Thursday, March 22, 2012

Birthday Boys: Billy Collins and Louis L'Amour

It was a hot day in Baghdad.

Okay, that's like saying "It was a rainy day in Portland."  But on this particular day in Baghdad, it was really bad.  As if the heat had been oven-baked.  Water boiled in swimming pools.  Eyeballs blistered between blinks.  Dogs just lay down in the streets of al-Dora and died, not even having the will to make it to evening when it would be a relatively cool 89 degrees.

It was hot, but I was sitting in my hooch on Camp Liberty at the western edge of Baghdad oblivious to the fiery air outside the trailer.  I sat on the edge of my bed, a book in my hands, my imagination in the middle of a snowstorm.  I was air-conditioned by words.  I was reading about winter in a novel by Louis L'Amour.

I've written before about how literature saved my life during my year in Iraq.  Sometimes metaphorically, metaphysically...and sometimes literally (for instance, the fact that one day I read "just one more chapter" in my book before heading out the door to work in my cubicle at the Army headquarters prevented me from walking underneath a mortar that fell on Camp Liberty that day).  On this afternoon, I'm pretty sure Louis L'Amour saved me from heat stroke.
      He was riding southwest in a gathering storm and behind him a lone man clung to his trail.
      It was a bitter cold...
      He came down off the ridge into the shelter of the draw with the wind kicking up snow behind him. The sky was a flat slate gray, unbroken and low. The air grew colder by the minute and there was a savage bite to the wind.
      He was a big, wide-shouldered man with a lean, strong-boned face. His black, flat-crowned hat was pulled low, the collar of his sheep-lined coat turned up. Wind-whipped particles of snow rattled off his coat like thrown gravel.
      He was two days out of Deadwood and riding for Cheyenne, and the nearest shelter was at Hat Creek Station, probably fifty miles along.
      Wind knifed at his exposed cheek. He drew deeply on his cigarette. Whoever followed him had the same problem. Find shelter or die. The wind was a moving wall of snow and the evening was filled with vast sound.
      There is something fiercely insensate about a Wyoming or Dakota blizzard, something malevolent and shocking in its brutality. It ripped at him now, smashing him with jarring fists of wind, and raking his face with claws of blown ice.
Those are the opening lines to his 1955 novel Heller with a Gun.  That lone rider is King Mabry and he's about to run into a snowbound theatrical troupe on their way to Alder Gulch, Montana.  Those actors are being pursued by some pretty bad guys.  Gunfights and fistfights ensue.  (Apply that last line to any other L'Amour western.)

I read two other L'Amour westerns that year, the gunfire on the page often echoed by the real-life machine-gun rattle just outside the walls of Camp Liberty.  It was surreal....but not as surreal as the morning I was reading Jarhead and my trailer was rattled by the explosion of a mortar falling a half-mile away on the compound.  It was, to say the least, an interesting year in reading.

L'Amour shares a birthday today with another writer whose words got me through a year of Operation Iraqi Freedom: Billy Collins.  The former Poet Laureate and the Storyteller of the West may be unlikely bedfellows, but during my time in Baghdad, the writers who gathered together in my trailer were an odd, eclectic bunch: Agatha Christie and Walt Whitman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Stephen King, Lemony Snicket and Ernest Hemingway.

I grew fond of poetry while I was in Iraq.  It made me think, fired my synapses, roused me from hibernation, and--more than anything else--it took my mind off more pressing matters of running media relations in a task-force headquarters.  Billy Collins' 1991 collection of poems Questions About Angels did as much to energize me than any can of Red Bull I might have bought at the Camp Liberty PX.  Collins has a way of putting profound thought into the simplest of language.  His voice is as direct as a hard slap to the face.  His metaphor is fresh and often very funny.

One of my favorite of his poems, "Introduction to Poetry," begins like this:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

Read the rest of the poem here.

At the end of that oven-broiled day, after cooling myself down with a L'Amour blizzard, I turned to Questions About Angels and found this perfect poem:

Reading Myself to Sleep

The house is all in darkness except for this corner bedroom
where the lighthouse of a table lamp is guiding
my eyes through the narrow channels of print,

and the only movement in the night is the slight
swirl of curtains, the easy lift and fall of my breathing,
and the flap of pages as they turn in the wind of my hand.

Is there a more gentle way to go into the night
than to follow an endless rope of sentences
and then to slip drowsily under the surface of a page

into the first tentative flicker of a dream,
passing out of the bright precincts of attention
like cigarette smoke passing through a window screen?

All late readers know this sinking feeling of falling
into the liquid of sleep and then rising again
to the call of a voice that you are holding in your hands,

as if pulled from the sea back into a boat
where a discussion is raging on some subject or other,
on Patagonia or Thoroughbreds or the nature of war.

Is there a better method of departure by night
than this quiet bon voyage with an open book,
the sole companion who has come to see you off,

to wave you into the dark waters beyond language?
I can hear the rush and sweep of fallen leaves outside
where the world lies unconscious, and I can feel myself

dissolving, drifting into a story that will never be written,
letting the book slip to the floor where I will find it
in the morning when I surface, wet and streaked with daylight.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is: Happy Birthday, Louis and Billy.  Thanks for dissolving me and setting me free to drift into other worlds.  Thanks for saving my ass Over There.

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