Broadside #50 (Summer 2018 / 18.3)
Fight Song of the Javelinas: An Epithalamion for Brian and Maggie Smith
Two javelina skulls carved from cedar
and a tarnished gold Kensington clock
hang from the north wall of my wife’s study.
Outside the window, the hydraulic arm
of a passing garbage truck grunts and squeals
like one of those cantankerous beasts.
I sit here on hot afternoons
with the blinds drawn reading
Robert Lowell’s Notebook.
Today I’m thinking of Brian and Maggie’s
long front porch in the Catalina Mountains,
the pack of javelinas
bickering over flattened cardboard
in their front yard, a bright yellow bird
bobbing on an ocotillo branch, expert
at extracting water from the spiky
plants of that arid place,
Brian and Maggie inside napping
before our reading at Owl’s Club in Tucson,
a funeral parlor turned performance space
and bar. Earlier that day I’d walked
with them through the stucco chapel
at the San Xavier Mission,
known by the O’odham, many of whom
died building the worship site
the colonists said would save them,
as “the place where the water appears”
because of its prodigious natural
springs and its proximity
to the Santa Cruz River, dry now
for over half the year. “What are you
doing in the desert, Freeman?”
Brian kept asking me.
He’d never had a friend from Detroit
come visit and I think he was wary
of me writing about this place
he called the edge of the world,
defined in my mind by his prose,
crystalline and plaintive.
We’d read together the night before
in Patagonia where Jim Harrison
drew his last breath. Maggie drove
us down a potholed dirt road alongside
a dry creek bed I’d seen in Harrison’s
late poems (Would I still love the creek
if I lasted forever?) to the modest house
where the writer rode out his last years
with his wife Linda and an old
cow dog named Mary.
I’d set out to say something
about place and no-place (I’m not in Tucson,
Patagonia, or London, not visiting Don
in River Rouge this afternoon to torture
sad Americana songs), how a sequestered room
can arrogate the features of a setting
while sending us adrift, how this might
be the only tenable definition of “comfort”
(by the end Harrison wrote shirtless
because of chronic shingles)—
prickly pear in a little tan pot,
javelina skulls, braided saddle rope
looped around a useless pommel, and love.
Author’s commentary: I began writing what would become “Fight Song of the Javelinas” on a recent trip to Tucson, Arizona while sitting on Brian and Maggie Smith’s veranda in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains. This poem is an amalgam of two trips to Tucson, the first taken in March of 2017 with my wife, the second in February 2018 by myself.
The afternoon I began the poem, Brian and Maggie were napping in advance of our reading that night and I was scribbling in a notebook, jotting down impressions and images of what was to my Midwestern mind a completely foreign landscape. That notebook sheet wound up being lost when I got back to Dearborn; I’d ripped it off the spiral rings to recopy and revise it. There’s something about time and distance, though, that can allow us to revise without even realizing it, and I believe my rumination on that lost page was likely an act of long-term revision.
That loner visit to Tucson was in the late winter, and the poem that appears here wasn’t actually written until July when my wife started turning my stepson’s old room into a home office, creating this little ecosystem that housed, among other things, some of the trinkets we bought the first time we visited Brian and Maggie: a sparkly diptych with outfaced Blessed Mother paintings, two carved-wood javelina skulls, and a postcard from the San Xavier Mission. It got me thinking about the way a well-designed room can allow us to transnavigate settings in our imaginations. I pictured Wallace Stevens sitting in his study, poring over a postcard from a place he’d never seen, triggering the imagination through disciplined reverie.
I’d also gotten a text from Brian weeks before with pictures from their spontaneous wedding on the veranda in front of their house, the place where I’d begun the lost poem, a poem that was more than likely a Gary Snyder rip-off in its earlier draft. Before I ever visited Tucson, I’d had a mythology of the place in my mind, a mythology informed by the songs of Billy Sedlmayr and the prose of Brian Smith, one later expounded upon by Maggie’s filmic adaptations of Brian’s short stories.
Whenever we’d drive anywhere around Tucson during my two visits, Brian would say, “Look at this place. It’s the edge of the world.” Maggie pointed out ocotillos, eucalyptus trees, prickly pears, and of course the saguaros as we drove through Saguaro National Park, informing me that it took the large cacti about 100 years to grow a single arm, that the blackened bore holes in some of them were from desert birds expert at extracting water.
One highlight from my solo trip not mentioned in the poem itself was hearing Barry Smith, Brian’s brother, play his violin at the Patagonia Public Library. Barry’s playing has all these athletic legato strides punctuated by John Calesque bursts of noise, watching his bow technique and the full articulation of even the neck’s highest notes puts me in mind of scanning Gerard Manley Hopkins’ prosody. He’s virtuosic, in other words.
There is an apocryphal story about the poet Charles Olson cautioning a friend against writing about Gloucester, Massachusetts: “You must find your own place!” To get this poem I had to arrogate a spot that was not my own, but I wanted to write a poem honoring Brian and Maggie’s marriage and their talents to thank them for their generosity in showing me around that fascinating area.
I think everyone should watch the short films and the web series based upon Brian’s book, Spent Saints; Maggie’s adaptations and production choices are brilliant. Also, if you’re interested in what’s going on in “La Frontera” read Brian’s column, Tucson Salvage, as well as the forthcoming synonymously-titled book.
And be sure to remember that it pays to have good friends in waiting when you’re traveling alone to the edge of the world.
Cal Freeman was born and raised in Detroit, MI. He is the author of the books Brother Of Leaving (Marick Press) and Fight Songs (Eyewear Publishing). His writing has appeared in many journals including New Orleans Review, Passages North, The Journal, Commonweal, Drunken Boat, and The Poetry Review. He is a recipient of The Devine Poetry Fellowship (judged by Terrance Hayes) and winner of Passages North’s Neutrino Prize; he has also been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and creative nonfiction. He regularly reviews collections of poetry for the radio program Stateside on Michigan Public Radio and serves as music editor for The Museum of Americana: A Literary Review.