Thursday, October 30, 2008

A poem by Terry Adams

Here's a poem by Terry Adams from his book Adam's Ribs. Like me, Terry has combined a life of writing with a life working in the trades. Like me, he recognizes that building a house is only the beginning of a story - or a poem. And yes, though it looks like prose, he calls this a poem:

Last Draft

I wrote a long poem on a kitchen counter made of wood planks in an abandoned cabin in the Southern California high desert. I took all afternoon. I broke my pencils - clogged the ballpoints. The words got smaller as the poem expanded. The sun shines through the roof and the planks are dry and cracking. Sand blows in. Mice shit on the words; pieces of the roof fall in. The cabinets beneath the counter are rotting. There are bullet holes everywhere. The walls are patched with sheetmetal. An old stovepipe rots in a corner, the single bed is rusted springs. The temperature reaches 125 degrees. There are hailstorms, sand storms. Somebody might pry the boards up and stick them under a truck wheel stuck in the sand outside. Maybe a lonesome drunk will vomit on it, maybe light a fire on it, stand on it trying to hang himself. Somebody will make love on it, or climb on it to get away from a snake. I was trying to evoke the free soul of the place - desecration, and sacrament - what it is like to love someone whose love is a damaged thing.

I was trying to write about whoever built the place, and everyone who has taken something or broken something in there. The cabin might be 20 years, or 90 years old. It is leaning and it will collapse soon - it is surrounded by black mining equipment, cracked retorts, shattered barrels, twisted wire fences. An old truck body. Piles of mine tailings.

This is in a canyon off Highway 168 on what is sometimes called Death Valley Road, sometimes Waucoba Saline Rd. If you go there, and you can read what I said, please contact me. Most of what I write is laying around someplace on a piece of paper. Sometimes I have this feeling I do not want to be left alone with what I write - or I want to forget it - I did not want to forget what I wrote there, but I did. I kept at it all day. It might be 1000 words. My feet got tired. My hand cramped. I didn't edit anything, and I felt driven, and free. I felt heard. Please find me. Call me.


In my novel Clear Heart I write about how each house is the beginning of a story, how each tradesman leaves a piece of himself there. We leave pencil scratchings measuring rafters, the mill face of a hammer on a top plate, sweaty handprints on the back of drywall. We also leave a style, a quality of workmanship that either gives the house its endurance or plants the seeds of its destruction - sometimes we don't know which. And I write about how the story continues as each subsequent owner adds a new chapter. In this case, Terry inscribed a poem into a ghost house, adding to the ongoing story, and then forgetting what he wrote. I hope somebody calls him, tells him. I sometimes wish some of the houses I've worked on could call me, tell me how they're holding up.

I asked Terry if the poem is true, and he responded that it was: "About six years ago, on the trip home from Saline Valley, we (two couples) stopped by that old way-abandoned house and I felt moved to write something on the kitchen counter, which was raw boards, but very clean - like someone had used it for something recently. You can actually see the place on Google Satellite. Take 395 south to Big Pine, turn East on 168, then south on Wacouba- Saline Rd. - somewhere along there - maybe 30 - 50 miles from Big Pine. I think I stopped there to take the chains off my van after the long wet climb out of Saline Valley.

"For me the poem is partly about a left-over pioneer spirit - or the remnant of that spirit. I actually wrote my email address, and maybe my phone # - but no one ever contacted me. The abandoned cabin is about half-way between Big Pine and Saline Valley - the route is all primitive dirt road - the valley road is 90 miles long.

"I am hoping to go back there - maybe in April. You have to go in either October or April. Other months it is either too hot, or the high passes are subject to being snowed-in. We were almost snowed-in on that trip. Saline Valley is a clothing optional wonderful semi-secret wild hot spring area, kept up by die-hards, miners, and hippies, over many years. Every once in a while the Shoshone try to take it back and make people put clothes on. Death Valley National Park annexed it about 14 years ago, but thankfully the Feds have left it alone, except for posting "Clothing Optional" signs so wayward tourists are fore-warned. There is a volunteer care-taker named "Lizard Lee" who lives there year-round. The Feds gave him a radio and a 4x4 confiscated in a drug raid somewhere, and let him be the local 'Ranger.'

"There are several other semi-abandoned primitive houses/ranches/structures/ all over that area - really neat to see. Some are apparently used intermittently. Once we came upon a small private plane parked on a straight stretch of the road. The pilot gave my friend a ride in exchange for having the Springs pointed out to him. There is a primitive air strip near the springs.

"The place is so vacant-seeming, and so wild, but there is a persistent semi-wild human aura. Charles Manson used to hang out there."

The poem is copyright © 2008 by Terry Adams, used here by the author's permission.

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