Distance

Sometimes, there’s a place where the grass and the sage, pine and cottonwood, rocks and scrub and a cactus or two — maybe piñon and mesquite and yucca and so forth — they all get together and make up this kind of mildly intoxicating existence.

Little breezes ruffle and shift the scents around, or the wind really kicks up and does its best to rearrange your day. 

Mostly these areas aren’t burdened with an overabundance of trees or houses.
You can see the horizon. You can breathe in deep and feel your mind flatten out.
Memory and time stop fighting each other. Your worst enemy might be a fence or two. 

I don’t generally have anything against concentrations of trees or houses — or people, for that matter — but I need to be out in the wide angle, out in the open kind of wild. 

You can see the storms coming. Hear the wind searching. Feel the thunder roll.
See the lightning crack. You can see the sun breaking in yellow through the mist or dying red in the clouds, and you can look at it all coming and get ready.

You can give yourself to it. It’s like getting ready for church or mass. Like a wedding or a funeral. 

Things in the land and things in us consummate and die all the time.
Out there you can see it, know it for what it is.

You can see it all coming, and see it all going.

Coyote

You know how headlights,
when you’re near a desert highway,
pan across material like a searchlight,
casting incoherent shadows
past whatever they happen to catch –

sage, cactus green and praying to the rain,
hitchhiker’s drugstore cowpuncher boots,
corrugated lean-to slumped up against the wire?

Well that isn’t happening just yet.

Coyote isn’t on the wander right now.

The sun is still walking, heading west,
knowing exactly where to go.

Daylight melts over dust and hardpan,
yellow, umber, ochre, neon hot pink.

Memory melts like daylight.

Those clouds, see. That’s what I mean.
Cirro… cumulo… cirronimbulus?

It rises, dark and thick in the gloaming.
It drinks the melted daylight.

A rush of cool air. Scattering of sand.
Silent stab of arced lightning.
One million volts in a terawatt cycle.

Thunderstorms drink memory like daylight.
They amplify.
They make ready for the night.

You should come tell me what you think.

Silence. Rumbling over the distance of the earth.

Silence.

Cumulonimbus. That’s it.

You’d have gotten that quicker.

Silence.

Scent of the dry before the wet.

Burning gold at the end of the sunwalk
underneath the dark tower.

There. Coyote’s on the wander. Hungry.

The semi-truck moves past
and headlights cast no shadows beyond a ghost.

Thirst.

Thunder.

Hunger.

Arclight.

Silence.

The Scent of Forgotten Things

Note: a version of this article previously appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Mélange Magazine.

The storm-dampened scents of Dauphine Street gave way to something old and familiar as I opened the front door of the used bookstore.

Here in the heart of New Orleans, as in all places I visit, I’d inevitably found myself seeking out such places. Without a particular itinerary, and driven by multiple cups of chicory coffee, I found myself somewhat regrettably using Google Maps to suss out the oldest and most promising of these shops. 

The smell embraced me immediately as I entered. If you’ve ever been around old books for any length of time, you know what I speak of. It’s somewhere between the dust and age of old houses and a bottle of vanilla in a woodshed. In these places, worthy treasures are never guaranteed; the calming scent of nostalgia certainly is. 

Nostalgia, in this case, being the simple chemical reactions that physically occur in books as they age. As time passes, the wood pulp in a book’s pages breaks down into various organic compounds. Lignin, which makes up a generous portion of the pulp, produces acids, which in turn dismantle the pages’ cellulose. This process produces vanillin, benzenes, and hexanols, contributing vanilla-, almond-, and floral- and organic-like smells to the book itself.

This is partially what makes up what some lovingly refer to as biblichor, or “the smell of old books”. By comparison, the recently rained-on street mentioned earlier was imbued with petrichor, or “the smell after rain”. Ichor, the Greeks said, is the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods.

Given that it’s generally the hardcover books made between the 1830s and 1980s that used the pulping and adhesive processes necessary to produce what we consider biblichor, you’ll find less and less of it in volumes printed after the late 50s (when the paperback craze started to take off). Only in recent history have we begun to use materials and processes that deny the production of the scent of nostalgia.

Scent, as we know, is the most powerful accessor of memory- but also of imagined memory, of that nostalgia. You can feel it, in these old shops and old locales. Your mind, after skipping through your own memories, feels as though it’s touching the edges of others- of memories not your own.

There’s something nearly indefinable about old bookshops, something that draws many of us in, I imagine, without a specific purpose in mind. It goes beyond mere charm. This must be one of the reasons we seek them out, for what in the modern age affords us the rare luxury of true purposelessness? 

That lovely lack of purpose, I suppose, lands right alongside the lure of the historical- history that can, in these places, end up being far more personal than a tour or museum. When we’re led by a guide (or by ourselves) to tours or museums, it’s with the purpose of encountering something enshrined- something important

When we find ourselves wandering into a used bookstore, antique store, or the like, it’s not only the apposite lack of purpose that entices us, but the other side of the historical coin- things forgotten or discarded. Things left behind. The unimportant. While monuments widen our gaze within past ages, the trinkets and relics of the individuals from those ages do far more to transport us, and in turn, to ground us.

Among the wayward, proliferate stacks of the old books I navigated around in Dauphine Street, I uncovered a 1961 printing of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s Sand and Foam, nestled in with several of his other works. One of Gibran’s trademark small, unassuming tributes to the meaning of language, art, time, and love, I found inside the cover that this particular volume had been gifted from one college student to another:

December 1962
Merry Christmas Brenda,
Gibran says that the obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply.
I hope these two books will help you see the obvious more clearly, as they have me.
Best Wishes as Always,
Gaye

On the following page, Brenda has marked herself as the owner of the book, along with an identifier of her residence at the time: Dorman Hall.

A bit of research shows that “Dorman Hall” was a dormitory at FSU in Tallahassee, built in 1959 after the Florida State College for Women converted to a coed institution in 1947. Researching the modern layout of FSU reveals that the original Dorman Hall was demolished in 2015; but a newer version has been built in its place.

I wonder if Brenda’s still around- happy, retired, perhaps writing a book of her own in her mid-70s. I wonder if she and Gaye remained friends. I wonder if she remembers this book, and whatever meaning it held for her.

Old bookstores make you wonder a lot of things, the least of which involve yourself and your place in the world.

Of course, with time being the great equalizer, this means that you’re as likely to find hidden treasures in one old shop as in any other. This would be proven to me somewhat humorously two years later, when someone pointed me to an even larger stack of old Kahlil Gibran volumes at a library sale in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

The territory of nostalgia is a mostly level playing field, no matter where you might find yourself. Whether it’s milk and coffee, old stone and fresh rain, or old wood and older books… 

…all you have to do is follow your nose. 

And leave your sense of purpose at home.

Sometimes,

when driving with old music under slated smoke
against the brushstroked horizon
fading along mountains to the west
as the sun-heat of the high desert
reflecting off the scent of sagebrush
gives way to a chill mist
collecting on burnished sandstone and granite
with small patches of veridian moss and lichen
in the wild geometry of a late afternoon
as amber light stretches out into a blanket
under which nothing can harm us

(not even the future
not even the past

[this is a good place to stop
and get out the cameras] ),

our gaze sweeps
the scattered domains of the earth,
of the coyote and the elk
and a railroad track not used in years;

soon,
we will start thinking of good food
and something cool to drink.

Shell Canyon | Wyoming | USA

Anathema

20 years into this century
and the West burns,

the land inflamed, unceasing.

It burns in the forests
and the fields,
it burns in the streets,
with fires small and great
all stretching out for the same air,
all feasting upon the same oxygen.

But empires thus
are built of bone
and of sweat,

and within the elements
of things closest to our hearts,
from the private
to the pestilent,
we wait
and we watch
with dilated eyes
the assault and decay.

To breathe! Only to breathe…

The body has a finite amount of blood.
The mind can only take so much.

They will not stop, you see.
They will never

stop.

This is the desolation.

Oh rise now the midnight daughter,
oh rise now the twilight son;
keep your blades sharp,
your torches dry,
your eyes up.

Under the roaming haze
under a descending sun;
late now, the domain of summer,
and the long dark
approaches.

There is but one bastion,
one shield,
one bulwark,
one fire in the night:

hold fast thy memory,
thy faith,
thy hope
and thy love.

You know
in your deep-heart
what is right.

All else is anathema,
all else is so much dust,
for there are no spells
with which to resurrect the dead.

In Memoriam: Patrick H Lee

artist: https://www.deviantart.com/pe-travers/art/Desolation-120816158

92%

had to wait a while,
didn’t we?

for the stars to fall in supernova
and the far trails
to be formed and tread
and for the long night
to descend upon us?

and so we did.

be then ignited with me,
you inviolate wonder;

for tears are sacred things
that flow
through the mountain-field
and through the desert
into the ocean,

only so they might be carried up,
and by desperado winds
returned to the earth
as a storm over the sage,

where grace as rain comes down
around the lightning we make
in this love like thunder.

artist: https://deviantart.com/viconbecon

Geology

Your skin is of alabaster,
and your heart, rose quartz.

Your mind is diamond.
Your hair flows down like tiger’s eye.

And residing within granitic bones
of cooled lava,
your soul is formed
of topaz and citrine;

your eyes of obsidian,
of dragon’s blood,
of labradorite.

And your mouth
speaks in rivers
and your touch
laps as waves on the shore
and your dreams
are snow gathering on the high peaks;

for you were forged in stars,
and born of fire,
and a wonder,

never simply on display;

but forever that of beauty,
wild in the earth.

Before Dawn

Gently now,
as I draw you in the core of my mind.

Softly now,
as your soul sings
in the depths of the dark.

Sweetly now,
as we drink
deep from the overflowing cup.

The ceiling fan spins light kaleidoscopic
in the late evening,
and the sheets smell like you,
and my shirt is scented
with dust and musk,
and we trace each other’s tattoos
and taste of each other’s wine
and speak our stories into the air.

So
lightly,
as my fingers brush
the back
of your neck.

Elegantly,
as your hand rests
upon the rising of my
chest.

Slowly,
as thunderclouds growl and gather
in the distance.

The hours after midnight
are only for the nameless,
the forgotten,
the secrets,
the lovers,
the ascendant.

Carefully now,
as I carve your name
into the side of my heart.

you speak the earth is silent

hours have we traveled
and toiled on sore feet,

miles have we moved
with kinked-up backs
and rough-cut hands,

years have we labored
with tired hearts and aching minds,

through the burning
suppression of the soul,
shackled and shamed;
pushing through this perdition,
passing as penitent
through this purgatory,

boots sticking hard
in the festering swamp of solitude,
or resting near the doorstop
of the holy haven of solitude;

the once bright and shining,
the sprout-seed, the storm-sailor
floats now over the sifting wastelands,
over liars, thieves, and kingdoms,
over fates, feasts, and famines;

the final card is turned
and it is Death reversed –

but

when you touch me,

the flowers of spring bloom
upon my skin,
the thunders of summer roll
across my form,
the winds of autumn whisper
in my ear,
the snows of winter pile
upon my peaks;

when you speak, the earth is silent.

and when you look at me
with eyes that have seen too much
and not enough,
eyes deep and clear against the world,
eyes always horizon-bound,
when you look at me
with your eyes –
wells of dreamwater
fed by heaven’s rivers –

i am resurrected
i am unbound
i am weightless

artist: https://deviantart.com/rhads/gallery

Theory

What makes a wild heart beat?

(no, i mean really beat)

Does it fly full-out and free
under the sun?
Does it hide and whisper
its dreamings in the dark?
Does it drift
in fitful slumber beneath the sea?

What voices, still, are carried on the horizon’s wind?

Where do they go?

And why,
why is all this insanity
very much like a coming home?

(does it even matter?)

Here,
I’ll tell you a secret:

I have no idea.

But I think it’s very close

to whatever makes a horse
dig its hooves hard into the ground,
playing with the earth
at the scent of rain,
throwing out ripened patches
of green grass
to an evening blanket-sky
burgeoned with pillars of midnight
as the final spears of sunlight
slip past the edges of thunderwaves
forged in hearts of lightning.

artist: https://www.deviantart.com/temiree/art/Rising-Thunder-606707595