I can love more than one high desert landscape. As a child in the Owens Valley, I grew accustomed to altitude, aridity and skies wide and pregnant with possibility. That’s why the adopted home of Georgia O’Keeffe, north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, spoke to me so loudly when I visited last month.
The tour operator at Georgia O’Keeffe’s studio and home in Abiquiu, a small hamlet in the Rio Chama Valley, prohibited photography, note-taking, sketch books and backpacks. How then, would I capture its serenity and elegance, the sense of purpose and curve of the clay-colored adobe walls? How could I possibly remember it all, including the Eames chair in the living room, the bones hung on walls and adorning bookshelves, horns curling and hurling through space and schists and polished stones in pleasant piles? The answer: I would have to really look with my eyes and mind and commit the place to memory as though I had but one shot.
“The land herself longs to hear the voices of those who hold her dear,” one of my cherished colleagues wrote to me this year.
Abiquiu, I hold you dear. Enjoy this poem, my readers. Whom I hold dear.
Greying vertebra perched atop Georgia’s shelf, a view of Chama River Valley.
The highway with the cottonwoods in its palm.
The studio – a single bed at a right angle to the wall, at a right angle to the window on this world
All the world she needs.
Pantry left in situ on the day she died with tea canisters, coffee for every mood, spices in bottles, her ballpoint pen handwriting on faded masking tape labels.
The black door,
always the black door,
praying and bending to moths, hummingbirds, fingertips, camera lenses.
The Parish once owned this decrepit adobe, the walls falling, yet she was falling in love with sky, with sandstone, with her eyes swallowing joy for the first time.
A tin can is packed with brushes, a sculpture is cast from her mind to the real world, Ansel is snapping her convertible studio on a dirt road, her jeans rolled at the ankles, her hair pulled up and back, her face free to absorb that ghost of apricot rock.
Listening, her whispers are clear:
I am seeking solitude, I am like my father that way, I need to be alone, she says.
But isn’t the city betting on you? a man says. Won’t you return to show yourself, on the walls of his gallery, to acclaim, to own that breast and alabaster stomach and unshaven armpits? Isn’t that your meaning? Your purpose, to be so female and to provoke the wagging tongues?
Did he make you?
Or did you make him?
Did he make you rich?
Was it his rib in your groin, in your iris, in your horsehair brush, in the oils gliding across the canvas?
I have asked too many questions.
A vertical sighing, afternoon storms are sweeping across the mesa country, washing clean her preconceptions and prejudices. Or mine.
Alfred was never here.
She cut the silk and sewed it into place, made his coffin comfortable, respectable, her love not final,
a candle would burn in the night,
but this task –
the last she could offer to him.
If she could bottle it, carry it on a string around her neck: the earth’s perfume before the storm’s release, so bewitching and pure!
There is no ulterior motive, not a drop of evil in that wild precipitation, just energy.
A river forms in mere minutes, then thirst returns, the air takes care of her moisture and discourages the dilettante heavens who are unable to decide between calm composure and drama, between hand-wringing and worship, between worry and ecstatic quiet.
She’s in the library, then she’s walking the chow chows, tomorrow a hoodoo will call for articulate expression of wind, water and shapes that may change before she can drive and set down for a gentle spell.
The eye focuses on striations: copper, caramel, lime and lemon colors.
There are not enough names to call these palettes into being.
But oh she will try.
She will call upon the sun blanched bones, the flattened stones, the roots of the cottonwoods, the lightning strikes and the endless gate of this horizon extending from her shoulders to the flexing, yielding universe, folding inside itself and always knowing that it is nothing but itself, uncompromising, uncovered, big horn sheep mandible and horn, preparing for the next life, unearthed, exposed.
The black door.
All the while we are in this life, with our dossiers and accounts, our annals of exhibitions, the catalogue of slights and sins, blessings and punishments, our moons and mantras healing and heeding our need for skies so sentient they breathe onto the balding plateaus.
Breathe onto badlands,
Breathe onto Georgia,
Breathe and open the black door,
Dance on the stepping stones
the skies breathe
the skies breathe unto you
unto all who come
Go, breathe the New Mexico magic: