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UNIVERSAL REMOTE Poems by Matthew Poindexter Honors Thesis Department of English University of North Carolina 2010 Approved: ________________________ Advisor Acknowledgements Some of these poems were previously published, sometimes in earlier forms: Dead Mule School of Southern Literature: ―Learning to Whistle‖ ―Nostalgia‖ appeared in Best New Poets 2009 (University of Virginia Press, 2009) Thanks to these friends and teachers for their help and suggestions: Ross White, Rachel Richardson, Alan Shapiro, and James Seay. Special thanks to Michael McFee and the 2010 Senior Honors in Poetry class. Contents 1 Nostalgia 3 Gum 5 Dear Landscape with Blah Blah Blah 7 The Mirror Chakras 10 A.D. 12 Reclamation Day 14 Past Lives of the Self-Loathing 17 Universal Remote 19 Trapping Mechanism 21 Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat nor Gloom of Night 26 Unbirthday 28 Stephen Hawking 31 The 500 Mile Long Poem 57 Off-Day on the Haw River 58 Love Poem with False Rabbit and House Key 59 After Waking, Apples 61 Learning to Whistle 62 Eroica 67 Polar Bear Exhibit 68 Baseball 70 Off-Day on the Haw River (Reprise) 73 Notes UNIVERSAL REMOTE Nostalgia Last night when we were watching Lassie, I remember thinking, isn‘t it a shame that dogs don‘t bark like they used to? When Mom and Dad were kids the dogs were always barking, and usually that meant a person in the township had fallen down a well. Those were the days. Isn‘t it a shame, how no one falls down a well anymore? I say we take a Saturday to head out on the town with our crowbars and pry some covers off, shrug off their concrete tops. Give everyone a handle of Evan Williams whiskey, smack them on the ass and shout: Have at it! Then sit and wait for the concerned collies to come running. But no, if you want a good old-fashioned crisis, the wholesome kind, you have to go way back— before they added color to the picture, before Nader came along and ruined all the fun. Non-exploding cars! Paint without lead! Go way back, or to some other world, like Australia. And even there the women scream, A dingo ate my baby! a lot less frequently than before, which is kind of like their version of barking. Here, it‘s all just, woof woof—you smell like you could get me some bacon, or, woof woof—I just took a dump and if you don‘t pick it up immediately, the city‘s going to fine you. These days, I feel like I‘m the one that‘s stuck down in the well, and all that I can do is tread water. Everything has the same harmlessness. In the end, the well of blandeur is so deep that I can‘t even tell if the dogs are barking or not. They don‘t make barking like they used to. Gum Like an anti-mating ritual or a grownup‘s answer to the Hokey Pokey, I do the one-footed balance dance of a man inspecting the bottom of his still-on shoe: grafted to my sole is a dun crust of gum. Step by step it‘s grown in filth: loose strands of other people‘s hair, damp flakes of spit-out Skoal, the million molecules of goose shit trekked through on a daily basis, adding layers as I go. Every other step becomes a conscious one, uneven by a fraction of a fraction of an inch. A twig and stone both fail at its degunking: I‘m forced to go with fingers, the scabby outer shell collecting underneath my nails until a too-green center opens like an abscess, and my world floods with the scent of faux-spearmint. How often life‘s terrible gifts come spritzed with perfume. Kretek cigarettes from Indonesia. The cocoa body butter I mistook for toothpaste as a child. That time I used a half a can of Country Meadow Raid before Sarah spent the night— what was I supposed to say when she hugged me, cooing, ―Aww, you bought me flowers?‖ Dear Landscape with Blah Blah Blah Thank you for the lunch last Sunday at El Rey del Taco, where we each ate pescado frito entrées, then split a dish of crippling self-doubt for dessert. Doubt can be no course but the last, can it? Thank you for telling, between bites of fish with lime and garlic sauce, the story of the son who became so angry at his mother for remarrying, he burned her signed first edition of Catcher in the Rye. I think you'd feel a little better if you torched someone else's stuff—just as long as it's not mine. Thank you for agreeing with me about whom amongst our friends would be the best to sleep with, and who doesn't make the cut. Thank you for proposing we make some rules to follow in our poems: no more "Landscape with Blah Blah Blah" in the title. No more epistolary verse addressing inanimate objects: "Dear Rutabaga," "Dear Pitcher's Mound," "Dear Food Stamp Act of 1964." My offer to ignore the second rule—if you promise me you'll break the landscape title one—still stands. You said, "Breaking rules is why my life is falling apart." "But I love to read your landscape title poems!" I said. You said, "I truly doubt it." I didn't reply, just watched you sign the check, because I knew you wanted that to be the final word. Yet to myself, I wished the biggest mistake we could make was to break a silly rule. I wished the worst thing anyone had ever done was judge their friends purely for their beauty. If only the most hurtful crime we committed against those we love, those who love us back, was to burn their most cherished possession. The Mirror Chakras Show me something more frightening than a mirror. § Show me something more frightening than a mirror with more than one face in it. § Show me something more frightening than the floor-to-ceiling mirror in the yoga studio, when I‘m behind the spandex girl, the one who, with each pose, checks her reflection in the wall of polished glass we‘re facing. Her first concern: that the chakra column‘s stacked in perfect form. The next: that I‘m not staring at her ass. § Her gorgeous, spandex-covered ass. § Show me something more frightening than that same girl and mirror when downward-facing dog releases, and she checks her form again— so perfectly aligned, her Anahata humming in its holy place above the Swadhisthana— that she can‘t see me there, my body clad in ratty sweats. The chakra of the mirror in line with her and me. § It is a frightening thing, the mirror that doesn‘t reveal what we expect it to reveal. § I am a vampire. No, not really. It‘s a metaphor. § Why has Dracula never removed the mirrors from his castle? After centuries of living there, the countless would-be victims wising up who see the absence of his likeness, and flee before he bares his fangs. He only has himself to blame. § The spandexed girl gives in, and breaks the chakras of herself, breaks the chakras of the mirror, her body, and me. She wobbles off-balance to the left in search of my reflection in front of her. § ―Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.‖ § With her tilting left we make eye contact on accident, then look away. I think I see her blush, but it could have been a rush of blood to the head from doing downward-facing dog. § I only have myself to blame for what gets seen in mirrors. § Last week, I felt like I was dying, yet my reflection looked as healthy as it‘s ever been: ruddy color in my cheeks, thick and shiny hair— nothing like a man in his last days. However, it has been brought to my attention that I may be closer than I appear. § Towards the end of the session, the yogi brings us into corpse pose. We are told to lie flat on our backs on the mats. We are told go to happy places. No one thinks of mirrors. No one thinks of me. § Show me something more frightening than a mirror with me in it. A.D. If I were born in China, I imagine they would have wrapped me in a blue blanket with bunnies printed on it, would have given me a lucky rabbit‘s foot to hold in family photographs, because I graced them in the Year of the Hare. Yet, being born to two white kids in Winston-Salem, I went home from the hospital wearing only a diaper and a tiny Magic Johnson jersey. In the culture of their youth and love, it was the Year of the Lakers. And when the priest handed back the Bible they had bought on the way to the church, it read ―Anno Domini, MCMLXXXVII.‖ Such things overlap. Such things come our way. So many cultures and religions claimed me as their own at the same time: the Year of the Braves was the Year of Kissing Katie Mabe, was 1995. The Year of San Francisco somehow was the Year of Worshipping the Rural South as well. But in the nation of My Bedroom, population 1 (and rarely, 2), where worship is most fervent and adjacent states believe the devotees seem cultish in their piety, there exists only one true religion, only one true culture, and it is now the Year of Our Lord, Matthew Poindexter, a year I pray is followed by the Year of Our Lord, Matthew Poindexter, to be repeated again and again, for ever and ever, amen. Reclamation Day I come today to reclaim my grandmother‘s clothesline, acknowledged last in nineteen-ninety-nine, when I was twelve, when James said only trailer trash don‘t got a dryer. I‘d never seen it so before—yet in his hurtful jab work shirts transformed to flags, signaling WE ARE POOR for all to see. It stopped existing then, far easier for me to stay away from her back yard, to sit inside and watch TV when we would visit on those Sundays after church. My grandmother‘s clothesline: two lengths of cord stretched taut between two poles. A decade older now, I come to apologize, to reclaim that which I took for granted, a prodigal son not asking for a fatted calf, but just a place to dry his clothes. So much from youth deserves its exile on the Isle of My Embarrassment: a ―Blame It On The Rain‖ cassingle backed with ―Girl You Know It‘s True,‖ my penchant for those ultra-wide-legged jeans with umpteen pockets— complete with faux-gang logos—sagging off my ass. The bongo drums I bought to match my RASTA! poster. Her clothesline should never have been lost with them, those silly fads that lack the line‘s utility. In truth, the object of my shame was never close to being wrong: it‘s the shame itself that‘s faulty. Let me undo that wooden pin. Let me put that stiff and faded shirt back on my back, and give her line less weight. Past Lives of the Self-Loathing I must have been a dog, once. I must have been a fly, or streptococcus. A rich boy on coke at a boarding school, once such things existed. To think how old my soul must be: how I can barely turn my head without seeing something I despise. It's getting worse: Recently, I must have been a pair of plastic testicles that swung from the hitch of a pickup truck. I must have been the DMV. Also, the act of unclogging a toilet that you yourself played no part in clogging. I think I was the first incarnation of acne all those years ago. And I'm sure I've been my current self many, many times over. Oh self, how I hate you. Self, I hate you in a way that clogged pipes, zits, and Nutz-4-Truckz will never understand. I take great pride in kicking puppies, because I know it hurts you in some cosmic way. I hate the present in a way the past can only dream of, and there is so much past: Look at what little still exists that I can't bring myself to spit upon. Someday soon I'll be the most beautiful and kind woman in the world. Then what's left? In the beginning, I must have been God. Universal Remote The cardboard package postmarked from Japan, those squishy mint green shipping peanut things strewn out in piles across your hardwood floor— I‘d never seen a grown man act as thrilled as when you said that this would change your life: the Universal Reach Remote Control. You held it up: the shoebox-sized device looked like a long lost Star Trek toy—its dials and buttons, hieroglyphics under each— its pair of antennae that telescoped in some strange pattern I could never learn. But no more need to leave the bed at night and blindly fumble with the thermostat! No getting off the couch to start or stop the oven or the sprinklers on the lawn. ―This sucker even works the channels on the basement TV from the bathroom two floors up,‖ you bragged. ―But why would you do that?‖ I asked. ―Because I can!‖ was your reply, before you pointed it at me and punched a button, made my cell phone ring. You smiled. I‘m sorry your complete command of life could only last so long. It got too damp— some wire on the circuit board fried out when you were in the shower, trying then to run the washer/dryer in the hall. Instead, it started up the Chevrolet you‘d parked in your garage—the dog and cat without a place to get away—no place for the exhaust to filter out. At least they didn‘t die in pain. You thought it might have been a fluke, a glitch that you could fix. But when the Russian satellite was found in your back yard they traced it back to you. When Mary took the kids and left, she said to find her at her mother‘s when you trashed that awful thing. A week or so went by and no one heard a word from you, until the neighbors said they saw you naked in the yard, the sprinklers tweaking by your feet, alarms from cars parked up and down the street all blaring—off and on and off and on. Before the cops arrived and took you down, they said that you were taking it apart, removing levers, rubber buttons, dials, and wires, placing each in ordered piles around the yard. Some even said they heard you yelling to the sky, ―Now who‘s in charge? I am! What good is a control you can‘t control? Now I control my own control!‖ Trapping Mechanism I bought a Venus Flytrap from the gift shop of a decommissioned battleship, one moored in port for good in the Cape Fear, near Wilmington, where they sold anything the Third World could print or stitch a ship onto: old-man hats with captain‘s braid across the bill, plush cartoon barracudas, seven-dollar sets of socks with BATTLESHIP NC in red above the ankles. In retrospect, even leaving with a shotglass would have made more sense, but no—at age eight I bought a four-trap Venus Flytrap in a plastic BATTLESHIP NC pot, took it home, and (per instructions) used a pair of tweezers to feed one trap a single fat and barely buzzing fly. Then watched that trap die. Per instructions, watered, waited for a week, then fed trap two: watched it blacken, shrivel, crumple up in dust. Repeat, repeat: dead plant, dead plant. Maybe it‘s the same as fish in bags at country fairs, or maybe I‘m just bad with plants like others say they‘re bad with kids. I doubt both: how does a living thing that finds a way to live in the armpit of this state on bugs and brackish water, that survives through yearly forest fires, die off with such ease? Forget the lemon-fish, the brown thumbs: I must admit that this is failure only where there‘s no one I can blame. Not myself for paying for the stupid thing, not the half-high college kid who worked the kitschy gift shop as a summer job, not the people at the nursery who grew and packed it in the cheapo plastic pot. Not even God, that old scapegoat who‘s used to taking blame by now that we can‘t assign elsewhere: sometimes, no matter what we do, no matter how much tender loving care we give, we‘re still rewarded with a trapless Venus Flytrap with an allergy to flies. Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat nor Gloom of Night ―Go get the tire chains‖ Weather tells them, and they do. He shaves a block of ice off the low horizon; it overtakes the carriers before they even get the coupons sorted. All the mailboxes topped with snow: those not stuck shut become tiny avalanches when opened. Hands and arms go frozen. He comes home cold and quiet. § Five a.m. alarm to undertake what used to be a ritual—dressing for the day ahead. After checking weather, choose a set of regulation socks (always half-calf high, always navy blue). Choose a regulation polyester shirt (sleeves long or short, always ―postal‖ blue). Choose regulation shorts or trousers (always navy blue). If cold, choose a parka/sweater/jacket combination (all outerwear is navy blue). Choose from baseball cap, safari hat, and faux-fur earflap cap (all outerwear is navy blue). Choose shoes or boots (all black, no insignia of any kind allowed). Choice? What choice? § Weather tells them, ―Don‘t get wet,‖ though it knows there‘s no escaping. It looks like a lake is being sieved out of the sky, an ugly, unfine rain that covers everything. Weather capillaries up the legs of pants, brings a sour smell to shoes. Fingertips go wrinkled and then stain with ink. He comes home soaked. § In 1887, regulations authorized the use of stripes on the coat sleeve to recognize long service. In 1899, black stars replaced the stripes. In 1955, when uniform trim changed from black to maroon, the black stars were changed to maroon. In 1975, the maroon stars were changed to navy blue. In 1988, regulations authorized that only silver stars and gold stars should be worn—one silver star for every five years of service up to 30 years and one gold star for every five years of service beginning at 35. ―Only brown-nosed bastards wear their silvers.‖ He‘s almost made it to that first gold star. § The sun bears down again, like yesterday, like the thirty prior yesterdays. Weather tells them nothing that they didn‘t know the day before. Summer—the time of year when each of them is missing out on something: sleep, vacation, a Little League game. Lunch almost always goes untouched, sweating in a leaky Igloo cooler kept between the crates of swimsuit catalogs and letters sent home from camp in the back. In this heat, most don‘t really care for food. Time and a half bloats into double time, bloats into reprimand from reprimanded supervisors. As if they‘d been out there that long by choice. He comes home burnt and angry. § One December Sunday, the snow only starting, he asks me to go outside and get the newspaper sitting in the driveway. I put on his biggest, warmest coat in the closet, his regulation parka with the ―sonic eagle‖ emblem on the breast, Thinsulation thermal hood, windproof face flap to cover up the mouth and nose. I‘m zipped and bundled up, almost at the door, when he stops me, yells, ―Take that off right now! I don‘t ever want to see you in that thing again! You understand?‖ I take it off. I get the paper with a shiver. I complete my appointed round, swiftly. § Six days a week, the Postal Service claims they don‘t care what Weather does, and Weather, grinning, calls their bluff, says, ‗Get your gloves and parkas. Check the coolant in those un-airconditioned trucks. Pray your family doesn‘t ask how work went when you‘re finally home.‘ My father comes home. In our house, we don‘t know snow, or rain, or heat. We do know gloom of night: his unwished silence at the dinner table, saying nothing because he has nothing good to say about his day. He does whatever‘s asked of him with swiftness, goes to bed. Unbirthday Poor you, you think, at work on your birthday— the one day you should have the right to go play golf, or party at the backyard spot with Jim and Rob and Rob‘s fine cousin Jan. For the sake of business though, you‘re made absent from that once a year Rumspringa, drinking decaf instead of taking shots, kissing ass instead of women at the beach. Catered lunch from Subway falls so short. I understand your disappointment, but you don‘t get it yet. Unhappy as you are, a sadder task awaits when the alarm goes off tomorrow. After fumbling to button down your cuffs (why do hangovers always make clothes not fit?) please be ready to punch in on a day when you are as far from special as possible. The break room won‘t hold cake. Multi-colored party hats will be taken as a sign that you do not respect your job. No, no gifts, no crown of smoke ascending from the garish day-glo candles, headed for the threshold and hugging the ceiling, till it goes wherever smoke goes to be forgotten. For the time being, you should probably go there too. Poor thing, if you set off the smoke alarm tomorrow, no one will be amused. Stephen Hawking I like to think the mind and body hold each other up, each completing what the other cannot do, succeeding in its own way— poor pitchers study sabremetrics; the most unstable women that I‘ve dated all were trained and artful dancers. These days, Stephen Hawking can barely tic his cheek, yet when he does, it‘s to tell you about thermal radiation with a black body spectrum predicted to be emitted by black holes due to quantum effects. I‘m no Hawking, though I‘ve found the more I learn the tighter my old pants get. Buttons barely make their way through eyelets, tugging on the fabric like dogs that almost choke trying to slip out of their leashes. But that‘s okay, isn‘t it? When it‘s all over, there‘s so little need to be one of the lucky few possessing both sides of the mind-body balance. Almost all get by with less. Me— I‘m the dumpy number cruncher, I‘m the kid with too-big broken glasses. If we were in a made-for-TV movie, the vapid quarterback would come to me and ask how he can pass the test on Shakespeare, the big game counting on his play, the grade he makes. In the end, everyone leaves happy: To be or not to be delivered perfectly over a montage of touchdowns thrown against the cross-town rival. Yet, this isn‘t the Disney Channel. Most of those who think they‘re beautiful and smart soon find out: they aren‘t. The action movie star with his megaphone, telling folks in Kansas how his candidate of choice will maintain subsidies on wheat—no one really listens to the party line he parrots. They want him there because his cheeks sit higher on his face than anyone has ever seen before, his nose looks like God once kept it safe inside a Brazilian rosewood case, line in purple velvet. They want him there because when he turns from side to side, no one sees a single difference in the left and right halves of his face. He once thought talking about Midwest agriculture made him smart, but that pride was fleeting—he soon sees that it‘s just scripted lines, a performance less impressive than the time he sneered into the camera, vixen under arm, and, right before the spaceship blew up in a ball of flames, growled, No one tries Max Justice and gets away with it. The 500 Mile Long Poem I. Prologue So few things can make a hatchback Honda CRV exciting or inspiring, especially when it‘s coupled with the mundane task of going to the grocery store. See my ‘04 model: pocked with dents and scratches, striped with touch-up paint that isn‘t quite the same shade as the dingy gold original, something called ‗mojave mist metallic.‘ Ride of the Valkyries wouldn‘t even save it from that sheer soccermomedness. I know this for a fact: I‘ve tried it and failed. Yet here I am, Wagnerless, on a quest for Pop Tarts, queso dip, tortilla chips, half-a-dozen eggs, some beer: anticipation shakes the parts of me that do not shake on purpose. It is time to drive: the stereo turned off, nothing but an inner monologue and the white noise of thunk-thunk-thunking roads and highways for the next 500 miles. But who would make a worthy Muse for such an epic? On my shortlist: Calliope and Thalia, and if the Muse may be a man, Henry Ford and Earnhardt Sr. Unsure of what to do, of just how to invoke these patron saints of the internal combustion engine, I do what unsure people do: a little bit of everything. Click the keyless entry twice till headlights flash. Open door, remove phone and watch and wallet, from self, place them in their proper holds. As belt buckles, ask Henry for forgiveness that the car is not a Ford. Ask the same of Dale because it‘s not a Chevrolet. Pray for Thalia to act as guide of lighter parts, Calliope to watch from here till final mile. Turn the key, fell the car‘s smooth tremors, hear the songlike hum. II. 15.2 Allow me to explain myself some more: with this odometer of miles in feet and lines, I really cannot say I‘m sure just where I plan to go, or what I‘ll meet. (Right now, I‘m leaving Brewer Ln., my home, and headed east to get on Franklin St.) It truly isn‘t all my fault, this poem, this hatchbacked drive. I think I‘m predisposed to loving all things cars—the polished chrome, the vroom, the calendars with models posed in heels in front of their dark billet grilles. I dream of V8 engine blocks exposed on showroom floors, the piston push that fills me with its fine-tuned compressed joy each time. Or even more, that sound when one tire peels away before the others do—the rhyme of tread and tread and tread and tread, of brake and disk with disk and brake. Learn here that I‘m a person with this in his blood, who aches with just enough white trashiness to be a fan of good old boys who meet to race on Sundays. Is the place where they agree to end the same where they began? If so, then even better. See the checkered. See Daytona, Talladega, Wilkesboro. See HWY. 8 in Walnut Cove at two, when school lets out, that ever-revving flow of boys. The seventeen-year-olds who view their older brothers‘ IROC-Zs as all that‘s pure and good—accelerating through each straight, paired side-by-side, so mad and raw inside their Chevys. See them, Friday nights, down at the K-Mart parking lot: their wall of tricked-out, muffler missing trucks. The fights that always come from drawls of No, fuck you! while idle, waiting on the next green light. I‘m not ashamed to say I did it too— raced Nick and Scott to King and back, and won. I now know too much clutch will mean a new transmission must be bought—five grand, not fun. And I was at, in nineteen-ninety-three, the Charlotte race where Rusty Wallace spun out of turn four and lost control, where he sideswiped the safety wall, then flipped his car and landed upside-down in front of me. Bright sparks arced off the nose like awful stars. The Miller Pontiac‘s two 2s—in red and gold on each side of the car—were charred, obscured by flames in those same shades. He’s dead! is what I should have thought. But when the throng of people cheered and pumped their fists instead of going mute, my thrill did not feel wrong. I knew no better, then. I cheered along. III. Date Night 28.5 Even if it meant that she was back by half-past-eight so I‘d be in by curfew, nine— isn‘t this the reason I first fell in love with driving? An early dinner, then the movies, or, (better, by date three or four) skip the flick and find an unlit backwoods road, a stopping place ringed with trees, the headlights killed on my old, used Delta 88, the kind of car that parents gives their first-time-driver kid, tank-like in its build and slowness, with a bench seat in the back that we found worked for more than hauling friends around. IV. 36.3 4:15 a.m. and still not home from work: stopping to top off the tank after a long shift of getting undertipped by college kids who ordered pizzas so they wouldn‘t have to trudge out in this rain. On the road, lucidity is suddenly a conscious decision, a test, and I feel that I am barely passing. I swerve to miss what looks at first like a pair of bikers merging lanes, but it‘s only the wipers as they slack across the windshield, shattering their long pause on the lowest setting. I sober in that moment, and remember an all-night solo drive from Atlanta back to Chapel Hill—one spent calling AM talk shows just to keep myself engaged and half-awake. In Commerce, Georgia, I became a man concerned with the coming martial law in our fine nation, dammit. Further up the road, in Gaffney, South Carolina, the lazy screener put me through with my call about the giant peach that was not a giant peach at all— it was a secret Chinese brainwave station shooting high-pitched frequencies into the ether, a PRC attempt to control our American minds. And now, almost back, I can‘t stop thinking of that giant butt-shaped fruit along the interstate, my memories broken only by the blades that wave their arc in front of me once everyone other moment, saying, come back to the here and now, come back to the here, to the now, come back. V. 40.0 O autonomous nation of These Solo Commutes O geography of ribboned road where HOV lanes go unused O land where anyone is free to sing along to Miley Cyrus Or pick their nose without the judgment of others O Switzerland of transportation O place of pacifism O only happy solitude that my day knows Those thirty minutes on the way to work and back again I seek asylum in the safety of your borders. VI. SLOW FUNERAL 20.6 I pull off, park on the soft shoulder of a front yard to let the motorcade of cars crawl by. In deference, the owner of this lawn‘s stopped too, to watch them snake into the churchyard up ahead. Standing on his porch, he‘s left the aerator sunken in mid-plug, Kentucky-31 bag slumped on the stump of some long-rotted-over oak by the driveway. I nod in his direction but he only winces when he looks in mine— my stopping here to pay respects is ruining the parts of yard where he thought he had finished, packing back the plugs unplugged, killing off the grass that he could only coax to grow last spring. What else can I do, though? What else can anybody do? The final black sedan has yet to pass. The car that reads POLICE in back of them is still in back of me. I‘m sorry for the things the dead will us to do, the places that we go to let them be. VII. The Greensboro Anti-Odes 88.3 In Dante‘s Inferno, the ninth and deepest circle of Hell is also the tightest squeeze, most claustrophobic. WELCOME TO GREENSBORO! reads the bright green sign overhead on I-40. LANES CLOSED: CONSTRUCTION flashes the orange warning sign right behind it. It‘s Friday, 5 p.m., and the DOT has plans to detour me through downtown, the gate keepers of Gate City funneling me in, again. § As a teenager, the joke was ―Greensboring,‖ walking the almost vacant downtown on a Friday evening. I‘d like to describe it to you in greater detail, but there was nothing worth remembering—concrete sidewalks, buildings wrapped in polished steel and glass, a doctor‘s office, maybe a bank or two— as if the city planner‘s only criteria were ―adequate‖ and ―unoffending.‖ If something even slightly fun took root, it would vanish in a half a year, pushed out by rising rent, replaced by a Subway chain, a Kinkos office. Each weekend, the exodus resumes: students from the five colleges packing up and going home, or really, going any place that isn‘t Greensboro. § At last count, four former girlfriends now call Gate City home, which isn‘t something bad— they deserve each other, deserve to live in Greensboro. For the most part, I don‘t think of it, but the other day, driving through downtown the radio station played ―All My Ex‘s Live in Texas.‖ George Straight‘s smooth crooning about Rosanna down in Texarkana, or Allison in Galveston who somehow lost her sanity. Greensboro, I was reminded of you and yours. I wondered if there were any word to rhyme with you, sad dactyl, any way I could express in song how terrible you truly are. All those I can’t endure— oh they live in Greensboro. All the ones who were shitty reside in Gate City. All the women worth abhorring now live in Greensboring. Those don‘t seem right. No country song is blue enough for the loneliness of your civil twilight, the ex‘s, the college kids who wish they‘d saved their money, found a job, and lived a home. VIII. Road side rest stop 52.8 Someone from the DOT must have planted flowers here: that eighty feet of space between the five lanes headed east and five lanes headed west has been ‗beautified‘— a sea of purple somethings, the flower‘s name as strange to you as the radio stations in this place, your presets out of range. You like the view, but it gets chopped to pieces now and now, and now again, by semis blowing by from packing plant to packing plant. One or two will smear their horns at you, but you‘re not sure if that means Hey, I see you, keep on trucking brother or Why’d you park so goddam close? Is there any way of knowing? No. Watch them go, and wait for the next and the next and the next. Hope that one will lend its songlike hum to the static on your FM band. Listen: they doppler away down the asphalt. IX. Why I love my Honda 31.9 Because kudzu is no longer the only Japanese import the cover every inch of land that I consider home. X. Home to home 88.3 I make this drive too much: Take Fifty-four, then west on Forty, Sixty-five through Stokesdale. Follow Three- eleven into town, hard left on Brook Cove, right on Watts, and final left at DeHart, park the car. Just shy of ninety miles. § ―—THE DOUBLE-K SALOON— KARAOKE BEER LIVE BAIT VIDEO POKER‖ The bar sign near the Belews Lake access point advertises, outside the barely there, somehow standing, corrugated metal shack off HWY. 65. Each time I drive by, I like to think I‘m tough enough to show my face in there. Something tells me that I‘m not. I like to think that after far too many rounds, someone much tougher than me sees the mescal bottle on the wall, sees the larva inside, and after buying the jumbo carton of fishing worms, orders everyone inside a round of beer.―Put it on my tab,‖ he says. In the room‘s low light, the full bottles are the same shade of chocolate as the now wormless plastic carton, open on his seat. He tips well, leaves. When you spend enough time in a bar, or driving in a car, a good imagination is the only thing that can keep you entertained. § Passing out of Guilford County now, weaving down the road sewn back and forth between Forsyth and Stokes, I‘ve almost made it home, or to a place called home, a house where things once stored in the least lived-in corners— filthy garage shelves, attic space, basement boxes—now comes to rest for good in my old bedroom: Broken treadmill where the dresser used to be. Closest floor stacked high with tax returns. Relic software manuals for Windows 95. A box of baby clothes once destined for Salvation Army, now long forgotten. For the first to go, home does not stay as it was left. The pictures and the cutlery, that vase are never left as you would like them. That doesn‘t change the outcome though: it is every bit as sad as it was billed to be. 27.5 In the part about driving in Durham, the speaker intends to reach the end in ten to fifteen lines, depending on traffic. He plans to go to a trendy downtown bar —maybe Whiskey, maybe Bull McCabe‘s— with his friend who‘s been there once before, who claims to know the way. But nothing ever goes as planned in poems about driving in Durham. The friend, who will remain unnamed, forgets to tell the speaker how there‘s actually two HWY. 15-501s, forgets the speaker needed to take the other one, almost ten miles back. In the part about driving in Durham, night comes too early and the streetlamps are too dim to read the names on signs. The fact that there are signs— lettered, numbered ones he just can‘t read —is infuriating. For the speaker, the part about driving in Durham is like going to the store to pick up milk and bread, only to have an existential crisis in the process. At one point, the Durham part becomes the part about driving toward Butner, which is a completely different part that the speaker hopes no one ever has to write, one filled with mental wards and federal prison. What‘s most important, though, what the speaker wishes to pass on from the part about driving in Durham, is the moment where he asks, with actual panicked fear in his voice, Where are we? and How did we get here? Faulty wires in a foreign car 91.2 lead to dashboard gauges stuck in normal places when they really should be running red, lead to coolant dumping on the highway so the dark ribbon of road has its own darker ribbon of your doing, lead to engine overheating, lead to pistons seizing in their bores, lead to cracked crowns on cylinders number two and number five which, down the proverbial road, lead to a tow truck ride and being told if you’d just replaced that sensor thar you’da saved yerself a couple grand from being spent at Boyd‘s Repair of Winston-Salem. But you don‘t know that yet, don‘t even know that faulty wires in a foreign car (the words of Boyd himself) have led you here, to pulled off, parked on the hard shoulder of a major interstate with hood up and flashers on. Epilogue 88.3 I sit, my house in sight, gear stick pushed in to PARK, seatbelt half-slacked against my chest and lap. Before I turn it off, uncrank the key back towards myself with that same twist of wrist that I would use to lock a door—I hold my breath and listen to it all: the tiny flaring fires inside each piston‘s house, the oscillating mix of pennies, nickels, dimes, and bottle caps I‘ve lost, the console full of them. I listen to the strain of power windows rolling up. How glad I am to push their buttons once again, in this first week of Spring. But most of all, I love to hear the absence of my tires in their still, unmoving state. So like the moment at the end of every symphony when that last cymbal crash has died, decayed, and all that‘s left is the sustain of stings. I listen to that songlike hum of car; that B-flat major chord of pocket change and soft combustion engine chime. Its lack of rubber whine: the sign that‘s telling me that I, at last, am home. Off-Day on the Haw River After a length of a lull that feels like days the bob disappears and the barb finally sticks—the longed-for rush of feeling less deceived than another thing, of hooking something sharp in a place you yourself would not want sharpness, of holding in your hand a sunfish whose red-orange scales stick dry against your palm long after the letting go, the riverward release. But when a catfish breaks the plane of water you realize there is no way to take it off the line without its own barbs burning up and down your arms. We get what we want, then we don‘t. Love Poem with False Rabbit and House Key No one buys a faux-stone rabbit for themselves: when locked out of the house, they reach instead beneath the doormat, the potted plant. At my last place, it was the loose brick in the walkway, unwedged to find the spare sealed in a sandwich bag. Yet yesterday at Lowe‘s, I stopped at shelving overrun with plastic rabbits, birds, and squirrels, machine-molded so their empty insides could be used for hiding keys. Each felt too light and looked to cheap to safeguard everything I own, much less for thirty bucks apiece, their paint jobs little more than small dull dots: some grey, some black, some brown specks splattered on those secret holds. But what they‘re hollowed out to harbor made me think of you, of us. The idea of our brass codes clanging in your purse as you walk to church or when you swipe your frequent shopper card across the scanner at the grocery store— somehow I can‘t bring myself to make a key that‘s yours outright. For now, you‘ll find a copy in the faux-stone rabbit waiting on his haunches by my door. Make sure no one sees you. Let yourself in. After Waking, Apples Come 2 p.m. I find two washed, still wet, their stickers peeled and curled on the countertop. You‘ve left them there, I doubt for me, cold and red beside a halfway-unpacked grocery bag, while you run yet another errand. For half a day I‘ve wallowed in your bed, sleeping off an evening you did not partake in, wisely. I‘m sorry I can only think of the poem where eating someone else‘s fruit—the short one, not John Milton‘s— means I want you. And though that same want haunts me, I know too well that this can‘t be that poem, not yet: I have a laundry list of wrongs and faults that still need your absolving long before we ever get to cold, sweet, and delicious. Learning to Whistle Everything around me shrilled: the splitting Bradford Pears, hail on the tin roof. The hay field sang with the lowing cattle. The middle of July, when the sky was thick with thunderstorms. Taxed and overweight, the wind was too slow to escape even a six-year-old. Finally, caged between my jaws, I toyed with it— a cat with a catch. I delighted as it cried each time I tossed the air through my teeth. Eroica for Samantha Swink I – Allegro con brio Cheerfully animated, red hair, loudness in quiet times, You the first consultant of my self as child. Somewhere in that mind, cellos get the first say After two great booms: always demand attention Before the surest sounding answer ever offered. On 2/5/1997 Chad Stephens called Miss Malone dumb. The Memorizer, I call you, and you inform me: Every phone number you’ve had, the seventh digit was three. O full minded you; none can understand your ways Or wonders. I‘ll trust that we are better for not knowing? The hero from our textbook is teased as a child For his accent, buries himself in books, excels, conquering. The girl with thick red hair, a resident Of Browder MHP, wins five spelling bees. I‘ve locked myself out of the house twice this week. My mind does not work in such a way to recall. You do not have that luxury—what some poet Calls, ―the quality of forgotten-ness.‖ II – Marcia funebre (Adagio assai) The Composer loved the Premier Consul, Not unlike the way in which I love you— Both you and he spent years in deserts; lost. Both could kill and still be loved—characterized by Intense admiration of ability. We—the doomed to repeat European history. Excuse me if, when I think of you, I hear Low brasses which never stop their swelling. Mourning – an act of memory. Each time you returned, something old was lost. I mourned each piece of you that died. Beaten to sleep by your father at night, You pass the terrors by reciting countries, First in order of GDP. Then years since statehood. Sometimes resorting to alphabetical. I thought I remembered Barber at the president‘s funeral But you said it was actually movement II of Symphony III. I had to look it up, you were right. Samantha, I am sorry, you were always right. III – Scherzo (Allegro vivace) You might be a redneck if you tell me, The baby’s father works for NASCAR, at Bowman Grey. Something about Myrtle Beach and high school graduation. Also, The cocaine had been stomped on a little too much. People with high metabolism shouldn‘t do cocaine. An ecstasy tablet means five days sans sleep. Door was locked, but Brigit knew the window was busted. Let herself in. Bitch. You joyrided her Civic though— Back when she could keep a job. Can‘t make payments now. Back at Dollar Tree in Walnut Cove. Didn‘t try To stab you like later. This before the coke. Amazing things could actually get worse. You say you have a good heart and I laugh, not because I disagree (I don‘t), but because I know the story improves: You assaulted the mother of your godson Because she punched your pregnant roommate in the face. Then knocked out her teeth, in sheer spite, Before making a joke about her new Christmas wish list. You might be a redneck if your pregnant roommate Gets punched by the mother of your godson. IV – Finale (Allegro Molto) Mother with child, Napoleon, survivor, The self-apotheosis becomes self-destructive. The First Consul, becoming Emperor, Confirms mortality, dies in exile. For his accent, the great leader is teased as a child. For her crying, the girl is beaten harder. But there is more: For unto you a child is born, Unto you a son is given, Rejoice! Sam, Rejoice! You who wandered off for two full years, Tweaking through the South, passed out on bathroom floors, The Memorizer who cannot recall the three full months That follow graduation, whose nose almost fell off, Held in contempt of court, about a lawyer, Baux Mountain Road, a baby—a baby boy. More than a baby boy: also a new life, clean. You once were lost but now are found, and for it Sam, A child—a hero‘s welcome. Allegro con brio. That old part of you that died we cannot stop to mourn. Polar Bear Exhibit More and more often, he has the nightmare about being Pope. Summer gets too warm away from home: wrapped in white robes, the daily pomp and gawking grows too heavy, an endless parade of visitors who won‘t stop tapping on the glass. Last week, the staff tossed someone out for throwing pennies at his feet. It embarrassed him, how quickly they removed the man, even more the show put on to apologize for pennies. Dense screams of fear and adulation. Sometimes both. Eventually, the same thing happens every time: despite the constant fawning, no one ever touches him. There‘s nothing he wants more. Not even a dead flake of their pink skin lands on his infallibility. When he wakes, he is the Pope no more. When he wakes, there is no end to the wanting. Baseball To you, someone swings, then loafs a bit. The pitcher dawdles. Three up, three down, that lousy song gets piped in—Glory days, glory days. Three pickoffs thrown between each pitch and all called safe. It‘s only boring in the same way William Carlos Williams or The Old Man and the Sea are when, in seventh grade, the teacher assigns them to the class that‘s still too green to understand. In front of us, a runner bluffs, but lags back on a caught ball in left-center. You see such gamesmanship as fruitless tasks. Somehow, you don‘t even care for mascots launching t-shirts out of cannons. I ask you to consider the rosary of Ks along the concourse wall, the religious din with every added bead. The significance seems lost. I resist the urge to speak to you like adults speak to children, because I hope someday you‘ll see: the story isn‘t about fishing. He wasn‘t really sorry for the plums at all. Off-Day on the Haw River Reprise I don‘t care that even though I put the losing side of my new haircut on the roses last night, the deer still cleaned the stems by morning. I don‘t care that she and I sleep almost as if married now, which is both good and bad. The same goes for the ambiguity in its being both. I don‘t even care that the all-star game, in all its false wholesomeness, is on TV tonight, and my team might win for the first time in twelve years. Light is dying the sheet of river slipping down the spillway orange and I just lifted a small dun turtle out of the shallows. I keep it warm in my open palm. When it unshells itself there thirty minutes later, the pane of water is back to being brown, my team is five runs down, she and I still seem strange and the deer are hungry again. But in my hand, something feels more cared for than before. At least one small wish I make gets granted. Notes ―Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat nor Gloom of Night‖ The section describing the evolution of postal worker uniform adornment was based on ―Letter Carriers‘ Uniform: Overview,‖ a text published by the United States Postal Service in 2002. ―Stephen Hawking‖ The scientific theory mentioned in stanza one is known as Bekenstein-Hawking radiation. ―Sabremetrics‖ is the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball through objective analysis. ―The 500 Mile Long Poem‖ The section that begins ―In the part about driving in Durham‖ was inspired by Alan Michael Parker‘s poem, ―The Vandals‖. ―Eroica‖ Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 3 in E flat minor, commonly known as the Eroica Symphony, was originally composed as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte. When Bonaparte made himself Emperor of France, Beethoven scratched Napoleon‘s name from the score with a knife, in disgust over the man‘s transformation into a tyrant. Beethoven then rewrote the title as ―Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.‖ The quote attributed to ―some poet‖ was taken from the notes to Robert Pinsky‘s Gulf Music.
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