Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Author Joni Tevis Fights Jon Krakauer, Wins

This is a short rant on descriptive lameness v. greatness, and yes, Tevis' debut, The Wet Collection, came out awhile ago (Milkweed Editions 2007), so this post isn't particularly timely, but, you know, whatever. Better said late than never:

Literary descriptions of the desert plant Fouquieria splendens (aka: ocotillo, desert coral, coachwhip, Jacob’s staff), were, for me, somewhat ruined by Jon Krakauer. In 1988 he published an article in Outside about canyoneering in Arizona, including a day-trip traveling down the Salome Creek, east of Phoenix. En route to the canyon, he gives a perfunctory nod to the desert landscape visible from the old road they’re strolling along, “an abandoned jeep road lined with a thousand towering saguaro and flame-tipped ocotillo…”—and because I read this just as I was moving to southern Arizona, and it was fresh on my mind the first time I ever laid eyes on this crazy plant, I have never since been able (and this surely reflects a personal failure of imagination as well) to separate this incredibly pedestrian—though perfectly accurate—description from the actual thing itself: I see an ocotillo in bloom and I cannot help but think flame-tipped.

I see an ocotillo in bloom and I cannot help but think flame-tipped, that is, until now. Joni Tevis, author of The Wet Collection, and the included essay, “Jeremiad of a Bad Drought Year,” has officially cracked my metaphorical cloister, and the possibilities of language, of ways to loop words and meanings through and around each other, seem once again boundless. Tevis has taken Krakauer's 2-D description to the anvil and hammered the shit out of it, worked it over, refashioned it, reimagined it into a thing more akin to a Calabi-Yau manifold—a many-dimensioned thing of wonder. She writes:

"In a faithless time I have gone to the desert and seen there ocotillo, devil’s buggy whip, naked canes rising from the stony ground. Gray, stippled with thorns, it rattled in the wind, and no plant has ever looked so dead to me. But I’ve seen, too, the desert after rain, when the ocotillo’s tips force out petals red as any cosseted rose. The ocotillo plays at death, crying a song to the cold desert wind; the ocotillo in bloom is a god’s hair ablaze with fire, or blood."

To be fair, nuancing words isn’t really Krakauer’s forte. He’s a mountain man, an adventurer, these days more of a journalist, and maybe that’s okay. Here, he’s a travel writer moving through a landscape—see an ocotillo, describe an ocotillo, traverse a canyon, narrate that activity—while Tevis seems to be something categorically different, that is an essayist, embedded and invested in place, and as such, language is part and parcel of her game. I suppose at the end of the day, I don’t really expect Krakauer’s imageries to knock me out, and I don’t expect Tevis to scale Everest. They’re just different personalities, different voices, and as lame as his adjectives here are compared to her metaphors, we read different writers for different reasons, and I’m glad they’re both on my bookshelf. Who, after all, wants to listen to The Decemberists when you’re in the mood for The Stooges? Or Tori Amos when you’re in the mood for Le Tigre? Or Morrissey when you’re in the mood for Dylan? Or…maybe you’ve had enough of this mixed metaphor. But you get the idea, I hope.

Krakauer has given us some great writing, but he’s no virtuoso when it comes to wordplay, and I herewith renounce flame-tipped, and all such depthless adjectives. Tevis is a boss wordsmith, and she has, for me, rescued the ocotillo from being typified by two blah words and a hyphen. And her book, The Wet Collection, is like a butter churn. Her language is like cream. An ocotillo in bloom is God’s hair ablaze.