Excerpted Selected Writings

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How to Look at a Desert Sunset
– excerpted from The Telling Distance

Too much has been made of desert sunsets, particularly in the captions of oversaturated magazine photos. Because desert skies tend to be clear, they can’t match the Midwest for cloud effects or smog-inflamed cities for sheer longevity. But they are inferior only to novices who look, naively, in the direction of the setting sun, for the real desert sunset occurs in that unlikely direction, the east. It is opposite the sun that the last rays, deflected through clear skies, fall on the long, minutely-eroded mountain ranges and bathe our eyes with light of decreasing wavelengths and cooling colors – vermilion to salmon to plum – transporting the eastern horizon to islands of pure yearning.

The desert rat, so in love with distance that he commonly carries binoculars to bring it up close, instinctively focuses the dreamlike mountains to heighten the effect. Here an odd reversal takes place, for what is plum to the naked eye, confined and enlarged turns drab as cement, while the heaped knobs and extravagant spires turn out to be exfoliated granite. The observer knows how this stone weathers into rounded piles, how it crumbles underfoot, how it is colonized by black lichen. Fascinating as geology, it has been mastered by experience, turned to stone.

That is the revelation of desert sunsets: that the distance is so unmoored, so delicious, that you want to be there, become that distance. And the closer you come – quickly, through binoculars, because it darkens even as you watch – the faster it burns into the ash of reality. Then you find out that where you want to be is precisely where you began, stripped to your bare eyes, watching as best you can, yearning.

Facing the Music
– title poem from the collection

Season by season the listener sits
In the fifteenth row and just to the left
Where frowns, bowings, fingerings, the conductor’s
Downbeats, nods and attenuated slurs
Slip easily into the eye, where above all
The accoustics of the refurbished downtown hall
Bring heartbeat, hearing and a bi-monthly program
Into one consonance.

When did the prodigy mature, when
Did the virtuoso lose his edge?
Nights in focus blurred from year to year.
Sadly easier to pin down
The concertmaster’s new beard, a cellist’s chair
Rigged for a back problem, a huge bassoonist
Replaced by kid with moustache, the harpist’s hair
Gone natural. Dizzyingly, the strings
Getting younger and younger. The influx
Of women, of Latins, Asians, the first blacks,
An orchestra becoming the crowd in the street.

Change certified within the civic shell!
One guest conductor all theater and sweat,
Next month, a mannikin. Far worse
The flawed appointment, perfectionist martinet
Endured a half decade. Truly grave:
The year of the strike, the season nearly canceled.
Musicians as flight attendants? Or firemen?
Music as service, or product? The listener gave,
And gave again.

Time shaped itself so differently each time:
The baroque chug, the impressionist swoon,
The yearly cold dip
Into twelve tone, the classical shrine’s overblown
Façade. And somewhere in every line-up
A deeply involving theme
Withstood its trial by ravishment to return
In such pure celebration it was time
Itself, two nights in thirty, that swam upstream,
Branched, unfolded, spawned, evolved,
Renewed itself in a universe running down.

Outsitting three conductors, five concertmasters,
An orchestra replenishing itself
Like a body changing cells, the listener,
Clutching at last a younger elbow
To reach, just to the left, the fifteenth row,
Besieges time that blurs from year to year
Until the inevitable night
No player, under the stage lights’ glare
Senses the absent hearing, heartbeat and sight
That filled a particular chair.
The baton rises for the next listener there.