I meant to publish an old poem every other week or so, but just realized it’s been almost two months since I posted the last. Part of the reason is that I spilled water on my laptop, and no longer have easy access to very old poems. But everything back to 2002 is still handy, so let’s carry on.
Much like “A Darkness Below,” this poem’s only problem is that it’s just not very good. In 2003, I was on the cusp of knowing what I was doing, but I wasn’t quite there yet. Note the all-lowercase, which I couldn’t defend then, let alone now. A lot of younger writers eschew capitalization for the love of E.E. Cummings (“Now that looks like a poem, even from across the room!”), but for me I think it had to do more with an aesthetic softening of the text — it’s hard to sound like you’re making large, arrogant proclamations from a meekly dotted, almost imaginary i, and grand was the last thing I wanted to be. I felt then, and mostly feel now, that poetry should be like a whisper from the hindbrain, a ghostly incantation from somewhere beneath the self. (And isn’t that grand?) The lowercase letters seem more than a little silly now.
The bigger problem is that the melodrama in the middle — the blood, the fever, “we’ll breathe each other” — makes me gag.
But it was a melodramatic time. If I were bipolar, my summer of 2002 would be considered my first manic episode. If I were older it, it would have been a mid-life crisis. That was the year I spontaneously quit my summer job and drove down to Miami to live with strangers in a house full of artists and Orthodox Jews. I barely lasted a month there, but it was a month full of drama and ritual and new experiences. Looking back, I think the only reason I took up the offer was to prove that I could do something so random — spontaneity to prove that the routine was indeed a choice. I’m not an adventurous person, but I needed to know that I could be.
“Interstate” is the poem that the experience became. As a memory-poem, for me, it’s the perfect distillation of that summer, particularly the last lines (if I believed in canibalism, I’d have saved them). None of the images are references to anything specific — I don’t know where “san marcos” is, or what I really mean by “nueva” or the lice — but somehow their spontaneous appearances are fitting.
I don’t think it translates for anyone else, so it’s never been published. A poem just for me. And I think that’s a fine thing for a poem to be (which is why I’m posting old poems, I think, as an argument that value can be independent of publication). Here it is:
there were rhythms and shakes,
the gulf stream, the plunge
of a lure into saltwater.
there was the rowboat, the gull,
the relief of needing shade.
she said welcome to san marcos.
she said welcome to nueva, dear,
welcome to this;
the fever tastes like rain, here,
she said we’ll breathe each other like air.
oh and your hands shake
like moss in the wind,
they slap at moths
and mouths and lice.
oh the devil wears a compass
and can’t tell time.