Extract: American Pop, Vol. 2 — The South

A paperback edition of American Pop is now available on Amazon

Introduction

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

Some
Unanticipated
Cornbread

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

Horseradish
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
Clean

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

Unauthorized

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.

She

Mother of Exiles, with silent lips
Her name the imprisoned lightning, 
        the homeless tempest,
                the sea-washed, sunset flame

(Send these to me)
Give me your tired, your huddled lamp,
Your torch, yearning to breathe free.

Mighty Woman, with brazen eyes
Whose beacon glows golden from ancient lands

Stand, like a conquering giant
At the gates that wretched masses command

(Refuse the colossus with world-wide hand)

And keep teeming.


From The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus. 

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

Jenny

Part I

Down empty hallways I trudge alone
And glance with half-shut eyes through half-shut doors
At classrooms of a sort, though teacherless, and turbulent,
Like unwatched pots, brimming with sound and solidness.
The self-assured flood out as school bells chime
Crashing into walls and lockers,
Leaving now no trace of order,
Overturning, overcrowding, overrunning, overcoming…
Down beneath the surge it presses
My broken, malformed, twisted frame
And with what strength I’ve left I struggle
To reach a hand above the foam.

Blindly grasping, vainly gasping, I and all my hopes are drowned
Yet even as the flood consumes me, a hand engulfs my own.
Then up from out the churning chaos, up from out the crushing deep
I rise, and all that former flood fades formless down beneath.
Free at last, from solitude and solidness
Soaring hand in hand, or soul in soul
As though Aphrodite with Adonis
Ascending to the music of the spheres.
But as we climb through air and fire
The vision falters, fades, fails,
And waking, through half-shut eyes I shed a single tear,
Not, I think, for what I’ve lost, but for that I was found.

In day or dream I tread the selfsame concrete pavement
Mapping spiderwebs of cracks by memory
That by looking down I might pass on unseen
By others, and thus perhaps myself.
But now I raise my eyes in some weird hope
And let the tumult thunder over me,
A flood, if less chaotic, no less fantastic
Frozen in the infinitude of an instant,
The eternity of a momentary glance.
Vertigo on the brink of the abyss
The heavens contained in two souls
And in two pairs of eyes, the firmament.

Here is my waking Adonis, my living Arthur
Here is the sunrise, the sunset, the sun itself
Here are the fixed stars, no wavering devotion
Here is love; here is beauty; here is the king.
The king of silent surety, conqueror of chaos
The king of love, of light, of liberation
The king of the air, no, king of the ether
The king of an infinite fullness
A fullness of mind
A fullness of soul
A fullness of heart
A fullness of love, a moment lasting forever.

Part II

We dance in the light of the sun
Pirouetting in great circles.
The stars shine down upon us
Performing a silent symphony.
Harmony of motion, two bodies locked in rhythm
Falling ever towards each other,
Yet missing, to great delight and spinning ever on,
Shining with laughter, singing melodies of love.
To dream or to wake seem no different,
For day and night swirl together in the dance
And all that once was discordant is united;
In the symphony of heaven all is one.

One feels hope in the sunrise, or else fear
One feels fate in the sunset, or else relief
And in sunrise on sunset, a day seized or day lost
And in sunset on sunrise, a night to remember or forget
But not I. Not in love.
Sunset or sunrise makes no difference
Not in love, not for me.
Sunset and sunrise are no different.
Each is joy, each is laughter
Each reminds us we turn
Each propels us on faster
Each summons us near.

The sunset and the sunrise each define the world’s horizon,
The unattainable ideal, the finite infinitude
He is the possible impossible, the ultimate quest
Always in view, always out of reach, always made new.
To love is to strive, to seek out, to pursue
And in striving, to find not an end, but a call
For an end ends striving, and ends love therein
But a call calls to strive, and to strive to be called
So love never dies, though the sun seems to nightly,
For ever it strives to be called to strive
And seek the far horizon, that falls away
But ever holds, and never shall be won.

Clearest of all is the water’s edge, a sunset on a lake
The crisp, perpetual curvature that never may be reached
Here is my great chevalier, hight Launcelot du Lac
The pinnacle of Courtesy, against whom all is gauged.
He is the horizon in its most essential form
The purest call for which to strive,
The perfect object to be loved
Ever at the end of sight, ever at the limit of desire.
To the water’s edge
I set my course.
The horizon has taken me,
And I now it shall take.

Part III

With step determined now I pace
Across the hall to meet my king
Chevalier, who planted stands
And meets my gaze unwavering,
But as I near, my heart is rent
In two: for ever as I close
My Arthur fades to simple, “he
Who made Sir Launcelot.” And now
I slow, and turn aside, and mumble
Faint apology. “I thought — “
But no, I hadn’t that, I knew;
And counting steps I steal away.

Pygmalion’s snare I deftly tripped
For Arthur had I never loved,
But only ever Launcelot,
My sculpture brought in dream to life.
As Agravaine the secret broke
And shattered with it Camelot
I knew in knowing I had sealed
My fate in love for good. But no!
Du Lac I love as e’re before
And strive the more persistently
To reach what he was meant to be
Though unmoored now of Adonis.
No man particular do I love
But man as Form to which I strive
What is it, then, I love at all?
An object of my own creation?
To love, I know is but to strive,
But striving sets a wider tent
So that to strive may not mean love
Though loving ever means to strive.
To ideal man I set my course
To reach the unattainable
To water’s edge I struggle up
To stretch a grasping hand above.

From element to element
From water’s pressing weight I strive
To free myself and shed this form
This broken, malformed solidness.
To strive to be and to become —
But then to be alone again?
No. For this I will not strive;
An Adonis will I procure
Though Camelot be myth and lore
And Arthur lost forevermore
Some other hand will pull me up
From water to the firmament.

Part IV

Striding, off-balance
I glide along the hall
Like some other girl
Entirely. This is who I am.
A huntress, indiscriminate
A hawk, hovering, circling, menacing
And then —
A target!
I strike with unforeseen ferocity
Bending my ever unfamiliar form
In a harsh burlesque
Sinking my talons into my prey.

Clawing, grasping, pushing
We tumble into an empty classroom
Half-closing the door with my foot,
Never letting go
Clutching, tearing, pressing
Never fully seeing
Through half-closed eyes
Blindly writhing on a cluttered desk
Thrusting, squirming, gasping
A broken pencil digging
Into the small of my back.
And then at last he falls limp.

I push his half-dressed body to the side — Asleep —
And wrap my aching limbs in haste
Dragging one foot after the other to the hall.
Every inch a mile
Every step my last
Somehow I stagger on — Detached —
If I could cry, or even vomit, I would
But my body is not my own
Mordred has claimed it,
And now lies dead with Arthur.

Home at last, I heave my still-clothed
Haggish bones into the bath,
Fumble desperately for the faucet,
And run the water hot.
Cold as ice it spurts forth
Clenching every muscle in my body
But already am I too numb to notice
And soon enough it warms.
Waves of pain wash over me,
As my knotted flesh unravels
And fitfully, I drift away
Beneath the churning flood.

Part V

Through darkness down my outstretched toes
Reach sand, seaweed, something sharp
And grinding in, they find a footing
To push and rise through murky depths
Innumerable fathoms with no hint of light
Past the sinking, solid, self-assured
And into ever lesser pressure
Until at last a sunbeam pierces through.
At this I muster what I’ve left
Of strength to struggle — to strive —
And stretch a hand against all hope
To break the rolling waves.

Now Bedivere, that faithful kern,
I hear upon the brink
Take up the sword of Arthur king
To hurl it to the lake
But now he waits, as if to save
His sovereign from his death
And waits again, a second time
To hold a memory.
Now third, a graceful, glinting arc
He draws with Arthur’s blade
And at the water’s edge I catch
And brandish Caliburn.

As to the water they Arthur bear,
So up from out the deep I rise
The once and future king are we,
He king that was, I that shall be.
But as I climb through air and fire
To planets and the firmament
Again the vision steals away
As the shower loses heat.
And waking, I cast about
For light: the sun has set.
I dry, and change my sopping clothes
And offer silent prayer.

Into bed I ease my throbbing, ghastly
Broken frame, and shut my eyes.
Rest now, perhaps,
To sleep without dreams
Unperturbed, undisturbed,
Unconscious.
But as I drift
I seem to rise
Soaring again to the heavens
Floating into the sweet embrace of
Slumber
At last.