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A desert rat with a mystical bent

Reviewed by Michael Wolcott, FLAGLIVE May 19-25 2005


            The fruits of Scott Baxter’s 40-year love affair with rock are considerable. Baxter has put up many classic Southwestern routes, mentored younger climbers, and championed high ethical standards for the sport. A profile in Rock & Ice from the mid-‘90s credits him with pioneering some of the best climbing areas in northern Arizona, including Granite Peak, Paradise Forks and Sedona.

            Baxter is also a poet of quiet and uncommon intensity. His new collection of poems—though not about climbing—could hardly have been written by anyone who has not spent time on the sharp end of the metaphorical rope.

            A desert rat with a mystical bent, Baxter carefully examines life in arid space—geographical, emotional, and spiritual. On the heights and in the depths, Baxter often finds at least the shadow of God: “While drunk in the gutter/it dawned on me/if one lives in the sewer/a manhole cover/is a sipapu.” (“The Eternal Optimist”).

            The poems in “Imaginary Summits” are made of desert stuff—alkali flats, bedsprings rusting in an abandoned cabin, dead century plants rattling in the wind. At times they appear to be composed of little more than condensed silence: “Chemehuevi/Sand Papago/Seri … /names rolling off the tongue/like silt/down a river/disappearing.” (“Rock in Bodies”).

            This pervading sense of loss, and Baxter’s anger at “progress,” runs through the book: “I’m the wind that rages inside condors in cages/I’m the ocean that mourns the last whale/In Man’s coffin of dreams I’ll lay his sand-castle schemes/And be the hammer/That drives the last nail.” (“Self Portrait #3”).

            The wastes of junk culture accumulate everywhere in the “mute holy heart” of Baxter’s desert. Plastic bags (“white trash American prayer flags”) flutter from barbed wire and thorns on the crucifixion bush. Everywhere the sacred is dying: {“When the eagle landed/the Sea of Tranquility roiled/with the same wind that/blew Columbus west/campfires died, and/a million important stories/withered/on the tongues of the old ones.” (“Eating Sacred Datura”).

            But these poems defy their own bleakness. Baxter’s love for life—especially life at the margins—sneaks out again and again, usually on the strength of quiet miracles. Tree roots reach into coffins for nourishment. Grieving friends gather around a campfire and plan a resurrection. An old wanderer endures the desert heat and persists: “…a man/bedded down in a culvert, a flute-thin/gray bearded pilgrim on the slow road/to nowhere, gathering his fortune/in aluminum cans along the way.”

            Another recurring theme in “Imaginary Summits” is Baxter’s scorn for the religion of money. “The Odds on Wall Street” opens with the biblical proverb about the eye of the needle, and closes this way: “… the camel, the martyr and the hobo/carry what’s important/on their backs.” In “Credo” he skewers blind ambition, comparing goals with funnels. At their necks? The guillotine.

            The rare flaw in this book, to my taste, is a too-harsh self-scrutiny: two of the poems suggest that they are not worth the trees killed to print them. (He’s wrong both times, by the way.) But more characteristic of Baxter’s desert heart—and voice—is the grace and authority that ring in this coda: “Things that float in the Salton Sea/sink like a rock in bodies/of fresher water. Being a born drowner/I know these things.”