There is a dislocated loneliness in being unmoored, in drifting away from connections and places until you become stuck somewhere again. Andrew Zornoza’s Where I Stay, published by Tarpaulin Sky Press in 2009, is a both spare and sprawling interpretation of this feeling. His compact prose set to the rhythm of poetry is paired with stark black and white photographs capturing the scraps of the country seen by an unnamed narrator as he wanders the American mid- and southwest.
There is something of a duel narrative, with on each turning of the page another date and place appearing with a short, dense, vignette about what happened to the narrator at this point of his hitchhiking journey, then a captioned photograph appears on the side. Rather than either the text or the prose completely telling the story, the photographs, with their italicized captions, seem like detached comments on the narrative, possibly from a future reflection. For example, for “Oct. 14, La Pine, Oregon” he writes only briefly about he and a dog named Betsy who are both hungry beneath a “sun pasted like a white disk in the sky,” considering, silently, “the steam pouring out of the earth.” The photograph on the next page is mottled and sun-spotted, with just one line of text beside it: “I’ve lost pieces of things I want to remember.”
Something of the story is gone, for us, for the narrator, in the quiet drift of the story. And the story itself is only in fragments. You get the idea of a young man who twines guitar strings too tightly around his wrists, about the search for a sister who lost her mind and has disappeared somewhere into the landscape, and you get vivid encounters with characters like a man in Mexico with whom he spends all day in bed “trying to teach me Spanish” and then dreams of two lovers strangling each other with the aluminum cords that intersect their bodies, and the Marine at the Atomic Energy Commission Reservation in Idaho who describes the waste of nuclear power on the world. He writes early in the book: “The prairie was my cellar door. I had removed everyone I knew or the people had removed themselves. I replaced them all with a vast plateau, then mountains, dry desert, broken pieces of landscape that didn’t quite fit together. I found people in the cracks.”
While the photographs are often striking glimpses of a worn down American landscape like those Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans sent back from the front lines of the Great Depression, it’s really Zornoza’s brief, but brutally complex, writing that compels you to keep tracing this journey to nowhere. However, it’s also a really strange and beautiful use of photography in experimental literature, one that shows how the subtle impact of images can add something to even text that evokes such powerful visuals. As he writes: “There are many things I have to tell you. I’d like to do that without speaking.”
Andrew Zornoza is reading along with writers Martin Hyatt and Luis Jaramillo at Strange Loop Gallery on March 15, 2013.