Spiral Jetty

Spiral Jetty
Robert Smithson

A man builds an enormous ramp
then wants to see it from the air

he’s thirty-five, the plane will crash
his view of a darkness entering the skull

building a jetty in the shape of a fiddlehead fern
gelatin-silver print of the great salt lake

facade covered in shells
statue of a neoclassical figure, draped

like a madonna against a bathtub turned upright
egg blue planted with roses and petunias

“the sund”: industrial and suburban
cattail marsh, geese, floating oil slick

that dark place by the river
intersection of muggers and grass-stained lovers

(but aren’t we all)

ruined motel, and how we will live in it
walls without roof

bed without walls
floor without bed

you without me…
someone set mirrors in the snow

a trail of mirrors
accurately reflecting…snow

“as soon as it was named
it ceased to exist”

spiral jetty on the lake
body of water without a tidal shore

body of water without encroaching wave
water like the level of a dream

after his father’s death
after his lost brother

he thought: the jetty is down
there is nothing between me and death…

abandoned quarry full of water
“an oval map of a double world”

his pediatrician, the famous poet
looked down his throat to find the aleph

looked in the waxy labyrinth of his ear
the body’s chambers are discrete

only in childhood do we regret
the swallowed cherry pit that will not sprout and bloom

green branch exiting my mouth
laden red with Eden

ramp, mirror, edge
road map crumpled on the motel floor

we squinted so long at
it appeared eventually

no map of destination
but a map of stars

(Published in the anthology JUST OUTSIDE THE FRAME from Tres Chicas Books).

Photograph by Deborah Barlow


I was at the salad bar at the Co-op today, getting some nice cold beets with onions, when someone I didn’t know stopped me. He knew I was a poet, and asked me if I was writing out the oil disaster in the Gulf. It was a pretty thought provoking moment in my morning.
I am indeed writing about destruction. For the last few years I’ve been writing about: site, nature, place, borders, and boundary line. I’ve been writing about what Robert Smithson calls the collision between the suburban and the wild. I finished a draft of my manuscript 7 Places in America and felt things turn.
Now I’m working on deserts–Mohave, Sonoran, Chihuahaun,–and soon Great Basin. I’ve been traveling around looking at things like the Salton Sea and the Trinity Missile Site. In the next year, I have a residency with Center for Land Use Interpretation–three different weeks in Wendover, Utah. I’m writing about drought, salinization, desertification, energy use, and war. I have members of my extended family in the military and in Afganistan, which is unexpected and forcing me to evaluate my thinking. I am reading “Cadillac Desert” and Bachelard’s “The Psychoanalysis of Fire.”
When people discover my theme they have numerous suggestions. What about child labor? What about the oil spill? But I can’t write about something that isn’t digested–that remains a news clip, outside of myself. Actually these poems are more poems of investigation than protest. And is there beauty in them? I still don’t know.
The Enola Gay, which dropped the A bomb, left from Wendover. I’m looking forward to a place that includes Spiral Jetty, casinos, and salt flats. I have a yen to go to New Orleans but I’m not yet sure if there is water in this cycle–or just the lack of it. And fire, earth, air.

Poetry Site

I’ve been thinking about the need for an object, that is, a site, in order to write a poem. Originally for me that starting point was experience, feeling, the body. But this changed dramatically when I started working more directly with land, starting with the national parks. This became a different way of writing, based off location (time/space) rather than on something purely personal that was usually record or memory.
This helped to stop feeling that I was commoditizing experience: widowhood=widow poems=widow poems performance=an unpleasant objectification of self.
There was nothing wrong with the earlier process–it is the poet’s process–but it was a tremendous relief when it changed.
To have an idea and not be a prisoner of the idea.
I hear Joan Sutherland-roshi say that kensho can only come from outside the self–the gutteral caw of a crow or Venus rising as the morning star. It doesn’t arise from anyone’s inner authenticity.
So sorry to say, the New Age, self-help, diet, exercise, even therapy–these may lead to a brushed up version of the self but they won’t lead to a poem.
The poem comes from outside–hence the muse. Hence what I am seeking.
Robert Smithson says there are 2 sites–the original one and the gallery or museum piece. In my case the second site is the poem.
At DIA Beacon I saw the enormous metal holding tanks of sculpture by Richard Serra. I’d never liked them before–too industrial–but in this space these were like mazes or kivas–as well as New Jersey industrial wasteland.
At DIA Beacon I saw Smithson’s heaps of earth from specific places piled up on the floor, holding up mirrors. To this world.