I am standing in front of glass windows
that are acting like a mirror.
I need to comb my hair.
but two soldiers stare
at the picture in my passport,
chuckling to each other,
glancing up from time to time.
And a long line
of strangers clasp their passports
and watch me,
wishing I'd move on.
(For this moment I've been granted
exclusive rights to a border.)
And back home the same thing--
at outdoor bank windows:
I walk up, stand,
breathe exhaust between cars,
step up when it's my turn,
and the teller decides
to check my balance
before she delivers the cash.
The cars whir on behind me,
revving bald impatience.
The longer it takes,
the more suspicious the air.
And all I want to do is comb my hair.
from Searchings for Modesto (1993)
foer Erland Andersson
Someone with my name--
Born the same day,
But in a different country--
Will be thirty-nine years old
A few hours before I am--
Given the eight or nine I must subtract
To link Sweden with the West Coast, U.S.A.
I can't picture him
Standing on the Golden Gate Bridge--
His mind salty with wind and fog--
Facing empty Alcatraz; or driving long
Distances on sun-burnt freeways,
Overconscious of time zones, gauges, divides,
And a continent's end.
No stereotypes either, I must scrupulously
Avoid them. But when I first glanced
At Christmas cards from his country, thinking
About a name few people here could pronounce,
And snow to me was something like the sheet
I slept on in Southern California--
Or maybe balls of cotton--
He already knew that it got cold
And you didn't see much sun
During that month of the year.
The phone book in that country
Lists his occupation and a name
Everyone there can pronounce.
from Searchings for Modesto (1993), first published in Calapooya Collage/9 (1985)
From the stage mike
Professor Parducci announced to our class
of six hundred:
"five experiments are required." That was before
I knew his family
money came from wine. Before
I was supposed to know much
of anything--a Freshman at a jammed
without enough intelligence
to be insulted
by freeway construction
or Bel Air mansions.
The first experiment rang a bell:
a woman in white,
sluicing instructions in the echo-chamber
manner of Radio Moscow
pulled in over the short-wave.
One sentence committed me to a chair,
"reinforcement." And she retired to monitor
behind a one-way mirror.
Headphones over my ears,
the first word, a pause,
the second word . . . .
A tinkling sound grew from one
I can't remember, but after STEM:
a loud cataract of white noise,
enough static to jolt me--
my right foot's groping
for a lever
and not reaching it that time
in time to halt the noise
before another word was spoken.
"In the Soviet Union the oxygen is different,"
a transplanted Russian
addressed the company
in his own language.
The grading system was introduced to me
in plain English
when a second-grade girl at my school
asked to see my report card.
The thrill of her shock
jolted me: her voice echoed:
"You got a D in Reading!" And I can't remember
the tinkling words my mother
spoke to contain my cataract of tears--
something about the lack
of first-grade instruction at Mar Vista
and over-crowded half-day programs.
I learned warning words
stopping pain. My foot hit the lever
after every other STEM:
rigid growth toward comfortable living
in a predestined stage
of psychiatric hospitals at home
or in the Soviet Union.
No wonder some have turned to wine,
others to poetry--
the true announcements,
dials to pull in forgotten words--
dangerous to reinforcements--
the spillway vocabulary of the soul.
from Searchings For Modesto (1993), first published in The Chariton Review (Fall, 1986)
A Change of Sheets
for Yoshe Kuramoto
When I was sick with a fever
you came in to mop the hardwood floor.
"How 'bout a change of sheets? I was a nurse
during the war. No, you won't have to get up.
Let me show you."
From one side of the bed
I felt the sheets loosen--
damp mounds rising along my back.
You tucked in new ones
beyond my vision, smoothed them, slapped them,
had me roll over, pulled off the old ones,
tugged and tucked again the fresh ones
all around the bed.
My mother added: "Gila Bend, Arizona.
She was in a camp. The government claims
they quarantined her family for their own protection.
She told me of snakes, scorpions--
and snipers aiming bullets at them
through fences at night
from all around the camp."
Home with you for a weekend. No fences.
A dirt parking lot behind Japanese restaurants,
gift shops, nurseries on Sawtelle.
A softwood shack you rented the first year in L.A.
To take a bath with Roger
I climbed the side of a galvanized tub.
Your hand pulled out the plug; the dirty water
tucked down a drain across the cement floor.
With Hiro and Jerry we had miso soup
and mounds of rice, white as sheets,
out of lacquer bowls.
Beds were all in the same room.
Saturday, Roger and I went fishing.
My day camp, Tacaloma. We were segregated into tribes.
Was I Arapaho or Shoshone?
I caught the mumps, brought them home,
gave them to you. We groaned together, compared
our swollen cheeks.
June bugs aimed at flood lights
outside your new house.
Plenty of room. A garden:
bonsaied bushes and trees.
We stopped there
on our way to watch the Dodgers lose another game.
A trip to the East Coast. You and my family.
In D.C. we stomped metal stairs
all the way up a piercing
white monument. Someone in a New York cafe'
refused to serve you lunch until
Mrs. Foman aimed sharp words at him. Floors
whizzed like bullets, popping our ears.
Atop, I was sick of New York
in the hot, humid air.
But you wanted to reel it all in,
take the fresh view beyond fences.
A security man asked you smoothly:
"Are you Indian? I'm Iroquois myself,
can spot another native."
from Searchings For Modesto (1993)
Hard To Believe
I couldn't believe it.
The Luther League ski trip to Big Bear Lake
ended without a flake of real snow--
despite a cold wind, a black sky.
The first day out, as the bus shot past Arrowhead,
someone said, "Those are snow clouds all right.
"I oughta know; I'm from Minnesnowta."
No water in the lake either
only a duck pond's worth
deep in a trench
staggered with reeds. The wind kept spilling
clouds up the slopes
toward a place
where brown-sided machines
slushed over patches
of that imitation stuff
for criss-crossing skiers.
All afternoon, gloved hands grabbed
a lone rope-tow. No one in our group
dared to brave the chill.
But that night, unconfirmed
teenage boys took to climbing
out of windows, up the outside wall,
trying to break in
where the girls were congregated.
Setting his alarm every half hour,
Pastor Pedersen lined us up,
delivered red-faced sermons
about Hell-raising. He reinforced
the points he made
by sleep privation
well into the night.
The wind settling down by morning,
the sky cirrus white, Pastor Pedersen
found me reading. When he asked
for title and author, I had to flip the book over
to say, "Victory by Joseph Conrad."
Later, by a fire, he braved
the hard topic of philosophy,
how Plato saw the chairs we sat on
as Ideas in Heaven (or did he say God's mind?).
"That explains why appearances deceive," he ended.
The rest of the day seemed dull. Nothing to do
really, but double up a chair lift
and look out at empty ground
where white should have been.
Later we filed indoors
to a crowded ice-rink
shooting with skaters
in one another's way.
I couldn't stand it.
Beginners didn't have a prayer.
One Sunday, before Pastor Pedersen
built the new church, Nixon appeared.
After a fiery sermon, I lined up,
shook the big hand
of our ex-Vice President,
wishing him victory over Governor Brown.
He thanked me in a way,
a sort of looking inward--
like he really didn't see me.
That was before he flew to China
or got caught red handed.
Where the Church stood then
today you'll find condominiums. from Searchings For Modesto (1993)
Mr. Churchill, man of leisure,
who made a killing at the races,
could do something at a party
to amuse a child
by letting animals race through him:
first a duck quacked,
and I thought that was funny;
a mouse squeaked, a chicken clucked,
a pig squealed.
He teased them out expressly
one by one:
they ran across his saggy face.
But when he released a gorilla--
hands scratching underarms--
I got the wrong impression
and started to cry.
The adults laughed a little and said
it was a shame.
Donna, my cousin from Hanford,
made up a game called "Bears."
I was a cub in the laundry bin--
hibernation in used sheets. She
and the other big bears did their big-bear things:
they peered in at me now and then
to see if I was O.K.
Animal of leisure,
all I had to do was wait and watch.
My instinct was to play that game
with Donna's every visit, but she
put it off, and off each time. And soon
I couldn't fit into the bin.
At Farmers' Market one Hallowe'en
my mother and I waited
for a parade to find a way
under rows of eucalyptus around a parking lot,
to come into our view. A witch, atop one float,
her back to me, a broom in hand,
twirled round, swooped down
at me in the crowd. I released a scream.
She moved back a little,
then on to frighten other children.
At home that night
I thought I might do something: found
an old broom, black hat and cape,
and made a strange impression at every door
when I said, "I'm a witch."
The Putnams, who never worked with their hands,
had a big house
and a red and green talking parrot
("What's your name? Whataya do for a living?)
that bit my father's ear.
They invited us over one Christmas Eve.
My sister found a bathroom
carpeted fluffy white on the floor
and toilet seat. She jumped down
on all fours to touch it, howling,
"Puppy, puppy, oh, puppy!" Another night, late,
after a party, the Putnams were robbed, tied up
in a room near the parrot.
But Donna Putnam divorced her husband,
went back to the name
she had as a dancer in her youth.
Viewing our table manners, she sent me
and my sister (expressly) a book of etiquette.
One night she told me:
"When you grow up, you should become a lawyer."
I didn't show much interest.
The alternative was poverty--she
gave me that impression. from Searchings for Modesto (Talent House Press, 1993)