In America

The young man, farm-boy type and blonde,
comes to my outside table and asks,
because I’m smoking a cigar,
for a cigar, and lingers, talking:
just out of jail this morning
(for breaking probation) he has
the bland unknowing innocence
of the more quietly disturbed.

“Stole a cigar from a store once,”
he remarks, “that had these pilgrims on it.
What kind was that?” And I don’t know.
“And a wagon,” which doesn’t help.

Then a girl arrives, both at the shelter
these days, she’s ADD and on her meds,
he’s off of his. She’s a good worker,
she insists, but somehow can’t keep
a job--that’s why she became a dancer.

Although I’m not sure of that logic,
I can’t keep from imagining her
peeled and skinny under colored lights
until the boy asks for another cigar.  

Finally they rise and leave, the way
our grandparents, the pilgrims, wrecked
the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock,
stole a few wagons and jostled west,
arriving in the shelter of the Promised
Land, who then shed their clothes
and began their jobs of dancing
wildly, guilty and guiltless,
almost naked in America.

(Hiram Poetry Review, 2008)


This is one of those poems that presented all its material in an actual encounter with the two young people involved. The situation seemed interesting enough for me to simply ‘write down what happened’ and it took the first four stanzas to do it. The mention of ‘pilgrims’ made me think of American history and how it might look if these two were our historical representatives so I conflated standard images of American history with their own, to me, strange lives. Later, I thought the boy might have thought of pilgrims when he saw the picture on a Dutch Masters cigar-box, although I still don’t know where the ‘wagon’ came from.

The form of the poem is a rough approximation of an 8-syllable line, varying from 7 to 9. In a lot of my work I’m conscious of using a syllabic form, either strictly or loosely, which resembles the 8 syllables of a tetrameter line or the 10 syllables of a pentameter line in traditional English prosody. (See Commentary on “On The Trail”)