Malpaís / Badlands


by Scherezade Siobhan

I don’t go to poems for skillful ease or what’s rote. I come seeking an empathic witness, what the Sufi calls ruhul seyrani—the moving soul, frequently illegible. I go to a poem for the kind of strength that doesn’t palter with the set of knots so wrangled at the throat of being human; fallible. I want to be received as much as I desire to be in reception of—

Someone I profess sincere and militant adoration for spoke about ‘barren lucidity’ of poetry and my brain tracked its steps back to the dried-out lava fields of Death Valley, California. The most arduous-to-navigate parts of this Herculean geography exhibit those cooled pathways of lava flows that eventually form lava tubes, sinkholes, cinder cones. In Spanish, they are called Malpaís, which approximately translates to ‘Badlands’ in English. This species of volcanic landscape can’t be vehicled by practiced convenience. It requires a deft & un-thwarted marriage of curiosity to commitment.

Here amidst the nightly crepitations of blister beetles, the ice-age lineage of tiny fish giggling in the spasmodic furrows, the hexagonal quatrains of the salt flats, the improbable succulence of pickleweed, I shambled to the tinder of what every root always knows—what is Majestic in nature is also abundantly disobedient and asks no permission for expansion. The stochastic goad of a radical vulnerability: it offers benediction not as stereotype, not as absence-acceptance binary, as Halo Imitation—not these. It ruptures as something that is ensanguined, naked & rapt to the tornado of its own towering chant.

In a poem Darwish reminisces: Place passes like a gesture between us. The sylph in its lemma teases and lifts interior shapes from the very waters of this embossed earth—from hive to psalm, from pith to scale. A mountain, an ocean, and a poem . . . all thread me through to the fisheye of a necessary reminder of my endlessness. Each brings the focus back to my own uncertain embodiment, urging me to ‘arrive’. To do everything it takes to arrive at something, anything, so I too can enter a many-feathered wilderness and designate within me something that is as unnamed as it is undefeated. I go to a poem because it harmonizes with what Julian Jaynes’ sparked (and what we have since lost) as the mind’s ‘two-chamberedness’—a voice that speaks and a voice that enacts; both ennobled by some spectral duende. The poem doesn’t happen outside of Living & Being. The poem assumes its altared space, its acute voltages within the schism & seep of Living & Being.

Lorca: ‘[. . .] secret and shuddering, [duende is] descended from that blithe daemon, all marble and salt.’

At Artists’s Palette (Death Valley), an irrefragable autopoesis—a tameless art bridging cognition to consciousness. Hannah Arendt warns us against assuming that cognition is thinking and I discovered this slowly. In cognition, I am apparatus not mode. In thinking, I am myself both the eye & the wonderment of a kaleidoscope. Extend this to any arrangement of language that is capable of desultory alchemies and the poem keeps alive my astonishment while also being my astonishment. Amidst the lithic syllabary of Death Valley, I experience the same collapse & kindling I do when trying to semaphore words into the silhouette & sinew of a poem.

The poem must unlock for me something as candidly pure as my other psychosis, says a former patient of mine who has witnessed within himself two decades’ worth of schizophrenia. I mention this not to glamorise those feral pools of consciousness so often latent within the mind’s locked depths, but to allow an honest illumination for what is often pathologized, appellated & hindered by the virtue of being struck into awareness.

Again: poem as empathic witness, ruhul seyrani, frequently illegible.

Arriving that evening at the camp in Stovepipe Wells, I considered how the Ranger’s station was lying on its side. His noticeboard was verbose with dirt, its frame mimicking the keel of a new drunk. The storm debated the erratic bloom of a few fluorescent tents with a particularly dark and heavy tongue. I was thrilled by this dissonant landscape and its unpredictability. At 10 that night, we lit a match to incant a small fire & one by one the shrubs, rocks, & then the distance to the dunes came to warm the range of our gaze. The only partner to this specific, impossible-to-replicate moment on Day 1 of Death Valley is the closing line of Pere Gimferrer’s staggeringly nuanced RapsodiaWe are protagonists of resplendence. How do you write or read a/any poem other than through its being or doing this? We devote ourselves to the Majestic thus—because the wisp of a line is both arboreal & predatory in its diffusion. Not the litter, nor the herd. Not the hoarded budget given to consummation, but a gust so abyssal & yet personal that it steals dignity back from the chronic debasement of being a body in this world.

You love the landscape not just for what it does but also because it is. This is true for the poem as well. It wills you to Be. That is the raven-blooded heart at its finest ‘doing.’

One must demand everything from even the slightest possibility of this fathoming.


Joseph Spece contributed editorial inputs to this essay.


About the Author:

Scherezade Siobhan is an Indo-Rroma social scientist, community catalyst and hack scribbler of two poetry collections: Bone, Tongue (Thought Catalog Books, 2015) and Father, Husband (Salopress, 2016); and one poetry pamphlet, to dhikr, i (Pyramid Editions, 2017). She is the creator and curator of The Mira Project, a global, cross-cultural dialogue which uses expressive art and storytelling to dismantle gendered violence and street harassment. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Feministing, Berfrois, Rattle, DIAGRAM, Word Riot among other digital and print publications, anthologies, exhibitions, art galleries and sometimes even in the bios of okcupid users. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee for writing and can be found squeeing about militant bunnies at or @zaharaesque on twitter/fb.

Image from Firewatch, Campo Santo, 2016.