(Published by Zocalo Magazine on December 2, 2014.)
In a lush desert of five seasons, the most sensory intense season is that of the late summer monsoons. When the residents watch with anticipation the clouds building through the day and pray – please give us precipitation, bring us los chubascos! Bring us the relief of release from the searing, breath stealing, oppressive humid heat. Shower our land; replenish the plants and animals, the aquifers and our souls.
These monsoons simultaneously clear away and pile up the detritus, as do the collection of poems in “Sonoran Strange.” With monsoon-like concentrated power – analogous to how the water and wind whip, shape and dance with la tierra – electric and unapologetic are the words that delve into the myriad layers of geology, history, flora, fauna, rivers, wars, pillaging, injustices, absurd realities and the mythologies of both the imperialists and those subsequently subjugated by colonialism.
Scribed by poet, performance artist and DJ Logan “Dirty Verbs” Phillips over seven years, “Sonoran Strange” offers poignant reflections by a man raised in rural Southern Arizona within sight of the border.
Phillips was born in Tombstone in 1983, where his family lived for a few years before his parents bought land near Hereford. “Our area was unincorporated, at that time it was Rural Route 1, down the middle of these beautiful rolling grasslands in the foothills of the Huachucas.”
His was an upbringing imbued by place; as a child Phillips was deeply connected to the Sonoran Desert’s space. With his canine companions, Logan would wander through mesquite boskets until called home for dinner. And of course, in the name of progress, the developers eventually came to claim the land.
“One day the stakes with neon flags would go up and then – no matter how many times I pulled them out – they would reappear. And then, sooner or later, one morning I would wake up and the bulldozers would have been grazing since dawn. And there was nothing left but raw, red earth. And that happened over, and over, and over, and over again. So I think it is that colonization of the land, of which my family was of course a part of, but, to be able to feel that and have it relate to losing my childhood innocence and – you know, when the imagination of a child comes to terms with the structural reality of the society, is always kind of a psychic break and that happened to me very much in relationship to the land.”
From this core of gut wrenching disillusionment, along with an education from a father who was a park ranger and later the exhibit designer for Ft. Huachuca Museum, ensued an understanding of the tales that are told by the victors to spin the stories of genocide and environmental destruction – themes ever present in “Sonoran Strange.”
“On take your kid to work day, my dad would have me in the Ft. Huachuca crazy 1880s military building with these passageways and bookcases and one moment he is showing me this document that has an original signature from Abraham Lincoln on it and then looking at an Apache skull with it smashed out on one side and then looking at a mannequin head that had just been delivered from the mannequin head-makers of an 1880s Chiricahua Apache in a box next to taxidermy of rattlesnakes and hawks…
“My understanding of history is definitely personal, it doesn’t feel dead. A lot of times studying history, especially in books… what is history defined as? Usually it’s ‘not the present,’ and I think that is bullshit. I think there are layers rather than a timeline and as a small kid my dad was telling me these stories which gave me an understanding of layers. But then of course, that fascinates you, discovering this in middle school led me to devouring books on the Apache and weird history books that my dad would have and reading Arizona Highways religiously as a 12-year-old. And then, this (book of poems) is just, as an adult, my adult self doubling down on that same innate curiosity and relationship with la tierra.”
The book’s genesis began as, Phillips calls it, a sprawling five-page poem that later got separated out into a “thread that runs through the book, the repeated narrative, kind of primary thread, that is that poem blown out, expanded out.”
Beginning in 2007, Phillips was collaborating with Adam Cooper-Terán in an effort to turn Phillips’ poems into a five sense experience. From that, the two birthed Verbo•bala Spoken Video – a multi-media performance art collaborative that features video projections and soundscapes. With their first show a resounding success, Phillips was pushed into further exploring the concepts of “Sonoran Strange,” and fleshing out the initial ideas and storylines.
“There are all these characters that started coming up, like La Llorona and Dave Grindman, and the Indigenous Insurgents and all these – almost hallucinatory spirits, people who would start to make appearances in the poems and in single lines… It’s like, ‘Wait, there’s a whole lot more.’
“If you say La Llorona haunting canals in Scottsdale, there’s a whole lot more there, what are the suburban mothers jogging at 7 a.m. after dropping the kids off at school and they see La Llorona, what’s their expectation, what’s their perception? They (the poems) were just going off into this completely unpredictable, prismatic, splintering of images and characters. Most of that work was done in 2011.”
In the fall of 2011, in the resultant wake of SB 1070 and the cries for boycotts and the realization that boycotts suck for cultural workers – an effort to understand space and place happened with the CulturalStrike delegation. It brought “50 artists from around the country and imported them here for a week and lined them up with all the best cultural actors and movers and shakers in Southern Arizona,” Phillips explains.
Participants were shuttled to the Southside and Nogales and the morgue, giving them a “really intense, visceral understanding with no expectations – just, ‘let it filter into your art, see it, feel it.’
“And that to me was a game changer because it was something I knew to be true, that visceral experience trumps political vitriol and framing. And at one of the events there as an open mic sort of thing and I read the ‘Sonoran Strange’ poem and it just – the energy, it was almost like combustion. The energy – it was the right poem at the right time with the right crowd and people not being from here and giving the response that they gave, gave me a huge energetic push. ‘Oh shit, I really need to double down on this work and see it through.’ That was September 2011. And, for the rest of the year, I was writing five hours a day.”
Phillips’ dedication to his poetic craft and concern for accuracy and balance astutely delves and drills into the history of the Sonoran Desert, pulling apart and ripping open the cover-ups. His words turn it all inside out, taking you out of your understanding, mining the depths and stripping bare what the public education’s core curriculum won’t ever share. Every word is saturated with definition, verses rife with schemes of the privileged and the solemn pain of the disenfranchised.
Under the terms of Guadalupe Hidalgo,
all Mexicans living in the new United States
were made to cut the treaty
into tiny paper squares
and hold them under their tongues
until they dissolved and the new
reality set in
– An excerpt from Sonoran Strange: Gila
This is for every mouth that once spoke Mexican
and now speaks sand just forty miles
as the vulture files from where we now stand
– An excerpt from Sonoran Strange: Cuk Son
Who banned the ethnic studies of cacti,
demanding that they learn only the waters of the Potomac
and not to question why the Santa Cruz runs dry,
why the Gila runs dry; what good is the Potomac
if the Colorado runs dry?
– An excerpt from Sonoran Strange: Carlisle
Homeland of the Chiricahua Apache, homeland of the Huachuca agave.
Where the O’odham were born, where the thunder is born;
psychogeographic landscape of myth. Hollow with limestone caverns,
punctured by prospectors. Lost treasure and endangered species.
Extinct zip codes and boomtowns and the holiest of places.
– An excerpt from Sonoran Strange: Sky Islands
The release of Sonoran Strange is on Friday, Dec. 5 at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., 7:30 p.m. The event includes Logan reading selections of his poetry with Gabrielle Sullivan and Joe Novelli playing tunes. Find more on Logan Phillips at DirtyVerbs.com.