Language, Stripped Clean
Recently I was camping in Southern Utah along the Comb Ridge—old Anasazi land of sweeping slickrock and cut-out canyons, twisted juniper, sharp shadows. A terrain stripped of anything superfluous by centuries of wind and wash. More monumental than ornamental. Silent. Present. Still.
Friends and I hiked for days without seeing another soul. Now and again we’d spot dried scat on the ground of mule deer and jackrabbits, a cougar’s tracks, an owl pellet. Most human relics, however, weren’t below but overhead, tucked in among eroded eyebrows in the rock face. Remnant dwellings clinging to the cliffsides, cradling kivas and hardened corncobs. Ceramic shards, chert. Ancient handprints marched across one ceiling, small and still tinted soil red. Chiseled glyphs of ladders and bear paws, arrows and elk.
What we leave behind, what we retain.
Hovering round these petroglyphs, my friends and I soon found ourselves projecting stories about their renderings: elders teaching youngsters as if on blackboards, bored lookouts scratching away at the stone ground to while away the hours, myths and morals deeply inscribed. However, the more I gazed at them, the more they struck me as precisely what they were, and nothing else—no different than anything else in the surrounding landscape. Mostly I walked, and I looked. I listened. My journal lay nearly untouched, spattered only with single words: cedar, gully, manzanita, blue, arroyo, summit, sage, clarity.
Sometimes the world reduces itself to fundamentals, and so too the language needs to be stripped clean, left free of any artifice. Reduced, but not reductive. Sometimes the imposition of story or even adjectives feels like a conceit. Is this contradictory for a writer?
Jack Kerouac said, “Be submissive to everything. Open. Listening . . . No time for poetry, but exactly what is.”
And John Updike suggested, “A little suppression doesn’t hurt an art . . . Each (story) is a glimpse into another country: an occasion for surprise, an excuse for wisdom, and an argument for clarity.”
As writers we are no doubt craftspeople, laboring hard to leave behind some lasting sign among our chips and scratches. Call it our words, our work. Some glimpse of our surroundings, our times. Walking along that angled slickrock, I became very aware of my weight, the pull of gravity. At the same time, I became equally aware of the raven soaring overhead, and the echo of its curt cry.
“(One) criterion for true art,” writes Jeanette Winterson, “is its ability to take us where the artist has been, to this other different place where we are free from the problems of gravity. When we are drawn into the art we are drawn out of ourselves. We are no longer bound by matter, matter has become what it is: empty space and light.”
Marc Nieson is teaching three single-session classes at the Loft this May: "On Process and Progress," "The Art of Metaphor," and "Sourcing Snapshots of Memory: Image to Word." He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School. Excerpts from his memoir Schoolhouse: A Memoir in 13 Lessons have appeared in the Literary Review and Iowa Review, and his short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the 2008 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. He serves on the faculty of Chatham University in Pittsburgh and is currently working on a new novel, Houdini’s Heirs.