Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/16/05
Art Durkee recommended Barry Lopez’s prose writing to me and I was wary. Why? I had read his poetry. You know what I mean. A prose writer with name clout elbows his way into publishing a book or so of poetry- think Beckett, O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, LeGuin, Updike- and the result is a mockery of poetry. The same held true for Lopez, and why in the hell should I reward the bastard for foisting his doggerel into the world- just because he could!?
Well, I am governed by reason, not passion alone, so I listened to Art’s advice and picked up a very handsome little book collection, sort of a Best Of book, called Vintage Lopez- part of the Vintage Random House Imprint’s new line of books designed to show off author’s best works. Other notables in the series include James Baldwin, Haruki Murakami, and Vladimir Nabokov.
The book consists of two parts- collected essays and collected fiction. Both sections contain six pieces and I think that four of each of the six selections are very good or better. Lopez’s background is in the sciences and photography- in short, a naturalist, and in both his essays and his fiction he has a very good eye for detail, and a spare, poetic sentence structure. Yet, his prose ‘poetry’ not lush and exuberant in the manner of a Loren Eiseley, but of a more subdued nature, although the two men are spiritual landsmen, Lopez’s biggest flaw is a tendency to be occasionally mawkish, and veer into an almost uncritical acceptance of all things existing in a Zen-like state. At his worst in the book, a couple of pieces veer close to Political Correctness, only to have a last second turn save them.
At his best he is capable of outstanding writing, and thought, such as this from the book’s first piece, the essay Landscape and Narrative:
I think of two landscapes- one outside the self, the other within. The external landscape is the one we see-not only the line and color of the land and its shading at different times of the day, but also its plants and animals in season, its weather, its geology, the record of its climate and evolution. If you walk up, say, a dry arroyo in the Sonoran Desert you will feel a mounding and rolling of sand and silt beneath your foot that is distinctive. You will anticipate the crumbling of the sedimentary earth in the arroyo bank as your hand reaches out, and in that tangible evidence you will sense a history of water in the region. Perhaps a black-throated sparrow lands in a paloverde bush-the resiliency of the twig under the bird, that precise shade of yellowish-green against the milk-blue sky, the fluttering whir of the arriving sparrow, are what I mean by “the landscape.” Draw on the smell of creosote bush, or clack stones together in the dry air. Feel how light is the desiccated dropping of the kangaroo rat. Study an animal track obscured by the wind. These are all elements of the land, and what makes the landscape comprehensible are the relationships between them. One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it-like that between the sparrow and the twig. The difference between the relationships and the elements is the same as that between written history and a catalog of events.
The second landscape I think of is an interior one, a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior landscape. Relationships in the exterior landscape include those that are named and discernible, such as the nitrogen cycle, or a vertical sequence of Ordovician limestone, and others that are uncodified or ineffable, such as winter light falling on a particular kind of granite, or the effect of humidity on the frequency of a blackpoll warbler's burst of song. That these relationships have purpose and order, however inscrutable they may seem to us, is a tenet of evolution. Similarly, the speculations, intuitions, and formal ideas we refer to as “mind” are a set of relationships in the interior landscape with purpose and order; some of these are obvious, many impenetrably subtle. The shape and character of these relationships in a person's thinking, I believe, are deeply influenced by where on this earth one goes, what one touches, the patterns one observes in nature-the intricate history of one's life in the land, even a life in the city, where wind, the chirp of birds, the line of a falling leaf, are known. These thoughts are arranged, further, according to the thread of one's moral, intellectual, and spiritual development. The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes.
I believe story functions in a similar way. A story draws on relationships in the exterior landscape and projects them onto the interior landscape. The purpose of storytelling is to achieve harmony between the two landscapes, to use all the elements of story-syntax, mood, figures of speech-in a harmonious way to reproduce the harmony of the land in the individual’s interior. Inherent in story is the power to reorder a state of psychological confusion through contact with the pervasive truth of those relationships we call “the land.”
Yet, this sort of creeping insipidity is not the bulk of his prose, nor even more than an occasional weak moment, or brain fart. The best of his essays is also the longest, Flight, which sees Lopez tagging along with often odd commercial cargo deliveries on Boeing 747s as they jet about the planet. The descriptions of nature, time, flying, and the human condition’s off-kiltering, due to these factors, evokes the best of Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Eiseley. Yet, Lopez’s poetry comes from sentence structure within paragraphs, not a heightened sense of word deployment.
His fiction is almost essay-like, too. In fact, most of the pieces might properly be deemed ‘fictive essays’ rather than short stories. The first story, The Entreaty Of The Wiideema, exemplifies this, as it follows a sociologist through his telling of his tale with a fictive Australian tribe. The worst tale is a story of two horny South American saints who were lovers, The Letters Of Heaven. It simply is a nice idea that really goes nowhere, save for a son’s realization that he must carry on the family tradition of protecting the ‘blasphemous’ letters from the vicious Roman Catholic Church. The last story, The Mappist, is a classic the equal of all but the very best of an Eiseley, and far above other likeminded souls like Edward Abbey. It is about the quest of a man obsessed with some travel books he found as a youth, who eventually tracks down its elusive author, Corlis Benefideo. To say more would be unfair to your enjoyment of it- but it is well-constructed, filled with memorable lines, moments, and images, and ends with insight, and poetry.
I highly recommend this book to anyone, and will, when my daunting pile of ‘To Read’ books shrinks, be getting the assorted books these essays and stories were selected from. Such motivation is the real bond between artist and audience any artist can assent to!
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