On Friday night at the retreat-festival I go to every July, there’s a spoken-word event called Soul Expressions. Every year, the community’s poets, versifiers and word-smiths perform for one another in an event which is, as deeply as I have seen anywhere, about what Bill MacMillan called “sharing, not stage time.” This year’s offerings were particularly good, and I’m deeply honored that there’s such a wonderful collection of colleagues; I just wish we were able to recite for another more regularly.
As a poet, I’m increasingly bored by the experience of writing. I still do it, I still think it’s important to write down your work. But increasingly, I try to make at least some of my work improvisational, on the fly. This piece was trying to assemble itself all through Soul Expressions this year, out of two highly disconnected stories. It was not written down in the moment, but came together in that space and at that time. What follows is not at all what I said, but merely the best of what my memory can assemble, some time later.
Unto Distant Shores
One morning, when I was four or five years old,
my mother came into the bedroom and put her hand on my forehead.
“You’re sick,” she said, “Very feverish. No way you can go to school today.”
I protested. “I’m not sick,” I said, “I feel fine. Not feverish at all.”
But Moth would have none of it. She called the school, told them I wouldn’t be in.
But of course, this didn’t mean that I would stay home. No.
“I have to go to work today,” she said. “You’ll just have to come to my office,
and read in the corner or something.”
She bundled me up so that I was far warmer than I needed to be,
and we walked from our apartment down fourteenth street,
avoiding the drug dealers in Union Square, to her office.
Mom worked as a book designer.
In an ugly office in an ugly neighborhood,
she worked daily to produce beautiful books
that followed the rules of Vandengraff and Tischschold,
with typography by Caslon and Bookman.
The English translations of Nobel lecturers crossed her desk,
with its steel rulers and compasses and sheets of tracing paper.
All morning she worked, while I sat in a corner, reading from the young adult books
quietly pretending to be sick.
All at once, she rose from her desk,
scooping me along in her wake, “come along, Andrew, we’re going to lunch.”
With a hurried nonchalance that fooled me not at all—
this is my mother, after all, her “quick, come quick,” belying our lunch date.
we avoided people and boxes on the way to the elevators,
so that we were standing there, waiting, as two cars left without us.
A man came along, well-dressed, red tie.
I looked at him without much curiosity, looked away.
My mother glanced at him, recognized him with gentle surprise,
like an old acquaintance in an unexpected place.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins, I’d like you to meet my son.
Andrew, this is Michael Collins. He’s been to the moon.”
••• [astonished silence, wide-eyed face]
Thirty-seven years later, my town is snowed in
and there are broken power lines over the sidewalks.
For ten days, we’re trapped at home,
no school of course, no power,
frequently without heat and with shattered trees all around,
as plows and power crews try to clean up.
Running low on supplies after five days,
I venture out through waist-deep snow,
five blocks to where a friend meets me on cleared streets.
Three hours of difficult travel take me seven miles from home,
to a nearly-empty grocery store and some fresh supplies.
When I return, treading over ice with my four bags of groceries,
I encounter one of my neighbors,
an African-American man about my age,
with two young daughters. I don’t even know his name.
He stops shoveling, looks at me with the face I made to the moon-man
so long ago. “You’ve been to the grocery store??”
I know that the face looking at me is the face I made
to Michael Collins by the elevator. I see his astonishment, his wonder, his fear.
Remember, that on that trip, Collins never landed.
He stayed on the Apollo 11 while Armstrong and Aldrin went down to the surface,
and stayed in radio contact with Earth.
Collins kept going, around the far side of the moon;
and every so often, in utter silence and darkness,
he was farther from home, farther from safety, farther from any other human contact,
than anyone had ever been before.
And I find myself wondering:
“How is it that the grocery store is more unreachable now,
than the moon?”
I do the only thing that it’s possible to do in the moment.
I hold out my right hand, and offer him the bags of groceries I’m carrying.
“Here,” I say. “These are for you.”
I have no idea what groceries I have given him,
whether the food will be adequate for him or his children.
We will be unable to drive for five more days,
and neither of us know it.
Until then, this faint human contact will have to do,
until the cold ends, until the lights come on again.