Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Rhapsody on Somebody Else's Superior Vocabulary, Part 7

Jentel Artist Residency Program
Banner, WY

In our second week the water in the creek rose several inches. It wasn't exactly a rill when we got here, but shallow enough to scrape my ass the one time I went down in an inner tube. The source is the reservoir up the road toward Buffalo, and I picture someone turning a faucet to let the river rise, or tipping a vast cruet another few degrees. I have swum in the river since the adjustment but I haven't crossed it to climb Snake Hill and hike the Thousand Acres on the other side. The others do this routinely but I can't get myself up there. My mornings are devoted to work, as are my mid-days, which are too hot for a hike. At sunset, I'm on my bicycle, scouting for porcupines and antelope fauns, like the one I got pretty close to on yesterday's ride. His mother bolted as I crested the hill, but he just trotted perfunctorily down the road a few paces, as though he understood the procedure but hadn't learned to panic. When I got too close he wiggled under the cattle fence and then we stood and regarded each other while I took his picture. When he lost interest and turned away, I called to him and he looked back at me. What? That's what he's saying in the picture.

Still I haven't gotten up Snake Hill. You could put the hiking boots on my feet and an alpenstock in my hand, give me the trail map and I would just find my way back to my studio to stare at the novel. I just stare at it sometimes, outraged that it's not finished. I've worked seven hours a day fourteen days in a row here in Wyoming, and those hours don't count dicking around with my email and blog or even researching things for the book; they don't count looking up words from somebody else's superior vocabulary or reading The Gospel According to Thomas, though I could easily count that as research (why else would I be reading about somebody else's lord and savior?). It does count the systematic murder of dozens if not now hundreds of box elder bugs with the writer's studio Dustbuster. I shudder to think what that thing will look like when it's emptied. Maybe one of the artists should be given first crack at it. Two of them collect animal carcasses from the side of the road and around the property. The latest find was a rattlesnake, run over by a car. Probably the same one we saw as we were leaving to catch closing night of The Laramie Project, put on by some college and high school kids in Sheridan. The snake seemed a little listless as Mike hoisted it with a long stick and moved it away from the house, and the creature's rattle was a few degrees askew. Even those of us who are accustomed to rattlers were excited to see this three-foot yellow beauty, a theophany of sorts, to come so close to a creature with power over life and death. Now he's dead and broken, in our freezer, awaiting his next incarnation. A drawing? Ankle boots? Lunch?

Adam saw a couple of golden eagles but everyone seems most jealous of my porcupine sightings. I saw a second one coming home from last night's bike ride, a black poof waddling across the road. I thought it might be a badger because he was so much blacker than the other one. I accelerated and got just close enough to make out his departing quills. Commoved by the noise of my tires in the gravel, he hustled up the hill and out of sight.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Rhapsody on Somebody Else's Superior Vocabulary, Part 6

Jentel Artist Residency Program
Banner, WY

Since this is a vocabulary exercise, I'm going to throw a question out there: what is the word for those little bowls carved by trapped pebbles in stony riverbeds, the kind that look as though God came down with a ball-peen hammer and indented the stone while it was still just slightly molten? It took me a minute today to remember that a porcupine has quills, not spines. Yesterday I saw my first porcupine outside of a zoo, right in our driveway as I was riding my bike out to the road. At first I thought he was a clump of grass that had been uprooted and deposited in the red gravel, and I was going to move him. Then he moved, and craned his neck around to have a look at me. He had a cute black face, and his quills lay back as though windswept. I never realized how green they were, as though the god of field grasses had tupped a black possum. I did a little mudra, the kind that usually works with dogs, to convey my good will but it was lost on him. He shambled toward the tall grasses as I got my camera out; he was unhurried and kept his quills aimed at me. I wondered if they were the same quills that had to be removed from one of the colony dogs last week.

The evening light was thrown far across the western sky, elusive through the thin spots in the cloud cover as phosphenes glimpsed by rubbed eyes. The rains had compacted the dirt, so scaling the hill was twice as easy, like swinging a fungo bat, and I wanted to keep on riding, into the night. Lightning over the eastern hills turned me back.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rhapsody on Somebody Else's Superior Vocabulary, Part 5

Jentel Artist Residency Program
Banner, Wyoming
The place we go to get cell reception, by the mysterious cairn in the high pasture, is a half mile down Lower Piney Creek Road, up a long steep grade dividing irrigated pastures where herds of antelope graze and spook as I bike by. The sprinklers labor on through this wet week. The Democratic governor was in the paper the other day talking about the weird weather, probably referring to the stretch of heat in the upper nineties and low 100s. Even the Republican speaker of the state house is concerned about climate change. The hills above us seem embarrassed by the rain, as though they'd rather be sere, yellow. Instead they blush green.

If I were in a different place with the novel, I would roister with my fellow residents; I've been invited. If I were in a different life, maybe I would relax. Instead, I rewrite my novel, every word of it, starting with a blank Word document. I am re-outlining it, every chapter, every theme, every referent and symbol. I'm using 4x6 cards for this, and in idle moments I cycle through them, a mesmeric exercise, watching the whole work tick by like a flip book. Four parts, thirteen chapters each. There go my themes, my allusions, my migrainous hero, his disintegrating vanities, my new vocabulary words.

One of my note cards reads: I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever write another novel. But I will finish this one.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Rhapsody on Somebody Else's Superior Vocabulary, Part 4

Jentel Artist Residency Program
Banner, Wyoming

"My whole novel feels like a salvage operation at this point," I just told a fellow artist here. He was kneeling on the pavement in front of the artists' studios (where I lurk for the wi-fi), disassembling a cast, gone awry, of his own head. It looked like he was pulling out insulation from a head-sized hole punched in a wall. "Polyester resin," he told me. "Very toxic."

And now another wide-eyed urban writer will attempt to say something meaningful and original about the Wyoming landscape, this green valley in the long evening shadow of the Bighorn Mountains, which loom at the southeastern horizon like a megalithic wall, the peaks a series of belvederes, snowy even as we in the valley roast, treading carefully between air-conditioned studio and air-conditioned house, blade-perfect links a buffer between us and the grass that obscures a civilization of snakes. Biking up Lower Piney Creek Road two nights ago I nearly ran over a pair of bull snakes, three and four feet long. I thought they were rattlers, but they had no rattles, no venom-packing jaws, and they were unconcerned with me as I approached, didn't coil or otherwise move apart from the flicking of their little red tongues. On my way back they were gone, but the grasses offered a rattling tattoo, echo of serpentine mimicry.