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.


Bobby Byrd said...

I wrote my friend the artist Linda Lynch about Bob. I was wondering exactly where his place was. Here's what she wrote back:

"Bob Burlingame and Linda's home hugs the mammoth skirts of the eastern side of the Guadalupe Mountain at an old creekbed called Nickel Creek, I think it is 'this side' of McKittrick Canyon. It's a beautiful single level ranch style structure that blends sympathetically into the landscape (I think from the 1950s), with exquisite laid flagstone. The location is stunning and I always marveled at their good fortune to live there. I wonder if Linda will stay on, it could be lonely, depending on one's self-sufficiency. The nearest postal service was at Salt Flat but that's a good 15 miles or maybe more from their actual home."

Check out Linda's art @ http://www.lindalynchstudio.net/

Halvard Johnson said...

Yes, it seems that Bob's writing day stayed pretty much the same as when I knew him in El Paso back in the late '60s. (We were both teaching at Texas Western/UT El Paso.) Early to the desk--write, write, or not--and then off to hike and climb in the Franklins. Bob and his then wife hosted a gathering, my first year in El Paso, after a Robert Creeley reading. I first met Creeley there, and Bob repeatedly asked me if I'd met Keith Wilson up in Las Cruces, and kept asking until I had. Those friendships (along with that with Joe Somoza, who arrived in El Paso the year after I did) lasted many, many years.

Several years ago now, I saw Bob for the last time. We (Lynda and I) were spending the summer Chez Somoza in Las Cruces, and Bob drove over for a visit. We spent two cold July 4th weekend nights huddled together for warmth at the annual Mescalero dances up in the mountains north of Alamogordo.

Bob is missed, but I'm glad that his book his finally out.


Bobby Byrd said...

Thanks, Hal. I just reread the post and noticed I didn't mention his death, nor when he died (September 25, 2011). His obit, I noticed, didn't have his birth date. Ha! He would have liked that. I see from your note on the obit that you and Lynda are back in San Miguel de Allende. Muy madre. Take care.

Halvard Johnson said...

:: We're here year round pretty much. Come on by.


Katie said...

I didn't know he died. I saw him occasionally at the Wal-Mart in Carlsbad, where I worked. He lived just above the Nickel Creek Station, a small gas/convenience station, where, when I was in college, we mingled over Cokes with all the law in west Texas because someone complained about the hippies raising hell at a rest area-a group very unlikely to raise any kind of hell,only some kids with a "SMILE"/Thank You" sign we flashed at passing cars while we cooked dinner.
It was the year that Guadalupe Nat Pk opened.

Chuck Taylor said...

Bob and I began exchanging letters after Jim Cody was killed in a car wreck in Lubbock. I had known him when I'd been at UTEP from 1975-77 and was glad to take up our conversations by letter. I enjoyed the exchange of letters and the exchange of poems with letters. His spoke from an ancient place, and helped me calm down when I got worked up by this political or that. I hoped to make it out there to see him and his wife with her paintings. I got sick and had not such luck.