Hey, Marfa

Graywolf Press, 2018.
$20, 160 pages.

Hey, Marfa—poetry as scrapbook, diary, and visionary performance—is such a patchwork, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Jeffrey Yang first went to Marfa to work on translations of dissident Liu Xiaobo. He couldn’t get the place out of his head. The book he wrote, with its multitude of formal allegiances and layered themes, should have received much more attention when it came out last year, because I haven’t been able to get it out of my head either. 

Artist Rackstraw Downes, who lives in Presidio County, supplies the book’s paintings and drawings of electrical substations in and near town; Downes also appears in Hey, Marfa as a character named Stra, or, jokingly, Gunslinger Stra. Stra is part saloon raconteur, part art-world stalwart, whom Yang tasks with explaining the town. Says Stra,

            there’s no hurry or rush, rather it’s one contained
            speed trap, push the gas and you’ll find yourself at the pink
            courthouse, begging at the bench of Judge Cinderela, who’ll
            take cash for not changing your Prius into a pumpkin.

Stra catalogs locals: “Emigrants, illegals, crewelers and crafters” as well as “poets and failures, javelina sausage-makers, bond-makers, readers and home-birthers.” Stra also gives demographic trivia (70 percent of residents voted Obama; the most common surname is “Sanchez or Martinez”) and advice (“This / is a desert full of fucking / agents who want to fuck you.”). He mentions “Presidio’s giant battery preserve,” substations Downes has painted and drawn over and over, a quiet obsession at the heart of this book.

Themes and motifs from the Stra poems show up elsewhere, scaffolding and cross-referencing the book. In “Javelinas,” a lyric in tercets, wild pigs that supply local hipsters with artisanal meat run free “Through the brush, quick / As horses.” Take also the light Yang’s studies. In “Thirteen Stations,” a sequence that talks back to Downes thirteen pencil drawings:

            Looking west towards the mountains

            sun’s arc at midday, gaze itinerant arc
            of a track, arc of mesa, arc of the poles

            distilled in the contours of chroma’s absence

            Lines bind things to the light
            No two wires alike

Both artist and poet discover connections, patterns, bindings. By juxtaposition and association, Yang binds the life of the place to violence and death. Yang’s Juarez has graffiti referring to “LA POESIA” and also evokes a memory of “music mingling with gunfire / . . . dead bodies along the river banks,” a description of Pancho Villa’s occupation of Juarez a century ago—but layered with knowledge of present-day Juarez’s poverty and violence.

A Chinese immigrant describes the deaths of three thousand Chinese immigrants while building the transcontinental railroad in service of American expansion. Death enters with death-row prisoners in Texas, from which Yang segues to poets Xiaobo and Osip Mandelstam, who died in prison in their respective countries. Death within colonization is here, too, in poem-narratives of Apaches murdered by Mexicans and by American “scalp-hunters” and in successive waves of conquering and settling.

None of this presents as pedagogy, political correctness, or hectoring propaganda. However haunted, however alert to political, racial, ecological, and economic oppression, this book is also full of life and energy. Yang often steps lightly even when the subject is dark. About three dozen stand-alone stanzas, positioned flush right and distributed throughout, all begin “In the Book of Last Words”:

. . . Lorine Niedecker says to her husband,
            “. . . kiss . . . kiss . . .”

. . . Charlie Livingston says before his execution,
“You all brought me here to be executed,
not to make a speech. That’s it.”

. . . Frederick Douglass says, “Why,
what does this mean?

Yang’s attention presents itself as an ethics, burrowing away at what words can do to explain the substations’ intricate emptiness. He quotes Donald Judd on his trouble furnishing his house in the desert town where “the few stores sold only fake antiques or tubular kitchen furniture with plastic surfaces printed with inane geometric patterns and flowers”; displays music in a list of girls’ names in an early twentieth-century Marfa religious order; or pauses to see what happens in the sand:

                        Sand ash-
                                    pebble leaps
                                                 up, flattens
                                    down, invisible:
                                    spider

It is a pause full of movement. Change in Hey, Marfa is a constant. Each of Downes’s pictures takes a different view of a generation plant. The desert surrounds the structures—shapes and lines and grids—which interrupt and organize the desert. Viewed hastily, they seem repetitive. But look closer, as Downes shifts perspective and proximity; the pictures, like the poems, see more.

In the Substation poems, where Yang’s urge often creates a still center of scrutiny for change around it, Yang lets nothing rest. Metaphor—that tool for changing a thing into another thing—allows Yang to pull the sea over the desert, then release it again:

            Scrub brush colonies of colorless sea urchins
            Migrate up the slope, sparse sponge-weed
            Shore curves to crest . . .

What’s in this? Maybe a notion of non-native things coming to a place they’re not yet adapted to and making it their home. Maybe the sea rising in a warming planet. Yet in these darker materials, we need never forgo the pleasures of the leap.

Nothing in Hey, Marfa is pure or without value. Death can’t happen without a simultaneous perception of vitality. Triumph is mixed with destruction. Humans are terrible and terribly delightful; the land is bigger than humans and as humans act they act upon the land. Yang is also happily incapable of excessive doom or exaltation. He repeats Stra’s epithet later in the book, addressing the town affectionately and satirically. “Hey, Marfa, you’re too far out to turn into Soho, combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell . . . your phony bank as art foundation. . . .” But he can’t even stay there, in sociological critique, and gives us at poem’s end a vision of the natural sublime—generated by “mind’s endless mosaic, spirit needing illumination, from the outside looking farther out, night sky’s brilliant Aldebaran, bull’s fiery eye burning with forgetting.”

Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Women’s Poetry, poetry editor of Scoundrel Time, and a faculty member of the Warren Wilson College MFA program for writers.

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