Saturday, December 6, 2008

"Crossing America" by Leo Connellan (the poem)


Crossing America by Leo Connellan was the subject of our first poetry score, when our organization was still known as Hoobellatoo. The score was released on CD in 2003 and profiled that year on BBC Radio 3. The score was performed live at Mad Art Gallery in St. Louis in November 2005, along with a solo show of photographs in response to the poem by Andrea Day, with jail cell memorials to the poet and several other elder artists Hoobellatoo had recorded who had passed away. The CD remains in print and is available at independent shops in St. Louis and through Poetry Scores. The poem remains under the copyright of the Connellan Estate and may not be reprinted without permission. Photo of Leo, not long after his years on the road, courtesy of his widow, Nancy Connellan.

*


Crossing America
By Leo Connellan

This poem is for the woman
who crossed America with me


I

We hitchhiked America. I
still think of her.

I walk the old streets thinking I
see her, but never.

New buildings have gone up.
The bartenders who poured roses
into our glasses are gone.
We are erased.


II

Minook, Illinois,
one street out of nowhere through cornstalks.
Winter clutched the cornfields into Chicago.
Cold, we couldn’t get in out of the cold.

But a lonely filling station owner risked
letting his death in out of the night.
I lay on his gas station floor and let her
use me for a bed.

I will never forget the cold into
my kidneys or lying awake bearing the
pain while she slept like a two month
old child on the hill of its mother’s tit.

It was on that stone floor
that I knew I loved her.


III

Vermont, green, thick rich light
green and black green, green and
yellow Vermont, quiet, so beautiful,
but I fear your silence in narrow men.

So green. Green of death. Green murder.
Ruthlessness in green. The broken weak
whimpering among thick green meadows.
The oblivious green of love of the mountains
and lovers in each other, oblivious, and
you go to Frost’s, now picnic tables
along the edge of the hideout.

Frost lived in green. 125 through Vermont
is a sliver thin line along thick rugged
country woods to the left, and across green
pasture green hills on the right with a
downhill mountain stream smacking clearly
off thick rocks almost to Middlebury.

Suddenly you’re almost past it, just a
trail up through thick woods to the cleared
meadow and small white farm. Now the sky here
sits down on the roof to frame greatness burst
once out of that silence most of us couldn’t
live long in, mosquitoes in thick heat lazy
summer and brutal winter that would drive us
mad in its isolation, yet it’s no time at all
to the college or hardly a walk to Bread Loaf School.

This Frost’s base, nothing could ever
get worse in life that this, brutal
cold on top of hunger, thick heavy
vicious snow and stifling heat summers
in a paranoia of green in silence green,
nothing harder; beat this and you’ve won
where Frost spent his years up a dirt road
in a small farm house with a barn that
had pulled its last winter when I saw it.

This maybe was his greatness to be able to
pull time but create, to be able to
lose everything but keep your grip and
create, the sustained self control and
inner will to live your years slowly through
green, thick green woods, dark rich green,
black green trees and green mountains and
the yellow dandelion green of highway 100
up over the ski green mountains where
the measles of yellow dandelions flush green
meadows in May, and I saw this Frost
country, it suited him it was just like
him. You live like who you are in this green.

Frost lived in blood spouting green
and white blinding snow was
stronger than anything that could
kill him, but finally death yanking him out
of the world he would not have ever left.

Green Vermont, green squeezing on
pressing green into bright spurting
red blood if you look. Green of the
mountains and the foothills and green
of the human spirit. You die in green
or you live in green….It is in you
what you do.


IV

Cold, light off the road. Wreck of
a stranded car in the yard. Climbed in
thinking within, we could wrap ourselves
against cold cutting our livers
with its fingernails.

I went to the lit house fearing shotgun flash,
but these was no heat in the house either.
In a shack off the road a woman let me in
out of the brutal cold. She hovered with
eight children everywhichway on their one bed.

She let me in from freezing but she got up
and sat in a rocking chair and kept me
talking all night.

On the one hand she couldn’t bring herself
to let me freeze outdoors and at the same time
didn’t dare to trust me with closed eyes.

I knew she could kill me. I am alive
because I have recognized
death very close.

Where was the father of eight children
on this cold night.

I can see him, scrawny neck hunched over
steering wheel of a huge trailer truck,
maybe climbing Deer Lodge, Montana mountain
with his false teeth in the seat beside him,
tired and thin and not for long over the road.
I know him. He has given us a ride.

I told her my lady was cold in the wreck
but in that smug way one presumes that another
deserves what they get for being damn fool
to go traipsing with some idiot man
through the back washes of a continent,
she simply would not let her in out of the cold.

I told her our trip. She didn’t
believe me. No one just comes to your house
who really has done all these things!
Both of us were relieved when the morning broke.
She carried my death with her
right the door if I wanted it.


V

On the highway to Vegas,
winter in your nose.
Off the road birds of death men
hovering over fires like icicles
thawing over a matchbook.
Snow over the pass. It was
no place for a young dumbbell.
These were numbered men
looking for fresh youth to turn over
like Indians surrounded deer
their deaths decided without
moving the wind. I turned back.


VI

The trick is to spot a
drunk who is well known in a
neighborhood bar and sit down
next to him as if you’re life
long friend. You try to get him
to let you buy him a drink
effortlessly as if his letting you
is the most natural thing in the
world, you know each other so well
and you hope to be able to motion
the bartender up in front of the
two of you so he sees what appears
to be how close friends you are,
then it’s just a matter of your
victim’s ordering you a drink back,
20s, 10s, 5s, 1s up on the bar
loosely pushed so bartender can deduct
what he wants, and do not be a fool, be aware
that some drinkers are razor observant.
They couldn’t walk, speak, but you move toward
their money and they see it and you’re through.


VII

You’ve got to work smooth without
compunction, you’re a drunk yourself
with a woman to keep, hardly able to
get her in, but you want to, you love
her, the liquor’s got your lust, you
hope your girl doesn’t get it
and go for a stallion, you’re out
of your pimple facing San Quentin,
losing her if she gets wise to
the truth that you can’t pop her
light bulb any more, only try
to feed you both.

Will she find out and go!? Steal,
loose cash on the bar in one movement,
then back to her you crossed the
country with, you want to drop
on your knees and lick her with love,
she’s your woman and she won’t stay
if she knows how you bring in
bus tickets to your new places.

You workin’ other drunks
because you’re grabbed.

Talent that might have run corporations
is fleecing drunks.


VIII

Young man has stepped out
of a cab and has helped the
girl out and now he has money
in his hand and just exactly
when he is being handed his
change and mentally is about
to tip the driver with
plans to turn and tip the
doorman and then the
waiter, while he’s in this
frame of mind, turning now
from the cab to tip the doorman,
you step in from nowhere fast
and right next to him, bit
loud enough so he sees the girl hear
you, you stem. You bum him and get
out of there before the doorman realizes it.


IX

He sat down next to a
Merchant Marine Officer who
just spent the afternoon of his first day ashore in months
sodomizing and beating up a
fourteen year old girl hustler
off the Embarcadero, but now would
self-righteously gouge out
the eyes of anyone who tried
for his money up on the bar,
although were he suddenly yanked
to police station, with the chicken
pointing him out, he’d be begging
for compassion if not outright
understanding, everyone’s
insight comprehending him, you know
the type, goes around telling
everyone his name’s Tokyo, heavily
tattooed and seething restrained
danger. He rushes to sea when
he can’t keep it together on land.


X

And your car standing on its hind legs up
the Pulaski Skyway or blinking through sweat
shivering heat on the New Jersey Turnpike,
amid the big oil drums by Hoboken when you
come from Harrison in ninety-nine degree heat
to drive into the darkness of the Lincoln Tunnel
or go onto the racetrack of George Washington
Bridge over into the city of the score, New York,
strained now so your instinct tells you it is like
a hard boiled egg shell about to be cracked
for the dried yellow…

America, you built too fast, rushed inside
two hundred years instead of centuries
Europe took, and China put lime over its cultures
so many times, this world can never know
what it lost.

Garcia Lorca sing!
Where that inebriated Hudson vomits.
Sing of green for me
who has seen the Spanish boys hang in Riker’s Island
convicted of no crime, but without
bail money, take their
own lives in humiliation.

You and I are bitter together, Federico!
At the death of these roses.
Blood red they die,
blood of the immigrant
who lands without the new language yet,
handicapped and always
at the bottom of Commerce,
the end of reward, the chance
they took! It is from these, Federico,
that America was put together, blood
red they die, blood of the immigrant
at the feet of the statue of our lady
with her torch high in welcome
but cold stone of death.

Rain and the sea
splash her with the slush
of wild snow storms and
reveal her inner hardness.
She is an immigrant herself
given as a gift.

Though she welcomes, you
have to bring your own money
or find it without getting caught or
she will let you toss and turn in Hell.

Across from her open palms
lie cell blocks of despair.

Mark us our Bicentennial then with
their bones, for they came to blend
their hearts and all their effort too
in our dream. Who among us has
not stolen. Who among us does not
kill everyone they live with in order
to be whatever their dreams
are, come on! Federico,
you died because your ego thought
you were God but you forgot He
was sent to Heaven.

Come on Federico! we must not
mark our Bicentennial
until no man can languish
or die imprisoned in a land
of the free and brave.

Until no man hangs himself
because he has no hope.

That day my bitterness, Federico,
will concentrate itself completely
on your murderers.

It is a world again now
of torture and violation.

Yes, I will see this, Federico, yes,
see it and rage against it.


XI

Walt Whitman, because our whole song
springs from the nest of your whiskers, I
scream to you of poor people, scream Walt! We
go to the moon, but still children are
hungry, still infants have no father
and mother and are left newborn healthy
beautifully formed, born alive, in plastic
bags to die like that behind Finasts…
murdered children, abused children! Hungry
children, children are hungry and full of
rickets in your country, Walter.

Allen Ginsberg, what on earth is Gertrude Stein
doing to you down in your Cherry Valley…

Hart Crane, while you were noting
the telephone poles stretching across our ghost…

Violence, eye gouging out horror is easy.
Bullets end you at once, life takes
a long time to make, an instant to obliterate.
Forever, virginity goes forever in one
plunge… and your car
one dizzy speeding uncontrolled dot trying
to find the whole world’s heart… and you car
standing on its hind legs up on the Pulaski Skyway…
as mankind crashes head on…


XII

I have called the frogs
in from croaking in bogs, now
that their timeless complaint,
along with blinking fireflies,
in mortal man dark, is
lost in ascent to the stars
and I wonder how soul
will go to God
from such a foreign place.


XIII

Now, outside that bus station was Cheyenne, see,
but I didn’t go look. I was young and I’d be
back! What could it be but a city with buildings,
because I was on my way to the Dakotas, where I
never got, and the thing that hurts later is that
I was right there in Cheyenne and didn’t stay
awhile and look around. I never got back there.
The bus we rode into Wyoming that time
when I was young pulled in to the run down part
of town. Even the idea of days-old cellophane
wrapped sandwiches for sale in the dirty old
bus station of cows, revolted us. Somebody hanging
around the station, gawky with a blank face, said
that across the street from the station you could
get a real good steak. I really didn’t believe it,
the place looked gray, but it was one of the best
steaks I ever ate anywhere, right across from the
old Cheyenne, Wyoming bus station.


XIV

Taos, old Taos of the trails, Taos, old
adobe, mud and water squeezed together through
your fingers by your human hand into
thousand year houses, We rushed to pick cabbages
out of the frost in a field of the William Hawk
ranch high on a mountain of San Cristobal that
looked down across Comanche plains. Big bears and
Indian, a National Park now, not free any more,
not wild and forbidding. It doesn’t stir your
blood any more. The outdoors is spoiled. Gone.
Gone the excitement of straw and mud and water
shoveling just dirt out of the ground, just dry
grass straw and then pouring water on the straw
and dirt, water on the dry straw and earth making
mud and then slowly kneading, squeezing them,
oozing them through your fingers again,
again until all the straw and mud mix and
become shaped by human hands to make a house
that in this dry hard country will last hundred
of years, wild country, cold in the morning and
clean sharp air cold in loneliness and guitar strums.
The horses were so wild and so lovely, so beautiful
wild horses. You can make love in the cool dark adobe
mud and straw and water where Kit Carson stayed
in the old old hotel of Taos square… It is amazing
but when you put that straw water and mud together
the weather outside can be dry 100 degrees hot and dry
yet inside the adobe room is damp and cool and here
the Spanish, Navajos, Pueblos… Ceremony of killing
pig in front of everyone hanging the big poor
squealing thing upside down and then razor sharp
slitting its throat, everyone watching, everyone gathers
and watches the throat slitting like a Catholic ritual,
then everyone gets a piece of the death according to
their importance, hard ruthless country, the really
ageless America getting ruined by rancid tourist
gas on the arroyo.


XV

Sheriff of Oxford, Mississippi wouldn’t
give us a bed unless we committed a crime.
But the wife of a hard hotel owner let us
leave our luggage for sleep. A car stopped
to my thumb but when I grabbed the door an
electric jolt hit me. An Oxford priest gave
us money. I even forget his face and never
got it back to him. On the back of a pick-up
truck, bouncing around straw as he drove fast
through Tennessee murdering me as much as he
dared, and my lady up in his cab while
he weighed our lives with his gas pedal
foot and whether to take her and dump me.


XVI

We made love in the breeze of the Gulf. I
loved her. It was like loving myself. I
wanted no one else; I murdered a catfish
with an ice pick in the kitchen of our
apartment, carried him up betrayed
in a pail of salt water. Reached in and
grabbed him thrashing as I stabbed him
with the ice pick, flailing the sea in my
ears; trying to throw himself out of my grip
back to the ocean. My hand kept driving
the ice pick through him into
chrome sink until the heart of
his life gave itself to the ice pick.


XVII

In the night our black friend
would sneak to our door in stocking feet,
we’d pull curtains because he told us
we had to if we wanted him alive.

He did not think I would ever come
to his house. I saw what we white men
will pay for in Hell. Children, the
terror of my presence in their eyes.

They were in the living dead part of town
where men plunge themselves furiously
into women rather that kill somebody.
Faces of infants are old.
Nigger, your blood
in the daisies of Gettysburg, your
grave out back of some cesspool.


XVIII

No, not again in the night,
terror and us in camps.
I am in the woods alone with you
Red Robin. Hear the bulldozers
shaving our forest away for a drive-in,
death is waiting where delicate freedom
bloomed. Open space keeps screams futile.

Stop it now! Stop even the idea, the chance,
camps again, a Borman out
of the jungle into the White House
with a paint job of blood.

What was the immigrant that his own children
cut open earth of his grave
and wet dust of his bones
with innocent blood of his own kind!


XIX

You are gone like buffalo never
existed in my time, except up from Pueblo,
Colorado, a freak herd for truck diner
steaks now. In a museum for children
who will never know they roamed
open plains as you whistled on a halo
of congealed smoke through quiet
back-o-towns pulling our nation together
like a stubborn zipper on the trousers
of an Aldeman, Choo-Choo, I rode your
passenger cars bursting with pride
at the trail you cut in the face of cliffs
and rock slides where snow and ice owned
the country until you charged through
on tracks put down by expendable of mankind,
buying their progeny piece of America
with their bare tendons and their deaths.

I did not miss you until you were gone.
We are in a skyspin now. The shadows of
space fall on your ghost.


XX

The apple country when
Sunday smelled of our taste buds,
our loneliness rattled in freight
eluding irises of law men, north
to apple picking and then to pick vines.
There is nothing so wrong as steel bars
on wide open land like daggers in
innocence, a life of jails, camaraderie
with sheriffs tolerantly turning the key
on our weekends because we were not
prison time, but to be yanked out of sight
once our power was in tavern cash registers
and out anguish blew up in the drink.
Staggering behind Sally Tambourines
down your main street. All you saw
was your flag, never the wrecks of men
who were broken in your service or
shook Mamma loose, scattered in
Father dictum “if you do this
you are on your own.”


XXI

Friday night in Colorado towns
helping the sheriff make his count,
he’d work with you all week if you
helped him look ridding the community
of vagrancy and bums when the good
working voters came out to drink
and spend their futility on
draining beers and didn’t want
to stagger against indigents.
So into a cell with the door left
wide open unlocked, as long as
they were off the street, out
of the way provided with cigars
and cards and a chance to read
the paper, rest up for your time
on the town, when Monday morning
came again and none of the
sheriff’s men would do a thing
about your bumming people on
the street, no matter how many
complained, nor would the
sheriff’s deputies do a thing
about your even falling down
drunk of heat any other day
of the week, as long as you didn’t
fall head first through any windows
or knife anyone or do anything
you shouldn’t.


XXII

Now flash to Reno on speed highways
by old Donner Pass road hidden now
like a hunched shoulder you felt like
you’d drive right off into the postcard.

Cold, with tree scents on clean ice air,
everything so thin, small, saddle leather
and rancid gun scent, horse flesh smell like
the taste of fresh rhubarb in your nose, and
surrounded by a vast world, yet impeded by
only your two feet, horses, you could die
inches from where you started in snow chomping
on your neighbor’s chest meat that thrust
itself out from Missouri across this land
with just one more mountain to get over
to the ocean…


XXIII

We crossed Southwest with a nurse
driving herself to Pittsburgh, haunted
loneliness in black quiet night giving
dying cigarettes a free ride too hanging
in ashes on her lower lip, she plucked
us off L.A. Freeway concrete and you
had the feeling you were riding with
one of those men women who rode
with George Patton, now forced against
her will to take leave from completely
taking over and bullying frail old
people in some Los Angeles home out at
the edge of death. She took us
away from hovering arresting
police roaming in cars to put
hitchhikers in jail and out she
drove, no one talking, in the love
of midnight, when there is a
truce with silence, out into the
desert across Arizona and Texas to Galveston.


XXIV

It was just around the corner from night.
The town was a half block stuck in the middle of cornstalks.
And in daylight heat wrung your breath
until strangers separated like chaff dropped over.

Early morning just touched blackness now,
but it was as if the town knew I was there and
turned on all its lights. Sun exploded
on long green fields with yellow corn peeking.

A dog barked in a house at my unknown scent. It was then
I sat on the seat of my suitcase and wrote you a postcard,
feeling I bought my living as it slipped into the mailbox
as human being started moving about me like a decided jury.
The town came out to see me in pairs of overalled men,
resentment in their eyes and I sat down in their diner over coffee
absolutely terrified and the coffee turned into ham and eggs
to show solvency to their invisible rope.

It was a town behind me in the shifting of the next ride’s gears
and we’d be in miles of fields of corn, yellow through green.
But now I hovered on the whim of human frailty
where all my knowledge might not mean anything.


XXV

It was not all right with her,
the lying together times.
She wanted me to come
to the town of her doll house
and ask her.

Self-righteously I fumed.
The air blew up in my curses.

How could a woman travel with you
and ask you to come and
ask her…


XXVI

My father was tired and old
when I came bulbously demanding
the rest of his squeezed out dreams,
shattered enough before I was thrown
by him one night into my mother’s eggs.

I know he loved himself,
so me as part of his flesh,
but we were as removed
as lovers as soon
as the screams have died.

He tried to buy Heaven
by giving me pocket money.

We could never get our love out
across the veil of my dead mother.
We asked him where we would live
when the cover came down on her coffin.
“Here, this is your home” and
it always was.

For all the years unable to cope I
write this, for all the ruined children
of others pacing their lived out in white
rooms I write this, stab me with thorns
of roses for writing this, let ground glass
be in all I eat for the loathsome back handed
ingrate treachery of writing this, but youth
does not cut its trail on the whim of the old man.


XXVII

All the daddy are deep in the ground rotting,
while what they produced are racing to rot
on the earth soon. There is no forgiveness when
you ruin a child, not even if the child forgives you.

If he had been a simple dishwasher
he would have had a father.

“He aren’t one-a-them homasoxuals, th’po’try’s
just a hobby,” Dad rushed to assure th’Maine folk
leaving him out of his heart
in the cold of his fidgety disgrace.
Presume dad was mortified because he wasn’t
discussing my crushing shoulder bones
on a football field, bouncing balls in a track
suit or digging spikes into somebody’s ankle,
all the pursuits for your son if it wasn’t
hunting season when a’course any real boy’d
wanta be out wind blown rosy checked blowin’
birds apart or bringin’ down a deer just
because it was November when you bring deer down,
certainly not for need of meat.

That he could have lived to see me
finally tall in his place, with his last name
proudly on everybody’s lips.


XXVIII

Ten miles into
Chicago, what legs
my lady has.
Powerhouses throb
in her calves.
Her swaying backside
thumbs itself
at the highway.
We do not lie
in one of its ditches.


XXIX
There was a woman who was
on the bum who must have
worn eleven dresses and she
always carried a shopping bag
that she lived out of and in a
couple of the bars they let her
buy drinks of wine if she had
money or they let anyone buy
her a drink and he would sit
there sipping thirty cent shots
with a fifteen cent ale chaser,
buying her doubles of wine, week
after week, day after
day of coming in from stemming.
Good stemming days he’d have
given the bartender money, always
trying to keep at least ten dollars
back of the bar and he made friends
with pensioners and other bums
so they always tried to see to it
that each other always drank.
He was a young man sitting with old
men in bars rather than an old man
sitting with young men in the bar and
often when he was leaving, Alice,
the woman in eleven dresses with
that fresh air encaked smell on her
would walk with him, carrying her
bag with whatever she owned and
whatever she’d been able to grab in
it and on occasion he’d let her
come up into his hotel room and
let her fall down on the warm floor
in out of the outdoors night cold
with the rug of the floor over her.

He’d offer her the bed and she’d
refuse, so there would be the two
of them, him stripped to his shorts
lying sprawled across his bed
bought by a quick odd job or from stemming,
sleeping his drunk off while she
passed out on the floor. Finally he
was there with her and the urges
of a man hit him fiercely. It was
about the end of his being down,
blood flowed through the cold pipes.

But she had morals or her feelings
were wrung out or in her position
she couldn’t have it around that
she’d make or everybody’d pass
her from bum to bum or the
police would send her over, but
he put it to her like a bastard
that he’d been buying her drinks
and food for three months and
when he actually got so low
as to put it to her that way
she got up off the floor and lay
on her back on the bed and
the smell of her from exposure
to outdoors almost made him
vomit, it was like blood on tin
on the roof of your mouth, but
he plunged in her like he was
murdering her cunt and he
was so hard from lack of it
that after awhile a spark from
somewhere way in her moved her,
still she just lay there while
he screwed his drinks back.

Until he burst and then he held her
in his arms close and her face
underneath him looked like wax
death smelling vile wholesomeness
of fresh wind and outdoor sun turned
like milk left out on a stove, then
he held her in his arms and even
while he was doing it fear crossed
his soul at the thought that he was
laying death, that the time he met
his death it would be Alice in
eleven dressed pulled up so her
hole could be entered only he
wouldn’t be pulling out… and
he put it in her all night like
a drunken lottery ticket winner.
She just lay there smelling cold
like death would smell if it
was a woman with a hole.

In her and holding her and
back and forth until he had
come and until he had come
then she got up of the bed
without a word and picked up
her shopping bag and left.

He never forgot her. The face
when he lay over her, death
letting him know what she
will look like when she comes
for him.

He regretted his drunken insanity
almost as soon as his cock lay
whimpering in its shriveled
case and tried to talk to her
but she hadn’t given herself
to him. He had put it to her
that really all the drinks he
bought her weren’t for human
friendship, but for this. He
was right and she was right.


XXX

She walked out of his room
at four in the morning, nothing
he could say would stop her. Fear
seized him then that the police
might grab her for wandering
around that hour of the morning
and find her reeking of sperm and
come and get him with a rape rap,
but the night passed and they
didn’t come.

She never spoke to him again
and she never came into the
bar any more. She never saw
him again. Under the grime
encaked dirt he guessed she
was still under forty. What
had brought her down?

She still had the human spirit
to give him his sex when
he put it to her that this
was, apparently, the only reason
he’d ever sat with her, ever
bought her a drink, ever
had anything to do with her.

He never saw her again and
he never got rid of that smell
about her of cleanliness gone sour
from too much outdoors.

3 comments:

rs said...

Thanks for the post. The holy ghost hovers next of me trying to steal warmth as I partake in the sacrament of joe by the shrine of the radiant wood stove. I reflect forward and backward like a mirror into a mirror into the infinity of "Crossing America" a daily sermon stretching across a continent.

Amen

Confluence City said...

Amen.

azulpup said...

leo was a favor. a show he did for
stone soup poets, jack powers.
6 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WIXyUaNJ-w
5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxfbbufcQc8
4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUVKjUyNlhY
3 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbPI-WZHYS4
2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cp2tcD0RGTc
1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kw1Cs8x35e8