Some Recognition of Salt Flat, Texas: Robert Burlingame

This is how Bob Burlingame (aka Robert Burlingame) made poems. In the mornings, he’d take a cup of coffee or tea into his study and sit in front of his manual typewriter. He’d witness the coming light of the morning, he’d listen to the birds, and he’d sit there waiting for a poem to come along like a visitor. Knock, knock. It would be the poem—a collage of memories and thoughts and images. And he’d write it down. He’d play with it some. Many days a poem didn’t come. So he drank his coffee and went about his life. The next day the same thing. A morning ritual of gathering poems. An ancient sort of hunting ritual. This is what he told me when he still lived in El Paso. Then when he retired from teaching at UTEP he and his wife Linda moved near the Guadalupe Mountains.

His post office box was in Salt Flat, a weird little semi-ghost town on the west edge of the salt flats in the photo above. The peak is El Capitán, the highest mountain in Texas, and US Highway 62 climbs to a pass to the south of the peak. I believe their rented house was in there in the llano up above the salt flat and east of the peak.

My friend Joe Somoza corresponded with Bob. They’d go back and forth with some letters and stick in a poem as gifts to each other. An old fashioned friendship of two poets. Bob’s poems and letters were still hammered out on that manual. Joe had to write him now and then and tell him to change his ribbon. Joe and Jill visited Bob and Linda up there. The house was still on the grid but barely. West Texas is magnificently huge out there. Skies forever, the earth fluid and ceaseless like the sea. Bob loved it up. He liked the touch and smell and taste and vision of real stuff. Joshua lizards. Nickel Creek. The little sparrows and the turkey buzzards. Busy ants. Snakes.

Bob was a great admirer of Judson Crews and his poems. (Besides the Wikipedia piece, read Mark Weber here.) He liked all that sexual energy going wacko in the gardens of Judson’s poetics. Bob and I would giggle together about those garden poems. Dionysius dancing in the mud among the squash blossoms and cucumbers and peas and lettuce. Judson, such a handsome man, was a happy satyr. I won’t name names. But Bob’s poems were more reticent and meditative. Quiet and very attentive to detail. The sexual urge was there but it floated beneath the surface of the poem’s flowing. Once before Bob retired my son Johnny (still in high school) and I picked him up and we drove up to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park which surrounds El Capitán. I had never taken the middle trail up into the mountains—the Dog Canyon Trail or the Texas Trail. I can’t remember which.  Bob led us up the mountain. He was a skinny guy and hiked with steady joy and passion. He had all that curly kinky reddish hair and he wore khakis and a flimsy pair of low top tennis shoes. It was a wonderful hike. We talked about poetry and about Johnny growing up and looked at things. We walked through a grove of Texas madrone trees. Like walking through a Judson Crews poem. It was so beautiful. A great and wonderful hike. And on the way back we stopped at that old gas station and convenience store that used to be perched up top where U.S. highway 62 climbs up out of the Salt Flats. We ate sandwiches and drank water and soda and talked and laughed. It was a wonderful day. I was so glad Johnny had a chance to come along with us.

A Texas madrone grove somewhere in West Texas

Another time we sat in a sandstone canyon. Big round stone. Scrawny trees and grasses rooted in dirt fissured into the rock. Bob, my friend Tom Baker and me. This was in at the tail end of the Organ Mountains between Las Cruces and El Paso. We ate sandwiches and watched a canyon wren dart among the rocks. You don’t get to watch canyon wrens often. They are timid birds but they have wonderful trilling echoing song. We didn’t talk. We didn’t want the bird to go away. I had forgotten this story until right now.

The odd thing is that I had a few exquisite experiences like these with Bob but then he and I would become lost to each other in our different worlds. We didn’t reach out to each other like he and Joe did. I regret that. And now I miss him.

Bob, like so many of my older friends, is pretty much un-googlable. That speaks well of him and makes me sad and proud at the same time. But here are some poems from his last book Some Recognition of the Joshua  Lizard: New and Selected Poems from Mutabilis Press in Houston:

With nothing to do
wakeup coffee warming his guts
he remembers the finch
     red at the throat
          he’d found in the yard dead
beneath the immense gaze of El Capitán

empty eye
piece of fluff rotted
to a perfect skull
     its frayed beauty struck
          tears down his face
as he saw but did not want to see
its panache spoiled in final reckoning

he wanted as little to go
though he knew he would
as if he’d gone already
     to the poppy’s yellow
          bloom bravely
separate on a rocky shelf
crisp injunction to tearful woe.


A friend writes me
a letter, can you believe
tells me he’ll look up my poem’s subject
on the Internet, that endlessly ramifying root
holding us all together as we sway above the earth.

I think fine, I think
of the undulating flights of sandhill cranes
finding their way through a breezy heaven,
the rank perfumes of lakes and rivers below
     their guiding compass.

I think sure, I think
of the busy ants outside my door as they signal
one another to carry in more food,
the soft sibilance of antly scraping telling
     us the wisdom of saving.

I think yes, yes, why not
go to the cold glass page impersonal as a glove
go to it, the book is there these days,
or a view of it, though somewhere
in a dim library you’ll find
     its original dusty and ignored
          its pages yellowing beneath
the smudged lipstick left there once by a girl
who read it in bed, her warm flesh pressing.

(for Joseph Rice)

A while ago we walked
     up to where you’d stayed,
          old friend

we saw where you’d slept
     blue-blanketed narrow bed
          and the glassed wide doorway
you’d gazed through onto the mountain

the first night it rained
     thunder rolled and rumbled
          as you told us later,
your face a smile but serious

we had gathered my poems
     hundreds on white sheets, poems
          reaching back
half a century

but what you remembered most
     was the fierce wind
          out of the pass
and the stars over the mountain’s slopes
that, too, is a poem, you said.


The Luminous Beast & the Cairn for Janine

I’ve said this before but, since I’m getting old, it’s okay to repeat myself. Jerome Rothenberg (I think it was him) called poetry “a luminous beast.” Some sort of mythological animal that embodied the words and poems and ideas of all poets. The tail of this beast stretches back into pre-literate times when history was story and poetry was spoken language that had the power to shape the natural world. And it still survives in our language in these digitized bits of information on a computer screen. In poems we all provide sustenance to the beast as it squirms its way into the 21st Century. Like the Tao, it knows its way. I’ve come to trust the beast’s instincts explicitly.

The beast rumbled in my imagination when I saw this photograph of Bob Arnold’s cairn dedicated to the memory of Janine Pommy-Vega (more here and here). It's on his land in rural Vermont. The stone was harvested right there. It would be a nice place for Janine to rattle her gourd, to beat on a drum, the chant her poems. She would love to dance on a cairn.

Janine was a good friend and I came to know her poetry way back when through Longhouse Publishers and Booksellers. Longhouse is the collaborative project of Bob and Susan Arnold. The cairn for Janine is on their property. The poetry and the publishing and work of chainsaws and stone and cooking and eating food and the warmth of burning wood is all part of their one life. 

I’ve never met Bob or Susan. Yet I’ve known of their work—Bob’s poems and prose, their Longhouse venture and their backwoods lifestyle in Vermont—and I’ve fitfully corresponded with them for most of my adult life. They’ve even been generous enough to publish my work in their magazine and in their delicious Longhouse libritos (little books). As I’ve said in a recent letter to Bob, they feel like intimate friends. That’s because we share a common bond with the Luminous Beast.

Please read the Kent Johnson interview of Bob that appeared in Jacket Magazine. It’s important stuff, and it documents a way to live one’s life fully engaged but doing the work of one’s essence. An ancient way to dance. Visit the Longhouse website and buy books there. Read Bob’s work and the poets that he and Susan especially support. Now, I see from the website, Bob has become the literary executor for Janine, Cid Corman and Lorrine Neidecker and he’s constructing websites to celebrate their work. I’m sure Susan is doing at least half the work. Wow.

Bob and Susan Arnold understand.

Bob and Susan Arnold at work in Bearsville, NY. 
2005 photo by Janine Pommy Vega