Stride Magazine -


from Suspended Gold ­ Saharan pistes


Forced upwards - basalt, phonolite, andesite, trachite.

Denuded, so that the pipes remain and only the pipes, in the form of cones and dog-toothed plugs that rise above the surrounding plain. Black spires of rock, like the spars of enormous ships, or the pinnacles of Breton churches ­ solid yet brittle, forced upwards into the sky flesh, prickly as doum-palm barbs on naked feet.

This is a porcupine of a landscape ­ defending itself, in vain, against the erosive forces that assail it, to the point where there is no longer anything intact that can, with meaning, be defended, so that the gesture is mechanical, the charm-spell of a weary old man who knows that the ravens are already picking the locks of his eyes but is nonetheless trying, as if still young, to shoo them away. He is spare and defaced, yet continues to wave at the heavens as the skin on his back turns to chitin.

To be here means to share in its dissolution and, no less, its jagged defiance. One travels exposed yet upright, forced from the womb towards the sun, denuded by that very sun which turns each item of clothing to a scar ­ a human column, destined to fall yet holding one's ground. Not even a tower of breath, for breath begins to thin in the tamarisk-scented upland air ­ but solid despite one's brittleness, an agent of geometry resisting the temptations of erosion, the ultimate sleep that is the risk of the serir.


The sand is inscribed by the tracks of vehicles, but still no less by the hoof-prints of camels. They convey the traders and the traded-in, and these prints express their patient, dry-mouthed masochism. They are beasts who expect nothing and are ready for all contingencies, yet can throw a tantrum over the smallest human infraction.

Yet the smallest mark also impresses the traveller. A piece of bone can bake for a hundred years. A trace of an old campfire can outlast its creators, and the couple who crept out secretly to lie, entwined, beside it, exuding moist heat in the fingernail-cracking dryness, are preserved by their faded shapes, as if embossed on a sheet of beaten light.

Hoof-prints, fire-pits, wheel-tracks, words. The desert's rhythms are produced from these instances, with infinite patience and interminable slowness ­ spread across space, they are strewn on maps of human attention. And the star-points join those of the sand-dunes. The she-Camel culminates, not the Great Bear of the Britons or the Winter Stag of the Urals, and she snorts and clumsies at the zenith, tethered against the black-skinned galaxy, as the balises constellate the sand and the brilliant bones preserve the past like the egg-sacs of fish on an ocean floor.

So, the music of the desert is constructed. It is not the orderly polyphony of more fertile regions. It is an assemblage of traces, a swarming unison in which the fragments cluster and coincide, the amplification of a deeper silence.

Dead or alive, there is always room for one more camel, or another azalai of words ­ from breve to breve, from silence to silence, we deposit the trails that will leave us behind.


Those flayed hide pigments tether their prey to the rock wall. But the hunters have gone down into the sleep shelter, leaving behind no language, foxing us with these triangular images ­ cartoon depictions of a lost reality that we cannot even see behind us, in which the stars are skewed and the hippopotamus wallows in the swamps of the Ténéré.

Ten thousand years later, and the glyphs continue ­ the taurine epoch commemorated in a tawny swathe of ochres, as if there were no history to this, no more than signs expressed for the sake of expression alone, a herd of aurochs that blindly charges into the semiotic circus-ring. But when the eye bestows its magic, then the dead come back to life in that theatre of bright water, under the stars that set the world in the wide-open firmament.

To inspect these images is to find oneself standing one instant beyond the suspension of time, at a point where everything has already happened and the eye is a tachyon, travelling faster than the light which feeds it, always becoming more and more distant ­ as with the stars that feed the eye then change, sometimes fading, sometimes swelling, sometimes even exploding.

So, from outside, one is offered tomorrow in the desert. One stands bare-footed on the blade of the landscape, exposed, besieged, denied and tightened into a body-space that lets the outside reach its maximum size. One shrinks to a point, a grain of sand with a pin-prick of an eye, that remains as if the eye of a figure on that cave-wall at La Tefedest, white laser’s aperture that can stare out past the present into the horizon’s wall, can see to the far side of its own extinction. Its share of the gaze, this deathless death.

         © Norman Jope 2003