Review by Christopher Dow
Texas has inspired many a writer, artist, and photographer to attempt to capture its essence.
That’s a tall order for a state the size of a lot of countries and whose landscape runs from swamp to desert, from coastal prairie to mountain and high plains. But in Roads to Forgotten Texas (Texas Review Press, 2004), poet and author Joyce Pounds Hardy and photographer Tommy LaVergne range across the Lone Star State to capture its incredible history and diversity in an evocative portrait that could only be created by people who know Texas as well as they love it.
As the title implies, what you find here are not photographs of cities and paeans to skyscrapers. Instead, the authors catalog the oddities and diversity of character that could only exist in Texas, mining a past that is rapidly fading but that still haunts the state’s byways. Here, there is an abandoned gas station in Liberty County, there, old weathered crosses jut from rocky graves in Brewster County. The Indian petroglyphs in El Paso County contrast with the cowboy in Jeff Davis County and the desolate drive-in theater in Garza County, marking the many cultural changes that the state has witnessed. There are scenes of nature, such as Sabine Lake and the lightning flaring over the rolling hills of Kimble County, and the marks of civilization brought to a new land in the old forts, the abandoned farms, and the rusting hulks of cars and trucks now only seen in old movies. All of them testify to the way people have come and gone, leaving traces strewn across a landscape that has endured.
The 92 photos and accompanying poems are set on facing pages. The authors explain that the photographs came first. In his introduction, LaVergne relates that he learned to love the Texas landscape while riding in his grandfather’s car along the back roads around Hubbard. “‘Let’s go for a ride, Paw-Paw,’ I’d beg,” LaVergne writes. “‘Where you want to go?’ he’d ask, knowing full well my response: ‘Down a dirt road!’ And off we’d ride down some old byway, over red rock hills, across one-lane wooden bridges, and past fields of corn and cotton. Maybe there’d be an old homestead, paint peeled by the sun and looking haunted, or an old barn with loose tin banging in the summer wind. There was the cemetery where Paw-Paw’s parents and old friends rested, and we’d stop, read the dates, pull weeds, and water the flowers simply out of respect.”
LaVergne had been shooting photographs of forgotten Texas for a number of years with the idea of collecting his favorites into a book, and after he read Hardy’s previous book of poems, The Reluctant Hunter, which also was about Texas, he got in touch with her to suggest a collaboration. “When Tommy first came to me about writing poems for his photographs,” Hardy writes in her introduction, “I was flattered because his pictures were remarkable—a testimony to his love for Texas.” A third-generation Houstonian, Hardy has spent many years living and traveling throughout Texas, and she happily took up the task. “My thoughts ran rampant with his black-and-white images,” she writes, “coloring each one with my own memories, my own emotions, my own heart.”
The result is poems that illuminate the contents of the photos more truthfully than any descriptive caption could. And both document a Texas that is rapidly vanishing but whose unique qualities continue to enchant everyone who drives its forgotten roads.
This review originally was published in the spring 2005 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University.