Friday, January 09, 2004

Richard Shelton - Tucson, AZ

When Richard and his wife Lois built their house in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains in 1961, they were one of only three residents in the vast and unscrubbed Sonoran desert some 10 miles west of Tucson. They and their young son relished the remote location, but scorpions and one spectacularly dog-hungry gila monster made the land a little more hostile than a similar spot nearer the city.

But Shelton wouldn't trade the experience or the spot. While it's true that the neighbors have arrived over the past thirty years, the spot is still breathtaking. Unlike the desert areas right around Phoenix, where I've just left, Tucson's desert is packed with cacti, hundreds of thorny "platypus" or pancake cacti jammed in every square city block of space. And up on the foothills where Shelton lives, the inhospitable nature of the place is still apparent. Sure, there are concrete roads that wind in and around the adobe-colored homes, but a foot off the main road and you're on gravel and rock, and the desert is everywhere.

When I first arrive, we try to broker a peace settlement with Shelton's mammoth St. Bernard - Jefe. He's not fond of some strangers, and I must appear more strange than most. It's decided - by Jefe - that he and I won't meet. Shelton puts the otherwise friendly and implacable behemoth out of our way and then joins me on a sun dappled patio south of his house.

As always, I'm interested in a poet's place, and it's obvious this place has beauty, but Shelton talks about the transformational nature of the desert, a place that in summer can still be scorching in the dark of a moon-filled night. He has for years brought his students to a nearby area to read poetry under moonlight, and his love for the area is clear in his conversation and his work.

When we're done, Shelton and I shake hands. I peer through the gate at Jefe as I leave. His tongue takes a circle around his jowls and I give him a little - a final - nod.