Detour Ahead. Seek Alternate Route
The girl that has no name is just
the girl I remember when I am not myself,
as I am not most of the day, when I try
to take her from the rope swing
next to the roadside cardboard shack
in Skopje, Macedonia, amid all that scrap metal
and garbage and broken cars, and put her on a swing
in the apple orchard off Mt. Vernon Street
in Lawrence, Massachusetts. But the car is going
too fast and I can’t erase what I see. Bill
worrying about catching the plane. I think
Pam is sleeping. It is so easy to get lost
in this picture, so easy to hide in the fine print
the way the driver does skimming past the scenes
no tourist is supposed to see. What I do see
when I am myself, is the platoon of grackles
drilling a hole in the sky above the girl
as clearly as I see her, and then the boys
on the other side of the river raising the wild
flag of a fish they’ve pulled from a polluted stream.
The U.N. helicopter hovering above probably thinks we are
moving towards a fated destination
the way some people think God
looks down on what we thought was
our own free choice. The driver looks like he
could get lost in a crowd of two. I mean, what
should I think about his reminder sign on the dash:
DO NOT DRIVE WITH SUNSHIELD IN PLACE.
When I look at the gypsy children again, he says
“There’s nothing wrong with them
that reincarnation won’t cure.” Maybe I should
get out at the next corner. Don’t brake
all at once, my father used to warn—if you fishtail,
steer into the turn or you’ll end up spinning out.
When I am myself, as I hardly was today,
every word is a detour. We seem to be following
the moth stuck to the windshield. Pam is
still asleep. The world gradually opens its eyes.
Terri tells me I am living under the thumb
of last night’s stars. I want to tell her
the early morning moon is not the same moon I grew up with,
that the words we say are rarely the words we mean.
“To err is human, but it feels divine,” Mae West once quipped.
And that driver, the sort of guy you couldn’t
warm up to if you were cremated together,
the guy who throws you both ends of the rope,—
you might mistake him for one of Dante’s
gluttons in Hell.
So, where do people in Hell
tell you where to go, is what I want to know.
How can we know anything when our ideas are
just food—they simmer and stew, and we get them
from raw facts that leave a bad taste in our mouths
or else we really sink our teeth into them—do good ideas
make vampires of us all? In the end,
we have to digest even the half-baked ideas,
and have their meanings spoon-fed to us like Gerber’s.
There’s enough food for thought, we’d like to say,
though not for the poor, like that girl on the swing
whose face has browned with age before its time.
Maybe language is what we use to hide what we feel
about what we think. Trying to think
about all this after our twisting morning ride over
the mountains is about as smart as trying
to sleep off my insomnia. Whenever I wake,
Terri is there, and that’s enough. Maybe we are lost,
or maybe we just can’t see what is in front of us.
“Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
said Groucho Marx. Or alternately: “Those are my principles.
If you don’t like them I have others.”
Which is what
the negotiators are saying along the Kosovo border
just north of here. And I think it must have been
the girl’s brother leaning against the tree
next to the girl because there was nothing
below his left knee which means a land mine has erased
what memory could not. Why do we have to notice anything?
Does the moon require the earth to tug at its sleeve?
When I am myself, like I was today, briefly,
I think that even our dreams bleed,
I understand how we never see around the next curve,
how grief diminishes like the fading siren of an ambulance,
how the cruelties of our own pasts keep picking up
our forgotten trails, how the last bit of moonlight
limps through the rubble that surrounds that girl,
and why it is ourselves we remember
if we remember to feel. Our real selves scatter
into the walls before we know them which is why I am
so seldom myself. Which is why
all these detours—our only defense
against the future, the way to diminish the grief we feel
to feel what grief we can. W.C. Fields had the best advice here:
“Start every morning off with a smile and get it over with.”
The frustrating thing about a detour, though, is
how, after a while, the road signs give out
and you’re on your own. Why don’t men ever ask for directions?
Of course directions themselves can be absurd.
Think of the warning label on the baby stroller:
REMOVE CHILD BEFORE FOLDING.
Or how about this label:
NEVER IRON CLOTHES WHILE THEY ARE
BEING WORN. Or even: NEVER USE HAIR DRYER
WHILE SLEEPING. Whoever needs these is
the type of person who’d die from a misprint
in a health book, or continue to get a busy signal
When I am myself, why can’t I forget
that girl amid all this nonsense? Directions pile up
like excuses. There are the dried up riverbeds of love.
There is the heart that fails like a burnt out bulb
tingling with the broken filaments of desire.
And why can’t I forget that other girl, six years earlier,
who was only herself, and that soldier
who was not himself, who had never been himself,
both of them just north of this border,
a soldier who follows the simple calculations
to determine, as he does any day, when to fire, given x,
the hill’s angle of incline, and y, the initial speed of her sled,
and to know precisely how far the pieces of her lung scatter
in front of her, and how long
the sled takes, tumbling like dice, to cross their path.
Now the roots are ready to desert the trees.
Now the forests fill with the shadows of all we fear.
The rain is climbing back into the sky. I’m sorry—
there’s no way to capture the tone of all this.
“We’re not afraid of dying,” says Woody Allen,
“we just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
But when we are ourselves, as we rarely are, what
keeps us going is Love, a kind of force we like to call it,
a kind of electricity as the cliché goes, what sparks
our run-down engines, something we gravitate towards,
an attraction like that of two atoms in a nuclear reactor.
But it’s where we’re headed, the path to happiness,
the straight and narrow, despite all these
roadside attractions. Is there no end to the end of the road?
And so the numbers are marching towards infinity.
The calendars peel like dead skin.
There’s a fog drifting through our feelings.
And there’s this car careening through guardrails of history.
In the end we have only ourselves to hold.
RE-HAB IS FOR QUITTERS says the bumper sticker ahead.
IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU ARE TOO CLOSE,
says another, but we never are, are we?
We hardly ever know even who we are.
At least love keeps filling the rear view
mirror no matter how far we go. Now the first light
spills across the spine of our desire. We are all
awake now. If only we could restore the burnt out stars
that hover over that girl and her brother. If only
any of us were real. Maybe then
we could decide what fictions to believe.
Which is why, when I am myself, as I have been
for the last few minutes here, the music
climbs back into the piano, the stars fall like scales
off a struggling fish, our loves seem to be held in transit
like lost postal packages, but the airport is up ahead,
the girl and boy fade into a nervous breeze,
and every journey is a fountain filling with trees
of water that can’t escape, and there’s a hole
in the grounded boat the boys have tipped
over, but when I look down at the water that’s never there
the face that floats to the surface is always my own.