Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Yeah, I Did That

Sorry for the poems and such for those that aren't interested, but I just had an urge. Of course this is going to look a bit silly and backwards to those without an RSS reader, but oh well. I thought long and not so hard about how to post this since the sequential nature of a blog gives you the latest first, even though there is a clear sequence (in my head). But, in the end, I decided to get another beer instead of worrying about it since everyone's emotional lives have their own map and sequence.

Interstate: Notes

Apology
In addition to Bartram’s Travels, I had many other works in mind when writing this section. One other is Henry David Thoreau, especially his essay, “Walking.” On the highway today, one is certainly a saunterer in one of the senses that Thoreau delineated in his essay “Walking.” All travelers upon the interstate are at the very least saunterers insofar as they are sans terre while traveling—the interstates rarely inspire a sense of place. But it is possible to drive the highways, any highways, as a Saint Terrer, driving in search of a holy land, using the drive not only as transit, but as re-creation.

“Although I was still miles from the ocean, a heavy sea fog came in to muffle the obscure the obscure and lie over the land like a sheet of dirty muslin. I saw no cars or people, few lights in the houses. The windshield wipers, brushing at the fog, switched back and forth like cats’ tails. I lost myself to the monotonous rhythm and darkness past and present fused and dims things came and went in a staccato of moments separated by miles of darkness. On the road, where change is continuous and visible, time is not; rather it is something the rider only infers. Time is not the fourth dimension to the traveler—change is.” (William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways p. 343)

"A Destination is not a place, but a new way of looking at things" (Henry Miller, cf WLHM)

Only in looking back, can one look forward. My memory of I-81 was a window on the world. I counted license plates from elsewhere (something I still do), places I’ll never see, people I’ll never know, but act as proof of its existence.

I.
“If at each instant the flying arrow is at rest, when does it move?” --Zeno of Elea

My summer job in college was working for the Virginia Department of Transportation on a road crew. One of my duties, performed almost every Friday, was to ride the extent of the Interstate system in our district and collect the larger pieces of trash, mostly scraps of blown out tires.

II.
Interstate as a road map for the human heart.

III.
A journey viewed by one who wants at once to take part and sit on the sidelines.

In addition to the poem cited below, I also had in mind a posthumously published lecture (or the notes thereof) by Randall Jarrell, “Levels and Opposites: Structures in Poetry.” Specifically, “But the poem is completely temporal, about as static as an explosion; there are no things in a poem, only processes.”

“The saris go by me from the embassies.
Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet.
They look back at the leopard like the leopard.

And I....
this print of mine, that has kept its color
Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null
Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so
To my bed, so to my grave, with no
Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief,
The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief--
Only I complain. . . .”
--from “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” by Randall Jarrell

IV.
Zeno’s paradox of the arrow redux.

“Our two souls, therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.”
--From “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” by John Donne

V.
New Market battlefield hugs closely the banks of the Shenandoah River as it pushes north to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. New Market has oft been referred to as the Thermopylae of the Confederacy and Harper’s Ferry was where some of the first shots were fired over slavery.

The New River, oddly enough, is one of the oldest rivers in the United States geologically. It also has the distinction of being one of the few rivers, along with the Shenandoah, that flows north. To leave the great valley of Virginia, one must cross this river not once, but twice. The second crossing on I-77 occurs right before you climb the mountain to exit the valley and move into the Piedmont.

A refreshing sight: a man standing at the intersection of Techwood Avenue and 10th Street in Atlanta, Georgia, held a sign saying just that, instead of the usual, “will work for food.”

The mountain at Fancy Gap, Virginia, lies right on the line between Virginia and North Carolina. The road here is often treacherous because of the dense fog, and it also receives much snowfall and has been often closed because of the drifting. Despite all this, it is quite an imposing sight when it suddenly bursts into view driving north.

VI.
“You cannot step into the same river twice
For other waters are ever flowing on.”
--Heraclitus

VII.
It’s amazing how brightly a baseball diamond shines in the night. The lights can be seen for miles and miles.

Epilogue
Written in a rare blizzard in western Virginia. Although the road where I lived took 5 days to become passable, the interstate was cleared in less than a day.

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
--”Dust of Snow,” by Robert Frost

Interstate: Epilogue–Virginia, I-81: Mile 205

Muting snow blankets the ground save
the still warm pavement; melting in small
puddles, it gathers, reflects opacity.

Still, only one sound can be heard.
A distant highway shears through night's
sound-proofing batting, now less pressing:

poor conditions inevitably
slow the endless careen of trucks some.
I miss the silence's totality

that past greeted those in snowstorms:
birds did not fly; livestock, except
the seldom bleat of newborn lambs,

too young to know better, sit quietly
in their pens, waiting for snow or wind
to drive the absorbing silence past

the next hill. Life then continued.
Now, nothing stops the path of progress
pushing through the snow, leaving long

snakes, too slowly filled, on the asphalt,
salted for a good roasting, never shuts.
Snowshoes are a long forgotten ware.

Save dreams here, near the endless whine—
Interstate rumbling on—children still
romp, their glee ringing off the hills and streets.

Interstate VII: North Carolina, I-77 South

Driving a darkened highway, deserted
though before midnight, only the broken
lines, jumping into the headlamps’ halo,
as if on a dare, and sprinting past,
regularly relieve a landscape
painted too heavily in shades of black.
Save for the distant red wink of brake lights,
those ravenous eyes leering from trucks whose
drivers incessantly chat on radios
with others whom they have never met,
and lit billboards, stars on this minor stage,
no sign of life joyously greets weary eyes.
Silence sits in the cabin, reaching its
tendrils out to drown even the tires' flap
and whine against the asphalt—friction
now palpable—and despair lurks beyond
the extent of headlights' reaching vision.

Then, on the horizon past the bulldozed
valley's wall, a bubble of light rises
in the liquid night, shooting its brilliance
against the highway’s desolate black stripe.
A sphere of light and life emanating from
human activity—perhaps a late
little league baseball game with children
happy only to stand on the greening
field in the glow of the lamps,
way past their bedtime, and parents attend
to every action—all bathed in the glow
of artificial sun's noon in new moon's
onyx blanket that smothers all other
sight, even the headlights that no longer
blindingly glare off of sign's reflective tape.

Though this stretch of highway be deserted,
that globe of light shines on in the rearview
sending beams of warmth bouncing through a car's
cockpit, lightening the omnipresent
dimness and a heart that will move forward
with the sound of that glee to heaven
rising high just minutes away: only
a chosen exit and a short mile's drive.

Interstate VI: Tennessee, I-40 East

Returning is a skill not forgotten;
the road itself knows the way; sights long seen
the eye notices but still does not see,
as they slide past on the road's side,
flattening themselves as those who glide
to and from the bar on a Friday night.
Against window's and mirror's screen
we play our lives, each unfolding scene
subsumed by the foreground as it scrolls past,
seen but not heard. Does a river notice
its banks in its headlong rush to the sea?
No, the journey itself is a device
toward an ever identical end.

Then, the journey is effortlessly done.
A still shot now, stasis returns again—
images projected into nothingness,
transparent in Memory's light.

Interstate V: Virginia, I-77 South

The old feeling returns again, rising
in the throat, like mountains
crawling slow over the horizon
and erupting into the realm of sight;
nostalgia riding shotgun beside,
traveling Interstate down from the hills,
nausea—memories sit heavy
on the stomach, coming unbidden.
The lighted barrels point the way--bridge work
ahead. They highlight lost destinations:
the dining room cluttered with collapsed boxes,
a recently scattered house of cards
one short moment after breath's chilling breeze.

Forsaking home to return home,
leaving that land too crowded with ghosts,
my own and the land's own, where no River
Lethe flows to bring placid amnesia
to those who plod shoulder to shoulder
with the past; the names regurgitate
past glories and follies to the present—
nostalgia crowded too tight in the gut,
cramped, metallic Nausea in the mouth.
Its counterpoint, looping though that valley
nestled between inscrutable mountains,
where the winds seem to whisper her name,
the witnesses to that tumult, the old
blood of which Shenandoah still pushes
north as if precursor to the events
that put its name in every living mouth.
Where the wheeling constellations above
pulled my soul along their pre-cut paths,
Orion hounding me at every step.

The road flows downhill, now crossing that bridge.
Is it the Rubicon? No, merely the New.
Leaving the valley, adopting a home,
where the mountains of glass and steel erupt
skyward, pointing guilty fingers upward
to only capricious stars that, when seen,
move at random, planes in neon-washed dusk,
going to and from Hartsfield, which pulses
and sends its stream to other cities' hearts;
where the only ghosts yet live, crawling the streets
carrying cardboard placards—omens
of Armageddon: "Why lie, I need a beer."

To anonymity and forgetfulness,
all roads will soon lead—a new home
370, then later, 92.
But for now, the car heads southward
and Fancy Gap Mountain fades from my view.

Interstate IV: Virginia, I-64 West

The roadside signs sidle by—skulking past
on vision's edge, flattening themselves against
sight's blurred wall, letting cars hurtle on, lest
something disturb endless monotony
by becoming noticeable—unlike
the white lines that crash forever forward
into speeding cars only to dwindle
into the nonexistence of passed
horizons. The rearview mirror paints
an ever changing portrait of a life
in the slow lane beyond that backwards look.
Zeno's arrows unerringly fly to that point
to find the heart of all journeys,
where they now irrecoverable lie.

Life lies battered and bleeding on this
Interstate, untended and unloved to all,
especially to that one beyond
the horizon's dim singularity.
That gold wire now stretched far above ductile
strength has broken, each end speeding apart,
much faster than the speed of a thought
sent alone into the void, searching
for its twin, or at least a reasonable
likeness—will it ever be discovered?

Bored faces pass by and merely glance
sidelong—too intent on their own problems
to notice the images that play
at the corners of their eyes; others, noses
pressed against the glass, stare from their own worlds.
The white lines, still below the car where all
movement rests, continue to hurtle on
from a future without meaning, lurking
hid from sight, and a past that now is gone.
Here, rests both the future and the past caught up
in the cabins of single cars cruising
out their lives on the unscrolling highway.

Interstate III: Florida, I-75 North

The highway lies just there, unseen, unheard,
and remote, though only bottle-rocket
distance from my desk, one island amid
a well-carpeted archipelago.
Here, muzak cannot replace the music
of cars in motion: engines harmonize
and tires play their riffs upon the road below.
Each one moves on constrained on that narrow
ribbon, where such potential
becomes energy fully kinetic
as, when realized, journeys’ ends approach:
weekend escapes, lovers that think only
of their reaching arms, fathers, mothers
completing a day-end commute to hearth
and home, and families on holiday
already looking forward to their home.

Their destinations are invisible
from this office, where I pass from cube
to cube, from coffee room to copy room—
endless circles through walls that shift monthly
and no minotaur lurks to lend the maze
meaning. Even the last end is denied.

And I . . .
                I live in this fluorescent flicker
with an endless blank hum within the ears.
In wan light, I sift through the proposals
weighing merits, questioning potential
gains, just like yesterday, just like tomorrow,
and by my silence they are declined
one by one for want of principle yields.

I think of movement in straight lines
there, where sun bounces from many windshields
imparting a glare to the humid air
that goes unnoticed behind the lenses
tinted and focused merely on the road
ahead. Everyone needs a hope, only
if one so small and near as
an expected destination yields,
but I sit still, and doubt usurps belief.

Interstate II: South Carolina, I-85 South

The interstate highway, a long time foe,
stretching out lives behind until they bend
and break, now acts as my closest friend,
bearing upon its back my whole life.
She rushes through green valleys with black floors
toward me to the rhythm of broken lines
that running by, are reflected in the
windshield and, receding, are seen no more.
Arteries of this new long-distance land,
the highways quicken that sadistic thief,
Time, and make Him rush before.
They burn a path to my heart that I cannot
forget—a path, though thronged with feet so thick,
that brings my love and life unto my door.

Interstate I: Georgia, I-75 North

The creases in the pavement mark the time
for a race of white lines: marathons
that are never complete but unheeded
by spectators in box seats stuck between
the horizons—start line and finish tape.
The cars, each a penny-ante Eden,
are traveling wombs made for insularity
and comfort: rarefied air and clinking
beer bottles container-cooled just behind,
a movie continuously playing
upon the windshield's ever changing screen.
Every need is accounted for, save
human contact; glass walls, penetrated
only by occasional casual glance
that then turns quickly away, embarrassed,
separate one from the other—a gap
too wide for comfortable navigation.

Drivers' eyes wander not—intent on that
point never reached, halfway to the
far horizon—they peripherally
see only a montage of the mundane:
the same signs in an endless progression,
hills painted in muted browns and blank greens
easing by with little relief to break
their endless crawl along the roadside,
and scattered rubber on the shoulder,
remnants of journeys interrupted or
arcadias lost in the summer's heat.
Over those confining ridges, just past
eye's reach, lie gems a mere walk away
shining brightly against monotony,
easily reached should the climate control
be vacated for a only moment or two.
Occasionally though, beauty sneaks past
the hills and creeps to the gray right of way:
children playing soccer on a converted
baseball diamond, their delight dying at
windows barrier, lost to those in close
comfort of endless motion, or a flock
of geese wheeling from a pond, flying
into the past, lost in the rearview mirror.

Interstate: An Apology

I remember growing up in the valley of Virginia, on the hills that formed the divide between the watersheds of the Shenandoah River to the north and the James River to the south—one of the highest points in the valley proper. On all sides were long limestone ridges, the valleys bottoming out to carry the water on its long course to the Chesapeake Bay, some 200 miles to the east. I could not imagine these rivers’ journeys; the small matter of blue mountains on either side of my world formed a quite palpable impediment to that imaginative journey. To the east, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Big and Little Spy, Cellar, and Cold Springs Mountains, and to the west, the first line of the Alleghenies, Shenandoah, North, and Jump Mountains. These same mountains made it, historically, impossible for river navigation. The rivers snaked their way through the mountains, here and there finding a pass where they could cut through.

With such natural barriers (barriers that kept the valley relatively safe until union troops began to chase one of its native sons, Thomas Jackson from Lexington, up and down it), it would be easy to imagine a childhood there as being relatively insular. What small window to the greater world, aside from the omnipresence of television, did such topography offer? I lived in the world of roads between the mountains, starting with the old Wilderness Road (now U.S. 11), which led settlers, including Daniel Boone and Sam Houston, down the valley to the Cumberland Gap and the frontier land beyond. Through a small cut in the ridges to the east, toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, I could see a small stretch of Interstate 81. Interstate 81, which parallels the older Highway 11, carried cars from the Canadian border in upstate New York south along the mountains to finally cross them and peter out just east of Knoxville, Tennessee. The break in the ridge was only large enough to admit a small creek, Walnut Creek, though it is not really large enough to be worthy of a name. It is one of the many heads of the James River, though its water is not known as such until the Maury’s confluence with the James at the town of Glasgow, in Rockbridge County, Virginia, some 40 miles south of where I lived.

It would be easy to write a tract damning the Interstate system. Undoubtedly, the extra convenience and mobility that the interstate highway system affords is not without a price. It has chained us all to our vehicles, moving the centers of commerce from local focus points to large coagulations of businesses, strip malls, and fast food restaurants. The increased freedom of travel has also done nothing to help the great environmental problems the world now faces. More cars and travel mean more pollution, ozone, and smog. But, as much as we may hate the fact, the interstate highways have become the circulatory system for this country: arteries that push the vitality of its citizenry out from the heart of their homes to the farthest extremities of our nation, journeys that may have been unthinkable mere decades ago, and the veins that return them home again. Look at a map of the United States. These highways are the concrete stitches that bind the patch work of the 48 conterminous states together, not only physically, but culturally. So little does each seem a different nation now, the definition of “state” is lost. This is, at once, a positive and negative effect. Certainly, the loss of distinctive regional cultures is missed and should be celebrated before even the memory of them fades. But, how much has the increased mobility done to decrease misunderstanding and mistrust?

Without knowing any of this at the time, I gazed many times through the break in the hills that afforded a glimpse of the endless movement of I-81. A small flutter to the eyes accompanied by the endless flap and rumble of traffic, especially at night when the rest of the world’s sounds subsided. To me then, this brief glimpse showed me a life of movement--cars always moved upon I-81, regardless of the time, more and more as the years passed and this stretch of highway became an alternate route to the more heavily traveled and widely know I-95. It is no longer the road less traveled. Riding the highways with my parents, and later on my own, it offered glimpses into places I had not visited, and probably will not visit. Many times, I wiled away the long hours on the road by noticing the license plates of the cars that traveled along with us. Each new state plate offered a chance to the imagination, a speculation to the occupants of that car, people I would never truly meet, with their own lives, concerns, cares. And it was this interstate that took me on all my journeys: from my home to college, then from my home again to start the long journey south to Atlanta. That small visible stretch of highway, tiny as it was, was a kinetic focal point in the shadows of the mountains, which so dominate the scene through which I-81 runs.

I have written often of the interstate highways, and I think it a worthy subject for many reasons, over and above my personal history. Many of us spend a great deal of time on the highway, whether for a daily commute or for a long anticipated vacation. The highways, despite their problems, are the most cost-efficient way of getting from point A to point B, without leaving out miniature pieces of home, traveling houses, islands of home we can take wherever we go. While traveling interstate highways my not be as romantic as driving the back roads, the number of cars from all over the continent that can be seen every day, even on the shortest trip, attests that these highways are the route of choice for many people. Indeed, the freeways are a symbol of transit in our time. They can be viewed as cold and impersonal, offering little human interaction as each person clings to his or her own traveling island (isn’t this a symbol of the world where we find ourselves in and of itself?); but travelers, even on such a engineered marvel as the freeway system, can see many aspects of the natural world, if they only look. First, think of the sheer numbers of people. Think of the wide range of humanity that can be viewed on a trip, each person within a fishbowl of sorts, all looking, noses pressed against the glass, out into the world. What a variety of humanity! Lexuses and F150 Ford trucks can both be viewed with flat tires. Such prospects also included the environment surrounding the driver. As I drive the interstate, especially during the early fall or spring, I find myself looking for where along my journey the line of the season change occurs. Or, later in the year, where the winter rains begins to freeze on the side of the road, and later on the windshield and car itself, turning from wet sheets to hard ice and driving snow. Views from the interstate highways can also be surprising in the prospects they offer to a traveling driver. A driver, no matter what time of day or night, can witness sights that are unexpected in the drone of tires on asphalt and that are sometimes surprisingly beautiful. Life does not stop on the shoulders. Instead, life surrounds us all the time, even though we withdraw as much as possible behind closed windows into the solipsistic silence of the cabins of our automobiles.

As William Bartram states in his Travels: “The attention of a traveller should be particularly drawn, in the first place, to the various works of Nature, to mark the distinctions of the climates he may explore, and to offer such useful observations of the different productions as may occur.” All this can be viewed as easily from a vehicle as from horseback. These changes, still continuous and visible, are the stuff that makes a journey, not time or distance. On the road, time loses its meaning, one minute slipping seamlessly into the next hour, and the earth’s surface curves every 23 miles, so distance cannot be observed without such changes. Such a change can be merely physical, the difference of flora and fauna between home and your destination, or it can be something more nebulous. As Henry Miller said, a destination is not place but a new way of looking at things. Travelers are recreated as they, their outlook changed by the surrounding sights and sounds. Every moment and every experience, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, shapes one’s outlook. I do not see the same tree today as I saw yesterday, just as I cannot step into the same river twice.

Poetry grows from and follows such roadbeds. Merely the act of writing a poem can be a journey, from point A (the initial conception) to point B (the crafted final product). This trip is full of many twists, turns, detours, and unexpected surprises. Whether they be the shape of a poem, its form or lack thereof, and even subject. Many times, I have found that upon completing a poem that the subject of the finished work (if any poem is ever finished!) differs greatly from that initially conceived. A poem can take many detours, can zip easily to its destination, will respond to various road conditions as they occur, or be stuck in traffic for years—how many times have poets found themselves on treacherous and slippery conditions as a poem progresses, only to shift speeds or take an alternate route providing more purchase for the tires of their ideas and imagination upon the roadway of language and its limitations. This traveling aspect to writing should not be bemoaned but celebrated, for it brings us the readers, poems of such diverse scope and tone.

They also follow the paths, paved or unpaved, demonstrating the same movement and tensions of any journey. No poem is a single static artifact; it is a different animal altogether. Poems spring the kinetic energy of contradictions that are generated within it: much like the contrast between movement and stasis of interstate travel. At once, driving from point A to point B, the road signs and scenery tear past on the periphery to fast, almost, for the eyes to focus upon them, while, within the cabin, it seems that you are hardly moving at all. Both journeys and reading or writing poems are exercises in the transient world. Nothing within a poem separates it from time: the time of writing, the time of reading, the transience of the words for their own sake. Things change and are subject to various processes, road conditions if you will. These processes drive the poem from beginning to end, and it is the conflict within a poem (and the road a poem steers between such obstacles) that lend it its power. For me, the interstate highway, with all of the contradictions that are inherent in such travel, offers a find subject and metaphor for poetry. What more basic contradictions can one imagine than the difference between movement and stasis, between kinetic and potential energy? I think that a poem should leap into the world, not fully formed, but in a process of genesis, a genesis that is not complete until the poem is. Fill the poem with kinetic energy and you will fill it with interest and power.

I have written much about Interstate Highways. My attraction to these highways continues because of their reality to the modern world, the world in which we all live. I fully expect a century from now that some ambitious poet will begin writing about the realities of his or her generation, whatever they may be. This is not an “on the road” cycle; instead it aims much higher. My ambition in these poems is nothing less than to offer a glimpse into the modern world: our world, in all of its despair, anomie, apathy and hope, as seen from the highways—not the backroads, which have been already celebrated justly. Instead, I hope to look at the roads actually driven by people, my audience—a familiar subject to all.

The interstate rumbles on. . .

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How Blogs Die

Frozen Toothpaste identifies two warning signs:
There are two general signs that a blog is heading toward extinction. The first is a declining frequency of posting, and the second is a proportional rise in the number of posts about the blog itself.
All in all, the post is a pretty astute observation about blogging in general.

To be a bit self-referential here, sometimes they just go into hibernation.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dancing 2008

Long-time readers of this blog will recognize Matt Harding, the proprietor of Wherethehellismatt.com. His latest goofy dance moves are featured in a new video.


Previous videos: 2005, 2006.

Monday, June 16, 2008