Extract: American Pop, Vol. 2 — The South

A paperback edition of American Pop is now available on Amazon


There is a story of how this book came to be, which to some extent is the book itself. American Pop is a document of myself in a journey across the United States or a document of myself creating that document, and so that story is told already in a certain way. What is missing is the decision, the choice to make this book the book that it is, instead of a different book. And the choice was simple, I wanted to write a book of haiku. These are poems meant to capture an image or a scene, and so there was the need for subjects to capture, but the book is not about these subjects and is not about America, but is simply a collection of poems. Poetry can be forgiven the need to be about something if it remains simply a poem, but even then the best subject for a poem is a thing that can only be found interesting in that poem. I thought I might find these subjects if I kept moving. In a home everything takes on the sort of mundane importance that is anathema to good poetry. Of course anything can become a poem but useful things do not lend themselves to the purpose. Moving there is only one subject that remains and it is the self, which already holds interest only through the self, or through the poet, or through the poem. And the new things and the changing things are not yet known and therefore only interesting in the beholding, in subjectivity, in the poem. There is a progression. The journey is for the subjects, the subjects are for the poems, and this is how the book came to be.

Birmingham, AL

In parking there comes
A certain uncertainty
A lack of balance

Through apartment windows
She watches
The flower pots of other people's lives


The bristles of his
Chin, a finger picking
Listlessly at a pimple

Sixteen individual eyeballs
I picture them
Lying unattended at the bar

In the corner booth
A bisected head
I watch it chewing from the nose up

Sky blue wall
Chipping off to cloud
White underneath

A face (the shadow of a face)
Stretching and distorting
On the cafe wall

Spring is a hotness
And a sweltering
And a sudden shuddering coldness

Athens, GA

And perhaps
Maybe after all it is only
The ugliness of a dying winter

But here in the
Loudness of the bar
I am made small

It is a declarative
Laugh, as if to say only
I am laughing, hear me laugh

Charlie the dog is still waiting
For a table, but has his spot
In the shade and a bowl of water

The problem is always
Not to order two items
From the breakfast menu

A man with an accordion stands checking his phone. He is what can only be described as forlorn. As you walk away you hear a few bars of music and then there is silence again. On campus there are flowers and the songs of birds but they are the first of spring in the last of winter, are false. A boy and a girl lie wrapped around each other in the new grass, the bell rings. It is an older man who rings the bell, later you do not see who it is but the bell rings again. There are leaves again on the trees and they are dancing in the wind, swaying hand in hand to the song of Spring. The boy's fingers play at the hem of her shirt, inching it up over her stomach and the small of her back. You leave them behind. Spring is only ever a hard memory. Holding her hand on a bright day in April and the way she looked at you. An interrupting bee. Spring is a memory you wake up to after a winter of forgetfulness, but it is only a memory. You remember them now, tracing the curves of each other's bodies softly and silently. Spring is a symphony of gentle but furtive movements, but there hangs over today something of the stillness of winter. From across the street you hear again the accordion, but it is faint and overcome by the sound of traffic.

Charleston, SC

The First Clam

The first clam
Is the plunge, open mouthed
Into the icy Atlantic

The Second Clam

I have not had
A second clam
And do not believe in them

The Third Clam

A third clam
Is a possibility
An induction

The Fourth Clam

Here there is tearing
There can be a new experience
Because there has been experience

The Fifth Clam

A morning kiss
You had been sleeping
You had fallen asleep

The Sixth Clam

Now there is a smaller fork
I have already forgotten you

Asheville, NC

In the bookstore
There is the desire only
To be a bookseller

A bookstore is
The remembering of a bookstore
A rediscovery

Until just now
When you said it
I did not realize
How much I hated
The phrase
Magical Realism

Desiccated leaf
Perched like a sleeping dove
On the barren branch

We have cast off
Our bedclothes and lie undressed
In the heat of a still Spring night

I curl into myself
Skin against skin
Swaddled in the thickness of the night

There is never
The memory of
Falling asleep

Short ascending
Scale, the percussion
Of a falling ice cube

Charlottesville, VA

The doughnut
Soft with heat
Fresh from the bubbling oil

T h   e   pow  d e re d
S      u g   a   r
I s    m e l  t  i   n  g

Yes, but
There remains a question
Of eating these

I am an interruption
However brief
In an empty museum

The protest
Is a polaroid
An image of all protests

In as much as it is clean
In as much as it is kept

Charleston, WV

No one knows
What happened, the
Night they boarded up the church

There's maybe five
Quarters left in the register
But I can give you some ones

You'd think they'd
Go out west
Follow the setting sun

But this is not a town
It is the harassed of winter
Huddled around a solitary flame

We can forgive them
Their petty penury
But not, perhaps, their grace

Louisville, KY

The Spring sun
Peeks out again
After a sudden flurry

Even the red breast
Of the robin is dimmed and dull
In the gray of this insistent winter

But it is at least the kind
Of beer, that, in being difficult
To drink, draws out an evening

Is there a
Splinter in
My thumb?

We cannot start over again
Spring is begun or beginning
And all the guests have already arrived

Nashville, TN

In the coffee shop
A boy in white dances
To the music of Ella Fitzgerald

His shoulders spread
To the far corners of the ceiling
An architectural installation of a man

An old woman, with only
A withered and arthritic
Hold on her own womanhood

In dark down jackets
Twin boys of five or six
Sipping identical frappucinos

The coffee and (oh) the donut
Are evidently meant to be
A secret, but as things stand

He forgot these
Here he is now
He has remembered them

And here they are
Now at the end of things
And you are not them
And we are not them
But they are themselves
And that is enough

Spontaneous Prose, Experiment No. 4

First it is a sound on the stairs, a sound coming down the stairs, and then around the corner it is a boy, a small boy it is you. Around the couch, the two-couch. I am up and coming to meet you before you are around this couch and I realize your little brother woke you up. Yes he did you say when I ask. Back around the couch now, that couch I could lie on end to end and curl my toes and touch the arm with my head at the other end, yes back around and then we are on another couch. You must have climbed up because I only remember us sitting together and never carrying you no not carrying. On the couch now sitting up on two pillows with a little gap between us and your little arm on the arm of the couch with your feet dangling not really off the edge but off the edge of the pillows. And there should be your mom but there isn't there is just me and do you know where she is? Now I can see how tired you are, and how strong you are and she is at the hospital giving birth to your baby sister and again you are just so tired. There is only one light on in the room and it is soft. Bright enough to read and I was reading or starting to read because tonight how could anyone sleep and I think you agree. And you want a stuffed animal but I can't find the right one so we decide to read a book. Tonight is a night for reading and waiting and not sleeping and so all we can do with ourselves is find a book and in the end we find three. We are sitting again with a little space and two pillows and before I had my arm behind you but now I am holding the books and we are reading the first one. There was a moment in the stillness where I knew I loved you the most. Now we are both yawning and I have some heartburn and it is slow reading but we are both doing our best. We fold into each other during the second book and I almost think you might fall asleep here on the couch but then it is The End and there is a third book and we are sitting apart again. This book is a poem and at the end there is a song and across the room is a piano but I don't bring it up and now I think it is time for bed. And up the stairs we go but do you want to walk up or do you want to be carried. Carried but in your room you want to climb the ladder to your bunk. Holding you now it is not like holding you before it is a sleepy hug and a softness and then you have an owl and I am pulling up your new quilt. Up to your chin and you curl in your feet and there is just so much bed and so little boy and there is a memory of crawling the length of a bed under the covers and being hidden or of hiding the world and the bed was a world and it is good night. 

Spontaneous Prose, Experiment No. 3

There is a pain in my side and it reminds me of Paul, or Christ, or maybe Arthur if I am thinking of you. And I am thinking of you, of course, but still it reminds me most of Paul. There are many people with the same name, this is something you will learn. Right now your grandmother is driving to Mesa to meet you, or at least to be with your mother, and your brothers. She is in pain too and so I am thinking of her and maybe there is a parallel to be drawn but this isn't that sort of poem. She is in a different sort of pain, something she shares with you and your grandmother and maybe your brothers but not with me, because that is the way of things. And what do we share. Maybe in the end you won't turn out anything like me, and maybe that will be ok. But your middle name is Elaine and yes there are many people with the same name and maybe you don't have to be that Elaine but you need to at least know that I have been. Right now it is denim jackets and I want to hit myself. My grandmother asks me if I am nervous and I do not know about what. About the baby. No I am excited but I don't think I'm nervous and mostly I just hope she comes before you leave and Becky leaves. Did you come before then? I don't know yet. You certainly came early, almost six months early. I said to start trying three months early because of statistics but also I said this nine months too late, and it didn't matter anyway. Your parents wanted a summer baby and maybe after all it is only the time of year. Do you know they picked your name waiting for a table? They said they liked a name but many people have the same name and then there was another name that sounded the same and this was your name, Avalon. I think I will call you Ava, this is what I have decided, or Ave, but what will I call you when I hold you for the first time? My niece, and what am I. Increasingly I am realizing I will never be over her. I thought today, how often do I think about her. Only now, and then, but mostly I forget. Enough, and that is enough. I am looking into a mirror and hoping I see her. And if I turn away, I don't remember that part of the story. Someday you will read it and remind me, but for now you are only someday, you are not today. I do not remember you, but I am ready to remember you. 

Spontaneous Prose, Experiment No. 2

I do not know how to touch you, or rather, I do not know how to begin to touch you, and so we stand, not touching, half a yard apart, angled away from each other, our arms hanging at our sides, exchanging our half goodbyes. I stood here waiting for you outside the bakery bookstore only a few hours before, remembering a podcast about how to look cool waiting for someone. They had the Fonz give advice. I was wearing a denim jacket and while I wasn't holding a book I could have picked one up if I saw you coming. There was one book in particular I wanted to be holding, because I wanted you to read it, because I wanted to buy it for you. In the end we both found our own books and bought them, and this was for the best. We never really said we'd meet at ten but you said you'd text me in the morning and maybe we'd get breakfast at ten and when ten came you texted me and had slept in. I had not slept. But this is because I sleep too much, and would have slept long past any breakfast if I had allowed myself to sleep. When we part ways you seem sad, sad for me, something like pity but altogether not like pity. This is how it was the last time we said goodbye, and this was how it was when we met this morning. It is a tenderness. And maybe that is enough. Your sadness is unapproachable, and I feel only an ebullient hope. There are no long silences in our conversation but our words are sparse, and I cannot always hear you. You ask me to come outside with you like you are a child with a secret and it excites me like it did the first time we met, even though I know you are only asking me to join you for a cigarette. Here we stand at a greater distance than we will stand when we part, and I find myself sweating through my jacket in the sun of a warm December day, the sort of day I remember most Christmases being. There is a burning and then at some point it comes to an end. We pass by the sale tables outside the bookstore, and I leave a certain book unmentioned, or maybe I mention it, but we don't stop to take a look. A Marquez is on sale, and this diverts us for a moment but it is a hardcover and this is when I learn you have nerve damage. Once you said you wanted to be a Kerouac or maybe a Didion but it hurt too much now to write and I didn't know what you meant, but not knowing it sounded very poetic, and so I liked the sound of it. Because there is a melancholy about you I do not understand. And maybe it is because for so many years I played the doomed lover that I am so happy to find someone as blue as you. And I am very happy. But I message other people on okcupid. One girl asks me to talk dirty and all I can talk about is cum and I give up. I talk to boys and feel so deliciously gay that I forget for awhile the strange quiet of our conversations and all the things it makes me feel, but in the end that is unforgettable. I find myself after dusk at another bookstore in an unfamiliar part of town, where in between standup comedians and hiphop artists I read a simple poem about an old man in the last days of fall. As the night passes into further night without end I think to leave but then there are two girls who sing and for those five minutes.

Spontaneous Prose, Experiment No. 1

You hear on that phone that your grandfather — your mother hears on that phone that her father — has had the necrotic tissue evacuated from a wound in his leg and is now bound from ankle to mid thigh and unable to shower. Later you know she is on the phone with him again because she asks if he needs someone to come over to wash his hair. He is unable to work and winter is settling in. There has already been snow and he is building a house. He may move to this house. For as immovable an object as he is or is in my imagination he has moved before, and this house is only next door to the house he lives in now. In my life there have been two houses. There have been many houses, but only two that could be called his own. The first was in mennonite country. Vegetable stands and horse and buggies. Visiting my grandfather in this house was visiting a different world, or maybe the same world but a different time. He is not a twenty-first century man, or even a twentieth century man. He is a builder of houses. Nevertheless he has an iPad and can facetime us whenever he wants. This is his first computer, but his second e-reader. In that first house I came to know my grandfather as a reader of mystery books and westerns, but it turns out this was because they were the books available in large type and at low prices. Once we visited the book shop where he traded in old books and it was not the sort of book shop I have since come to love. When his eyes were better he read every book there was to read. He pronounces Les Miserables "Less Miserables" but this is because he is the man he is. Now he is connected to the New York City public library and can read all the books there are left to read. At the first house there was a dog. This was the first animal my oldest sister ever loved, and perhaps the only dog, because she is allergic. I myself barely remember this dog. His new house which he has lived in for probably a decade now is on a lake, maybe a finger lake because that is where he lives but I cannot be sure. If he moves into the house he is building now, if he finishes it enough before winter, he will have a better view of the lake because it is farther from the lake and therefore on higher ground. He must finish it, because he is a builder of houses. But also he must finish it because it would cost too much to hire someone else to finish it. This is the time of year when grapes are in season, fall on the brink of winter, and he buys a basket a day all for himself, and we are all very jealous, until we visit him and find grapes are still in season and have a basket for ourselves. Then comes the slipping off of skins and the swallowing of seeded, concord grapes. There is a contrast to be made between the skin of his hands and the skin of the grapes they pluck. I have always wanted hands like his, rough, stony, but the best I will get is chalk stains or dry erase or graphite smears. Like all my grandparents and like me, my grandfather studied mathematics in college, but he was married at 18 and had a family to raise, and he is a builder of houses. This is who he is, who he must be. Then there are the wineries. We visit these, when we visit him, and an aeronautics museum. In the wineries you fall in love with the scent of oak and fermenting grapes and fear that you will become an alcoholic but instead you become a writer. When you visit now there are still oak casks and dusty racks of champagne bottles but more and more there are towering vats of steel, and only the scent of wine, with nothing intermingled. There is also the small town of Canandaigua, where Bob Cooley knows everyone and everyone knows Bob Cooley. He even helped renovate the library, the Wood Library, which is made of brick. There is no retirement for this man, because he is a builder of houses, but also because his savings have been drained by his heroin addict daughter. A few of his children still live nearby. Once he rented a room out to his ex wife, my grandmother. He eats watermelon with salt. Or ate watermelon with salt. Now his heart is failing and I do not know if he eats salt.


There’s a story you’re afraid to tell, of nuance you’ve conquered at last and feel you might cede in the telling, that when you’re a scared little autistic kid, and your parents make it clear that being gay is monstrous, let alone being trans (if you even know the word), sometimes you simply take up the burden you feel obliged to bear. You feel a loss as you age out of companionship with your sisters’ friends, but accept it as a fact of life (you must make your own); you delight in the upper range of your voice and mourn its imminent—inexorable—deepening; you feel, not so much unwelcome in female spaces, as undeserving of admission, unauthorized. As you enter puberty, you feel ashamed not only of your attraction to other boys (for which you know you should) but also to girls (but you never understand), and with that shame you feel as though your last ties to the world of women have been cut, and the scissors are in your hand. You don’t walk around telling yourself, “I’m a girl,” because it implies belonging, and you know you don’t belong. But there’s a voice somewhere saying it anyway, and each time it repeats you forget the last, dismiss it. You make the friends you feel you are allowed, boys, with whom much attraction can be recoded as identification, and become terrified not of girls, but of yourself around them, reinterpreting any identification as uncontrollable desire. You become at once the monster at the gate and the keeper of the keys, layering onto your repressed dysphoria something both like and unlike it, a new myth to one day be reexamined, reevaluated, reconstructed. And you wonder, in telling the story, whether you will ever let yourself belong, whether you, on your own, even can.

A Very Serious Arthurian Poem

There once was alongside Excalibur,
A spear, christened Ron, of its caliber
But though Monmouth protested,
T.H. White it detested,
And so Ron is quite out’f the vernacular