Words don’t often fail me. More often, I fail them. This week, I’m posting to this site a work of poetry I wrote six years ago, called The Book of Lamentations. I had previously published it to my Yahoo website in 2006, where I took it down after a week or two, and to my Joomla site last year, where I took it down after one day. It is a work which causes me discomfort. It will not leave me alone.
My background is military. I am an American. It is not my intention to make this website into an overtly political or topical site, but there were aspects of the American government’s invasion and occupation of Iraq which I found appalling. When George W. Bush and Richard Cheney were re-elected in 2004, I was moved to write what I thought would be a three- or four-page poem about the American servicemen and servicewomen, volunteers all, who were giving their lives in the conflict. I thought it would take, at most, a few weeks to write. It ended up taking nine months and going on for scores of pages. I stopped when I didn’t know what else to do.
Amtrak runs the Southwest Chief between LA and Chicago. Last week, Susan and I took it eastbound from Albuquerque. She was born and raised in Chicago* and we went there to be wed and to honeymoon.
(*Onion-town, the legendary, big-shouldered, fog-footed Kenyan capital of the glittering island kingdom of Kansas, where edible dogs are raised up to be served shoreside in deep dishes of Italian and other Slavic spices.)
It’s a twenty-six hour ride by train from Albuquerque to Chicago. Same amount of time going the other way. It is a pleasant and civilized way to travel in these terrified times, given that going anywhere in America by commercial airliner nowadays is to find oneself at that nexus where the axes of paranoia, learned helplessness, bald-faced greed, bureaucratic sloth and incompetence, and sadomasochism all meet. Amtrak, from the evidence we saw on our trip, is staffed by capable and committed people who are usually cheerful, sometimes cranky, always professional, and who work their asses off. The food is good. The trains run on time.
If you have to get someplace in a hurry, you have to fly, I’ll grant you that. I am grateful I don’t live the kind of life wherein I must fly the commercial airways. While there is something to be said for the exhilaration of take-off and the views from above, there is much to be savored in traveling overland. You get a sense for the vastness of the country when you cross better than twenty-six hundred miles of it by train. You get a sense for the people and the places where they live and work. You may find yourself taking notes and later writing a little something about your trip.
We saw antelope on the high arid grasslands of northeastern New Mexico, small herds of a half-dozen or so. One antelope who had become separated from the herd and was in the railroad right-of-way galloped madly along the fence line, looking for escape. Another, a buck, stood on a hillock beside the right-of-way and watched our train as it passed. In the mountains of northern New Mexico, as we crossed Raton Pass, we saw elk grazing by the tracks.
There were cattle. Cattle cattle cattle, grazing on ranges and in pastures across New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. Many, many cattle. Horses, too, of course, and a few goats. No sheep or pigs.
A notable number of farmhouses and houses in small towns in southeastern Colorado and into Kansas flew American flags from tall poles, as though the inhabitants sought to convince themselves and others that they really were in the United States. The inhabitants further to the northeast seemed to have a more relaxed confidence regarding their nationality.
We crossed Kansas largely by night. I caught a glimpse of the ghost of Dorothy walking the streets of Dodge City after closing time, her little dog in the basket she carried in her arms, their once-fertile farmlands devastated by overgrazing. Tears stained her dirty cheeks.
Outside Kansas City at night, by the tracks, a small building burned.
The parts of American life you see from a rail car (we had a compartment in a sleeper, and also spent time in the dining car and the lounge car) are somewhat different from the parts you see from an automobile on the interstate. There were many instances of what I came to think of as “shacks by the tracks.” There was much graffiti, some quite clever, in those places fronting the right-of-way and where the local graffiti eradication teams rarely go (they have enough to do in those parts of town where the graffiti is more visible). In some places, particularly in the cities, there was an immense amount of trash, usually of the metallic, industrial kind, in lots along the rail line. Only a wealthy country could have so much trash.
And it is a wealthy country. The immense, fundamental wealth of the farmland as we crossed Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois was ever evident. Toss aside all your pieces of paper claiming who owes what to whom, get down to the dirt, run your hands through it, and you will see.
There were many white clapboard houses. This may not be notable to persons from the Midwest who are accustomed to white clapboard houses, but in New Mexico where I live, they are much rarer. There were whole little towns in Missouri and Iowa where it seemed nearly every structure was of white clapboard. Some of them needed a fresh coat of paint, and some did not.
Susan and I, who have been together nine years now, married in a civil ceremony at City Hall in Chicago, in Marriage Court, Judge Williams presiding. We had dinner later with her family, up in Skokie. They are a warm, kind, and generous people. The weather was cold and rainy, but soon as it cleared up a bit, we went to the lakeshore and walked along the beach.
There could be more to tell, but for now, this is all.
The Weekly Alibi is an alternative paper in Albuquerque, going on twenty years old. I don’t often read it these days, as I am getting older and and am feeling the pressing need to slough off the unnecessary. But back in the 1990s and on up until the middle of the last decade, hardly a week would go by that I didn’t snag the latest Alibi to find out what movies and shows were current and tantalizing.
Besides its movie and art listings, its reviews and commentaries and other features, its personals–I looked at the “I Saw You” listings week after week, hoping to have been seen–The Alibi also ran writing contests. They ran a Valentine’s Day poetry contest I won so many times, I finally stopped entering. They also ran a short story contest every year. When they first started out, they were called NuCity, but some other publication with a similar name and more money threatened to sue them, so they changed their name. Right before the name change, one of my stories won an honorable mention in the annual contest, and was published. I was thirty-seven years old, had been a creative writer since early adolescence, but had not had a short story published until that time (because I was not naturally very good at it, and it took me a long time to get any good at it at all).
That story isn’t the one I posted this week. In 2000, I won The Alibi‘s short fiction contest with a piece called “Linear Perspective”. I was very happy. The prize was admission to the Southwest Writers something something that fall, where I got to hang around with real writers who wrote mysteries and romances and true crime and all that kind of stuff that actually sells. I got to meet editors and agents, and buy things, and watch a fellow writer get shit-faced drunk at the big banquet.
“Linear Perspective” got more hits on my old website than anything besides “The Gordon Lish Notes”. I expect that people would Google “linear perspective”, hoping to get some practical information about visual art, and end up touching upon my site by accident.
“If any ventured to rise in opposition, he was presently put to death in some convenient way, and there was neither search for the murderers nor justice to be had against them if suspected; but the people remained motionless, being so thoroughly cowed that men thought themselves lucky to escape violence, even when they held their tongues…. it was impossible for any one to open his grief to a neighbour and to concert measures to defend himself, as he would have had to speak either to one whom he did not know, or whom he knew but did not trust.” — Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Ch. XXVI (trans. Crawley), regarding the overthrow of Athenian democracy
“Sir Thomas Gresham, writing on the coinage, lays it down as a principle that, if you have in a country good coins and deteriorated coins of the same metal current side by side, the bad will drive out the good, and Gresham’s law may often be applied to literature, to art and, especially, to journalism. The largest circulations have often been attained by newspapers not exhibiting the highest characteristics; indeed, newspapers have been known suddenly to reach enormous sales by publishing articles describing the careers of notorious criminals.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XIV, Ch. IV