A Feast of Fat ThingsPrint
After umpteen years of living in America, an English writer gives thanks for its salient pleasures
By Paul West
June 1, 2012
In midsummer the shallows off the Gulf of Mexico are warm as new-breathed air, and your feet, instead of flinching stiff, smooth out like green bananas. You can saunter for miles along those even beaches, sloshing warm and boneless with good-tempered Louisiana pipefish cruising after you, or alongside, glad of a paddler for company, sometimes even touching noses with your toes. And all around you, plankton you cannot see, which you know is gorse-yellow or a see-through white like scratched celluloid, dawdles in the swell of your transit: a million tiny boomerangs at anchor.
A wading paradise open to all, whether on the Texas or the Florida side, this is the far-flung centerpiece of my American euphoria, a shoreline so tonic it makes a child of me in seconds. Down slops a foot in the sand, and nothing else is real, not the dead jellyfish that fetch up along the Texas shore like tiny bulbous jet planes cut from soapstone or plastic, not even the cars that on certain accursed days churn the beach during their incongruous patrols. To which there must be added the criminal deprivations of the BP gang. Who in his right mind needs four wheels to move from worm cast to worm cast, from one split shell to the next, from jellyfish to washed-up and gull-gutted silk snapper? Not I, who once learned part of the airplane pilot’s skill (always in front of you, an empty dimension to cleave) but never managed to steer a car without rubbernecking sideways or accelerating to a hundred miles an hour. Compulsive ocean-gazer, who climaxed his last automotive foray two decades ago by obliviously driving himself and several others down a bank and almost into a remote New England river, I settle for something vast that enslaves the eye and whose huge osmosis tugs at every fluid in the sinuses, the brain, the belly, even the pearly lubricant that helps our kneecaps glide.
The mood is that of Frederick Delius, master of ravished swooning under the vegetal spell of English spring and summer, but also an addict to Florida, the scenic side of which outweighs its moral primevalism. In 1884 Delius journeyed from Bradford, Yorkshire, to an orange plantation at Solano Grove, on Florida’s St. Johns River, where he became so enchanted by virgin wilderness, Negro songs, canal trips, and alligator hunts that he let his oranges rot and spent his time studying harmony and counterpoint. In 1886 he left Florida for Danville, Virginia, where he gave music lessons to the daughters of well-to-do planters. The creative yield of his two-year sojourn was the orchestral suite Florida, which won favor with Edvard Grieg and, although not top-flight Delius, is unmistakably his and a rare instance of an English composition about American landscape. It speaks for me in an idiom I never mastered. He was just 25 when he wrote it.
Like him born in the granite, bluff north of a country whose weather is reliably miserable, I marvel still at these disunited United States, a country that has its empire within its own boundaries, not to mention several golden rivieras as well, where one goes to bask by jet: no passport, no Customs, no recoil into another language. I shall never get over it, this handiness of the paradise garden where you have the domestic right to be, to shuttle to and fro between the dreamy chill of overstocked Florida supermarkets—frosty beverage, cool sliced chicken loaf, warmly lackadaisical greetings such as “Have yourself a good evening now” addressed to an older, more doddering version of yourself—and the humid oven-heat that waits beyond plate-glass doors through which you can actually view the azure sea, only a minute’s walk away, the other side of the ash-white ziggurats of the motels.
I am always mentally facing south, even in summer, when the only difference between a Pennsylvania head-sweat and a Florida one (95 degrees here, 98 degrees there) is one’s nearness, southward, to the ocean. The very word ocean nowadays connotes rapture: oceanic experience is mystical, which means that anyone suitably disposed can tune in, using only the headset nature gave him. I do not believe that a human being is a microcosmic replica of the macrocosm, though. The analogy breaks down in scores of ways: what, for instance, is the human equivalent of stars, galaxies, open and globular clusters, nebulae that murmur pink, violet, and green in the cold-plate photographs of astronomers? And, for that, has the universe equivalents for the reductive violence that the crude underside of human imagination persists in attributing to space and its other occupants, all the way from Edgar Rice Burroughs to the cosmic cops-and-robbers of Star Wars? The violence of an exploding star, of a star going about its incessant and infernal conversion of hydrogen into helium, of galaxies grazing one another and colliding is something else: commotion in the matrix that spawned us.
Perhaps human violence is a ricochet from that, but we have no right to vindicate ourselves as if we were stars. A star has no on-the-spot intelligence, and we have some. Not even ray-gun fervor, claiming that a violent science-fiction movie revives the comic strip of a cherished yesteryear, convinces me that, no less when pondering the Magellanic Clouds than the Florida sands, we should settle for the lowest estimate of ourselves. The grains of stardust or sand are holy things: in part beyond our understanding, they serve various purposes, one of them being to humble us into realizing that our human destiny may well become only—long after scientists and theologians and philosophers have had their final say—attentiveness. We cannot destroy the universe, but just ourselves. We cannot create ourselves, but only reproduce. I mean reverent attentiveness, of course, such as accumulates all the data it can and then, after a lifetime of wondering, dies none the wiser but at least having performed—vis-à-vis Magellan’s Clouds and Florida’s sands—up to the highest conceivable standards.
This high-class dead end, in which we keep alive a needed attitude rather than prevail over any mystery, amounts to full deployment of our givens, as if, say, to be uninjuriously present at the spectacle were all. Wan thought as that may be amid the competitive crescendo of human evolution, it is worth treasuring because we still have it. Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, quakes with strife that reaffirms how competitive consciousness is, but the poem is full of awe and disabused relish as well, evident most of all in Milton’s voluptuous astronomy. He loves to look at what he doesn’t understand:
… from eastern point
Of Libra to the fleecy star that bears
Andromeda far off Atlantic seas
Beyond th’ horizon; then from pole to pole
He views in breadth, and without longer pause
Down right into the world’s first region throws
His flight precipitant, and winds with ease
Through the pure marble air his oblique way
Amongst innumerable stars, that shone
Stars distant, but nigh hand seem’d other worlds;
Or other worlds they seem’d, or happy iles,
Like those Hesperian gardens fam’d of old …
As I say, I am always looking south, and if I look south upward somewhat as well, I am looking toward the center of the Milky Way. A colleague, hard-headed scrutineer of human fronts, once told me I was a mystic of sorts, and I think he was right, at least if he meant I am given to long fits of contemplative arousal in which things come together, the Many groups itself into fewer groups, but the ultimate jigsaw picture means nothing at all. I have no insight, no message, only a vague sense that alertness to juxtapositions is a form of homage. It is what consciousness enables us to do, with here or there this or that degree of understanding (how a virus overpowers a cell, how a fetus pulses). Beyond it, what? Guesswork only, of which mankind makes a nonstop harvest. I try to remain a voluptuary of the open mind, or rather of the haphazard mosaic within it, and as the umpteen years of my America come together, I sense how arbitrary and yet definitive the core of them is. The same period in Tashkent might have yielded a comparable core, however, through which to glimpse a connectedness that may be more than mental, but certainly is mental (the wrist has no credo, the heart has no ideas).
Having lived much of my time on islands, I am no doubt invincibly insular by now, but the defect comes out as a sea fever, and the warmer the sea the better. Gulf, Caribbean, South Atlantic: I relish them alike, yet not without mundaner booty from the heartlands. Corn on the cob I first sampled at Thanksgiving 1952 as a foreign student dutifully invited out of Manhattan to central Connecticut. The fourth Thursday in November is the only religious festival that moves me. Thanks tendered by the Pilgrim Fathers, for their survival, find a technical echo in me, coming back later as an immigrant aboard an Air Canada DC-9; but I could always have gone back again, I had only dared the known, whereas they were Promethean, apostate, and terminally seasick. Less technically, Thanksgiving stirs me for being a pagan celebration of the land’s bounty: all things bright and beautiful, toothsome and cookable. The menu has become holy, and the season, at least in the latitudes I associate with Thanksgiving, is poetically just. Indian summer has only just begun to blanch. Log smoke tangs the air. Leaves are teetering. Everything creaks. There is even an aroma of toast, muffins, and crispening pastry. The nation prepares to shut down in order to concentrate on the groaning board’s elegant heap of dark and white meat, all in solid slices, jelly of cranberry astir with ruby light, and rings of pineapple weirdly strewn like quoits across a pale jungle of salads but not, thank heaven, across the hot saffron-colored corn.
I do not quite know what happens to Americans at this season. They break out, they turn inward, they gorge, they swill, but most of all they take you inside. When I look back I become grave with gratitude. I never spent a Thanksgiving alone, a fact that impresses me as an instance of a country’s living up to its sociable reputation. So corn, about which I wax lyrically befuddled, is not only the sun, the land, the Indian, the blanket-blurt of joy at being still alive with another harvest reaped and a root cellar full. It is also the Florida of Delius, taking the English stranger into its midst almost as if an Englishman were a sacrificial offering, and planting him deep in the dished-up fecundity and mystery of the ancient land, the only-just-founded place. I wonder how he responded to Thanksgiving in that hot climate. Is it as aromatic there? Half as creaky? Anywhere near as sparkling? All I know is that Thanksgiving is an atmosphere in which to be alone is to be galactically remote from humankind (I have been told as much), but in which to lunch or dine in company is to find the pilgrimage to have been more than worthwhile.
The festival’s devout side reminds me of the Derbyshire custom known as well dressing (a thanks for water) or of harvest festivals in village churches (in which crops deck the altar). The least pretentious, least manipulated of holidays, it has an improvised, homemade air, unimposed from outside by the tinsel industry, and it literally thanks the planet as well as whatever, if any, metaphysical entity oversees it. A mite pragmatic-superstitious, like my mother, who cautions me never to touch cutlery during a thunderstorm, Thanksgiving helped me feel at home in others’ homes, and so, by taxonomical trespass, among creatures delightfully new to me, such as the scarlet cardinal, with its cry of wheat wheat wheat, what-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, and its frail proud bearing; the eastern chipmunk, which runs with its tail straight up, says chip-chip-cuck, and haunts summer cottages; Butler’s garter snake, which never quite knows how to get out of the way as you blunder upon it in the grass; and the robins, bigger and browner than those whose red breasts occupy a sentimental place in the rhymes of my English childhood.
My America has a restricted landscape, I suppose, but the rest of the iceberg remains, a quotient of treasure. Minor but, for me, salient things nestle in the crevices of remembered initiation. Shoveling sidewalk snow in a quiet street in a college town in Pennsylvania, I paused for breath, looked up and down the bunkers of orderly shoveled snow, saw the sidewalks glowing black all the way to the blue mailbox, the maples draped white about the drift-capped roofs, and thought it a better place to be than any. I am addicted to wide, handsome Main Streets lined with massive elms, unfenced and astonishingly unspoiled lawns, and somewhat run-down august houses like shrines to rootedness. I know that one of the best homemade soups in America can be had at the Steam Valley Restaurant in Trout Run, Pennsylvania, where the vegetable variety contains bite-size chunks of meat, the back-of-the-counter gewgaws have 1950s prices under their dust, and a blurred reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper ironically eggs you on while country-western plaints from the jukebox untwine further the endless legend of betrayal, old style or new. It doesn’t matter when the soup is 60 cents a bowl with free crackers, the always-to-me-exotic glass of water arrives almost as you sit down, and the freshest coleslaw in the East comes with everything.
Does it matter that I still flinch when someone follows one with he (“One eats when he can”), which makes he seem a backdoor intruder into that sentence, whereas British English follows one with one, lest identities get blurred, and thus ensures there is no one home to answer either door. One answers only when one can, and perhaps not even then. What is Jell-O here is jelly there, and what is jelly here is jam there. Will all my double-shuffles ever gel? “Who,” asks the English person at the phone, “is that?” so keeping the interlocutor-to-be at a distance. “Who is this?” asks the American counterpart, sucking the caller all the way down the wire to an at-arm’s-length proximity much closer than the expression suggests. And in the United States there is the totally unservile use of “sir,” akin to the French m’sieu: a pleasing acme of civility. All immigrant sirs, please copy. By way of exemplifying the difficulties I have encountered with that infamous barrier of common language (USUK), I here reproduce the text of an experiment: an attempt to translate from a language I shall probably never learn into a language I am beginning to forget, which maroons me somewhere above Atlantis. There follows my stunted notion of what American English might be, at least on the occasion of my trying to accumulate, in a short space, expressions that have different English equivalents. The text is not meant to make sense, or even to correspond to any American speaker.
I come full circle, or through a reasonably complete ellipse (two centers), when I recall fetching up, by a fluke on his very birthday, at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Florida, where predictably you cannot buy a copy of The Confessions; but it’s Ponce’s town, not the saint’s. A cleaned-up cannon of midnight blue, perched on a stucco plinth, aims at the gateway arch, which, over its exposed crisscross struts, says in quasi-Gothic letters, “Fountain of Youth,” with DRIVE TWO BLOCKS in white uppercase on black under ain of. You do, with on your right as you enter a full-rigged galleon, two-dimensional but colorfully under way, flanked by two partners miniaturized by distance, or design, on an ink-blue ocean at whose bottom sits an ocher arrow 15 feet long interrupted by the same legend about driving two blocks. It is the last tour of the day. The buxom grounds hostess in 16th-century flounces has perspired her all and narrates in a sapped contralto. After an obligatory visit to the burial ground of the Timucua Indians, enclosed by Henri Rousseau–like murals, which shelter the painted image of one wintering Arctic tern, inset, I move on. A hurricane long ago ruined the mounds, washing away all but a few bones, which, fused with the stone, resemble human-sized seals ready for the warm wax. I am awed, but by abstractness and the coppery green of certain lumps. In the planetarium I view the stars that Ponce sailed by, northwestward from Puerto Rico, in search of legendary treasure and youth-giving waters, and am moved by the invisible female nostalgist’s music-backed evocation of his first dawn, April 2, 1513, beside those buff and verdant beaches he called La Florida. On my souvenir Jefferys map of 1775, near where Ponce landed, I find features named White Sand, Horse Guards, General’s Mount, and Matanzas Inlet, all postdating him; matanzas, by the way, means “slaughters,” and the inlet was the site of a massacre accomplished in 1565 by Don Pedro Menéndez, now commemorated in the Avenida that bears his name and near to which I find something incongruous called the British Shop, reminding me I have also seen a White Lion pub across from the old fort, advertised as having “Olde English Atmosphere.”
After surveying a gigantic water jar, a tinajone pitted as an asteroid and Uranus-green, I naturally enough head for the fountain proper, where, next to Ponce’s inlaid cross—13 stones wide, 15 long, not quite flush with the mossy ground—I sip well water from a paper cup. Next day I develop a viral infection that moves from the ears to the maxillary sinuses and thence to the eyes, which blood cherry-red, color worthy of any sleep-short conquistador. But I have made my gesture across almost five centuries, in the oldest permanent settlement in the United States, 20 years after first arriving in St. John’s, Newfoundland, “the oldest city in North America.” Gradually, I decide, the alphas of my own New World are coming into my possession, prefiguring no Omega at all, or at least none I can intuit (unless it be Cape Canaveral, not far down the coast). Beginnings are enough, surely: according to the polity of this continent, you take it from there and swim freestyle to a home, a destiny, a finale, of your own choice. Another map of mine, which shows the locations in 1650 of the main Franciscan missions in north Florida, bears the legend “The Glorious Harvest of Savage Souls.” It might be a motto for the whole country, which uses what it finds locally and what comes to it, ever willing to exploit what is raw and laid-on, like the shell-rock formation called coquina, from which St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos was built.
Echoes of Ponce’s rich hopes come again, this time in the new-immigrant zeal of a former BBC TV producer, who yearns for early Renaissance Florence (which he visits annually) and thinks a comparable rebirth is happening in the United States. Crime, corruption, boondoggling, hornswoggling, gerrymandering, bureaucratic elephantiasis do not pit his dream of creating an American BBC—once he has found his feet here through his seminar at an Ivy League university and walked diviningly into the groves of power. Teacherly, shrewd, and perhaps invulnerably resolute, he has already catalyzed a 13-part TV series on astronomy, in collaboration with Carl Sagan, who himself spoke of the third third of the 20th century as “an age of exploration and discovery unparalleled since the Renaissance, when in just 30 years European man moved across the Western ocean to bring the entire globe within his ken.” It is almost as if the two of them saw the country’s hub as a royal court, flawed by impetuous energy’s natural misbehavior, but which epiphanies from space would somehow redeem, reorient, or convert. Evangelism has never had so much hardware at its command or worn so winning a face.
If such an enterprise sounds preposterous, so is the universe into which we feel our way with Mars Rovers and comet-chasing sailplanes. The question, answerable perhaps only by the year 2500, is whether vast accumulations of new knowledge and huge increments of awe will improve national and international behavior in subtle, irrevocable ways or whether the human animal will keep on doing vicious business as usual. I incline to the second view: not just because the first Renaissance curled like a rainbow over a snakepit, but because human progress, at the mercy of those dragons of Eden—those vestigial areas of primitivism in the brain—that Sagan (after Arthur Koestler) had fixed on, has a long schizophrenic tomorrow to survive. Evolution is slow, and nurture at best is an imperfect rein on nature. All the same, some talk of a golden age come again is seemly enough. Ambivalent as ever, Homo sapiens recalls still the image, devised by Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in the 15th century, of man with feet in the mud, head among the angels. Revamped, that high-flying trope should perhaps read: head in the universe, or in the skewed new domain of comparative planetology; the mud remains. Until knowing for knowing ’s sake becomes self-evidently destructive, the gamble stays worthwhile even if only on the premise that, if we have a destiny at all here on Earth and off, it is manifestly not to achieve an absolute of viciousness, but to blunder forward according to the givens we call virtues and even in our darkest phases honor beyond mere lip service. Thorned, we are a sort of rose as well, almost 26 million miles from anything beyond our moon. And that distance seems to me a scholarship, an incentive to go out into the world and learn.
Clearly, learning has to do with facts, whose retailers’ welcome at the hands of our society is brisk; nowadays, at least, people do seem to want the truth about Mars. Creative types, such as myself, however, are always in the position of having to impose their sensibility on other people, which is sometimes a grueling role indeed. An example has just appeared on my writing pad: an eraser flake three millimeters long, or the tiniest of larvae. It does not move. If a flake, yet larvalike, it is an image I must try to make you accept. If a larva, it is a fact whose reception is guaranteed. The first is optional, the second not; and although some images are more welcome than some facts, and are more vivid or amusing or human, I know the difference is valid still: the larva is the cosmos’s, the image is mine, and I am arbitrary, it is not. In fact, the larva has just definitively raised its head to pump itself along like a mobile tilde (~) and so relates itself to other givens, reminding me of the perhaps delusive last reckoning in which, after it becomes clear that an avalanche of information will not call Homo sapiens to order, it becomes almost as clear that what might ennoble human memory is what we have made in chords and words and paint in the course of activities not as clever, quite, as astrophysics and planetology, but in the end a compulsive option. I mean the tunes of beings who could not learn from history or the cosmos, the scribbles and daubs of a part the other parts could not live up to. If science fails to awe us and civilize us, at least the arts attest to what we might have been in toto and fractionally are: rough diamonds of lopsided good intentions that, neither good enough nor intentional enough, made us as a race a prodigiously gifted flop.
You work on behalf of the future as best you can, succumbing to it in the act of trying to create it, and especially if half your days are spent, as mine, in teaching or professing or being one of the faculty. I learned nothing at Columbia as an exchange student, but a considerable amount in Manhattan itself. Shifting from the Arizona Hotel, where I shared a kitchen with five others and could never see the sky even by craning out to look up the airshaft, to 1314 John Jay Hall, where I cooked on a forbidden hot plate, I glimpsed an alternative life that had nothing to do with the gigantic seminar conducted weekly by Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, who both seemed ineffably bored with proceedings that allotted each student about 10 minutes in which to say his piece. It was less a seminar than a badly managed crowd scene that, perhaps, fed the vanity of its twin gurus. I read their books with pleasure (Trilling on Arnold, Barzun on Berlioz), but after a final voluntary on an arcane figure called Walter Bagehot, which actually won a compliment from Trilling, I left, never to return, having had enough of politicist flimflam, the mellow compensations of the agonizing liberal way, the watered-down blather about currents, traditions, and influences. McCarthy was riding high just then; the Rosenbergs were electrocuted in the following year (1953), and the cordial historicism of seminars seemed beside the point. The only class I remember having stayed with was a small one devoted for two semesters to modern French literature, in the course of which I read the whole of that sulfuric Catholic, Georges Bernanos, in French, backing him up unofficially with all of Malraux, Saint-Exupéry, and Gide. I was reading a book a day as well as composing a first novel that I destroyed before leaving the United States, summoned to perform my stint in the RAF.
On campus, William York Tindall told me to skip his class in British literature and then, on discovering I was a neighbor, several times installed me in what he called Dylan Thomas’s chair and fed me double scotches in the early mornings. Marjorie Hope Nicolson attributed her many honorary degrees to “graft” and advised me to sample the city, which I did, spending much of my time in front of foreign movies at the Thalia, bibbing beer at the West End bar, loitering in bookstores and the Museum of Modern Art, and wandering about from the Cloisters to Staten Island, from Harlem to Coney Island. The city was like some Black Hole of Calcutta topped by undreaming obelisks. A nurse picked me up, but I let her down. A high-strung neighbor with a moustache invited me in for a drink, halfway through my consumption of which she had an epileptic seizure. I rented an apartment from a schoolteacher called Emily Hahn, who taught school in Florida, who left her harpsichord out for me to pound on but neglected to mention the mice that infested every room. One night a man called, asking for Emily, presuming she was a writer of the same name, and he ended up treating me to drinks at a downtown hotel. I went off to Washington, D.C., sleeping in a friend’s truck, marveling at the red earth of Virginia; on my return, a friend with whom I’d left the key had done something crucial in the bed to his girlfriend, drenching it with blood, to make amends for which he filled the refrigerator with beer.
Toward the end, I moved into another apartment, free and intimidatingly elegant, where I slept on a camp bed and made myself scarce during the day while an academic foundation held meetings and seminars. My hosts were the same John Hay Whitney Fellows who had all year fed me, the outlandish stranger, lunch once a week at this or that fancy restaurant, where I discovered and devoured chocolate parfaits. I walked at night in Central Park, armed with a rolled-up newspaper; I went to cheap, three-feature movies in Harlem and warmed to the unselfconscious gusto of the crowd. In what seemed always the same garlic-thick apartment, I encountered red-haired middle-aged women who were writing unpublishable, interminable books of memoirs straight on to the typewriter, surrounded by cats. I went to the theater free, with tickets provided by the Institute of International Education, all of whose secretaries seemed to be Japanese. I bought enormous slabs of meat, which I froze, from which I hacked off a pound a day. Rheingold and cream cheese filled me when I ran out of money for meat. Eventually, after spending most of my time painting under the influence of Chagall and (weird juxtaposition) Marsden Hartley, or listening to WQXR until it closed down for the night, I cooked up a thesis fast and took a couple of examinations and became a Master of Arts, American style, a move that more or less clinched my membership in this preposterous, vigorous, luxuriant transatlantic club.
One of my tenderest memories is being able to order breakfast, around the corner from the Henry Hudson Hotel (in which they put all students for the first month or so), merely by saying “Number Two.” The city seemed designed for living in 24 hours a day, and my second-tenderest memory is of arriving at Grand Central at four o’clock one morning and smelling fresh-made coffee, for all the world as if time had no bite, dawn had no sting, and all the languorous but hard-boiled lyrics about Manhattan had come true. It was an open city where half of the rest of the world had come to relax, fight, work, and go mad. That I was a student hardly ever occurred to me; I was a reader, yes, and perhaps a writer, but the academic pinball machine up on West 116th Street had next to no bearing on how America made me grow. My strongest link with it was listening to Gilbert Highet discuss books on the radio, or using the rental typewriters in Low Library to copy out my blatantly decadent poems.
Has any immigrant, I wonder, done of America a portrait that is not confused, askew, and in slanted ways innocent? Even more luscious and potent than the American Dream is the immigrant’s dream about it: a mirage behind closed eyes. Every point of entry, whether maritime or not, becomes a port on the blue-green immigration card called I-151. Even to seek entry charges the would-be emigrant’s mind with delusive, grandiose images, and to become an immigrant curtails the dream only to supplant it with phenomena so copious and bizarre as to suspend all categories, especially those of appearance and reality. You try to keep your dream steady around the original core, and then work outward from the semi-known locality. At least that is my own habit, fortified as it was only the other day by one of the optical illusions only a visionary, powerful nation can manage to create. Skywatchers in Florida observed an aurora in the northwestern sky, an event likely once every 10 years or so. A green sphere, which developed a tail and turned pink, floated across the evening sky at an altitude of more than a hundred miles. Floridians, parting the flakes of fresh-caught fish, were not to know that it was a cloud of ionized barium gas launched by an Air Force Honest John-Hydac rocket from Santa Rosa Island in the west of the state, soon after sunset, to catch the setting sun’s rays and determine whether a barium cloud would blanket radio signals sent to airplanes via satellites. The skies teem with such marvels, which, blooming ersatz about us, renew the notion that, in the land of the possible, not only politics is king, but also alchemy, magic, and lavish imagination. Daedalus and Oz combine as the barium-gas aurora wafts through Ponce’s skies like some horizontal garland. My American feast of fat things would not be whole, or even up to snuff, without such happenings. Only casually explained in the regional press, if explained at all, they hover between epiphany and hoax, Nod and El Dorado, freak and fluke, like dreamed-up icons of God’s Country itself, and I am here because I cannot say them nay.
Paul West , who died in October 2015, was the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, and essays.