A Poetic Map of the United States
by Aaron Geiger
In Rockwall, Texas, back in the 90s, I made fun of a man my friends said was living with AIDS. I was a child. He was standing in his yard, tending to his ratty little garden, and I called him a faggot. In 2009 I read Mark Doty’s My Alexandria; Doty’s cadenzas to the public masses regarding the face of the AIDS epidemic were actually pointed at that little boy, I think. For years I wanted to go back to tend to that man’s garden, and when my plants die I think of AIDS. It’s silly what our minds associate things with.
Right before my freshman year in high school I went to a church retreat—Mo Ranch—in the hill country outside of Killeen, Texas. Someone told me a girl had slipped a note under my pillow while I was away. I thought it would be a romantic note. Instead, it was Work Without Hope by Samuel Taylor Coleridge—a sonnet full of complexity about nature, the seasons, objectivity, futility, hope, and success. To this day I don’t know who gave me the note, but it was written in a girl’s handwriting, full of large S’s and looping E’s and rounded dots over the I’s in a soft pastel color. Over the years I have romanticized this poem and that moment.
My poetic moments involve a place in time, geography, and realization. I want you to know this and observe my lack of melodrama where melodrama probably exists.
While a sophomore at the University of North Texas, I thought that since my looks were modest I needed to adapt my personality to become more engaging to women. I became a faux-feminist with a reading of Denise Duhamel’s Kinky at my local poetry wallow. Later I read Greta Gaard’s ecofeminism, poetry by Emily Eden, excerpts from Nawal El Saadawi from the “second wave of feminism.” Then I learned that many women were faux-feminists, too.
For a short time I worked in the Rocky Mountain National Park as an educator, first responder, and survival instructor. I toured the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in nearby Boulder. I read Dharma Bums and several helpings of Anne Waldman’s experimental poetry, many of which cut vast swathes into environmentalism and spoke of the preservation of our world. I was interested to read Kerouac’s accounts as a fire lookout on Matterhorn in California. When I returned to Texas, my conservative boss saw my stash of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, and Waldman. He called me “Hippie” throughout that winter. I never told him that I thought Kerouac was trying too hard to gain attention, and that Waldman’s experimental caterwauling made me nervous and confused. I resented gaining a pseudo-identity based upon what I read.
Trees, by Joyce Kilmer (I think that I shall never see/ A poem as lovely as a tree) is trite and awful, yet it drives home the point when Kilmer says “Poems are made by fools like me,/ But only God can make a tree.” I fell in love with Ponderosa pines in Estes Park, Colorado—their caramel and vanilla overtones sweating from under the cinnamon bark. When I tried to write about them, I couldn’t stop thinking about Kilmer’s stupid poem. This paragraph is going to be my limited homage about them, and I don’t think I’ll ever try again.
Toward the end of my working stint in Colorado, my girlfriend at the time, whom I left behind in Texas for a few months, called to tell me a new friend of hers was on his bicycle when a truck hit him. He died. She seemed unusually hysterical. Later, after she drove all the way out to pick me up and bring me back to Texas, she told me that she had slept with that man only a week before his tragedy. This is not why I joined the Navy later that year, but when I was getting my final physical at the Dallas MEPS station that November, I read Kay Ryan. First I read Patience, and then I read Nothing Ventured. Oh, irony.
Deep in the belly of a Navy destroyer I read Whitman’s Spontaneous Me, the words practically flinging themselves off of the page. It was a jumble of unbridled, unrestrained, stream-of-conscious amorous ditherings. I would have loved it then if I had not been surrounded by steel and red lights and 120 men in my berthing compartment. There would be no smell of apples, aromas from “crush’d sage-plant,” mint, nor birch-bark; the air conditioning was kept at about 60 degrees to keep the smell of working men from becoming completely disagreeable. I remember taking Whitman with me to the galley at midnight, which was serving canned ravioli to the glow of a very bad action movie. The juxtaposition of clashing worlds was obviously not lost on me: “The souse upon me of my lover the sea, as I lie willing and naked …”
I slipped into unconsciousness while performing underwater sprints in Surface Rescue Swimmer training in Jacksonville, Florida. By “sprints” I mean that we were in rescue swimmer gear, and we were to swim fast underwater from one side of the pool to the other. After each lap, we had to tread water with our hands over our heads, yelling out responses to commands. At the blast of the whistle, whether or not we caught our breath enough, we had to swim underwater again. I simply blacked out. I awoke in an ambulance, and my instructors came with me. Because of the water in my lungs I had to have the gas in my arterial blood checked, and I spent the next few hours being observed, during which time I had plenty of time to wonder why I was putting myself through so much physical and mental torture. In order to keep from washing out of the program, I had to return to training at 6am the next morning. Late that night I searched on the Internet for poetry, for inspiration, for something to grab hold of. I found nothing. I still got up that next morning.
I read The Cities Inside Us by Alberto Rios at a San Diego café during a slam poetry night while on one of my weekends away from the ship. I drank some vodka beforehand and I thought I was a little overzealous with my delivery.
We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are
But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.
We each take a piece
Through the eye and through the ear.
Afterwards a bronzed, well-dressed Chicano man came up to the mic and stated, “You and I simply have to fuck after that.” At first I was embarrassed, and oddly flattered, then realized I had gone to an all-gay-and-lesbian poetry slam. I went back the next week.
I drowned in La Jolla during a training exercise as a member of a search and rescue team for the Navy. I say drowned, because that’s what happened. I died there, and was rescued. In my perceived last moments as I slipped out of consciousness, my body being pounded upon the rocky cliffs by the strong winter surf, I found a strange peace amid the most pure and unadulterated terror, which has since become a part of me. I now find great comfort and sadness in Bob Hicok’s poem In Michael Robin’s class minus one.
He asks, why did you fill the boy with your going?
I didn’t know a boy had been added to me, the river says.
Would you have given him back if you knew?
I think so, the river says, I have so many boys in me,
I’m worn out stroking eyes looking up at the sky.
I’m not a poor swimmer, contrary to my aquatic foibles.
What is it like to drown? Henri Cole wrote in his poem To Sleep:
Come along, child;
stretch out your feet under the blanket.
Darkness will give you back, unremembering.
Do not be afraid.
This is what I thought it would be like, but to be honest it’s one of the worst things imaginable to have a liquid blanket wrapped around your insides, the sun’s reach only a few feet away, the vice of the ocean dragging you away from life. The last thing I remember was a curled question mark of blood drifting in front of me silhouetted by the light above. I found peace at what I thought was the very end of my life. Again, I awoke in an ambulance. Then I went into a deep shock, my broken arm flopping about, my cracked ribs and knee and collar bone lancing my nerves with pain, the blood pooling inside my wetsuit. There is something poignant about so much physical pain. It serves as a bookmark in time and place.
Details aside, I once reassembled pieces of bodies of men, women, and children to create an accurate body count. Before then, I regarded death with the same detached nature as the packaged meat I ate for dinner. Joan Aleshire wrote:
‘The dead’ always appear,
as a collective noun: gray mass without feature,
to be featured or made fun of, and so to be
erased, as if we hadn’t once loved or fought
with them, as if we won’t end the same.
The first dead child I saw had handsome features and dark eyebrows. The distance between life and mortality is hardly measurable. This incident, along with the drowning episodes, is the source of my PTSD, which ravaged me from San Diego all the way to Champaign, Illinois. I can visually trace the retreat like a Napoleonic map. It was my Waterloo.
When I left California for Texas upon my silent departure from the Navy, I took my time driving back, lingering past the hills that divided California from the dry lap of Arizona. I received many strange stares from brown eyes in the Navajo Nation. I ended up camping in a scrub forest out by El Paso and heard the coyotes yipping into the vast swath of the Milky Way band. I was completely alone, a parasitic scab on the face of the desert. All of my life I found comfort when isolated in nature, but my mind was not well, and all of my problems, my haunts, were draped in front of my eyes, whether they were closed or open. Time stood still, and I felt, for the first time, terminal.
The hours hung like fruit in night’s tree
means when I close my eyes
and look inside me,
a thousand open eyes
span the moment of my waking.
—A Table in the Wilderness, by Li-Young Lee
Ever since I moved to Illinois by way of Texas after leaving the Navy, I’ve pondered putting a line from Carl Sandburg’s poem Autumn Movement on my headstone: “I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.”
Please note that this isn’t a testimonial, nor do I want sympathy. I want you to see the concrete and leave the abstract for another day.
Not long after I arrived in Illinois, I was introduced to Army veteran Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet. It was very moving and the writing was purposeful, moving, poignant. I was left with his imagery of an Iraqi’s brains spilling onto the ground as white cranes lifting from the Tigris River. But I was angry with Turner for sharing all of this so soon. I also thought Turner was being sensationalized due to our nation’s fanfare for the military; would he have been as noted a poet if he had not been a veteran? I realize this isn’t fair to say.
I learned new perspectives studying under Tyehimba Jess at the University of Illinois. He breathed performance into poetry; he is a tangible, word-sweating essence of slam. Ledbelly, what I consider to be his so-far magnum opus, was to me a book that should only be read aloud. I spent the next year orating poems, painfully aware of my shortcomings as a speaker. But I tried.
Jess was a fellow student-poet in Illinois. While visiting family in Hawaii, I gave her the nod over the phone to become roommates, so she found us an awful place to live in my absentia. We were referred to as two bright lights in the program (not my words), and I enjoyed her vision and way of bringing the esoteric back to reality, as well as the sentimental accessibility in her poetry. Over time I started viewing our home and odd roommate relationship as one and the same: once a novel idea, but every day the cracks and peeling paint and broken fixtures became more and more apparent. I drank heavily. She became increasingly distraught and unpredictable as she came to terms with being a lesbian and was wrecked by her father’s death. After she returned from a trip to Paris she abandoned the home and me. I still have a pantoum she wrote about a melon. It’s so good I eat it about once a month, and it’s my way of forgetting the bitter taste in my mouth that still lingers from the past.
The poet Garrett Hongo is from Volcano, Hawaii, the same tiny, damp town where my parents and aunt live. Last year I figured that since I shared geographic commonality with Hongo, I would try to interview him for one of my vignettes on my website. We talked for a half hour. Hongo spoke of hiding in ancient lava tubes on Halloween so he could scare the daylights out of family members, about his parents’ general store (one of only two in the town), and other stories. I learned to appreciate a sense of culture and geography through his writing. It does, indeed, matter where you are raised, especially if you are a poet.
As I type this from my latest home in West Virginia, I wonder who I was so many years ago, my previous identity being thrashed from my anima like last year’s harvest. Some of the chaff and nitrogen was left to sow new seed. Sylvia Plath wrote in Lady Lazarus,
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.