C’est la guerre
by Danniel Schoonebeek
OCTOBER 8, 2013
Atlanta, GA • October 8
It’s a kidnapping into another family, waking up with Vera and her mother in Virginia, but it’s an abduction of love. You’ve lured yourself into their life and you don’t want to defect. These women take you into their home and they fix you coffee and blended bananas and they buy you hibiscus tea. They hand you a yellow flannel sheet to cover yourself on the trains. You’re going to meet some people on those trains, says Vera’s mother. She dials up her weird disembodied brother. He’s ridden Amtrak across the country so many times that he’s the train brother now. You’re in the south and these are women of Virginia, Vera and her mother, a woman alone with her daughter and wasting away in a cul de sac. What do you mean you’ve never read Travels with Charley? She pulls out her worn copy and hands it to you. You can’t take that one, she says, but you’ll find your own, really you have to. But mom can we go to the farm, says Vera. She squirms underneath her blanket and it’s no trouble seeing her as a child in this household. When you arrive at Frying Pan Farm, how many birds are squatting on the power line above the barn in the rain. Little bunch of plovers, little bunch of cliché fathers-to-be smoking cigarettes. And inside the stable it’s goats braying and piglets asleep in the haylight against their mother’s stomach. This is the black horse named Jesse and he stares all day through a hole in the planks at the place where the horse he loved died in the neighboring stable. That horse was named Michael and he died twenty-six days ago. If you’ve never watched two women, a mother and daughter, touch a black horse on the snout and fall silent together, my advice to you is don’t. Same goes for seeing a calf in the next stable staring out the window and she won’t turn around. Events will find you. Events will say, time to steer through the rain and the bloodshot streets of America’s capital. Twenty years I’ve never seen anything like this, says Vera’s mother. The mall is deserted, the museums and streets. The rain’s little fingernails. All you can see is cops and barricades, siren lights. It’s the first time you’ve taken a blurry photograph of the White House and the White House looks ashamed in the rain. Hiding behind its fence and its grass and its trees. Tell me what is this death drive to be there when it falters. To witness the big death. And how come Homer never mentions a single monument in the cities of Greece.
Atlanta, GA • October 8
The point of the food court is you’re not meant to enjoy the food. The point is the food’s meant to quiet you. Thus an act of shame, like shitting in public, because it’s also a bodily need. And saying goodbye to Vera is like saying goodbye once again to Brooklyn, to lives that could’ve been, and strangely her mother feels like kin at this hour too. Union Station, the three of you watching the rain fall on the city and you’re all too sullen to talk. Because now begin the miles of adversity for one of us kinfolk, fourteen hours on the rails from D.C. to Atlanta and only a yellow flannel sheet as your flag. Fifteen minutes on board your first overnight train and you make it your work to study them. For instance, impossible to tell if you’ll sit alone and biting your fingernails and writing poems while you ride in coach. Simply this: the conductor hands you a ticket with your assigned seat and destination, he tells you which car will house you, the end. The trains are governed by class and wealth and rank as much as any airplane or cruise line. You picked a house made of steel in order to write and work, and after one question to the conductor you hug him and howl, because Amtrak only provides wireless internet on trains between New York, Philadelphia, and D.C., with select trains between LA and San Francisco. In other words, where the money travels. Says the woman seated next to you: “this is the longest I’ve ever gone without internet in my life.” On these trains you learn that passengers are interested first off in talking about what they’re deprived of. And they will donate their depravity to you without fail: the ease of heart of which life has deprived them, the amenities of which travel deprives them, the work and servitude of which their gadgets deprived them, and the gods who have left them depraved.
Atlanta, GA • October 8
The question that hangs over a long-distance train ride is time: why would anyone choose this instead of an airplane? In other words, no one belongs here, and that’s why we’re all here in the first place, and within this fact is a spade and you can dig your foxhole and belong all you want. So you decide the place where you belong on the trains is the leisure car. Table, booth, electricity, window, it’s a brutalist setting. And this is the same room in which a traveler can broadcast who he’ll be on this journey. If you crink your shoulders and make yourself unapproachable, if you stake out a table and swear to yourself loudly enough, scribbling notes and hunched over your manuscripts, no one will speak to you except the drunks or occasionally insane men. And the person you’ll be is the antagonist who wasn’t there. The body in the room who sneered at everyone, whose presence was a charlie horse but he kept to himself with a sandwich and just like that he was gone. And leaving Alexandria it’s that kind of sundown that reminds you you’re a few clouds away from running yourself aground. You lay out your papers and think of the people who’ve already blurred together behind you. And René’s voice like the clingstone underneath the skin of that fruit. If I see one more shred of pink rust tonight, you write. The leisure car is where Amtrak workers deposit themselves when they aren’t working, which is infinitum. Homespun men and women and a small but intimate cast of Americans who don’t give a shit what’s happening outside the window anymore. Tonight the ticket collectors give you the trespasser eyes but they let you sit among them and take notes, a group of six men and one woman, the men placing bets on which passengers will out themselves as drunks, how much money they can scam if they bring an armful of beers every half hour. And when the woman makes her rounds the men joke about spreading her legs. When she returns they talk about money. Seated alone in the last booth is the eldest collector, who agitates the room with his silence whenever there’s a break in conversation. And when he finishes his bag of pretzels he rises to his feet and dusts off his uniform. But I do wish there was a way to hear the birds in the morning, he says. And when he disappears to collect his tickets you won’t see him again.
Atlanta, GA • October 8
You’ve packed this tin of low-grade plugs for when it’s time to sleep on the train, a black sleep mask that looks like a bra and you strap it over your face, plus you cover yourself with the yellow sheet Vera’s mother gave you in D.C. The people of this country who fall into a snoring sleep within minutes of boarding a train disgust you. One sliver jealousy, one sliver outrage that anyone can drowse while outside a train whistle is cutting through towns in the dark. Towns whose only proof of existence is a wooden sign-post and a signal light swinging back and forth. On the lucky nights, you’ll average five hours of sleep on an overnight train. And you learn this, you feel this about yourself before you’ve even finished one overnight train. In the pitch while everyone around you is sleeping, eyes wide open under the sleep mask, you tell yourself to dictate a schedule: henceforth on all overnight trains, the undertaking of work will be conducted until 0300 hours (0400 on nights of virility), followed by fitful sleep until 0800 (0700 on mornings of virility), you’ll drink two cups coffee, relieve yourself and inspect in the mirror for face damages, work several hours thenceforth, after which a period of leave will commence while the travelers take lunch, as this is the hour when every American of poor stock is flitting around the train with his toiletries. And coach, where you’ll return to your makeshift bed, this is the quietest coach gets during blitzkrieg. The train grinds into Atlanta an hour late and the lesson of the day is never check your bag, to hell with the no-fee policy. Because Josh Tridge is waiting outside in his truck, a guy you’ve never met in your life, and you’re waiting inside for your luggage to spill out of a chute while he’s an hour late for work. But when you shake his hand and climb into his truck, he’s swearing at the drivers on the road within seconds. You like his psychedelic garage music on cassette tapes. Bet it’d be beautiful to watch him throw a man off a balcony, you tell yourself. It’s something about his jaw, the way it would tense in moonlight. And of course listening to a southern man with road rage is heaven. But most astonishing of all is how the poets of this country will greet a stranger at a train station, hand him their keys, walk him inside their homes, open the cupboard and tug on the lights, and say so long I’m off to work for the day. Why don’t you call it a communion between strangers where the words that are passed without speaking are please don’t you ruin my life. And when Josh leaves it’s like your body becomes a foreign exchange student. When you pay to sublet a stranger’s apartment back in New York, part of what you pay for is the right to harmlessly nose through their belongings. But here it’s a museum. An alarm is sure to sound if you open the fridge. (It’s bottles of hot sauce and mustard and a loaf of white bread inside the fridge, nothing else, and nobody takes you away in cuffs when you open the door). So you walk this beat up strip of Atlanta. Feels like a badger hole or some place abandoned before it got started, and you drink a toddy and pass out on Josh’s couch when you’re supposed to be reading your poems. His workday is over, and Josh takes you to shop for cassette tapes, buy nothing, drink a gunpowder tea, swallow a meager dinner and beer to quiet your stomach. Here’s what you’re doing alongside a man who’s otherwise a stranger to you: proofing the poems that will become your first chapbook, Family Album, these poems about selling cigarettes to mosquitoes, poems in which a duchess (maybe she’s a veterinarian in disguise) remarks with vim on the size of your dick when you’re fifteen years old. Josh drives you to an amphitheater in Cabbagetown Park and Nina and Theo are already there, drinking beer out of paper bags and smoking on a stone wall. Somehow you’ve forgotten that summer is over, and the sun is disappearing fast while you piss in the bushes and a man walks by with a spaniel and both of them scowling. The poets are creeping out of the dusk now. Very Thriller, very macabre, and you’re shaking hands with Michael and his partner and here is Jenny, who reminds you of that MTV video jockey, the blonde one with the sandstorm voice, back when video jockeys were all anyone desired, and she says this is my first reading and these are my parents.
Atlanta, GA • October 8
But all you want to talk about at Lost in the Letters is Josh’s voice. Hello everybody he says, and he summons Theo to stand, and the poems put you in a whiskey mood so you jostle the flask from your pocket. It’s like some trimmed fat of the 90s all congealed around Theo’s lines, The Simpsons and Cops, and we’re all reliving our tv dinners. Jenny’s poems put you in this Cyndi Lauper mood, and part of you really could cry, because money really does change everything. But Josh’s voice is like a man who’s lived through himself, like he’s telling his own myth into the camera when he’s introducing another poet. It’s a feeling that knocks you in the face every so often, this unwieldy shame that you don’t already know certain people you’ve just met. I fantasize about the shame in you, like it says on the banner that hangs above Else’s bed. The dark’s here, the clean smell, and his partner is holding a flashlight to his book while Michael reads his poems about Orpheus. It’s like yeah you are going to the underworld Michael, none of us are. You ask for the flashlight too, and you try not to upset Jenny’s parents with your poems about incest and regicide. Like who wants their daughter to throw dice with this crowd. When the reading ends and everyone’s slumped at a table you remember like a childhood talent that you can smoke inside bars in the south. This must be what politicos feel like when they remember they make the rules. Theo spins his tumbler of whiskey and talks about his life as a journalist, the layoff that landed him here in this chair. Fertile ground, makes you want a tattoo you’ll regret. And Jenny talks about Paris, which makes you think of Chelsea, which makes you think of lying under this table for the next half century and dying of consumption. God tell me this isn’t why you sense the faintest glimmer of grok between you and Jenny, because she’s tossed you through time, back to a city where you lay on the ground one morning and couldn’t speak the language, thought maybe you’d arrived at the dead end that would finally kill you. But you’re unkilled and the bill is nigh. It’s goodbye to everyone and back at Josh’s apartment you chainsmoke and place a long call to René on the balcony. But how can Denver exist when you’re sleeping in Atlanta in October? And how many years ago did you write to Alex to tell him that love is hard won. How little firepower do these words carry now. The cable in René’s voice is starting to clench on the other end. The wires are starting to twist. She wants you to drive a stake into the ground, to say the words, and you do it, because you’ve always been good at saying the words. Especially when you believe there’s still time to tunnel through the adversity and disappear everything that opposes you. But that doesn’t stop you from falling asleep with a faceful of tears on an air mattress in Atlanta, now does it. And the next day you wake up and listen to Dylan in the car with Josh, you shake his hand and thank him, but you’re gone to Louisiana less than twenty-four hours after you arrived.
Danniel Schoonebeek’s first book of poems, American Barricade, was published by YesYes Books in 2014. It was named one of the year’s ten standout debuts by Poets & Writers and called “a groundbreaking first book that stands to influence the aesthetic disposition of its author’s generation” by Boston Review. His work has appeared in Poetry, Tin House, Iowa Review, Fence, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, jubilat, and elsewhere. The recipient of awards and honors from Millay Colony, Poets House, Oregon State University, and the Juniper Institute, he hosts the Hatchet Job reading series and edits the PEN Poetry Series. In 2015, Poor Claudia will release his second book, a travelogue called C’est la guerre.