A poem of the road

Niagara Falls in October: cold day, warm hearts. Photo by Theresa Bowles.

In the past four columns I have described in prose the five-week, 8,000-mile road trip my wife and I took to the northeastern rim of Canada. Here I recount the same journey but a different experience—as a poem, a bridge between illusion and reality, allusion and fact, past and present. This is how it felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FALL ROAD

I

Imagine Labrador:

as big as New Mexico,

a population the size of Gallup,

half descended from First Americans,

living on a frozen plain of permafrost

isolated, destroyed, suicidal, drug-addled, alcohol addicted—

murdered is not too strong—

by global warming,

a weapon wielded

by you and me.

Fall

drops early

along the road to Labrador,

blazing boisterously between

lascivious lounging in summer heat

and skiing snowy December depths.

Fall

in Newfoundland

is Joseph’s coat of many colors.

Blueberries bedeck barren land between

fallen red and yellow leaves.

Painted homes ape hues

of tundra and tussocks

in towns hugging the ocean,

whale-whipped waves in the bay,

the Atlantic no longer gray

but for these moments of ours

as blue and serene

as a southern sea.

Four thousand miles there,

four thousand miles back,

eight thousand miles round,

far from home,

in a place called scissors.

II

It never ceases to amaze

me

how much joy is there in

the hard places of the world,

where sun seldom shines.

In St. John’s, Newfoundland,

people make their own sun

in the vivid pastel paint of buildings,

in murals lighting every streetscape,

in songs swinging and shaking

the greatest density of pubs and clubs in North America.

The climate may be grim but the people aren’t.

They are poor—indisputably poor—but their lives aren’t.

In many a rich and snug place

people seen in the street seem

so solemn and sad and desensitized,

their fortunate lives such hard work.

To have so much and enjoy it so little

seems a crime.

To enjoy it not at all

seems a felony.

So much joy can erupt

in a festival,

an impromptu dance,

a greeting in the street of two old friends,

a friendly stranger

(a Montreal beggar’s sign: “anything can help even a smile”)

that it makes me wonder at

the intensity of our culture’s struggle for wealth.

Why fight so much

when the best is free?

Four thousand miles there,

four thousand miles back,

eight thousand miles round,

far from home,

in a place called scissors.

III

Quebec Route 138 runs and races,

prances and pirouettes,

dances and dawdles

betwixt and between,

not quite the arctic despite whales and bergs,

surely not the tropics despite Latin heat,

not quite La France despite les francais,

not quite Amerindian despite Inuits and Inus.

You can’t drive Route 138

all the way to Labrador;

after a thousand miles it drowns

in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“The ship is our road,” a mayor says,

but unlike a real road

it starts and stops when it wants.

Four thousand miles there,

four thousand miles back,

eight thousand miles round,

far from home,

in a place called scissors.

IV

The road between home and Labrador

drives New England villages

and the brown Midwest

and, God help us,

Oklahoma and Texas,

where cops ambush cars going 7 miles too fast

and threaten picnickers with jail for a bottle of wine.

But no matter where it goes,

the road is more than geography;

it’s freedom.

Despite the song, freedom isn’t

just another word

for nothing left to lose.

Freedom is

the long lazy road

to and from Labrador

amid the aura of autumn.

Freedom is

just another word

for the road.

V

We took the road—

part of the same road

but a different world—

34 years ago,

together the first time,

and later became man and wife.

Now again we stand on the shelf of Niagara

and watch water thunder over cliffs

of American and Horseshoe falls,

two nations divisible.

Every road trip is the same—

finding out what is

between there and there.

But it’s ever unique

for you are never

the same twice.

Four thousand miles there,

four thousand miles back,

eight thousand miles round,

far from home,

in a place called scissors.

VI

“One can’t buy happiness

but one can buy cheese

and it’s almost the same,”

says a sign in Quebec’s vast market.

So I stop and buy Manchego cheese

at $24 a pound

made from the milk of Spanish sheep

living on a plain of rock monoliths

where Don Quixote roamed,

because 45 years ago

on another road trip—

a month through every part of Spain,

in the dying modes of fascist dictatorship

and misbegotten marriage—

a different wife

a different road

a different country

a different love

but the same cheese,

another wife and I

on that road we

munched on cheap Manchego and coarse Spanish loaves and sweet olives

in the last best time

of a misaligned love

I can but mourn

for what it was

for what I was

for what I did.

You can’t forget

You can’t forgive

You can’t forgo

the memories.

VII

Color the road red and orange.

Color the road long and lush

Color the road lustful and lascivious.

Color the road us.

This is today.

The road home begins

on the whale-spouted,

iceberg-lacerated shores

of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

At the end of this road,

like all roads, like all trips,

resides past and future—

downer and detumescence,

like letting air out of a balloon,

the adventure is over;

and ardent arousal,

for at home, real life lives on,

beckons us back.

But there will always be another trip—

always,

until there isn’t.

Four thousand miles there

four thousand miles back

eight thousand miles around

far from home

in a place called scissors.

VIII

The road is paved

with memories.

I am old

and remember

and want to cry.

I recall the young man

who made many a mistake

with panache and pizzaz.

I am no longer young,

make few mistakes

and have lost panache and pizzaz.

But I remember everything.

The road is long.

Where does it begin?

Where does it end?

No, the road is short.

It begins,

and ends,

here.

Four thousand miles there,

four thousand miles back,

eight thousand miles round,

far from home,

in a place called scissors.

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