Rediscovering Elroy Bode


In a Special Light

Several years ago I was meeting with a San Antonio teacher named Deborah McInerney to discuss a poetry workshop when I coincidentally discovered she was from El Paso. Having grown up there, I asked Deborah what her maiden name was. “Bode,” she replied. The name was familiar, though I still had not read the work of her father, Elroy Bode. Deborah and I became friends, and when I later asked if she had any of her father’s books, she piled all eight volumes into my arms.

And that’s how I became acquainted with the work of one of the most remarkable writers Texas has ever called its own.

I began immersing myself in Bode’s observations about downtown El Paso in the late 1960s, when alligators waded in the fountain at the central plaza, where Bode would watch preachers wave their arms under the hot sun. I began to listen closely as he spoke of Hill Country rivers:

I walked near the river that went beside our town… I was there in that place… I was alone in the two o’clock silence of the world—It wore a groove in me as deep as memory… it was the heart of my childhood… and the moment would be so good and deep and so very much ours–our family’s–that it was as if time had stopped and we were fixed there forever: the eternal familiar…

Those Hill Country rivers somehow became universal for me as they began to point to my own experiences growing up by the Rio Grande. Bode reminded me of Whitman in his attention to the grass, to the animals, and to the sky. Of Thoreau in his search for quiet places and the exploration and habitation of the natural world, the Earth. Of Steinbeck in his sense of place and time, and his renderings of home. And of no one else but Bode in his own Bode-amazement:

I kept thinking, each human baby, born complete with its skin, is a phenomenon beyond comprehension, more amazing than The Milky Way. Each created anything—cricket, weed, sequoia, dinosaur—is beyond explanation, but here we are, by the millions, acting as if miracles were events that happened in Olden Times.

Elroy Bode, photo courtesy of Trinity University Press

Ever since that lunch with Deborah, I’ve urged my students, family, and friends to immerse themselves in Bode. “Read him!” I say, as I stack his books in their arms. To those who respond that they already have, I have just one response, “Read him again!” Thankfully, Trinity University Press has provided me with another: They’ve recently published In a Special Light, Bode’s first collection of “sketches,” as he calls the pieces, in nearly 10 years. Many of these pieces first appeared in The Texas Observer.

In this fine gathering of prose, Bode is doing what he does best, slowing down the world for us. Here we walk with him through plazas, barbershops, diners, and deserted streets: “I gravitated toward the side streets the way other people are attracted to indirect lighting or shag rugs. Mariscal Street on a September day: … half-a-skyful of clouds.” We drive with him through Hill Country roads and small, out-of-the-way towns outside El Paso (Clint, Canutillo, Fabens), all the while noting the light, the shadows, the Hill Country peppergrass, the oak and cedar trees. Like a good photographer, he always sees things in that “special light.” Here is an author whose voice is quiet, almost reverent, as he writes of simple pleasures, driving to Harper, looking up at the Big Dipper with his son, Byron; walking to Juarez and back over the bridge to El Paso, the plaza, the alligators. His near-holy rendering of the small things reminds us that it is precisely these small things that hold the greatest mystery or pleasure. We begin to think of them as miraculous and wonderful:

The clothesline stretched across the bare slope of our backyard… from mid-morning to hot summer noontime I played in and out of the shadows of the cup towels and my father’s khaki shirts… I looked at the red ants crawling in the sun… I sat for long stretches… quiet, watching, absorbed in being next to the ground.

Juxtaposed with the observation of things small and wondrous is a more socially conscious and politically inquisitive voice heard in pieces from the 1960s and 1970s—a voice that questions the U.S. government’s role in Vietnam and bears witness to the painfully slow integration of Texas schools.

For nearly 50 years Bode taught in El Paso public high schools. A liberal in the midst of conservatives, he was teaching at Austin High when he wrote “Requiem for a WASP School,” [TO June 12, 1970], which received the 1970 Stanley Walker Award for Journalism from the Texas Institute of Letters. In this essay, he chronicles the school administration’s response to an influx of Mexican-American students and the rise of the Chicano movement. Students had been

. . .forced into the halls of Austin High last September even though they wanted to go elsewhere… Here they came, the slow-walking girls of the freshman class. They moved along sidewalks toward a building they had always considered ‘the gringo school on the hill,’ the snob school with its fancy golden dome, the school that—so rumor had it—didn’t really like Mexicans.

Bode goes on to detail “a grim little war concerning censorship of the student newspaper.” As one student explains, “They say their doors are always open—yet every time you go to see them their minds are always closed. You can just see No staring at you before you even open your mouth.” As a result, “the students finally end up believing, what they really, at first, do not want to believe: that the administration doesn’t really care what they are trying to say… doesn’t care about the quality of people’s lives if those lives are led by blacks or browns.”

Despite the power of “Requiem” and other more politically charged pieces, what distinguishes In a Special Light from Bode’s previous collections is the omnipresence of Byron. We first find the beloved son in “Byron and I” as Bode celebrates “my son’s feet freed from shoes and upraised in the air… like white undersea flowers that had joined together in the hatchback light.” Beer in hand, he watches Byron out in the country: “[He] called Duchess, and they raced down into the valley… I watched them a long while, the way you look at a painting.” He remembers Byron asking, “Tell me again about the ranch… when you came out as a boy. What did you like best?”

In awe of the natural world, Bode seems to have etched each word that Byron spoke as “the first pale star that appeared… the sound of the windmill turning—slowly, easily, as if it would keep turning forever… The stars. They were there. My God, they were there.” Byron, his father reminds us, “knew about starlight.”

There is also the beauty of riding to Harper at 10 p.m., the windows down, Byron’s hands out in the air. I find myself reading about that camping trip as slowly and deliberately as Bode remembers it. I want to be there with them that summer night—and I am. “It was a moment of pleasing darkness,” Bode writes. And it’s one we don’t want to leave.

The book culminates with “Looking for Byron,” Bode’s poignant account of his search for his troubled, 30-year-old son. “For hours I drove aimlessly, doggedly,” Bode writes. “[L]ooking into driveways and backyards for a green truck… maybe if I yell out as loud as I can, ‘By-ron!’… “Maybe somewhere, wherever he is, he will hear me, and he will know I am out here in the night, looking.”

I was not with him. I do not know what he thought about, where he went… where he bought the plastic hose… He drove the San Antonio streets, not sure yet what he was going to do… He drove past Boerne and Comfort and Kerrville… He drove on through the cabin lot… deep into the pasture… I think of the deer that came along the fenceline the next morning… He had returned to the countryside to die… I loved him uninterruptedly, constantly… I try to accept the fact that he did not ask me to try to save his life. All I can do now is put these words—like blood—onto paper in an effort to provide for him a kind of wholeness, a justification.

After reading that last piece, I closed the book and sat there, stunned, unable to think story by story anymore, able to see the work only as a combustion of parts into a whole.

“I did not know it would be this way,” Bode writes, “that one side would be Byron’s death and on the other side everything else, that his death would so completely out-balance the rest of his life.”

This is the resonant and compelling finale of In a Special Light. On one side is “Looking for Byron”—on the other is everything else.

The daughter of Syrian immigrants, Marian Haddad was born and raised in El Paso. Currently residing in San Antonio, she is working on two collections of poetry and a collection of essays about growing up Arab-American in a Mexican-American border town.