Postcards from America Instalment 2

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3rd October 2017

Emma Wright

Chinese Gardens, Portland

In the Chinese Gardens I learn that plum, bamboo and pine are collectively known as the Three Friends of Winter and serve to remind us to persevere. The plum brings the cold of winter to blossom. The pine remains green throughout the cold season, and the bamboo bends in storms but does not break. We are sitting in the tea room drinking tiny thimbles of tea when I learn this. I read the passage in question aloud from the visitors’ brochure. We have just been talking about the possibility of writing some poems even though you are a prose writer and I am a prose writer and neither of us has written any poetry since high school.

“I could write a poem about the Three Friends of Winter,” I say. “There’s plenty of material here to work with.”

“Leave it be,” you say. “It’s poetry just as it is.”

So, I add line breaks and a handful of commas and call it a found poem and everyone comments on how profound and poignant it is –particularly the bit about the bamboo not breaking- and I take their compliments and suck them dry, and all the time feel as if I am cheating.

 

4th October 2017

Hilary Copeland

Hawthorne, Portland

When I lived here I knew every single street in this city and could recite their order like a skipping rhyme. Ankeny. Burnside. Couch. Division. Everett. Flanders. Glisan. On and on until the impetus to keep everything in alphabetical order ran out, giving way to diagonal streets, and freeways, and the grassy kingdoms crouching on the city’s edge. Now I cannot get any further than Couch and have taken to pronouncing it like it is an item of furniture, rather than a word which rhymes with hooch. How sad. How tragic even. I can’t even bring to mind Division which was once of my favourite of the vertical streets because its name seemed such an apt description of a street reduced to overgrown parking lots and empty retail units. Divided and dividing again the further from town you drove. Now I do not know this place and it is impossible to tell if I have changed or the city has lost itself in my absence.

 

4th October 2017

Roisin O’Donnell

Powell’s Bookstore, Portland

I have developed a strange, new tick. When travelling alone I visit local bookstores and drift up and down the aisles, head cocked at a jaunty angle, looking for the sideways names of people I actually know printed on the spines of mostly paperback -but occasionally hardback- novels. I touch these books tenderly in a way I would not dare touch the actual person, resting a finger or two on the front cover, deferring blessing. Sometimes I sigh softly as if to infer that it is a relief of sorts to find companionship so far from home. I kid myself into believing the people I actually know will sense they are being thought about fondly though I am many thousand miles from them. If I am feeling especially bold or lonely, I will move the books of people I actually know to the staff picks section of the bookstore, or the display unit reserved for bestsellers. I do not actually know anyone in the bestsellers section but maybe some day soon I will have actual bestselling friends. If this does happen I am not sure how I will best serve their interests when passing through far flung bookstores and airport book vendors. Maybe I will stand beneath their displays and coerce undecided readers into purchasing the books of people I actually know. Maybe I will be too jealous to bother.

 

5th October 2017

Laura Kavanagh

Los Gatos, California

There is a noise coming from the room directly beneath yours. All night long it sings through the floorboards, and the sound of it is like very many raincoats endlessly unzippering, all at once. It is a kind of insect hum. On the first and second nights of your stay you try to ignore this noise. It takes you hours to fall asleep and when you do, you finally understand why they call it dropping off. You are constantly bracing yourself against the fall. You are sleeping, and shallow dreaming, and suddenly lurching back to fully awake. The third night you decide to investigate where this noise is coming from.

You take a torch, though a torch is hardly necessary in such a well-lit hotel corridor. You find the room directly below yours. The door is propped open so you can see this room is full of plump, little old ladies, like cartoon hedgehogs, hunched over their sewing machines. There must be fifty of them in the room at least. There may even be as many as a hundred, hemming large pieces of floral print fabric.

“What are you doing?” you ask one sewing lady and she explains that they are making black out curtain for every guest room in the hotel. “So the guests will sleep well,” she says. Every selfish, sleep-deprived bone in your body wants to smash her sewing machine into pieces with a spade. But there are so many sewing machines to be silenced, and it is already 3am, and you know the adrenaline associated with such efforts will only keep you up even longer.

 

6th October 2017

Orla McAdam

Los Gatos, California

Two squirrels are chasing each other across the motel lawn. The first is the same brown colour you’ve seen in hometown squirrels. The other is such a rare shade of grayish, black you’re unsure whether it is actually a squirrel, or just a rat with an exceptionally bushy tale. The squirrels dart backwards and forwards flirting with the drizzled edge of the sprinkler’s reach. Occasionally they change direction and twist themselves, like Christmas tinsel, around the legs of the poolside sun loungers. Their chase culminates in a frantic, two squirrel sprint up the side of a palm tree. Their tiny claws, catching on the palm tree’s bark, make the same rasping sound as something hard being grated: nutmeg for example, or baking chocolate. Once both squirrels have reached the upper limit of the palm tree they disappear into its leafy fronds. You stand beneath this tree for a few minutes, hand cupping your eyes against the sun as you try to locate your squirrels. The whole tray sways gently in the breeze. It is like a tall man standing with his feet too close together. You are pretty sure that this will be both the first and last time you see a squirrel in a palm tree.

 

7th October 2017

Rachel McCrum

Los Gatos, California

This afternoon the poets are reading in a red-walled art gallery. They have been arranged on stackable chairs on a kind of mezzanine level. A bronze bust of a horse’s head peers through the window to their right as if the horse had turned up late for the reading and could not get a seat and had to content itself with peering through an open window.

Down below on the ground level, the gallery attendant welcomes visitors to the exhibition. “Is this your first time in the gallery?” she yells. She’s more than a little hard of hearing. The poets raise their voices in competition with this woman. She ups her volume level. The poets acquire a microphone. Everything is loud and clamouring for the ear’s attention.

Everything but the horse, who does not speak. Possibly because he has nothing to say. Possibly because his lips are soldered shut. You look at the horse. The horse looks at you. You have empathy for the horse. Also sympathy. You have feet. You can get up and leave any time you want. Without feet, or legs, or anything beyond that elegant, bronze neck, the horse is stranded here with the poets, and the microphone, and the loud, shouting lady downstairs.

 

8th October 2017

Reidunn and Odd Henning

San Francisco Airport

Terminal Two of San Francisco airport currently contains a small exhibition on the history of the typewriter. You pause on the way from Portland, Oregon to San Jose, shrug your backpack –rock heavy with books- off your shoulders, and wander from display case to case reading the story of Ernest Hemmingway and Tennessee Williams and even John Lennon’s typewriters, all of which are captured here and displayed behind plate glass, like rare beasts hauled home from safari.

You are particularly drawn to Tennessee Williams’ typewriter. There is a copy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof framed right next to it. You know this play back to front and inside out, also Streetcar. You lay your hands against the glass roof of the case, placing them carefully over the typewriter’s keys so your hands, with their chubby fingers and gnawed nailed, might be Tennessee Williams’ hands, and you wonder if a typewriter can hold memory like the feet of your friends with Dementia have retained the memory of quickstep and foxtrot, long after the word for dancing has passed them by.

You hover your hands over this typewriter for so long other people begin to jostle for a look. You are wondering whether your fingers, if permitted to pass through glass and rest upon the actual typewriter, might play it like a piano, might cause the keys to sing from memory: deep south nights, and whiskey cures, and strangers offering dreadful kindness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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