Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

27, rue de Fleurus

For Elizabeth

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
-Italo Calvino

A decade has passed since we lived here,
So we delighted in the fact that the new tenants kept
Our curtains, our finials,
Our terra cotta pots on the distinguished,
Haussmannien balcony. It was in these
Containers that I cultivated a
Smuggled Martha Washington geranium,
Double bagged in A&P plastic tucked
Deeply in a canvas duffle bag that
The sniffing labrador retriever
Gratefully ignored. He instead
Sucked in the moist air around
My ankles, swollen from flight,
Expectancy and pregnancy
And moved along with indifference
To the next foreign traveler.

I suppose I thought I was being provocative
By the gesture, yet disappointingly the
Red blooms never thrived here. They grew, but were
Choked out by the native sort, with which it shared
Soil, lived but never showed her
True, showy blossoms, which stay contained
As the french, split variety spilled over
And welcomed passers-by
On the rue de Fleurus,

Where now a shadow of a sentry
In front of her own personal Picasso
Lays fixed, a mark on the cobblestone
Where her formidable human form
Blocked the terrorizing radioactive light
Of a holocaust.

We were barred entry,
No code de porte; the keypad
lacking in letters which were once permanent,
Offering nothing now but an
Unknown digital sequence.
A less emotional being would remember
Exactly: there are 3,621 miles from
The sidewalks of New York to the
Ville de quelqu’un d’autre,

Where sirens’ foreign screams
Woke us from sound sleep,
Disoriented until I regarded the
Familiar curve of your newborn lips
Blistered from nursing and puckered
Exactly the way they do when you rest,
My own Moveable Feast,
Here, years later,
At home,
Wherever that might be.

Nor’easter

An innocent, gob smacked

In the middle of the

Cone of uncertainty,

Beyond the ignorant base where

The line of sight disappeared

To a vanishing point, the

Imperceptibly omniscient terminus,

Where the storm, played out,

Revealed its aftermath: a force,

An indelible impression on

The landscape, by which only

The eye, centered in learned clarity

Perceived without foresight

Its context, its significance.

Setting the Table in the Age of Reason

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching…I have been bent and broken, but I hope into a better shape.”  From Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.

A dinner fork with a bent tine
Serendipitously landed
At my place setting most often,
It seemed to me.
Flanking a flea market find,
A Wedgewood drabware plate
Crackled and chipped in earnest,
Antiqued sufficiently to suggest
It could have held the roast chicken of
Thomas Paine himself.

The northward tine was at first
Jarring, startling the smooth
Maneuvering of this thrice-daily
Task, sustaining, comforting,
Unifying, at the table
Of those I have borne,
Rendered, after more than a decade of
Sycophantic childhood, as imperfect in
Their teenaged eyes.

The slide of stainless steel
Fits with precision in the
Space between my upper incisor,
My canine, a whistle, never repaired
For a series of human reasons,
Leaving a photo documentary:
A trail of Jaconde-like portraits,
Seemingly confident, omniscient
Expressions, hiding the gaps,
Revealed only to a handful of those
With whom a shared, altruistic,
Symbiosis feeds divinely flawed,
Earthly love.

The Springsteen Phenomenon

Certainly, Bruce Springsteen’s popularity extends beyond the borders of his own Garden State, yet the hype that surrounds him here is impressive.  His popularity is written on many a New Jersey sleeve (or tattooed on an arm. Yep. Seen it).   While sitting in customary Route 3 traffic, I have heard the heavy brass of his late saxophone player, Clarence Clemons, blaring through the open windows of an adjacent car.  I have – with my tongue planted firmly in cheek – joined in an impromptu sing-a-long of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out at our local King’s supermarket.

It seems to be a mutually endearing relationship: Bruce chose his native New Jersey as a home base for him and his family, and references to Jersey run amuck in his lyrics. (This is how I learned that people in New Jersey don’t go to the beach, but they go “down the shore,” where, apparently, everything is all right).

I am not a New Jersey native.  I started this blog as a stranger in a strange land, yet will wholeheartedly admit no true, discernible cultural difference can be found between my not-so-bucolic hometown of Bristol, Connecticut and much of New Jersey.  Both have the distinctive blue collar roots from which Bruce’s poetry blooms.  I remember the New England jovial version of Brucemania which surrounded his Born In the USA tour, which included a stop at the Hartford Civic Center.  I was not allowed to attend.

This curious New Englander finally got her chance a week ago, when Bruce performed his River Tour to a sold out crowd at the Prudential Center in Newark, for which I obtained tickets by some stroke of dumb luck via Ticketmaster online.  With a click of the button at the allotted time of 1o AM, I asked for the “Best Available” seats, and got two in the nose bleed section.  Turns out the entirety of the stadium, which is home to the New Jersey Devils hockey team, sold out in less than ten minutes.

I prepared for the concert by watching videos of swooning fans reaching out to an agile Springsteen as he crooned a gravelly tenor into a microphone.  There were women of every background and age being pulled onstage to “dance in the dark,” including his mother, his daughter, and even a four year-old who bafflingly knew the chorus to Waitin’ On A Sunny Day.  OK.  I get it…  This guy knows how to connect to his audience.  But more: he’s a hometown, good guy, lacking any trace of narcissism that seems to be the trademark of so many other rock stars.

Teetering on a steep balcony over 20,000 like-minded folks who came to see Bruce in his native habitat, I was about to satisfy that curiosity.  Qualifying remark: this was my first big stadium show.  I have no experience seeing Some Big Rock Star in Some Big Stadium.  Previous concerts for me have been limited to smaller venues, with lesser known performers, or ones that had past their prime.  I preferred an intimate show, where I could sit in my accustomed Connecticut reserve and comfortably, quietly enjoy the music that held personal and private significance.  I didn’t need to wear it on my three-quarter-length sleeve.

20,000 people howling Bruuuuuce! in unison?  Amusing.  First name basis and all.  Then the screams…  Jumping up and down, dancing like it might be outlawed tomorrow.  I couldn’t possibly get this excited about someone to whom I didn’t make love or give birth.  I couldn’t join the choir; I didn’t know the words.  And how can the guy behind me know EVERY DAMN lyric to EVERY DAMN song?  Maybe I was just feeling left out.

Surrounding spectators, who I observed like an anthropologist, were either clinging to their loved ones, or swaying in a solitary trance.  One of my fellow concert goers likened the experience to going to a church service of rock and roll, where one worships The Boss.  He took no breaks for close to four hours. At 66 years-old, he even allowed his sycophantic fans to pass his body from a mosh pit back to the stage, an exaltation of supporting hands.  One can even touch his denim garment, for the price of floor seats!

I was converted when the stadium lights were illuminated to reveal his disciples as he performed Lonesome Day, a tune which Salman Rushdie once declared as the best piece written about September 11th.  I was overcome with emotion hearing 20,000 voices sing, “Let kingdom come, I’m gonna find my way, through this lonesome day…” One quarter of all casualties of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center were New Jersey residents, and although there is some debate as to the meaning behind the lyrics, which might be construed as a depiction of more personal loss, the message received by this crowd was one of collective understanding, joyful noise, a healing: even for those that didn’t touch his garments.  And yes, I suppose, many in attendance were so engaged because they probably did make love with Bruce in their ears, perhaps were celebrating in the audience with that same partner, maybe even gave birth with him, too.  Seems as though even the youngest fans know the lyrics, and understand the value of coming together for a few hours, to lose the stiffness and praise Bruce.

Jersey exuberance: 1.  Connecticut Puritanical reserve: 0.

 

Infrastructure

In the last blush of dusk
A child strikes two pieces
Of rose quartz, tumbled
To a high unnatural gloss.

Together with successive
Clicks, he replicates what
A bohemian docent with
Feathered earrings
Explained to him:
People of the Ute,
Land of the Sun,
Conjured the Spirits of
Mid-summer with the
Same crystals nestled in
Rattles of translucent
Buffalo hide.

Glowing Internally,
A mechanoluminescent
Wisdom, mysterious,
Creates encapsulated sparks, as
Every neuron, firing dendrite,
Axon of his golden body, synapse lit in kind,
Forms his Self.

Housed by an ephemeral
Pop-up cathedral
Of transparent skin,
Muscle, native drops of
Aboriginal sanguine fluids,
Flow through
A conduit of an
Equally black-lit blue,
Mixed amongst
Ten pints of various,
Standard, original
Lifeblood.

His own firing light
Nurtured by a protective housing,
Animates him,
Transports him through space,
Allows him to love and fear and despise
Privately. House and home
Protecting the other,
Interdependent,
Cooperatively leaving what once
Will be known as a footprint,
An impression, a suggestion of
Him which will lighten the grey
Of the longest systemic shadows
Cast from ivory tower
Or ceremonial rattle
With a dull flash.

Stand Off

I figured it wouldn’t last,
The persistence of one stubborn
Oak leaf clung to the grill
Of my windshield by its stem,
The petiole, as Carolyn Dwinnells
Called it in my eighth grade
Science class, containing tiny tubes
That once gave it remarkable strength,
Allowing its broad pinnated leaf
To hold fast to its towering foundation,
Even in gale force winds.

Not yet brittle to the touch,
Reminiscent of an ultimate
Authority two promotions ago
Via dress blues, starched broad
Shouldered epaulettes,
One anthropomorphic leaf
Spreads its arms and
Knocks on the glass
With its tiny pointed fists,
Stirring my inner critic awake
As if it were a passenger
Bumped to attention under
His safety belt. It
vibrates over Sotirios Johnson
And floods the cabin
Of my sensible car with
A cacophony of reminders.

Windshield wipers are useless
To silence him, as are powerful streams
Of windshield wiper fluid,
Rather brisk lane changes
Or cursing commands hurled
Through the glass.
The volume knob of frequency
Modulation turned clockwise
Intensifies the duet and
Amplifies an uninvited
Daydream.

Traffic slows to a stop as
Four lanes crumpled into
Two, the manic percussion
Stopped to a ringing of
My accustomed ears. The
Driver behind me yelled
As I plucked the leaf
From the grill, insurance
For my O’Henry Johnsy,
Letting it fall on the passenger seat
In my clown car of one.

Snapped cleanly at
The accession zone, it
Stiffly absorbed the last
Of the day’s sun that
It once reflected. I
absentmindedly traced my
Finger along its midrib, inadvertently
Broke it, sensing now that
It belonged to me: via
Mrs. Dwinnells’s fundamental
States of matter, or
Something entirely more
Fashioned, Genetic, one
Half of an
Imperfect whole.

oak-01

Transportation Safety

The suitcase itself was identical
To the dozens or more being
Wheeled in line by a school
Of spawning salmon people
Struggling upstream to
A checkpoint, an obstacle
To the fast way home.

Hers was made unique
And discernible by
A red, frayed grosgrain ribbon
Missing the talisman
It once displayed around her neck,
But securing the broken
Zipper, locking away
The contents, the luggage
Too cumbersome for
Two outstretched
Cradling arms, or
Too personal to tote
Without cover.

A bear of a badged man,
Par chance, unzips her hidden world
With latex gloves and
Gunpowder detecting swabs.
Flushed with the abrupt intrusion,
The traveler looks underneath
The opened lid, the uninvited
glimpses at all that she has
Packed away:
The white blouse with yellowed
Orbs under the arms
That once made her feel
The polish of a more worthy woman,
But now worn only under
A cardigan cover,
Boxes of shortbread dipped
In dark chocolate that really
Weren’t destined for her elderly mother,
Silk underpinnings which were
Seen by no one, save her
And this uniformed stranger:
Intricate lace that once made her feel wanted,
And now only foolish.

Raising his eyebrows, he
Glances over bifocals,
Dirtied with dandruff and sweat,
At the vulnerable fish woman
Clutching a paperback best kept
Under brown paper covers,
A bottle, a needle, a thread.
Rumpled cottons chosen
For comfort when Pandora’s
Boxes were unceremoniously opened,
Are returned to their original piles
Now disturbed, disorderly, rumpled.

With trembling fingers, she pulls
The tab of the zipper, her
Gill-like lungs struggling for
Calm, safely containing
All that she carefully tucks away
To a neat place,
Hidden, dark, manageable
When unperturbed.
With a groan in the throat,
A strain of the shoulders, she raises
Her pain and wonders
If she’ll have to pay an
Additional fee required
For overweight parcels.

images

Relay

A starter’s gun sees fit
To startle runners
To swift mobility:
Igniting the twitches
Of quadriceps, locked
In the blocks, to
More productive
Action.

Metal spikes in
Soles of athletic
Shoes, connecting
With a gravel track,
Reverberate in the jaw,
The teeth, grinding
Like an un-oiled
Gear, propelling
The body forward.

A hollow baton,
Painted aluminum,
Whistles a beat,
A bitonal melody,
A rhythm
Matched by the
Maker,
By movement.

Knuckles locked closed,
Gripping a weight,
Requiring a give,
A take,
Compensation
For a body off balance.
With weakened back,
the foundation is sown
Like a farmer’s field,
Untilled and black
With richness
And possibility.

Second leg,
A political war
Of kinesthetics,
The warrior recognizes
Space, time
Opponents in
The arc of a goal.

Baton! He yells,
And raises
A blue-veined
Forearm,
A battle cry.

For a fraction of a second,
Contact is made,
Hand to stick to hand,
Brotherly and unified
Rising into striding sync:
A mathematician
Calculates
Forward progression.

Precision in the final lap
A philosopher
Whirring wheels
Breaks a tape with
Developed powerful
Pectorals inflated with
Steady inhalations –
Unbated –
Unified in hope
Of the three cyclic
Lifetimes that ran
Before him, churning
The cinder of
An ignorant path
Beneath his
Spent feet.

“I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Studies Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
-Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, post 12 May 1780

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” -Reinhold Niebuhr

Changing The Sidewalk

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and gives life to thee.”
From Sonnet XVIII
by, William Shakespeare

Unsteadily upright,
A white-pated man
Awaited to shuffle across
The intersection. One hand
On a button, shakily
pushed for a pedestrian
Crossing, the other rested casually
On his jutted, arthritic hip,
Exposing the underbelly
Of his hand, his palm,
Flawless and juxtaposed
Next to his exhausted body.

His bowled legs,
Barely able to support
His aged body, met the ground
In blindingly white tennis shoes
With velcro straps, draped
In an easy-fitting
Geriatric uniform:
Khaki pants, zippered
Wind breaker, suggesting
His hands now have
Proven themselves as
Cumbersome during
His daily dressing.

His profile, grey and golden,
Illuminated by autumnal
Afternoon sun, proved useless
To warm his
Cardiovascular conundrums.
The whole of his body
Trembled, weary
From a lifetime of
Crossing busy streets.

Yet the un-calloused hand,
Pristine and smooth, once
Undertook the gentler and
More sensual of tasks:
Childhood sculpting of
Hand-made clay,
Caressing the skin of
A young lover, Cupping the
Open-fontanelled skull of
A newborn infant; a touch,
A neuro-pathway,
A motor sensory memory
Of realized youthful pleasure,
Unchecked and unspoiled
By a lifetime of hard-earned
Changes.