Postcards from Egypt

ISIS HOTEL

Thumbing the ancient elevator button

my driver summons the deity of ascension

who rumbles us up to the 14th floor lobby,

a world of massive brocade chairs and wobbly

wooden tables, populated by joking men

who take my measure in Arabic, take my

payment in Egyptian pounds, and offer me a room

filled with plastic flowers and the scent of ginger.


PHILAE TEMPLE

Scarred by time and new religion

the temple turns to show biz,

beguiling tourists with cash in hand

giving voices to the night’s deep shadows

as boats without running lights

glide by on a cloud  of diesel exhaust


MCDONALD’S IN LUXOR

For the price of a McSlurry, we find

simple pleasure in the familiarity of

clean rest rooms, free internet, and

the taste of something that kindles a

memory of chocolate, but the laughing

red and yellow clown makes me think

I’ve been had.


EGYPTIAN HORSES

Beasts of burden, small and precious,

did they descend from the fierce steeds

of Pharaoh’s chariot? Or simply the models

for the instant antiques, being sculpted

from ancient Egyptian dust

on every sidewalk in Cairo.


MEMPHIS, EGYPT

Careening through Memphis,

I feel like I’m in a movie mash-up:

part Bubba Hotep, part Toad’s Wild Ride.

As my driver hits the gas, and we fly by,

my camera finds a lone white donkey

who seems to give me a sidelong glance.


BUYING A CAMERA IN ASWAN

I never had to work so hard

to buy something

in a land where haggling is the rule

in a shop where the price was set,

the paradox obscured by the sight

of three black-burka’d Nubian women

wresting a washing machine

out the front door.


STALKING TOURISTS

Their photos show them in a jaunty stance

a pyramid in the base of their hand

finger pinching the nose of the Sphinx.

Mine show them posing, just a bit off kilter,

striking a pose made sensible

only by geography

 

TWO PHOTOS I DIDN’T TAKE

Two burkha’a women, one crossing a busy

Cairo street with a Hello Kitty balloon held

a lot; the other walking down the stairs of

Amenhotep’s temple, video camera held up

to her barely visible eyes.


WAYS TO GET SICK ON VACATION

Drinking the water, disguised as Tang;

Drinking the beer, long out of date;

Eating the food;

Breathing the air;

Forgetting your meds;

Riding in a car, a van, a train, a boat.

Standing quietly, doing nothing at all.


MUSLIM LINGERIE SHOP

Drawn in by a window of orange gowns,

we soon make friends with the Lebanese clerk

who shows us her glamour shot, her life unveiled,

then leads us downstairs where the good stuff is:

red lace body stockings, laced with a strategy

of slits and opening, peek-a-boo nighties,

unimaginable ways to unimagined skin.

 

MONUMENTAL GRAFFITI

Early Christians were among to first to discover how

easily ancient temples along the Nile could be converted

with chisel and knife. Images obliterated, names changed.

Napoleon’s legions overlaid their greetings in French

followed by any number of European names and dates.

Victorian Americans joined in as well, carving their home

ports into the feet of colossi. And I, knowing I trod where

ancestors had visited 100 years earlier, I was just relieved

not to see my family name visible among all the rest.

 

CLEOPATRA

“You look like Cleopatra,”

the street-hawkers called out again and again

to our Suzanne, lusting for

her eyes, her skin, and her hair.

Later, in the museum, we hear the myth

that Cleo herself was never a looker,

but we don’t believe it:

We’ve seen Cleopatra in the eyes of the hawkers.

We’ve seen our Suzanne.


DESERT RUN

Expatriates outside of Cairo, we gather in the desert

ready to walk or run the ridges, invoking odd rituals,

baptisms with beer, sunglasses, and broad-brimmed hats;

everyone sharing a massive multi-lingual joke.

 

TRAVEL BY CAMEL

The camels in Giza were high style,

tricked out. I’d ride one of those

any day of the week, feel like a

queen, the ride never too long or wild enough.

The camels at the Nubian Village

far south up the Nile, now those were beasts

of a different canter, ungainly, fly-ridden,

exhausted, and humble.

Riding with reins clenched, we ascended

the hillside too close to each other,

a managed slow stampede, held in check

by cheeky boys who walked up to the top

and then galloped back down with a yelp.

 

FELUCCA AT NIGHT

No wind, no breeze, just heat

and the slightest sound of water

lapping the edge of the boat’s weathered hull

floating out in the River Nile, our conversation

wrapped in a gentle scarf of city’s night music,

a group of travelers, far from home.

 

NIGHT TRAIN

By the time we boarded and found our tourist compartments

Alexandria was already a fading memory

a vague one for me,

already on my second full day of living in a body

focused entirely on pleasing a belly set on displeasure.

The rocking of the train lulled me to sleep,

a treasure of dreaming. In my medicated haze,

we might well have been on the Orient Express.


CAIRO ROOF TOPS

On a roof top in Cairo, my host

tortures garbage, coercing its essence

through sun-hardened tubing, until it escapes for

no more than a second before the strike of

a match sends it back to the sky as blue flame.

Gazing down at this magic, urban goats chew

without interest, working on a simpler

conversion, their own.


TRAFFIC

On the highways along the Nile, traffic

lights are only a suggestion, rarely followed,

horns signaling nothing more than intent

to take join the flow of endless traffic,

as if there were a choice.

 

MY EGYPTIAN DRIVER

At the Step Pyramid, my driver

again makes his only English joke:

“Good-bye. See you tomorrow.”

and then does not actually leave

but goes back to work on another

suduko, or maybe a nap in which

he dreams of a day riding

in another Town Car, drowsing

happily, stretched out in the back.

 

BAKEESH

Bakeesh! Bakeesh! Bakeesh!

The first word I learn in Arabic

is the last word I hear at the Cairo airport

as I struggle with luggage, struggle with language,

opening a door, finishing a meal,

I see the open hand, seeking a tip.

Bakeesh! Bakeesh! Bakeesh!

 

RED PYRAMID

I descent 65 meters into the empty

silent tomb: No crowds, no jostling, no words

until I hear a cheery Aussie accent,

see a welcoming smile, and find a

seeker who had found her soul

deep in Dashur, under tons of rock.

We chat, I leave. She wraps

solitude around her,

perhaps already knowing

a bus load of tourists

is about to arrive.

 

SAKKARA TOMBS

My ticket to the tombs includes a

one-man show, a guide with an audience

of only me, and the skill to leave his script

for another day. Instead we walk

like old friends, heads together,

examining the past, answering

and asking all the right

questions, one at a time.

 

BBC

Coldest winter in 30 years, I bundle up

on Emma’s couch and watch the BBC

on her telly, feeding my imagination with

well-told tales of Egypts past, parlayed

in a British accent, assured that what I

arrive at last, it will be a very classy place.

 

LUXOR ATM

In Luxor, as I wait at the ATM —

another ritual of a Nile-side tour,

a familiar and simple aspect of home —

an Amazon woman with a  spy-movie accent

wrenches me from my  drifting thoughts,

claiming my spot by prior psychic right.

The trace of madness in her eyes

reminds me that I most assuredly must

already have all the cash that I need.

 

EGYPTIAN MUSEUM

Perhaps it should be in a museum of museums.

Oh! this is what museums used to look like with

hand-written cards and thumb tacks

pushed into the stories of trickery and deceit.

And I never did find Nefertiti’s bust, perhaps

too covered with dust.

 

MY FELUCCA

“I want to drive the boat,” I joke,

having envied the light stand of the helmsman

balancing on the tiller, a ballet of navigation.

The captain hesitates, then smiles,

gives me the thumbs us, and I –

for a moment – become one of the few

who can say, “I sailed on the Nile.”

My heart still soars.


TOURIST

The problem with being a tourist in Egypt

is simple: You are a tourist in Egypt,  a mark

You might as well be wearing a flashing light.

In a souk, though, I meet two English gentlewomen,

who laugh at my sandals and scum-splattered feet,

and — telling the shopkeep that they live in Cairo —

they turn and offer to sell him to me.

 

DONKEYS

So many think of camels in Egypt

but for me the donkeys are the ones who remain

still trotting in my homebound dreams,

too small for their riders,

feet clipping in an impossible blur.

I  know their secret, yes, I think I do:

I  saw one in line at a Giza gas station.


EGYPTIAN RAIN

Four times a year it rains, they said.

Okay, well maybe twelve.

No matter.

When it rains in Cairo,

everything stops,

knee-deep in mystery,

blinded by the skies,

downright biblical. And still,

only a taste of what life was like

when the banks of the Nile

ruled the known world.


PRAYER

Our tour boat settled into its berth for the night

just as the call to prayer began along the Nile

one tower and then another

no two ever the same in word or tone or sound

but always just enough of an echo to make it clear

that the fabric of the prayer would never end.

 

VERY LARGE TAXI

Outside the Cairo Tower, the

tea-sipping driver is not easily put off

by seven lost tourists seeking a van.

“Very large taxi,” he assures us with pride

then sardines us into what can only have been

your mother’s Vista Cruiser, covered in

tapestry and beads, incense, and memories.

Pie Poems for the Poetry Pie

Oh trouble trouble trouble. What shall I bake for the Martha Stewart pie show? I had such grandiose ideas of different ways to create a poetry pie, but let’s face it, we’re flying 1,500 miles to get there, and it’s going to be tough enough to get my pie with its silver doilies through TSA, although I did check the website and they claim there really is no problem at all. I’ll just send it through the X-ray machine and be on my way, flying to NYC with a pie on my lap, my Mohawk friend Hannah next to me all the way.

Believe me, we are some excited.

I’ve decided: The pie, my dears, will be a decadent brownie pie with a ginger snap crust. Gooey and spicy. Pretty I hope. I make the practice pie tonight, I think.

But first the poems, it needs to be crammed with poetry, just like McCabe (in the Altman film McCabe and Mrs. Miller). And the poetry needs to be of the postcard variety, only about pies and baking, not trains this time.

As it is, I’m pretty far behind on my postcard poems, so maybe this will give me a chance to catch up.

Okay, six poems about pie:

 

Pat’s Apple Raisin Pie

Kayaking in Florida’s 10,000 islands,

expeditioning with Outward Bound,

I finally shed one more food phobia

and ate a meal that included raisins–

didn’t even try to pick them out.

But still, you know, even so, I don’t regret

passing up Pat’s Apple Pie with Rum-Soaked Raisins

in the filling. It just did not seem right

there on the table with our stoic New England fare.

 

Yogurt Dream Pie

Yogurt! I loved it! Made it myself in funny

little cups, plugged into a yellow warming tray that

I bought from some catalog. I put it in

everything, even Dream Whip pie with lemon

Jello-O and who knows what else. “I like it,”

said Dad, pointing with his fork. “What’s in it?”

“Yogurt,” I beamed, then watched in astonishment

as he pushed it way, slid back his chair, and

left the kitchen for the comfort and security

of his old, familiar recliner.

 

Steak and Mushroom Pie

We bought the first one in a tin in some tiny

gourmet shop in Portland, Maine, so cool we were

as college students, English majors, worldly

in our willingness to try something new, something

that I could replicate in our galley kitchen where I had

Already failed so stupendously to create coq au vin

and had come up with pink chicken. But, my dear,

let me tell you, that steak and mushroom pie, the

one that I made myself, still sizzles on my tongue, leaving

its savory essence in memory ever better, every year.

 

Mincemeat Pie

“Mincemeat pie,” I said to John, “was invented by Paul Bunyan

after Babe the Blue Ox finished off the last of the

real minces, a single-ox extermination unit, that one. So

Paul had to create a dish every bit as sweet and delicious.

I don’t know whether he poured brandy into the first

one, or if that was someone else’s idea, so in either case,

what you have here is actually mock mince.

Not mince.”

“Can’t say that I care,” he said, and sliced his way

through my crust of cookie cuttered stars, ate his way

into yet another Great American Myth.

 

 

Another Thanksgiving, Another Pie

Somehow, my son and I developed our

own tradition over the years, never quite getting

the pumpkin pie right, always managing to forget

one ingredient, never two, always finagling our

way through the shopping list, then opening the

oven door to find something unexpected in

shape or texture, but always finding something

for sure that we could pass off as pie.

 

Boston Cream in Boston

When Nanny turned 72, we all hauled down to

Boston for a night at The Pops, preceded by a

dinner at Jakie Wirth, me a satellite to Nanny’s family

who gossiped and sipped, drank beer,

drank wine. And for dessert the crisp waiters trouped

out with the most fabulous Boston Cream Pie

I have seen in my life, decadent as only custard

and chocolate can be. She cut us each an

ample slice, and surveyed her congenial tribe with

a nod and a knowing grin, a bit of custard on her lip.

Sue Ten and the City

I may have told you some of the story, but there is always more, and now a few weeks or months after our visit to The City, I find it interesting to see what parts are risen to the top of the milk, and what lies submerged.

Now, seriously, I am not a city person by any stretch of imagination. I get rattled in crowds that are not headed to or from a ballgame. I hear too many heart beats around me, and I don’t know how to shut them out. I’m too busy gawking to watch where I am going, and I feel like I am constantly trying to break through the surface to find a more familiar horizon.

So why go to New York with Sue? Ah, well. Pretty easy answer. She asked me, and she also said, “Do you like to plan your trips?” Oh, my. Magic words. In no time at all I had a website set up, an interactive calendar in place, and a spreadsheet of what when and where all worked out.

“Oh,” she said. But of course, she already knew all that about me. After all, geekiness is something hard to hide for long, although it is more and more commonly accepted today as “normal” especially by people who don’t know the origin of the term.  Geek, my dear, is really a type of carney folk who specialize in odd things link biting heads off lizards,  and other acts of dismemberment and displaced body parts. Geeks will fry frogs alive and pop them in their mouths. Geeks will follow up the frog trick by popping our their own eyeballs, and eating them, too.  There’s really no limit to geekdom, and I do promise you, I try to keep that kind of geek out of the pie shop kitchen, although they do pretty well on the driving range since what they lack in skill they make up with creativity.

And so it goes.

Yes, we made our plan, and i do love a good plan, and we followed it through and through. I think Sue’s favorite part, at least in the re-telling, was  when the neophyte taxi driver tried to kidnap us, or so  it seemed. I, of course, was a total innocent, just going along for the drive, confident that public transportation would be every bit as reliable as it is at home when whoever is the designated driver for the day sets out with his or her precious cargo.

Boy oh boy, was I mistaken. This guy had no apparent idea where he was going but he was determined to take us there.  We knew we were in trouble when, soon after we got in the town car, Sue’s phone rang and it was the dispatcher saying “He’ll be right there.” Right where? We’re in the car. “Are you in a black car?” No, we’re in a gray car.

Okay, that was bad, but optimism reigned. One cab, two cabs, how different could they be? And then he took the wrong exit, and Sue started to quiz him. Or interrogate him. Or get into his face, which was difficult from the back seat since she did not want to take her seatbelt off.

Then she starts yelling at me to call 9-1-1, which made no sense to me at all since I knew my phone would call the local Everglades dispatch and what good would that do me in New York City.  Sue later told me I’d just have to tell them where we were. “But I didn’t know where we were!” Even now, she is incredulous remembering my face as I handed her the phone.

Oh, good lord. What would I have done without her? Would I have been sold into white slavery? Or was that Japanese businessman who took a liking to me in China behind the whole escapade? I don’t know.

Somehow Sue gained command of the episode, and  he convinced the driver to follow her instructions to the letter, and we did – sure enough – end up at LaGuardia airport in plenty of time for our flight to SoFLA.

And now, can you believe it, I’m about to go to New York again, and it hasn’t even been six months, not to mention 30 years. This time I’m on a mission with the American Pie Council to attend the Martha Stewart Pie Special.  I’m totally cracked up about the whole thing, and am still working on my pie design. Some sort of poetry pie, I think. Maybe a brownie pie with a ginger snap crust, the poems tucked into foil doilies between the slices. I am psyched.

And I have no intention of getting into a New York cab with Sue Ten.

String Theory Pie

Cooler weather, so

pie shop thoughts turn to squash

and spices

from all eleven dimensions

coexisting on the same

plane of faceted pyrex.

Will one fork ever be enough?

Will a fork be needed at all?

Spaghetti squash seems the

best choice for a filling that

never ends, especially if

you try to eat it

one yellow strand

at a time.

It Takes a Train to Cry

My birthday is about to roll around again, and that means it’s been a full year since Little Peach and I made our memorable trip to the island south of Key West. This year, she will be my birthday chaperone once again, for the third year in a row actually, and I’m sure it will be just as memorable, although the memories will be of a different kind.

I can thank my ex-husband Pretty Boy Boyd, for my friendship with Little Peach, at least in part. If my life with Pretty Boy hadn’t been so, well, toxic, I might not have felt the need to flee my home on the edge of the ‘glades and drive five hours straight north to feel safe and nurtured.  Fortunately, thanks to all you all, I now feel safe and nurtured almost all the time. (Let’s face it. There are some poisons that even you cannot prevent.)

I’m looking forward to Peach’s visit. I always feel that she brings out the best of the poetry in me. I’m a little late in sharing this with you, but August was Postcard Poetry month, and I decided to dedicate my efforts to Peach and her family. I may have mentioned this before: They are all train buffs, and size doesn’t matter. From tiny model trains to the biggest engine we can find, they are all over it. So, when I came across a stash of railroad postcards, I knew my poetry for August would have a theme.

Now I want to share them with you, too.

AUGUST POSTCARD POEMS ABOUT TRAINS

Tucson Station

Waiting for Phoenix,
my sister grabbed her guitar,
tossed her hair, and outside
the station, melted into
a herd
of marching band students
their talents encased in
boxes all sizes, not a simple
shape among them.
She hauled her fading
marriage onboard, and
set out, her face reflecting
the same determination as that
of the boy, loading up
an obvious tuba.
Halloween

One Halloween in Miami Beach
we sat on a bench and watched
the costumed world ride by
on city buses and in cabs.
Another year, I rode the train
to Kansas City, my hair slicked
back, my clothes a boy’s,
wing-tipped shoes,
a wonderful joke.
I arrived at the station.
You were not there.
Surprise.

Meditation

Listen to a far away sound
the meditation begins
Listen to the silence behind
the sound
We sit on folding metal chairs
on the second floor of the AA club,
the energy of addiction muffles
the silence.
If we’re lucky, a train will roar by
rattle the building
shake our bones
and take us with it,
leaving only a departing light
in our eyes.

Worst-Case Scenario

You may not know this, but
if your car is stalled on
the track, do not run
away from approaching
disaster. No, get your
feet down on the ground
to the side of the rails
and run forward
forward forward,
as far from the point
of impact as you can possibly be.
Good advice in all sorts of situations,
I believe.

Therapy

My heart poured out, I paused,
tasting metallic emotion,
wanting some tea leaves to
spell out a better story,
wanting the story to
divine a better me.
“I see,” said my therapist,
“love for you is a train wreck.”
My breath flew south,
down the tracks of my life.
“Yes.”

Performance

For some event in junior high, my
high strung teacher had us all perform
a poem for voices, names of trains,
Erie, Lackawana, Susquehannah,
Ohio, and Santa Fe.
Twenty-five sweating pre-teens
and all we had to do was say a word
or phrase in the proper sequence and
oh my god it sounded like a train.
All we had to do was get it right.
If only Steve had not played hookie.
It might have been great.

Crossing

Pick-up truck speeding through
cornfields too late at night
for the driver to care
about anything much as he
tosses out another empty
though the fragrant window
almost to the track
he does not stop but
hits the gas
and we cross over with
seconds to spare.
Even now, I wake up some nights
and see the light of that train
full bright in my face.

Memory Loss

I can’t remember: It goes like
this: “Something something something,
Cry like a train.”
Howl like a river,
Cry like a train?
Laugh like a joker,
Cry like a train?
Scream like a banshee,
Cry like a train?
Tell me you love me,
Cry like a train?

Echo

Florida East Coast F – E – C
a few block to the west
rumbles as freight trains do.
Doppler effect
rocks me to sleep.
Open windows.
Poison jasmine
stabs the night.
Sleepless, I step outside.
Another train calls from the east –
an illusion
bouncing off the
flat canals of my mind

The Box Car Children

Sitting in my third-grade class,
desks still with inkwells then,
I read of runaway industrious
children living in a boxcar,
abandoned, like them,
motionless, steady.
“That’s where I want to be,”
I thought.
“Safe, secure:
I want to live there.”
But now I need motion.
Now I need flow.
I’d live on a boat.

For Robertson Davies

Somewhere in Alberta,
Via Rail paused in its
pursuit of glaciers and hair-pin
curves, gliding to a full stop
by a picture postcard railway station.
In minutes, my feet found
their way to the door
of a tiny bookshop,
full of Canada.

The Visit

First you need to know we
had never been friends, just sisters,
thrown together by biology. Not
much in common except family
history, something from which I’d fled.
But on that weekend, we found
something else, a ghost in a barroom,
a poem on a napkin, the sound of
of giggles in the alley, our heels on the
pavement at two a.m. Drunkenly
silly, she lay down on the tracks,
and I rescued her from absolutely
nothing as no train went by.
That’s all it took.

Copper

High chaparral, high desert,
a land not known to many,
the Phelps Dodge train laden
with ingots would chug down
from the smelter, beside that
patina green river,
echoing endlessly between
the canyon walls, as bits of copper
broke free and left a trail
of treasure
for children to find
along the track.

Chicago

It’s boring, she said, that
trip to Chicago. I had to
disagree, but maybe she
did not take the train on a day
when a deep, dark purple storm
covered the plains and cast
the landscape into a scene
from a 1950s science fiction
novel. We spent the whole trip
looking for spaceships
and little green men.

Tracks

Fingers of weeds between the rails
where once there was speed.
Metal stripes glinting
through summer asphalt
where once there were rails.
Grandfather’s stories of
bitter cold chores
before catching the train
to sit in a classroom
learning Latin and Greek.

Little Sister

A birthday trip from Maine to Boston,
my wish to go by train,
and so we are in Sunday best,
our matching outfits nicely
pointing out our differences in
ages, size, and shape.
I’m lost in daydreams while she
runs the aisles. Exuberant,
offends the crisp conductor with
these simple words,
“We’re coming back on the bus!”

Zhivago

Too much snow inside and out.
Too many people, yet never enough.
Box cars and desolation
keep the passion moving from
Moscow to Siberia
and back again,
Pasternak stoking the fire
with scarred hearts, fatal choices,
love, anger, and desire.

Sammie

We take the three kids to ride
on small trains, perfectly scaled to
work for us giants, perching
gingerly to sit on boxcars
each child embraced in a
seat belt of grown-up arms.
Sammy squirms as I hold
her, blond hair tickling my
chin, we ride together in hot
pursuit of grandparents
and other locomotives of memories.

Hairpin Curve

Somewhere near Banff, we climb
the stairs to the scenic vista
car to watch both fore and aft
as our Via Rail cars wrap
snug to the mountain
twist impossibly to
the edge of the
cliff and noisily vanish
into the blackness of
the tunnel ahead

Rock Island Line

Shut down by greed
more than anything,
the line lives on in
abandonment and cobwebbed
stations, crumbling in small
towns that once knew the
sound of commerce as a
piecing whistle and a
plume of steam.

Fog

Seattle to Mount Vernon,
an easy ride.
I snap photos from
the window and shoot
them out through the
airwaves, nothing
but gray, nothing but
gray. Everyone knows
instantly right
where I am. No
caption required.

Gladys

Arizona dust brightened
the sky and dimmed
our breath,
the silver train from L.A.
running late toward
the Superstition Mountains.
She smiled stepping down
to the platform, gray green
knapsack and khaki slacks.
“The babies cried in Spanish,”
she said. “Aye eee aye eee aye eee.”

Daylight Savings Time

Rushing south in my little tan
truck, you remember the one?
Whenever we went through
a water-filled dip in the road,
the stick-shift became a fountain?
Arrived, we thought, in time for the
Tucson train, with plenty of time
to spare, Arizona time,
but Lordsburg, New Mexico, had
sprung forward, clock hands
waving good-bye down the tracks.

Henry Flagler’s Railway Car

Having spent some time in a cow pasture,
they said, the private car
with its yacht-like interior
at last was recognized,
identified, and restored to its previous
state of robber-baron grandeur. I’ve toured
it twice, but what I still want to know
is how did it get to the pasture
in the first place? And I like to think of
the cows having tea from the silver
service on the mahogany buffet.

Paul Theroux

One of the tricks, he said, in writing
about travel is to be not too well known,
not too easily recognized, and yet
accessible, so people will talk
and share their stories
as they share the compartment
especially on incredibly
long journeys,
across Siberia,
from Boston to Tiera del Fuego,
along the rails of the Orient Express.
I want his job.

Anna Karenina

I love this story.
Do you think it’s true?
Apparently, they say, Tolstoi
once said he was as surprised as anyone
when Anna Karenina threw herself
under the wheels
of that train.

Midnight Special

Working through a stack of
dear Macy’s books,
I’m taken aback
to find the words on
bright cardboard pages
bringing music to my mind:
“Mary Mack, dressed in black,
silver buttons up and down her back.”
I close the book and start to sing.
“No, Grandma” she says.
“There is no midnight special here.”

Well, no, that does not add up to 31 Postcard Poems for August. I only had 27 railroad-themed cards, but I could certainly have written four more train stories. I was surprised by how many different train images, stories, and poems even now fill my mind. A lot of them are about you. Hope you’ll write soon.
P.S. The other four poems are about a boat.

Lemon Mirage Pie

I’ve been doing a little time traveling lately, and I am reporting back to say the trip was highly successful. I visited the Southwestern part of the great U.S. of A., circa 1976, and was surprised to discover that my high school sweetheart was living but a few miles away from me. Of course, in real time, I had no way of knowing that since I had not seen or heard from him since the Summer of 1965.

“Why time travel?” you might well ask. “Don’t you have enough to do at the Pie Shop and Driving Range without gallivanting around the time-space continuum? Aren’t you worried that you might accidentally change history and miss out on all the friends and loved ones you have now?”

Well, no. I don’t worry about that much at all. For one thing, I suspect that you are not that easy to lose. For another, I enjoy the fantasy that we are happily coexisting in different configurations in alternate realities all the time anyway. I’m just especially attached to this particular reality where there are so many lessons yet for me to learn.

But back to the Southwest in the late 1970s: One of my favorite places there was the great dry lake, or playa, near Willcox, Arizona. If you walk out on the cracked and dry land toward the center of the lake, you will at some point realize that you are surrounded by a 360-degree mirage. There, you can convince some fairly gullible people that you are now invisible and can do whatever you like. Warning: You might want to try a few gullibility tests outside the mirage before attempting anything too elaborate.

I loved the idea of living inside a mirage, a conceit which is itself a mirage, and so I wrote this poem, way back then:

Notes on living inside a mirage . . .  .

They’ll have to admit

I’ve gotten harder to find.

The illusion I’m here is proof enough.

I no longer need guards posted outside

to gain belief in  my frail disguise.

(A mad dog or two is enough.)

I hold my mirage skin before me

like a face held up only by bones.

And those who love me,

those I must trust

prevent the world from consuming my life

by keeping in touch with my wavering light.

Passing by, they falter and halt,

taking the chance of talking to air.

They shout at the blur to reach me,

but I’m wrapped like an island

in that watery haze

that cushions the landfall

from the storm dreaming sea.

In silence,

I gauge their uncertain eyes,

their every response

whenever they think they’ve found my soul.

And just as they leave me,

they’ll tell me one more time

if this shimmering skin

is just around me,

or if it’s wrapped around everything else.

That was the desert. Now back-flip me to Maine and my life at 16. It’s a place and time I rarely visit, but now that I have made contact with my former true love, I’ve feel safe to unfurl those memories which I’ve left rolled up so tightly like scrolls for years. Or maybe more like one of those noise makers that you have to blow into to give dimension and sound.

I’ve enjoyed seeing myself as a optimistic girl again, and learning that she was intelligent, artsy, and quirky, all in a good way, mohair sweaters, white lipstick, and all. I’m still flicking the dust off some of those souvenir boxes, marveling always about how much was packed into such a small space of time.

Now, it seems, weeks go by with hardly a single significant event, and I remain the same. I grow a little more skilled at golf and pie-baking. I love you more all the time. I learn a new song for Karaoke night. I am happy, and yet dissatisfied.

I’ve returned from time-traveling thinking I’m on the brink of something new, and maybe I am. Or maybe I just need to spend more time exploring mirages.

As the pie shop takes on an increasingly Victorian ambiance, perhaps we’ll draw in a few steampunk deep-thinkers who will take multi-dimensional travel seriously, as they sit around and sip tea from bone china cups and savor my lemon mirage pie.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll be able to convince me that the road not taken does, in fact, go somewhere else. So far, I’m not so sure. After all, what road did you take to bring you here? Not the one that I took, but I’m always happy to see you walk in the door, still in your safari togs.

Yes, I’ve lived in the desert. I know what it’s like to see it dry out until it cracks. I’ve lived in the mirage and dreamt of water night after night. We have no mirages in the swamp, but we do have golf and pie, and maybe that’s enough.

Why I Live at the Sand Trap

With apologies to Eudora Welty

You may call it a bunker.

I call it a beach.

An ironic oasis in a desert of green,

Its mission is clear,

its intent gives me pause:

a time for reflection,

a change of horizon.

My sand wedge in hand,

I fear not the descent.

I hit the sand,

propel the ball,

and I am out too soon

with hardly a chance

to fully imagine

a lifetime of sand

with striped umbrellas

and cool lemonade,

perhaps something stronger for you.

I wouldn’t mind

a whole game played

from bunker to bunker

from dune to dune

from beach to beach,

transistor radio crackling out

those songs of summers past.

I know there’s a river of cool

below the surface, and

I’m tempted to lurk

like the troll ‘neath that bridge

waiting to see who’ll pay for safe passage,

who’ll pay the toll:

beach blankets, umbrellas, toy trucks,

buckets, and scoops.

From sand box to sand trap,

it all feels like home.

Yes, I’ll move on for now,

but I’m sure I’ll be back.

Ethan Coen’s Poem

The other night, driving home from The Village and listening to NPR, I heard a wonderful interview with Ethan Coen, closed out by William Macy reading one of the poems. You can read it, too, by clicking here.

“The drunken driver has the right of way,” is the title of the poem, and toward the end of it, Coen notes, “When facing an oncoming fool / The practiced and sagacious say / Watch out / one side / look sharp / gang way.”

That line stopped me short with its uncanny familiarity. After all, I’ve seen an oncoming fool or two in my time, and I’m sad to say it never dawned on me to step aside. For all of my study of the Worst Case Scenario Handbook, I still can’t say that I have the sense to roll off a speeding sled before it hits a tree, a wall, a door.

Faced with an oncoming fool, I’m still likely to stand there like your typical deer in the headlights. After all, what is more likely to shake up my life than pure foolishness? I know I have welcomed foolishness more often than not with open arms, leaving no one to blame but myself when the smoke finally clears and suddenly it is time to sift through the saw dust on the floor to identify the bullet casings.

In many ways, Coen’s poem reminds me of both of my ex-husbands, Patrick the Liar and Pretty Boy Boyd. They were and are still, I’m sure, masters at getting their way, often by creating a massive presence so wildly unstable that sharper souls than I can easily recognize its foolishness by the undulations alone, and stand clear.

Til now, at least, I’ve lacked the energy to remain vigilant, especially when I was never really sure whether that careening vehicle headed down my lane was evidence of an alert driver dodging raccoons — or a drunk driver navigating entirely by the sound of the gravel road against his tires.

I get tired just thinking about those days, yet think about them I do, preferably from the haven of the front porch of my turquoise conch cottage here on the edge of the ‘glades, just out of sight of the Slice of Heaven 24-Hour Pie Shop and Driving Range.  Sue Ten and my other friends here are great anti-fool detectors, and I know I am safe with them nearby.

Even now, I can hear “Walk Like an Egyptian” playing on the distant jukebox, so I know The Morning Guy has flung open the pie-shop windows, and soon he’ll be punching in the numbers to play some Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

Prentiss, my pie apprentice, has already served up her latest confection and  gotten rave reviews. Joe Sparkle Junior is fussing around the new putting green, replacing the divots that the Clown and her pals kicked up during the night. It’s an excellent day, just getting started with no drunken drivers in sight.

Untensed, I return to Coen’s poem, and my reverie, thinking how some time ago, I read an English-to-Chinese-to-English translation of a quotation attributed to Mother Theresa.  It was finally rendered as “The opposite of love is not hate. It is carelessness.”

I’ve thought about that for a long time, and have never been able to shake the odd truth of it.  Perhaps “apathy” was the word that the writer — or translator — sought, but “carelessness” makes more sense to me. The drunken driver is careless, from the moment he or she says, “Set ’em up, Joe.” I prefer a life that is careful, or at least full of caring.

Let us not be careless, my dear friends. And now, I must warn you, I feel a country song coming on, a song about being careless. I don’t know the tune, but here are the words:

You threw the white silk nightie of my love
into soapy hot water
with your red-flannel heart
and ruined them both.

You took my long-playing records
and left them to melt
on the radiator of your disregard.

You said you had no secrets
and left a trail of credit-card carbons
all the way to the motel door.

You left me waiting at the butcher shop
while you had bratwust at the bar.

You were careless with my car
and careless with my love
but there’s no no-fault insurance
for what you have done.

Obviously this song still needs a little work, so perhaps I’ll get back to that and polish it up before Sue Ten says it’s time for another meeting of the Tone Deaf Choir next door at the Swing Barn. I think she’ll like it when I am done, and maybe you will, too. Drop by soon. We’ve missed you.

Swing Thoughts Poem

I’ve been reading a lot lately about “swing thoughts” and how to get your mind right each time you lift a club to send a ball to a predetermined target.

Usually I just think about you.

Swing No Thought

So much advice, so little time.
“Keep your head down.”
“Straighten that elbow.”
“Open your hips, but not too early.”
“Let the club do the work.”
“Breathe!”
“Keep your eye on the ball.”
“Let your legs do the work.”
“Consider the target, not the ball.”

The list of thoughts
will wear you out. How
to stand
to swing
to breathe
to feel
to think
to move
to count
to watch
to see
to imagine
to play.

If only one thought could get you there
from tee to target,
how delicious that would be
like a slice of cold apple crisp
with your first cup of coffee,
like a sliver of pastry
promising more.

If only one thought could cover it all:
trajectory
velocity
momentum
distance
the past
the present
the future
the sound of the wind
the gossip
the grass.

Did you choose the right club?
Did you lock the car?
Was tonight someone’s birthday?
Did that guy flip me off?

If only one thought could open your mind
show you success,
just seconds away,
a beckoning future
in which you’ve controlled
trajectory
velocity
momentum
distance
the past
the present
the future
the sound of the wind
the gossip
the grass.

Unlikely, I think
so maybe instead
simply revel
in rhythm and tempo.

Maybe instead
marvel to see
the ball in fierce flight —
or skipping,
like a stone,
in search of a river.

Laugh.

Things happen for a reason.
Things happen for no reason at all.
Enjoy the possibilities.

Lift the club,
Breathe in and smile.
You’re good to go.
You’ll either be right or wrong.
In either case,
You’ll learn something new.

Don’t think of the outcome.
Don’t think at all.
And when you are done,
Let me know how that works.

Yes,
Quiet your mind.
Step up to the future, and
look for me there.

On the Other Side of the Edge of the ‘Glades

Sea Kayaking in the Mangroves

Sea Kayaking in the Mangroves

I’ve been back from my trip to the other side of the ‘glades for more than a month, and I’m still waking up wondering where everyone is. I’ve had some remarkable dreams since returning to my own king-sized pillow-top bed, too, dreams in which my team-mates and I were Navy seals, or old-time sailors, or just obsessed campers, traveling in our pod of sea kayaks through the tangled green mangrove islands in and out of sunsets and star-filled skies.

Even now, though, I am surprised by how tired I am. This goes beyond my normal insomniac want-to-take-a-nap mode. This is bone tired. I focused on this trip for months, using it as my reason for pushing up my exercise limits, not just at the driving range, but in yoga class and biking, and out and about with Sue Ten and our rag-tag walking group. I even made a point of getting to the pool in the village for swim training with a triathalon coach. Now all I can to do is sit quietly and read Wind in the Willows on my iPod Touch, which as you know I have ensconced in a hollowed-out purple-leatherbound book.

Driving back from the trip, I remember thinking how happy I was that I would be home by 2:00 or 3:00 with plenty of time to go to the pool for a swim. I was convinced that I could knock at least five stokes off my swim, I felt so buff; and, of course, I’d be able to add unknown yardage at the driving range.  Then I hit Alligator Alley heading east, and the warm sun began to lull me. It wasn’t long before I pulled into a rest area and closed my eyes, waking up 20 minutes later in a whole new frame of mind.

By the time I made it to my turquoise conch cottage, all I wanted to do was sleep. I nodded to Hercules, our resident feral green iguana who was busily eating the hibiscus bush near my porch, walked in the door, and that was that. I woke up again around 3:00 a.m. to the sound of golf balls out on the all-night range, and I smiled to be home again.

Flash of Green About to Happen

Flash of Green About to Happen

During the next day or two, I enjoyed sharing stories of the trip with some of the folks at the pie shop. I told them about scorpion-eating women, travelling by starlight, visiting graves of long-ago settlers, gliding through the water. I told them, too, that my favorite part was the “solo,” the day and night when I camped alone, as did the entire team.  I made a sundial out of stones and shells and wrote a poem for Little Peach. I counted my blessings, which was easy. I took a lot of photos. I ate an apple and an orange and some trail mix. And, I watch the sun go down and saw the flash of green, to my everlasting delight.

On solo, I fell asleep in my little shelter, made with a tarp and an old sheet that Little Peach left at my house for a drop cloth. It had always seemed too bad to get paint on the cute little koala bears all over it, so I’d stuffed it into the back of my closet, and pulled it out for the trip. I loved looking up at those little koalas; they made me feel connected to my “real” world, the one that seemed so distant from the mangroves and the sea kayaks.

I carried most of you with me during the trip, imagined you stirring up the pot of beans for supper, or plotting out our course. I thought about what you might have added to our conversations, and how sweet it would have been to have breakfast together on one of those isolated beaches. I discovered that my yoga practice really paid off when it came to getting dressed standing on one leg, outside in primitive conditions: Balance, my dear Grasshopper, balance.

The Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf of Mexico

Did I change? Did I grow? Did I discover any new zen thoughts? Did I improve my golf swing? Did I find any new recipes? Yes, absolutely. I came home in a state of harmony and oneness, content. I had accepted a challenge and felt that I met it. I felt strong and healthy and on course in my life, the life I share with all of you at the Slice of Heaven 24-Hour Pie Shop and Driving Range.

I doubt that I could have made the trip, or enjoyed it, without you in my heart and mind. In the past year or so, since I got myself single, I’ve learned what it is to have friends like you in my life; people who do not hesitate to shake me up when I need it, or call my bluffs (of which there are many), or tell me when I am drifting dangerously near the plummeting falls. I loved seeing you in what my new team-mates saw in me.

And once again, I discovered that my life in SoFLA has been a series of breathing lessons. And, in the words of John Lennon, “As breathing is my life, to stop I dare not dare.”

Cinderella’s Pumpkin Pie

Consistently friendly and untempermental,
Cinderella never asked for much.

She told me her life too often was filled
with flavorless spice
and not that honest pumpkin flavor
that only princes recognize.

So, she learned how to sweeten the pie
without masking the taste
of fields full of orange
and fall festivals held on old village greens.

The secret she told me is in the milk,
sweetened, condensed,
ready to go
into a filling
both intense and sweet —
yet never high in fat.

Two whole eggs, two yolks,
the least grainy filling,
silky smooth,
served best in a glass slipper.

“But, my dear,” I asked,
“with the pumpkin pureed for your pie,
how will you get to the ball?”

“I’d rather stay honest,” she said,
“and be who I am.

“Besides,” she continued,
“the pumpkin aroma will be quite enough,
to bring him my way,
and then I will serve up
ambrosia for him,
a dessert plate for me,
and always a slice left for you.”

Creeping Bentgrass L-93: A poem

Creeping Bentgrass L-93: For golf greens in Zone 4

L-93 will regulate the thatch

And maximize the growth you seek today

Enhancing speed across the green to flag

Providing more consistent roll of balls

and dropping strokes from every card you play.

Your creeping bentgrass needs less care than you

might think: a mowing once or twice a day

and routine use of inhibition meant

to stop the flow of gibberellic blood

or acid, put in less poetic terms.

In just two years your newly seeded green

will keep its pledge, but you must do the same

and never lapse in taking care of thatch

and never fail in mowing, grooming, or

remembering the nitrogen, not once.

Your creeping bentgrass needs the best in fert-

ilizer, wetting agents, moistest soil.

Do not ignore hydrophobicity

when caring for your bentgrass putting green,

and it will care for you for years to come.

Poetry and Coffee (sorry, no pie)

The Morning Guy claims not to listen to NPR, but he does seem to read Garrison Keillor’s website “The Writer’s Almanac” which astounds and confuses me. I do listen to NPR, but built up a sensitivity to Keillor’s voice over the years, until it has become a sound akin to fingernails on a blackboard. But that’s another story.

At any rate, I was surprised to find this poem in my in-box this morning, before I even went in to work. “Everyone must read poetry with their coffee,” he’d written on the attached sea-blue Post-It note. I’m not sure if that is meant to be a new rule — The Morning Guy has many of those — or just an observation.

Sadly for me, like the narrator of the poem, I no longer drink coffee. Or smoke. Or drink. Damn, sometimes life is hard. No wonder I look forward to those stormy days when Hurricane Rules Apply.  I used to love a shot of 100-proof Hot Damn followed by a beer chaser.  Oddly enough, I just don’t get the same kick from a cinnamon Altoid and an O’Doul’s.

And I do miss drinking coffee with my poetry. At least I’ll always have pie.

http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/

Literature in the 21st Century
by Ronald Wallace

Sometimes I wish I drank coffee
or smoked Marlboros, or maybe cigars—
yes, a hand-rolled Havana cigar
in its thick, manly wrapping,
the flash of the match between
worn matchbook and stained forefinger,
the cup of the palm at the tip,
the intake of air, and the slow and
luxuriant, potent and pleasurable
exhale. Shall we say also a glass
of claret? Or some sherry with its
dark star, the smoke blown into the bowl
of the glass, like fog on portentous
morning, the rich man-smell of gabardine
and wool, of money it its gold clip?

Sometimes I wish I had habits
a man wouldn’t kick, faults a good man could
be proud of. I’d be an expatriate from
myself, all ink-pen and paper in a Paris café
where the waiters were elegant and surly,
the women relaxed and extravagant
with their bobbed hair and bonbons, their
perfumed Galoises, their oysters and canapés,
and I’d be writing about war and old losses—
man things-and not where I am, in this
pristine and sensitive vessel, all
fizzy water, reticence, and care, all reduced
fat and purified air, behind my deprived
computer, where I can’t manage even
a decaf cap, a mild Tiparillo, a glass of
great-taste-less-filling light beer.

“Literature in the 21st Century” by Ronald Wallace from Long for This World: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Making Pie Crust

You must not work the dough too much.
Fine flaky crust
requires a light touch.
I cut the shortening into the flour,
rocking the cutter as I go.
There was a time, though,
when I would grasp two knives
and cleave the ingredients,
both pressing them together
and slicing them apart.
When young, I did not remove my rings.
I don’t even wear them now.
Back then,
I liked the look of gemstones
dappled with bits of dough.
Grandmother would not have approved, though,
and even now,
I know she is watching me.
Not that grandmother taught me how to bake.
Oh, no.
If anything, she showed me that I
could be a real woman
and never cook a god damn thing.
But that’s another story.
She did, however, make a pie crust
that was so flaky
I could peel it apart
with my silver dessert fork,
and find a new horizon
in every translucent layer.
My grandfather was talented with pie, too.
No matter how many people
sat at his table,
he could cut a pie
so that everyone there
had a slice of equal size,
and he always had two.
Somewhere along the line
I learned to lay down waxed paper
instead of a pastry cloth.
I think that is a Nebraska trait.
And when I make my pie crust now,
I travel back there for a moment or two.
I visit the women at my welcoming church
who invited me, the young mother, to join them
in cookie packing one holiday weekend.
One after another, the women came in,
brushing the snow from their sensible boots,
dropping down bags of store-bought cookies,
and saying, “I really don’t have time to bake.”
I knew I was in the right place.
Long ago, for a rolling pin, I chose a wine bottle
that drew me in with its rich green glass.
Now I wield the wooden pin
that I have carried with me for years.
I wonder when the handles broke off?
I wonder why?
It hints of violence in the kitchen, doesn’t it?
I don’t recall any—at least not involving pie,
although …
I did once throw
a fairly hefty farm-grown watermelon
at my fairly hefty farm-grown husband.
But that’s another story.
Now for the best part:
The crust is elegantly thin,
and ready to be transferred to its vessel.
Sometimes I choose the glass pie plates that I bought
when my favorite bar went out of business
and sold off all its cookware.
I don’t believe I ever ate a pie there,
though I would, sometimes, sit at the bar and drink
Glenlivet scotch, and toast the memory
of my late great father-in-law.
My war with him was never open,
but I still think I won.
I’m here now, am I not?
We can only speculate on his whereabouts.
So, where were we?
Ah, the pie crust,
submissive in its pan.
My mother would have me
prick it with a fork,
but I say no.
I go another route,
more seductive, more sublime.
I pull out my crimper
and begin the ritual
of pressing the dough,
embossing the crust
with rosettes and with stars.
It’s a gentle motion of marking territory:
This
pie
crust
belongs
to
me.
Many times,
if I am making a single-crust pie,
this effort remains hidden,
like wearing your best undies
when you go out to play.
But sometimes…
sometimes
I’ll do a two-crust pie,
and then I get the pay-off:
The aahs.
The oohs.
The how-did-you-do-its?
My crimper is a sacred object.
I rank it high in holiness.
Perhaps it is as holy as –
please don’t laugh –
my bean pot.
Both were gifts from Hazel,
wonderful, funny, austere, searching Hazel,
a city girl
who had learned to navigate country life
but never lost her style or poise.
I was barely in my twenties, and she was …
well she was just a little older than I am now.
I was in training to marry her long-haired poet son,
but I never did.
I’ve always felt
that he would have married me
for my incestuous pie crust alone.
It looked like his mother’s.
It tasted like his mother’s.
But in the end,
pastry was not enough.
I triumphed in pie crust, but I did not win in love.
I excelled in pastry, but I failed in common virtue.
And now I know,
pastry is never enough.
And yet, there are days …
there are days
when nothing will console me,
nothing will hold me,
nothing will soothe my fretful soul
quite like making a pie.
And as for the boy I did not marry,
Well, that really is another story.

Copyright 2000, Barbara Jean Walsh