A Review of Blood in the Asphalt: Prayers from the Highway

Erin Stalcup
Blood in the Asphalt: Prayers from the Highway
By Jesse Sensibar
Tolleson, AZ: Tolsun Books LLC, 2018
100 pages. $18.95 (Paperback)

Jesse Sensibar is a good buddy. (Of mine, and in general.) He’s one of the few people I can talk to about old Flagstaff, my hometown and his adopted home — back when we had more than one dive bar downtown, back when the buildings were rarely taller than the trees, back when he owned the tattoo shop where I got my first ink illegally at sixteen, before he and I were friends. There aren’t a lot of literary figures I know who collect antique turquoise jewelry from pawn shops, ride a Harley, are willing to be frank about their drug days and living in a half-buried school bus in the desert outside of Flagstaff, or who are so committed to creating and supporting community. It’s this sensibility as a documenter of his evaporating west paired with a tender heart inside all that leather and ink that make Jesse Sensibar’s tributes in Blood in the Asphalt: Prayers from the Highway so poignant and powerful.

Even if you’ve never crossed paths with Jesse, this book will sing to you, keen, praise, and lament. Blood in the Asphalt describes roadside shrines as a way to talk about what is disappearing and what will be here awhile, about love and fear (love is stronger), mourning and rejoicing. Sensibar photographs and depicts a shrine to Russell, whose “people put a lot of thought and work into” it, and he ends his musings by telling us: “I’ll pass this shrine twice today. Once on my way west to the wedding of two young friends. Once on my way east to the All Souls Procession. I’ll celebrate both love and loss; beginnings and endings; give and take” (33). That is the essence of this collection.

Jesse is a truck driver who knows that the highway gives and the highway takes away. He’s seen some things I never have, but he never sensationalizes the range of people whose public shrines he seeks to portray in images and words. Nothing human is alien to Jesse, and his words are tinged with compassion and hard-earned empathy. We’ve all lost someone, which this book about strangers won’t let us forget, but this book also makes that pain worth remembering. For Sensibar, the road “still comes and asks [him] to think quietly. To come and cry without a sound […]. To come and feel” (6). And that’s what this books asks of us, and offers to us.

Sensibar writes, “I stop to document the things that speak to me. Perhaps only to me. But maybe not” (8). The things he documents include Ramona, Russell, David Chavez, Rob, Frisco, Rivas, Victor, Karlie, Roy Andrade, Boy, FoFo, Mother Nature & Sunshine, Tyler, Jesus, Sam and Linda, Ashely Marie, The Virgin, a dog named Truck, Joseph Paul, Baca, el Chilango, Fish-n-K8 who was clearly loved, Billy the Kid, Jesse’s friend Isaac who is also my friend. Kinship here is presented but not investigated so that readers just have to accept these bonds beyond blood. And I do. The dead, the living, the unnamed, Jesse’s friends and family and strangers are all given tribute here, and I do think that speaks to all of us.

Sensibar isn’t going to give you the postcard version of the vivid, fading West, and I am grateful for the ways he honors my part of the world, his part of the world, our part of the world. These are prayers, yes — by which I mean they are intersessions on the behalf of an imprisoned father, wishes for calm for the departed, hope for healing for those who visit — but these are also sometimes homages that don’t ask for anything at all. Except, maybe — to remember. “I hope you at least found some peace. We are doomed to wander, picking up the pieces of a small god. We cannot rest. The domes still call us” (61).

We may be doomed to wander, but it’s a blessing as well. Inland Empire, City of God, Kingman, Needles, Barstow, Yucca, Ludlow, Tehachapi, Bakersfield, Seligman, the Mojave Desert, Twin Arrows, Jerome, Casa Grande, Tucson, Cornville, Timberline, Fernwood, San Francisco Peaks, Ute Nation, Payson, Pine, Tonto National Forest, Mogollon Rim, Strawberry, Ashfork, Flagstaff, Vegas, El Teridito, Tonlaea, Navajo Nation, Kino Viejo, the Brownsville line, Dudleyville, Zion, Nogales, Lima, El Paso, White Sands Missile Range, Ruidoso, Capitan, Roswell, Lincoln, Daggett (“one of the roughest places” Sensibar has ever been, which makes me think I am not tough enough for that town), Jenny’s Mexican Grill, Eagles Lodge, Nevada Smith’s Salon, San Xavier Mission, Circle K, the methadone clinic, Smokey Bear Hotel, Denny’s, Living Water Ministries, Golden Corral, wildflowers, mica and quartz sparkling (78, 16). After giving us so much eulogy and litany, we’re told that the West “does not stand still — I would not want it to — but in the last hours of September here in the neon desert it almost sounds like a good idea” (29). I don’t want my West to vanish, but I also don’t want to force it to stay, and I’ve never had any other writer quite articulate my complicated emotions around my homeland so eloquently.

You don’t have to be from where Jesse and I are from for this book to move you. (Sure, he’s from Southside Chicago, but he’s from the Southwest.) The specificity of this book — in its concerns, its voice, what it chooses to pay attention to — allows it to take in the entire world, the entirety of love and grief and joy and gratitude and fear.

“Seems like dying could be pretty easy out here” Sensibar tells us, and while he knows his “chances of dying are high,” he also knows “that the chances of two men, even two large men, dying in the same shirt are very, very small,” so he wears a dead man’s shirt as his talisman (45, 39). I hope my friend will live forever even while I know he won’t, and that’s the whole point. I wish this book went on forever and I could read it always but of course it does and I can. Because, maybe the most important thing Blood in the Asphalt can ever remind us is that despite all we’ve ever lost, “all is never lost” (55).

To get a taste, read of the pieces first published in Waxwing.


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