Up to now I’ve only posted poems I wrote while living in San Francisco (OK, & one from Idaho), so as a bit of a change I thought I’d post one that’s from my earlier days in Charlottesville, Virginia.
As far as I can recall, this poem was written in 1985—I do recall that the poem was based on a dream; & I should note that “American Dreams” is written in the sestina form. For those who don’t know, a sestina is built on a series of six end words, which then repeat in a pattern. A sestina typically has a three-line coda in which the six words also are repeated in a specific pattern (there are some very good sestinas that don’t include this, however, including one of the best examples of the form I know, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem titled simply “Sestina”). If you follow the pattern, you see that the sixth stanza repeats the cycle of word changes, & if the poem were to continue, the words would return to the pattern of the first stanza. This sequence of repeating words can be expressed numerically as 615243 (i.e. this is how the words are re-arranged starting in the second stanza).
Although I believe my poems from San Francisco are my best work to date (with the possible exception of the half dozen poems I wrote last year), I do still like a number of the Charlottesville poems, & in putting together a manuscript I’ve found that a smattering of them amidst the rather madcap & occasionally disquieting exuberance of the San Francisco poems can provide a welcome textural change. Hope you enjoy this one.
I had to stare at something besides my coffee
something told me. And there was flashing money:
a quarter and a dime left for the waitress
were shining big as planets over Texas
on a napkin. I had to hear this story
she told the truckers, about her penniless father
who'd rented a trailer outside Austin. Her father
migrated south of trees where, black as coffee,
treasures bubbled— or so he'd got the story
on a spree— these lakes of oil, pools of money
under the whole unpromising stretch of Texas.
He'd blown his stake. Then, he married a waitress
who passed this to her daughter, the way this waitress
slid out eggs. She pocketed tips for her father's
marker and mailed change weekly down to Texas.
I had to listen to something besides the coffee
sizzle in its pot or the register ringing money.
Nothing stopped me hearing another story
I told myself. It haunted me like stories
heard when five; that someone was always waiting
in diners, watching me, not plates, his money
dwindling, but still alive. I knew my father
was in that booth. With two men, gulping coffee,
he was hunched. He'd been invited to Texas
by men in bone-white hats who claimed, In Texas
nothing grows but cactus. They're green as stories
your fathers believed, as twenties. He sipped coffee,
rattled tall tales, off the cuff, to the waitress,
and spoke of checks in dry hands. Why was father
talkative in this diner? I fumbled for money,
his wallet I'd picked for years. I held the money,
while men in dazzling boots were offering Texas
and fossils (they didn't promise trees). My father
wanted gold. His knack for telling stories
half-believed, he'd willed to me. Our waitress
filled bottomless cups until they gushed with coffee.
And the old man finished coffee, lost for money,
and swore he'd mail the waitress cash from Texas.
Stories are spent; and what can I lend father?