David Matlin: Excerpt from a novel-in-progress

[“The following excerpt is from the final novel of a trilogy which includes the previously published How the Night Is Divided and  A HalfMan DreamingIt is part of an on-going experiment in the Southern California rural dialect I grew up with among not only Jewish ranchers and farmers but a larger community of diverse backgrounds.  Much of the narrative includes multiple portraits of land, water, and a world, for the most part, that has disappeared.”  (D.M.)]


            The Kiowa decided his eyes were still good; for seeing, he guessed. He was, though, hand and foot sore, those ends of his body ready for a sling. As for his prick and balls, the fleas had not stopped coming to wake them. And as the sun shone over the world he wondered how to take this son of his friends home.

            They were traveling. Is that the way it is supposed to be written and said? They were traveling and the Kiowa saw far ahead. There were hills that became mountains and mountains that became hills in the thinning darkness. Make the daylight come quickly except for when the Stories are told. Then may the night last long for laughter and miracles, a little mud to make existence, a little quarreling to set existence to breathing; some incest, some cannibalism. Let them swim too in an ocean of riddles.

            They were living – and where?  “There”  -  “Here”  -  “A ways over yonder hills”  -  Near and more Near  -  as Near as the smell of rivers and river fruit. Is that the way to continue a Story. Keep it a step ahead of Evil and how Evil smells and licks the same water, the same flesh impatient to shed its Light so like Light itself washing over the land and sea?

            Tom Green remembered the photography of a fellow Kiowa as the sun began to penetrate a morning full of owl and bat shadow. He’d driven Wesley to the western edge of the Oklahoma Panhandle and wanted to see the silhouette of Black Mesa, Oklahoma’s highest peak at nearly five thousand feet. Not huge as the Waterer knew, but still, he longed for the Jurassic stain of the surrounding soils and the one hundred eighty million year old tongue of lava that had been tasting this section of the world and its appearances steadily as the uncharted nothingness that preens and grows the more men unknowingly swear by it.

            He wandered into this place with its canyons and petroglyphs on his way to California; stood in the tracks of an Allosaur wondering what his Kiowa and Comanche relatives thought of these signatures, whether the most astute warrior/dreamers smelled these faraway creatures buried in the near rock layers as they scouted this huge segment of landscape where the Rocky Mountains slide down into the Short Grass Plains and those horizons that, offering neither mind nor eye companionable poverty and riches, offer instead a kind of beautiful gnawing abyss that swallows the breath that holds time, the breath holding him and this dinosaur, both of them  perhaps overdressed in their skins. Call it beauty or fashion as is a creature’s want, and alternatively, as the Farmer might have said, genetics taking an affluent turn for the refreshment of its labors and wit. The Kiowa wanted also to see the flow of land from that promontory fanning down from the Sangre de Christos, the face of the grasslands southern haunches sprung by aromatic first spring winds and their press against the face, the eyelids and lips become wind pasturage and the inheritance of bone underneath until that be the only speech a human holds underfoot and then walks it with whatever incompetence and restlessness allows, truly, and listening for the sway of grassheads tumbling and serious, bee-like in their oldest vocations. An unbashful neighbor of Death, Tom Green said of it, the wind-grass, and the more bashful neighbors of Life joined to the acquaintances of bird claw and flower, snowstorms and wolf breath as its welling currents plunge and belong and destroy.

            Get up there too and think about Horace Poolaw, the Kiowa photographer. He often, while having lunch at the Farmer’s house, particularly during Southern California spring rains when work meant welding, taking engines apart, helping neighbors, fixing leaky roofs, replacing dead pumps; the tide of chores, which, if one strayed too far from them, water broke, as it might, not as a woman possessed by her time and its wonders, but sprig-by-sprig uncharted wreckage taken root, as the Farmer considered it, pitifully and without simple notice. There were, as always, piles of books on tables and chairs; some of them collections of photographs. Wesley’s mother had a particular respect for two women who made of that art “a secret dress pocket” as she said, and be careful about the ways your hand wanders down there; it was to her the equivalent of sticking your fingers in an old coastal shell heap and touching the shoals of trouble whether despondent or propitious of those inheritances which give tread to imagination. Neither in her mind escaped the divinations of strife and its long body she thought these pictures courted without mercy and yet standing tall in a garden ready to seed. Both women, she thought, had some sort of ice in their eyes.

            One was Margaret Bourke-White. The Kiowa looked through these books while the Farmer’s wife prepared mid-day stews and chili. There were pictures of families and fruit sellers in Russia and Eastern Europe. People who didn’t have a lot and were not afraid not to have what they didn’t have. You could see it in the way they held their noses, breathe the air coming to them stingily not expecting more of it nor to escape it as if theirs were a late-in-a-day corner with no surprises, the wonders spent and gone missing, but still some sweet herbs to pick for the hidden aromas however lean each will be.

            There was an Okefenokee woman. Thirty-five probably. Behind her right shoulder hangs a strange picture of, what is it, a grandmother from the 1850s with a high collared dress and face proportioned by a still alive dignity, eyes stout with business-like humor that comes with her survival, the mouth hospitable but resolute as a deep rooted weed, her beauty not fancy yet holding its ground ably though children will come and will die. A crumpling chest-of-drawers and frayed pine siding form a natural backdrop of split and bunched shadows for what the Kiowa thought was the grand-daughter who looks at her latest suckling infant as one who stares down a frost killed field, knowing the dull unbroken pity of it and that each day after it will rob the tomorrows no matter the deep enough tenderness with which she cradles her child. Her cotton dress has large white lapels set off by a thick over-all flower pattern. Her left breast is exposed for the child who rests in the crook of her left arm and tastes of what milk her body will offer whether for this day or the next no one can estimate. Her face has dried up long before her breasts. A woman, once, not unhandsome, given to carrying her body easily, and, long before, maybe, an ample dancer loving those thimble-fulls of air by which the feet are awakened. She is now, though, a spare castaway who can entertain little, even of despair and its meager composures. And yet the picture is frank in its full-of-cares distinction. A woman feeding her child of her own body, unafraid to belong to its nearing starvations, to the land of it and its oldest rules.

            As he drove he looked at his friend’s son’s ankles and recalled Bourke-White’s photos of a place called “Hood’s Chapel Georgia.” No town in the pictures he examined but there was a row of trees and a row of prisoners in a ditch digging toward those trees and the ugly horizon of an empty sky. A man stands above the line of men squeezed into their single file of pure brooding weariness and goddamned if they didn’t wear about the same stripped clothes as the “inmates” he saw in that place called “Buchenwald.” The “overseer” stands over them like some sort of well oiled pumpkin, a shot-gun hung over his left shoulder, no decoration, no air, and him, he stands over that cruelty like it is some sort of fine parade he’s figured out, can aim that cannon, and without fluttering the trigger, introduce his own sweetest blooms of violence to his parish of sun-stroked exiles. One of the photographs is a close-up of boots scoured by the furnace of hostilities feeding upon them. The legs above the boot line are covered with prison stripped leggings. The cloth loathsomely wrinkled and sweat rotted with the slow, crushing hours has the stamp of the Grand Tour of Dread the world covets as if it were a mother lode. Each leg is shackled choke tight from ankle to just below knee. What is not noosed by steel is noosed thick by leather calf restraints cinched to a just before maiming of vein and skin. Each man’s legs wreathed and suffocated with slave gear were a bottleneck, the Kiowa guessed, where a God goes in young at the entrance and at the exit comes out inconceivably heavy with the starvations that crush Gods and their offspring into villainous stubs. In one picture two legs from separate bodies are belted together. There is no use in improving the pain, no need for a face to disturb the stillness of ratcheted fatigue and misery. There is a spoon pushed through what appears to be an extra leather loop. It is shiny with being licked, licked hard by human tongues, bare ribbed spit making the little metal trough some famine snare, running late or early, it doesn’t matter.


[NOTE.  As a poet & novelist, as well as in his groundbreaking study of America’s prisons (Prisons: Inside the New America), Matlin gives us a political/mental/visceral mapping of the fate of America, its people, & the other worlds on which it has impinged in the course of our lifetimes.  In his work, then & now, he displays the poetry/history combine that marks the best side of American writing in whatever form it takes.  In an early description of that work Robert Creeley wrote of Matlin’s prowess & promise: “Unremitting particular powers of the human long before it got lost in the junk—where a bird can still sing it.”  And Charles Stein, going still further: “Matlin's work is not a comfortable ‘read’—in fact it is not a ‘read’ at all—but an initiation, possibly, into the predatory condition of one's own vitality. It is a poetry that bears witness to the occluded stain of violence across American life, local and historical; its means are an ear that is tense and accurate, and an attention, particular, conscientious, and cleansing.”  The proof by now is overwhelming. (J.R.)]