Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Tucson shooting that killed six and injured Representative Gabrielle Giffords and twelve others.
In place of the usual Sunday Poem, I’m delighted to share with you a new work by Deanne Stillman called “Reflections in a D’Back’s Eye,” which is a literary meditation on the events in Tucson. Also exceptionally, the piece is preceded by an interview with the author that provides additional context.
Stillman is a highly acclaimed creative nonfiction writer who has written extensively about the American West, particularly its relationship to violence and the American dream. This unique prose poem is an experimental piece that weaves together disparate voices–some real, others imagined. Stillman and I had an opportunity to correspond about her new piece via email.
What inspired you to write about the shootings in Tucson?
A few things I guess… A lot of my work has to do with war and peace in our wide open spaces, and as I began to think about what happened, some things began to emerge. Of course, I started thinking about exactly who was this young man who mounted the attack? Some information suggests that one of the many things that agitated him was the question of 9/11 — was it an inside job? It seems he kept trying to get answers and may have been rebuffed by various authority figures.
Then it turned out that the little girl he killed, Christina-Taylor Green, was born on 9/11. She appears in a book about babies born that day. I was struck by the convergence of these things — that 9/11 was running through this incident. Bin-Laden said somewhere that after 9/11 the states would not be united. I doubt that he was talking about psychological states but he had to have known that he was stirring the American hive and some people would be tormented in inexplicable ways by what happened. But of course, this was just part of the murk in Jared Lougnher’s mind.
Another thing that resonated for me was that a little girl was killed. The murder of a child is as bad as it gets. I was struck by the fact that Christina-Taylor Green came from a baseball family and played on her Little League team — one of two girls. I love baseball and know how hard that was, having played ball with neighborhood boys myself — or tried to. Her mother had warned her that playing with the boys would be rough, but she wasn’t deterred. In fact she was a good second baseman and hitter, once refusing to walk when she had been hit by a ball and going on to hit a line drive. Another time she broke up a scuffle during a play at second base after someone tried to slide in. Then there was the time that her father called and said she couldn’t play because she was sick, but she showed up anyway and said she didn’t want to let down her team. The more I learned about her story, the more heartbreaking it became. She just wanted to play ball! That’s what she was doing on the day of the Tucson shootings — going to a meet and greet with Gabrielle Giffords, her representative. She wanted to run for Congress some day…she had just been elected to her student council. She was a team player — that’s what her coach said – and then she ends up colliding with the boy who played roughest of all.
Then of course there was Loughner’s own story. I started thinking about his final conversations and encounters… Who was he talking with and what did he say? One of them would have been with a Wal-Mart greeter before he bought a 30-round clip of ammunition; and then I learned that he liked jazz (!!!) — or used to — and he was evidently into Coltrane for awhile. Also his mother worked in a county park where people once went for the healing waters. One of the first things I did after the shootings was go there. I sat there for an afternoon and I started to wonder if his mother found any comfort among the old mesquites as her son was unraveling across town.
I had to write about all of this, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it could not be conventional; there were too many rivers running through it, and they were not the sort that could be contained in a linear way, including the desert itself — often a character in my work — and Native American history and myth playing out here, which to me is everywhere, but we don’t pay attention and here we have a major incident in Arizona — the Grand Canyon State. The Hopi say that the Grand Canyon is a point of their emergence, and here is a troubled young man running around in the desert with a gun. There is this sort of thing all over the West amid all of the beauty and really this has been going on since day one in this country, and it’s America’s original sin. The seeds of this incident are very deep.
Why did you choose the memorable image of the diamondback as a central part of your piece?
There is a pedestrian bridge that runs over the freeway that passes through Tucson. It’s in the shape of a rattlesnake and you walk though its mouth and you can look through its skin in any direction and it has a goofy-sounding rattle when you reach the tail. Snakes are plentiful in Arizona — and around Tucson — and the Phoenix baseball team is the Diamondbacks, so there was the baseball reference, for those who might pick it up. The image just seemed to work on a lot of levels and sometimes I found myself looking at the story from the snake’s POV, and I spent a lot of time on the bridge while I was writing the story…I didn’t have all of the information but the snake did and what was it?
Can you talk more about the various voices and texts you’ve woven into this prose poem?
I’ve taken published statements from players in the incident, news reports, ancient myths, and press releases and combined them with my own texts (not text messages! — although that’s an idea for next time) in order to try to co-exist with this story. For instance, some of the Christina-Taylor Green passages are derived from comments of hers that have been reprinted in articles, interviews with her parents that were published after the shootings, and a book by her mother. The sources for other passages are often identified, but sometimes all of these sources are merged. Regarding news reports, I draw from a wide range of material, often things overlooked by others. I’ve followed up on some on my own.
You’ve written extensively about the American West, including books about the massacre of wild horses, two girls killed by a Marine after the Gulf War in the Twentynine Palms, Ca., and an infamous manhunt for a desert hermit who killed a town sheriff, then disappeared into the wilderness (a book coming out later this year). What characteristics of the desert West do you find particularly compelling?
As a child, I was influenced by the Edgar Allan Poe poem “Eldorado,” which my father used to read to me. It was my way out of early personal turmoil while growing up in Ohio, as I’ve written elsewhere, and opened up an escape route which I would later follow, with various detours. Once I began to wander the desert — the land of Eldorado — I molted, shedding a skin that had to do with reacting, always having an opinion, masking pain. As that happened, certain stories began calling me and I followed their trails for personal reasons… How has the American dream tricked or satisfied people? Where do individual stories merge with the promises we hear in third grade? The main thing I see is that geography informs and drives everything…the great mantra — “it’s a free country and I can do what I want” — is our promise and our curse and it came right out of the American West.
Reflections in a D’Back’s Eye
by Deanne Stillman
Stand tall! Reach for the sky!
Be patient through the dry spells! Conserve your resources!
Think long term! Wait for your turn to bloom!
— Advice from a saguaro, according to a T-shirt, Western National Parks Association Code A1428, member price $17.09; non-member price $19.99
Question: What is an anchor store?
Answer: An anchor store is a large store, such as a department store or supermarket, that is prominently located in a shopping mall to attract customers who are then expected to patronize other shops in the mall.
Example: Without its anchor store, customers would no longer have a reason to shop at our local mall.
— Various dictionaries
IN WHICH A BOY DISCOVERS JOHN COLTRANE
Once upon a time there was a boy named Jared Lee Loughner. He was not unlike other American boys; he was a bit awkward, maybe smarter than others, went on hikes and sleepovers and played Starcraft. They say that one day someone taped a sticker on his back and it said “kick me” and that’s what his classmates did – they kicked him. Like a lot of boys, he didn’t say anything and nor did he cry. We do not know exactly what impact that incident had on the boy, but around that time he began to excel at jazz. He loved to play the saxophone, his friends say, and nearly brought the house down when he soloed with the school jazz band at a community performance. His favorite composer was John Coltrane and those who knew him then say that he played the master well. But what Coltrane works did the boy play? Sooner or later all students of the Trane listen to and study and perhaps play “A Love Supreme,” the master’s signature track and one of the greatest prayers of all time. We do not know how or where this tune transported Jared Lee Loughner, or if in fact it did, but for the sake of argument, let us assume that it had an effect and that the effect was good: it is not the kind of work that drives someone mad; it is not played in torture sessions of prisoners; it is not broadcast at gas station medians which provide a daily stream of chatter to weary motorists as they fill up under images of flickering hosts, anchor folk, and other latter-day ghosts; in fact, it is hardly played at all, unless you seek it out and keep it always, listening to it when necessary or even when not, understanding that it is a thing to be treasured.
A HOPI ORIGIN STORY, BASED ON “HOPI TALES” BY ANTHROPOLOGIST A.M. STEPHEN, JOURNAL OF AMERICAN FOLKLORE, VOL. 42, 1929, AS RETOLD BY NATIVE AMERICAN AFICIANADO MRS. GEORGE CRAWFORD MERRICK MULLETT AND PUBLISHED BY HER DAUGHTER IN 1979 AFTER SHE DISCOVERED IT IN HER MOTHER’S BELONGINGS
In the beginning there were only two: Tawa, the Sun God, and Spider Woman, the Earth Goddess. All the mysteries and power in the Above belonged to Tawa, while Spider Woman controlled the magic of the Below. In the Underworld they dwelt and they were All.
In time it came to them that there should be other gods to share their labors. So Tawa divided himself and there came Muiyinwuh, God Of All Life Germs; Spider Woman also divided herself so that there was Huzruiwuhti, Woman of the Hard Substances, the goddess of all hard ornaments such as coral, turquoise, silver and shell. Huzruiwuhti became the always-bride of Tawa, and out of their union came the Magic Twins – the Youth and the Echo, and then the Four World Quarters and the Above and the Below, and then Man-Eagle, the Great Plumed Serpent and many other gods. The Death God did not come of the Two but was bad magic who appeared only after the making of creatures.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, IN WHICH CHRISTINA TAYLOR-GREEN JOINS THE BATTING ORDER
Today is my birthday. While my mother was bringing me into the world, the Twin Towers in New York were burning and crashing to the ground. The world couldn’t welcome me that day but my mother could, and she told me something like this: A moment such as this is sacred, no matter when it happens, but you are coming into a world that is changing all around us. I will do everything I can to protect you from whatever it is that is going on out there and I want you to know that your coming into the world on a day like today must be a sign that we are all meant to try harder at the thing that connects all of us, whoever we are and wherever we find ourselves. As you grow older, dear Daughter, we will celebrate your arrival every year on this, the day of your birth. But this day will always be remembered for something else, a thing that is the opposite of you. I will not let that bad thing get in the way of celebrating today, your emergence, on this day every year for as long as I live.
IN WHICH A BOY LOSES HIS WAY
One day for reasons that we do not know, Jared Lee Loughner put down the saxophone and succumbed to a different song, one that whispered of new adventures and soon enough darker and shinier attractions. There came a period of quick change, his friends say; he met a girl, his first real girlfriend, and then she jilted him. He changed then, she says, and she remembers his face at the moment of rejection. He looked like he had nothing to live for. And then he spiraled down into a miasma of disconnect, paranoia, and anger. With a friend, he would head to the desert to shoot guns; alone, he would log on to myspace and post rambling accounts of conspiracies involving math and grammar; he began getting into trouble with authorities, for using drugs – specifically an especially powerful strain of pot which was sending more kids to emergency rooms or into frightening thralls. At college, he scared students and professors with strange looks and outbursts. Throughout it all, his mind simmered with thoughts of rejection and abandonment…when would people take him seriously?
A HOPI ORIGIN STORY, CONTINUED
After awhile, the Two – Sun God and Spider Woman – had one Thought and it was mighty: they would make the Earth and it would be between the Above and the Below where now lay only the Endless Waters. So they sat side by side, making the First Magic Song, a song of rushing winds and flowing waters, a song of light and sound and life.
“I am Light,” sang the Sun God. “I am Life. I am Father of all that shall ever come.”
“I receive Light and nourish Life,” sang Spider Woman in a softer voice. “I am Mother of all that shall ever come.”
“Many strange thoughts are forming in my mind,” the Sun God said. “Beautiful forms of birds to float in the Above, of beasts to move upon the Earth and fish to swim in the Waters.”
And then Spider Woman took clay from beside her and gave form to Tawa’s Thoughts. Together, they laid a white blanket over the figures and they made an incantation, and soon the figures stirred.
“Now, let us make ones like you and me,” sang Tawa, and Spider Woman shaped the Thoughts into man figures and woman figures, and then she cradled them and the two sang the magic Song of Life. At last each man figure and woman figure breathed and lived.
The things they made shall multiply, Tawa said, each after his own kind. And he vowed to journey each day across the Above and shine his light upon all creatures. And each night, he would return to his beloved. Then he turned his gaze on the Endless Waters and the Dry Land appeared, and thus was the first day on Earth created.
IN WHICH CHRISTINA TAYLOR-GREEN DREAMS OF JOINING THE MAJORS
I was born into a baseball family and I knew right away that when I grew up, I wanted to play ball. My grandfather was a famous pitcher, Dallas Green? you probably have heard of him, right? or maybe not, unless you’re a baseball fan… He played with the Phillies from 1960 to 1967 and had an ERA of 4.26 with a record of 20 and 22. I’m so proud of him – it’s not easy to get into the major leagues, you have to be pretty darn good…Did you know that he was also a manager? He had a World Series win in 1980 when the Phillies beat Kansas City…Pretty amazing, huh? I wish I could have seen it in person…After that he managed the Yankees and the Mets, and if you’re managing in New York, you know you are absolutely the all-time best…I don’t remember my first game of catch, or maybe I do, I think it was with my grandfather…or maybe my father…did you know he’s a scout for the Dodgers? That’s no small potatoes either…His name is John Green, ever hear of him? What a great guy…My father and my grandfather, they taught me a lot about baseball, but I guess maybe I took to it from day one…Not that I didn’t work hard, I did, I really did, but I think hustle has always been part of my nature, maybe because of when I was born, I knew that time mattered and at any moment anything could happen and you gotta take your at bats and try to get on base, otherwise what’s the use? Sometimes the boys tried to make me leave the field but I knew I was good – hey, I was playing second base – and even though they’d hit me harder when they were running towards me from first, I wasn’t going anywhere. Actually I was…I was the first girl on my Little League team and I wasn’t stopping there…When I grew up, I wanted to be the first woman to play with the Dodgers…Don’t you love the crack of the bat on opening day? Sometimes, I would fall asleep and dream of driving everyone in with a grand slam, and then rounding the bases and heading home.
IN WHICH A BOY LOSES HIS MIND
One day, they wanted to throw Jared Lee Loughner out of college, but he wasn’t having any of it, he really wasn’t…you know, you just can’t trust what people say – his girlfriend said she loved him but then she didn’t really mean it, and then the government too was lying; after all, wasn’t 9/11 an inside job? That’s what everybody’s saying, it’s all over the internet, and for god’s sake, you can’t even get a straight answer out of your local representative…don’t believe me? Hey I tried asking her…I told her it was all a big lie in front of her so-called constituents – point blank, to make the obvious joke – and look what happened? She dissed me in front of all those people and she even sent me a thank-you note for coming to see her! Hey, I know a liar when I see one and by the way, don’t blame my parents, I mean my mom was in charge of a local park and she tried to make things pretty…but she’s clueless, like everyone else…About the others, what can I say…they were just there…
A HOPI ORIGIN STORY, CONTINUED
Spider Woman named all of the tribes and then called the people to follow. She led them through the Four Great Caverns, until they came to an opening in the Grand Canyon at the edge of the Colorado River. And then she chose a creature to lead each clan to a place to build their house – the Puma, the Snake, the Antelope – and each clan bore the name of the creature who led them.
Spider Woman told the people how to live and then she gathered some sand and let it run out in a stream between her fingers. “See how it moves,” she said. “That is the life that will cause all things to grow. The Great Plumed Serpent, Lightning, will strike the earth to fertilize it, Rain Cloud will pour down waters and Tawa will smile upon it so that green things will spring up to feed my children.”
Now Spider Woman looked to the above. Tawa was descending toward his western kiva in a blaze of glory. Their work was done and it was time for Spider Woman to join him. She turned to her tribes and asked them to heed her words.
“Call for me if you need help,” she said. “I will send my sons.”
IN WHICH CHRISTINA-TAYLOR GREEN SPEAKS OF CITIZENSHIP
I don’t want to make it sound like baseball or anything else is more important than what happened on my birthday. Other babies were born that day too and a few days after we entered the world, someone put all of our pictures together in a book and called it Faces of Hope. It was kind of a class picture, I guess you could call it, all of us newborns who would grow up having birthday parties while other people were thinking of the strange thing that happened that day and would change the world forever. They would fly flags and remember loved ones and talk about how to carry on in the name of those who were lost that day and because of that my birthday became more than my birthday…It was tied up with America and being a citizen and what we can do to help each other. Sometimes on my birthday I wear red, white, and blue. I know we have July 4th, but I just can’t help thinking about my country and what it means on the day that I was born. “We are so blessed,” I always told my parents. “We have the best life.”
IN WHICH A WALMART GREETER AND JARED LEE LOUGHNER SING A DUET
Nice to see you.
I’m all alone.
You look like you’re in a hurry.
Yes, you do. I won’t keep you. I’m just a greeter. I don’t get in anyone’s way.
I know. You’re one of the few.
Have a nice day, my friend.
Have a nice day, too.
(repeat last refrain two more times)
THE HOPI ORIGIN STORY, LAST ACT
The people gazed wide-eyed on Spider Woman’s shining beauty. Her woven garment of soft white wool hung over a blue skirt. On its left side was a band bearing her symbols, the Butterfly and the Squash Blossom, in designs of red and yellow and green with bands of black. Around her neck were strands of turquoise, shell and coral. Her face was fair, with warm eyes and tender lips, and her form most graceful. She wore white skin boots that were most gleaming. The sand beneath her began to spin and she held up her right hand and smiled. And then the sand began to spin faster, and Spider Woman was sucked into the whirlpool of dust, down into the Earth until she disappeared and the sand rested.
REPORT FROM THE TUCSON GEM, MINERAL & FOSSIL SHOWCASE, THREE WEEKS LATER, IN WHICH THE PRESS RELEASE FROM THE TUCSON CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU AND A VISITOR’S OBSERVATIONS ARE MERGED
Every winter, the world meets in Tucson as it becomes a bustling, international marketplace of buyers and sellers at the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase. Here at the showcase, the insides of the Earth are for sale, as many people from points east, west, north and south converge in Tucson to buy and sell objects of desire. The Gem Show is much more than a single event at one location. Rather, there are thousands of participants and attendees at more than 40 sites around town. Dozens of shows take place at the same time – in giant white tents, at resorts and at exhibit halls.
Most of the activity occurs along several miles of Interstate 10 in the parking lots and courtyards of Motel 6 and Days Inn and Super 8 and Econo Lodge. This stretch along Tucson’s southwest side is generally favored by truckers who have stopped for a night before heading eastward to El Paso or to the west, for San Diego or Los Angeles. Of course others make up the ecosystem that flourishes next to the interstate, and during the Gem Show, apart from motel employees, they have been pushed to the edges of the area, where Tucson fades and true desert resumes its course, along with the commerce of sex and forgetting.
Now the motels are a marketplace for ancient history, with troves of treasure piled high under the turquoise sky, shimmer and heat everywhere, acres of quartz and garnet and opal; mountains of bone and tooth; fur and feather and Bolivian beads on platters and table top and look there, behind the Best Western, there are giant panels from the sea containing fossils of plants and fish and strange maritme creatures, hauled to the freeway showcase by chain-smoking vendors with exploded blood vessels in their eyes. If you ask them, they will tell you everything there is to know about the siemensichthysis but you are not getting out of there so fast. Do you want to buy it? they say. Won’t be here tomorrow. Do you know about Quartzite? We do that show too.
IN WHICH THE OLDEST TREE IN TUCSON AND JARED LEE LOUGHNER’S MOTHER SING A DUET
I’m an old mesquite.
Two hundred years they say.
But I have no rings, so it cannot be determined. That’s the way of my tribe.
There are other ways to measure your life.
Yes, I’ve seen a lot. I watched the First People drink from these waters. I watched them perform their ceremonies.
And then the others came.
I watched the ranchers drink from these waters and perform their ceremonies.
And then the others came.
Developers they called themselves.
And they built homes nearby.
These homes had ceramic tile with decorative inlays.
And then my family moved in.
But these waters were saved by local citizens who understood their value.
I like flora and fauna, especially cactus. And I know my botanicals.
Yes you do.
I worked here. I liked it. I took great care in managing this place.
Somewhere my husband got lost. And then my son. I found comfort here.
THE LITTLE LEAGUE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE AS PRESENTED BY CHRISTINA TAYLOR-GREEN’S TEAMMATES ON OPENING DAY OF THE CANYON DEL ORO SEASON, APRIL 1, 2011, IN HER MEMORY, WITH MEMBERS OF THE TUCSON POLICE DEPARTMENT, UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS, AND MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL IN ATTENDANCE
I love my country
And I will respect its laws
I will play fair
And strive to win
But win or lose
I will always do my best
That’s the Little League pledge.
ANNOUNCER: OK let’s play some ball!
IN WHICH WE LEARN THAT HUMAN SKIN EMBEDDED WITH SPIDER SILK CAN STOP A BULLET: A WIRE SERVICE COMPENDIUM, CIRCA THE TEN-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF 9/11
Time to move over Kevlar? Maybe some day, according to Dutch artist Jalila Essaidi and cell biologist Abdoelwaheb El Ghalbzouri who blended synthetic spider silk with human skin to produce a superstrong material that can stop a rifle shot at half its regular speed. Spider silk is three times stronger than Kevlar, which is used in bulletproof vests worn by the military and others in conflict zones. Since bulletproof vests are made from 33 layers of Kevlar, using more layers of spider silk could prove more effective in stopping a bullet. The artist’s original art work is a lab sample of skin tissue stored in a refrigerator and accompanied by a video showing a gunshot test on the material. The special skin looks like a poorly drawn picture of an alien. It will soon become part of a Belgian art collector’s portfolio. He plans to graft part of the artist’s creation into his arm later this year. Then it will always be with me, he said. The artist has big plans for the material which is reportedly ten times stronger than steel. “Imagine a spider silk vest,” she said, “capable of catching bullets. It’s the modern day equivalent of Genghis Khan’s arrows.”
IN WHICH CHRISTINA TAYLOR-GREEN STEPS UP TO THE PLATE, NEXT TO A GIANT SAGUARO IN THE DESERT
She hits the ball all the way to the horizon and beyond. It heads into the Grand Canyon, where a Hopi procession is heading towards a spot near the Colorado River. It opens up like a trap door and Spider Woman emerges. She welcomes the tribe as they step into the womb, followed by the little girl who has been running to join them, taking her bases after she cracked the bat and sending the ball towards the sky. The door begins to close amid a whirlwind of dust. A sports announcer is heard. That ball’s outta here…There is chanting. A snake’s rattle. Then “A Love Supreme” fills the canyon…And more chanting, from Coltrane: a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme…The door slides shut and there is only the Grand Canyon…
About Deanne Stillman
Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her latest book is Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (Houghton Mifflin), a narrative nonfiction history of the wild horse on this continent from prehistory through the present. The question it asks is why are we, a cowboy nation, destroying the horse we rode in on? Ten years in the making, it was an LA Times “Best Book of 2008,” winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction, and praised in the Atlantic Monthly, Orion, Economist, and many other publications. It’s currently under option for a film starring Wendie Malick.
Deanne’s previous book was Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave (new, updated edition, Angel City Press), about two girls killed by a Marine after the Gulf War in Twentynine Palms, Ca. Also a ten-year endeavor, it tells the story of the rootless kids who live in the shadows of the world’s largest Marine base, and traces the family histories of each murder victim back for decades, in one case to the Donner Party and the other to a shack in the Philippines. It was an LA Times “Best Book of 2001,”praised from the Washington Post to Maxim to Asian Journal; Hunter Thompson called it “a strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.”
Her new book is the forthcoming Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (Nation Books), based on her Rolling Stone piece “Mojave Manhunt,” a finalist for a PEN journalism award. Her work has appeared in Slate, Salon, Tin House, Orion, The New York Times, LA Times, and other publications and it’s also widely anthologized. She has written for film and television, and her plays have won prizes in festivals around the country. Currently, she writes the Letter from the West column for www.truthdig.com and she’s a member of the core faculty at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program.
For more information about Deanne Stillman and her work, please visit her website.
“Reflections in a D’Back’s Eye” © Deanne Stillman