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.