November 20, 2014

The Readable Feast: Night Ride With Dahlia

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILIP DAUGHTRY

The Readable Feast: Night Ride With Dahlia

“Night Ride with Dahlia” is Philip Daughtry’s first novel.

For his first novel, poet Philip James Daughtry mined his American lineage tracing back to Frank James (brother to Jesse) and hit the mother lode that became this Old West adventure and love story.

"Night Ride With Dahlia" (Mercury House 2013) is a tale that cracks open the mind and rends the heart as it twists and turns easily from life to death to life in an unforgiving wilderness and a young man who not only survives but lives to old age.

Told in a spellbinding narrative of poetic prose with bits of poetry to enhance the telling, you know that Daughtry loves language and spinning a good yarn.

We meet Devon Everson Young in the first chapter, in the first paragraph, as an old man remembering:

Many Americans these days tend to know the old West more as a story than as the wilderness it was. My western adventures all happened before gasoline. I never saw an automobile until I was almost forty and that first car sounded like the devil’s work. I guess time makes every man a stranger if he lives long enough.

Most of what you read in this book hails from Daughtry’s life, “a checkered one at best,” he says. “I came to America dreaming of becoming a cowboy.” Before he became a poet, he worked on wheat and cattle ranches in the Horse Heaven Hills of Eastern Washington, in Colorado, Nevada and Belize, lived on a mudflat ferry steamer in Sausalito—“slept on the bar in a sleeping bag”—before hitchhiking to Laguna Beach where he was a dishwasher and a salad man. He served a three-year apprenticeship in the local painters union while completing undergraduate and graduate work at UC Irvine. He was involved in the "baby beat generation" during the 1970s’ San Francisco Renaissance. His work is widely anthologized, and is included in the anthology “A Living Legacy” (New Native Press, 2014).

His writing makes any mundane life he touches as extraordinary as his own.

In simple words strung gracefully together—sentences and phrases you’ll want to read again for the sheer pleasure of reading them—Daughtry sets the stage for the adventures that take Devon, now a teenager, from his birth in 1851 in a Conestoga wagon, to the old man burying his wife, Dahlia, on their land in Laguna Beach, CA, then called Lagonas. Thanks to his mother, Devon is a literate cowboy in a world of illiteracy.

The family did not continue with the wagon train and stayed in Devon’s place of birth until 1861, when they resumed their westward journey. His father went alone to hunt, against the advice of the scout, and never returned.

After three impatient days, and no sign of him, the wagonmaster announced, “Ma’am, I’m of the sorry opinion your husband has gone an got his self scalped.”

The old man recalls his doubts about what happened to his father and remembers his introduction to Indian life:

So far most talk of “wild injuns” had proved to be campfire exaggerations or yarns left over from eastern Indian wars. The Osage people in Missouri had been friendly…. I realize now there was only one game I played with those Osage kids and it might be called “prepare to be an Indian….” Maybe the great white fathers back in Washington were paying attention to great things, but in that teeming bottomland the Osage attention to the smallest signs of life joined them irrevocably to the earth…. Father had taught me how to hunt an animal but those Osage taught me how to become one.

Devon and his mother settled on the Fort Sumner Reservation in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, with the Navajo who survived the “The Long Walk” in 1864. Expelled from their native lands and interned on barren land, the U.S. military continued to make their lives miserable. When she died, Devon, at age 19, chose to live as an Indian. In the first of many deft twists of fate, he is chased, naked, up a tree by a bear that shakes a crow’s nest full of babies to the ground, eats them and leaves. Devon descends, glad to be alive.

I heard a squeak and spotted something pink elbowing stubby wings in the leaf-strewn grass. This wrinkled foundling naked as me sprouted nubby blue pinions, the rest of him was a yellow-rimmed beak, bald head, and rheumy slit eyes.

I was medicine-savvy enough to figure some connection existed between my mother’s loss and the appearance of a fledgling bird. Exactly what the meaning of it all was I had no direct idea other than a sense that our joining was somehow meant to be.


Devon cares for the bird, whom he names Shash, Navajo for “bear,” and so begins his shamanic episode. He learned that cowboys hated ravens and crows because they were notorious for pecking eyes out of newborn calves. He learned that Navajo viewed crows as a “witch’s helper.”

Cast out by the soldiers and shunned by the Navajo, Devon’s journey heads into unknown territory and the men and women who people it, most importantly, Dahlia de Belardes.

I’d been working at the Dobe T for almost two years when I fell in love with Dahlia de Belardes, only daughter of a widowed Española patriarch. Risking her father’s wrath, we met secretly. Sorrowfully our romance was discovered and Dahlia, after being publicly chastened, was taken somewhere far away from New Mexico. Tormented, yet determined to track down my sweetheart, I compounded my troubles by winning a Dobe T poker game. My good luck against Rusty Cuellar resulted in a gunfight and the sheriff’s posse hot on my trail.

What follows you must read for yourself.

Parts of Daughtry’s real life are all over this novel. He was 13 when, in 1955, the family emigrated from England to Canada, where he lived on a Cree reservation before moving to New York, then California. “I seem influenced by imagistic poetry and shamanic cultures, which I have studied extensively.

“[In Sausalito] I met a lot of poets that I didn’t know were famous and wasn’t writing poetry at the time, just going to the scene, watching Kerouac wannabes. It was like a place where, if you had the right attitude and met the right people, you could get work. All I had was a backpack.

He went to the University of Denver, ran out of money, headed back to California, went to Orange Coast College and “married a woman by mistake. We had our son and she moved to Paris.” Daughtry maintained custody of his son in the U.S.

Daughtry was later given a full scholarship at UC Irvine and finished with a BA. “I had no thought about being a writer. One day, a friend of mine told me Robert Bly was coming to town. I said, ‘Who?’

“I had never seen a man with such energy and he was a poet; the poems came into me like fresh air. The next morning, I changed my major. I had never written a poem. But I got an MFA and got a job at Modesto Community College, met Susan Suntree and got married.” They traveled the world together for years until they parted ways.

“I love to write; I love to tell stories. Good stories have a universality about them,” he says. “I seem influenced by imagistic poetry and also by shamanic cultures, which I have studied extensively. I mostly like adventures and historic novels. Being a writer can be looked at as a small gift of service to write something that people will read only once but you’re going to make a contribution to their life.”

After temporary stints teaching and lecturing at UCLA and USC Film school, he ended up teaching at Santa Monica College for 24 years. Including three years of teaching at Modesto, he retired with 27 years of teaching credit.

“I’ve had my foot to the metal since I was 15,” he says. “It was a great adventure but I was getting tired and needed some place to call home.”

Daughtry has been married to artist Rita George for 12 years and lives in Topanga.