(The following is excerpted from Vagabond Song: Neo-Haibun from the Peregrine Journals, coming this September from Elk River Books. This is an advance uncorrected proof – changes may be made for the final publication. Enjoy.)
first movement … M-72
If I don’t get back on the road I’m going to lose my dog-damn mind howling mad and barking crazy like some burning saint. Give us this night our vagrant moon. Give us this day a double yellow line flashing like a beacon of endless possibility. Kinetophilia. Go.
Sitting at a gimp-legged table, kinetophobic fingers hovering over silent keys, my reflection in the frosted window refuses to make eye contact. I thought this would work. I thought it was just what I needed. To hole up in a borrowed cabin, build a fire against the coming winter and writewritewrite.
The romance of it. The poetry: The writer in a northwoods cabin. Cupboards stocked with pasta and wine. He writes all day, late into the night. A single Coltrane tape to fill the air. He plays the clacking keys of his Remington in syncopated unity with that prophetic, wall-crashing horn. The pages fill with the black dance of words. On weekends his lover arrives with more wine and all the delicious aromas of lust and life and laughter. Naked, they read the pages. They read the topography of each other’s bodies. They read the poetry of hair and skin, flesh and sweat. She goes back to the city and he goes back to the typewriter. Everything flows smooth and luminous.
That was the plan.… Mice and men, boys. Mice and men.
After nearly three months, I have maybe a half-dozen pages. Her visits grow less frequent, less poetic.
The cabin becomes a prison, my typewriter a cellmate. Moonstar, my Remington Streamliner, is a worthy companion, but after all this time alone together we have very little to say to one another. A blank page has been staring back at me for days now. All mine Oten reedes bene rent and wore and my poor Muse has split for downtown, waiting in line with the other plasma prostitutes. Short walks in the pine-crazed air aren’t enough – I need miles to burn and voices not my own in my head. I need change that comes faster than the change of light slanting across the ghosts of blueberry bushes and withered stalks of mullein as the autumn drifts into winter.
It’s something about measuring life by the clicking of miles rather than the ticking of a clock. Some necessity for motion. Bashō attributes it to Dōsojin, literally “road ancestor deity.” The Dōsojin are guardian spirits of the road. They beckoned to Bashō throughout his life. They are comrades of Miscellaneous Jones, dance partners of Zorba Chaos, children of Moses Om. And now they are knocking at my door. I need to move.
So, with my army-surplus pack loaded with a change of clothes, rain poncho, railroad gloves, wool blanket, sleeping hat, plastic tarp, a god-eared copy of the Upanishads, an even more god-eared road atlas, journal, three pens, sheath knife, Ohio Blue Tips in a waterproof vial, roll of duct tape, fifty feet of parachute cord, mess kit, toothbrush and paste, bar of soap in a Ziploc, half roll of toilet paper (a full roll won’t fit in a sandwich-size zip), jug of water, block of cheese, bag of orzo, veggie bouillon, nuts, raisins and two apples, I walk the mile of dirt road to Highway 72 west of Grayling, Michigan, birthplace of Jim Harrison, who wrote, “God is terse. The earth’s proper scripture could be carried on a three-by-five card if we weren’t drunk on our own blood,” and a page later, “I poke my stick in the moon’s watery face, then apologize.”
At the side of the road I drop the pack to the gravel, letting it rest against my leg. I cast my thumb into the waters of the highway. Sometimes I would fly-fish, dancing my thumb into the ripples of oncoming traffic, luring the drivers into the adventure of picking up this longhaired, bearded stranger in torn jeans, secondhand army coat, duct-taped boots and a dead man’s hat. I would guide their cars to the shoulder, reeling them in so gently they don’t even realize they’re hooked. But this morning I’m in the mood for lazy old worm-fishing: thumb slung low – red-and-white bobber floating on a sleeping lake with a worm drooping on a hook below.
The sun is breaking free of the tree line and the air murmurs stories of wood smoke and diesel. A deer-crossing sign riddled with bullet holes stands next to me, our shadows wavering into dust-coated weeds.
As Miscellaneous Jones says, “A weed is just a flower nobody wants.”
The road is lined with chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, burdock and clover – all edible, all beautiful, all healthy. All unwanted.
Garden of roadside weeds
greets the sun the same as I
Waving, content, refusing to forget:
Eden hasn’t gone anywhere
Seven cars, three semis, two RVs and a motorcycle pass. The biker, as always, gives me an encouraging thumbs-up and my own thumb spins quickly into a peace sign, then back. The car drivers try to avoid eye contact, pretending to study something interesting on the far side of the road. The RVers eye me suspiciously. A mile later, they will notice the “Prison Area – Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers” sign and have all their stereotypes confirmed. America, Inc. loves to instill fear in its sheeple. Give them fear and they will buy anything that promises security, whether cell phones, spy drones or war. Sex may sell, but fear creates lifetime customers.
Then a pickup picks me up. Such well-named vehicles.
The driver, mid-sixties, leaner than he seems used to, unsmiling yet with friendly eyes, flips open the small cooler on the seat between us as he pulls back onto the road and eases up to speed.
I pull out a cold one and crack it. He drains his and tosses it behind the seat, so I hand mine to him and crack another.
In the early days of my life on the road, I was surprised by how often I was treated to drinks (or other spirit-enhancing substances) while hitching rides. Especially in northern Michigan, there appears to be no shortage of people crisscrossing the patchwork counties with a cooler of beer and no real destination. It’s a better pastime than television at the very least.
We race between gray-green walls of jack pine cut now and then by a yellow blaze of poplar. The sky warms to the idea of another blue day, one of the last before winter seals a concrete vault over all of us. We drink our beers and feel out how much talking either of us wants to do. Some rides are all questions: Where ya headed? Where ya comin’ from? How long ya been at it? Others ask nothing, but just talk away like they’ve had it all bottled up for miles and the presence of another set of ears breaks the dam. Life stories and memory lanes, elusive dreams and big plans. This guy is an enigma, though. He’ll ask a question but doesn’t seem to hear the answer, as if he’d never asked anything in the first place. My questions are met with silence, broken eventually by not so much an answer as a response to something deep within that perhaps my question has roused.
“Do you know what creek that was?” gets a long pause, followed by: “I retired up here from Detroit. Thought to do a lot of fishing with the wife. She loved to catch a trout or largemouth. Used to have a little outboard, but sold that with the rest of it.”
I wonder if I should ask the thousand questions his story raises, but there’s a quality of trepidation in the silence that follows. I wait for him to continue. We finish our beers and start new ones. He asks if I’ve ever been to Canada. I try to tell him a story about camping on the island between the northern Soo Lock at Sault Ste. Marie and the St. Mary Rapids, but he’s somewhere far away so I let the story trail off and keep drinking.
By the time he drops me at the fork of I-75 and I-27, I’m floating delicately in my own little boat of inebriation. The birches and aspens along the roadsides dance in rolling waves and from somewhere a crow calls out its graveled song.
But the fork of two expressways, with massive hulks of metal hurtling by at undogly speeds, is not the place for delicate floating.
Rapids ahead. Time to switch to fly fishing.
I pick out a blue sedan, raise my thumb high and snap, rolling my line into an invisible eddy that will bring our separate journeys briefly into one. We will both be changed forever, but that’s true for every encounter. Even a moment of eye contact changes us. Streams merge and diverge. Waters mix. Which droplet is you and which is me?
Three rides, 106 miles and I’m walking Saginaw, birthplace of Theodore Roethke, who wrote, “When I breathe with the birds, the spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing, and the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep.”
The brick walls of this town are tired of holding up windows that have lost their light. The river, where Ausawamic threw his blood money, is lethargic enough that at times, with the right wind, it flows backwards.
Walking the streets in a dead man’s hat
& all his dreams & memories are still inside
The walls are tattooed indecipherably as Queequeg
& I button up my coat & try to hide
The history of a place is never history. It’s here now, always.
1819. General Lewis Cass places five barrels of whiskey in front of several Ojibwa and Odawa chiefs who, with the help of Louis Campau the local trader, have already been made, strategically, into alcoholics. Cass tells them they can’t have the whiskey until they sign his paper. Six million acres for $1,000 annually, to be paid in silver. Six million acres of generational maple-sugaring grounds, wild-ricing lakes, vast gardens of corn, beans and squash, known as the “three sisters.” Forest cornucopias of game, herbs, fruits, nuts, medicine and manufacturing materials like birch, basswood, nettle and cedar. Hundreds of rivers and lakes teeming with fish. Graves of unnumbered ancestors. Six million squares of Home for a handful of silver … and that whiskey, just out of reach – the one thing that can douse the raging fires in their heads.
Cass and Campau know there is one chief, Kiskawko, who will never sign, so he is given enough whiskey ahead of time to keep him away from the proceedings. “Chief” is a loaded word. It doesn’t mean what the U.S. government and the history books say it does. They pretend it’s equivalent to king or president or some other term to describe an autocrat with coercive power over others. Someone who could bind all his people into a treaty agreement with another sovereign. But that kind of antidemocratic tyranny is as foreign to the minds and bodies of the Anishinaabe as that whiskey calling to them from inside those barrels, and just as deadly. To the People, a chief is someone who has earned respect through deeds, rather than one who speaks for you by merit of great wealth or other power. A true chief never forces obedience. Which is why Ausawamic believes the treaty is nothing but paper, and a handful of silver can never replace his homeland. Each year, when the government agent comes to Saginaw to disburse the annuity, Ausawamic takes his payment, walks to the bank of the river and throws the coins into the depths.
Okemos and Owasso sign the treaty and now have cities named after them. Nobody has heard of Ausawamic. As in all our histories, the true heroes have no monuments.
Walking the streets in a dead man’s hat
the taste of whiskey on the air
& all his silver is sinking down like Ophelia
with cornflowers in her hair
I slip into Ewald’s, on the bank of Ausawamic’s protest, crouched troll-like beneath the Court Street Bridge. Ma’s off tonight. Dee is slinging drafts to the pool players and barstool rodeo queens. I’m nearly broke, but Dee’s buying. She pours a drink like a rainbow – it would be an insult to all that is luminous to decline. I grab my regular table by the window and pull journal and pen from my satchel. A couple of beers to lubricate the gears of poetry. Yes and again yes.
View from My Window at Ewald’s
Five concrete pillars
holding the silence of the bridge
The bar across the street –
gaudy face slapped over sallow brick
Nothing in the road, not even
a dead dog
A green dumpster, a red fire hydrant:
the closest I’ll get to Christmas this year
Lionel with one glove
looking for empties
A blind light scattering bits of darkness
& in front of everything –
my favorite bartender’s reflection
pulling her hair back
& swaying to the song on the jukebox
played w/ the last of my money
And when the money’s gone, the road is the most luxurious home you can afford. Come morning I’ll be gone.
I spend the night on a friend’s couch after a small reunion of the old gang from Pablo’s Fortress. The Fortress was an eastside deliriumscape set of rooms above a bass-thumping liquor store on Jefferson Avenue. Through my college years, a rotating tribe of friends and strangers lived there, crashed there, partied there and explored beyond Blake and Huxley’s doors of perception there: almost daily expeditions, via one route or another.
The few of us who are still in touch and still in town gather guitars and cheap wine, pass a few joints and rekindle the madness. In the morning I enjoy a gift of eggs and thick bacon at Tony’s then head back out on those welcoming roads following the path of imagined ancestors.
He throws the full moon over his shoulder
& rumbles across the field
like a John Deere tractor
picking bits of tobacco from his lips
arms swaying in unison
with the broad rustling leaves
The crows scream his name like a battle cry
“Hoka hey, Scarecrow – today is a good day to die”
But his gray bones
like these dry stalks of corn
will stand their ground for yet another winter
Grandpa Scarecrow toes the asphalt snake
rubs his gold tooth for luck
& conjures a ride with his magic thumb
He settles back, yellowed hands on his knees
as the car fills with the smell of damp straw
“Where ya headed, Grandpa?” I ask
“Home,” he says