Turquoise Door: Finding Mabel Dodge Luhan in New Mexico by Lauren Camp
3: A Taos Press, 2018
119 pages / 3: A Taos
In June 2013, poet Lauren Camp drove away from the wildfire heat and smoke surrounding her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico and up to Taos for a two-week writer-in-residency at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. In the poem “Our Beginning and Our End,” opening Camp’s latest poetry collection Turquoise Door, we feel the heat, her panic
But for rooms of reminders, to survive we flee through aching skin
of unrepentant light and drifting ember to the filter of timber…
… Because escape is a wound
and the sweat and smokiness of her body when she arrived at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos. Set into the labyrinth of adobe homes that surround Taos, it is an oasis within an oasis. The Mabel Dodge Luhan House is part museum, part historic hotel and conference center, and home to the occasional writer-in-residence.
When Arts Patron Mabel Dodge Luhan moved from Greenwich Village to Taos, New Mexico in 1917, she continued her tradition of gathering a creative community around her that included Martha Graham, Georgia O’Keeffe, D. H. Lawrence, Robinson Jeffers, Willa Cather and Ansel Adams, all who made what was then an arduous pilgrimage to thrive in her creative energy. I too have made this pilgrimage to Mabel’s house. I visited it in the winter of 2016, when it was hemmed in with snow and ice—and my memory melted with Camp’s first poems describing the heat of her journey.
Camp arrived with a head full of poems about her father and Baghdad and with a plan to use her residency to work on what would eventually become the Tupelo Press Dorset Prize-winning book One Hundred Hungers. Instead, Camp found the spirit of Mabel took hold. Soon she was caught in the swirl of Mabel’s world of the artists and writers who found their way to Mabel’s Taos house in 1920’s. Turquoise Door emerged from her short time living in Mabel’s world.
In the book’s first section “Raw, Interrupted,” the speaker carries the reader with her on this journey in the first of many letters to Mabel, “Letter to Mabel: Under Vigas”:
When I stepped up to your house, all atmosphere and architecture, wet
with understandings, how soft I felt. The need for resolution was rinsed of
Vigas are the heavy, rough-hewn wood rafters that can be found in adobe buildings. In Mabel’s house, they create a sense of protective intimacy that settled into Camp. During my visit, I too felt comforted by the vigas, how the house held heat against the cold. Camp brings the reader into the house, under the vigas, by the massive stone fireplace. It is here where the speaker’s relationship with Mabel takes shape. It starts like all friendships do, tentatively, and then with observation and knowledge, it grows. Here in “Dear Mabel”:
Each morning you depended on pigeons with their textured secrets,
their dancing, and in the kitchen men eating hanks and pulp, their large
swallows. You lived within people, by stones. Bathed inside glass…
Already, you have become my mind.
As the speaker adjusts to living on Mabel’s property and days of writing as in “Rainbow Room and the Red Chair,” we are drawn into the space, into the speaker’s sense of purpose as she wrestles with her writing:
The skin of my husband is distant.
Every night is desire
For summer grasses…
…I’m looking for quiver, and will accept
only a corolla of words. They open their faces unblinking.
I cling to their attention.
The speaker is not the lone writer throughout this collection however. Inspired by Mabel, she too collects visitors around her. From “Letter to Mabel: Lingering in the Corner”:
..in this room where you gathered and broke your memory to pages…I’ve repeated my name to strangers, each syllable a pressure on my tongue. They reply with sounds that seem dusted, with primary and secondary laughter…all their speech inside me: jagged and ripe…
It is summer when the tourists are in Taos and Mabel’s house is a destination. In contrast, my husband and I were completely alone in Mabel’s house in the dead of winter. Yet Camp was able to evoke the house in winter, and how it was built by Mabel’s husband Tony Luhan in the poem “Feathers and Mountain,” capturing my more desolate experience:
of color, this land
at the rim of the pueblo
the cartilage of the house, the heavy
physical body of silence. Tony kept standing
still, kept picturing
birds lift from his large hands
to the rooms, then only the wind
as it slid down the mountain.
Camp not only inhabits Mabel’s house and history, she also steps into the lives and work of Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, and others. But these are not persona poems, they are the poet’s intimate experience of these artists and writers at a certain place and time. She is interacting with history and geography, layering it with her own daily routine in residency, waking to the day, walks, observations, her writing, her sleep—or lack thereof. Camp’s “Awake All Night. Not” describes insomnia:
To hear night pulped, to see parched stars
stir in shadow. To feel one’s skin
For me as an often insomniac, that is the exact feeling—skin on backwards—that I feel when I have been up all night. There is a physicality reminiscent of Anne Sexton in these poems that embed the reader into the speaker’s experience.
Turquoise Door not only takes the reader on a journey to a different life and time, this poetry collection takes us deep into the poet’s pilgrimage. The speaker is scratching out words and attuned to the meaning of everything—she is writing about the poems as she writes the poems. Yet, this is not an ars poetica collection, it is more artifact of the poet’s intimacy with her reader—her invitation to join her on this residency.
To read the Turquoise Door is to step back in history, but also experience the magic of the place that inspired some of greatest artists of early 20th century—that vast and unrelenting New Mexican sky. The sky hovers over this collection. Camp’s given the sky its own multifaceted persona:
…under the eternal body of sky
…desert clouds plump / then conjugate
…sky lays down blue, with gray in its center, / and fingered with madness.
…a giant canopy of multiple blues, sprawled / wide and lazy.
…the sky went on, clouds clumping / on junipers
Nearly every single poem lies somewhere between the hard-baked earth and the heavens—a landscape that Camp paints on each page, yet somehow makes surprising.
Camp’s use of unusual imagery and evocative vocabulary has become a hallmark and been recognized from her previous three poetry collections. In Turquoise Door, her technique is once again in full power as she brings us deep into this land, era, and these people. Her poems enliven the precise and enrich the expansive. As she drives into a mountain in “Heretic”:
Wild-rose breath bursts at the shoulder.
Give it here, such beauty. I’d fall for each
coral center—and the aspen arms
with their thin, gauzy shaking…
…I have chosen my faith.
Give me the chapel of elk in the distance
because all roads have thistles.
For Camp, the motherlode of inspiration arrived in the landscape, the history, and the ghosts of Mabel, Lawrence, Adams, O’Keeffe and others. She left her two-week residency with drafts of 52 poems! These original poems, along with the others that she subsequently added, unite in what is a comprehensive exploration of living a creative life.
When the speaker readies to leave Taos in the book’s final poem “To Account for the End,” she returns to the beginning, yet acknowledges her transformation:
Where I live, everyone I know is divining
for rain, for new shadows—as a man might open
the thighs of a woman, expecting
the heart between hills, the muggy pleasures.
It has been sunny for a year and eighteen
before that. I drove into the mountains to get away
from my rearview mirror. Soon the faint scent of artists took over. Soon
the faint scent of artists with their fleshes
and brushes will be previous… Soon, my last night
of trees. All these sentences that took so terribly long
to accumulate. These will remember.
In these final lines, Camp describes her own experience, her memorialization of this bygone creative community and the longevity of their creations. With Turquoise Door, Lauren Camp has written more than an accumulation of sentences, she has written a collection of poems that will outlive both the poet and the reader, and do the remembering for us.
Heidi Seaborn is Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal, a New York University MFA candidate and the author of an award-winning debut book of poetry Give a Girl Chaos (see what she can do) forthcoming in early 2019 from Mastodon Books. Since Heidi Seaborn started writing in 2016, she’s won or been shortlisted for over a dozen awards including the Rita Dove Poetry Prize and her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Nimrod, Mississippi Review, Penn Review, Yemassee Journal, American Journal of Poetry, in her chapbook Finding My Way Home (FLP) and in a political pamphlet Body Politic (Mount Analogue). She graduated from Stanford University and reads for the Tupelo Press Dorset Prize. www.heidiseabornpoet.com