Austin Present and Texas Past HAVING MOVED from Austin a few months ago after several years of residence, I am by turns woefully homesick and glad to be quit of the place often simultaneously. I miss its friendliness, its small scale, the beleaguered edenic greenness of its lakes and hills, the liveliness of its small arts and political community, and its unexpected pockets of free thought. I do not miss its inveterate and growing boosterism, the rapacious and inbred stupidity of its public institutions, the bathetic spectacle of state government, the de facto dictatorship of the developers, or the smug provincialism which too often masquerades as civic pride. Steeped in such ambivalence, I am probably a sucker right now for thoughtful books set amidst those Texas contradictions, and Dave Oliphant’s book-length poem, named after his fair city, has been much on my mind. Long a partisan of writing in the American idiom generally and in the Southwestern context particularly, Oliphant has taken as his great exemplar William Carlos William’s Paterson and has “made a start, out of particulars” in his Austin locale and history, “rolling up the sum,” for what becomes, in its nine sections and 195 pages, a long meditation on the history, mores, and people of Austin and of Texas. Where Williams had his one river, Oliphant has eight, from Guadalupe to San Gabriel, which lend their names to the principle streets of the capital city and the main divisions of the poem. Williams’s hero was a mythical male version of the city itself, beloved of the Passaic river. The historical personage who permeates Austin is both more real and more ordinarily human: Stephen F. Austin, the troubled impresario of the original Texas colony, who once dreamed of an academy to be built on the banks of the Colorado, at the foot of the mountains. It is here Oliphant begins his poem, considering Austin’s Michael King now lives in Houston, where he subdues the occasional twinge for Barton Springs with a growing passion for the Rockets. In the interests of full disclosure, he notes that he is honored to be remembered in passing in the narrative of Austin. prison dream of 1833, of which the present day city and its university are the grandiose outcome. at the center at the heart of how & why have been & are garden of wrongs must still recall the seat of law & a greed feeds on site come true from the “academy scheme” Estevan’s dream in ’33 of a campus of where to sit & listen at the feet of a Bedichek Dobie or Webb professor of a faith in a frontier way Austin is almost invariably “Estevan” in the poem, to acknowledge his adaptation to Spanish culture, his initial reluctance to break with Mexico, and the poet’s determination to acknowledge the central importance of Spanish and Latin culture in Texas. And while AUSTIN By David Oliphant Prickly Pear Press, 1985 195 pages, $13.95 Estevan is the historical hero, the poet himself, like Williams before him, is centrally entangled in his creation, and one crucial thread of his story is his courtship and marriage of a Chilean bride, Maria. So the poem ends with her: & to Maria too gave something of the measure due “has lived with me and Austin for all these years” Their love story becomes part of Oliphant’s autobiographical love poem, for the city in which they and their children live. Between those two major chords, Estevan’s life and Oliphant’s life, runs the layered narrative of the poem, as an attempt to understand contemporary Austin by recourse to its now legendary past, and the rich evidence of its personalized present. The poem shifts quickly and almost imperceptibly from recent memories to historical documents Austin’s letters, the speculations of his biographers, the contemporary ac counts of the fight for independence. It is difficult at first, but the poem rewards the time it takes to decipher its levels of memory and reconstruction, for we seem to be watching a man construct a meaning for his poem and hence his life, from retelling his own tale in the context of where he lived it in the process giving himself and his readers a sustaining sense of place. At one point, studying the layers of geologic time recorded in the neighboring strata, Oliphant finds an analogy for his own quest in the poem. nothing new in these friends may be though unique alone or in composite feldspathic & pyroxene blends will end with each of them extinct as any species yet inspire a try at the pentastich lasts wanted from the first to trace their ways the dynamic geologics of a present time repudiated the fate of memorized fossils out to seek instead a living history to discover & add to its Texas line then re-read that course’s lesson of a pressure-compacted past to find those crystalline days intact their embedded pyrite faces & phrases in layers reassayed prove highest grade those have metamorphosed & given shape to whatever nuggets any stanza contains have solidified the feelings fast or slow cooling the passion for deceptive gold by mingling its magma with reason’s cold Those last lines suggest the necessary ambivalence, or perhaps engaged objectivity, with which Oliphant addresses his subjects of Austin present and Texas past. Though he clearly considers Estevan’s achievements heroic, he does not ignore the devil’s compromise Austin made with slavery, nor the uneasy relations between Anglos and Mexicans which he and his movement inevitably aggravated both bequests trouble contemporary Austin, still strongly marked by class and racial segregation. Oliphant remembers the struggle to desegregate the theaters: how Estevan would not have been pleased but then he wasn’t there to stand in line march back & forth at the Varsity Theatre in that movement had its beginning in ’62 would integrate every off-campus movie seemed harmless enough at the local tcy91 taking part in meetings held by the SDS THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19 By Michael King
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