Why The Road Beyond Modesto Requires Multiple Recordings of Handel's MESSIAH
Because from my Swedish aunt, who was really my grandmother,
I learned, despite the harmonies in the music, that
"His yoke isn't always easy; His burden isn't always light."
Because from her brother, my father and also great uncle,
I learned dogged persistence with the help
of Newtonian science against anything the world
hurls at you--including sometimes boring baroque
repetitions, da capo al fine, eventually leading to--but careful,
you need to time your breathing--a Hallelujah Chorus.
And because from his niece, my cousin and also, of course,
my birthmother, I learned patience, detachment, hope.
You see, a girl, she had to listen every spring
to my Italian uncle, her father, and thus my grandfather,
running the gamut of notes, higher and higher,
so that his Trumpet Might Sound just right.
All of the above lived formative years in McPherson, Kansas
and must have always voted Republican.
Finally because from my mother, a California girl, mistaken
for a Mexican back in Kansas when she married my father,
I am still learning longevity (without any help from her genes)
and adventure. In 1932, after meeting Governor Roosevelt
and Eleanor on the train, she cast her first ballot for FDR.
And because today at ninety-six she still trades off at the wheel
with me, despite the heat and increasingly dangerous traffic,
on long freeway drives north and south, finding new criss-
crossing highways through the Central Valley to keep us alert--
three hours from "Comfort Ye" to an "Amen" Chorus
hardly making a dent in that long, long multilane road.
for my mother
You were even handed. Your garden bloomed,
Your dinners bloomed. If I ever got spanked,
I knew what I'd done wrong. And I forgive
You now for making me wait forever in the car
While you looked in antique stores.
In the evening, I wanted to hear stories
From your childhood. To me they were antique:
"I rode a pony to school; his name was Buster,"
You said, evening my sheets and blankets.
"In those days I wore a big Taffeta bow in my hair.
One time the wind blew so hard my bow whistled,
But I didn't know where the sound came from.
Thinking it might be gypsies, I got scared. At first
Buster shied, then took off at a gallop. We got home
Fast that day."
Your words made me think
Of my own walks home: no farms, no orange groves,
No smudge pots, no gypsies, no ponies--just suburban
Streets and cars, except the park and the nearby canyon
Where I lingered, hoping later I'd see you driving home
From shopping or a meeting. I liked a smooth ride.
One time you were in pain, stretched out
In the back seat on the way down the coast from Ventura.
A wool blanket covered you up to your shoulders.
I asked my father, "What's the matter?"
"Dog bite. She needs to sleep now. Be quiet."
I couldn't help disturbing: it was you
Who had saved me from the dog.
And that wasn't the end of your troubles:
Hosed water in my aunt's house, perfume added
To your flowers, lawn furniture sawed in two,
Peanuts down my windpipe despite your careful
Warnings--the list could go on from here.
"Didn't you ever do anything wrong
When you were little?" I asked, already dozing.
(You were rising to subdue my lights.)
You stopped. And said, even handed, "Of course,
But I don't dare give you any new ideas."
from A Hollow of Waves (1983)
for my father
Lights in the hall turn out,
And a heat lamp fills my moon.
Your arms hold round me still
While I pant and wheeze.
"It's called asthma. Try to relax;
Normal breathing; don't panic."
You make it a game: "This is how
A doctor tests the stomach."
Probes prove spongy and pin me
Down to laughs and grunts.
"Since you're feeling no
pains in the abdominal region,
Roll over on your stomach:
I'll check for diseased tissue."
Your hands circle rib by rib;
My lungs tap lightly hollow.
Your fingers spring in my mind.
The black one you hit with a hammer.
I know a photograph by memory:
I tug your pant leg in the shop.
Then you made do with a band saw,
A corner for levels and planes.
But whole rooms lit up the new house;
Work turned out games by the moon:
A lathe, equipment for welding, two
Carpenter's tables clamped roundly, blades
Spongy in drills; a telescope lens
Sprung from the basement; ham radio, photo-
Enlarger, a way hammered through my wall--
Names woke me mornings, broadcast on air.
Before my birth you had something
Called tuberculosis, checked into
A hospital for an uncertain spell.
Then other words: "Depression," "the Navy,"
"World War Two." You proved allergic
To penicillin. Pearl Harbor pinned you
In the tub. Back home in California,
Bathing was fun for me, your hands
Circulating water. I grew up probing
Broad gestures from your talk. from A Hollow of Waves (1983)
An Adopted Story
for my birthparents
I can only guess what happened:
a young man sailed home from war
and was released from service.
It was VJ Day or a week or so
after--a month gone by since
the blast at Hiroshima. Maybe
that man had written a woman
back home, thinking their love
unwounded. In any case, what
better way to celebrate than
to conceive a child, making a baby
boom--or, more likely, that was
the farthest from their minds.
What followed (however) had its
own momentum and wouldn't quiet
down--so many possibilities for
error, why a child turned out
unwanted, except by other parents
listening to a cry.
from A Hollow of Waves (1983), first published in the "KSOR Guide to the Arts" (June, 1984),
reprinted in "Southern Oregon Currents" (1991)
Hungry for Action
for my sister Althea
The Sea Lion Restaurant, where we used to go
out to dinner,
had a fenced-in pool for seals
outside in the parking lot.
Indoors, we'd watch breakers
squirm over rocks, up the sides
of windows at high tide.
Dinners oohed and aahed in sets with the waves.
After our fish and chips,
we'd feed the seals--
buying tiny perch
wrapped in newspaper, still wet
and pungent from the sea.
When the seals smelled us breaking
toward their fence,
they swam, and jumped,
and clapped their flippers, barking
for a meal.
As we drove the beach road home,
you became a seal:
propping yourself up
on your arms in the back seat,
answering every question with a bark.
Back home you squirmed
up and down the stairs,
your legs unused behind you.
Some days you wouldn't speak a word;
on others everyone
had to be a seal with you.
Older by six years, I had my own ideas:
like trading M&Ms,
"one bright shiny red one
for two dirty old brown ones."
Later we roughhoused
the hallway--a game called "Block."
I shouldn't mention
how you and Missy got caught
hurling rocks at moving
cars on Chautauqua.
The policeman who brought you home
wondered where you had thrown your clothes.
Other falls: a rock-smashed finger,
the nail divided for years.
It all flips back to that day in '52;
we picked you up
at the hospital. Outside a nurse
near the car window.
You were crying, your face
like a big M&M,
a bright shiny red one.
You squirmed and hollered
the whole way home.
Somewhere along that road
"I think she's hungry. Why don't we stop
and feed her a hamburger?" from Searchings for Modesto (1993)
Cracks in your house from an earthquake
I never felt, my cousins' black-and-white photos
Taken before I was born--I waited a long time
To go with you to your mountains. You had
To run errands. That blind dog, Henry, wouldn't
Get into car. Groceries for the inn,
The last gas station in La Canyada, the uphill
Drive in a car you said "knew the road,"
Blooming yucca in the chaparral, yellow pines
On high ridges.
I learned a few things
From you on those drives: why trees grow best
On northern slopes, how icy it can get
In Lady Bug Canyon, where the old road runs
Down the opposite cliff. Together we declined
Cut-offs to Palmdale and Mount Wilson, felt
Warm air near Chilao, found a place to look
Into Devil's Canyon.
The arrival at the cabin
Resumed your chores. Rooms needed air, cedars
Water. Rattlesnakes and fire stressed danger
(I needed reminding). Sparse trees and mountains
Below Waterman burned once, up from the desert.
Views took in a city and an ocean--Catalina Island
On a lucky day. Blackouts for war, you told me,
Exposed enemy flares. Dry fall inclined to red
Hunters, but the deer knew a few things about
Seasons: they found a green outside your door.
from A Hollow of Waves (1983)
The Danger of Arsons
Labor Day? No,
I'm thinking of big-cone pine trees
tall around my aunt's cabin.
Squirrels would be eyeing us,
pitching thorny scales down
as we bounced
a plastic birdie over a flimsy net.
Music from racquet strings,
from tennis shoes scuffing green
cement--and, above, that disorderly dining
until the dint of a well-chewed pine grenade
would touch earth near us
but not explode.
That cabin enforced love's labor:
excavation, rough-hewn granite
lifted into walls, fireplace, an outdoor
out of lumber; a sleeping porch in-screened.
Head-severing shovels still rattle
about snakes in Aunt Bona's tales.
Those branches diverted desert air
moaning in needles,
disturbing summer dust.
Even the horseshoes clanking below
in the meadow
didn't lighten gravity
the time my father fell
out of a hammock
strung too taut between trees.
Graminivorous, Mr. Pommerly
didn't eat meat with us, preferred
the quiet of those mountains.
Youngsters wasted more energy
than he liked to see unchallenged.
Once he led us hiking the back trail to Horse Flats:
dry, sandy creek beds,
tall granite boulders,
big ants bridging sticks on rapid legs.
On his rations of water,
we stopped spilling parched words,
listened to deer flies instead
as, lumbering, we straggled
his short cut home.
And now I remember
learning how to syphon
water from the pool,
covering, carrying the end of the hose,
holding my fingers tight,
until I traveled to upturned earth
where cedars had just been planted;
trout fishing in a stocked pond--
not very sporting; rainbows still sizzle, too.
But fall lifts to winter,
gas heaters burned
the dry air drier
to the top bunk
where I lay dozing.
maybe six years, drowned once at night
when the pool, ice-layered,
wouldn't break up with sticks
the way we had shown him by day.
His unheard cry
falls on me
with the cabin's senseless burning,
the danger of arsons
in those high hills.
from Searchings For Modesto (Talent House Press, 1993)
for Aunt Frances
A summer month (named after you?)
Came back each year, timed with your visits.
It was still cool at night along our California coast.
You asked for more blankets.
In the morning you were awake
Making noisy faces, tossing me in the air.
You showed me once or twice how to jiggle the biceps.
My arms forever small, you promised me I'd get the knack
Someday. I never did.
You loved music--all kinds. Back home
You led the high school band.
One evening at the Hollywood Bowl you complained,
"Dang it. It's like listening to your neighbor's radio!"
And noisy lights kept flying overhead.
When the word got out to us from Kansas,
I stayed at home from school and cried. That afternoon
My mother took me to a movie,
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
You were Captain Nemo at the organ.
I never learned to play the violin
Or the piano either, but since you've gone
I've loved music--
All kinds. from A Hollow of Waves (1983)
Right place, wrong time,
a percentage born too early:
the mystery of pre-term labor.
It takes energy to breathe,
and some don't have enough--
an adequate blood flow
in the gut,
a resilient head
in a tough world.
A Digital Incorporated conference room.
August's seven-month birth,
and hard-knocks upbringing
as white-gloved hands pointed
out of a cultural background--
a percentage for the artist.
The priest said, "He's alive."
must have felt the pain
by proxy, a rigid-hand
delivery with forceps
in the dark.
To the respirator--
later you gave me
every sense of history.
carried too much shock--
in that time,
at that place--
and had to lean on Susan
for the details,
to hold up my hand,
unfurling each finger,
and start asking questions.
from Beyond Modesto, also appearing in The West Wind Review (1994)
Searching For Modesto
for Dolly and Virgil
I found fault with the map--
my father's index finger
searching for. . .
"Here's Hanford, near the top."
I asked, "Where's Modesto?"
"The other side."
He didn't turn it over; his finger
traveled up, off into the air,
beyond the map.
Nine years old, I hovered
over the edge
of my known world: blue lines
where rivers ended,
red and black highways plunged
toward indeterminate North.
"Stop woolgathering," my father
"It's time to get into the Lincoln."
In those days any car was forced to weave,
driven down the Grapevine.
Summers were hot, dry--
the tule fog long gone,
When steering wheels stopped turning,
time on the road hit bottom.
In flat fields they gathered cotton
instead of wool.
brown lawns begged
their own excuses; Aunt Dolly
took me to a big pool
with blue water and other children.
drove his Cadillac
all over that valley. His cruising
speed at seventy,
he pointed his finger
at chalk white soil
to alkaline to plant.
County lines meant something
when on any road we traveled,
wavy pools suggested water
we could never touch.
A few years later Virgil drove us
up to Yosemite in the Sierras.
invited waterfalls by day,
fire falls at night.
We climbed to a place, where,
if we leaned a little,
we could touch white water's plunge
over a ledge.
At nine years, though,
I was allowed to travel on my own
While I waited, Virgil placed
a penny on the track,
and a freight train flattened
the copper face of Lincoln,
"IN GOD WE TRUST,"
but on the lower half
"Liberty" and "1950"
from the Denver mint.
Aboard my car, the conductor told me:
"There's no stop in Modesto!"
But the Lamberts knew
where to fetch me off the train.
in all directions:
first a visit to a farm
with geese and chickens,
then a horseback ride
through wavy grasses. . .
Ronald took me swimming
in a brown river. . .
(I never had a look at the map.)
from Searchings for Modesto (1993), reprinted in The Prescott Street Reader (1995)
On First Seeing the Magna Carta in Jacksonville, Oregon
December 7, 1986
to examine this document
by the poor lighting
the muffled grievances
of my two-month-old son
confined to his snuggly,
the long line
of other living souls
taxing their patience
to decipher meaning
but most of all
by a 13th-century scribe's
long latinate hand
that had no direction
from his brain
concerning the need
for understanding ("villeins"
are mentioned somewhere
among those minute letters).
Rather, that hand
established an all-time
record for total number
of illegible words
on vellum beginning
in capital letters.
My son, who
discovered his hand,
and now concentrates intensely
on gaining full control
of its mysterious movements,
fell fast asleep
before we quickly signed
the visitors' list for him.
and at liberty
in his demesne,
the little baron
has louder grievances
we seek to understand.
from Beyond Modesto, first published in Calapooya Collage/11 (Summer, 1987)
for Cor and Joe
Where you lived in Norfolk,
gophers burrowed in the yard
I looked through the fence
to watch them race
from white sandy hole
to hole. Sometimes they stood up
on their hind feet, brown furry back
to back for support.
The yards there, near the sea,
were flat and damp.
Later you said about the neighbors:
"Some people let everything run down."
That night Joe set up a cot for me,
clamping down the supports.
Light out, I pretended
I was a gopher--
up on my knees,
my hands flapping under my chin,
my mouth and nose twitching.
And next morning at six,
I awoke you: the arm
of my record player bounced
on yellow plastic
per minutes, the volume
full blast, my voice
Then you surprised me:
"Turn off that racket this instant!"
That was my first trip East,
away from my parents.
Months before in Alhambra
I'd already displeased you: saw marks
in the bench of a picnic
table, water hosed
into your house there.
I tried to run away
beyond train tracks, but your shout caught me
"Where do you think you're going, mister?"
In Norfolk I never got used to the weather.
A thunderstorm flapped.
You were inside taking a shower.
When I twitched the buzzer outside
and nobody answered,
every bounce of thunder
cranked my voice up louder,
squalling your name--tough rain
running off the roof
onto concrete below.
Then you opened the door,
and your anger:
"For the love of Pete, now what's the matter?"
Still it felt good to dry off inside.
Years later in school I'd read
how false a king's impressions
of his daughter,
how confusing language gets sometimes.
In order to meet my parents
we had to board a ferry,
cross Chesapeake Bay
in stormy weather. On deck
the wind ran away with your white scarf.
I fell asleep.
You had to lift me, wake me.
Staring, I saw
you had that tough look again,
determined to get us on that train. from Searchings for Modesto (1993)
a found poem based on Aunt Cordelia's
response to the above. . . .
Joe and I loved your poem.
Only one correction: the first
Happened in Alhambra instead of Norfolk,
The part about the gophers. Oh well, perhaps
It doesn't really matter, poetic license.
But two other things came to mind.
Namely, the lemon pie that fell off the top
Of the refrigerator, and every time you came for a visit
You looked to see if it was still on the floor.
Also the time you repacked Joe's suitcase,
Removing his undies, substituting
Whatever caught your fancy--
Such as the alarm clock. The first
Thing Joe had to do in Odessa, Texas was buy
New PJ's and underwear. Do you remember that?
Oh, yes, about the last
Part on the ferry and train:
You had a Teddy Bear as big as you were. I had to carry
You, the Teddy Bear, and all the luggage.
Perhaps that explains my determination. from Searchings for Modesto (1993)
Good Moves Back Stage
for Benno Rubinyi and family
A movement of nerves
back stage before my reading. I tremble:
"I think I'm almost ready."
You level: "Sit down. Wait a minute.
Give everyone a chance to find a seat."
Once my movements
followed directions to your house--
passing through a carport,
opening a redwood gate,
feeling the lithe tension in the spring,
then, after my release, hearing
the slam of the latch behind me.
Somewhere back then I must have noticed
music from your fingers,
alive on a keyboard, sliding
chords through glass doors
and louvered windows.
My knock brought a thumping
accelerando across the floor. The door
swung open, the music stopped,
and then the thumping withdrew into another room.
For years that child was heard but rarely seen.
But I saw your arm
extended in greeting, a wide smile,
and an offer to find a comfortable chair
near decorations on your wall:
violin, saxophone, clarinet;
piano keyboard, treble clef and
trumpet round the corner. Then
a woman's voice from the kitchen:
"Susan, I think someone is here to see you."
And a shout from back stage:
"Ask him to wait a minute. I'm almost ready."
From back stage, I've noticed,
a play carries quick life.
You have to peek around a corner,
squint at the lights.
Though players are directed away,
toward an audience,
their actions dance for you: sure movements
in steps, bows--remembered lines someone set down
in a prompter's script.
"What piece is that?" I asked
almost every time you finished playing
or put a record on.
"Brahms' First Piano Concerto,"
you said once; "sit down and follow the score."
You point to black marks strung across pages. Your hands
carry quick life
to a keyboard transplanted
to a nearby table or even the arm of chair.
I am stretching with you
toward a coda, quickly turning
finished pages. When the music withdraws
into silence, you say, "Brahms was a real genius."
From back stage I notice
the audience getting restless.
It's nearly fifteen after.
I say, "Thanks. Thank you for the good moves.
Turn down the lights. I'm ready now.
I'm sure." from Searchings For Modesto (1993)
Summer Fun, 1960
still had road signs
numbered escape routes. Summer, 1960.
My not-so-distant cousins,
the Sopers, picked me up at O'Hare.
I saw: Eugene, their grandfather,
who looked like Carl Sandburg;
the Prudential Building, the tallest;
the lake and a river, where,
Marjorie, their mother, told me
about the Fire;
a computer on the Loop
we never beat at tick-tack-toe.
In Milwaukee: pitch and putt,
a little swimming; thunderstorms at night.
The twins across the hall.
battles for harmony off a piano.
Dave, the eldest, somewhere downstairs, too.
Five growing boys drink a lot of milk.
I can't sleep anyway. The air's seething.
Conditioners only blow cold or hot.
No escape from hooked flashes,
I'll be tired for days.
Friends by the lake--perhaps a little cooler.
A mansion, I call it,
gas company people:
A girl named Linda.
Early seathings. A soft glide.
She kept writing me from Jackson Hole.
(Well, two months maybe.)
On TV it's the Republican National Convention.
Walter Judd keys us in:
It points away from moneyed Rockefeller
and overzealous Barry (who can wait four years),
zooms in on Nixon, with Henry Cabot
Lodge(d) behind him for establishment's sake.
The weather cleared.
Marjorie drove us to the Dells.
I took my first shot
at arcing, clay pigeons
that got away.
I couldn't kick the racket
as, sore-shouldered, I watched
my cousins beat their own scores.
Rapid sandstone ravines. Ferns.
Devil's Lake. Indian dancers.
Someone recited Kilmer's poem about a tree.
The Wonder Spot: rubber balls looping uphill.
Trout Fishing in America?
Not long for me:
standing on a bank, I jerked my line,
out of reeds; it shot toward me,
found an escape route into my leg.
Marjorie never cursed my beginner's luck:
the big one that didn't get away. I limped
to the doctor with patience. Marjorie worried
what my father would say.
A final, three-game series with St. Louis.
My cousins cheered.
Knowing too well how a fish feels,
I tried to get enthusiastic,
let loose a yell when the Cardinals
scored a run. Scowls
from my cousins. A little more distance
A hook still fresh in my leg. from Searchings For Modesto (1993)
that was going on
back of our house
beyond the brick wall
and the end of open
sold off by a bank
that liked to view
turned to cash.
For us it meant fast
trenches scooped out
of fields we used
to roam, mining
of little value.
Home from school
it was afternoon
Civil War in former
or gray rebel yells
damp in the air.
We couldn't wait
Maybe before the first rain:
wooden studs nailed
iron pipes for plumbing,
"slugs" we took
Finally the right moment
for tearing into boxes
under a joisted frame.
Upright, trespassers, we walked
knowing what would have
to be a bedroom, closet,
hall or bathroom.
within certain limits
another loud game
before black tar paper
on the Abzugs' rafters.
Five houses in a row,
one after the other,
year after year;
and every time
a kind of disappointment
when all that wrapping
paper off the floor
burned metallic colors
inside our chimney.
Rising land values,
good-bye to lots--
crackling from clods
of yellow grasses
and their potential
fires--now gouged out.
the delvings even
into red clay
the Indian Natives must have
along those palisades.
sized the storm drain
heading for the canyon.
locked doors, off-limits.
No more exposure
to elements. No more
access to cliffs--
that precipice beyond
edging, aging our view
of the bay, lost
and to commercials
still in private hands--
still in private hands.
from Searchings For Modesto