Friday, January 22, 2010

Joshua Tree poem

Of my previous visits to Joshua Tree National Park, it is clear that I have one singular story that will forever dominate in my memory.

It is of the Thanksgiving Day I spent there with my ex-husband, as our marriage was ending but about a month before I really knew it, lost for four hours. We went there to camp, but of course, arriving on the morning of Thanksgiving Day, all the spots were taken. I'd wanted to come down on Tuesday night to try to get a space, but there had been arguments. In fact, he wanted to go to Death Valley, but I was so tired from commuting I just didn't want to spend six hours in the car each way for a long weekend trip. He would only go at all because I'd said he could go to Death Valley on his own the following weekend. It was odd that he seemed to think he needed my permission for this, or that it was a negotiation.

We decided on a longish hike we found in a book of hikes that was decidedly unhelpful. The book was about 5" x 8", so the maps, such as they were, were small and lacked detail. It had a rough line drawing of the elevations and the terrain, and directions that read something like this: "follow the trail among the rocks about 700 yards, then veer left beside the wash. After about half a mile, the trail turns right between two rocks and climbs for about another quarter mile." Well, if you've ever hiked in the desert, you'll know that it is nothing but rocks and washes and what look like trails but might turn out to be ancient goat tracks. Also, it's impossible, ever, to figure out how far you've walked. George was moving fast, distracted, wanting to climb up things and see the views, always ahead of me and my book. I struggled to make sense of the directions, but probably quite soon we were lost. Not admitting it and back-tracking, however, we got deeper and deeper into the park. At some point we probably left the park boundary. Up and down massive rock and scrub landscapes we went.

We'd chosen this hike thinking it would take more or less exactly until dusk. Suddenly it was dark (late November), though the air was really pleasant and the overcast sky kept the temperature from getting too cold. I was suprirsingly comfortable. And once we got to a point where I could actually see a little ribbon of road with its beads of headlights in the distance, I was surprisingly peaceful, too. Now it was just a matter of walking until we hit the road. And when we did, we got to a Medical Center, and called from there for a taxi back to the park and our car-- a $15 cab ride if I remember correctly.

George and I hardly talked the whole time, but I just can't explain how peaceful I felt. I hadn't felt that calm for months. I still think of it as a really good memory. Even later, when he said he was wishing he was with his girlfriend instead of me the whole time, that didn't diminish my feelings about that day. I just felt really safe and confident and good. Sure, my feet hurt and there was one panicky time when we were really, really lost, down in a canyon with no clear ascent out, but overall, it was so, I don't know, more manageable than I would have expected. So not scary. We had water and food in our backpacks, and if we needed to we could have just lay down and gone to sleep.

I wanted to write a poem about Joshua Tree for a long time. I thought I would try to write a sestina. I think "outdoor" stuff like this makes for good sestinas, because in a sestina the last word of each line repeats so you have to keep reusing the same six words. And in the desert, as I mentioned in my last post, there are about six things. There's something elemental about it. I also like sestinas because, since they have long lines and are such long poems, they tend to have a narrative push to them, a narrative appeal. They have to go somewhere and keep moving through the structure. In this way they are the opposite of villanelle's, which keep circling back to the same spot.  For those of you new to sestinas, notice the end words (in some form-- the variations are most of the fun for me) are the same in each stanza: desert, empty, lost, carry, water and trail.

It was two years later that I wrote this sestina about the desert, and it took a turn to this story, as did my talks with Steve in Joshua Tree last week. It's still one of my favorite poems, though I never did find a magazine to publish it. I sent it to the "sestina editor" at McSweeney's who wrote back a really nice e-mail saying he LOVED it, but that the editors thought it wasn't witty enough. Witty, it is not.

Desert Sestina

I feel at home in Joshua Tree’s desert.
There’s peace in the vast emptiness,
the illusion that you could never get lost
because you can see so far, and sounds carry
over desert like they carry over water,
alerting others to your presence on or off the trail.

Have you ever noticed how two women on a trail
will talk and talk, never running empty,
but couples are more quiet? In the desert
they stop briefly to share a bottle of water
as if time together allows them to be at a loss
for words, or many ways to show they care.

I pay attention to these things now; I care
what brought these people to the desert,
and wonder if it makes them feel full or empty,
the barren rock beneath a sky the color of water.
I know it’s hard for anyone to stay on the trail
and in the world, as in the desert, easy to get lost.

Two years ago my husband and I got lost
following a wash we mistook for the trail.
Four hours we walked in the dark in the desert,
each ridge we climbed showing us more emptiness.
My husband was worried. He tried to take care
of me. I told him it was warm and we had water.

Finally we saw the lights of the highway, like water,
an oasis of cars, and we walked toward it, far from any trail.
I felt oddly peaceful in sight of town. I didn’t care
how far we had to walk through the emptiness.
I didn’t know that my husband was already lost.
Finally, we reached a medical center, nearly deserted.

It would be less than three months before he would desert
me and our good marriage, leave me like a fish out of water,
flopping. I was left to find my way, build a new trail
out of my grief over so large a loss.
Watching him go down so fast, that he didn’t care
enough to try, left a deep, vast emptiness.

I revisit that loss, working it out in the desert.
I stay on the trail and carry plenty of water.
I know in the big emptiness there’s also clarity, bedrock.


WolfsGotYourTongue said...

I really like this.

Michelle said...

My son's name is Joshua. I had heard of a Joshua tree but never seen one. I showed my son. Now we both have seen one- thank you! :0)

Susan Sink said...

Thanks, Giana.

Michelle, you should be sure to go there and see them in person someday!

Connie said...

I love the poem, Susan! Thanks for the photos, too. In the year before we left Fullerton, Bob and I found ourselves spending more and more time out there in Josh and environs. My sister moved back to the desert last year and now lives way out on the mesa in Yucca Valley; our family just seems to keep going back and going back. I dream about it at least once a week, and in the dreams I'm still a child.