with critique by Jendi Reiter
From Presidio south, the land is like burnt bread.
The Chichimec's scavenged here, naked, mud-caked, moon-crazed;
Voluptuaries of the blood, ancestors of the Aztecs.
If you see a stovepipe cactus, it's a crucifix, nails and all.
By some law of rot, all weather has stopped;
It's hot, but, it's not—it's dead temperature.
It's got no color—that's what is not—no color at all.
Space, sky, nauseates the eye. The hue of elephant.
You're inside a boundless canvas tent, riding on canvas cement.
And if you break down, thousands of miles from the next town,
And suns and moons fade in and out beyond your count,
You won't die—never! Won't age. Here you remain the same—forever.
The neural messenger
Through the branches
Of the nerve tree
And speaks to the receptor
From where does the message come?
What is the message's origin?
What could the message be?
Spoken to the deep ear soundlessly?
And what if
The messenger slows
Stumbles and trips
Into the abyss
And the message doesn't arrive?
Could we survive—south of Presidio?
As I drive, the only thing I can think to do is whistle:
A fountain of melody
Sparkling and crystalline
Flying like glistening water
In arches of baroquean
Yet fresh with the freedom
Of a jazz improvisation—
Charley, Antonio, Diz, Johann Sebastian...
South of Presidio
I pull the pick-up over,
Cut the motor,
And all around is
Copyright 2005 by Ron Wertheim
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "South of Presidio," impressed me with its gripping depiction of the harsh yet sublime landscape of the desert Southwest. (Based on the references to the Aztecs and Chichimecs, I'm guessing that the author is referring to Presidio, Texas, a small town near the Mexican border.) Though the poem loses focus after the first four stanzas, the strong opening convinced me that the author has the talent to make this piece even better.
Poems that try to capture the spirit of a place are most effective when they make the place the central character. The author must find a delicate balance between too much and too little personal involvement in the story. Too much, and the poem becomes about the speaker's feelings about the place, not the place itself; the narrator acts as a barrier to the reader's direct experience of the location. Too little, and the poem falls apart into a collection of impersonal snapshots that exert no emotional pull on the reader.
The 20th-century poet Richard Hugo was a master of the poetry of place. He excelled at choosing the right details to reveal the souls of forgotten towns. Writers interested in exploring this genre shouldn't miss this brief essay (pdf) about landscape and inspiration in the work of Hugo, Philip Levine and other major poets.
In the first four stanzas of "South of Presidio," Wertheim's confrontational imagery draws the reader into the scene by implicitly challenging us to survive in the brutal environment he describes. The first line establishes the land as the main subject. The humans who passed through here, "naked, mud-caked, moon-crazed;/Voluptuaries of the blood," were only a moment in the history of the eternal desert, despite the terrible intensity of their animal lives.
The desert itself is the antithesis of life, where time is suspended and consciousness blurs for lack of any object to fix its attention upon. "Space, sky, nauseates the eye." This unnatural state calls forth a violent reaction from the living things that try to assert themselves against this void: "If you see a stovepipe cactus, it's a crucifix, nails and all." By contrast, those who "break down" and succumb to the desert's elemental power gain a mummified sort of immortality: "You won't die—never! Won't age. Here you remain the same—forever."
These four stanzas successfully capture the essentials of the landscape, using its distinctive physical features not only to make the scene recognizable but to illuminate the powerful emotions that the desert inspires in us. The long lines are well-paced and broken up by internal rhymes, particularly in the third and fourth stanzas. I would have been happier if the poem had ended with a fifth stanza similar to those four in style and tone, perhaps introducing a new feature of the landscape (birds, plants?) that brings in a different kind of energy or a tiny, fragile exception to the oppressive sameness.
Instead, the style and focus of the poem abruptly change, presenting a string of short lines that take place within the narrator's consciousness. For me, the second half of this poem lacked the originality and dramatic interest of the first part. The speaker's introspection did not add to my appreciation of the landscape, and the more simplistic style was a disappointment after the rich imagery and superior craftsmanship of the preceding stanzas. In the second half, the speaker is telling me how he feels about the music that he hears in his head. But in the first half, I heard the music myself—jagged, strange and compelling, like Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"—in the dance of the desert and its inhabitants.
I'm not a fan of the super-short line, popularized by poets like William Carlos Williams and Charles Bukowski. In the hands of less-experienced writers (and even in the work of these canonical authors), the technique can be exploited to make weak phrases sound more profound than they are. "Music is/The message/Of what/The message/Is!" Delivered with fortune-cookie solemnity, artificially intensified with an exclamation point, this pronouncement actually says very little, and says it without precision.
In writing the conclusion of this piece, Wertheim correctly intuited that the poem needed a change of emotional state to turn a mere description into a true narrative. The second half tries to move the poem toward a hopeful resolution, suggesting how humans can come to terms with the infinity of the desert. Our capacity to articulate and appreciate the transcendent, as manifested in music, helps us comprehend and even revere a natural phenomenon that is greater than ourselves. "Absoluteness/A wall-less/Invisible/Cathedral." Here, the short lines are more effective, letting us hear each word resonate in the slowness and spaciousness of the desert.
Altering the style can be a daring choice to highlight a change of subject and mood. However, in this poem, the shift feels jarring because there is no evident connection between the two halves of the poem until the line "Could we survive—south of Presidio?"
The imagery of the second section is also unrelated to the desert environment that the author so vividly created in the first four stanzas. The nerve tree, the abyss and the messenger are vaporous metaphorical constructs that pale in comparison to the reality of burnt, blood-soaked land and crucified cactus. The crystalline baroque fountain belongs to an entirely different time and place, as well as a more sentimental poetic tradition. Planted amid the desert's tumbleweeds and cow skulls, such a fountain would look more absurd than inspiring. The effect is of a jumble of inspirational images whose lack of connection to the original, vividly imagined setting makes them ineffective to provide narrative closure.
I've been blunt about my problems with the second half of this poem, because I love the first part so much that I want to liberate it from self-consciously poetic musings that it doesn't need. I would delete the lines from "Firing across" till "And all around is," and replace them with one or two stanzas in the same style as the first four, ending with "Absoluteness/A wall-less/Invisible/ Cathedral." Those last words do recover some of the power of the opening, and provide the key to the poem's dilemma: how we can learn to live with the desert's alien grandeur by letting reverence drive out terror.
Where could a revised version of this poem be submitted? These upcoming contests came to mind:
Maize Prize for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: May 31
$1,000 prize from the Writers' Center of Indiana; 2005 final judge Jane Yolen
River Styx International Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: May 31
$1,000 and publication in a reputable journal ($20 fee includes issue)
The MacGuffin Poet Hunt
Postmark Deadline: June 3
$500 and publication in this well-regarded literary magazine
Frances Locke Memorial Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: June 15
$1,000 and publication in The Bitter Oleander; editors are seeking "serious work that allows the language of your imagination to reveal in you a new perception of your life"
Guy Owen Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: June 15
$1,000 and publication in Southern Poetry Review; well-established journal welcomes image-rich narrative poetry
Erskine J. Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: August 15
$200 and publication in Smartish Pace; atmospheric narrative free verse predominates among the winning poems
This poem and critique appeared in the May 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter. If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.