Excerpts > Fall 2001, 75th Anniversary Celebration and Conference Issue

Robin Becker
Soot and Spit

Soot and Spit

for James Castle (1900 - 1977)
Green Valley, Idaho

In dim light. Under conditions of extraordinary
isolation. Accompanied only by family
members and imaginary friends in attic and barn.
With outbuildings and fences. With your mouth and fingers
to taste and sew and wrap and tie and smear.

How may I know you, James Castle? In the photo,
wearing farm worker's denim, you are a man
holding a hat at your side. The visible tree is leafless.
You have dark hair, a broad face. I would not guess
that you don't write or read. Or speak.

Or that for ink you mixed soot from a wood-burning
stove with saliva and drew with sharpening sticks.
On evnvelopes and packaging. On flattened matchboxes.
Sometimes adding string and paste to make constructions
or small books of colored pulp. Undated. Untitled.

I invent boarding school despots who flog your refusals.
I invent your withdrawal to homemade
technologies, to fabricate the inner life of the stable and inhabit
a place of such tenderness we cannot misunderstand
the scratched walls, the framed stalls, the pitch of open roofing

and darkness, gathering on the unembellished grain bins.
In such a space I dream of barn owls flying
and nesting and turning their ancient faces in welcome,
for I have come into your Idaho -- a condition without
distraction or sound, irony or compromise -- to find you,

but how may I know you, James Castle?
By the shadows that hide the animals and filigree the lathing?
In the shed with its floor of packed dirt, dust ornaments
open shelves of preserves and jars, and someone beyond
the picture plane draws in silence, beloved, at home, remote.


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