“Had we but world enough, and time,” begins Andrew Marvell’s famous poem “To His Coy Mistress.” The poem, which takes the form of a persuasive argument, is a clever bid for hastening the physical consummation of the courtship between the speaker of the poem and his mistress. But whenever I hear that first line I think of a very different attempt at persuasion: the artist convincing him or herself of their potential for prolific output. The same phrase, more or less, but intoned differently, is often heard escaping like a sigh from the lips of many aspiring writers. If I only had enough time. Charles Bukowski isn’t buying it, and neither am I. But that doesn’t stop me from uttering the same sentiment to anyone who will listen. And that is, in part, how I found myself living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where there is nothing if not “air and light and time and space.”
I’m now an MFA student in creative writing here at the University of New Mexico (a desperate grab for time), but I had already been living in what is affectionately known as the Land of Mañana for more than a year before starting my studies. People always ask me why I moved here from San Francisco, a city whose metropolitan area boasts a population twice as large as the entire state of New Mexico. This question, like others, such as “who is your favorite author,” and “what do you want to be when you grow up,” has been difficult to answer. The truth is that I didn’t intend to stay for very long. True, I had left my job and my girlfriend back in San Francisco in a gambit for the afore-mentioned “air and light and time and space” (hereafter to be referred to as ALTS) and arrived in the exotic Southwest because one of my best friends was living in Albuquerque (had become a Burqueño, as long-term residents of the city are called), but I didn’t expect to put down any roots.
What I didn’t know was that the Land of Enchantment is also cynically known as The Land of Entrapment. Not that I feel trapped (I could easily move to another state if I only I had enough money, and a job there). Perhaps more appropriate is the suggested state motto I heard from someone six months into my stay here: “New Mexico: It’s good enough.” No, that isn’t it either. I actually like Albuquerque, and though that is especially hard for native New Mexicans in their twenties and thirties (for some of whom the large cosmopolitan coastal cities seem terribly glamorous and who long to escape to them) to understand, it is the truth. And the reason I like it here is that, despite Bukowski’s admonishment to the contrary, one can find ALTS here in greater quantity than in cities where rent every month is equal to the cost of a decent used car. And even if that’s only true if you work several days a week in a café, those attributes seem to exist in New Mexico in greater quality.
That there is a special quality to the air and light and space in New Mexico should be evident to anyone who has ever visited or lived here; anyone who hasn’t need only consider that it is the fifth largest state with the 36th largest population, and that much of the land is at a high elevation (the lowest point is 2,844 feet on the Texas border). Walk through the clacking aspen in the fall and you’ll understand. As for time, well, that’s harder to qualify.
“What is time made of?” asks Geryon in Anne Carson’s verse novel Autobiography of Red, to which his companion of the moment, a philosopher, responds: “Time isn’t made of anything. It is an abstraction. Just a meaning that we impose upon motion.” If that is true then the different qualities that time assumes are the result of the different meanings that we impose upon it. And it follows that if the meanings we impose on time differ it is due to a large number of factors which would be difficult to catalogue exhaustively, but which must certainly include terrain and climate and culture. The mercurial and culturally determined nature of time is evident to anyone who has travelled abroad. It is interesting that the exchange above, between Geryon and the philosopher, takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a place where most people don’t eat dinner until ten and don’t go out at night until after midnight. This arrangement is similar in European countries, which is no accident since Argentina is culturally descendant from and very similar to Western Europe. New Mexicans, as far as I know, eat dinner at the same time as the rest of the god-fearing residents of these United States.
But the quality of time is not reducible to when one tends to eat their supper. Nor, it should be plain, am I talking sentimentally about “quality time,” such as one is supposed to spend with their family—on Thanksgiving for instance, a meal which, speaking of meal times, is traditionally eaten in the middle of the afternoon for reasons I don’t understand and won’t explore here. The quality of time is a set of meanings that we impose upon motion. Okay. But of course, the meanings affect the motion, whether it’s what time you eat or how many hours are in your work week—a resident of Manhattan, for whom time really is money in a very literal sense, places a different premium, a different emphasis on time than a Burqueño, who after all lives in the Land of Mañana.
But time in New Mexico is not like European time, with its languid, even sensuous quality—time set aside for afternoon siestas and long luxurious dinners with cheese courses and palate cleansing rounds of sherry. Time here is a lot like elsewhere in the United States—Louisianans could probably be said to savor their time (and their food) more. It’s more like New Mexico is a place that time often forgets, or that often forgets time; what with its vibrant and enduring Spanish and indigenous cultural practices—land grants and acequias and adobe and outdoor earthen hornos and crypto-Jewish lineages. Maybe I’m reaching, but suffice it to say that I feel a little forgotten here, and I kind of like it. Or maybe it’s that I’ve forgotten everywhere else, not least of all San Francisco, with its crush of time and its status (Facebook, career, relationship, and otherwise) anxiety.
Well, graduate school, with its attendant responsibilities, leaves plenty of free hours to be desired, and many days relegates creative writing to mañana, but I will try not to pine for “world enough, and time.” Actually, the irony is that Marvell’s argument in “To His Coy Mistress” is the opposite of the sentimental wish of the aggrieved writer. The suitor’s attempt to get into his mistress’ petticoat, or whatever it was back then, hinges on convincing her that there is very little time to waste. Life is over before you know it—carpe diem and all that. The procrastinating or non-committal writer, by contrast, wishes for endless tomorrows, a land of mañanas. Well, here’s to taking advantage of all this air and light and time and space, by writing today, and today, and today. As Marvell suggests:
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Charlie Wormhoudt is a first-year MFA student in Poetry at the University of New Mexico.