The skies here never disappoint.
We slip out for a last long look.
This valley of glass and sleeping water
spreads open with each gurgle
of our turning paddles.
One by one, the early planes swing up
a lattice of cloud that stays an eager sun.
Yachts doze heavily on their real estate;
only the nervy yellow eye of a heron
arrests our passage.
We drift along the margin of her strange poise.
Hibiscus blossoms flutter in the current and sink.
We gather coconuts to spile with breakfast.
The parrots at the inlet caw and rave.
In the chop of the open bay, our eyes
decide that every rise is a cresting fin,
but the dolphins never arrive
and we’ll be leaving here soon now too.
This just has not been our season.
But it’s always this way in sun-poached
up in the heat of the shade, measuring
its turning gradations,
never sorry for our time,
wondering whether we’ll ever return,
even as the blown flowers fill and drown,
to the dark-slow currents along with
each and all of our
All the curious people in the famous galleries
mill around, keeping politely to themselves.
In the paintings, the women shimmer;
Magdalene caressing the pages of a book,
Guan Yin in compassionate repose,
an ingénue flushed from an ardent bath,
the Madonna lifting her puckered nipple
to the hungry stares of the faithful.
Light from unseen, faraway places caresses
their cheeks, glints in the pigment of their eyes.
Their robes shine as blue as the sky they dream
about in cold grey cities where all the lovely
models have cinched up their robes and wizened,
where all the undiscovered visionaries mulch
thru second-hand paperbacks in backstreet studios
and flail brushes like the canes of the sightless.
Let’s go down again and have a look at the lake,
where sails tilting on the distance hint that
leaning back could carry us somewhere,
where the breezes scour the little waves
until they glisten like scales,
where the tide’s heave and plunge stretches
and bends the stones of the break wall,
where weather pounds lightning from the horizon
and coughs across the whitecaps,
where we can watch the wind paint pictures
in the sky-shine on the water and slowly,
slowly empty ourselves till we are light as songbirds.
Porch — a Letter Home
rain drums the cabin,
We are slowly finding level.
Just imagine the peal of thunder,
crawling up the watershed,
that could lift our sumped
thoughts from gabble and
startle three sister-doe
from their stand in a sodden field of corn
onto the gravel road beneath our eaves
and past us up into the timber.
The cat-tongue wind is done
grooming the snow fields.
Longer days have started
to leaven up the clouds.
One warm night will devil
the piled ice straight into fog,
and a stew of mud will cling
to winter’s receding feet
as summer’s infants begin to
kick at the ribs of their mothers.
On Mother’s Day weekend this year, my wife and I moved her mom from the neighborhood where we grew up in Columbus, Ohio to a retirement community where she and I live now in Eastern Pennsylvania. Much of the weekend, enjoying a kind anticipatory nostalgia, we hit places we wouldn’t return to for some time, stirring up old memories, charting how things had changed since our last visit, and marking them for future surprises. It’s not the last time we’ll visit our home town, we have other family there, but it is the end of something. Long familiar streets and corners seemed to gather a sort of accelerating impermanence which is in truth simply an index of our own very personal transformations. We are all of us made in the making of places, the real shape of which is too often difficult to see until we leave and then return.
One of the places we hit was the university where we studied. Renovations to the old dormitories, full of so many stories, brought one in particular to mind. For a short while as an undergraduate, I helped a vision-impaired peer with his reading. He’d added a Romantic Poetry class late. Student services was slow to prepare tapes of the assignments for him, so I volunteered. I met him twice a week in his dorm room to read Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley. Looking back, I have no idea why he was taking that class, because he clearly hated it. My friend preferred linear ideas and empirical, rather than imagined, experience. Self-conscious of my attachments to these archaic and partially foreign words and cadences inhabiting my voice, I discovered that whatever enthusiasms I tried to stir up were no match for his impatience. While his guide dog snored in a corner, and his hands fussed around the room, I slogged determinedly through the verses. Poems, especially the long ones that defied paraphrase, exasperated him. On my last day, he drank Mountain Dew and firmly chanted “number nine, number nine, number nine” while I marched through Coleridge’s lush Xanadu. At that time, I was reading Raymond Carver, and the story “Cathedral” resonated because of this friendship. In it, a petty and self-loathing man is jealous of his wife’s relationship with a blind man who visits for dinner. The two men stay up late and finally start to connect over a television documentary featuring cathedrals. The husband tries to explain what a cathedral is to the friend, but words fail him. At the friend’s suggestion, the husband draws one while the friend grasps his hand. By the time the husband has finished the drawing, his eyes eventually closed, he’s evidently begun to experience what a cathedral is for the first time in his life by enacting a greater sensorium. Recalling all this out loud while driving down High Street, language and story were haphazardly registering an experience of place and the residue of intersecting attentions that we sometimes unreflectively call self when we can’t think of any better way to say what we mean. The old neighborhood, the old school, the coffee shops, the library, the things we read, the bygone friendships, the potholes in the highway leaving town that rattle and boom through a panel-van, these all fizzle at the axial intersection of place and moment and person.
Our being there created a kind of prism, and not only for ourselves. Loading the van with my brother in the old neighborhood, each change stirred something up, and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between reminiscence and gossip, which got me to thinking. Travel, any kind of going elsewhere, makes us strangers to ourselves. Nobody knows us. We don’t know anybody. We don’t know our way around. Our habits stumble on our disorientations. We must learn new customs, new lingo. Our options are different. It quickly becomes apparent that we cannot take anything for granted. Our sleep and our digestion unsettle on us. Our senses, the grounds of all our activities collapse somewhat, and our self-confidence swiftly erodes. Piece by piece, we must begin to remake new identities out of each new experience, each new layer of emergent relationship. This is making place. And when we eventually return to any place where we ever felt at home, if we ever do, we always remain somehow unmoored. What was homely to us is unmade by a kind of culture shock of the familiar and comfortable. With a little care, this can become a permanent condition.
I am reminded in all this what poems can do. My friend unwittingly taught me to hear the patterned nonsense of supposedly great literature by walking through it with me in the rooms of my voice and criticizing it along the way. Catching up with my brother who stayed home, which is also catching up with the neighborhood and the city that forged both of our identities, made prodigals and orphans of us both. I worry and wonder about my mother-in-law’s self-discovery in a new town that she says reminds her of the place she grew up. Carver gives us the hint. Our conversations and our creativities invite us to experience our world with a certain distrust of our obvious senses, a notion that might gratefully scramble all apperception if we let it, leaving us wanderers, surprised again and again and again by our own arrival wherever we may be.
Andrew Vogel works as an educator, scholar, and part-time administrator at Kutztown State University of Pennsylvania. While studying the geographic imagination in writers like Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Nella Larsen, and Theodore Dreiser, his poems have appeared in The Blue Collar Review, The Heartland Review, Off the Coast, Slant Poetry Journal, The Evergreen Review, The Listening Eye, and elsewhere.