Soul of

Traversing Grace in
A Rugged Land

Craig Childs
Probably because of that ignoramus Ruskin, or maybe even that idiot Carlisle, or most probably chilly T. S. Eliot ... because of these three, we assume that poetry and prose are two different beasts.

Poems are blocks of end-stopped lines, set off from the long prose pieces in the New Yorker, Harper's, The New York Review, Atlantic or in those drab little magazines like Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Sewanee Review and their ilk. Prose is the filler; poetry is the jewel in the forehead of the toad.

We ascribe literary magic to poets. They slice up lines of type, squeeze in a bit of rhyme (internal, external), add some rhythm and take us to new heights --- Goodyear Blimps freighted with the English language, floating above the sweet-scented mountains of æsthetics.

We read their slight offerings with awe. We see their books as filled with nuggets of philosophical clarity. All this accomplished by eight or ten lines with a few indents and the poets' names (John Berryman, James Merrill, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, Maxine Kumin, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur) featured prominently at the end.

§     §     §

There have been a few poet masters heard over the last few decades, but they are few and far between: Philip Levine, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, possibly John Ashbery or Allen Ginsberg; Joseph Brodsky if we can consider him American. But mostly, at least for the august members of the Academy of American Poets, it's all antique versification, filling the air with noise and word smog.

It was the critics that created this divide between verse and prose. For there are, and have been, and always will be prose masters who are real poets, and poets (Walt Whitman, for one) who would be better off without the end-stop lines. At the same time, one can find rich versification in the novels of Joyce, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner, Richard Wright, Ryszard Kapuscinski. And Craig Childs.

Childs is a fairly obscure writer in a fairly obscure branch of American literature: namely, wilderness writing. His choices of venue are ones that most of us would not find too interesting: dry, bleached, rocky, impassable, impossibly hot (or cold) canyons and flatland deserts of the American southwest and northern Mexico.

In Soul of Nowhere, we get bleak journeys in the far corners of New Mexico, down the unexplored rifts feeding into the Grand Canyon, over the volcanic wastes of the Sonoran desert, and into an impossible Island (La Isla) off the sea of Cortez --- this last so bleak and waterless that the only companions he and his fellow adventurers could find were a couple of ravens, snakes, and a lizard or two. No mountain lions, coyotes, rabbits or other typical desert dwellers.

Most of this would be of little interest if it were not for two facts about Childs. First, he is a master stylist --- one of those we immediately recognize as a prose-poet. His choice of words, his rhythm (beginning, middle, and end), his sense of balance belong to what most of us would assume is the discipline of poetry.

    It is said that there are only six thousand stars visible to the eye, but tonight there were more. They fell back from nearest and highest of magnitude to those so faint or distant that they turned to powder, and from powder to a thin brume.

Or, this --- Childs starving, stalking a desert rabbit,

    The rabbit toppled, scrambling to get back up. When our eyes met, the rabbit on its side looking up at me, there was a very brief conversation.

    I have you, I said.

    I know, the jackrabbit said.

Or this pithy take on man's view of time:

    If you sat in the desert for a year with a clock and a Gregorian calendar, you would find that your time does not match what you see in the world around you. The snake, the stars, the sun, and the moon belong to an interlocking design. We fool ourselves with our inventions. The gears of true time are not round like those of the clock. The earth travels at different speeds during different times of the year, slinging faster and slower around the sun, making European winters eight days shorter than those in Australia. Lunar and solar cycles set up a complex rhythm obeying doublets and triplets, not the singular boxes of weekdays and months. We are made to look like simpletons the way we spoon-feed ourselves with our artless time of minutes, hours, and days, leap years thrown in to jury-rig our twelve months so that they don't fall into disrepair. We add and subtract sixty minutes of daylight saving time to our seasons to make our workdays more efficient, our heads buried in business while around us these flawless patterns pass like the hand of God.

In addition, Childs is able to create, through the magic of his words, a feeling not only for the immensity of what he is seeing, but a feeling for the immensity that grows inside of us when we are in such an environment, when we open ourselves to its magic:

    Stepping over to the solid rock wall, stones poked the arches of my feet, digging at places that usually remain hidden like love letters in a drawer. I was tantalized and pained to have them read. I backed up into the shade and stood naked against the wall. My fingers spread across the rock, searching and settling.

Then this transformation, when he suddenly ceases to be man:

    My mind instantly dissolved into the terrain. I felt as if I was losing consciousness, but my eyes were still open. The beast who lives in my skin changed color. My eyes camouflaged themselves, matching the rock behind me ... I had at my disposal the ability to observe, to remain apart, but for this moment the veil vanished. I was aware of a notebook in my pocket in a lump of clothes nearby. There would be nothing to write in that notebook. A sweet, forever emptiness consumed me, stretching beyond this wall into the infinite desert to all directions...

"A sweet, forever emptiness..." An emptiness that, for a writer, precludes writing.

§     §     §

This is prose of astonishing power, mitigated by the fact that it has a bittersweet side. Because when Childs is describing five days crossing a volcanic outcropping with barely enough food and water, or a week spent in the far barren reaches of La Isla, or finding (and almost losing) a toehold in one of the tributary sluices to the Grand Canyon --- we know we wouldn't in a thousand years want to be making such a journey. Most travel writers (he is a travel writer) make you want to get out of your chair and go join them in whatever place they are writing from.

Not Childs. Because his writing is so original and fresh and lively --- we are there with him, every step, every avalanche of boulders (which almost kills), every trek in which we get dangerously lost, may never be found, locked forever in the most barren part of the parched, thankless, brute-force desert.

"I wouldn't be caught dead on such a trek," you think. And then you think, "Well, maybe not" --- but then you find yourself with him as he crawls across the back of what he calls a desert St. Louis arch with his companion Devin, and here it comes, a bubbling up of real live panic, panic there at the heights, for he made an error: he stopped to think, to look down on the stones so far beneath, and finds himself unable to move,

    In a flash of conflicting instinct, I clamped my body against the narrow dorsum of sandstone, like clutching a metal pole. My lips met the cold grain and I huffed a hard breath against it. My eyelashes brushed the rock. No. This is wrong. A perfect ascent was broken. Momentum lost, I would not be able to find traction again. Fear saturated my blood. I barely adhered to the nearly sheer rock, my muscles beginning to shake.

The breath. The brushing of the eyelashes against the rock. Fear saturating the blood, fear which comes "barging drunkenly into my head, knocking things over."

And how, we want to know at the end, did he escape. He certainly wasn't bailed out by his friend Devin. Devin said, "I'll keep moving ... You don't need me here." (In other words, "You're on your own, man.") So how did he survive?

    I went ahead and killed myself. I got rid of my mind, smashing it into the rock.

Whether he is about to perish on the arc of sandstone, or making love to his wife on the sandy Sonoran Desert, or momentarily baffled by a descent into an apparently impenetrable canyon --- Childs has us. He takes us with him, we are with him entire, and when we get to the end, we don't want to leave. The journey is too rich, the words too magical. We would die there on the desert arch rather than lose this master poet.

--- Lolita Lark

Go to a review of Craig Childs' previous book

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