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Sand into Speech

By Bruce Berger

When I retrace my unready first steps as a writer, I find them both haphazard and inevitable.

I think of my childhood in suburban Chicago, theatrically, as Boredom Under the Elms, the saving grace of which was that my parents pulled me out of grade school for two months every winter and I became a hotel brat in Florida, Hawaii, Jamaica and other southerly locales. My father, sixty and retired when I was born, claimed that dank Chicago winters made it impossible for him to breathe, a diagnosis later changed to emphysema from chain-smoking Lucky Strikes. The revelation for me came during the two winters outside Phoenix, where the Sonoran Desert – now smothered by sprawl – instantly became the landscape of my imagination and later the subject of my words. When I reached high school, the principal told my shocked parents that it would be illegal to pull me out of school, and I had to settle for spring vacations skiing with my half-sister, who had moved to Aspen. There, during the Fifties, I found the perfect community, even if the Rocky Mountains were the second-best landscape, and it became my writer’s retreat as an adult.

Always fascinated with words, I was slow to become a reader, let alone a writer. During grade school I was addicted to crossword puzzles and puns, and during high school I played Scrabble for small change with my parents, raking in the nickels as I did my homework. Travels curtailed, I discovered books about far places, including such climbing sagas as Annapurna and The Conquest of Everest, and for a time Tibet became the capital of my daydreams. Holiday magazine arrived monthly with extended pieces by writers like Paul Bowles and John Steinbeck, whose Travels with Charley the magazine commissioned, demonstrating the reach of literary travel. My father and his friends, meanwhile, were all CPAs, talking endlessly of audits and clients over old-fashioneds. They were my living role models, and I went off to college assuming I would become one of them.

But there’s no accounting for taste and I had no taste for accounting. Confronted with a course catalog, I picked all my electives in the arts. Conrad’s evocations of the tropics or the sea, and Faulkner’s conjurations of the red dirt rural South, raced my heart as feverishly as the sight of a new sandscape. But it was a writer publishing at the moment who pulled together my loose strains. The literati I fell in with were all reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, whose last volumes were just appearing. We were dazzled by language that matched the exoticism, artifice so accomplished it seemed natural, metaphors that rocketed through the dormitory. Though it was unfashionable to read mere travel books, I devoured Bitter Lemons, which begins with a departure by boat from Venice described in terms of painting techniques I had learned from my watercolorist mother, along with the statement, “Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.” Here was pure fusion of language, art, thought and place. It shared the explosive compression of poetry. It landed Cyprus in my bunk. To approximate locations in words was what I was born to attempt.

The compact was sealed when a college friend and I traveled through Europe. We rented a room for a week in a pension on Rhodes, a kilometer outside the capital. Every day, as we walked into town, we passed a eucalyptus grove shading a small Turkish cemetery, whose half-tumbled tombs were capped by small stone turbans. Next to it reposed a cottage and, beyond that, a small mosque. One day in town we happened into a bookstore where a stack of blue Faber paperbacks rose from the floor in a single precarious waist-high column. The title was Reflections on a Marine Venus, by Lawrence Durrell, a book on Rhodes I was unaware of. Reading in the pension, I came upon the following phrases:

“How often have I not been to the little churchyard behind the Mosque of Murad Reis? Then how is it that only today I saw the house which I would like to live in? It is buried in overhanging trees….Outside the shrubbery the Turkish tombstones lie within the yellowish sickle-shaped eucalyptus leaves drifting over them….It is simply a match-box of a house, but its situation is more beautiful than anything I would have imagined possible….”

So the writer had lived in the little house by the cemetery! I wandered there alone, looking more closely at the tombs and the cottage he had called a “villa”. In space, if not in time, I had crossed paths with the master and sealed a pact.

Still, becoming a CPA had only been replaced by becoming a professor, and now my eye was on graduate school. One of my professors, Harold Bloom – then a literary young Turk rather than themonstre sacré he has become – said he had “learned from” a paper I wrote on the Blake prophetic books, and asked me to stay on to pursue a doctorate on Blake while he wrote his book on the subject. But Blake was not my poet and, after four years, New Haven was definitely not my town. I picked Berkeley for the scenery – but its classes for the Masters were less stimulating than those I had experienced as an undergraduate, and at the beginning of the second semester, stuck by the stalls and facing a pile of obligatory critical works, I got to wondering what Crater Lake looked like in the snow. Without seeing the act coming, I chucked all the books down the chute, packed up the Ford Falcon and headed to Oregon. Looking back on my book dump at the library, I thought of it as a kind of psychological vomiting. I had already been spending weekends in Cannery Row, which was enjoying a glorious interregnum between Steinbeck and tourism, and on returning from Oregon I moved in there with artist friends, knocking out picture frames and trying to write, though in truth I had nothing to say. Two experiences gave me my material.

In the fall of 1962, through an Aspen connection, I was invited on a float trip through Glen Canyon, a near-200 mile stretch of the Colorado River through Utah. The experience was shattering. The towering sandstone walls, the labyrinthine side canyons, the parallel strips of riverbank green that composed a walled-in ecosystem, and the muscular, silt-laden river that transported us through it were like a conversion that disordered, then realigned the landscapes I had previously known. At the end of the trip we washed up on a film set of the life story of Jesus, a Hollywood epic calledThe Greatest Story Ever Told. But the experience was also heartbreaking, for in two months the floodgates were scheduled to close at Glen Canyon Dam, obliterating all we had seen under a 186-mile reservoir called Lake Powell. Here, in spades, was material. Activating the pact on Rhodes, I wrote it as I imagined Lawrence Durrell would have, knowing that the result wouldn’t be derivative because I was not an Indian-born Brit, Durrell’s Mediterranean was nothing like the Colorado Plateau, and I had a bitter lemon of my own in the American wisecrack. The resulting journal wasn’t published until 13 years later, when it consumed an issue of Mountain Gazette, and in drastic rewrite it became the title piece of an essay collection called There Was A River in 1994 – a 32-year spread between first notes and final form. With the first version my style was set, I needed no further assistance from Mr. Durrell, and from then on I simply wrote.

One sundown, years after Glen Canyon, I was driving from Superior to Apache Junction, Arizona, blinded by the brilliance of the last light. I pulled off and strolled through the cactus forest. The horizontal rays bored through the blond needles and khaki skin to where the pulp had fallen away to reveal structure. An essay took shape that examined how cacti die, slowly, piecemeal, on their feet – with implicit parallels to our own various passings, so that the piece became, not quite deliberately, a death meditation in the manner of John Donne. This compacted essay released further essays about the behavior of desert travelers. Sonoran life forms, cultural middens, desert humor, collecting, designer deserts, the desert rat in the arts, and the raptor’s view of astronomy as I entertained any idea that entertained me back. In agglomerations they form the books I hope will survive.

After such capricious turns in my own journey toward writing, I look in bewilderment at today’s panorama of workshops, writers’ conferences and MFA programs, pre-blazed paths that seemed to erupt after my own was set. From the outside, this group drill looks more like the journey toward becoming a professor or a CPA, though in the living it surely has its own twists and turns. And any path will serve if it takes you where you need to go.


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