“Advice to a Monolith” by Talley Kayser

Talley Kayser


To mirror the desert, you must wear away.
I learned this on a long walk, long ago.
My skin went dark past bronze. My hair grew dust.
Sun washed my clothes into rock-colored gauze.
When only the wet of my eyes and mouth
could reveal me—suddenly bighorn
bimbled cliffs. Suddenly lions
eased among the creosote. I learned
to be gentler when shaking scorpions
from my boots. To mirror this desert
you need an edge you trust
to crumble, need to feel
each blooded life surviving desert
as your kindred. Desert will pit you
against winds you cannot withstand
by standing. Desert will topple all your light
with greater light. Desert will swallow
whole your pilgrims. Look how alien
you are—I say your glare
is no protection and less art. I say
desert (fiercer art)
will not abide reflection.

from Poets Respond


Talley Kayser: “The mysterious metal monoliths appearing in remote locations around the world—including, this past week, in my home desert—are easy to read as wry, sci-fi inflected jokes. This is especially true of the current monolith (illegally) installed near Gass Peak, Nevada. Its hyper-shiny surface reflects the desert at odd angles; the color palette matches, but the lines don’t. It looks, at a strangely visceral level, like a glitch. I’m always disappointed by how common it is for artists in this region to use highly reflective surfaces (think Airstream trailer) as sculptural material. I imagine the impulse is grounded in an appreciative tension: the reflection echoes the vastness of the desert landscape, while the smooth texture provides a sharp contrast to the desert’s natural materials. But as someone who has spent a great deal of time walking the Mojave desert, I chafe at how this strategy flirts with cultural narratives that write desert as only space: as empty, as wasteland, even as ‘unearthly.’ It seems that art about the Mojave rarely engages with its aliveness and intimacy—with how the extreme conditions here shape every living thing, including the rocks, into specialized beings worthy of attention and awe. In Nevada, the story of desert-as-empty has real impacts; it’s why Nevada was repeatedly bombed with nuclear weapons, why Nevada only narrowly staved off becoming the nation’s nuclear waste dump, and why large-scale lithium mining is being greenlighted in Nevada despite strong objections about its environmental consequences. I know the desert-as-empty story will also empower interested parties to seek out this new monolith with relatively literal regard for the desert itself; a similar installation in Utah attracted would-be admirers in hordes, most of whom had no problem driving their vehicles through protected areas and leaving their (literal) shit wherever they liked on their quest to find the Big Shiny Thing. Into this cluster of associations, I wrote ‘Advice to a Monolith.’ It’s a poem about minding your manners in a place with every capacity to eat you alive. I wonder, if it were left to stand, how long the surface of this monolith would stay mirror-bright. On its own time, I know the desert always wins.” (web)

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