SPEAKER: In later years, Ammons liked to say that as he drove across the arid plains of the American Southwest in 1950 on his way to attend graduate school at UC Berkeley, he immediately recognized it as his spiritual home. In an early poem called "Driving Through," Ammons mythologizes his trip through the desert and explicitly ties it to his birth as a writer.
"In the desert midnight, I said, taking out my notebook, 'I am astonished,' the widely traveled, having seen Empire State and Palestine, Texas and San Miguel de Allende, 'to mention extremes.' and sharpened my pencil on the sole of my shoe. The mountains, running, skidded over the icy mirages of the moon and fell down tumbling, laughing for breath on the cool dunes. The stone mosaics of the flattest places, parting lake gifts, grouped in colors and played games at imagery, a green tiger with orange eyes, an Orpheus with moving fingers.
Fonthill-- the shrubs flooded everything with cool water. I sat down against a brimming smoke tree to watch. And morning found the desert reserved, trembling at its hot and rainless task. Driving through, you would never suspect the midnight right or, seeing my lonely house, guess it will someday hold laurel and a friend."
If his mother's death turned the farm to a parched desert, the actual southwestern desert here becomes a scene of rebirth and initiation. The poem depicts a kind of ritual preparation to write, opening the notebook, sharpening the pencil, but not the act of writing itself. Instead, we are given the extraordinary nocturnal vision of the middle section, in which the desert landscape does the work of the imagination for the poet, spewing forth fantastic images like a poetic geyser.
As morning breaks, the desert is once again reserved, trembling at its hot and rainless task. But the promise of future visions lies behind the speaker's confident declaration that his lonely house will "someday hold laurel and a friend."
The laurel leaf was a traditional prize for poetic achievement. Ammons's prophecy proved to be amazingly accurate, since he eventually went on to receive just about every major poetry prize. But it would be many years before he would begin to see that kind of recognition.
As "Driving Through" makes clear, Ammons started out as a visionary poet, drawn more to myth and allegory than to realistic description. The desert supplied both the catalyst and the primary setting for this early work. Unlike the moist soil of North Carolina, desert sand doesn't hold footprints or furrows. Its windblown surface continually erases itself, leaving no trace of past inhabitants.
Though a desert is often a complex ecosystem, for Ammons's poetic purposes, it is essentially blank, a barren space in which elemental encounters can occur. It is thus an ideal landscape for a poet seeking to reinvent himself from the ground up.
Ammons's first book, Ommateum, published by a vanity press in 1955, evokes many landscapes, including marshes, forests, and coasts. But the desert is its dominant setting by a wide measure, at times threatening to swallow up all the others. These desert poems contain a few regional references, but for the most part, they place themselves in an indeterminate locale that flickers ambiguously between the American Southwest and a generic Middle Eastern landscape drawn from the Bible and other ancient writings.
Many of the poems in Ommateum portray a solitary wanderer contending with elemental forces. In some poems, that figure calls himself "Ezra, a name with strongly biblical overtones, though Ammons later said he took the name from a boyhood friend who was killed in the war.
Ezra's most potent adversary is the wind, which plays a part in almost every poem in Ommateum. Throughout his career, Ammons was endlessly fascinated by the way wind borrows form and substance from its surroundings, embodying itself in water, grass, and dust. For Ammons, wind marks the meeting place of matter and spirit. Shapeless and invisible in itself, it nevertheless produces tangible effects, nowhere more so than in the desert. In its most spectacular guise, the wind becomes a kind of god, striding across the landscape.
"This land, where whirlwinds walking at noon in tall columns of dust take stately turns around the desert, is a very dry land." These giant walkers easily dwarf mere human pedestrians like Ezra, who nevertheless struggles heroically to make his presence among them known.
In the famous opening poem of Ommateum, the protagonist can barely pronounce his own name. "So I said, 'I am Ezra,' and the wind whipped my throat, gaming for the sounds of my voice." Faced with such implacable violence, the speaker of these poems makes a crucial decision, choosing to embrace the wind in all its fury rather than to resist it.
The clearest statement of this surrender comes in a poem entitled "In The Wind, My Rescue Is." Here is the first section of the poem. "In the wind, my rescue is, in whorls of it, like winged tufts of dreams, bearing through the forms of nothingness, the geysers and hurricane eyes, the seed safety of multiple origins."
Ammons characteristically depicts the wind's motion as circular rather than linear, and this lends it an almost womb-like insularity that is suddenly reinforced by the verb "bearing." What the wind bears is the "seed safety of multiple origins," a strange phrase whose syntax is hard to grasp. This may be Ammons's eccentric variation on the cliche "safety in numbers."
To posit multiple origins, whether for wind, seed, or person, is to rescue the mind from the tyranny of monolithic thought. Such thought is represented in the middle section of the poem by an image that recurs almost obsessively in Ammons's work.
"I set it my task to gather the stones of earth into one place, the water-mottled, sand-molded stones, from the water images of riverbeds and drought, from the boundaries of the mine, from sloping farms and altitudes of ice, and to mount upon the highest stone a cardinal, chilled in the attitude of song."
The peculiarly human impulse to gather similar objects into one place is parodied here by Ezra's rock pile, at once a crude monument and a primitive temple. And notice the hidden pun in Ammons's choice of a cardinal as the pile's ornamental bird. The cold fixity of this structure is conveyed by words like "ice" and "chilled"-- stands in sharp contrast to the wind's fluidity, which reasserts itself in the poem's closing section.
"But the wind has sown loose dreams in my eyes and telling unknown tongues drawn me out beyond the land's end, and, rising in long parabolas of bliss, bore me safety from all those ungathered stones."
Ammons was a lifelong connoisseur of motions, and two of his favorites were gathering and dispersal. If the heaped stones represent a kind of centrifugal force, the wind's energy is centripetal, looping outward in "long parabolas of bliss." Sorting and accumulating are rational procedures that have their practical use, but dispersal, dissemination, and scattering are what keep both mind and world alive and in motion.
This is why the poem ends not with the majestic mound but with "all those ungathered stones," which are simultaneously a threat to the speaker's mastery and a source of safety, as the deeply ambiguous "from" of the last line suggests. Here, it may be helpful to recall the image Ammons called "the most powerful he had ever known," his dead brother's footprint and the crude shelter his mother built to preserve it.
That image becomes greatly magnified in the vast space of the desert, but the basic impulse to leave some mark on the landscape that can withstand the erosive effects of time is the same. In effect, these desert poems explore the rival claims of wind and footprint, granting each its own authority.
In one of the last and finest of Ammons's desert poems, "Mansion," written well after the publication of Ommateum, the speaker reaches a final bargain with the wind. "So it came time for me to cede myself, and I chose the wind to be delivered to. The wind was glad, and said it needed all the body it could get to show its motions with and wanted to know, willingly, as I hoped it would, if it could do something in return to show its gratitude.
'When the tree of my bones rises from the skin,' I said, 'come and, whirlwinding, stroll my dust around the plane so I can see how the ocotillo and how saguaro wren is. And when you fall with evening, fall with me here, where we can watch the closing up of day and think how morning breaks.'"
In this poem, the speaker has definitively chosen dispersal over gathering. He surrenders himself to the wind with a curious faith that it will honor his wish to remain sentient and in touch with his surroundings. The landscape is no longer Sumerian but American, as the "ocotillo" and "saguaro wren" attest, which may help explain why the monumentalizing impulse present in other poems has faded.
But the poem's title, "Mansion," suggests that a kind of architecture persists, if only in the mind of the speaker, and marks a basic shift in the way Ammons conceives the relation between wind and shelter. When the whole of the desert is your mansion, you can let the wind blow your dust about freely, secure in the knowledge that you will always be at home.
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The poetry of A.R. Ammons has won praise for its close attention to nature and the incorporation of scientific terms, its candid attention to daily life, and its mastery of both long and short forms. Join Roger Gilbert as he focuses on the crucial role played by place or scene in Ammons's work.
This video is part 3 of 6 in the From Whiteville to Ithaca series.