Art by Aaron Lelito

En Route

En Route : A Haibun Sequence

1. Meridian, Mississippi

Meridian was where my passengers needed to go, three church ladies in pastel hats whose car had broken down alongside a tract of logged-out pine. They were fanning themselves in the shade when I stopped to offer help. A Samaritan, praise be. In Meridian there was a cousin with a tow truck. If I could deliver them to his garage, they’d be much obliged. Squeezed together in the backseat, they hummed a hymn and fanned, said that old car was nothing but trouble and the Lord works in mysterious ways.

In town, they directed me up and down humble streets and warned me not to stay too long in Meridian: “the devil’s abode,” the eldest assured me. I said I was hoping to get some lunch. In that case, they all agreed: I should go to Jean’s place, down on Front Street by the train station. Ham and black-eyed peas, they suggested, then hymned their way on into the cousin’s garage, Blessed Auto Repair.

Startled into flight
a flock abandons the tree
magnolia blooms fall

2. Apalachicola, Florida

On the road into town, we keep an eye out for osprey nests, marveling at their construction atop telephone poles. The anhingas, too, are a wonder, airing their wings as they perch on posts along the waterfront. Strolling the streets of Apalachicola, we come across families on holiday, kids licking ice cream cones, public meltdowns, quarrels about where to go next, what to do in the tedious hours ahead. In the Oyster City Bar, someone’s laughing about a bad sunburn: “You should’ve seen the top of his head. Like a big, fat tomato!” Rank sea tang permeates everything, the Gulf Coast in July. In the park, a statue: Doctor Gorrie, inventor of air conditioning. There’s something still unresolved, something left unsaid, the quandary we’ve brought with us but refuse to confront. We stare at the offing, the buildup of storm clouds bringing to mind Emerson:

When we look at ourselves in the light of thought,
we discover life is embosomed in beauty,
all things assuming pleasing forms, as clouds do far-off.

3. Weatherford, Oklahoma

The town shut down early as the first flurries fell. Everyone had gone home long before I arrived, tooling down Main in heavy snowfall, looking for vacancy. I had trouble rousing the innkeeper, who seemed perturbed but still took my money and slid a cold key onto the counter only after scrutinizing the registration form, photocopying my ID, and holding the bills up to the light. Weatherford meant white-out and standstill, an overpriced, seedy room with faltering heat, an hour of flipping through insipid television channels before I dozed off. Come morning, snow filled the streets. Downtown, drifts had blocked doors and storefronts. On the outskirts, number 15 at the Wagon Wheel was banked with snow. When I opened the door, fine powder blew in and sparkled as it melted on the frayed carpet. Wonderful how a blast of winter clears the mind, how extreme cold simplifies matters. Frozen, everything appears crystallized—the branches of a barren tree, a row of stranded boxcars. In Weatherford that day, anything upright—road signs, mileposts—was glazed with ice to the point of startling clarity. But clarity was only in things: myself, I felt as leaden and obscure as ever. Once again, I had second thoughts about the decision to come this way, following the road of false nostalgia. Doubts arose with the snowdrifts. There were crossroads ahead, decisions to make, but for a long day and a half I was forced to wait until the plow appeared to clear a path out of town. As always in the dubious hours, I thought of Bashō, his death poem:

On a journey ailing—
my dreams wander
over a desolate moor.

4. Many Detours

Somewhere in Nebraska—I forget where exactly. A bitter cold day, a wind that brought tears. After two bootless hours at a filling station on the outskirts—telling drivers I was trying to get to Denver or anywhere in that direction—I walked into town along the frontage road, veering into a ditch (cracking through thin ice) whenever the big trucks roared past. Christmas decorations flapping at the used car lot. Pickup trucks parked at the Tack and Feed. Bus depot locked tight. Steam obscuring the diner’s windows. I found the library by the post office, just off the courthouse square, and entered the warm reading room. Set down my pack, took a seat at a table, watched by the librarian and a handful of patrons. In their eyes, I was an obvious vagrant, stranger in a town where there were no strangers. But they let me be, and for an hour I read the newspapers and magazines, feet and hands thawing. Through months of hardship on the road I had not kept up with the news and now I read about the president’s intractable problem, the unending conflict overseas, the fall of governments in South America. There were communities perplexed by kidnappings and addiction. The weather confounded everyone. And what to make of the price of food? Of gasoline? Recent statistics disturbed officials, and in public opinion an ill wind blew. The nation furrowed its brow—never, the editorialists opined, had the impending holidays seemed so grim.

I finished reading and stared out the window. Flurries now, a heavy overcast sky. At any time I could call it off, put an end to this drifting, go back to Spokane, home, the people who waited for meangry, but ready to forgive, perhaps. I had no reason to believe things would go any better in Denver. Worse for all I knew. A warehouse, a slaughterhouse, gravel work. Busting my hump, barely getting by, paycheck to paycheck. Before I left the library for the bus depot, the librarian asked me to fill out a brief questionnaire. They were trying to keep the library open in the face of budget cuts. What had been the purpose of my visit? There was no obvious answer, (other than “escape from the cold”), so I wrote the words that had haunted me since I first read them in high schoola catchphrase, a dictum, a mantra taken from Roethke’s “Journey to the Interior”:

“In the long journey out of the self there are many detours.”

Vacant

Begin to retreat. Make
a steady return to silent comforts—
make hearing a sense that squints.
There is nothing else but
this to acknowledge—
His voice, impossible.

The first time it sounded
middle-ranged, aimed
straight ahead. In time
it grew wider, a voice
incorporating hundreds
of characters. It became
heavier than the initial
surface it carried, colored
and hot, now buoying
everyone who waded
into it. The voice
of a loved one, holding
its notes into the next measure—
where at first, it had been
just a single note.

His voice was meaning
without content—lines
not sentences. Listen to
the way it would sound,
falling into illness, into
sleep, into anything that
changes a voice—age,
coldness, degrees
of seriousness. Listen
to it whisper, in a language
that is not understood.
It whispered nothing.

Admit to having never
heard it, to not having
listened closely, or
to simply not having understood.
It will not be listened to
any longer if a voice
that beautiful
cannot sing on demand.
If it shuns, it should be
shunned. If it lies,
ignore it. If it cracks,
his voice shows him
to be someone delicate
and vulnerable and
unable to say the right
words.

Listen to anything else—
the shiny pulse of the inner ears,
blaring hum of their music.
Return to older voices
that have changed so
much they have circled
back to their first state.
His voice, like all voices,
will not last. Remember
this loss, and retreat
to a previous deafness.

Every Which Way

For Richard Serra

We seek a darkness in the deep, and
equilibrium every which way under the sea.

But the shore is relentless, insistent, it
hunts what is free, searching for
finality in the water’s infinity. It turns
us into prey—naked nightswimmers

scared of the silence in the black. Scared
of symmetry and the beasts snaking
through it. Scared of rippling heights, and
scared of the night and its threat of release.

Inevitably, we sink in the shallows, try
to forget lost coastlines, riding centerlines
through the waves. Like surfers become
water itself, we crouch, we crest, we crash.

Edward Lee Art

The Pump Quench

The mug of racing time
blinks its eyes as you enter.
Words seem molecular
in your voice, a natural
gift, cool as someone else’s
rain in someone else’s city.
The brasserie’s yellow light
jaundices your eye without
dulling the furtive look you
rehearsed for decades.
It shines through the thinnest
of learned accents.

Would you be hurt if
we mistook you
for an era, rather than
a man whose son is splitting
the ungrateful atoms
of his separate parents?
He takes a puzzled horn
to his lips and explodes it just
as you would. The brass rings
a true nocturne as he nods.
Your metronome heart
beats in arrhythmic counterpoint.

Together you two travel
across states of history and
heritage. The unspoken details
cling, and weaken
your bond. You wash
them away in the English
Channel and emerge
renewed as a vow between
lovers. Both of you are
breakers, crawling ashore
together, each filled with
the electricity of future life.

Critique

bred in the bone of a nuclear world
poor parents, levelled by history
they had no idea
status anxiety as toxic as success
at first I read their script by rote
(not knowing what a Red was)
my mother at the dinner table
Girls, listen to your father; he’s a smart man.
I thought (trying not to roll my eyes)
must be the “man” part

I could tell you

I escaped from the basement
where I was chained to a pipe and starved
or that I was one of the chiefs, crawling to Kurtz
or refused to admit the difference
between a sheep and a wife
or maybe I was the Sybil
turned to dust, suspended in a bottle
mocked by passing boys
because I wouldn’t fuck Apollo

while what really happened was bad enough
static chatter in an anxious family

later, we thought nothing could go wrong
(though everything was)
the surrogate parents (teachers)
not much better than the real ones

self serving,narcissistic
the wrong gender, the right race
damage the effect of neglect
stupidity ever the base

mistaking attention for rescue
seduced by a Magritte window
out of claustrophobia
night school saved my life
islands of intelligence
made to feel like a somebody

the first few hits were free
then hooked, betrayed, ignored
consigned to the garbage heap
not knowing the difference
between middle hell
and the mean of a crappy structural heap
regret rien oh! contraire

momentary terror
at the turbulence of descent
you stay with the trouble
this origin story stands:
never a victory narrative
you’d stake your life on

Ethan Gorham Photography

City Exegesis

3 A.M. turns cities into earlier centuries.

The streets turn into lanes. Streetlights into lanterns. Faces become countenances. The sky shows up gloomy.

It’s 3 A.M. in Lower Manhattan. The arsonist strolls into the frame wearing tennis shoes, a hoodie, cargo shorts, and a little kid’s backpack. His casual countenance reveals his gross misunderstanding of the facts. Sure, 3 A.M. lends itself to dreamy yearnings. But he shouldn’t downplay reverie. A serious enterprise: The songs we believe in after midnight are synonymous with the year I spent trapped in an apartment among living and dead mice, didn’t bathe once, and arrived two hours early to a party (that I was barely invited to) with cuts all over my face from the disposable razor. But don’t ever forget this either: Years later, in the dining car of the Coast Starlight, I took the porter’s advice and leaned out the door of the moving train to celebrate the blue and orange wind.

The arsonist crosses mid-block, carrying a Bic lighter, looking like he needs a shower, and believing in the Old Testament’s politics of fire. The footage catches him in the act. He walks toward the outdoor dining canopy in front of Prince St. Pizza, holds the lighter to it, flips back his biblical hair, and then strolls away as a bush of flames grins for the camera. The incriminating video startled the city and helped the police tie him to at least one other felony arson two blocks away where another outdoor dining tent had been burned down.

It turns out, this arsonist was none other than Food & Wine’s recent Sommelier of the Year. Once the wine director at Eleven Madison Park, the best restaurant in the world, according to the New York Times. And currently, at 35, the managing partner at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, his own successful Soho bar. You’d think curating cups of wine would make him an ally to the city’s singers, belly-dancers, sorcerers, workers, jesters, shop owners, smooth-skinned lads, and spies. The outdoor dining tents that have replaced parking spaces worldwide are theirs. Restaurants at night that turn into parks during the day; that turn into vaccine clinics, pop-up clothing shops. Dining cars on trains.

The sommelier’s crime insinuates more than arson. I’d charge him with ignoring this century’s yearnings. I want to sit him down and tell him: The city is not against you. The night is for you. For you, who doesn’t want to know. For you, who doesn’t even know what’s happening. For you, who wants to know, but is too shy to ask. Drink your four cups of wine, children. From here on out, the Old Testament doesn’t have to be the sole domain of pyromaniacs. 

NOVUS Literary and
Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN