America was the last minute decision. Gregory was on the bathroom floor when it happened – so the wedding won’t come after all – and the car still held the smell of rain after the windshield gave into the monsoon season that settled in outside our house in Boca Raton, where everything was shaped like swamp. There was this telephone call from Massachusetts, a straight drive north only a few days could accomplish, but what poetry is there to look at after a broken heart? With all the seats laid down, the arrangement of books and suitcases was exactly what my grandmother had taught me of jigsaw puzzles.
From Atlanta, there are only so many directions that are not south. In a letter, Rachel made a picture of Seattle out of stickers and crayons and both of us just lines with smiling, circled faces in the middle of it. To devise a plan in secret, one must surely tell everyone. Not quite home again in Atlanta, the look on every face was this: you’ll be murdered if you go alone. From my grandmother’s favorite chair, the story happens where she made her thumb a vehicle pointed west to San Francisco from the corner outside a D.C. barbershop where she let her red hair go pixie-short and dangerous. It ends, as things do, halfway in Chicago with my grandfather handsome on the street – and that was a million years ago, so what does it matter anyway, she wants to know. Why not go to Massachusetts and make poems out of birds?
In January, birdsong is south of anywhere. What my radio could dial safely into was blizzard, blizzard first upon some sleep in St. Louis, blizzard changing all recalled direction in Sioux City. Go tripping through Wyoming to find the places where ice eats new patterns into any shade of Chevrolet, where my little dog lost threads of sweaters to the snow. Any mountain pass will do for loss of what South Florida may have touched or thought of touching. Blizzard came all the way to the beach in Bellingham where Dylan pointed rock and roughage out of snow-shine to say, this is it, this is where you are.
I went west self-educated in lessons of layering and what that means, but I had not anticipated finding all my discount sadness so expertly packed among glassware, dishes, socks or rolled into the fabric of the one gray rug that had not been made means for dispute at going away. At the Half Price Books in Everett, there were well-labeled cases for words on every subject except advice on how to lose sadness in sad, wintry places. Rachel’s cartoon face went blurry when I unrolled an atlas on the floral of her living room carpet and imagined how all maps lead to warmer houses.
What Massachusetts has not learned of America is everywhere else. Drink as many beers in Portland as it takes. Lose all socks or sense in San Fernando as it pleases. I have already made poems out of birds. It was a middle-desert through every window somewhere in New Mexico when I once again made my own shape the way I had in younger summers when my grandmother had spun dials for direction, saying, out here there’s no one to notice if you’re old enough to drive. This is everywhere I want to show you when there’s a you to fill this sentence.
I was a month deep into country when my bank account went blue as I had been, and I was forced at last to make maps to anywhere I wanted to be visited at home. Here: come and meet the oak tree out my front window though it is too dark now to make out anything but the whole of it. Exhibit A will be the one gray rug and how it has changed and changed me on the backs of these new hardwoods and everyone who has made a home upon them. Check my temperature for registries of this new life I’m making out of mountain and riverside and every stoplight in every state that’s ever helped or held me.
From my couch in Candler Park, I call Korea to talk to the future. What my students want most of America could be written on a postcard – Do you know Boyz II Men? Have you ever met Margaret Mitchell? Can I ask your advice? – because somehow someone somewhere believes that having been born in America has given me a wisdom that other peoples in other places have not yet been able to achieve. How can I – I’d like to ask them in return – how can I, this skinny white girl from one city in one state, be a symbol of what America is or has been for fifty students studying more topics more diligently than any American student could ever muster a groan for when I can only coo across a telephone line in a smooth and steady voice I learned from so much childhood spent falling asleep to shoddily recorded VHS tapes of Walter Cronkite delivering the same news stories to the same audience until the screen goes blinking gray to mark the end of everything but dreams? Spring comes, and already I’ve forgotten everything that ever was of winter.
In the morning when it comes time again for poems, which it will and does, let my bookshelf go unfeathered as it is and the flowers in their vases bloom toward something more than still-life on a canvas gifted to a friend whose birthday I’ve forgotten again this year. Let the placemats where I’ve left them be only placemats holding spaces for future guests I’ve still to meet so that they may press their own portraits into the table by way of mealtime. Let the walls themselves hold residue of every color and texture of sand I’ve ever stepped in or collected in my most forgotten body, or, if they won’t, let them release me to the streets where I’ll be peopled every passing year. Then once I’ve cleared those sidewalks in both and back directions, I will knock on every door, calling, let me in, let me in so that I may learn enough to look any stranger in the eye and say, this? This is an American poem.