Out here

Even a stone can astonish us, thrown or underfoot, rippling the surface of some dark pond or stumbling along in the dust if we give it a chance. In New York, L.A., Chicago, even Seattle passions riot in ways we cannot feel with our stingy sensibilities. People keep on living there as if they were going to die in the next minute, so of course they do. A friend who works for the Wall Street Journal says it's the only honest way to live.

Out here we live as if we're going to live forever. We spend carefully. The Forest Service and the BLM send college students into the field each summer to count sagebrush. They are contemplating a program to tabulate tumbleweed, full employment year-round. It's an education.

The friend from Manhattan visits one of our short summers, waiting daily for something to happen. It never does. The whole summer is like skipping stones late in the afternoon on a placid pond. We try to talk, but she's too deep, like a stone seeking the bottom. Out here we like those conversations Where no one has the last word.


When I find myself feeling great on a beautiful spring morning with daffodils leaping all around me, I want to write a poem, and sometimes I do, and when I do it's almost always awful. I can rarely force a poem into being. The occasion must force itself upon me.

``Out Here'' was triggered by something I heard which I eventually deleted from the poem. Prof. John McDermott of Texas A&M referred in a lecture to the French existential novelist Albert Camus's statement that ``suicide is the only philosophical issue today.'' I thought how perversely sophisticated that notion was, and almost simultaneously thought how distant it was from the way most of us think ``out here'' in the West.

I wanted to express a certain naivet'e about us small-town types, and the wordplay between ``stone'' and ``astonish'' in the first line came to me, probably because McDermott said something about the ripple effect of throwing a stone in a pond. The first section of my poem also says something about being receptive to the apparently inconsequential events of life, a luxury we can afford ``out here,'' where our lives sometimes seem far removed from places of consequence.

The poem's next section reflects upon some of those places. In the fourth line I suspend the phrase ``as if'' in midair, and I pick up that device again in the next stanza.

The friend in that second stanza actually worked as an editor at Barron's magazine, but I wanted the feel, the heft, the mental associations that accompany the Wall Street Journal, so of course I lied, which makes that next line sort of funny in a private way as well as ironic: Dying is ``the only honest way to live.''

The third section provides an obvious antithesis to the second, ``out here'' as opposed to ``there'' in the cities. The Forest Service does employ a number of forestry students in counting trees, as does private industry, but I don't know of anyone spending the summer tabulating sagebrush. I guess that's supposed to be funny, and the notion of counting tumbleweed is altogether whimsical.

In the last section my New York friend visits ``out here,'' as she did a couple of summers ago, and gets bored. After that, I simply returned to my opening metaphor. The concluding lines are perhaps a bit epigrammatic. Some advocates of strict Modernism in poetry might object to them as overt or dogmatic (don't tell but show, etc., etc.). If so, that would be ironic in a way, as my assertion is to the effect that ``out here'' we tend to avoid resolutions and firm assertions (like ``suicide is the only philosophical issue today'').

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