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Preface and a poem titled disowning from William L. Fox's Reading Sand: Selected Desert Poems, 1976-2000
(Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2002)

“Fox has invented a form equal to his subject, a form both radically austere and musical, a form more compelling, emotionally expressive, and seemingly necessary than I have seen in contemporary American poetry for some time.” -Forrest Gander

Sitting atop Sand Mountain in 1974, an isolated five-hundred-foot-high dune in north central Nevada, I wrote “wind” on the bright ground with my finger. The word, a shadow in sand, was instantly erased by the wind itself. Though I had no illusion that I had caused this event, it made me wonder how to make poems about the desert that would be just as physical and immediate — what would such work look like? I began to write severely literal poems grounded in the landscape around me, and have been doing so ever since.

At times I hesitated even to call what I was doing poetry, as the texts seemed more like small performances, never more so than while crawling backwards on my knees down the middle of a highway while writing the black words in the white lines of a black road in the middle of a white, snow-covered desert one winter.

Distracted by forays into experimental visual texts, and lured away by essays and nonfiction, I continued nonetheless to write minimalist poems about the desert. At times I think I am working on a single poem, one in which the parts of language evolve slowly into elements of the landscape. Participles turn into stones and entire lines of poetry are subsumed by Paleolithic shorelines and horizons. The repetitive exchange of words transforms into sticks picked up by a pack rat for its midden, which in turn comes to resemble architecture. All of it eventually becomes a matter of archeology as the sand, which in early poems first obscures the neon signs of monody (1976) by the new poems in glass buries the entire city.

The Great Basin, my home desert, encourages such recursive thoughts. Covering almost all of Nevada and western Utah, it is a deeply repetitive landscape of arid basins and high ranges that betrays the cycles of earth, fire, and water underlying it. The entire region continues to swell, uplifted from underneath and pushing apart Reno and Salt Lake City at opposite ends of the Basin. Nevada alone carries three hundred and sixteen mountain ranges, some of them more than thirteen thousand feet in elevation, all separated from each other by valleys that can run a hundred miles long by twenty wide. The basins and ranges tend roughly north by south, massive wrinkles reflecting how the North American plate overrides the Pacific one. The bones of the land are naked here, and so is the syntax of the poetry.

No water runs out of the Great Basin, all of it falling inward either to sink beneath the ground or to evaporate. Forming its western rim is the two-mile-high Sierra Nevada, an escarpment of granite that casts a deep rain shadow over almost the entire Basin. This is the largest, highest, and coldest desert in the contiguous United States. Because the air is so devoid of humidity there is little blurring of ridges thirty and forty miles away, confounding our sense of distance. Because the spectrum of color in the vegetation is so narrow, our expectations of atmospheric perspective, of a shift in color from a warm foreground to cool background, are distorted likewise.

The ground at our feet and the distant mountains are all that we see. Nowhere is there a familiar tree or building against which we can measure ourselves. The cognitive dissonance is severe. We don’t know where we are. Traditional wisdom about being lost in the wilderness—follow water downstream until you reach civilization—does not often work here. Follow convention and you are likely to end up stranded in the middle of an alkali flat.

The only way to understand the enormous space of the Great Basin is to invest time in your experience of it. Slowly your eyes will adjust to the extended reach of vision, and your ears become accustomed to hearing only the wind and your heartbeat. You will learn to read your way around, cutting across the grain of the land instead of following it in order to find your bearings.

The pages here incorporate more white space than usual; the distance between words is multiplied. The syntax is more often implied than stated, often cut through entirely. The poems make their turns from reality to metaphor, just as do more traditional ones, but the shift is often just a single stone rolling underfoot. If the poems are read too quickly, meaning fails to accumulate.

I wrote “wind”—and was amazed to find myself still doing so more than twenty-five years later in Los Angeles, where I edited this collection. The Santa Ana winds arrived from the desert with their load of sand, depositing it under the windowsill and doorjamb. It appeared that my place would travel with me. Though I do not believe my words brought the sand, anymore than they did the wind, apparently I would continue to live on the same page as the desert.

disowning

1.

go to the desert

lie down on

what the map

would show to

be a line


pick yourself up

find another line

lie down

get up


erase all the

lines this way

and that


think of it as

a poem without

line without

lines between


lines

think of it as

picking up

a lie


2.

train your eyes

on the horizon

of the page


walk away from

it and every

thing else


train your eyes

to look down to

where words

fall away

beneath you


run your finger

down the page

and away from

the horizon


your eye follows

the finger the

horizon follows

your eyes


3.

stop to look

around now

and then to

take back what

you said


the names

on all the

peaks and

valleys


the small

burrows

and thin

shrubs

burning

on the desert

floor


pick up after

yourself and

the shadow of

others who

departed

before you


the loose

punctuation

blowing by

in the wind


4.

a blank page


think of a blank

page at the

end of a book

closing the book

and picking up

your steps as


backwards

you go


closing up

the mountains

and sand as

you walk off

the land and out

of the words.

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