Zach Conn

I find America before Paul Simon can


ISSUE 28 | TRAUMA AND LAUGHTER | MAY 2013

I.


I find America before Paul Simon can,
my callused thumbs grasping maps on the screen
like a punch-drunk lap swimmer heedless of the wall,


find it holding my nose in the Times Square McDonalds,
where eggheads from Kansas wait loudly to pee,
belching meaning from every McNugget they’ve chewed,


and at the midtown Ritz throwing back whiskey shots
with the old Econ kids who live there out of suitcases,
tracking the futures their bosses make up,


and on autumn nights, creeping from the old house
to meet fellow spooks who haunt suburban rooms
and drive unmarked cabs through unmarked Baltimore,


and after weeks sweating in the New South,
downing weak cups of coffee at the Waffle House,
listening to the waitresses sigh about daughters


with shingles they say were brought on by vaccines.
One Friday night I watch Netflix alone,
and chug store-brand wine ‘til two bottles are through,


and wake with a headache so terrible I
heed my therapist’s warning to see this strange place
before summer is over, and I’m gone for good.


Driving Jeff Davis Highway down to okra fields,
I sit in the dirt eating gumbo and greens
while three old men play what I think is the blues,


until that very road becomes the Selma bridge
where you saw throngs of marchers get beaten by cops
in a history class when you were seventeen,


and wish myself into the Bruce Springsteen song
that moves from my ears through the wheels of the car.

II.


Tell yourself fucked-up stories convincing enough
to account for the distance between love and fact
and they come in the night to upset placid thoughts


like the imprints of limbs sacrificed in a war,
bringing visions of selves buried shallowly in
the old bookshelves where Little League trophies grow dust.


When my brother got sick the whole house blamed itself –
in those first fragile years it was easier than
being someplace nobody got what he deserved.


Explanations a half-changed voice coughed in the dark
echo still when I dream up the damage I’ve done
like an outfielder scanning the sun for the ball.


My mother did penance for fictive mistakes
to unravel the violence bad chemistry wrought.
At dinner she put on a cheerleader’s voice.


Once she’d packed the next lunches in brown paper bags
she was claimed by her sleep while a laugh track rolled on,
or else wept to her sisters upstairs on the phone.


My father sought no consolation at all.
Except for the doctors’ (whose mouths were bound shut)
he guarded my brother against all the eyes


he knew would see only a leper’s rank sores
once they learned of the lost thoughts alive in his head
(as he’d known long ago when he, too, lost himself).


Pursued by a jackal I napped twice a day –
once between school and dinner, then once more between
three A.M. and the sunrise, which called me to school,


waking each time to find blue pen stains on my palms,
with which I’d traced perfection, and other such scars.

III.


I find America on a handbag
brought to work by Robina, orphaned by war,
and raised in thatched-roof huts beneath mango trees


by her aunts, who taught her to take charge of herself,
though I do not pry her for the story she tells
about this painted man, shown with his family


waving, facing white columns once lifted by slaves
many worlds to the west of this village, where they
speak the same Luo language the man’s father spoke.


Uganda I try not to find with the words
muttered under my breath in pursuit of a plan
made by motherless forces too clear to be real.


I sit outside the church, your guitar on my knees,
while Moses Okwir tries to teach me his songs
in a spectral falsetto, our friends palming drums.


A two-year-old girl sees our faces and screams.
“Do not take this personally,” we are told.
“Ancient stories tell of pale-faced demons who eat


little children.” When the church band practice is done,
Moses pours petrol into the speakers, which blast
lilting beats from the Congo through sunflower fields.


We watch from plastic chairs, eating spit-roasted goat
while the children assemble in two lines to dance.
I hesitate, then stand to join them, copying


clumsily, each move a step after theirs.
Soon they’re giggling at me, and their parents look up
from their food, chuckling kindly at my foolish ways,


and when I burst in I laugh loudest of all.
I hope in this way to get over myself.

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