by campbell mcgrath
from ‘the paris review’
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, cézanne-like geometry of early 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, those 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 carries 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 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 area, 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 version of myself, atop a hill in nebraska, bathed in morning light? i was there. i bore witness to that moment. i heart it pass, touched it, tasted its mysterious essence. i bear it with me still, 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.