Friday, 11 May 2007
Introduction to "Poems from the Desert"
The Sonororan Desert, which stretches from southern Arizona to northern Mexico, is a landscape like no other. It's a land baked dry and dusty by the sun, yet also rich with life and lush with vegetation: with prickly pear, cholla, and saguaro cactus; with mesquite and palo verde trees; with bright bursts of desert wildflowers and chaparral that smells like heaven when it rains. The Tucson basin is surrounded by mountain ranges and guarded by the peaks of Baboquivari, the sacred mountain that the Tohono O'odham honor as the centre of the universe. The Tohono O'odham and Yaqui (or Yoeme) are two of the many Indian nations that call the desert home, keeping the cycles of the seasons turning with their traditions, prayers, and ceremonies. Hard against their pueblos and reservations, a modern American city sprawls, where Anglo, Mexican, and Native cultures mix to give Tucson its distinctive flavour.
Howard Gayton first came to the American South-West from the South-West of England in 2005. Travelling with the aid of an Arts Council England grant, his aim was to study the use of masks by Mexican and Native American communities – and to further his own understanding of masks as a performer, teacher, and director of a Commedia dell’ Arte theatre company. He talked to mask makers, watched masked performances, and participated in Native American ceremonies…and as he did so, he fell under the powerful spell of cactus and coyote song, finding himself at home in the desert in ways he never expected.
He’s not the first writer from Somewhere Else to find himself seduced by this land. Although there are excellent home-grown Arizona writers, there’s also a strong tradition here of writers and artists born into vastly different countries, cultures and landscapes who find that their muse is powerfully moved by the desert’s prickly spirit and clarity of light. Kentucky native Barbara Kingsolver wrote three love songs to southern Arizona in her novels The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Pigs in Heaven. Oklahoma-born Tony Hillerman beautifully evoked the land and mixed cultures of northern Arizona in his award-winning Navajo mysteries. Canadian writer Charles de Lint conjured a primal, powerful desert magic in the novels Forests of the Heart and Medicine Road. Kim Antieau from the Pacific Northwest found mermaids sunning in Tucson’s dry wash beds in her novel Church of the Old Mermaids.
The last two books listed above were inspired by their authors’ stay at Endicott West, an arts retreat in the mountain foothills near Tucson. Endicott West is also where Howard wrote the “Herman poems” collected here. “Herman” was the name bestowed on him by a five-year-old Tohono O’odham friend (who couldn’t quite get her tongue around “Howard”), and it became his Arizona alter-ego: a cowboy-hat-wearing, pick-up-truck driving, poetry-writing desert dweller. Although he has long been a writer as well as a dramatist, Howard says that he didn’t come to the Sonora intending to write poetry. “It’s the desert itself,” he says, “ that seems to call poetry out of me, almost seeming to demand this kind of a response. The land is spare, stripped down to its essence – as poetry is, or ceremony, or prayer. Each time I’ve come, it has seemed like the land itself is gifting me with poems.”
In this chapbook, you’ll find poems of sly coyotes and dancing javalinas; of sweat-lodge, deer dance, and other ceremonies; of journeys by foot and journeys by road and journeys inward by an ever- questing soul. The photographs in the book are by Virginia-born artist Stu Jenks, who has made his home in Tucson for over twenty years. Like Howard, his work is a hymn to the desert and a celebration of Spirit.