Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s
Impressions of the West
Landscape artist Albert Bierstadt brought opinionated New York writer Ludlow, author of The Hasheesh Eater, on his 1863 western expedition to chronicle their adventure and to post regular dispatches. Ludlow published his collected letters as Heart of the Continent in 1870.
I. Reverse Lightning
A yellow claw jumps ground and grabs
the tail of a downbolt, like an eagle
razoring inverted sky.
Stunned pupils are one second
round as bowls in the touchless dark, then
pinched to sand grains by a shattering sun.
We ride dazed, deafened, soaked,
waving our hats and hallooing
our nonsensical joy.
II. Prairie Lesson
No barrister’s bloat in chancery court
was ever as circuitous as this warpery of draws
and bends, muddy feints and failures, as I track
this illogical creek with its preposterous banks
and insufferable gullies. Vexed with dry canteen
and humbled horse, I need a Bactrian mount
under this sun scourging like a Pharaonic overseer.
I clamber and slip, cannot grip any position
to sort my surroundings beyond a hundred feet away.
I am lost in the labyrinth, Minos’ multicursal doom,
engine of jealous gods devised to thwart—Oh!
here’s our camp. They say
they haven’t moved it.
III. Traveling Nebraska
Slabs of anthracite seem a coveted settee
to the seats of an Overland Stage.
One day out of Omaha, two stations away
from the shameful agent who promised
our comfortable delivery, we are not passengers
but freight, insensible commodities
spatulaed into a proximate conjugality,
trying to remain motionless lest any stretch or
spasm be misconstrued, but impossible
in such Inquisitional conveyance.
With each unwashed addition,
begrudged adjustments of long-numb limbs
wring our sedimentary seating into a twist
of Bombay contortionists. Dust and sand
powder our every pore and fiber till we appear
planks of breaded cod layered in a fishwife’s pan.
The dream of stretching one’s legs seems
a fantasy beyond Paradise, horizontal sleep
a memory pillowed with bitterness.
To keep from pitching into facing passengers,
I secure a rope around my head and shoulders,
passing it through the coach’s doors.
As a sleepless blear subdues, I grow less
and less concerned that a hard jostle will
jerk my apparatus into a garrote.
Should any rider roused from stupor notice,
none would interfere.
IV. Swimming in the Great Salt Lake
Black Rock Ranch
We mince across crystal splinters to water’s edge,
a few self-mortifying feet of Utah penance.
Wading a quarter-mile to our knees, each step
stirs the unctuous bed and bubbles up
a stench and swirl black as Pluto’s realm.
It is not a swim but a buoyancy, not even our ears
dip the pickle bath when splayed on our backs.
In the kitchen, stiffened by our brackish casts, we loom
a colonnade of ghosts. If not his paintings, the artist at least
preserved, brined and ready to be barreled. Eyes and skin
burning, we twist, desiccating by the second,
until the laughing cook unbuckets his rinse
and we dissolve again into men.
Jesus shames the wife who turned toward
burning Gomorrah, reproving her glance as worldly.
Are regret and pity sins as well? Who is strong enough,
looking back, to never mourn?
V. Alkali Plain
Thirteen men in a stage meant for six.
The flats are white hot, as if suspended in the strike
of a phosphorous match, yet waveringly clear,
earth stretched for miles like a wrinkleless pall.
We see the smoke of Cañon Station before rounding
the draw, its main house a reeking pyre—six mutilated men
and a dozen butchered stud, all the hay burned, the water fouled.
There is no help. When the stage jerks away
rifles bristle from the coach and across its top
like cactus spines. Our throats are knotted with thirst
and the only sounds are battering hooves
and the wheezing of lathered, white-eyed horses.
VI. Eden In Situ
Desperations of the desert yield to a green
and scented seduction. California
is an extravagant host—surfeit of figs
and all vegetables, its libertine sun, such ardent
amity from Starr King and Galen Clark, and none of it
a lamina masking some Young or Rockwell,
no citizenry confined or ciphered in its faith.
From Mariposa on strong horses and fine-tooled
saddles to the grove of preposterous trees.
Arms spread and grasping hands, a dozen men
cannot circle one girth, but what a lovely
embrace: the sequoias’ rich sienna bark,
their ancient chars, trees a millennium tall
before the humble rood of Calvary.
Realistic rendering proves impossible, proportion
uncapturable on canvas.
Through the portal of gods we enter the vast
granite enclave. Now words demean as well,
wonders beyond metaphor curve to a cleft-dome
terminus, tiered waterfalls spill all around.
We make beds of cedar boughs and from my blankets
the artist routs a rattlesnake and kills it—
auspice or portent I have yet to learn.
VII. Bête Noire
One night’s board in a doll bed enlivens
a season of fleas. Morning’s gruel and chorusing
hounds enhance our good riddance. When we reach
the Sacramento we learn the extortionate toll to ferry
the artist’s color box upriver—freight charged by the pigment.
Starving Diggers and their gnomish women seem
lost to modernity, sad scavenger tribe only one river day
yet a century from the Dog Creek band that trades
fine mink quivers and handsome baskets.
The artist’s dresser now strains our party’s wagon as we
scrap through chaparral and pitch-pine to reach
Eureka, then follow a foggy coast sentineled
with boulders and firs leaning in with secrets.
One morning my chest weighs heavy as an iron stove lid
and scalds with every serrated cough. A week’s
restoration in the care of a solicitous farmwife
leaves me still too weak to mount, so a second week
conveyed in our wagon, shamed like a knight in a cart,
mere dunnage in the straw against the dark wardrobe
of tinctures and chromes. Why will the infatuate artist
not forsake this impedimenta for a pencil and
sketch paper? What loss to bleed Mt. Shasta
until properly studioed and there infuse
the greens and beiges and blues?
I think we will be dragging this mammoth portmanteau
to the Dalles then down the Columbia, racing to catch
the storm-chased steamship before it leaves us
trapped like our own Fort Clatsop with nothing to eat but oils.
▪ ▪ ▪
Kenneth Chamlee is a 2022 Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for the North Carolina Poetry Society. His poems have appeared in The North Carolina Literary Review, Worcester Review, Tar River Poetry, and Kakalak: An Anthology of Carolina Poets. His poetic biography of nineteenth-century American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, The Best Material for the Artist in the World, will be published by Stephen F. Austin University Press in 2023, and his new book of poems, If Not These Things, is forthcoming from Kelsay Books in September 2022. Check him out at kennethchamlee.com and @kemchamlee on Twitter.