Tuesday, September 2

North American Journeys, 13

As You Leave the Room

You speak: You say: Today's character is not
A skeleton out of its cabinet. Nor am I.

That poem about the pineapple, the one
About the mind as never satisfied,

The one about the credible hero, the one
About summer, are not what skeletons think about.

I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,
As a disbeliever in reality,

A countryman of all the bones in the world?
Now, here, the snow I had forgotten becomes

Part of a major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality

And thus an elevation, as if I left
With something I could touch, touch every way.

And yet nothing has changed except what is
Unreal, as if nothing had been changed at all.

--Wallace Stevens

Sunday, June 1

North American Journeys, 12

"The wagon mounts the hill toward her. She passed it about a mile back down the road. It was standing beside the road, the mules asleep in the traces and their heads pointed in the direction in which she walked. She saw it and she saw the two men squatting beside a barn beyond the fence. She looked at the wagon and the men once: a single glance allembracing, swift, innocent and profound. She did not stop; very likely the men beyond the fence had not seen her even look at the wagon nor at them. Neither did she look back. She went on out of sight, walking slowly, the shoes unlaced about her ankles, until she reached the top of the hill a mile beyond. Then she sat down on the ditch bank, with her feet in the shallow ditch, and removed the shoes. After a while she began to hear the wagon. She heard it for some time. Then it came into sight, mounting the hill.

"The sharp and brittle crack and clatter of its weathered and ungreased wood and metal is slow and terrific: a series of dry sluggish reports carrying for a half mile across the hot still pinewiney silence of the August afternoon. Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road. So much so is this that in the watching of it the eye loses it as sight and sense drowsily merge and blend, like the road itself, with all the peaceful and monotonous changes between darkness and day, like already measured thread being rewound onto a spool. So that at last, as though out of some trivial and unimportant region beyond even distance, the sound of it seems to come slow and terrific and without meaning, as though it were a ghost travelling a half mile ahead of its own shape. 'That far within my hearing before my seeing,' Lena thinks. She thinks of herself as already moving, riding again, thinking Then it will be as if I were riding for a half mile before I even got into the wagon even got to where I was waiting, and that when the wagon is empty of me again it will go on for a half mile with me still in it  She waits, not even watching the wagon now, while thinking goes idle and swift and smooth, filled with nameless kind faces and voices:  Lucas Burch? You say you tried in Pocahontas? This road? It goes to Springvale. You wait here. There will be a wagon passing soon that will take you as far as it goes  Thinking, 'And if he is going all the way to Jefferson, I will be riding with the hearing of Lucas Burch before his seeing. He will hear the wagon, but he wont know. So there will be one within his hearing before his seeing. And then he will see me and he will be excited. And so there will be two within his seeing before his remembering.'"

--Wm. Faulkner, Light in August

Wednesday, May 21

North American Journeys, 11

"Jesús and his wife wintered every year in their hometown in Michoacán. Like thousands of other couples drawn north by conditions of soil and climate, then south by family ties, they drove the very same three thousand miles, valley by valley, twice a year. Jesús simply pointed the pick-up like a TV remote control and, zas, a century and a half of history came and went across their windshield.

"They went back to a ranchito, an antique way of life, a scrap of the nineteenth century held in place by stubbornness and poverty. Cobblestones, tile roof, it was picturesque as hell. Nopal cactus ten feet tall, stone fences, it made for an isolation so dense that cowboys still enlivened a pail of fresh milk with Swiss Miss and grain alcohol in the morning, and flat-footed the thing, and rode off to work all day. But what did they call that beverage? Jesús had to think. Nowadays people called it a toro prieto. Though Jesús could remember his grandfather saying that, back in the 1890s, people called it a palomillo.

"It was in the time of Jesús's grandfather that Mexican Central Plateau life underwent a trauma. Everybody in Michoacán agreed with that. Historically, it resembled the trauma Yakima County underwent when the Northern Pacific arrived, providing an outlet for Columbia Plateau wheat. The twentieth century caught up with Michoacán when private interests bought miles of swampland and drained it. Out of nowhere appeared guys who talked like books. They cleared their throats, reached in a paper bag that had writing on it, and extracted the twentieth century in the form of a new kind of seed corn. When they stuck that stuff in the ground, it yielded fat, heavy kernels that right away became what people wanted.

"With so much acreage in corn, with tractors eliminating the need for labor, country boys like Jesús's grandfather wandered off to the United States to work in railroad construction. The migrant flow kept swelling during the twenties, only to shrink with massive deportations during the Great Depression. But it was the Bracero Program, during the 1940s, which truly began the modern era of mexicano life in the U.S. Northwest. Whole trainloads of men journeyed up from Mexico City to harvest crops.

"And yet, despite the high wages, mexicanos never really trusted life in the north. From one of the early bracero trains--legend has it--half the passengers emptied out in Irapuato because of a rumor: the gringos meant to get them across the border, and then send them off to the front in World War II. After the war millions of young men rode trains north without even paying. Traveling fly-style they called it. The famous comedian Cantinflas--according to another legend--wanted to give the Mexican government two million pesos to let those poor people along."

--Philip Garrison

fr. Because I Don't Have Wings: Stories of Mexican Immigrant Life (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 2006)

Thursday, April 3

North American Journeys, 10

"Once when I was crossing the American continent, years and years ago and we were caught in the prairies without an engine to take us anywhere, the news-agent who sold things on the train came and offered us ten bananas for ten cents and then added, when a news-agent offers you ten bananas for ten cents you know there is something wrong."

--Gertrude Stein, Paris France (1940)