When I learned that David Chorlton had written a book of poems called “The Porous Desert” I knew that was a book I wanted to read, because I have been fascinated by and writing about the desert since moving to Las Cruces eight years ago. The book did not disappoint.
The book is not just about the desert but about the desert in drought, our current condition. His desert is not quite like the one here because they have significant winter rains, which we do not. A number of his poems are named by dates in February, a month when those in Arizona expect some rain. Here is one of the more complex poems, titled “February 9th”:
We’re logging on to tomorrow, divining
our way through hours
as they drip from a rusty faucet.
We type in the address: http://www.water.com
but it comes up dry; so we try a search
for rain. The first result
is a tease: On February 6, 1896, 3.86
inches of rain fell in Philadelphia,
setting a maximum daily record. Tonight
there will be a meeting to discuss
the heat island in our urban region
which spreads further and digs
deeper by the day, down to the ruins
of a past civilization: clay pots
still bearing the potter’s fingerprints,
and the tracks her sandals
left behind when she looked into the future,
saw us, and walked the other way.
The book contains 49 poems on 54 pages; I don’t know whether to call it a long chapbook or a short book. One that is less specifically about the drought, though it is clearly about a dry place, is “Condor”:
The condor stares down into time;
the work of years
with a knife edge, of seasons
that sand away and polish
surfaces then grind them into wizened planes
stacked one above another
until the clifs hang on a talon.
The daily passage of shadows
from rim to canyon rim
and the final drop
of light disappearing from the highest rock
are nothing but sighs
to a bird suspended from the sun
while the minutes drip
from its wings, evaporating
before they can reach the river
moving at the pace of history,
water burning deep
into pages of stone.
Particularly felicitous phrasing or strong images turn up almost unexpectedly. “Highway Religion” for example begins:
The desert keeps its good looks
for a while west of Phoenix
then it turns honest.
Here’s the beginning of “December”:
An empty nest floats through winter
in the fingers of a tree
scratched against a mountain
Here’s one of “Three Lies About Moths”
In previous lives
moths were books that stood unread
on library shelves. When the lights went out
they eased themselves free of confinement
and nobody knew in the morning
what mysterious force
opened exactly the pages
whose text described the moon.
It fits Chorlton’s overall matter-of-fact approach to call these “Lies” rather than “Myths.”
Two poems specifically refer to the work of writers. One, called “Proofreading” begins:
This is the detail work
of flossing between the letters.
The second, called “Writing in the Desert” I give in its entirety:
Once you have entered the desert
a lock behind you clicks. A new vocabulary
floods your tongue and leaves you struggling
to pronounce the words. After the first year
you learn that silence is the official language
here. The longer you stay
the shorter the book you came to write becomes
until the manuscript fits on the wings
of a moth. Each dusk, a lifetime’s work
draws closer to the flame.
I feel that way sometimes too. It’s a good thing this is not literally true; if it were this book, “The Porous Desert” would not have been published. I recommend it.