure and spontaneity of the process—the cutting up, the humor, the license to break from chronology and character. This tendency gives the aesthetic discussions in Orange Roses surprising lightness and flexibility, and because of that, real resonance.

We move from the philosophically-minded prose of “The Poem” to two well-defined pieces: the five 14-lines poems compromising “In Sonnets” and the 100 sentences of “Early Poem” (although I could not find the 18th sentence during my reading/counting, so perhaps its only 99). “In Sonnets” reads like the concatenation of cut up lines, while “Early Poem,” is an extended proof-like-meditation on language as a unit for measuring life, or failing to measure life. It is in the end a poem about a relationship, ending, perhaps pausing: “You are moving out of earshot now. We are not going to miss each other. You have an excellent memory. Please never forget I was the one who told you that”—the last sentence doesn’t have a period. No proper ending, but a poem, a love affair, rendered incomplete, open and less determined than we first thought.

The path of the book (and the poet) comes to the fore in the penultimate piece, “On Imitation.” It relates, at some level, the author’s journey to poetry, starting with chronicling Ives’s struggle to create language in the light of film and photography’s effectiveness—the power of the image—through the discovery of certain poets of effective imagery, namely John Ashbery. This leads her to a search for a “written language that spoke, plainly, stupidly, of things.” She writes of driving up the California coast, pondering suburban towns and the Pacific, while she “practiced writing landscape.” She writes: “Repeatedly I stopped the car and attempted to write down what I could see.” Those landscape writings are lost, if they ever existed, but the trip resulted in the book’s short, final poem, “I Don’t Know,” which ends with “What was I doing?”

What is Ives doing here? At one level it’s a gathering, as she states in the press release that arrived with the book, of ten years of work, so it therefore has a chronological aspect to it, taking us from her college days at Harvard to the near present. This is her third book, following her first poetry collection, Anamnesis&#8212defined by its conceptual constraint in which Ives states the command “to write,” which is immediately followed by the command “cross out”&#8212and last year’s novel, Nineties. Orange Roses seems to straddle a place between the poems and the prose, expressing the tension between the author’s interest in language and method and the narrative and characters of her fiction. The commands to write and cross out have left us with the space that reflects Ives’s now, or as she states in the final line of Anamnesis, “Older now.” Even older now, in Orange Roses, Ives deepens her engagement with philosophical thinking, with ethics, without losing play. The instability between forms and content provides pleasure and tension, throwing us out of the chair of knowledge or certainty.

I return to architecture, thinking now of Orange Roses as an archipelago of different parts of buildings. Some of them complete, others not. In all cases, the builder has relished in the materials. Ives’s materials are words and she has a distinct way of using them to create structures that invite us to wonder, question, and entertain a modicum of trickery. That might be a magic all its own.


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