Sunday, February 16, 2014


"An Honest Try", a portrait of Bill Cochran on "Tornado" by Bob Scriver

This morning I got an email inquiry about whether Bill Cochran actually was the model for “An Honest Try,” Bob Scriver’s motif for his big rodeo series that finally was his breakthrough to public consciousness.  I was pleased to report that not only did Bill pose as the rider of that bucking bull, he was a driving force behind the whole series, the guy who knew the difference between a bull that spins and one that hooks and how to ride them.  Concurrently I’ve got a conversation going with Daniel Herman, a history professor over in the rainshadow of the Cascades who sees the difference between white educated liberal “understanding” of Indians and real day-to-day relationship with them.  

The Blackfeet Heritage Center in Browning, MT.
Originally built as the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife

These sent me back to reread Tim Barrus’ essay called “Invisibility” in his anthology, “The Blood Runs like a River Through My Dreams.”  It’s well-established that Tim was only using Nasdijj as a pen name, but he WAS living on the rez.  He knew many tribal people who found that if they admitted he was their friend, they would be punished by authority figures who wanted to please white liberals, a great source of income and patronage.  (And patronizing.)

This essay is about a man called “Mose Zah.”  Rest assured that it’s not his real name but he was a real Navajo.  He was an old rodeo hand dying of AIDS, which meant that people drew away from him. Where the infection came from is unknown.  He seemed to love “buckle bunnies” almost as much as horses in almost the same come-and-go way.  There are many old rodeo hands on many reservations who are quietly dying of somethingorother, not necessarily even AIDS.  Some die alone.

Particularities are always important in writing, but Tim is capable of a poet’s specific lyrical displacement.  He combines the same old obvious with a sudden luminous re-framing.  For instance:   “His was a world of hay, Wranglers, Airstream trailers, sweat, heat, and dust that seemed to cling to the inside of his mouth, strange and sweet and rising from the ground.  His was a world of hanging on even as the animals that screamed to scrape him off flung him with their forthright weight into the dirt where he sat briefly stunned and coiled like a spring about to spring again.  His was a world of manifest masculinity where the boundaries between women and men sometimes seemed set in stone.” . . .

Aussies out there, out back.  Nothing fancy as rodeo.

“He was never all that discriminating about women.  He always seemed amazed that they wanted him.  You hold the light from a woman like you hold a winning hand of aces close to your cautious smile.  Something in me thinks the women were a camouflage.”  At any rate, for whatever reason, no “buckle bunnies” came to take care of him.  

"Buckle Bunnies" are rodeo groupies.

Maybe Mose just cherished his singularity.  “It was a life he lived as easy as a song, and all the notches on his fence post represented his conquering certain ornery animals who had warned him they would kick him if he dared to ride them, and he did.  One hand held high in the air between the shifting gravities halfway to the moon.  All his women and all the animals he rode could bounce him abruptly off into a shuddering and a scrambling of his cowboy bones.”

The story action is simple.  Tim takes the old man in his wheelchair out to see his horses, then brings him back exhausted and feeds him canned chicken noodle soup.  The horses are what matter.

“And then we hear them dully in the distance.  Horses with their colts running toward us in undulating melt.  Horses with their fear in their nostrils crashing through the neighbor’s corn.  Mose’s eyes singing some pieces of a song I do not understand.  Relieving paralysis, the coming of the horses.  The horses run in pounding breathlessness all around both our graves.  These holes we dig as men, as friends, as fathers, as sons, as husbands.  His riotous thoughts hold electric imaginary reins as if to ride sprays of wind upon the backs of spilling horses, bursting into life with their breath again, the grateful running of the horses, stirring all the prairies of the universe with sacred leaps, and thirty seconds of this stirring is all you ever had because that is all there ever was and that is all there is.  Thirty seconds and the color of smoke all around you as you wonder at the awesome running of the horses -- flying and falling and biting in a buzz of flies -- resonating something carried forward in the urgently escaping terror of the horses, whirlwinds into the specter of his sleep.”

Tim’s writing has always been confronted in terms of the politics of certain subjects, never in terms of the actual writing.  If you look carefully at the above, you’ll see that he uses lyrical displacement -- that is, he chooses a word just next to what you expect (“singing eyes”) or pushes one grammar category over to another, often nouns to verbs, Hopi gerund style.  "SACRED" leaps?  A moment to reflect, then you consent, but you only get thirty seconds.  This is serious, not pretty.

The key to much of his writing is what the French and feminist theorists call “the gaze,” or so I think, though I haven’t done much reading in that school of theory nor has Tim ever suggested it.  But it’s only natural for someone who has spent a life in photography, always looking for the still and telling moment, the frame that finds the story, the point of view that reveals the subject -- never mind what it tells about the viewer, which is the viewers’ problem anyway.

This emphasis on the seen -- though often accompanied by sound (buzzing, resonating, song) -- is part of something hard to talk about:  projection onto a surface both enduring stone and evanescent (like Indians).  Consider the suggestiveness of this scientific definition:  In optics and acoustics evanescent waves are formed when waves traveling in a medium undergo total internal reflection at its boundary because they strike it at an angle greater than the so-called critical angle. The physical explanation for the existence of the evanescent wave is that the electric and magnetic fields (or pressure gradients in the case of acoustical waves) cannot be discontinuous at a boundary, as would be the case if there was no evanescent wave field. 

This sculpture is made of Chinese soup spoons.

It is as if the gaze is actually a projector that might swing away or be switched off unless it hits a screen, a boundary.  Then it is a capture, a binding.  Lately Tim has been talking about what images do to time.  We regard greatgrandparents long dead, or search the faces of strangers, or famous people for as long as we wish, as close as we want.  Flickering time -- now we remember and now we don’t.  Once we were little children and now we are old.  Are we here or are we not?

For Mose, red-blooded cowboy and full-blooded Indian, his blood now carries frailty.  His defenses are gone; he is hitting his limits.  He cannot be cured by chicken noodle soup -- but he can be comforted.  He can be given a moment.  This is not about any subcategory of humanness -- this is its essence.  The act, a few hours, is now made permanent in writing, a word-picture of this old cowboy taking soup from a spoon held by a man.  That’s what Barrus is really about.  The freedom to be in the moment.

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