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Poems about America (pt. 1) | Poetry from the Road, San Francisco to New Orleans

Updated on January 23, 2015

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.

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

The route me and three friends took across the country.  Nights spent in Phoenix, El Paso, Austin, New Orleans, Atlanta, Richmond, D.C., and New York.  Memories made in many cities and places in between,
The route me and three friends took across the country. Nights spent in Phoenix, El Paso, Austin, New Orleans, Atlanta, Richmond, D.C., and New York. Memories made in many cities and places in between, | Source

(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.  

California is my country.
California is my country.

(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

"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

(Original photo credit to my good friend, Sarah)
(Original photo credit to my good friend, Sarah)

(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

(Original photo credit to my fellow traveler, Sarah)
(Original photo credit to my fellow traveler, Sarah)

(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.  

Mexico/Texas Fence

(A poem about West Texas)

Cowboy Ghetto

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

(Original photo credit to the exceptionally artistic Sarah)
(Original photo credit to the exceptionally artistic Sarah)

(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

(Original photo credit to the ever inspirational Sarah)
(Original photo credit to the ever inspirational Sarah)

(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

(Original photo credit to the SUPER jazzy Sarah)
(Original photo credit to the SUPER jazzy Sarah)

(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.  

The Gulf Coast in Alabama

(Thanks for all the original photos, Sarah!)
(Thanks for all the original photos, Sarah!)

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