Friday, April 18, 2008

James D. Houston, A California Notebook

The View from Santa Cruz

I've just begun reading Jim Houston's new book, Where Light Takes Its Colors - A California Notebook. Respond immediately to Jim's opening section, The View from Santa Cruz. No surprise. I've lived here since 1985 and have great admiration for Houston and know the locations he conjures up, like Buckhart's candy store, shaped like a Dutch windmill with a Dutch girl on its side...

"The store is called Buckhart's, which might be a Dutch name, except that the long sign over its door features not a girl but an enormous heart, and gazing from within the heart is a well-antlered buck who looks pirated from some Yorkshire hunting lodge. The heart was red once. After the vanes blew down they painted it white. The buck is white. The girl is white. The eight-sided dome is white. Where the morning sun catches it, the dome gleams and leaves an angular flash on my retina when I look away."

But what really gets my attention is Houston's ability to call up the quality of light... "A lot depends on the light here. It shapes the mountains and draws a mossy green from those high meadow patches that never turn brown. Down along the river that runs through town, the light swells up under a cloud of seagulls as they rise in a swirl, between the concrete bridges. They turn, soar, dive like a shower of white sparks and descend again to their marshy, low-tide, inland island. In later afternoon the light turns the bay white. It catches the eucalyptus leaves with their undersides up, like a thousand new moons."

There's more. Much more. I've tried for years to somehow catch the quality of light in (hometown!) Chicago, that bluish-silvery white snowy 4 or 5 o'clock February haze, that cast of light I recall walking home along icy Kimball Avenue from Von Steuben High School. No luck.

Living in Taos, New Mexico, I sought in my writing to catch the quality of light of that place, which I loved. No luck.

In the 1960s, a graduate student at University of Bristol, I studied with the English poet Charles Tomlinson who recommended Adrian Stokes book, The Quattro Cento and Stones of Rimini, which, like Jim Houston's "Where Light Takes Its Color," does the impossible: to bring alive the quality of light in a particular place and in so doing, to bring alive the place itself.

Stokes has been praised as a writer able “to invoke the material presence of works of art…” to realize that the materials of art “were the actual objects of inspiration… During the Renaissance, Stokes maintained, stone accordingly ‘blossomed’ into sculpture and buildings.”

In Where Light Takes its Color, Jim Houston, like Adrian Stokes, invokes the material presence of works of art and architecture, like the windmill and other Santa Cruz landmarks, to say nothing of the “The sea,” which, “as much as the light, gives this curve of coast its flavor. The light takes its color from the sea, sometimes seems to be emerging from it. And the sea here is ever-present. On clear days it coats the air with a transparent tinge of palest blue that salts and sharpens every detail.”

That’s it.


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