Travel Plan for Social Outcasts
There's no good in this, I thought each mile
Like onionskin the Toyota's tires unpeeled-
But I wanted home. Asheville's naked bikers
Leering out motel room doors froze forever
In the rear view mirror and time sped
Like a scooter. I imagined Sara coursing back
The opposite direction, due east to my 40 West,
Sun drenching us both after our innocent
Rendezvous, married homeschooler and
Escaped academic believed to be too mean
For men, odds are, closeted lesbian-this insight
Thanks to undergrads who don't know not to
Talk. It's sad at the center of an empty
Universe, i.e. university gossip, small town,
Rightwing state in need of unholy martyrs.
I burn like any saint or better.
God knows what the desk clerk thought,
In Asheville, aristocratic Indian beauty
With perfect British articulation, and though
I intended to complain about the biker
Strutting the parking lot in ass-crack shorts,
A man at the counter seemed likely
His friend so I abstained. Sara and I
Shared a cheap room and watched serial killer
Shows on the Learning Channel
Until I fell asleep on top of the remote
And she switched off the set so its red eye
Glowed a warning next morning when I woke,
Anxious about the weather, and flipped
Through newscasts till Paula Zahn's clenched
Tooth professionalism informed of the latest
Videotape: a woman guilty of child abuse,
Slapping her daughter at a shopping mall.
I might as well have been a cop myself
When Sara said the bitch deserved
Everything she got and I stopped
That talk fast with feminist analysis.
What a way to treat my oldest friend.
I'm too mean for men, but Sara took it
Well, briefly wide-eyed, later thankful
I teach new perspectives. She said so,
Verbatim. I could get it on videotape.
Anyway, it was great to breakfast on waffles
And scrambled eggs with my friend
Who enjoys my corrections. We smoked
Cigarettes and compared notes on losing
Weight and progress towards menopause,
Hers unguessable due to birth control shots.
Not me, I rely on plain meanness to prevent
Sperm entering the system or even my front door.
Whatever works: that's how I see it. We said
Goodbye at a convenience store where
She bought Bit O' Honey and I chose Diet Coke,
Caffeine for the road, and tested the air
In my tiny tires because the rims jut, not like
A biker's belly overhanging shorts
But that's what comes to mind once you've faced
That vista, swallowing metaphor like vaginas
Of misogynistic myth. What swallowed time
As I drove west? Rolling Stones cd-remind me
To get rid of that-or joint I smoked or need
To sleep in my own bed or fear of strangers,
Like the toothless white-shocked interloper
Who approached me smirking God Bless
At the gas pumps, West Memphis-Arkansas
Side-with a predictable lie about an alternator,
A family stranded, and twenty-six more dollars
Needed. I handed over a ten to buy my peace,
But the other women he pitched smiled big
And begged off: My husband holds the money.
At least I scowled. And did not lie. Which
Enchanted my thoughts five hundred miles
Driving me past West Memphis before sunset,
Mountains behind like a dream in the sky
I'd drifted down from, winding right, left,
South, west, sinuous ribbons of interstate,
Eighteen-wheelers lumbering loud giants
Decked out in lights like a gay bar
But don't tell the drivers, who think
When a boy gives them a blowjob
They're all just desperate. They're right,
Too. Anyway, I thought if I ached
Too much I'd pull off for the night,
But when my gas pedal foot throbbed
I rubbed the tendon on the bony top
And when my sides cramped I leaned
As if still sticking the curves of the Great
Smokies and when my head pulsed
I rustled a roach from the ashtray
And hunkered behind the steering wheel
So no truckers would get ideas. You can't
Trust them. They're all conservative.
I shoved the poetry cd in the dash machine
And clicked until cut 17, Robert Lowell
Intoning "Skunk Hour," and his choked voice
Had me in tears by the second stanza,
Undoubtedly why he's loathed by scholars
Everywhere I've been, which isn't far.
The academic equivalent of a West Memphis
Gas station and miles of irrigated soybean
Fields, landing strips, and billboards,
Girls' photos captioned DO YOU KNOW
WHO MURDERED ME? And me sailing
Through the ribs of the plains, burning
Like a Comanche arrow, my face wet
With Lowell's stoic jokes and the loss
Of my ten dollars and pride at my refusal
To lie, worth at least that much: to be female,
Unmarried, and forty-six is to give up
Money to lying men. Lie back and enjoy it,
They used to say, I was never sure who,
Having felt it when it seemed I might say no
To anything. The other women at the gas pumps
Said no but lied. I said yes but did not.
They smiled, I scowled: I work this equation
To the story of our defeated lives, intricate
Hairdos, thighs we try to work off
And have since youth, we fail and will
Till death melts them: there's no good
In this, I thought, and was right, but I sped
Anyway, and where did the day go?
I imagined with a start that I was dead,
Killed shortly after emerging from Asheville
In a collision I'd never remember,
Now returning home in dream,
Bearing down too fast for mortal fact.
Here, already, was the Muskogee Turnpike.
How would I prove myself dead or alive?
If I glanced into my lap and saw bare bone?
If I tossed five quarters in the toll basket
And heard no clink of change on wire
But the light smiled green-ball anyway?
Lying like married women who want to keep
The cash? Paula Zahn's cruel eyes flashing
DEATH TO ALL WOMEN BUT ME?
No, there are no reliable tests for life.
What's known can be dreamed
In the afterlife, if that's how it works,
And who knows until they're there?
Who knows they're back in Oklahoma
When the wind blows everywhere?
With those options, one only knows to go,
So I drove, headlights exploding
In the rearview like punk fireworks,
They'll blow your head off, my body's
Murmured pains mapped all over thought
On the grand scale, invisible inside
My short-clipped head-students all say
I'm a lesbian-and thirteen hours down,
Fourteen, I tracked it in one day,
Like a reincarnated trucker who cannot die
Again because I wanted home so badly
I didn't care how I needed to be away,
The storefront churches harboring
Damn fool cowboys who'll ride a bull
Till he breaks their skulls with cloven hooves,
Sunflowers blooming wild in August,
The Osage orange hurling its threat
To spiders, knuckled green grenades
You stash behind your toilet to freshen
Your house of webs, or so it's sold, the sky
To whose first star I wish each evening, always
The same hope, same embarrassing secret,
The sky, rusty earth, ragweed, groundnut,
Cedar, whatever makes my eyes itch,
The reek of skunks, even the armadillos,
The sorry spectacle of my life cloistered
In the talk of the lonely and smug who need
Someone, something, to hold themselves
Above-like mountains. Like Gatlinburg,
Dollywood, tourist traps, talk's cheaper
Than a room there, so you might as well
Stay in Oklahoma and fix your eyes
On the moving target, what's her problem?
Why is she so mean? She wants to be home.
I wanted it, and was close, and I was careful
On 51 not to speed through Yale where so many
Have been ticketed and harassed,
And not one light shimmered inside
The Housing Authority complex,
Not one light blinked on at any farm
Or in any doublewide, not one car crawled
The two-lane besides mine, and home,
Hateful when I'm there, terrifying me
The seven years it took to turn me into it,
Each cell of my bones and skin, each doomed
Handful of organ meat in my belly,
Turned over like the odometer on an old car,
A junker, home was the junker, home was me,
Home was what I hated but could not leave
For long. Then I pulled into College Gardens,
My neighborhood, with its brisk toy houses
And sleeping dolls, breath caught
In its throat on the cusp of summer and fall,
And I parked my car in the driveway,
I unfolded my legs from the cramped compartment,
I must've been a living body, I walked
To my front door and twisted the key in the lock,
And the sound could not have been anything but
True, the pressure of the stiff lock the force
Of material reality, and the friend waiting there,
Who had made me soup, simmered it all night
Waiting for me, was not a phantom,
Not any of the names I've heard her called,
And for a while I could be glad about my place,
Feeding my hunger, resting my living marrow
Inside my living bone, until the boredom
And the grief started over again next morning,
And I had to write a poem to kill it, or keep it
Alive, or both, like now. This is the surge
Of my perennial death and reliable resurrection,
And you who listen are a trucker who bears down
In my mirror blinding me, or an abuser
Of children, a venomous newscaster, an old friend,
Or someone believed to be unlike anyone else:
You catch my drift. I don't trust anybody.
I make sure to tell the truth against the common
Background of anguished mimesis, everyone
Unselfconscious in drag, learned books
Directing us towards it as surely as bad tv
In motel rooms where bikers refuse to shut
Their doors and women anachronistically
Coiffed, bulging, bludgeoning blonde
Bouffant, pace the sidewalks wondering,
Who is this stranger, how does she bear up
Under our longing looks and our loathing?
And, whoever she is, maybe just me, suffers
The close embrace of the automobile's
Tight cell racing the nation's rough arteries
Where so many before her have died.
The sky's white drawl slows the whole morning.
A crow calls from a clot of leaves, but its cry drops
Dumb as an eraser, and only one sparrow darts out
Of the grove, striking a path downward to clover
Curling the hill's cowlick. Little to spare:
Through indulgence and recompense, you hope
To defy the undeniable, what can't be known,
The eye's tunnel to the shape it's drawn to,
Where the surprise is only that every furling
Opens to look like you. Crow and sparrow,
Grass and hill. All measure lacking is distance,
Or raindrops tapping maple leaves, fingers
On piano keys, the iteration of farms seeping
Through town, boundaries perjured. Nothing
To pair you with: you're nursing a hold
On pineland, pinfeather, an arch of walnut
Branch hugging a slice of horizon. You're counting
Shapes that march up a gangplank to travel
Elsewhere, you can only guess: at least the ravine
Where the habit of seeds is taking root. So this
Is how it feels to float above the world: circles
And circles. Speed is of the surface. Belief
Borrows the shuffle of tires, and the ache of thorax
And sacroiliac knocks together as the right ache:
Bones in a sack. Knotted at the top. Thin twine,
Crochet unstitched and white as the sky's forgiving
Eye. It considers. Wide open, it spots you flying.
-from Burned House with Swimming Pool
BIO: Lisa Lewis was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1956 and grew up there and in Lenoir, North Carolina.
She is the author of the poetry collections The Body Double (Georgetown Review Press, 2016); Burned House with Swimming Pool (Dream Horse Press, 2011); Vivisect (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2010); Silent Treatment (Viking/Penguin, 1998), winner of the National Poetry Series; and The Unbeliever (University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Her fifth book, The Body Double, won the 2014 Georgetown Review Poetry Manuscript Contest and will be published in 2015.
About her work, the poet Stanley Plumly wrote, “The longing in Lisa Lewis’s poems is real not only in the full narrative argument of her lines but in the mindful ambivalence she feels about her body—its sexuality, mortality, earth-transcendence. It is as if she were trying to write her way into silence as well as finding her way from silence.”
Lewis’s honors include awards from the American Poetry Review and the Missouri Review, a Pushcart Prize, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her poems have twice been included in The Best American Poetry Series. She lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she directs the creative writing program at Oklahoma State University and serves as poetry editor for the Cimarron Review.