May 22, 2004

Passing Through Albuquerque

by John Balaban

SATURDAY, 22 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "Passing through Albuquerque," by John Balaban, from Words for My Daughter. Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.

Passing through Albuquerque

At dusk, by the irrigation ditch
gurgling past backyards near the highway,
locusts raise a maze of calls in cottonwoods.

A Spanish girl in a white party dress
strolls the levee by the muddy water
where her small sister plunks in stones.

Beyond a low adobe wall and a wrecked car
men are pitching horseshoes in a dusty lot.
Someone shouts as he clangs in a ringer.

Big winds buffet in ahead of a storm,
rocking the immense trees and whipping up
clouds of dust, wild leaves, and cottonwool.

In the moment when the locusts pause and the girl
presses her up-fluttering dress to her bony knees
you can hear a banjo, guitar, and fiddle

playing "The Mississippi Sawyer" inside a shack.
Moments like that, you can love this country.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of journalist and cultural critic Garry Wills, born in Atlanta, Georgia (1934). He grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family. He said, "[I was raised as] a Catholic cold warrior, praying after Mass every day for the conversion of Russia." His father was an appliance salesman who believed that reading was a waste of time, and he used to pay Wills not to read. Wills couldn't stop reading, though. He went off to study for the priesthood at St. Louis University, and at the last minute he switched to philosophy.

When he was just twenty-two years old, he sent a parody of a Time magazine article to the conservative National Review. The editor William F. Buckley Jr. read the essay and made Wills a regular contributor. Wills worked there for ten years, but during the 1960s, he started traveling around the country, writing about protests and race riots. He began to argue against the Vietnam War and for federal support of civil rights. He continued to call himself a conservative, but other conservatives called him a traitor.

He became the rare kind of political writer who can anger both liberals and conservatives. He argued that government could solve people's problems, but also that religion should play a role in public life. His first important book was Nixon Agonistes (1970), about Nixon's 1968 campaign for the presidency. Since then he has written more than twenty more books, about religion, Shakespeare, the Kennedys, the Declaration of Independence, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, The Gettysburg Address, and the Pope.

In 1999 alone, Wills published two books; finished a third; wrote long essays about Lincoln's second inaugural address, American leadership abroad, and Jesse Ventura; and produced sixty-seven syndicated columns for newspapers around the country. The critic John Leonard said, "Books fall from Garry Wills like leaves from a maple tree in a sort of permanent October." His most recent book is Saint Augustine's Sin, which came out last year. A collection of his journalism is due out this summer.

It's the birthday of novelist and nature writer Peter Matthiessen, born in New York City (1927). His father was a successful architect, and Matthiessen grew up in an affluent area of southwest Connecticut. He hated the stifling atmosphere of country clubs and private schools, and he became obsessed with nature. He kept a secret collection of poisonous copperhead snakes in his bedroom and charged local kids money to see them. He was also a devoted bird watcher and eventually persuaded his father to join the Audubon Society.

He served in the Navy during World War II, where he managed the Navy's boxing team and wrote sports articles for the Honolulu Advertiser. He studied at Yale after the war, and published his first short story in the Atlantic Monthly while he was still in college. Later that year he traveled to Paris, where he and two other young writers, Harold Humes and George Plimpton, decided they were sick of having their work rejected by literary magazines, and so they started their own. They called it The Paris Review, and it went on to become one of the most influential literary journals of the second half of the twentieth century.

Matthiessen published two novels, Race Rock (1954) and Partisans (1955), but they didn't make much money, so he began working as a commercial fisherman off the coast of Long Island. Working on a boat brought him closer to nature than he'd been since he was a child, and he realized that what he really wanted to write about was nature.

He took off on a trip across the United States in his Ford convertible, with a shotgun and a sleeping bag, looking for places where certain American animals were dying out: the bear, the wolf, the crane. His journey became the subject of his book Wildlife In America (1959), which was one of the books that helped launch the modern environmentalist movement in the United States.

Matthiessen has continued to write novels, such as At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1966), as well as books about nature, such as The Snow Leopard (1978). His most recent book is End of the Earth: Voyage to Antarctica, which came out last year.

Matthiessen said, "There's an elegiac quality in watching [American wilderness] go, because it's our own myth, the American frontier, that's deteriorating before our eyes. I feel a deep sorrow that my kids will never get to see what I've seen, and their kids will see nothing; there's a deep sadness whenever I look at nature now."

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