Stubborn, out of breath, I drove the four miles up Jumbo Grade with a friend to find Edgardo’s sheep camp. It had been raining—unusual for June on the Comstock. The lupine, both white and blue, were everywhere. We saw the sheep first—2,000 of them—up and down the saddle to the south. In the middle of this huge brown mass, with his two sheep dogs, stood Edgardo.
He had left Peru 18 months earlier, not yet having seen his daughter, born one month after he set foot in America. We were there to make a video to send to his family, so that his wife and child may finally know how he lived. He told us they thought he led an idyllic existence, but save the Virginia Range that he now spoke from, it was harsh and the work was long and dirty.
With a whistle the sheep scattered up the hill, back to water and rest during the midday heat. We walked in his footsteps as he spoke. There was a flutter of wind and rain threatened. I asked him, "Aren’t you afraid of the rain?"
"I am more afraid of wind than rain."
Inside his 6 by 10 trailer, his daughter’s picture hanging on the wall, he showed us his contract, written in 8 point type. One paragraph stood out: If you cannot live with these three things do not come—el terrano, la clima, y la soledad. The terrain, the climate, and the solitude.
I tried to imagine: coming to a country with virtually no second language and living in isolation for three years—the duration of his contract—to earn a measly $700 per month. I could not. There is a line in a poem I later wrote to him—"I think of Edgardo/ naked among the sheep," so vulnerable must he be.
When I handed him the poem he eagerly shared a book of Neruda’s poetry with me—then went on to correct the source of my lone quote from the Peruvian poet, José Carlos Mariátegui: "Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes… ¡Yo no sé!" There are blows in life so hard, I cannot know them.
"Vallejo," he said, "César Vallejo."
Outside his trailer was a badger, still fat with meat, flies buzzing at the sockets, front legs and body splayed on a large stone. Incredulous, I pointed at it. Edgardo turned to me, "Yesterday. I throw a rock on the back of its head and he died."
Killed it with a stone. Most hunters would run at the sight of a badger. When his boss arrived, there was an air of uneasiness about him. He wondered why we were there, what could we want with this man?
Edgardo with the coyote, the badger, the poets.
Five days later I left for France with my boys, my neighbor and his son. I spent a long time thinking about what I would read, because the right words when opened far from home, sift the good light from much that ails.
It was no coincidence the first book I opened began, "My father was a sheepherder, and his home was the hills." Robert Laxalt, perhaps Nevada’s finest fiction writer. A man who never confused the two poles of self and other. Instead he kept looking for a way to get that magnanimous humanity on the page, the rugged self assurance of a father in the hills and a mother as resolute as the Pyrenees from which she came. Quiet, spare and honest.
When he started Sweet Promised Land he knew nothing but failure. Unable to find a way into his story, his father’s story, his family’s story. And when he wrote that first line—in utter desperation he would later tell me—he knew it was a larger story, one that reached beyond Western borders. Whether immigrant, settler or searcher, it was our story. The restless ones looking for more, looking for solace.
When I closed Sweet Promised Land in Marseille, I felt certain Edgardo would get home to see his wife and child, his beloved Peru, and start the video business for which he was saving. I hoped I would see him again, hoped that small filament of memory would suffice until then.
Then I kissed my family and boarded a plane for Malta, island home to about 6,000 ex-patriot Brits, among them, Doc Fielding.
In the early ’90s, Doc Fielding showed up in my poetry writing workshop at the prison. Inevitably, I am asked, Why was he in prison?
When his pharmaceutical company went public, his son-in-law took the ten million dollars and fled London leaving Doc the only responsible party to arrest. He was on ‘holiday’ in Nevada. After he was finally exonerated by the English courts, left penniless by his immediate family, this former member of British royalty tried to put his life back together. And he will never forget the five or six friends he made in Nevada—people who did not give up on him when he was only a prisoner.
One night in the poetry workshop I asked him about his childhood. He told me he slept on cardboard in London store fronts until an orphanage took him in. He had never shared this with anyone. I asked him to write a poem about it—something else he had never done.
The poems—he wrote two—were stellar, truly fine language. I was sleeping in that box when he finished. But I never knew we would see each other years later in a tiny country in the Mediterranean. Even more incredible, this is a man who harbors no malice. He writes, paints, and tends all his many flowers with "a ruthless hand," to quote Stanley Kunitz—wisteria, lavender, morning glory, hibiscus, passion fruit, lobelia, honeysuckle, geranium and more.
Doc makes me think of the Puerto Rican janitor in Steam Bath, the only person all these anxious men can speak to while they wait in purgatory. They continually ask him—which door do I go out? Who’s in charge here? I need to get back to my Mercedes, my golf clubs, my girl friend. The janitor smiles and keeps mopping the floor, never really answering their questions. It is only at the end of the play we learn he’s the gatekeeper for these restless souls. And he will decide if their kindness toward him—a lowly janitor—warrants the door to heaven.
Marseille was dark when I touched down. The hotel was closed. I walked further still and slept on the outskirts of the city. When light returned I rode the train through van Gogh’s sunflowers and found my family in Collioure.
On a damp morning before leaving for Malta, my elder son spotted Of Mice and Men in a bookstore in central France. It was with more than a little trepidation that I gave it to him. We are both slow readers. I read to savor language and he, the story. I hoped it would tug at his skinny frame as it did mine. There was a part of me that was afraid to share it—miles from home in a hilltop village, a fortress dating from the 12th century in Provence, what if he didn’t like it? Steinbeck is one writer for whom I have unequivocal admiration. What if he didn’t like it?
In the Toulouse train station he started reading. We woke in the couchette on the gray outskirts of Madrid. He had stayed up late to finish it. "Sad," he said, "it was sad but I liked it. A lot dad," in that tone saved for parental affection.
This is the tricky part I thought. Next to my spouse, my sons are like bread to me. If I screw up words with them, try to push them too far, they will grow up to dislike the very thing I love. As many poems as I have written, they would mean nothing if my sons grew up thinking reading was a chore. And so the words are savored in our house. I want them to know that poetry, above all, is feeling on the page, and occasionally I am moved to tears with the taste of such feeling.
Joseph Brodsky, the late Poet Laureate and Russian immigrant, said that "American poetry is this country’s greatest patrimony. It takes a stranger to see some things clearly. This is one of them, and I am that stranger." Our greatest inheritance he said. He thought it should come to every household like milk or electricity and should be sold cheaply in dime stores and supermarkets. He thought it should be in the world— in a house by a bed, by a child, or by a mother and father reading to a child.
When Andrew Carroll read of Brodsky’s dream, he started a Washington, D.C. foundation to distribute thousands of poetry volumes in those same public places.
As a boy in the Richmond District of San Francisco, the poet Tom Meschery tells of his father falling to sleep trying to read Zane Grey, the Western writer, and yet he read in Russian. So powerful was the spell of words he read this foreign alphabet, read until he could no longer stay awake.
Perhaps because I almost lost reading, I think of these things when I read to my own children. I read very little before I turned 18. I am not proud of it; it was an awkward time and I was trying to find my way. My college degree is not in
English; as far as literature goes, I am largely self-taught. But my library is bursting with hundreds of books that I will read until they lay me down. I read as if it were oxygen coming into my lungs. A book is a candle I hold to my chest until it burns all the wax down on my hands and then I let it go.
One morning in Collioure, I heard a sparrow at the shutter and rose to sip coffee in the mist. On the grass below the patio a hoopoe—migrating from North Africa—and one of the few species to travel with its mate. I was doubly blessed to see this bird with a headdress like a kachina doll in the yard.
I ran inside to find the bird guide for the south of France. There it was: this robinesque bird with its wild display of feathers. When I talked to the people who lived there, especially the caretaker who raised carrier pigeons, they said I was lucky to have seen it. The hoopoe— just hearing the name made me imitate its cry: hoo-poo, hoo-poo.
Then I thought of the last songbird in Malta.
Just as the buffalo crested the face of extinction in our country, the Maltese, anxious to send even the smallest species to ground, have nearly killed all birds on their island. I do not share this in judgment; I share this in sadness. And I remember the echo of many things in silence. But Doc, my old friend Doc, who tends his garden there and tries to write every afternoon, misses their song and when I would later read of our own folly before hunting, I wrote this poem in my journal.
The Last Songbird on Malta
for Doc, for the Malta songbirds
hunted for sport
All night, the glorious footsteps of rain
on Spanish tiles, the persistent reminder
of moisture from sky. In the arid hill
country of France, the night damp
came as cold messenger.
Then daylight. We opened
the shutters to a sparrow
in the eucalyptus.
the last songbird on Malta, broken
from the melodious chant of wings.
And how we must survive
"the immaculate voice of extinction."
I am wont to recreate its sound,
the empty grief before light.
Even carrier pigeons, sworn in their flock,
mark the vines with hope.
But for the three sparrows
in the wisteria at St. Julians, the chatter
soars from memory. Not theirs, but kin
splintered by errant island shells.
And now the bird mending, the tireless
restraint to stay alive.
Who must sing
for the last of their tribe?
The echo of starvation
regards a wing as friend of hunger.
On the island of stone and flowers,
the songbird heeds the infinite cry:
leave me this wing of peace.
In that same bookstore in Cordes where my son picked out Of Mice and Men, I found a volume of poems by the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska. In her seventies now, she worried that winning the Nobel Prize would flood her life with publicity and render it difficult to write. I cannot recall reading poems of children or love. What I read was Vallejo’s stoicism born of surviving nearly 35 years of state-run politics. And nothing, not even their censorship, could silence her art.
Today, they sing her poems in rock and roll bands. And the voice of Krakow is resonant because someone taught her to resist silence.
I returned to the States, still reeling from the Portuguese fishing village of Peniche, and rode my bike to the summit of Geiger Grade, elevation 6,789. Coasting back, off to my left, was a tractor-trailer rig nosing its way through the dust. There, in the pens below the road, were hundreds of sheep. I skidded to a stop and went to find Edgardo. His boss asked how my trip was. "Ricísimo," I said. But Edgardo was on another ridge. His sheep would not come until the following day. I left a note for him. He called from a pay phone in Virginia City. I stepped from the car and held his outstretched hands. His boots were caked with clay and he was tired. He thanked me for the video. Hopefully, his wife had it by now. Then his boss came by, and fearing recrimination, he left to help another herder.
"Good-bye," I said, feeling as if I had been welcomed home by the most unlikely of travelers. Two weeks later, I received a letter from him, thanking me again for the help so far from home. These are the poets I thought, the ones who give voice to the chaos.
Note: This essay is taken from a keynote speech I gave to the Start Fresh teaching conference this past fall in Reno, Nevada. I wish to thank the late poet Bill Abrams, co-director of the conference, for his persistent care of all things English—teachers, students and poetry—during his many great years in this state. The quote in the poem is from Robert Reid’s Mountains of the Great Blue Dream.
Note: This essay is taken from a keynote speech I gave to the Start Fresh teaching conference this past fall in Reno, Nevada. I wish to thank the late poet Bill Abrams, co-director of the conference, for his persistent care of all things English—teachers, students and poetry—during his many great years in this state. The quote in the poem is from Robert Reid's Mountains of the Great Blue Dream.