I pull off to pee at the Walt Whitman Wayside on the Jersey Turnpike.
Through the woods from Camden where the poet lived his last,
where he mused and predicted, dictated and preened,
gazed with dimming eyes out his doorway past the fragrant lilac vines,
lost in memories of war and men torn and ruined in battle,
wistful thoughts of furtive loves, and the epiphany he knew and had somehow wrought into a book.
He saw what we did to each other. He dreamed what we could be.
He said he would wait for us here.
Along this divided highway, pressed gravel and tar made macadam smooth
at these exit ramps fingering to Philly and Trenton and Asbury Park,
home to superhero athletes, devious politicians, poets with guitars, and all of us who drive.
Stop with me here before the row of drink machines, five bulky rectangles, side-by-side.
Their clear plastic windows and cans stacked tight: Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Snapple, Red Bull, and 7-Up. All shiny, all sugared, all bubbly.
All promising some subtle rush, a little rapture, that impalpable sustenance available to all with a dollar.
Turn to the double doors, swinging open and shut, and the glass ante room they frame.
Funneled through them in then out and on down the turnpike every kind of person.
Pause with me here by the drink machines, loiter and look, and try to see what he saw.
That little old lady was a teacher, her son is her driver now, a broker who loves his mom.
That man at the door wears a turban. Is he a Hindu, a Sikh, a suburban father from Rahway? He looks at his watch. He nods to us. His father, the immigrant, always so long in the Men’s Room.
Ah, the Men’s Room, how this would have stirred the old bawd! The phalanx of identical porcelain urinals, no dividers between them, all down the wall. The men side by side at their business, none looking left or right, so serious, so private, so mindful to follow that rule.
The rhythmic flushing, almost a beat, the stench of blended vapors from their voiding, and the jet plane roar of the drying machines. Eyes askance, hands at zippers, feet testing the slippery floor.
And the Women’s Room, never enough stalls, the long line out the door and their mincing needy dance, the fretful glances and nods of commiseration. I mean, this is the most democratic place, don’t you think?
Are you a casino owner climbing out of your limo in leather gloves?
Are you a cheerleader off the bus flipping your hair and stretching?
A trucker en route to Miami?
Do you use a wheelchair?
Do you identify as he or her or them?
Do you make this trip every day, or is this your first rubber-necking sojourn along the edge of America, straight off the plane at Newark?
Is your language a jibberish to others?
Are you rushing to work, to the game, or are you rushing because that is what you do?
No, wait, hold up, stand back and groove with me.
Admire the wall of fast food joints staffed with counter persons and the workers at the back.
Where do they live? Where do they park their cars?
Must they pay to use the Turnpike, subtracting that fee from their working wage?
How strange it must be to have no regulars.
Everyone a stranger, none to be seen again, all sliding their cards in the slot, capping their cups of joe, all day every day.
I see you chubby fry cook and the splatter burns on your arms.
I see you sallow-faced manager, flat-footed, spinning in place, dreading another breakdown of the ice machine.
You children in your winter coats, like bubbles with faces, your tiny hands lost in your mothers’ mittened grips.
All the coming and going, the thousands streaming, no one bumping, no one cursing, cats that herd themselves.
And the same in the parking lot, cars backing, waiting, accelerating out past the gas pumps, past the 18-wheelers lined up on the side, past the dog walkers and the scraggly pines and the skittering of trash, one empty can rolling with a tuneful clatter across the greasy asphalt as rain begins to fall.
Yo, Wayside named for our Bard with a Capital-B, you too are the poem he scrawled, and each of us a line.
The hum of our valved hearts, the stink of what dumps from our innards, our greasy lips, the common urgent fatigue.
We rub our glasses clean on our shirts, briefly flashing our bellies.
We are Southerners headed home where people drawl, we are IT specialists who surf on weekends, we are combat veterans and judges and students with depression diagnoses. We pour water from bottles for our dogs.
The arterial flow of the nation is what the Teamsters said, this turnpike linked to every other and our zooming lives from here to there down this road more a web than a runway.
The Walt Whitman Wayside as America singing whether we know it or not.
He wrote: You may read the President’s message and read nothing about it there. I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness, that thing the Founders urged on us, pursuit pursuit pursuit and an asphalt grid to do it on. Never the getting there, not for us, the going is the thing.
He asked, What is it then between us? Could this wayside offer a clue? Well, what if you took me up on this? What if we paused, stepped out of the way, and peered around for one minute?
Would we see what the poet promised, would we understand what he meant, would we take that moment to marvel, and would that be enough?
There is a trick to blowing bubbles
but like so many things you’ll learn
in life, where everything is bubble
fragile, it’s easy once you get it.
That measured puff –
Its reward your own hot breath
packaged in a glistening globe
and floating oh so gorgeously
with its fellows on a current
you can’t otherwise see
before of a sudden expiring
with a silent pop at the prick
of a blade of grass.
Somewhere in my childish heart
I glimpse a glint of the lesson there:
Blow more and more until
the breeze across our yard
is flagged with bobbing spheres
that stir a sort of expectant glee
there not there, exactly!
And the little bottle it came in
gone finally empty, too.
Daddy said yes to the pool with that girl
so I finished the sign Watermelons
for Sale $1.00: that green and red slice
made a half-moon with bug-like LEM on top.
Oh my in that frilly bikini then
her slim legs churning the bubblegum sheen
of a ramshackle motel’s lukewarm pool
on I guess my first sorta halfway date?
Hair damp and heart thumping back at the store
we locked the door for an hour not to watch
but to buy eggs sold cheap down a dirt road
in the woods. Was the truck’s radio on?
Pretty sure I knew it was coming up,
but Daddy didn’t seem to care a whit.
It would happen or not was just his way.
Something else the war schooled him over
that he couldn’t unlearn is what I think.
The eggs rattled between us on the seat
while I sniffed the chlorine on my fingers
and in my hair and the dust plumed behind
I’d like to imagine all the way up
to where those clunky boots we later learned
stepped down from a ladder to a sea where
even now on full moon nights it all seems
jumbled up like something I must have dreamed
thin legs that splatter a pool’s blue water
fat cleats imprinting a virgin beach
in the eggshell gleam of the moon’s reflection
half forgotten, except everything’s changed.
My father hardly spoke.
My mother never quit.
I’ve grown up with this yoke
all because of it.
You want to say it all
like your mama did
but then you get the call
to keep it all hid.
The trick is in the way
you sit the nest
of what you have to say
to say it best,
or if not best than better
than whatever comes to mind,
you try to say what matters
and leave the rest behind.
So thank you Mom and Dad
for the Spratt-like thing you did
in the way you got it said
all the days that you were wed.
Put one and one together
and this is what you get;
it’s just I don’t know whether
or what to make of it.
The little pond
back in the woods
was my Walden
before I’d ever
heard of Thoreau.
I’d wander there
to skip a rock
let its shimmer me.
Back home now
things are rotten.
The old feed store
the depot the cannery
even the yellow caboose
Old Man White hauled
off the tracks
its roof agape
to the sky.
for Mama and Grandma
walked the cemetery
where all my old Sunday
School teachers lie
beside my brother
my childhood best friend
Steve, Daddy, Uncle Jack,
and the rest.
like books on a shelf
each one a story only
those still walking
can tell. Each a volume
of local lore in a
collection gone to seed.
I left there in tears
then found myself
walking the overgrown
path that once was
the railroad bed
back down to what
I hoped was still
Jumped a fence
brush to a clearing
where it lay
exactly as always
in its ragged collar
of pines. A tree down
in a circle of sawdust
chips very recently
gnawed by beavers
and the dam
look how the creek
had worked its way
begun to empty out
until the beavers came
in the pond’s abandonment
to make the necessary
their lodge a patch
that saved it all.
So I sat again
for as long as it took
for my cheeks to dry
left with a rock
in my pocket
and a lesson I think
that some things can last
yet to plug home
and hearth into water
requires a beaver’s
the hard work of
teeth and heart
and yes you pick
but now’s the time
Deep South Magazine is posting a poem a day for National Poetry Month. Today’s my day! Read it here!
In April, will be returning to New Orleans after some years away, attending an occupational therapy conference downtown. And will land aswirl in memories from those sowing wild oats years immediately after college, when I rented a Magazine Street apartment without window screens or furniture, bought a used mattress, card table and lawn chair, and sat on a sagging back porch with my Smith-Corona, struggling mightily with this frivolous puzzle, how to write a poem. The previous summer, I’d spent at home in Fork Union, VA, working a failing farm with my father. That time, too, glows in memory. Here’s one of the first things I’d call a poem written on that Uptown porch:
A FISH STORY
I like a life
that grasps life,
one tipped a bit
to the instinctive side,
that will dare the
touch of an
I like Daddy
cornering a catfish
still as a stump
from the pool
and tossing again to cool freedom in the slipping
I like the background
the one that threw him
in four feet of water
four feet long
on a fish’s back
and all the brothers
Like I say