Popsicle #14: Two books by Jess Walter


A couple of months ago I wrote about David Foster Wallace’s commencement address, This is Water.  He begins his talk with the following story:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?

Wallace knows that it is a corny cliché to use a “parable-ish” story in a commencement address, but by the end of the talk, he brings the message home with real weight and seriousness:

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe even 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”

I couldn’t help thinking of Wallace’s parable when I picked up Jess Walter’s recently published collection of short stories, We Live in Water. At the beginning of the title story, a young boy repeatedly asks his father, “Do we live in water?” It is only at the end of the story that father understands his son’s question:

And there was the boy, staring into Flett’s giant aquarium, tropical fish swimming around in the blue light, a big square-headed whiskered thing probing the glass, and a skinny one with streaks of gold and a flitty little yellow one that darted in among the phony rocks. Michael was so close his nose almost touched the glass and his face was as blue as the fish, as he watched them swim the way he watched traffic out the window of Oren’s apartment, the way he looked at Oren in the car, the way he looked out at the world. And that’s when Oren understood.

Do we live in water?

He watched the fish come to the end of its blue world, invisible and impassible, turn, go around and turn again as he sensed another wall and another and on and on. It didn’t even look like water, so clear and blue. And the god-damn fish just swam in circles, as if he believed that, one of these times, the glass wouldn’t be there and he would just sail off, into the open.

As a collection of short stories, We Live in Water is like an aquarium. Each story describes a couple of fish, usually male, swimming in circles and smacking into the glass. I loved these stories, but was always disappointed when they ended. I wanted to watch one of Walter’s characters swim in a bigger tank.

So after finishing We Live in Water I picked up Walter’s 2009 novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets. It tells the story of Matthew Prior, a business reporter whose dream of quitting his newspaper job to start a website devoted to financial news told in poetic verse ends up leading to his family’s implosion. Reminiscent of Walter White in Breaking Bad, Matthew Prior’s desperate decision-making is pathetic, hysterical and wildly entertaining. It is also, as you might guess, poetic. Prior’s free verse is sprinkled throughout the story. As with his financial poetry, most of these poems are cheeky and intentionally average. But every now and then Walter slips in something serious. In a poem entitled ‘Dry Falls,’ Prior writes about the rural home along a dry riverbed that his father retreated to after leaving his mother.

And I wonder if we don’t live like water
seeking a level
a low bed
until one day we just go dry.
I wonder if a creek ever realizes
it has made its own grave.

Both We Live in Water and The Financial Lives of the Poets were enormously pleasurable to read. Along with being entertaining, they manage to lyrically address the ‘capital-T Truth’ of keeping your eyes open to the world hidden in plain sight.

PBS NewsHour “Honor Roll” – by Vince Leo

It’s been 10 years since the second U.S. invasion of Iraq and 12 years of American casualties in Afghanistan. Everyone’s exhausted, Big Media can’t seem to find a story. Until Iran becomes the next Iraq, no war news seems to be good war news.

Unfortunately the deaths continue despite the news cycle: Sixteen American dead in Afghanistan in March alone. You might be surprised by this fact if you watched CNN 24/7, but you’d know it in the pit of your stomach if you tuned into the PBS NewsHour every night. That’s because, starting on March 31, 2003, 11 days after the war in Iraq began, the NewsHour has been broadcasting a short list of service men and women who have died in the conflict as they become available from the Department of Defense. The casualties appear in two’s or fives’ or ten’s every night for a week, sometimes two nights per week, week after week, month after month, year after year. Titled “Honor Roll,” the segment expanded in 2006 to include soldiers killed in Afghanistan, where they are still dying and still appearing in the NewsHours’ final segment.

The format is deceptively simple. Each soldier is represented for a few seconds onscreen by a photograph along with his/her age, service branch, rank, and hometown. One soldier after another, for as long as it takes, the entire segment runs in complete silence. Even though there’s a silly background illustration of flag, soldiers, and desert, the reportage could hardly be more direct or objective. There is no comment, no break in the solemn procession of dead, no action to relieve the sense of loss. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the NewsHour has used its nightly schedule to create one of the most innovative and powerful instruments of wartime reportage since 16mm cameras brought Vietnam to the nightly news.

It’s not the first time photographs of casualties have been used to make a point about the nature of war. After reviewing the photographs Alexander Gardner had made at the Battle of Antietam, Mathew Brady decided to exhibit 21 large views of piles of corpses in his New York gallery with the simple title: “The Dead of Antietam.” Life Magazine famously published “The Faces of the Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll” consisting of 242 small portraits in the June 27, 1969 issue. Both Brady’s exhibition and the Life article were unabashed attempts to shock their audiences through sheer numbers.

To its credit, “Honor Roll” forgoes the sensationalism of large casualty counts for the dull, ongoing ache of duration. Although the NewsHour couldn’t have known when the first segment aired, “Honor Roll” has evolved into the clearest depiction of what is most crucial about America’s current wars: their length. The continuous procession of fallen young men and women, now in it’s 11th year, signifies more deeply than any expert talking head, what a Long War actually means: the seemingly endless loss of life after life, day after day, month after month, year after year in ongoing military operations that have no clear ending and no objective criteria of success. Forget the fantasies of liberation peddled by our duly elected representatives and the scripts of positive change repeated ad infinitum by the generals: “Honor Roll” isn’t another war story, it’s a day-in day-out description of military occupation.

But in the grind of occupation, even the war-talk talking heads have disappeared, compounding the sense of alienation and waste. There’s something almost monstrously incongruous about watching 57 minutes of chatter about the Republican Party’s difficulties with Hispanic voters, the temperament of Washington, and the effect of sequestration on employment, only to be confronted with three final minutes of silent death. But that is who we have become. Chatter and death, week after week, chatter and death, month after month, chatter and death, year after year. In its own indirect fashion, “Honor Roll” goes about the dirty representational work of re-creating the current national character of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“Honor Roll” isn’t easy. It takes determination to stay with the whole program and watch in silence as five or eight or twelve more young men and women scroll across your screen. And to complete the NewsHour’s representational proposition, you have to do this night after night after night. The 10+ year investment in time and effort is a testament to the NewsHour’s discipline and high regard for its viewers. It’s also devastating. One night doesn’t seem so bad, but then you remember the night before and then the week before and then the month before and then the year before. The cumulative effect feels like an almost unendurable loss. And in the midst of that unendurable loss, you can’t help but realize that there will be another night and another week and another month and another year (at least) to come. Facing that knowledge is enough to make you want to stop thinking about anything, but especially about the vast numbers of Iraqi casualties, the dead children, the drones. The only thing left to do is commit to watching another night, to honor the sacrifice another week, to mourn wounded families another month, to refuse to turn the channel for as many years as it takes.

Around and through and in spite of the nightly sorrow, there’s poetry in the photographs. Mostly official service portraits with a few snapshots, the photographs in “Honor Roll” reveal young men and women facing the camera willingly, aware that a photograph was in progress, actively shaping the formation of the image. These are not selves captured but selves imagined, selves committed to, selves feared for, selves forged through sacrifice and desire. In almost every case, the photographer has respected that imagined self, committing it to posterity without undue ostentation or artifice. There is in the social nature of this photographic engagement both trust and humility: trust on the part of the sitters and humility on the part of the photographers. Working together, through the simplest of photographs appearing at the very end of the nightly news, they remind us that human social relations can in fact be governed by mutual respect and dignity. It’s the slimmest glimmer of hope snatched from a media landscape both vast and depressing. But in my mind, that glimmer endures, resisting the chatter and death, denying the chatter and death, defining our loss not as body counts but as an ever-expanding communion of souls, haunting our living rooms and our future, repeating in a single voice, night after night, month after month, year after year: War is over.

combo3– Vince Leo




Popsicle #13: Stitches by David Small

For this week’s assignment I planned on reading Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by the psychoanalytic writer and former child psychologist Adam Phillips. I knew the book would have smarty-pants discourse on King Lear and John Ashbery, but I was secretly looking for a little self-help. The first sentence of the prologue seemed promising:

The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.

But then came King Lear and John Ashbery. After reading Ali Smith’s hypnotic mix of mix of fiction and comparative literature last week, Phillips’ rambling was just too much dry work. But since I’d paid $25 for the hardcover, I decided to skim the book. One of the things I came across was this quote by Graham Greene:

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition. Auden noted: ‘Man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.’

With those words in mind, I picked up the graphic novel, Stitches by David Small. The book had been on my shelf since visiting Small, a friend of Brad Zellar’s, while Brad and I were making Michigan last fall. I’d thus far avoided reading Stitches because I knew the book was an exceedingly painful childhood memoir. What made this avoidance peculiar is that I’d met the kind, generous and successful author and his wife and thus knew the memoir would have a more-or-less happy ending.

Boy, am I glad I finally read the book. While there is nothing more painful to read than cruelty inflicted on children, the book offers soaring moments of hope and redemption.

As with Greene, the hope comes with art:


But the true therapy comes, somewhat surprisingly, from therapy. Midway through the book a teenaged Small visits a psychologist and finally gets a rational perspective on his situation:

A boy who has had cancer…A boy whose parents and doctors did not tell him he had cancer…a boy who had to find out the truth on his own…Is this crazy?…You’ve been living in a world full of nonsense, David. No one had been telling you the truth about anything. But I’m going to tell you the truth. Are you ready? Your mother doesn’t love you. I’m sorry, David. It’s true. She doesn’t love you.

A few weeks ago my therapist told me she was retiring. In some ways, Stitches was just the self-help book I was looking for.  Perhaps, like Small, I’ll someday be able to thank her in my work. In the acknowledgments to Stitches, Small writes: “Lastly, my special thanks to Dr. Harold Davidson for pulling me to my feet and placing me on the road to the examined life.”


The LBM Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers



Established in 2008 by Alec Soth, Little Brown Mushroom (LBM) is committed to exploring the narrative potential of the photo book. Having worked closely with photographers, writers and designers, we’re now eager to exchange ideas with students and emerging artists.

Visual storytelling tends to be a lonely business. As such, it attracts more than its share of wallflowers. Here at LBM (home to more than a couple introverts), we thought it would be worthwhile to bring creative loners together to see what we can learn from each other. We’re envisioning a gathering that is more summer camp than classroom. After various daytime outings, we’ll sit around the digital projector and tell each other stories. From there we’ll discuss the ways in which visual stories can be translated into book form.

When: July 9-13, 2013

Where: After gathering each morning at the Little Brown Mushroom headquarters in St. Paul, we’ll have regular outings around the Twin Cities. Participants should have their own transportation. Housing is not provided.

Who: The gathering will be led by LBM team: Alec Soth, Carrie Thompson, Galen Fletcher, Ethan Jones, Brad Zellar and Jason Polan. We are inviting photographers, writers, illustrators, designers or anyone interested in visual storytelling to apply. While social awkwardness isn’t mandatory, it is encouraged.

Cost: Free

How to apply: 

Create a single PDF (no bigger than 5mb) with the following:

  • Your name and contact information
  • A concise and informal biography (age, where do you live, what do you do, etc). We’d also love to see a picture of you.
  • Examples of your work (this can be photography, writing, illustration, graphic design or anything else you can get into a PDF).
  • A link to your website or other work you have online
  • Important: we can not accept PDF files larger than 5mb

Email the PDF to camp@littlebrownmushroom.com

Deadline: April 15th. We will notify applicants about our selection by April 30th.

view this info as a printable PDF


Popsicle #12: Artful by Ali Smith

Last week I gave a lecture to a couple of hundred students in Kansas. It was the first day back at school after Spring Break and the night before KU had won a big March Madness game. As the lights dimmed for my slideshow, I might as well have sung ‘rock-a-bye baby’ while I talked about Sleeping by the Mississippi. The twenty year olds were dropping like flies.

For most of the audience, attendance was mandatory. To prove they’d been there, each student had to hand in a short worksheet at the end of the lecture. I’d love to have read the sleepers’ comments. Better yet, I’d love to have seen their slideshows.

I thought about these sleeping students while reading Ali Smith’s Artful. The book is a transcription of four lectures Smith gave on European comparative literature at Oxford. While that might sound dull, the book reads like a passionate and unpretentiously intellectual dream.


Here Smith writes about the photograph above while talking to the ghost of her fictional dead lover:

One day, quite late on, you showed me this photograph…You told me about how Lee Miller, the very beautiful woman at the top of the photograph, had started as a Surrealist photographer then in the Second World War had taken photographs all over Britain which still looked like they were Surrealism except now they were realism…

You told me how Miller’s photographs had been lost, completely forgotten about in the final decades of her life, while her husband, who’d taken the photo of the four sleeping women holding cups, Roland Penrose, carried on being the important figure he was in Surrealism and British art. Then one day, some time after her death, her son’s wife went up into the loft and found thousands of negatives, and a set of astonishing and vivid written dispatches she’s sent from the front to Vogue, who’d published them, in the war’s final push.

Then you’d pointed at the dark-haired woman sitting lowest in the picture. That’s Leonora Carrington, you said, one of the most underrated of the British Surrealist artist and writers…

That night in bed you showed me some of Carrington’s pictures. They were dark and bright, playful, like pictures from stories, but wilder, more savage, full of sociable-looking animals and wild-looking animals, beings who were part animal and part human, looking like they were all having a very interesting conversation, masked beings, people who were turning into birds or maybe it was birds turning into people…

You flicked further into the book and read me this: ‘However deeply we look into each other’s eyes a transparent wall divides us from explosion where the looks cross outside our bodies. If by some sage power I could capture that explosion, that mysterious area outside where the wolf and I are one, perhaps then the first door would open and reveal the chamber beyond.’

You told me Leonora Carrington was an expert in liminal space. What’s liminal space? I’d asked you. Ha, you’d said. It’s kind of in-between. A place we get transported to. Like when you look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music and realize that for a while you’ve actually been somewhere else because you did? I’d said.

I confess that I nodded off while reading Artful during my flight home from Kansas, but Smith transported me as much as Delta.  The slideshow I saw in my dreams was one of the best lectures I’ve never attended.

In last week’s post on Hologram For The King, I mentioned the importance of physically holding the book. This came to mind again with Artful. But in this case I wonder if the act of reading itself prevented me from fully plunging into Smith’s surrealist dream. In the lecture ‘On Edge,’ Smith writes:

Are words on the page more than surface? Is the act of reading something of a surface act? Do words on the page hold us on a surface, above depths and shallows like a layer of ice? (A book should be the axe to break the frozen sea inside us, Kafka says.) And what about reading on-screen – the latest, most modern way of communicating, working, writing a letter, writing a book, reading a book, telling a story?

What is a screen? A thing that divides. A thing people undress behind. A think every computer has, in fact a thing computing has distilled itself increasingly into…A thing that has an appearance of transparency and that divides us from bankers, ticket sellers, post office workers, people with money. A thing people project onto.

I’m jealous of the students that were able to attend Smith’s lectures. The attendance the first week was low. But then word got out that Smith was creating something artful and the audience tripled for the second lecture. By the final week there wasn’t an open seat in the house.

Reading Smith made me want to be more creative in the construction of my own lectures. There will always be sleepers, but I like the idea of the artist lecture being the launcher of dreams.


Popsicle #11: A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

hologram_for_the_kingA couple of weeks ago I mentioned my attraction to stories about ordinary men stuck in a run of bad luck. For this week’s assignment, I read about a real humdinger of a a sad sack in A Hologram for The King by Dave Eggers. The protagonist, Alan Clay, is a 54-year old consultant trying to redeem himself after a series of financial and familial failures. His last ditch plan is to sell a holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

While awaiting an audience with the King, Clay recounts his various missteps. The first domino, we learn, was outsourcing manufacturing as part of management at Schwinn bicycles. This eventually led to the outsourcing of Clay’s own job and the company’s demise.

In one of the most painful scenes in the book, Clay calls his father to tell him about his adventures in Saudi Arabia. A union man who’s never forgiven his son’s choices at Schwinn, he admonishes him saying:

Every day, Alan, all over Asia, hundreds of container ships are leaving their ports, full of every kind of consumer good. Talk about three-dimensional, Alan. These are actual things. They’re making actual things over there, and we’re making websites and holograms. Every day our people are making their websites and holograms, while sitting in chairs made in China, working on computers made in China, driving over bridges made in China. Does this sound sustainable to you, Alan?

It was poignant reading this passage while holding the hardcover copy of the book. Like so many Eggers/McSweenys productions, Hologram for a King is lavishly designed to be an actual thing. It is also made by actual people. In the back of the book, Eggers credits every single employee of Thompson-Shore Printers in Dexter, Michigan. (Read a nice piece on Eggers’ relationship with Thompson-Shore here).

I really enjoyed Hologram for a King, particularly after my recent trip to Silicon Valley. Both reading and holding the book made me want to continue making actual things. I wonder if I would have felt the same way if I’d read it on Google Glass.


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Popsicle #10: MASS by Mark Power

NN1500723For reasons having nothing to do with religion, my six-year-old recently started attending a Catholic school. As we prepared for his first day, I was a little worried about his lack of knowledge about Christianity. Not only had he never been to church, I’m not sure we’d ever explained the whole Christ thing.

Weeks after he started school, Pope Benedict announced that he was stepping down. With all of the talk in the news of red shoes and black smoke, I was even more concerned. I felt like we’d moved our son to a foreign country and we didn’t speak the language.

Around this time a book arrived in the mail from Mark Power. Wrapped in rich purple cloth and titled MASS, the book functioned as a perfect primer for this new world.

Power’s book is striking in its simplicity and ingenious craftsmanship. Without introduction or afterword, Power presents 18 pictures of Catholic Church services in Krakow, Poland. Each image is presented as a large, exquisitely detailed fold-out of the congregation photographed from above. Preceding each lavish poster is a simple picture of the church’s humble collection slot.


Yesterday, instead of going to church, my son and I looked at MASS together.

Who is that guy?


What do you know about him?

He wants people to be better persons.

How does he think they should do that?

They should be nice to each other and listen to each other.

Do you think he was rich or poor?

I don’t know.

He was poor.

Then why was he so famous?

Why do you think?

Because he died on a pole.

Why do you think people did that to him?

Because they didn’t like his ideas.

And what were his ideas?

I already told you…being a better person and listening to each other.

But why would they kill him for that?

I don’t know. Maybe because he was poor?

Why do you think they have a church for him?

I don’t know.

But you want to go to church, right?



Because we get to sing and talk and pray.

Do you know what these slots are for?


They are for money. Do you know why people put money in these slots?

So it doesn’t get stolen.

Right, but who do you think the money is for?

The poor people

Behind its deceptively simple presentation, MASS celebrates the majestic allure of the church while also pointing to its most fundamental contradictions. But it is hardly an endictement. As Power says on his website “There is much debate in Poland about the power and wealth of the church, perhaps most specifically in Krakow, and this was something I wanted to investigate and allude to. But what started out as a tirade against Catholicism soon turned to envy, both for the palpable sense of community and for a belief that I saw, understood, but simply couldn’t reach.”

Buy Mark Power’s great book HERE. It is an edition of 750 and has already been a #1 seller on PhotoEye, so you might want to hurry.



Popsicle #9: Gravity and the Dog by Jackson Cassady

15-The-Only-Road-Out-There-12.20.06-COThe Hardest Line – 12.20.06, CO by Jackson Cassady

My plan for this week’s assignment was to write about Jim Gavin’s much praised collection of short stories, Middle Men. The connected theme of these stories, ordinary men failing to string together some good luck in Southern California, seemed right up my middle-aged alley. The first few stories were entertaining enough, but then I made the mistake of watching an episode of Louie. After 20 minutes of my favorite TV shlump, I didn’t feel like reading four more bleakly humorous stories about men eating alone at Del Taco.

Instead of finishing Middle Men, I poked around online and found David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction. Written in 1990, the essay is a great trip down TV memory lane. Wallace talks about the way programming of the time (Moonlighting, Murphy Brown) had co-opted the ironic coolness of contemporary fiction. Midway through the essay, Wallace unleashes his thesis:

I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features in contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems.

Reading Middle Men twenty-three years after this essay was published, it doesn’t seem much has changed. If anything, the brilliance of a show like Louie leaves a lot of contemporary fiction in the dust.

Don’t get me wrong. I like cynical humor as much as the next guy in line at Pump-N-Munch. But a little bit goes a long way. A few Patton Oswalt tweets is just about perfect. But hours and hours of self-conscious guffaws can start to make you, or the world around you, sick.

At the end of Wallace’s essay, he writes something about the future of fiction that might just become my new mission statement:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic, Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “How banal.” Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity.

Over the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time traveling around the US. I’ve encountered plenty of ironic humor, of course, but over and over again I’ve been touched by the stories of real people trying hard to make their way through real lives.

One recent example was the project I worked on for the New York Times Magazine in the oil fields of North Dakota. The experience of visiting this place was profound. But there was something about it that also felt old fashioned. Looking at the pictures in print, it didn’t seem that different from something you might see in a 50’s edition of Life Magazine. It certainly wasn’t cool. I wondered if the media savvy Times readership would roll their eyes.

I’m still not really sure. But shortly after publication I got an amazing email from a fellow named Jackson Cassady. For eight years Cassady worked in the oil fields. Just days before sending me his email he’d given up the good paycheck to pursue his creative ambitions.

The other day Cassady sent me a link to his blog, Gravity and the Dog. I couldn’t help but wonder if Cassady might just be one of David Foster Wallace’s anti-rebels. All I know is that reading his blog gave me a lot more pleasure than reading ironic fiction:

There is an oilfield term POOH – Pull Out Of Hole. I’ve jotted it hundreds of times in countless tally books.

On a rig there are only two reasons to ever POOH. The first and only good reason is getting to TD, or the Total Depth. In this case POOH typically means my job’s done, and I can go home. As a directional driller I have rarely worked a set schedule. I’m on the job to TD, however long drilling to TD takes. Walking out of my house to a job without return in sight is a tough thing. Coming home knowing another call might come at any minute is infinitely worse. Still, every time I got to scribble POOH in my book because we had TD’d the well, it felt as if I were signing my own parole release. The other kind of POOH sucks…

A few weeks ago I was on a rig outside of Lisbon, OH…In the wind it was around 20 below. I sat just off location in my rental sipping plastic vodka toward an easy blur. I surveyed and projected my current path.

I called a friend of mine who is a company man in the Williston Basin. Chris is there working as I type. He’s helped pull me and my family out of the fire a few times. I love and respect him like few people I have ever. He knows me, my personal trials, my solitude. He understood and felt exactly where I was, wholly in that hole.

And he says to me –

The hardest place to be in this world is a freckle away from as far as you can go.

On February 4th I walked away from the oilfield in the middle of a well where lateral leaves curve. I’ve always finished the job. I’ve never missed a target. I’ve been paid stupid money to do simple shit a monkey could master, but I haven’t been making any progress. I wasn’t going to be able to turn this one around. There could be no more drilling ahead on this line, and in staying at it any longer, I was just gonna keep tearing-up my world, myself, literally and otherwise. When tools come apart down-hole on a rig, they call in the fishing crews. I didn’t want to end up dead or broken and having to be fished out of my hole. So I called it. I POOH, sacked my gear, and came home to figure out how I am going to get back on course before I cross my hard line.

Follow Jackson Cassady at Gravity and the Dog.

Popsicle #8: Bye-and-Bye by Charles Wright

Monday stares through the viewfinder, a black hood over his head. – from Littlefoot by Charles Wright

url-1When Brad Zellar and I hit the road for The LBM Dispatch, we’re primarily looking for stories. Our most recent trip, Three Valleys, was no different. Both Silicon and San Joaquin Valley offered up countless leads. But Death Valley was something different. The land felt as stripped of story as it was of vegetation. This proved to be a significant challenge. Despite having produced several books with geographical titles, I’ve never considered myself a landscape photographer. More often than not, I just use geography to hang my metaphorical hat on.

While I was in Death Valley, I thought of different landscape artists that might be of assistance. The one that most prominently came to mind was Charles Wright. I wasn’t sure why. Wright’s poetry has nothing to do with the desert. He’s very much a Southerner (perhaps it was because I spent so much time on this trip with the excellent Southern photographer McNair Evans). At any rate, after leaving Death Valley, I went to City Lights in San Francisco and picked up Charles Wright’s recently published collection of late poems, Bye-and-Bye.

The book didn’t disappoint. Virtually every poem in Bye-and-Bye deals with nature and geography. But over and over again, this landscape reveals Wright’s search for spiritual meaning – something Death Valley also invariably evokes:

The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,
Like the structure of music,
seamless, invisible.
Even the rain has larger sutures.
What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,
Is faith, it appears–faith of the eye, faith of the ear.

– from ‘Body and Soul II’

My ‘faith of the eye’ was tested more than once in Death Valley. After crossing one pass, I saw a giant lake gleaming in the distance. As we drove closer, I could see people the size of ants walking on its surface. Only when we pulled up to its edge could I decipher the illusion. The ‘lake’ was a bed of salt. Nonetheless, the scene looked like a Hollywood depiction of heaven. I tried to take pictures of this illusion, but the results were corny:


I guess this is why I was compelled to read Wright. He’s able to address the big issues behind our engagement with landscape in a way that feels honest, humble and real:

Why, It’s Pretty as a Picture

A shallow thinker, I’m tuned
to the music of things,
The conversations of birds in the dusk-damaged trees,
The just-cut grass in its chalky moans,
The disputations of dogs, night traffic, I’m all ears
To all this and half again.

And so I like it out here,
Late spring, off-colors but firming up, at ease among half things.
At ease because there’s no overwhelming design
I’m sad heir to,
At ease because the dark music of what surrounds me
Plays to my misconceptions, and pricks me, and plays on.

It is a kind of believing without belief that we believe in,
This landscape that goes
no deeper than the eye, and poises like
A postcard in front of us
As though we’d settled it there, just so,
Halfway between the mind’s eye and the mind, just halfway.

And yet we tend to think of it otherwise. Tonight,
For instance, the wind and the mountains and half-moon talk
Of unfamiliar things in a low familiar voice,
As though their words, however small, were putting the world in place.
And they are, they are,
the place inside the place inside the place.
The postcard’s just how we see it, and not how it is.
Behind the eye’s the other eye,
and the other ear.
The moonlight whispers in it, the mountains imprint upon it,
Our eyelids close over it,
Dawn and the sunset radiate from it like Eden.

What gave me the most pleasure reading Wright was less his description of landscape than his ability to use landscape as a vehicle for exploration. Fundamentally, this exploration is literary. But for Wright, literary exploration creeps right up to the edge of spiritual epiphany. It gives Wright something to believe in.

Whenever I start feeling bad about my skills as a landscape photographer, I’m going to reread Wright and this perfect little battle cry:

The Minor Art of Self-Defense 

Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique,
A method of measure,
a scaffold for structuring.
I stole its silences, I stepped to its hue and cry.

Language was always the subject matter, the idea of God
The ghost that over my little world
Hovered, my mouthpiece for meaning,
my claw and bright beak…