Friday, January 11, 2008

Favorite Austin Trees, Part I

Very old Washington palms with shaggy beards and elephant-hide trunks soldier on in many places in the inner city, near campus, and older neighborhoods and evoke Austin's quieter, slower past.
The palms on the I-35 west frontage road between 26th and 35th streets at the site of the old Villa Capri hotel just keep on keeping on. The motel is long demolished, a victim of UT's inexorable expansion, but the palms remain a nostalgic footnote to this Ratpack-era building.
This poem by a Swedish expat Lars Gustafsson captures the zeitgeist of Austin before it became it became the hipster capital of the universe. Somehow it turns the Villa Capri and Austin humidity and its soil and vegetation into a universal experience of reverence. I never read this poem--or pass by the Villa Capri palms---without remembering how I first felt about Austin when I first moved here. It's good to be reminded of these things.

Austin, Texas

A small, peaceful place where I could go about
my own affairs, without reproaches.

I’ve searched for something like this
since the first day of elementary school.

But it wasn’t easy to know
that something like it actually existed.

And, truth to tell, every country I live in
was a foreign country

How strange, not to say unaccustomed:
to stay, to remain.

The first time was a spring night in 1972.
The whole world was dark, warm, humid:

incomprehensible from the airplane steps on.
Groped for a window. But was already outside.

I checked in at Villa Capri,
a motel that’s been gone for a number of years.

Weinstock and Rovinsky picked me up
in the thundering, warm rain, both in net undershirts,

and the lightning photographed their still young,
energetic faces with black beards.

Strongest were the smells of rotting wood,
vegetation, mud, and Southern honeysuckle.

I forgot my raincoat at the motel.
Just as Dr. Freud would have liked!

But there was music in the humidity. It came from every
street. Ballads and blues and a special kind of

pensive jazz. It resembled nothing else I’d heard.
It came from warmer air, smelling of earth.

For a decade now, it’s been my everyday life.
The large, serious faces of my students,

grocery bills, and the dog digging
overmuch in the rose bed.

For Benjamin, it’s all self-evident.
But never really for me.

Never again to need my wool mittens,
sleeping like nice kittens in the closet!

A place where everything grows, if you only
drop it into the ground, under large trees

that are made happy when the wind starts blowing.
Certain things remain forever incomprehensible:

the storm of insect sounds on hot nights,
the mysterious warm darkness. A solitary trumpet

blue as night, from a lighted window.
Sunrises when the whole world is on fire

and the black herons sit, heavy
like Hugin and Munin, in old dead river trees.

Rovinsky doesn’t live here anymore, and Weinstock’s
hair and beard are white. The telephone is ringing

and wants to sell me credit cards. Office buildings grow
and acquire glass fronts, black as the river.

But the shade under the trees is what it is, and in
the river under the bridge giant carp are sleeping,

that will be there forever, and no boy will catch.

Lars Gustafsson
(Translated, from the Swedish, by Yvonne L. Sandstroem)
Originally printed in The New Yorker, August 24, 1992.

2 comments:

humblelabor said...

Thanks for sharing this little bit of Austin history. I live in the neighborhood just east of the highway, across from where the motel used to be. I will look for the palms next time I'm on my way out of the neighborhood. :)

Also, I love the look of your house. My house was built in a similar style in a similar era, and I just love our sweet small houses!

Happy gardening!

Emily

Cote de Texas said...

Aw, the Villa Capri, what memories!!!! You know a friend of mine's dad owned it for a while. What good times over the years - went to a family wedding there probably 35 years ago.

Wonderful poem. love your blog.