Road Atlas
Prose & Other Poems



Copyright © 1999 Campbell McGrath. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-88001-668-X

Chapter One


I'm sitting on a hill in Nebraska, in morning sunlight, looking out across the valley of the Platte River. My car is parked far below, in the lot behind the rest stop wigwam, beyond which runs the highway. Beyond the highway: stitch-marks of the railroad; the sandy channels and bars of the Platte, a slow wide bend of cottonwood saplings metallic in the sun; beyond the river a hazy, Cezanne-like geometry of earthy blues, greens, and browns fading, at last, into the distance. Barrel music rises up from the traffic on I-80, strings of long-haul truckers rolling west, rolling east, the great age of the automobile burning down before my eyes, a thing of colossal beauty and thoughtlessness. For lunch, in a paper bag: three ripe plums and a cold piece of chicken. It is not yet noon. My senses are alive to the warmth of the sun, the smell of the blood of the grass, the euphoria of the journey, the taste of fruit, fresh plums, succulent and juicy, especially the plums.

So much depends upon the image: chickens, asphodel, a numeral, a seashell;

one white peony flanged with crimson;

a chunk of black ore carried up from the heart of anthracite to be found by a child alongside the tracks like the token vestige of a former life—what is it? coal—a touchstone polished by age and handling, so familiar as to be a kind of fetish, a rabbit's foot worn down to bone, a talisman possessed of an entirely personal, associative, magical significance.

Why do I still carry it, that moment in Nebraska?

Was it the first time I'd been west, first time driving across the country? Was it the promise of open space, the joy of setting out, the unmistakable goodness of the land and the people, the first hint of connection with the deep wagon-ruts of the dream, the living tissue through which the valley of the Platte has channeled the Mormons and the 49ers, the Pawnee and the Union Pacific, this ribbon of highway beneath a sky alive with the smoke of our transit, the body of the past consumed by the engine of our perpetual restlessness? How am I to choose among these things? Who am I to speak for that younger vision of myself, atop a hill in Nebraska, bathed in morning light? I was there. I bore witness to that moment. I heard it pass, touched it, tasted its mysterious essence. I bear it with me even now, an amulet smooth as a fleshless fruit stone.


I have stolen your image, William Carlos Williams. Forgive me. They were delicious, so sweet and so cold.

Baker, California

How many times through the suburbs of loneliness, isolated galaxies of vitriol and salt? How many times this transfigured iconography, the dry hum of terror and desolate generation? Trona, Kelso, Baker, how many journeys unto the gates of Death Valley? How many nights without refuge before one is forever marked and transformed? If the desert burns it is a property of darkness, windspur and cloven hoof, thistle like the portal of violet resolve. If the night reveals its inner self it is a property of vision, a kind of violent light, sheer and lapidary, gas stations, restaurants, assembled legions of last chance motels, nothingness amid the nothingness of everything and nothing. Ultraviolet is the world I'm looking for. The word. It is the word I'm looking for. The moment, the place, the power and righteousness of a certain melody, not even needing to believe its dark intransigence but hear and glory in it only, the moment when noise begins to resemble music, when music comes to resemble noise. This journey, that journey, burdens and joys as hallucinatory as heat waves, the past a mirage of irredeemable distance, the place where light crosses over to water, where water reduces to light. How many times such transubstantiation? Angel of chaparral, angel of mercury vapor, how even to talk about those days now?

Years later, Elizabeth and I came upon it like a vision in the wilderness, checked in to the same room at Arnie's Royal Hawaiian, the same tepid shower, the same beer and pretzels from the Stop N Go store. It was late, pitch black for hundreds of miles, and lovely in the false blue light of palm trees and neon, the rich green glow of the swimming pool. Try as I might, there was nothing I could say or do to convince her how terrible this place was, how abject a seat of desolation, why it signified despair and the madness despair brings down like unearthly snow. On TV, black and white helicopters circled the latest disasters: a train wreck, a toxic spill, a forest fire raging out of control in some wild scrub hills outside of—outside of Baker, comes a voice above the buzz of copter blades, the whole town of Baker could be at risk, is all we hear, before the audio sheers to static. Once, in New York, I saw two planes collide in midair: walking along the dock at 79th Street, deep indigo Hudson River dusk, suddenly looking up to a ball of flame, a blur, objects tumbling along divergent arcs like dancing partners slipping their moorings; the first crashing in flames atop the palisades, starting up small ruby tongues that dozens of fire engines struggled to control over the next three hours; while the second vanished beyond the heights, a palpable concussion as it hit and exploded amongst oil tanks miles away in New Jersey. I saw this, and I tell you, that moment in Baker was stranger. In room 106, all is still but the air conditioner. Beyond the window: night, blue palm trees, nothing. On TV: images of flame, multitudes of flame, silent minions and consorts of flame. We move outside to the parking lot and stare into the impervious darkness. Nothing. The ice machine whispers erotic riddles, the edge of something almost cool passes over us in the breeze. Nothing. When we come to the pool we take off our clothes, part the brilliant water, immerse our bodies in its radiance until they transform to fluid emeralds.

Baker, California, is not hell, though it bears a family resemblance. That night was no infernal mime, though it carries still a tinge of the otherworldly. The forest fire burned in Baker, Oregon, a place I'd never heard of, absurdly far away, and by morning the fire-fighters had brought it under control. Exhausted, we slept late, and when we opened the door the dry heat sucked the night's memory from our lungs. The sun was a hammer that bent our bones like iron bars in a forge. Heat-shimmers hissed audibly as they rose in swells to fuse with the roar of traffic and vanish in the colorless vacancy of the sky. Song of the oven of days. Song of the soul in the furnace of the body. At our feet, the desert begins. The grass gives out, the parking lot peters into dust, the endless grey ruined skin of the world runs off into eternity. And there is nothing I can say or do to help you.

Yogurt & Clementines

Dinner at a small restaurant I have happened upon by chance after a long day walking the city of Tunis, a neighborhood place among passageways of date palms, clean and friendly, where I am catered to like a meteorite crash-landed in the courtyard. Cracked grains and parsley, tuna fish, coarse bread. Salad of chopped and spicy peppers. And then dessert, and suddenly everything is washed away—dust of the Sahara upon my tongue, odor of sour clove at the heart of the medina, the alienation of foreign currency, the sorrow of the alley cats among the ruins of Carthage, its weird light and fragmented crypts, headless torsos, fields sewn with salt, exile and loss, even my harrowing loneliness redeemed by a saucer of sweet and liquid yogurt, golden clementines from a branch freshly cut, stems and leaves still attached, an inchworm marking the course of his dinner, gratefully, undisturbed, mouthful by tiny mouthful.