Distances of the Afternoon

A pencil moves across a page, the line trailing from it perhaps a horizon, though it’s too early to tell. Monteverde, Costa Rica, surrounds the line, and me, who happens to be holding the pencil while somehow also being held by it. In our current age of statistical enthusiasms, you’ll find it asserted that the average pencil contains a line thirty-five miles long, or of about forty-five thousand scrawled words. But it’s also too early to tell how average this pencil might be—or so I hope. I’d purchased it at the village co-op, with a small box of even cheaper colored ones—student pencils—and I brim with the elation of a rank beginner.

You see before you a man intent on traversing some ambiguous distance. He’s drawing, and trying to draw—trying, that is, to pull the silhouette of that seemingly exotic tree on the hill toward the line about to trail from the pencil while also springing from some source within him. He thought he was sojourning with his wife for a few weeks in a cabin at the end of a dirt road, before moving on without a plan. But another journey has come of this stillness.

(Monteverde 1/16/03) Apparently, the traveler goes in order to arrive at this hillside café, to sit beside its broad windows overlooking banana palms and tall stalks tipped by failed yellow blossoms and green slopes skimmed by blue swifts that circle back once then vanish. The traveler goes in order to arrive at this sill speckled with spent gnats and a nearly defeated dragonfly, its head flush against the puzzling pane, all the world before it unattainable. Oh, yes, the traveler sees the woman (a student, perhaps Italian) seated over an iced drink, measuring some question about him as she shares the straw with her boyfriend. But the traveler turns toward the hornet pawing at the glass that will not budge. He turns toward this graveyard of sunny wood, this varnished plane of last existence, two inches wide. Who’s not beside it? Who’s not beside ourselves?

The black matter out of which the drawn line is made—a line that has also looped into these words with a somnolent yet touching desperation—derives ultimately from the stars, and it surely came early into the hands of human kind. This particular variety, graphite, found its way from the soils of sixteenth-century England into the first manufactured pencils. Prior to that mechanical refinement, it had been used by the locals of Cumbria to mark sheep.

We must imagine, however, the many other, much earlier markings not inked or etched on stone: religious figures, for instance, sketched on papyri subsequently devoured by worms, or mythical monsters assigned to fragile proto-paper, or crucial landmarks and military strategy memorialized in the dust at the feet of, say, Sargon the Great. Drawing, it is rightly said, is of a primal order, an elemental impulse. Yet most of it has disappeared and, despite the development of more durable media in the last several hundred years, most of it still disappears. Perhaps that prodigality is a measure of its essential status. Think of childhood’s rush of pictures assigned, daydreamed, secreted . . . or “adult” doodles of every variety, maps of hills and hearts, directions . . . or even the contrails of airliners (as at least one commentator has asserted). A single line confers a power on blankness while also making a claim against it. A word written or printed does the same. And these investitures are, in general, fleeting, loosed mostly on oblivion, despite the hope, embodied by the eraser, for second chances at spawning an immemorial sign.

Not so incidentally, the first rubber eraser was invented in 1770 and attached to a pencil in 1858. Before that—as though the practice were a vestige of some ancient rite or an unaccountable allusion to a counter-fairytale—effacement was performed using breadcrumbs.

(Monteverde 1/20/03) On an outcropping beside the main, unpaved road, I found myself failing to render much of the Gulf of Nicoya that lay before me, maybe fifty miles away, down the mountainside. Several people paused as if to discover what special sight had captured me. One man in his sixties, in a Yankees ball cap—accompanied by his wife in peach and another couple—said, “It looks like you’re drawing something very important.”

I laughed, “I’m just getting acquainted with my shortcomings.”

“No,” he replied, eager to reassure me, “You’re doing the right thing.”
He repeated it. And I wondered why he wasn’t doing the right thing.

“Seems like it would be easier to just take a picture,” his pale cohort observed, to his wife.

“No,” Yankees ball cap said, “You’re doing the right thing.” And my attention to my task and my embarrassment at my poor skills shunted him along.

His wife stepped closer. Her head swiveled to check what permission or prohibition the situation held. The group moved off. She took out her instamatic and clicked off a shot of the Gulf. Then she paused and took a second picture—of me, I’m guessing now—though I didn’t look up.

Despite a widespread insistence that drawing is a naked art, honest and transparent and improvisational—revealing of the matters at hand and always bearing the evidence of its creation—my adventures in bruising paper are hardly redeemed by such possibilities and might be considered a fatuous amusement, merely bourgeois (if one can still use such a term), like the taking up of gardening at a certain age. This, despite what I would like to believe was a more worthy somnambulism that finessed those pencils into my basket at the co-op, beside the bread and coffee. A similar hope might apply to Lisa and me coming to Monteverde in the first place. A far more intrepid—though no less compromised—wanderer, Peter Fleming, observed in the 1930s, “The trouble with journeys nowadays is that they are easy to make but difficult to justify.” Only a few years earlier, writing about another singular trek, he asserted, no less irrefutably: “If we felt many things that we had not felt before, we saw little that was altogether new.”

These truths didn’t deter him, apparently, and they haven’t deterred me. I’m not certain that by drawing I’m trying to see anything new so much as see what will appear or, soon enough, what cannot be readily willed to appear—some vision, perhaps, other than a windowsill graveyard at a café noted with glib mordancy by a middle-aged hiker overdue for lunch.

But this last notion, at least, must have materialized in the years since my return from Central America, after more drawing and other journeys. There, on the porch of the cabin in Monteverde, sketching violet bushes shivering with hummingbirds, or the corrugated metal roof jagged to the morning blue, or the drama of a single knothole in the kitchen wall, my excitement was apparently otherwise directed.

(Monteverde 1/18/03) It seems that everything in a scene should be drawn at once. Or is it that which lies closest to the eye that should stake the first claim? I now perceive so many things as things I cannot draw, as unattainable. But in seeing them this way, I am often seeing them for the first time. The possibility of utility (or a failed utility) makes them recognizable. It gives them identity of a sort. I started this morning with a pencil in hand, unburdened, newly pointed. I realize now I might well have become more avid for drawing than writing. I suppose a person must hit upon those other lives he might have lived (or those aspects of his character that circumstance didn’t allow much expression, if at all). I’m not talking of deep regret (which comes from knowing all the while those paths you have forsaken) but the delight in discovering some complexity about yourself that is not, for a change, concerning your capacity for ugly compromise, venality, or fear.

Travel and depiction have long entwined their desires and ours. The industry of the picturesque, for instance, filled libraries with titles like:

Foreign Scenery: A series of views of picturesque and romantic scenery in Madiera (sic), the Cape of Good Hope, Timor, China, Prince of Wales Island, Bombay . . .: from drawings made in those countries, by William Westhall (1811)

The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia: From drawings made on the spot, George Croly (1842)

Description of a view of the falls of Niagara; Now exhibiting at the Panorama, Broadway . . . New York; painted by Robert Burford from drawings taken by him in the autumn of 1832 (pub. 1833)

How encouraging—and poignant—the frequent emphasis on empirical authenticity, the good faith propounded in images “made on the spot,” or “taken,” (as though anticipating the language of photography)!

They await us along the roads and beyond: the virtuosi, like John Evelyn on the Grand Tour, with views of Vesuvius and Lake Lucerne; David Roberts in nineteenth-century Egypt and Karl Bodmer among the vanishing natives of the Great Plains; Da Vinci or Nicolas Steno—the father of geology—sketching the rock strata of Tuscany; Frank Hurley of the Shackleton expedition (whose renderings proved invaluable after the camera equipment had to be abandoned in the polar extremes). There are also literary artists who’ve traveled and drawn—like Hardy, the architectural student, or Kipling, Conrad, and Lawrence—drawn as most educated people of their age were expected to draw. Some were celebrated for their facility, like Thackeray, or were geniuses, like Hugo, who often illustrated letters to his wife and whose most compelling images anticipate modern painting. More obscure, it seems, is the history of drawing in private journals of travel. I suppose I wonder about it because, in Monteverde, having no other paper, it was to the first blank page of my notebook that I turned and began.

In a journal entry of May 24, 1847, Emerson observed, “The days come and go like muffled & veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party, but they say nothing, & if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away.”

The wordless days are to be lettered, their figures await portrayal—such is the industrious enchantment that drives much personal recording. Travel most easily makes one fall in love with the task, in anticipation of the mystery and satisfaction it will provide a forgetful soul, astonished that even a nuance mattered enough to gain a purchase on the page, that each mentioned thing seems deep or true, perhaps complete, surrounded by all else that shall remain unmarked in the general vanishing. Whatever else, a journal is an emanation of stamina and urge, a potentially boundless form and thus, in some ways, pathological. It gives as many chances as you are willing to pursue. It can plot against you, no more efficiently than when you have something to hide. It shows how you enslave yourself and your imagination. The page sits before you, waiting for you to explain yourself, perhaps to supersede the point. “So?” it seems to say, imperious as the unburdened can be. You might be starting to ask yourself: what would the page do about this or that?—trying to make it tougher than you are. But it says nothing, shows nothing, forever, without you.

(Undated, Monteverde) I stand at the sink, scraping the price tag glue from the bellies of two spoons we bought yesterday. I scrape the blades of two butter knives and the tines of a single fork. (We thought a second fork redundant. Why?) The three wooden chairs in this cabin wobble. They’re held together with finishing nails, at best. They’re as light as empty picnic baskets and have been left in the weather. Now I sit at my work table—a 2′ x 2’ nightstand. Like all furniture here, it craves a shim to steady it. Before the front window, I turn it two hours clockwise, then four hours counterclockwise—there, solidly on all fours, given the typography of the tiled floor.

Soon, drawing begets a certain kind of silence. You start to realize that lines begin and end. Ink pools. One more stroke ruins. One less attenuates. Rescues are assured only in the hand of those skilled enough not to need them just then.

Drawing takes me away from words, sometimes uncomfortably. After focusing so long on an image I have a difficult time refocusing on text. It seems blurry, too small, far away, colorless, brittle, narrow.

Yet how often my eyes, while I’m drawing, will go out of focus. Excitement, I believe, and anxiety. Something to do with that part of the picture I’m hurrying toward or away from. Also, people want to see what you are drawing, children especially (the envy in their faces). Onlookers can be amazed, like the crewmember of the ferry who saw something like the inside of his boat emerge on pale paper.

A year after we returned from Monteverde and meanderings elsewhere, after dinner and many drinks, Lisa had me bring out my journal of that time, to show an old friend. There, as in a clearing amid the thickets of my cursive, stood the bridge just past the cheese factory run by Quakers who abandoned warring America in the early 1940s. In another clearing, crude but somehow vivid, that small, brown dog still jogged through swirls of dust stirred by a passing jeep. After that lay the fallen cecropia leaf, then the tile floor of the cabin, then that haplessly rendered vista of the Gulf of Nicoya . . . and then a vague Lisa, exhausted and fed up, slouching among rainbows beside the road to San Luis.

As these and other tableaux emerged, they seemed surprisingly stagy, perhaps because I recalled their sequence so well. Our friend turned the pages of an intimacy already changed. His kind interest—not to mention his mere presence—were changing it again.

Not among the fragile images, of course, was the nutty taste of a mango milkshake in Santa Elena, or the coyote’s plea pressing a peculiar depth into our sleep, or the silence as we sat with Sonja and Ronaldo in the Friends Meeting House, or my two-day gut bug like wadded aluminum foil . . . There were no regretful buyers of retirement property near Monteverde—mostly wives—unprepared for the solitude and hardship there . . . and no talk of paving destined to smooth the choppy, twisty, excruciatingly slow ascent from the main highway and open the area to daily tour buses from the cruise ships in Punta Arenas.

One morning, a white-tailed coati sneaked through the propped-open door of the cabin and poached a bag of peanuts from the nightstand in the bedroom. (We found out later that Marlena, who used to live there, had fed it daily, she whose lovely daughter’s smallest fingers were fused together). Beside the sink stood a large trunk full of lab glass belonging to a researcher from the States who each year stays there while probing the cloud forest for cancer drugs. On another morning, the back of a woman’s head hit full force on the stone floor of the village bakery as she fell in an epileptic seizure. That thud! She came to, finally, and ate breakfast, she and her two companions not acknowledging any of the other eight people stunned by the incident.

Our friend paged along briskly enough—and my script was illegible enough—that he wouldn’t read of these or a hundred other usual episodes, as if he would want to. What are they but the embodiment of time each image devours in order to rescue itself from time?

(Undated, Monteverde) I think of Volk’s book Metapatterns, how he tries to categorize all the world’s forms: spheres, sheets and tubes, borders, binaries, centers, layers, calendars, arrows, breaks, cycles . . .

Lisa tells me the tree needs more red in it, and it should be clustered, and, yes, I’ve caught something with those black dashes under the blossoms. What am I catching, what did I intend, since we’re merely waiting for the bus? No one we’ve asked knows the name of these trees.

Afterward, riding along, I want to make a thousand corrections on that drawing. I wake to noticing the sunlight and shadows on the bus curtains, the gradations of orange and red, and how the center of the curtains, where they part, where they have been exposed to sunlight most often, are a weak pink.

I wake and see the object is in place amid other colors, surfaces, volumes. So with writing. You look at a paragraph, image, metaphor—not merely self-expression, etc. (What’s the literary equivalent of negative space?)

I’ve been practicing that habit of craft for so long, I don’t sense how much it might be a fool’s sacrifice. I took up writing partly out of an unrecognized hunger for control (and out of a delight in play and its privacies). Just living wasn’t good enough; life seemed so sad, shapeless, and stupid. Have I come this far to now feel life might be greater lived than turned into something that hopes, often futilely, for beauty? Expression has kept me alive all these years—embarrassing as it is.

Every year, 2.8 billion pencils are consumed in the United States. In her book Art & Soul, Audrey Flack wonders, “What would art look like if artists didn’t sign their names, if there were no media reporting trends?” Robert Hughes, in The Shock of the New, asserts, “In art there is no progress, only fluctuations of intensity. Not even the greatest doctor in Bologna in the seventeenth century knew as much about the body as today’s third-year medical student. But nobody alive today can draw as well as Rembrandt and Goya.”

I click to a Web site featuring video of dust devils skating the Martian plains and recall a hostel in Granada, Nicaragua, faintly scented with ganja and Clorox, its typical courtyard a haven (as any budget traveler knows) for insipid, lonely, enchanting chat among various wanderers—but nowadays it also rings with the likes of two young Germans at computers from morning till night, racing cybercars, cooing “happy! . . . happy!” as they put each other off the road. What had they—had we—come for? In the months after Lisa and I returned from Central America, I found myself buying better drawing instruments and trying to depict ordinary objects or features of our house and street: an Arts and Crafts—era door, a glass display box of feathers and beetles, cats napping on the hot tub. I was still on the journey begun in the Monteverde co-op, and these local things assumed the status of peculiar monuments. They were fetched out of simply being, or simply being ours, or someone’s. They often seemed to break my initial delight at their appearance into a feeling that reminded me of James Wright’s famous poem:


Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Decades ago, this poem haunted me with its allusion to the Midwestern landscape of my childhood, but more enduringly for what I think now are those young, crucial yet commonplace fears about wasting your life, missing your main chance—and not any real outcome or fact of existence. Some have claimed Wright’s last assertion is arbitrary or hermetic, but it is neither. No matter how one lives, one’s life is wasted—by its very limitation, by its many wants and one’s incapacity to imagine all that might be or be done about them. Or so it seems. (Perhaps the poem now speaks not of the human failure to belong in time’s passage but to a middle-aged complacency in me?) Among the poet’s scrupulous (and painterly) recognitions of the near that is also somehow remote, light can surprise, transforming even what amounts to old shit into a glorious spectacle, albeit temporarily (unless memorialized in words). The poet—any one of us—lies suspended amid all he surveys, leaning back under the deepening darkness, a solitary traveler, visited again by the unappeasable hunger for home, by the dread.

(Undated. ’05, Tampa) Late afternoon, lying in bed, exhausted from a night and day with friends come to town: a lambent yellow hue spreads out before your closed eyes (as though the darkness there were bleaching out) and you feel it’s the end, you’re dying, you will never open those eyes again (they no longer seem to be your eyes); you are slipping away, embarking—until you realize you will never see her again, your wife; you realize—you feel now, for the first time—how you did not know her until you met her, but now you will not meet her again; you are slipping from your body. Wait! Your clothes, your books, this room—she will be stuck with taking care of the disposal of it . . . the “effects.” You can’t get back to her now . . . or even to your self . . . and this ache opens a ravine in you . . .

How do you open your eyes?

Of all the nearest distances along my street, of all the familiar, inaccessible objects of my life, none materializes more often in my drawing than summer clouds in Florida—violet thunderheads and white sea banks, rusty stairways and vast towers of radiant anticipation.

It’s only when I try to draw them that I realize how ordinary my love for them is, because I’m sure they substitute for other loves no art in me can capture. Some years ago, Lisa and I returned from a long journey to Bolivia, and lightning off our coast scorched the atmosphere. That sudden odor turned my head the way the scent of mown grass has since childhood—the unmanageable claim that place makes on the senses. I realized then I’d lived half my life on this peninsula, a quarter of it on Albany Avenue, and my Midwest could no longer be the place I was wholly from.

In an essay about drawing his father’s face, just after the man has died, John Berger writes, “People talk of freshness of vision, of the intensity of seeing for the first time, but the intensity of seeing for the last time is, I believe, greater. Of all that I could see only the drawing would remain. I was the last to look on the face I was drawing. I wept whilst I strove to draw with complete objectivity.”

Berger says the drawing of his father’s face later became a site for many arrivals and departures of memory and feeling.

I see no faces in the clouds—or no faces there I can connect with those I love—but I draw the clouds to enter the stricken longing they can conjure in me, the light horizontal as the afternoon wanes, light seeming to lie down for the letting out of shadows. These particular skies are also haunted by a black-and-white photograph—I don’t recall where I saw it, if it exists at all—of tropical fishing piers beneath stratocumulus, in the 1930s or ’40s. That image puts me on a mental causeway, heading toward a house, far out on an island, where I’m expected, though I’ve yet to reach it.

My glance down Albany Avenue is a survey of Albany Avenues, of many looks there, sounds, contacts, some years—though without the confidence of a childhood place, that confidence sometimes declared “magical” when finally breached. The layered glance has a different itinerary than the eye bound for streets it will encounter for the first time, harboring in its field all the other streets it’s met for the first time. I understand better why there comes a day certain souls don’t want to leave a place, can’t leave it. I see it in the summer skies above Albany Avenue, and in those skies my pencil moves. I see it even among those first images in my Monteverde journal, among the pages where the text withdraws and finally vanishes, save for captions. There’s a portrait: “Chicken that marched just once past our fabulous, solitary lunch at El Tequila.” The grand, white hen with pink and blue beak gave me no more than a minute. I worked fast, to get her right, and did.

But there, too, curiously, just four months dead, is my aged mother in profile.