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ROOKS & THE CULTURE Rediscovering Elroy Bode BY MARIAN HADDAD In a Special Light By Elroy Bode Trinity University Press 160 pages, $24.95 S everal years ago I was meeting with a San Antonio teacher named Deborah McInerney to discuss a poetry work shop 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 worldIt 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 oursour family’sthat 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 Bodeamazement: I kept thinking, each human baby, born complete with its skin, is a phenomenon beyond comprehension, more amazing than The Milky Way. Each created anythingcricket, weed, sequoia, dinosauris beyond explanation, but here we are, by the millions, acting as if miracles were events that happened in Olden Times. 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-ofthe-way towns outside El Paso \(Clint, ing 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 1970sa 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 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 17, 2006