Oct/Nov 2003 Poetry

Two Poems

by Lisa Lewis

Photo-Art by Tara Gilbert-Brever



Greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness...
     —American Psychologist

That aspect of the male body requiring grimy jeans
To hang low on the hips, sagging in the ass, bagging
At the knees, a belt securing the waist below the waist,
Below the overhang—I won't name it. No use, remarks
That generate regret for whatever's too late to lose.
Even this bright first day of December, the older man
Strolling home down West Arrowhead, glancing
Where I crouch on the edge of the Adirondack chair
On my porch—then, when I look down, glancing
Away—it's hard to feel anything but vexed contentment.
His white cap levels his head like a carpenter's tool.
He appears to be "working class," judging from his attire,
And married. In this neighborhood, you can bank on
A guess separating college students from their elders,
Though in this state the transition from the lone caste
To the coupled happens early for most: it's old-fashioned,
Sweet as an auctioneer's patter on a Sunday afternoon,
Hateful with secrets like the Cherokee woman murdered
The week after 9/11 by boys who mistook her skin.
I run slighter risks but don't go out except for work
And grocery shopping. A bird feeder dangles from a cord
Above my head. Earlier, sparrows tangled for millet,
All show, spread wings, glittering tenacity of the extra-
Small, of dull plumage and zero self-awareness, pecking
Order no subject for discussion in their survivalist culture.
Indoors, though, my computer tells another story,
Incredible from this perspective, saffron sun, tarnished
Asphalt driveway, trash bags poised for next morning's
Pick-up, the memory of stars: an online argument
That lasted weeks, in words stored loose like flour in a sack,
And what I wrote to finish: You win. I had opined
That a woman spotted shopping was likely married
To a wealthy man, judging from her clothes and body,
The neighborhood, too, "Quail Springs": you know the type.
Or stereotype, what someone claimed I'd spoken, and it did
Not go over. Well-such is the source of my vexation,
The week's worth of defenses I typed in—stereotyped,
As with double speakers, I who had guessed and she
Who insisted I should not. Together, we stereotyped,
From Seattle, from Stillwater, harmony at cross-purpose,
Like a grid or graph stretching through phone lines,
And across the nation screens glowed midnight blue
Through the fixed retinas of readers who might otherwise
Have crept like hungry cats into shrubbery to catch
The murmur of sleeping birds or simply stepped out
For a whiff of the brisk air. If I was wrong to guess
A woman's life from a glimpse, should I or anyone offer
Herself in secret public places, the Internet, to strangers:
What are we missing? The moment when summer's stalk
Dries sere and the moist whisper of grass stems shakes out
One drop and rattles? Or shattered robins' eggs ground
Under raccoon's heel, or opossum's, or mere tomcat's, belled
Or not: the one on my street is. I'm asking if it's possible
To know the life of the sidewalk crack when all you do is talk,
Type, stereotype, twinned typists, coast to heartland, hither
And forth, the illusion of rising on steam of threaded
Language, when nobody's going anywhere in fact. Except
A man strolling home from work. What did he think
When he glanced my way, huddled in the December sun,
Shoals of menthol cigarette smoke he surely smelled?
Something, I hope, even if, upon arriving at his own door,
He called to his wife that he noticed someone wrong,
Breathing demon nicotine, hair too short, likely a lesbian,
And the lawn not mowed in its proper time so it's stuck
Unkempt for the season: he'd be right, mostly. I allow
He's human, thus curious, lacking in perfect insight,
Subject to judgment. I didn't think much of that white cap.
The jeans were worse. I pity his patient wife, or impatient
Daughter, whoever's there: I'll never know. But I'll know more
From watching him and other neighbors and their dogs,
Bicycles, flowerpots, and Christmas trees already twinkling
In windows, than from that human habit, mouse-clicking
"Enter," so the infinite scroll of Babel floats where we want it
At the dial-up sound I could sing a cappella, I've heard it
So many times. Better to dwell with sparrows quarreling.
Better to guess the marital status of any stranger walking,
Glancing, heading home, the old way, on foot, not hiding,
Forsaking the shadow as long as it takes to turn the corner,
See the shabby house still square on its lot, and hurry on.



I moved here for a job. I rented a house on a busy street.
Around the corner, bars and a bagel shop. Young people
Walked the streets all night. They smashed beer bottles
And practiced guitar in garages so the roofs caved.
I taught myself to sleep with the tv on to drown out the noise
With the noise of the homogenous nation, not the town,
The kids from the country, sure they'd hit it big
To make it to the university, the ag school, second string.

Every time I went to the video store all the copies of Oklahoma!
Were rented. The students won prizes for scholarship
On The Grapes of Wrath. I'd never read it or seen the movie.
When I talked to strangers on the phone in the East
They asked if I lived in a tipi. When I drove to the City
I passed through reservations but saw only cedars
And open pastures, rolling out flat, abandoned, unloved.
I could smell disappointment steaming from thistle, leadplant,
Cottonwood, hollyhock. Who died? Coyotes hanging
From fences, murdered by a shot to the head. Turtles rushing
Across highways so pickup trucks crushed them on purpose.
Armadillos, suicidal, leaping up to meet their demise
Like born-againers whose women are barred
From attending college. And the women, the Indians,
Halfbreeds passing for white, generations passing,
Dying with their secrets, easy to do in shingled shacks
On rutted red clay roads behind the wind, and the dust
Now believed a curse of the past that could not
Kill again, everybody knows better

About planting, and plowing, and the used up soil, it's better
With bone ground in it, blood dried in it,
Brains gone mean, like Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath
I finally watched the other night. He's not mean
From being in prison. He swears to his Mama
That didn't happen to him, then he proves it true.
The Joads were driven from Sallisaw, near Webbers Falls
Where a month ago a bridge over I-40 collapsed
Into the river, hit by a tugboat. Tom Joad's Grandpa,
The night before he dies, sobs on the step of the house to be razed
Next day at dawn, This dirt ain't no good, but it's mine.
He lifts a handful to sift through his curled fingers.
It's so grotesque it's funny. I could've said it myself.
Maybe it's what cowards say in Oklahoma, and if someone tries
To force them out they refuse by dying.
They have a mission, to pack the bad dirt rich
With their bodies, but their bodies are poor,
Breath blown away on the wind. Here when the living
Try to help the living they drag them down.
When they die they're not even nourishment for worms.

I might wake up and this safe neighborhood
The local realtors call College Gardens could be drifted in dust,
Traced with those wavy snakelines the wind draws
On the beach and in the red dirt where no rain falls
Except in deluge to wash away everything
And not soak in on its course south to humid Texas.
The movie's a window into the far away, like the Kansas State
Website where I watched film of dust storms in the thirties,
A man leading a mule by a wire fence, his hand reaching
And seizing fast, never letting go or they'd be lost
Like the houses with dust piled to the windows, tractors
Buried like shipwrecks' bones. You'd have to be crazy
To believe that could come back tomorrow.
But the first time I heard someone say, when the sky darkened,
"That front's in Kansas," I laughed. Who would try to kid me
Like that, we're hours from Kansas, you can't see that far!
Now when it storms I turn on the tv, that other little window
I press my face to, trying to see what's coming, and there's
Ponca City, an hour's drive away, and the lightning's bright
In the back yard, thunder's drowning the insipid music
On the Weather Channel: when the storm's there,
It's here. But unless it tugs over us like a blanket it doesn't rain.

In California they hated the Okies so much they called everybody
Who was poor an Okie. In Oklahoma they hate the Okies so much
They can't make the red dirt better, and in town
The good people who hate Okies shop at one grocery store
And the bad people who are Okies shop at another.
I shop at the one where the Okies go. The hood of my car's
A red dirt plain. I wash it when I have to go somewhere
People don't wear scarves over their mouths to step outside,
Or lose their voices at night because they worked
In the grainy sun, even if it's the ragweed
And not the dust, even if it's the sky that opens
Everything up close no matter how far it is.

I don't expect anybody to feel sorry for me,
Which should tell you how long I've been here.
Even the way I sing to birds has changed. The sky wheels
With striped hawks and redtailed hawks and scissortails
And mockingbirds and red finches and flocks of robins
Too wild to hop in front yards listening for worms.
I sing to them and they sing back. They recognize me.
They see like I watch a movie on the Internet,
From afar, knowing it's as real as it's going to get,
And it could be closer than it seems, they'd better live it up,
And if that means singing back to the woman driving
To the tallgrass prairie preserve and parking her little car
Far from all the pickup trucks and nearly falling to her knees
Before all that melancholy, that flatiron sky
That presses down and lets you see things you ought never see,
Secrets you ought not be in on, without ever getting close
So you always feel lonely too, well, they'll do that.
It's about all that's left besides flying and building nests
In the grass. I can't do those things. So I'm singing
A lot these days, and you're overhearing me,
And if it sounds joyous to you, it's because I've been driven crazy
By the wind, and if it's sad, it's because every word is true.


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