I peek out back for new snow fallen overnight. None today. Even a dusting somehow manages to quiet the anxious crowd that tends to gather in my chest. I sit at my desk in the living room, blinds drawn, just after sunrise, and the wind sighs around the house. My partner and I have lived in this Brooklyn apartment 15 years. We came here from three and a half acres halfway up the northern edge of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico. I have returned in my poems to those mountains, and to others in that state, the Jemez range, the Sangre de Cristos, the Gila, the Manzanos, the Pecos. I’ve returned to the migrating sandhill cranes picking through reeds at the Bosque del Apache refuge; to the high-desert succulents, cholla and prickly pear and agave; to the Rio Chama cutting through O’Keefe’s red hills; to the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera, a huge volcanic depression northwest of Santa Fe on one of the most breathtaking drives in the world. I never drove into the caldera but I didn’t have to. That state is mine as muse, and more: the measure of geologic time is part of everyday visible life in New Mexico, and I found my place in its sprawling yet intimate ancestry. I spent most of my 20s stumbling into it, and a part of my 30s writing poems there.
My first serious poetic apprenticeship was to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Song for the Rainy Season.” I recited the lines as I walked with our dog, Bubba Ann, up and down the dirt road behind our house in the old village of Placitas—nothing more, really, than a rutted access track to the cold springs that fed the town’s water supply. “Hidden, oh hidden,” Bishop’s first line goes, and “hidden” became the truth of my road, and of my poetic diction. It isn’t one of Bishop’s more celebrated works, but it should be. It’s a paean to the place she learned to love in: the house “held in a private cloud,” the walls “darkened and tarnished / by the warm touch / of the warm breath, / maculate, cherished”: refuge.
Our Placitas house was up a steep incline from the one Robert Creeley and his family lived in in the 1960s. When I lived there in the ’90s I knew of Creeley but not his work. The first and only time I saw Creeley, in 1999, a couple of years into my New York life, he performed an elegy he’d written to an old friend, “Oh Max.” I say performed rather than read or recited because as he voiced his poem he incarnated his grief. I thought he might crack in half on the stage. I had never seen anything like it. I still haven’t. In it he writes of New Mexico, where he “worked the street, like they say, lived on nothing,” and nearly resurrects Max, but the wish is made of “useless / words / now / forever.” I bought some volumes of Creeley’s poems and I missed hearing them in his voice. (Luckily, recordings of him reading many of his poems are online.) A few years ago I discovered the old Creeley place was on the market. The sellers had fancied it up, painted the kiva fireplace a burnt orange and the window sashes turquoise. I wanted it as much as I’ve wanted anything I knew I couldn’t have. PennSound has posted silent home movies that Creeley’s wife at the time, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, made in the 1960s. Click here and fast forward to around 56 minutes for a look at Creeley at the Placitas house with Gary Snyder and others as they pick apricots and drink Bud out of cans in the backyard. At around 74 minutes Creeley and Allen Ginsberg feed a log into that kiva fireplace.
I’ve been working for years to write poems that might do justice to New Mexico. And I look to other poets who root their work in the West. Richard Hugo: “The small clear river jitters on / to join the giant green one lumbering / a definite west, a lake released.” My friend Laurie Kutchins, from her poem “Venus”: “on the mountains glimmer the old high snows.” Laurie knows the high old ways of the Western U.S. ranges. They provide a good measure for growing up, and growing inward, as a poet. The Sandia Mountains stand a mile above Albuquerque, and for a long time I thought they were a part of the Rockies. But they arose out of the Rio Grande rift. The Sandias are only 10 million years old, whereas the Rockies pushed up 50 to 80 million years back from a bunching of tectonic plates called the Laramide orogeny. I like my mountains young and moderate in their height; the Sandias, at just over 10,000 feet, jut into the subalpine life zone. At Sandia Crest you’ll find bristlecone pine and plenty of spruce and fir, although the wind shear can make for a rickettsial kind of beauty. The Rockies ascend into the Arctic-alpine zone, where only lichen and mosses and grasses and sedges can subsist.
As I came to understand shortly after arriving in the high desert, I require trees. Surrounded by towering or sagging old cottonwoods in the Rio Grande valley, you can see the Sandias after snow, stippled by jade-black piñon and juniper, and higher up by ponderosa pine and white fir and leafless oak and stands of aspen. Now I live near a large urban park, and it’s become my park only because I have internalized that other place. I’ve even set some of my poems here.
I haven’t had many walks in my park lately; below-zero wind chills, a blizzard or two, and polar vortices have made me and my little dog, Grace, near shut-ins. Some might imagine these as ideal writing conditions. But time out of doors confers time out of mind. I need the reminders trees and snow give me. And so the other day I dragged the TV table into the bedroom so I could watch it snow out the back window while I wrote. The bedroom was all the cold I could take, a good kind of exposure. If I could have survived it I would have taken the laptop to sit under my landlords’ Japanese maple.