Monday, 27 October 2014

Alan Kaufman - Across the Mississippi

I will never forget the first time I saw the Mississippi River.  It was at night.  Me and Bobby Lynch were at Great Lakes Naval Centre, Chicago, doing equipment training for the FFG7.  We had a couple of days in between courses, so without telling our Divisional Officer we borrowed the foreign student communal car, a big old rusted out Pontiac, and headed south to see America.  We did Springfield the first day, Abe Lincoln’s home and stopped the night somewhere around Jacksonville.  We’re in this neighbourhood bar, and the bartenders a lumber-jack sort of bloke with a heavy set beard.  He serves us beers and doesn’t say nothing.  Me and Bobby sit on our beers and we don’t talk much either, having been together in the car all day.  I’m staring across the bar at the liquor bottles when I notice a cork-board with photographs pinned to it – family snapshots of people, faces, crazy poses.  There’s a hand written note pinned to the top of the board.  I can just make it out, and it looks like it reads, “Pictures of bear, $2”.  I look at the happy snaps, I look at the sign, I look at the bartender.  He sees we’re ready and he sets up another two Millers.  I pay the money and as the barkeep takes the notes I say, “so they must call you Bear”.  The bartender goes defensive and comes back, “no! why?”  I could see in his manner that he felt insult had been traded.  I quickly back peddled with apology, “I’m sorry, but I was looking at the photographs there and the note that says, ‘pictures of bear’, I assumed the photos must be of you.  The bartender opens up with laughter.  He turns and gets the attention of everyone along the bar, “hey, fella here thinks I’m selling pictures of ma-self!”  He brings the cork-board onto the bar and does an explanation, “see, this here says, ‘pitchers of beer, $2’; fella thought it read, ‘pictures of Bear, $2’.”  Bobby and I were laughing as loud as everybody else; somebody’s yelling, “who the hell would buy a picture of you anyway!”  Suddenly we’re in one of those moments where everybody’s warm and they genuinely wants to know where you from, what you doing, where you going.
That’s how I got to see the Mississippi River.  Rounds and rounds of beers and civic pride and cultural comparisons and wanting to try prairie oysters but the jars bloody-well empty, when somebody suggests, insists, and you’re laughing in the back seat of a car, and when you stop it becomes all serious and quiet, and you’re led in the dark to the top of a dirt mound levee; and it’s pitch black but you sense something vast, lurking and fucking awesome out there and down at your feet.  We all sobered and nobody said anything for fear of breaking the spell.  We knew the river was there, the river knew we had come to see her.  Then when we felt we had gained a sense of up, down and across, a bright, white light popped the black like a distant search probe and it kept sweeping from bank to bank in furtive, jerking arcs.  “Barges”, was all our hosts explained, all they needed to explain.
My Illinois experience leads me to post a poem by a renowned American poet Alan Kaufman, titled, Across the Mississippi.  I love this poem - not only for the content that I feel I can relate to, but also for the conversational and confessional style in which the poem is written.  Alan Kaufman follows on the heels of the beat generation of poets – grown up impoverished tough, seeking the altruistic heart of America, somehow lost in the ugliness of city and struggle, racial abuse, greed, indifference, pimps and drugs.  I love it!

Across the Mississippi

(Alan Kaufman:  1950? - )
We crossed the Mississippi’s muddy brown expanse in a blinding
creeping over a big suspension bridge whose name nobody knew,
in a bus with sheets of rain battering windows feeble as eyelids
trembling in fear,
and we could hardly see but for glimpses of suspension cable over
the sullen river, on the banks houses like garbage cans with pedal lids,
and over it all a sky the colour and consistency of clay,
with an occasional lightening bolt seaming it like a cheek
wrinkled in angry laughter.
And we didn’t even know that we were crossing
the Mississippi until that bottle of Fleishman’s whiskey
fell from the overhead luggage rack
and the lanky driver with hair in his eyes, and rolled sleeves,
and a pack of filterless Pall Malls
cast a glaring boozy eye our way in the rear view mirror,
pulled over the bus right there on the bridge
and announced for the twentieth time since leaving New York City
that Federal regulations prohibit booze consumption aboard,
which hadn’t made a goddamned difference to anyone
for over a thousand miles so far,
and didn’t make a gaddamned difference now.
The drunkards still snuck drinks and the sober people didn’t.
And he put the bus into high gear and gunned it.
And this was as we crossed the Mississippi,
though we didn’t even know it.
Assumed it was just some trash river,
as some birds are trash birds – say, the robin.
A trash river, some of us thinking, a love canal,
an above-ground industrial sewer of radioactive Republican by-products
by which to contaminate and kill the poor on the merry road to profit.
So we didn’t even know that we were crossing that famous river,
had no way to know.
Most of us had never seen it.
I had come from a transient hotel room east of the Hudson to find
my gain in California.  I didn’t have much money.
When the bus pulled into a rest stop, I stayed on board – didn’t
stumble off like the others blear-eyed drunk on lack of sleep
to gorge myself on fast food.
I was making it across the continent on three loaves of wonder bread
and two jars of peanut butter and one of jam, and so far so good.
And that bottle of Fleishman’s that dropped out missed
a passenger’s big pink ear by a hair’s breadth, bounced
without shattering, and rolled to a stop against the bolted leg of a chair,
and the passenger, his name as I recall was Chopper,
reached down, retrieved the bottle, held it up with a big grin
and while everybody in the back of the bus roared with approval,
he waved it at the driver, who stopped the bus and made the speech.
And then, after a moment’s sullen pause,
suddenly the driver’s voice came on again, but kinder,
and he said with a gentle pride that surprised most of us I think:
“You are crossing the Mississippi River, on the Sasquahana
Bridge, and are about to enter the town of Shilo Springs.”
And the effect on us of this announcement was like what maybe the
Hebrews felt when Moses told them after all their wanderings
And afflictions:  You are crossing the Jordan River.  You are entering the
Promised Land.
Because everyone became very serene suddenly,
and reposed quiet in their seats,
some with heads cocked, and just slow-watching the passage
The ex-con wearing the shower cap, the hungry computer jock,
the professional piercer with earrings in his eyes and ears and exposed
nipples in a fishnet shirt,
the old woman with a garbage bag containing all her
possessions riding on her lap,
the Nam vet with a baseball cap grey beard blue eyes
the colour of anti-freeze,
that girl who looked like every girl I’d ever seen writhe nude
in the glaring footlights of a topless bar,
the silent man who refused our repeated offers
of whiskey with a tight, unresentful smile,
and even the loud, hard-muscled mustached guy
with a face like a skinned and butchered leg of steer
(but whom many of us figured for a killer of some kind,
in flight from his latest barroom manslaughter),
everybody, and that includes that stiff and uncommunicative
respectably-dressed middle-aged lady
with silver hair who shuddered when asked by the ex-con
for a match, everybody without exception
seemed to give up their tension and their fear
like the dying surrender of a soul on its way to final rest
and we sat back and just let the transition occur.
And on the other side of the Mississippi River it was like an older,
more innocent time in America.
There was a kind of canal branching from the main body of water,
and less turbulence to the rain
and we could see clearly through the windows
as an old time boat paddled its way to the interior
past banks lined with weeping willows,
and the houses were bigger than they’d seemed from the bridge,
they were stately grey with age
and big columns announced their facades
and dark mandala-shaped stained glass attic windows,
the kind you see in pictures in magazines,
suggested, at least to my mind, the sanctuary and safety
of a family cemetery vault, of time and place and the dignity
of knowing where you come from and where you’ll probably end up too.
And this calmed me, calmed everyone I think,
and then the bus met, to our delight, a roadblock
and we had to detour through little old time streets
and it was peaceful for a few brief minutes,
and then the bus drew up to the edge of a puddle
as wide and deep as a stream
and the brakes hissed and the driver’s voice announced:
“We are going to ford this puddle,” and we cheered.
And just then a man dressed in a green flannel shirt and denim
coveralls stepped from the door of one of the houses
and stood there stock still on the porch to watch.
The rain had lessened and as the bus descended,
Almost kissing the rim of the tires,
we watched the man’s face watching us
with a kind of compassionate interest, as if encouraging our
success, and when the bus climbed out on the other side
dripping like a baptized bather
the driver braked again.
“We’ll sit here a minute,” he said “to let the brakes dry.”
And that man on the porch,
I guess he saw our faces dim in the tinted rain swept-windows,
and lifted his hand in a wave.
A few of us waved back,
and he beamed a smile.  Then he turned and entered the house.
We heard the porch door slam,
crisp and clean in the pattering rainfall.
The mighty Mississippi River does have an effect.  I feel Kaufman believes something about the Mississippi defines the pure spirit of America – all the passengers on the bus – simple dudes, a cross section of American society, folk who flaunt rules, act irreverent and don’t understand where they belong, that is, up until they get to the river.  The driver who acts tough authoritarian, but changes when he gets to the river.  All were changed by crossing the Mississippi; it pulled them together, straightened them up, reminded them of pride, pride for their beautiful land, national pride.  And across the other side, a caretaker of the land, “dressed in green flannel shirt”, with, “the dignity of knowing where you come from and where you’ll probably end up toothe sanctuary and safety of a family cemetery vault, of time and place…..” lifts his hand in a neighbourly wave, God speed and good luck.
In a way, my poem and link for Kaufman’s, ‘Across the Mississippi’, is also about a ‘crossing’ and my own endeavour to find and describe a heartland – but it’s a railway crossing, not a river crossing, and my heartland is a steel city, blue collar worker’s industrial waste heartland, Newcastle, not the spirit of a nation.  And my focus is clearly on an actual ‘crossing’, not, as in Kaufman’s case, an event of ‘crossing over’.  But still, I lay it down in conversational tone, and things do sit on your mind and change you.

2010.  The mundane life of the commuter, industrial city - 6am alarm, out of bed, 7am; reverse the car out of the carport, 1512AM on the radio, Tony Eastly, Fran Kelly, breakfast talk-back; nothing going through my mind until the traffic stops somewhere along the same old route and then I’m staring into my field of vision and not thinking.

The Crossing.
I come over the rail crossing at the back of Tighes Hill TAFE,
it’s the way I go now, used to go up through Charlestown
and down Brunker Road,
through all the stop lights and cross streets,
now I take the by-pass, I think it’s quicker,
though I’m still late most mornings to work.
The crossing’s a gamble, coal trains, freight trains
travelling the line, spurred off north and south.
The trains come reptile long and patiently slow,
so it’s tempting if you can’t see the loco engine
or the last car, to turn out of the stalled traffic
and drive back to Beaumont Street,
always a relief when the end carriage clears the crossing,
and the boom goes up.
So we all sit there idle in our vehicles,
separated from each other by steel, stock and bonnets.
Just a way down from the crossing
there’s a small cottage with an enclosed sleep-out
glazed in plain glass, painted white and flat on the ground,
they call them ‘miner’s’ cottages, this one’s got no curtains
so you can see in clear through the glass,
a clothesline hangs temporary in two loops
strung from one end of the sleep-out to the other,
a convenient drying area on wet days,
except it’s right there on the busy road
and people get to study things in detail
when held up in traffic waiting for a train to pass.
The clothesline always holds a solitary pair of underpants
always pegged in the same spot.
I’ve seen underpants like this before, but never wore them.
I think they are favored more by the thicker,
heavy bodied person, they are classic underpants,
by which I mean, back in fashion history the design
must have started as ‘long-johns’, heavy wool blend
that sags and bags but now, the legs have shortened
until they are stumpy lengths so they stretch
firm around the upper thigh, stop anything getting out,
also a wide elastic waist band to truss in a bulging gut,
it’s a workingman’s garment, the pattern says industrial clothing
cut from bolts of cloth in a Commonwealth factory, King Gee, Hard Yakka,
no erotic intrigue with this type of thing so they hang
without embarrassment on the street, at the railway crossing,
and the trains click by and people sit in their cars and pay no attention.
The underpants,
they are always hanging in the same spot
and there’s never ever any additional washing,
just those one pair of dirty-grey shit catchers
colored from repeated cycles of wear.
And I can’t help think underpants don’t exist alone
there’s got to be an owner someplace,
though that reminds me of times back in my Navy days,
we’d be cleaning up the mess-deck for inspection
and somebody would retrieve a cruddy pair of Y-fronts
from way back under a seat and hold them up
in a disgusted, revolting pincer grip and ask,
“does anybody own theeese!”
Them underpants never had any owner lay claim.
Another thing with owners, they usually come back
and un-peg their washing when dry,
these pants are dry, never seen them wet,
dry, crisp, cardboard stiff, as dry as a parching drought,
where’s the person doodling around thinking,
“I wonder if that washing’s dry yet?”
Maybe the person’s up and gone, shared a rental once
and moved on without taking all of his stuff,
what’s the use forwarding them, don’t like to interfere really,
always hanging out his laundry in full view, he did;
not that he had a lot mind you ……….
or dead, that’s all that’s left of him, shame really,
I expect his family will want to collect them,
that’s if he had any family, mean while just leave em there,
ain’t nobody goes out to the sleep-out much anyway ……..
I watch the boxcars pass left to right in an endless line.
The crossing signal lights blink a hypnotic red rhythm.
I close and open each of my eyes in a mimic of the lights,
but it starts to make me feel sick, that, and looking,
and wondering about the underpants.
                                                                                            J. O. White

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