It’s hard to get anywhere in Utah without going through Provo.
I can’t tell you the number of times
I went there as a teenager, the number
Of times I drove into town in the early
Afternoon, hungry, and had to look around
For a place to eat. You don’t have to starve
In Provo but you eat at your own risk.
At no risk. I would never have gone to Provo
On my own. I went accompanied –
For reasons almost too trivial – or personal – to mention.
There are moments when you simply must get into the car and drive
And from Salt Lake there are only a few ways to go,
Toward the Great Salt Lake or toward the canyons and to get
To Zion or Moab you had to pass through Provo.
I remember the population because it went
With the number of miles from outskirt to outskirt,
45 miles, 45,000 people, 45 minutes
(Keeping to the speed limit)
$45 to spend on a suit at a 45 per cent discount ...
There was nothing Provo’s department store did not carry,
Including pearl handled Colt 45s,
But for a wider selection of firearms, rifles
With narrowing focal points, with greater precision over vast distances,
You were better off
O I guess it wasn’t that different from entering
A thousand other American towns, but this one
Made my flesh crawl. I wanted to howl.
The men walked with their hands deep in their pockets.
The women were afraid to lift their eyes.
It was as if something terrible had happened
Or was about to happen.
I’m not saying you have to love what you do
In this life, but it isn’t nice to practise
The silent treatment on strangers in the desert,
Strangers who would have to be wondering
Where the other 44,990 people were, since
Other than the one drowning potatoes in burning oil
Beside the grill in the luncheonette
And the one behind the register,
And the three grim-faced, parchment-skinned
Jack Mormons hunkered over cups,
And the handful of impassive faces
Placed against the windows
Of one-storey cinder-block houses,
There was no one in Provo beyond the jack-rabbits –
Glimpsed in abundance en route –
Who vanished as we crossed the town line,
And drove past the population sign.
Or was it a warning in disguise?
There was something eerie in the air,
An absence I could not identify.
An immense single-pump gas station,
Shimmering like a mirage in the heat,
Took up a good part of the main drag.
I pull in. Step into the heat stunned.
The car is too hot to touch.
I needed gas but didn’t want to get it there.
It meant digging up the attendant.
You know the lights in hospital corridors.
Those are the lights in the gas station in Provo.
They’re the kind of lights that show up whatever’s wrong with a face;
The kind of lights that make something wrong when there’s nothing wrong.
When I got there, I was afraid. It’s hard
To put my finger on the precise reason why.
It’s not as though something ominous rose
From the sidewalks or Hell’s Angels cycles
Were parked outside the luncheonette.
Nothing like that.
Nor can I say why, even though there was almost
No one on the street, I felt watched.
While I slept fitfully in the tilt-back bucket seats,
Someone scribbled obscenities on the headlights.
I felt drawn by destiny to this nadir.
You don’t want to provoke anyone in Provo.
It’s that kind of place, that kind of absence –
The desert flattens out, the plants
Draw in their antennae.
Provo is not where you can hope to find
Boon companions. It’s against the law
To serve liquor in the bar
And no one in the luncheonette looks up
When you walk in.
These are the fallen,
Sunk in ashes, adrift
In the smoke of unreason.
They have masturbated without shame.
They have coveted, envied.
They have pocketed the tithe.
It’s hard to put it into words: Provo.
It’s more like a place without a name,
A desert stopover with the semblance of a town.
Provo is a place where there is no reason to be.
A province that would never grow up to be a suburb,
Like the backwaters where they exiled
Ovid and Pascal.
Only there is no water –
Just landscape shorn of green and tawny desert colours.
Hills like craggy impenetrable fortresses.
The rain gutters hiss in the dryness.
There’s a menacing blue tint on the rims
Of impinging mountains.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.