Home of the Desert Rat by Robert Coats


Home of the Desert Rat
by Robert Coats

…I shall give myself
to the desert again—that I, in its golden dust
may be blown from a barren peak,
broadcast over the sun-lands…
                                   —Maynard Dixon, 1935

Three arms of a cloud fuse to form an arrow
pointing at the summit of Picacho Peak,
its flanks of red-orange rock
riven by deep arroyos.

The shack of the Desert Rat is darkened
by a cliff’s shadow thrown across the terrace.
Behind the shack, the steep bank of a desert wash
and nearby, a Model T,
a copse of scraggly cottonwood.

What wound would drive
a man to live here in solitude?
Perhaps at Belleau Wood
he saw comrades blown to bits.
Or returned home from work to find
his house in flames, his young wife
and baby trapped inside.

In the late afternoon light
he walks across the boulder-strewn terrace
to watch the mountain’s purple shadows
drawing long.

At night he steps out to gaze
at the Milky Way’s long shawl
the vast and silent sky.

PAINTING: Home of the Desert Rat by Maynard Dixon (1944-1945), Phoenix Art Museum.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:  This is an ekphrastic poem; that is, a poem about a painting or photograph. Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) was a well-known painter who lived and worked in the American Southwest, painting the landscapes and people of the region, including many Native Americans.  During the last years of his life, he and his third wife (Edith Hamlin) divided their time between Mount Carmel, Utah, and Tucson, Arizona. By the time of this painting, Dixon was struggling with emphysema, and his mobility was reduced. ¶ The exact location where Dixon set up his easel is unknown, but the available evidence—the chevron pattern on the side of the mountain, the shape of the summit, and the deep arroyo at its base—indicates that the mountain is Picacho Peak, 40 miles northwest of Tucson. But, curiously, the red-orange color (typical of Utah sandstone) and lack of vegetation on the mountain do not match what is shown in the image on Google Earth. Picacho Peak is basalt, a black volcanic rock, and its vegetation is typical of the Sonoran Desert.  We know that Dixon was very fond of the red sandstone landscapes, so it seems likely that his choice of color made use of his well-earned artistic license.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Coats has been writing poetry for more than 40 years. Aside from four poems previously published by Poetry and Places, his poems have appeared on the Canary Website, in Orion, Zone 3, Windfall, Song of the San Joaquin, in two anthologies (Fresh Water: Poems from the Rivers, Lakes and Streams and Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California), in the hand-printed and bound book Gathering Black Walnuts from Cedar Fence Press, and in his book The Harsh Green World, published by Sugartown Publishing.  He is a Research Hydrologist with the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

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