Alle Strassen munden in schwarze Verwesung.
All roads empty into black decay.

Georg Trakl, Grodek

And from decay take form.
Their matter is primordial, their working primitive, chthonic.

There's something ruminative about petroleum, about its very gestation in the maw of Precambrian and Phanerzoic sediments, in the exchange of hydrogen between the very large, unstable organic molecules and the small, newly formed hydrocarbon molecules.

John M. Hunt, Petroleum Geochemistry and Geology 1979: 22-23

Yet asphalt's unworthy. It's the lowest residuum of the cracking process, a murk whose refinement by solvents not heat relegates it to a different class of texts and engineers.

Philosophers skirt round it, perhaps because, as Plato's Parmenides has it, we are young and cannot see how hair or mud or dirt or anything else particularly worthless can participate in a Form of its own.

We're inclined to isolate the figure against the landscape in our love of the individual thing released from the confusion of background.

John Fowles, The Tree 1979

We fetishize objects isolated against their background, visible to the naked eye; networks are less easily turned into myth... Paeans are sung over Bugattis but not tarmac.

Regis Debray, Media Manifestos

mineral pitch.
Jews' pitch.
bitumen of Judea.
metalled (road).
from Greek asphaltos, asphalton bitumen, pitch, asphalt
a- not + sphallein, to cause to fall, from sphaleros,
slippery, from
to slip

Asphalt is the ether that binds our aggregate. It's formless, inclined only to gravity, background to our purpose-driven travel.
It doesn't stand but falls,
nor inspire the allegories that concrete does.

Concrete has adamantine feelings, writes Peter Schjeldahl, is solipsistic, stupid, a dominatrix. It's untouchable.

"Hard Truths about Concrete," Harper's Magazine 287:1721 (oct 93): 28-30

We have concrete not asphalt poets, want concrete examples, carve signatures in concrete before it's cured.
We lend it memory with prosthetic springs.
We erect concrete into mannequin hieroglyphs, cities, bunkers, monuments.

Asphalt's soft,
vulnerable to microbes.
subject to alligator and other forms of cracks,
all functions of temperature differentials and a panoply of vertical and lateral stresses.
It's chewable.

Yet asphalt had its day, reaching its symbolic zenith in the Thirties and Forties, when anti-Depression and homefront war projects encouraged paving throughout America. The 1939 World's Fair Guide intones The pedestrian finds it pleasant to stroll at the Fair, where the walks are of bituminous asphalt .
Gelernter sees it as an emblem of progress, the triumphant vanquishing of discouragement and mud.

David Gelernter. Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, 1997: 102.

It was Pennsylvania, with its wide variety of soils and native stone available, [that] led the nation in the campaign to get "out of the mud."

The Role of Asphalt, Asphalt Institute, 1946

Documentation of the asphaltization drive may be found also in the photo records made under the direction of Roy Stryker for Standard Oil of New Jersey. A key image in a compilation of Roy Styker's photographs shows a barefoot boy watching a grader distribute gravel across newly laid (and still-hot) asphalt at the edge of Cut Bank, Mont.; August, 1944. A ribbon of asphalt that, like the radio had not many years before, connected this town to the bigger picture.

The Highway as Habitat: A Roy Stryker Documentation, 1943-1955 (1986)

Abraham goes further back, to ancient roadworks. Nebuchadnezzar honored his father who had made a road glistening with asphalt and burnt bricks...[by] placing above the bitumen and burnt bricks, a mighty superstructure of shining dust, made them strong within with bitumen and burnt bricks as a high-lying road...

Herbert Abraham, Asphalts and Allied Substances: Their Occurrence, Modes of Production, Uses in the Arts and Methods of Testing (2nd edn, 1920), citing Robert Koldewey, The Excavations at Babylon, 1914.

Asphalt was first used for sidewalks.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (English translation 1999): 427

Asphalt paved the road to the simulacrum.
It was in 1827 that J. Niepce exposed a metal plate coated with bitumen of Judea through an oiled portrait mask (of Cardinal d'Amboise) to make the first photomechanical print.

It's in parking lots that asphalt is inscribed so many ways, by cracks (their etiology in temperature change and abuse),
official rules (parking stripes, words, perhaps an overlay of paint or chalk hopscotch grid),
drifts of leaves.

Ed Ruscha catalogued thirty-four Los Angeles parking lots, all in aerial views. Many are in the San Fernando Valley, where they entomb memory of orange groves.
Their scribble, grids and overwritten countergrids, baroque form and rosette order make them palimpsest, emblem, Rosetta Stone awaiting decipherment.
Their relationship to the residential and arterial surrounds also matters.

Edward Ruscha, Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles, n.p., 1967.

Asphalt inclines to poetry.

from the arched roof
Pendant by suttle Magic many a row
Of starry Lamps and blazing Cressets fed
with Naphtha and Asphaltus yielded lights
As from the sky

John Milton, Paradise Lost I, 729-20.



Pliny the Elder recommends asphalt for curing boils,
inflammation of the eyes,

Abraham, 12, and Pliny, Natural History, Book 35


parking lots are threatened,
litterprone mute, repositories
of knowledge.

scratch, here.

you want a device to prick the present,
render its burthen in day-proof ink
canvass ruined declarations
trawl spawn of red seas,
call to account our watertale trade
and gain, some, discover net

the immense investment required to loose
memories of heat and light encached in brick,
in castellated lumber room, in
tarpatch splits and scribble or a
nowhen afternoon.

for this we have machines
to vent underworld occasion
crack iron from asphalt
wrest gold from base events.

the why I love asphalt loves its fundamental
underlying land a way concrete never can,
longs for curves and give to settle in.

whilst intact things suggest a
more, a here. mores a rise.
sodalities accrue. an event must
have. gear adheres
(equipage) until
uncomes come.
at end, all wears.
plots ramble, knots deplore,
gardens bewildergone.

to scratch, return.
park and settle, don't move.
let the earth burn.






asphalt home


14 nov 99