My neighbor has spraypainted on one of his sheds “IN CASE OF ZOMBIES” and on another “JESUS IS LORD.” Read consecutively, the way I do when I ride my bicycle past them to town, the messages offer a warning (zombies may happen) and a solution (turn to Jesus, somehow).
But what if there is no connection between the messages, only a spatial continuity? Are they then meant to be read as instructions to what the sheds contain? I picture the first shed full of helical braids of garlic and ammo boxes with silver bullets, garden shears, whatever proper anti-zombie defense tools might be. In the second, cobbled out of corrugated metal patches: crucifixes, candlewax stalagmites, perhaps communion wine. Maybe an entire small chapel. The sheds are on private land but you can read the signs from the street: Are these messages public or private? Are they a joke? I am not sure. I think about them a lot and photograph them furtively.
In town I head to the Prescription Shop. I am a new customer, so while the clerk verifies my insurance information I get to browse the shelves. I find this in the gift section. Friend or foe? The curator has a sense of humor.
The artificial grapes in glitter bother me.
What are words? Meanings, a form of communication, something that affords the integrity of existence. Maggie Nelson wonders if words may be “one of the few economies left on earth in which plentitude—surfeit, even—comes at no cost.” But words can be misread, misspoken, misunderstood. Because of that when it comes to words I trust poets the most. Poets are parsimonious, precise: they know words’ worth. As a reminder I keep on my wall this gift from my friend Carlos Soto Román, a poet from Chile.
Anne Carson talks about unfinished lines in poetry as "the space where a thought would be, but which you can’t get hold of."
In Philadelphia, another poet friend, Kevin Varrone, has been photographing the graffiti utility workers leave on walls and pavement. He calls it the Language of Infrastructure. He posts the images on his Facebook page so that they are visible only to his Facebook friends: a poignantly poetic inversion of the very public and indifferent into the private, the intimate.
Until recently I was fishing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Senegal to research a book, and now I am at the parched exposed bottom of an ancient sea, in the Chihuahuan desert, in a small anchorage on a friend’s ranch in West Texas. I am here to write the book; I have been writing fourteen hours a day, with no days off. Words words words.
There are no cattle on the ranch. Beyond it lies wilderness, high desert. On the ranch there are deer with translucent ears at dawn; a woodpecker metronoming the mesquite tree; owls by night. One morning, a javelina walks into my single-room house. Another morning, a blue grosbeak becomes so curious about the typing madwoman he ignores the window. Communications are encounters. The grosbeak: a blue note. I tell him about the sea on my page, the sea as blue as his mantel.
The Delaware Sea was once that blue.
Or maybe it was Homeric, wine-dark, like the sea almost four billion years back, when a multimillion-year-long rain was raining an ocean to cover the whole of Hadean Earth, cool it down. What was it like after that cloud cover thinned, lifted, and the sun shone upon the water for the very first time?
Another morning I watch desert sun burn dew off nopal spines. There was a lot of nopal in Senegal, on the beach, where my friends drydocked their pirogues. Nopal is an American native and in West Africa it is a relic of the transatlantic slave trade that began when Portuguese slave traders landed on those shores in the fifteenth century. A memento of one of the most depraved and indelible displays of greed in our history. Greed and bigotry: two of the things that make us human.
On both sides of the ocean, ripe nopal fruit will stain your fingertips with juice that runs crimson, runs bloodred.
What are words? Semantic devices, symbols. The world speaks to us in symbols: bluebirds, nopal plants. There are no bad symbols just as there are no bad words: there are merely the billion hurts we inflict upon one another, the billion comforts we bestow.
A friend tells me about a young man she met recently not far from here. His name is Amani; he is from the Congo and he drives an oil truck, delivers crude to a pipeline that runs it to refineries back east. Amani means “peace” in Swahili, and in the Congo—home to the deadliest conflict since World War II, with close to six million slaughtered and more than two million displaced—his name can only mean one thing: his mother’s desperate, aching desire, desire so consuming it had to be expressed literally, in a word. Peace, at least for him. I hope he is finding it in West Texas. I am glad to be secondhand privy to his mother’s sacred wish, that magic spell, becoming true.
Have I ever really left Africa? Has anyone? Some days after I arrive from Senegal I find, on the ground outside my writing shack, a cowrie shell. Like the cowrie one sorcerer gave me as a talisman, or the cowries another used to tell my fortune.
I think the Chihuahuan Desert is telling me: I am Africa, I follow you.
Or maybe it is telling me: you are protected.
Or maybe it is telling me nothing. It is simply offering up silence, space where a thought would be, space to think by.