Poems about America (pt. 1) | Poetry from the Road, San Francisco to New Orleans
The Poetry of Driving Across America
Cross country road trips are a national rite of passage among America's youth; an affirmation of freedom and an exploration of the vast and beautiful land that is our uniquely varied nation. There is a poetry in the coast to coast drive. A people's memory born of mythology, from the Oregon Trail to Manifest Destiny, to the tragedies of indigenous annihilation and naturalistic degradation, to the great indescribable remaining beauty of the people and places that make up America.
Table of Contents
Recently, I completed the trip from California to New York City by car, taking the southern route and experiencing places as varied as Tucson, Austin, New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and the Nation's Capital. This collection of poems was written during my travels, mostly from the passenger seat of our savior the Flatland Express (the loving named given to my friend's car as we labored through West Texas). They are based on first impressions and in-depth research, my life experiences new and old, my continued education, and many other things, but should only be taken as my perspective on any given place rather than that place's truth. Enjoy.
Our Cross Country Road-trip Route
(A poem about California)
Cheating on California
There are no good songs called "leaving California" because no one in their right mind ever does. This is the promised land, the Golden coast; our fore-mothers traveled by horse and wagon to taste the Pacific air. Too ancient to be fresh, too clean to be perfect; dripping with so much humanity, lyrics painted across it's face and a band of forested hills and salty, life giving water, beating drums that ring "plenty," or more than anyone could ever ask for. California is everything you think it is. Do I wax ideal? Do I speak false idols? Of course; this is why we never leave. To return and see the layers beneath, the starving children gilded with Hollywood signs they can't eat, the mothers and fathers who fear gunshots. From police and policed. To wake up after your travels and see California's darkness; paradise lost, innocence irreconcilable. This is why we never leave. I've done the drive from San Francisco to L.A. a hundred times too many. But this is the last time I'll see the 5 before I see New Orleans; the last time I'll taste the Pacific before Gulf Winds tussle my hair. All I hope is she will love me still, after I sleep around and realize she's what they all told me; the best lover in town. And that she will look the same after my eyes travel far. I'll keep California dreamin; I love the darkness too. The Gilded state, "a bubble" waiting to burst from split earth or angry masses or Sodom style extinction. You will never find a perfect woman; you will never find a perfect land. Goddamit if my home country isn't close. Take a walk in the redwoods. Thank providence for what you have. Write a script called "show me better." California is everything you think it is.
(A poem about Arizona)
A Tombstone Outside Phoenix, Arizona
The Arizona desert is like an ugly girl with pretty eyes; something so enchanting buried in her pox marked plainness that you won't look away. I tried to count the cactus arms for an hour, giving up somewhere between 1000 and "What's a number, anyway?" Where poetry finds defeat and sings "enlightenment." "I am enlightened!" The poet shouts, while counting cacti and thinking of women. "I matter," he whispers, comically, voice swallowed by enchanting deserts and uncounted cactus flowers. And a ring of God cut mountains, staring back, answers surely, "We will bury you in this desert soon."
The Arizona Desert
(A poem about New Mexico)
Diamond Desert Skies
New Mexico isn't flat enough to get lost in; the horizon teases us with mountains too large to fade into anonymity, too small to offer much solace for heavy eyes. I give in again, just for long enough to regain consciousness, nodding off into warm nothingness. And awake to the cold nothing of moonage landscapes in late December. The beauty here is perfect and fleeting; mountains that rise too quickly from the tumbleweeds before losing momentum and leveling off in cartoonish plateaus, or cresting in earthen waves in shapes of dusty wizard's hats. A cracked wooden skeleton from Old New Mexico, covered in crumbling, stubborn adobe that was a home once, before this highway with it's cold concrete wrote a well received manifesto called "the problem with impermanence." A never ending sunset coming to it's end, painting purple and royal blue slipping grasps ahead of us. Holding on strong still in a golden clutch of immortality behind, begging us to turn around and come home to the Golden West where the sun never sets until it does. A baby calf, following mom in for the night. A smile on his face to rest at last. And then a perfect lasting night, the beauty of the flat lands after dark. An untouchable stillness that not even our steel monster can break. And a blanket of stars above like a barrel of diamonds dropped in a still mountain lake. Falling forever, slowly. Glistening still.
Sunset in New Mexico
(A poem about Juarez, Mexico)
"Don't Feed The Animals"
I could reach out and touch Juarez, if not for the chain link fence between me and the stone's throw of empty space someone once called "them." There is no touch here. No matter how I stretch my arm, a chain fence keeps that world just out of reach. I'm glad no one stands on the other side. The chain links then would look like glass, a window at the zoo where a sign reads "Do Not Feed the Animals." I'm not sure I could be certain, with a man in Juarez reaching back, which side of the glass I am on.
(A poem about West Texas)
If I had a guitar, I'd write a career's worth of Cowboy Songs on the long stretch of road from El Paso to Austin, Texas. Instead, I stare out the window, waiting for Clint Eastwood to arrive by horseback. Damsel slung over his saddle, cigarillo clutched between his teeth. This is Vaquero country; Towns too old for time to forget, where the train doesn't stop these days, and the ghosts have long since packed up and headed for civilization. "Don't follow us any further," Clint calls back from atop his tired companion. "There is no romance left here." The cattle have moved on too, wrangled one last time by wayward spirits who gave up on West Texas when the Rodeo stopped coming through. I can see signs of stragglers still, hunkered in wheel-less R.V.'s from the Eisenhower era. Braced against the chill of Texas winter, hiding from the smirking sun and barbed wire wind. Anywhere else this town we pass through would be called a "ghetto." As crumbled as the dirtiest city street; Harder to escape than Warsaw circa 1942. I can't help but wonder, and regret my judgement while I do: what happened to the spirit of this town's ancestors? They who rode across prairies in search of riches and freedom and a better life. Am I an elitist for wondering: Why does anyone stay in West Texas? The Cowboys are gone; this is desolate country now. Clint won't be riding through again. These walls keep out less wind every year, these roofs offer no solace from summer sun. Looking out the window with no Cowboy songs to sing, I think of my youth in a town not too different form this one. Of my dreams of flight, of my plans to stick out a thumb and end up anywhere else but a town like this in the puzzling world of West Texas.
(A Poem about Austin, Texas)
In the Court of the Wayward Hipster
I'm not sure how long people have been living in Austin; I just got here. Everyone is so young they could have moved in last week for all I know. Maybe Austin was built in a day; Texan style, intelligently designed by the Jesus Christ of Later Day independent music and cheap beer. But this river is so old! It flows so strong and wide like the page of a book, and I see written on its face the stories of a hundred generations of young boys skipping rocks, milk cows drinking deeply, families escaping the heat and leaving the farm work to wait another day. I step onto a wine bar's patio and have to blink twice and pinch my cheek to be sure I'm not dreaming, or somehow missed a step and tripped through time and space, landing on my face in Greenwhich Village, 1961. Austin is where other cities should go to school to learn what the American City is and should be. I step into a beer bar's wailing embrace, A Texan flag above the door, leather bull in the corner. The guitar chords rumbling and star spangled libations flowing cheaper than Texas Gasoline. Whatever you think you know about the lonestar state, You are wrong until you drink a beer in an Austin bar at midnight.
Austin Skyline and Colorado River
(A poem about Louisiana)
The Louisiana Special
The Louisianan state line hits you in the face like a punch in the face. No use for metaphors here, no way they'd survive anyhow. Texas is over; the swamps have come. "If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you stronger" the sign should say. Instead, there are pictures of snakes and alligators, creepy crawly warnings that mean "people shouldn't live here." That they do makes me wonder who the bastard was, tough or crazy, who wandered into this poisonous otherworld and decided to build a house. And makes me thankful for that tough and crazy bastard who did, In a morbid and curious way that you wouldn't expect to feel, staring into a field of dangerous mud. Whatever these swamps mean, I feel I know something more about mystery, having met them. The stillness of this swamp hasn't and won't be defeated.
The Louisiana Swamp
(A poem about New Orleans, Louisiana)
Play on, Louis
NOLA at noon is a trumpet solo that never ends; so much life and confidence that you can't stop your toes from tapping the short stories of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Washboard Chaz. The art that lines this square is shaded with a hand that remembers hurricanes, British, French, Spanish soldiers, river boats and lingering voodoo, fine cousine from corner carts, one way streets and A.M. Julips. The walls that line this church remember more than any walls I have ever known.
New Orleans always will be because New Orleans always has been.
Street Musicians in New Orleans
(A poem about New Orleans, Louisiana)
New Year's Eve, New Orleans
Pull out a handful of your hair the size of a baseball, light it on fire and throw it at an infant; douse him in urine until the screams fade. Snort a line of firecracker gunpowder, and go for a swim in a lake of mall kiosk hot sauce. What's that floating by? A bignet? An empty plastic barroom pitcher coated in daquiri residue and vomit from the game? A trombone player who no one can distinguish from that booming brassline floating beside him, the trumpets flashing, saxaphone's swinging like a broken door hinge? In any case, grab on to it and hold for dear life: You now have some idea of New Year's Eve in New Orleans.
The drinks are flowing like the mighty Mississippi; deep and dirty, with no end in sight, and you can't remember the last time you paid for one. Everyone is talking, no one is listening, no body cares: the words are all the same. "Fuck it, let's party" until the swamps come home, until the ball drops and then some, until no one can accuse us of living empty lives; our victory painted in so many shades of liquor and exuberant, all encompassing, all demanding, all rewarding life. Undeniable, irrefutable, uncompromising, the end times are upon us, and the bell tolls for those who burn the midnight oil, sounding the international call of apocalypse and rebirth; those heralds, calling joyously, "The Bacchanalian is upon us!"
(A poem about Alabama)
Coastal Crescendos of an Avian Nature
At first I thought the Gulf Coast was quiet; this ocean is different than the one I know, and much more separates the two than fifteen hundred miles of desert and mountain. I look into the murky water, searching for alligators or lost treasure that Huck dropped overboard. There is something down there I can not see, this much I take on faith. As my mind and eye wanders and I dream of Pacific waves, a violin hits a high C over my shoulder. A G rings out; so familiar, so perfect. I see the cello who sounded this note fly low and dip it's wing in the still water, playing games or looking for fish. And then, an orchestra; a crescendo of voices from the stillness, a thousand birds, hiding in brush. They were always here, I just didn't hear their symphony. Too busy looking for something I knew; too worried about what I couldn't find hidden in murky waters where waves don't crest. "Open your eyes," a friend once told me, "If you can't find peace in nature, you are doing something wrong." "Open your ears," I could now respond. Stillness has a place in this master work. In every quiet coast, there's a song waiting.