Pay Attention

As I was working over my recent poems I became more aware than ever that they arise from the simple act of paying attention. If I’m asked again about what enables me to write my poetry, I will start and end with saying “pay attention.” No matter how good or bad your hearing, touch or eyesight is, pay attention to whatever they are revealing about the world without and within you.

Paying attention is, in a way, much easier when you are out in the desert, as we were in (New) Mexico, because there are fewer demands, it seems, on your senses. You can open up to the little that there seems to be around you, only to find that there is more than you ever imagined. Moreover, the so-called wilderness gives you sensory space to pay attention to what is inside you. This is surely one reason that people have gone out into the desert to be closer to more ultimate realities—still small voices, burning bushes, beatific visions.

Or else they have gone on a long walk through unfamiliar territory, unshackled from daily routines, voices, sights, and obligations. They take what we often call a pilgrimage. Around here, they decide to walk the Appalachian Trail, all 2,060 miles of it. And then some of them write a book about it. While we were out in desert country Sylvia and I read each day from my friend Newton Smith’s new collection of poems written while he was on the Camino de Santiago de Frances, the famous route to Santiago de Campostelo in northern Spain and Basque country. It’s called Camino Poems (Argura Press, 2016).

Each day, each poem, was simply an exercise in paying attention—to stones, flowers, strangers, birds. And yes, to fatigue, pain, awe, and gratitude. It became a daily reading. We were able to walk with Newt and pay attention, though we had no blisters and sore knees to focus our attention even more.

We live in a society of distractions. Paying attention, like mindfulness, is harder than ever. Maybe that is why our public conversations are so frazzled by the lies and spin of other voices. Images flood our vision in airports, lounges, hotels, and even in our doctors’ offices. We can’t pay attention to the rusted machines that would tell us our failure, the sign held out beside the stoplight asking for a job, the sparrows that return to build their nest again within the downspout’s bend. Or, indeed, to pay attention to our dreams, a mason’s careful stonework on a wall, the wan smile of a waitress as you thank her for her help.

I know there’s more—how we think about this thing we’ve paid attention to, what treasury of images we bring to its side, how we match it up with the music of our words, the accents, cadence and the onomatopoeia of our language. But it’s the act of paying attention that is the spirituality of poetry, its soul, what makes it start and run. Books like Camino Poems help lead us into that life. I tell you, it would be a good place to start. Even without the blisters.


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Crystal Bridges

A stunning museum of American art in the Ozarks of northwestern Arkansas? Well, get used to it. We tried to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2014 but the great ice storm Titan ditched (so to speak) our plans. This year, under gray skies but no ice, we made it. You must go. The life-long dream of Alice Walton, of Walmart lineage, it is an accomplishment of architecture, art, ecology, and education nestled in a ravine in her family’s home of Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart is still headquartered amid an exploding metropolis of subsidiary businesses and industries.

My attention was first caught by the cb-bldgs-web architectural work of Moshe Safdie, the world-renowned architect who had also designed the buildings at Hebrew College that came to share the hill with Andover Newton in my final years there. Drawing on the architectural heritage of Frank Lloyd Wright and his student Fay Jones (Thorncrown Chapel and Cooper Memorial Chapel are nearby), Shafdie conceived of a set of structures that would bridge the little creek in Alice Walton’s ravine. Local woods were laminated into the beams supporting their roofs, with glass walls erasing the barrier between inside and outside spaces.

Great care was given to preserving as many trees as possible, including two tulip trees that were renamed Thelma and Louise, because they teeter at the edge of one of the buildings. Other woods were incorporated into the furnishings. The grounds are still being

"Yield," by Roxy Paine

“Yield,” by Roxy Paine

developed, but they contain an array of sculptures, including a “Dendrite” tree by Roxy Paine, versions of which we had seen at the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth and in Raleigh at the North Caroline Museum of Art. The “Maelstrom,” by Alice Aycock, emerged as Sylvia’s favorite. She definitely did not like the enormous arachnid that hovers over the entrance foyer.

"Maelstrom," by Alice Aycock

“Maelstrom,” by Alice Aycock

Nestled into the woods adjacent to the main buildings is a home built by Frank Lloyd Wright. We would not have seen it in 2014. It was recently moved piece by piece from New Jersey, where it was endangered by recurrent floods, to Crystal Bridges, affirming the American architectural tradition represented locally by the work of Fay Jones. While we could feel some of the “tiny house” ethos wright-house-cb-webof our present time, we could also see elements of light, honesty of materials, and alignment with the land that had inspired us in building our own home, which has room for our “stuff” as well.

The inside spaces display an extensive representation of works from the earliest American painters to contemporary installations. They include many works by women (Mary Cassat) as well racial or ethnic minorities (Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers). Most works have a description that tells you how the work fits into the history as well as contemporary context of its creation. The wooden floors made viewing a pleasure rather than a backache.

Fittingly for us, a special exhibition of “Border Cantos,” based on materials and photographs of the Mexican-US border barriers was installed in the exhibition gallery. It concludes with a wall of post-it notes from immigrants to the US from all over the world.

And there were families, children and young people everywhere. Because it’s FREE! Yes, you have already paid for it. A million people a year are now visiting it, in spite of its (for coastalites) remote location. As they wander its buildings and lands, we can only hope they are imbibing the artistic heritage that its constantly expanding, unfolding, and daring new things. And as, they say in Hamilton, immigrants are always making it happen in new ways.

And now, a word about the food. It is delectable, presentable, down-homey with a flare, and reasonably priced. What more can you ask for? Not to mention the room overlooking the pond, wooden beams arching overhead, and the golden heart warming the space above… Well, we were grateful for the experience. Sometimes great wealth does good things. You all go, now, hear?


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The Great River


Here the Rio Grande is dry

            a hollow bone without the marrow

            a sleeping body without blood


            patient as the ceaseless wind

            blowing tumbleweeds

            into the dry rushes on its banks.

They say it runs with catfish in the spring

            who mysteriously are resurrected

            by the flood of melting snow,

            the spring release

            from reservoirs



            we wander on the dry bed


            for the life to come.


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The Heritage of Mata Ortiz

Las Cruces is in America’s Borderland with Mexico. We are staying in fact in Old Mesilla, where the Gadsden Purchase was signed that defined the geographical border between the two countries. But the cultural border is a matter of shading. Thanks to the guidance of our friends Rich and Naida we just spent a few days south of the border in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico. We drove through the ugly steel barrier wall west of El Paso, where Rich navigated the bureaucratic intricacies of taking a car into Mexico. In an instant we passed from a world of English speakers flavored with Spanish to one of Spanish tinged with English.

More importantly, we were in the Chihuahua Desert of mesquite, yucca, sandy soil, and vestigial grasses. This is the true “wall” separating the peoples of the north and south. Thousands of human remains have bleached out in these searing lands. Our car cruised along with the occasional truck and SUV shielded from the struggle of life around us. Just for the record, the Mexican semi-trailers were as polite and professional as any truckers in the States, signaling when it was safe to pass and observing all the “señales” (not the “seniles,” as Rich joked).

Nuevo Casas Grandes lies in the foothills of the Sierre Madre Orientale, Mexico’s southern extension of the Rockies. The original “Great Houses” lie a few miles west, in the village of Paquimè, site of the UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Zone. Anchored by a fine museum, the archaeological park gives ruins-1-web us a physical sense of the former 1700-room pueblo nestled on a knoll overlooking the river valley below. From about 1000 to 1340 AD several thousands of people lived here, farming and trading with groups to the south and north. The low walls reconstructed on the old foundations tell of multi-storey dwellings, hot and cold running water (yes!), ritual offerings (birds, it seems), and everyday life. Their life together ended catastrophically with an invasion and total destruction of the city.

When archaeologists began unearthing man-pot-ed-webthe lower layers of the site they came across marvelous pottery adorned with sophisticated imagery. It was these pots and designs that inspired a local potter, Juan Quezada, to begin creating pottery in the nearby village of Mata Ortiz. Entranced, collectors from near and far have made it one of the most popular pieces of local craft in the Southwest. The next day, we headed out of Casas Grandes for this famous little pottery center.

On the way, Rich took us on a slight detour through the town of Colonia Juarez, settled by Mormon refugees from Utah in the late 19th century. Seemingly air-lifted out of any mid-western town, the two-storey homes filled in a grid of neat streets in this tidy agricultural community. Most amazingly, a gleaming white temple overlooked the town, the juarez-mormon-templeangel Moroni blowing his golden horn on its pinnacle. Yes, folks, Salt Lake City has a satellite in rural Mexico amongst the indigenous mestizo Catholicism all around it.

A few miles away the Hacienda de San Diego of Luis Tarrazas (1829-1923) broods in dereliction like a Western movie set. Certainly the richest man in Chihuahua in his day, Tarrazas built this enormous palace, with extensive housing for laborers, animals, and supplies, at the turn of the 19th century. Today, a few families live in portions of the old buildings, machinery lies among the ruined walls, and some livestock munch placidly amidst the ruins. This was clearly the “Giant” of its day, now passed into legend and, for some, nostalgia, though its culture was overturned by the Mexican Revolution that sought to destroy the old hacienda system. I could feel that there were many voices murmuring in the weeds and broken doors, whispering to me about the overthrow of the oppressive wealthy. The breezes are still taking away their words like seeds across the lands, across the borders.


A railroad snaked its way into the tiny town of Mata Ortiz and left a depot that is now the town’s art co-op, displaying some of its famous pots. It seemed we were the only tourists that day, so people stopped their pickups in the streets and hailed us from a roadside stand, inviting us to see their pots, buy some at a price you couldn’t find up north. A little girl, accompanied by her mother and grandmother, held a little pot in her hand, inviting us to buy it. Her sweet, inquisitive face is still haunting me.

Her little hands cover


            the little pot

            her mother made

            holding it the way

            her little town is held

            within the hands

            of the Sierra Madre

            shining in her eyes.

Her dusty town is built

            on pottery

            with intricate designs

            of lines and circles

            wrested from a broken heritage

            redeemed by dreams


            like the little pot

            the little girl

            her big dreams

            her open eyes.

 pot-top-ed-web           Around the corner someone was renovating an adobe home in veneration of Frida Kahlo, whose life story and work have become ever more lustrous over the years. Its chromium blue walls shouted down the dirt street to a home where we actually bought a beautiful pot by the nephew of Juan Quezada. The purchase of a beautiful work of art in the home of the maker is now almost an act of religious veneration for a world of work and life ground down by global technology. If you want to know more about Mata Ortiz, you can download for free a Kindl publication, Mata Ortiz Pottery Buyer’s Guide: The Earth’s Bounty into your Home’s Beauty, by Philip Stover, with complete information on getting there. Ignore all walls and visit this remarkable village!

As if to complete a circle of pots from the past to the present, Rich and Naida took us up into the Sierra Madre to the Cueva de la Olla (“Cave of the Jar”). Located at the end of a jarring dirt trail well off the highway, the cueva is overseen today by Señor Lamiro from jar-cave-ed-webhis little visitor’s cabin at the foot of a rocky canyon whose rim has been carved by wind and rain into camels, eagles, and faces. In an overhang above us the ancient pueblo dwellers had constructed a huge storage container sheltered from the elements and most marauders of the time. Here we had, once again, not the eyes, not the faces, not the voices of the human beings who dwelled here, but only the work of their hands in mud, straw, and stone.

It was a day that asked us, How do we take possession of our past to make a pot to hold our future? How do hands and minds and voices still construct a world at home with nature and the human beings that give a shape to love? We now have some beautiful pots that invite us to these questions. The next day we swept back across the desert to the ugly testimonies of walls that seek to silence such a conversation.



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