accidental desert dweller : loneliness, transcendentalism, mundanity & Agnes Pelton

It was an accident that I found the exhibit. I knew the museum was there, and was using it as a mile marker on my run, actually - but figured it was closed. However, on Wednesday nights from 5 - 9 PM it is free and open to the public (or $5 if you would like to see the special exhibit.) I didn’t have anything on me but my hotel key card and phone, but figured that the gallery would have plenty else to offer, and it did.

I stood at the entrance of the Agnes Pelton exhibit, squinting in, hoping the attendant would just let me in. He didn’t get the hint and I don’t mind paying for art sometimes, so I wandered the gallery’s permanent collection for a bit, and found a spot upstairs that allowed me to see her exhibit with slightly more clarity. I figured I would come back next week, when I travel to Phoenix again for work.

On the way out, I noticed the gallery attendant had changed, and started asking questions about how long Pelton’s work would be up etc. and how often the gallery was open late. We had a good conversation, and this attendant did take the hint: she gave me her ID and told me to take it to the front desk and ask for a free ticket to the special exhibit. Goofy smile on my face, I loped up to the front desk and pretended to be this very kind woman’s sister-in-law. The proper admissions sticker pinned to my sweaty shirt, I breezed into the exhibit and got as close as I could to all of the paintings, involuntarily “ehhhhooohhh”ing at many of them. Like a real creep.

Anyhow, here are some terrible, sloppy photos I took of Agnes Pelton’s work from the Desert Transcendentalist exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. I could simply grab clean images of these paintings from the internet, but then how else would you know how crookedly I love to capture things :

Another mostly unknown spiritually engaged modernist who was clearly a contemporary of O’Keefe and potentially Hilma af Klint (knowingly or not - I haven’t done my homework.) I am especially geeked to have found it by accident on a run in the desert night where it was inexplicably raining giant fat rain drops (??) I was running because it’s something I pick up from time to time, and also I had been feeling a bit lonely.

The desert is an accidental place. By that I mean - it is not somewhere I saw myself working, living, loving, experiencing. I’ve been an “ocean person” (yes I’m ROLLING MY EYES AT MYSELF.) But it’s also not somewhere that feels easy or possible to access without careful consideration, preparation.

A few years ago work brought me to Phoenix and Mesa, originally - and an uneasy attraction grew. Work continues to bring me here, and I have a love/hate relationship with it. So much of the area is sprawl : Bare and ugly, superimposed with human trash and pain. Superficial ideas of beauty are pasted over the sublime. Creosote, giant saguaro and the Superstition Mountains rise behind sun bleached parking lots. Strip malls with failing businesses that only look habitable, not welcoming. The landscape evokes boredom, even. Which for me leads to loneliness.

Turn on network television and watch COPS - I promise you’ll witness a sad situation unfolding in Mesa, AZ soon enough. The desert lures me because it does shine and vibrate, but it is difficult to hold. You get close. Are you there yet? Are you in it? Get on the ground, watch for poison and spiny plants or animals. Watch for fangs and carcasses and high rocks that drop off suddenly. Are you there? The desert is poor and rich and arid. The desert refuses predictability. The desert wants to absorb you (me.) It feels as though being a visitor, I could never come to understand it, which really is just an invitation to try. Whatever it means to me, I do long to take up residency in all things especially open, challenging and beautiful. Unexpectedly, the desert may have (a part of) me.

The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit.
— Agnes Pelton on living in Cathedral City, CA
bad w/ a camera

it’s refreshing to practice something you are not only not good at, but bad at. it’s refreshing, and it’s freeing, and it’s fun. i am not good at many fun things that i deeply love doing, including sometimes, the act of having fun. including also, instant photography.

I bought myself this camera before visiting my friend and her family in Australia in 2018. I wanted physical memories.

what happens is an item, person, or scene of interest makes itself known - then I take out the camera, a point and click instant camera with rectangular slats of film. the body of the camera is held awkwardly, in matte white. the aperture is slight and dim.

I try, cranking the dial knob to the recommended setting for the light, careful to avoid the mysterious HI-KEY setting. i adjust by some inches, press the button and the picture reveals itself, a frame slowly rising from beneath the black hedge.

I give it five minutes to develop. I give it five more minutes in the event it takes ten minutes to be at all impressive.

uniform flower

it’s inevitably the same as all the other photos: color sapped from the overpowering flash, details in the back or foreground hazy in an uninteresting way. viewed all together, the photos harmonize into a bland catalog of indistinguishable point and shoot photos.

I have since lost all of the photos from Australia, but I will describe some here: sunlight hitting a bright red chair in a half-abandoned office building, deities carved in white stone, flies aggressively lobbying for our toast, the graveyard by the sea, my friend’s son - sleepy with his ring of yellow hair, a multi-colored sculpture designed to catch wind off the south coast.

the other photos i hold again and again. i visit them, in their pleasant stack in my memory box. I rearrange them, tacked up at my office. particular photos of loved ones, i stash in places only i will think to look. in locale specific to me. it’s sentimental.

(perhaps my photos from Australia are in a stash so secret that not even I am allowed to know. I think they must be all the more enjoyable for their utlrasecret status.)

i hold the photos and some detail of the process swims up. the nudge of joy as I remember the annoyance of the condition they were taken in: of a spitty rain ruining the lens. or the sun overpowering my line of vision, as the camera strap tightens haphazardly around my wrist as I struggle simultaneously with my water bottle and backpack - impatient as ever, shunning any attempt at one-thing-at-a-time. a punishing wind knocking strands of loose hair into my face and eyes.

all this for bland and greyed out ocean, faded beach blankets set back from the shoreline. a single crack of sun shot over a rock, the blank pink of a late flowering bush, the recognizable curve of a stranger’s elbow.

the reward in a harmlessly greedy stash of what, in its mediocrity, could only be mine.


Caroline O'Connor Thomas

The 20th anniversary issue of 580 Split is now live, and you can read my poem here. The entire issue is beautiful.

this time last year

As I was clicking through old drafts & applications of mine, I found the poetic statement I wrote for my Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship exactly one year ago.

Having to write statements are useful exercises. I could never hand you an "about-ness" for my writing, but a statement forces me to look at how I look, which magically always leads me to look with a newness. 

It felt fitting to both share the statement, & finally launch my site, which has been a good six slow months in the making. 

Please visit again & stay in contact: caroline.connor.poetry @ gmail

Caroline O'Connor Thomas
poetic statement I

At the pith, language lusts peculiarly for the real, & would sooner draw blood than be ironized into oblivion. That I am female should not matter, though it seems to.

These are my materials, which others might have hemmed from me: Hunger (i.e. desire,) the thirsting Californian aquifer, female fluids, the sex & noise of our bodies together, homelessness, death.

Overhead, bus wires clip the city sky back. A bouquet of flowers comes wrapped in cellophane, then paper, & then a rubber band. We watch the neon of parrots race across the Embarcadero, their squabbling drowned by the bass of a Rihanna song from a passing car.

These are my materials.

Occasionally I regret that I have little time for nostalgia. But I’ve willingly witnessed every Kardashian spin-off, Trump-era press conference, & know the potential double-speak of emoji usage.

Like Keats’ grecian urn ecstasy, or Coleridge’s alpenglow trembling, ingesting is experiencing. Though now, the ancient & holy devices of sincerity & enthusiasm feel threatening as a knife. Still the satellite of my open face receives & filters, in stupefied awe of the landscape where I’m located. It could be eco-poetry, but it isn’t. The raw & specific terror of pop culture weds the I absent of distinction from you, & strikes out into an open neo-romantic field.  

The small event-ness of each poem should find the blade not only an actual blade, but the boundary where its actuality meets mythos. Here, the blade is a tool used to protect, to (pro)create, to slice open the belly of something mammalian & warm, so that we too may know feast.

Written for 2017 Ruth Lily Fellowship application
San Francisco Botanical Garden Library, April 30th, 2017 11: 11 AM

Caroline O'Connor Thomas