A New Poem by RD Armstrong

ON / OFF THE BEATEN PATH (The Book of ON - mostly) Copyright 2000

by RD Armstrong

(photos: Raindog)


On/Off, On/ Off, On/Off...The pattern repeats itself until the pattern becomes rote, until the pattern becomes a statement of fact: irrefutable and undeniable. I had hoped that this poem would shed some light on my parallel (and perilous) journey through the scarred mindscapes of New Mexico. I say parallel since I was reliving a similar trip taken some 17 years earlier, yet in my mind's eye there was no distinction between the two eras, though, in reality I am two distinct individuals...or so I thought.

The reality is I am not all that different today, than I was 17 years ago, with one possible exception, one that affects my ability to crawl out of bed in the morning and recall what I did the night before. The difference is I'm 16 years sober.

The significance of that time becomes apparent when I tell you it was the start of the last year of an awful time in my life, a time when I lost touch with just about everything of value to me, including my life.

Imagine my mixed feelings when I realized that I was glimpsing the shadows of that past on this rather innocent trip to NM. A chance to make a final and lasting peace with the old demons of my squandered youth. To bury the hatchet and let go of my shame as one might release a balloon...bye bye, baby. But the shadow remains just that, a phantom. This past is buried deep, the wound has healed over, the scars, just barely visible to the discerning eye (I?). It will take another pilgrimage to NM to shake loose that cycle of on /off. Possibly more.

So it begins...


review by John Macker

In RD Armstrong's On/Off The Beaten Path, the poet attempts to engage the shamanic/archetypal through a sequence of events, feelings, fears, confrontations in an automobile on a journey from L.A. to Albuquerque. Experientially, it is the journey to connect with mentors. It is written in language that evokes heart that exists in the now but also is beating pained with the past. It's like a Morse Code of the poet's special dialectic, evoking places, names, landscapes which will take the poet back to a landscape of pain, of youth & excess, of mortality .

Jim Harrison once wrote, "The poet is only a sorcerer bored with magic who has turned his attention elsewhere. " Armstrong has turned his poetic attention to the open road: "Perhaps its the way the desert/camouflages its constant state of movement/hidden from our casual glimpses out/across the seemingly endless nothing/that sets us up for the next surprise ../a land devoid of definition/a blur of shapes/of dirty/washed out colors. ." the beaten path is the poet's love/hate relationship with an ageless landscape as well as his own interior one that for every mile, every small town, every butte, every railroad track crossed, is connecting him to his past. The "accursed shadow" that dogs his every move.

the beaten path is the long (I don't mean epic) poem as travelogue, something akin to Blaise Cendrars' Prose Of The Transsiberian... a confessional, a stream-of- consciousness piece, a journal entry. It is as if the desert Southwest is drawing the demons out of the poet at an alarming rate & placing them in his peripheral vision, sometimes, just out of reach of his language. It is what gives this poem its tension, its verisimilitude. Once he lands in Albuquerque at the home of a fellow poet, the sustenance of talk & camaraderie diminishes the shadow but only for awhile. The Shadow is potent, it is the Trickster of Southwest Native American lore that scours the arroyos, stands of cho11a & city streets for souls like the poet's. All Armstrong had to do was take the trip, air it out with language, attempt to make sense of it. .he ducks out of Albuquerque & turns for home in an ailing automobile: I hurtle across it/alone/moving aheadlthe car vibrating/like in the dream/rattling into the falling sun/into the silent roaring/space/the ugliness that waits/between words/between worlds. .the chant, the haunted chorus of a past that he can't reconcile with the land he's crossing, running into, away from. In New Mexico, they're all here: the archetypes, the shamans, the whackos, the Humpbacked Flute Player, Raven, Trickster Coyote, the curandera, the bruja. {If what Everson says is true, & I paraphrase, that for the poet the main way to evoke the shaman in oneself is to engage the demonic, Armstrong certainly has done this. ) But I don't like to throw around the word shaman too much. It's overused. Not every poet is one anymore than every poet is an outlaw, but in both cases you can tell in a New Mexican minute who isn't.

On/Off The Beaten Path is an engaging work. You read as Armstrong sometimes struggles with his language against the landscape; but when both merge at times into that magic whole, it is powerful; you feel his duende; you can sense his vulnerability. & you know he'll be back to stalk the Shadow, that's why he's a poet.

"Raindog's addition to the literature of the open road is one in which he finds both isolation and community. Ghosts of the past haunt the stark granduer of the Southwest landscape, but there are kindred spirits out there as well, poets like Mark Weber and Todd Moore who, as Raindog does, possess the builder's skills as well as the poet's. The reader who finds Raindog in this poem may find himself as well."

Gerald Locklin

An Excerpt from the Book of On

Washington DC - 1980

A photograph of a nude woman
seated on the floor next to a
stone sculpture.

A moment in a life captured
with photographic exactitude.
In spite of the sculptor's chisel
the soul of the stone remains
unchanged after twenty years
and the soul of that woman 
still haunts the memory. 

For Georgia Cox
whose friendship and kind wishes
have lasted far longer than I deserve

as if the world is glimpsed 
through a broken mirror --
A mosaic of shattered moments
sewn together ala the patchwork
quilt of memory:

At a gas station in Newberry 
Springs Regis Philbin drones
while I buy my first tank of gas
outside L.A.
a solar collector station
patiently absorbs sunlight
-- magical conversion near Barstow
land of maroon hoods and freight yard's clang.
High desert rolls off
into the great beyond
rolling up to the base of
burnt igneous rocks 
as if swept by ancient sorocco 
brooms as if (no carpets 
available) ancient sands 
from old Route 66 became
fill for jagged volcanic arroyos. 
Clusters of rock the color of dried blood 
thrust up through this high desert sandbox
like broken teeth on an
upturned jawbone
as if here, the earth is
a battered skull or some part
of a skeletal geology
to weather. 
Magma fingers
stubbed and broken
reaching skyward
surrendering to sun's
indifferent attention.

Interstate 40
Modern highway
four lanes
twice the convenience
of the Hillbilly Highway
Ancient Route 66
the once and future link
Chi-town to EL LAY
two lanes of history
two lanes synonymous with the romance of

On the Road Again
Bobbie Troupe
Get your kicks on Rte. six six
See the USA in your Chevrolet
James Dean
Motel 6.

Route 66
shadows I-40
two lanes of cracked
asphalt that keeps
coming back to
haunt the memory
as visions of simpler times
return again and again

Route 66
like some prehistoric
Loch Ness monster
appearing out of
desert wilderness
to dog the trail
of I-40 and spook
the traveler with nightmares of
less than a quarter of
a tank of gas and
"next services 55 miles"

Route 66
asphalt serpent
snaking from Barstow
to Needles
through Kingman
to Flagstaff
past Gallup
to ABQ and on
to Amarillo
and Oklahoma City beyond
(where 168 chairs wait for no one).
A red line on the map
cutting into the sandy bottom
of this long-dead sea bed 
this forsaken geography
of pulverized rock fields
fossilized trees
lava fields and sandstone.
Timeless except
for the whimsy and folly
of the Land Lord:

A train moves across the
desert like Morse Code -
dots and dashes heading
south towards Amboy
all washed in muted hues of desert 
grays and greens.

Needles flashes by like a junkie's promise.
Colorado River cuts a lazy swath 
twisting gently towards Baja and 
El Pacifico.
Crawling uphill towards AZ proper
Ocatillo whips in bloom
Holy Moses Wash
Andy Devine Parkway
Shinarump Avenue
CB World.
Sandstone slab walls
retaining hills older than dirt
Kingman traffic jam session
(twenty cars) - deserted road
suddenly crowded with urgency.
Fractured lava caps
sandstone cliffs
red and stoic as if
Indians wait to charge down
on hapless wagon trains along
Interstate Forty
ala John Ford western epic.

Climbing now, eyeball to eyeball
with red-tailed hawk
and sore-assed snowbirds
migrating north for the summer.
Five thousand feet of
blue sky spreading wide
like smile on mother of
prodigal son
then sudden puff of
single cotton-tail cloud
drifting lazy
across vast and holy blueness.

all but forgotten names 
of once bustling towns
back when ancient 66 was THE MAIN DRAG
the only game in town.
Now progress dictates:
I-40 will ignore all towns
wherever possible.
Top Rock
Ash Fork (where gas-jock asks me 
almost wistfully where I'm a-headin)
Like crosses marking errors in 
judgement, highway signs mark passage
and progress towards the ever-onward. 
Devil Dog Road
Flagstaff - forty miles
Rest stop - seventeen miles to the Flag
Spotty log entries
as if distracted by something
anxious looks over the shoulder
quick shot to the left
"what was that?"
Nothing is there
nothing visible
But something lurks & lingers
something past - more than
just the taste of PB&J
at 6500 feet --
savoring flavors and
wondering what is playing
tag with my consciousness.

"Arizona Main Street Town"
Founded 1882 - Pop. 65 M
Home of Arizona's highest: 
Humphrey's Peak
12,663 feet above sea level
5,663 feet above Flagstaff  
Ponderosa Pine trees
Lonesome train horns
woo-whooing from town-center
snow on the ground
like a dirty carpet of freezer-burn ice cream. 
Purple beams against
cedar shingles and flag stones
jarring loose a memory of a '46 Dodge
3 ton w/
Snub-nosed Cab
and 16 foot bed
Flathead six w/
pistons as big as
Texas flapjacks
Bought in '74 from
first owner who
used it to transport
flagstone from
Flagstaff AZ
to Redondo Beach C A

Even in the 
warmth of afternoon
the air has that chill
of mountain crispness
making one appreciate
the sun's warmth
unlike Los Angeles
where you feel as if
you are being cooked

EL AY to Flag in 7 hours
no excessive speeds nearly
500 miles of desert and scrub
Slight vibration in front end
at 65 mph - nothing new
decent gas mileage - why worry?
My host the poet:
Walter Mitty
(refugee from elsewhere
months in this hideaway) 
nestled into the woods
within walking distance
of old downtown
tourist mecca and curio hidy-ho!

RD Armstrong

LUMMOX Productions
PO Box 5301
San Pedro, CA 90733-5301
United States

Information on this book

This Book is part of the Little Red Book series (#27) published by the Lummox Press.

It is the second part in a series of "Road" poems by RD Armstrong and can be purchased through Lummox Press for six dollars (post paid).

Title: On/Off the Beaten Path
Author: RD Armstrong
Illustrator: RD Armstrong (Raindog)
Pages: 48
Size: 4.25 inches W X 5.5 inches H
Binding: Saddle Stitch
ISBN: 1-929878-27-3
LRB: 27
Edition: first