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Stephen Benz has published two books of travel essays—Guatemalan Journey (University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet). He’s also had essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, New England Review, and other journals. Three of his essays have been selected for Best American Travel Writing (2003, 2015, 2019). His poems have appeared in journals such as Nimrod, Shenandoah, and Confrontation. Topographies, a collection of essays, appeared in 2019 from Etruscan Press. Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, Benz now teaches professional writing at the University of New Mexico.
This is a collection that puts one in mind of great literary road trips, for even as we’re riding with the poet in cars and trains across a vast plain, we’re also delving headlong into the past—America’s and the poet’s—and the ghosts encountered along the way, from the Army colonel who commands the slaughter of Indian horses to the poet’s beloved who dies from cancer, imbue each moment on the road with shimmering depth and dead reckoning. ~Daniel Mueller, author of How Animals Mate and Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey
The poems in Americana Motel speak powerfully of an America many readers might assume has vanished, a world of working people that has rarely been depicted with such clarity and unsentimental authenticity. Stephen Benz understands American loneliness better than any other contemporary poet I can think of. In its rich panoply of characters and situations, Americana Motel paints indelible portraits of individual souls woven into a tapestry of the heartland we might never otherwise have known. ~Michael Hettich, author of To Start an Orchard
Tractor, Baler, Old Man
On Thanksgiving we went out to the farmstead,
my first time back since summer’s end.
The tractor and baler lurked inside the shed.
Months before, I had driven them around
and around the fields, making bales
then bucking and hauling the bales
out to the tin-roofed shelter. Now the hay
was scattered across the snowy fields
and the cows stood by as if they bore
the gray sky on their backs.
In his easy chair the old man stared at football
and ignored us. Twice we had to tell him my name,
the same name he had yelled so often
during the long hot harvest, now forgotten.
Don’t just stand there, he growled,
get on in there and eat. During times-out
he poked at the footstool with his cane.
My mother brought him water and a pill.
Where’s my beer, he said and scoffed
when she told him no more beer, doctor’s orders.
It’s not the beer will kill me, he said,
it’s all the goddamn chitchat.
We sat still during the prayer and then
passed the turkey and potatoes. A bowl
of succotash made its way around the table.
Before the pie was served, I went out
to look at the tractor and the baler.
Every dreary day that summer I had dreaded
waking up to them. I hated the machines,
their smell, their noise, their constant malfunction.
I swore and swore at them, balked at the chores,
angry all summer, angry at engines,
angry at the old man. Now in the chilled shed
I stared at the baler’s dark bulk, smelling
the grease. I reached out, laid my hand
on the tractor, its furious metal now gone cold.
A winter morning:
children sit at their desks
reading silently in fluorescent light.
One boy thumbs ahead
to a later chapter
and a picture of the dead
at Bull Run or Wounded Knee.
Further on: San Juan Hill, sharecroppers,
Mount Rushmore, a mushroom cloud,
a body dangling from a tree.
The teacher slowly circles the room,
her high heels on the floorboards
the only sound. Outside,
falling snow rushes the windows,
turns wet and glistens.
A poster on the wall
reminds the class
to duck and cover
if and when bombs fall.
On the blackboard
a list of thick white words
awaiting definition: mercantile colonize sedition.
A map depicts the triangle trade.
A muffled cry explains the middle passage.
A hand brushes a blanket and erupts with pox.
The teacher, stealing from behind somehow,
takes the boy’s book and flips to where
a pencil keeps the day’s required text.
Her scarlet nail taps the page,
bringing the boy back to Jamestown
and John Smith’s flinty scowl.
1. Escape West
A cold spring. Week after week of raw winds,
dreary rain. Yards turn to mud, drains back up,
and icy water pools in suburban streets,
slush splashing the underbellies of cars
that try to slog through. Blackbirds wade the yard
snatching up waterlogged worms. Squirrels pause
on window-level branches, gaze in, then vanish
like a name you know but can’t quite recall.
You reread Grapes of Wrath and On the Road,
drinking too much coffee and chafing at the thought
of another hard week at work followed
by dull evenings at home with the television on.
Day by day you watch from safe confines
while rain streams down. You have a steady paycheck,
a house, some version of the American dream;
but the code of rain tapping the glass tells you to leave,
hit the open road. Then one morning
the sun breaks through and you find yourself
filling the tank, stacking maps on the dash,
driving away to Dylan on the tape deck,
a drifter’s escape. Why this urge to leave,
to make a clean getaway? The morning
shadows are long and leaning westward.
2. En Route
Whitman famously set out from Paumanok,
and I, too, left my home ground
to undertake a journey through the States,
a trek to the interior across “vast trackless spaces”;
across deserts and mountain ranges;
across sinks and arroyos, chaparral and range land;
across river valleys, fertile plains, misfit streams, and farmland;
past wheat fields, cornfields, fields of cotton, fields of alfalfa;
past mesas and dry lake beds, palisades and quaking bogs;
past wetlands, meadows, rills, dells, gullies, washes, coulees, canyons;
skirting copses, clearcuts, quarries, sloughs, tidelands;
bypassing outcrops, massifs, fourteeners, drumlins, bluffs, vegas;
traveling by day beneath big skies and scuttling clouds;
traveling by night beneath the sparkling kosmos;
across the Great Plains and into high desert;
across “inextricable lands” until I came to a forlorn town,
wind-swept, ghostly, obdurate,
and found a motel with a vacancy,
I pushed the buzzer at the walk-up window and waited.
I could hear a cowboy’s complaint, backed by pedal steel guitar, playing from a radio or a jukebox somewhere.
The sun was dropping low toward iron mountains.
The highway released a watery heat mirage.
Trash and tumbleweeds skittered across the road to entangle in the remnants of a barbed-wire fence.
A sheriff’s deputy sat in his parked cruiser, watching me.
I wondered if Coyote, the trickster, would amble by; but no, only a boy on a dirt bike spewing gravel.
A dog barked from the back of a pickup truck.
From farther off came the sound of jake brakes, the groans of cattle, a car backfiring—or a rifle shot.
I had found my way to the heartland.
From behind the security glass, a ghost slid a registration card through the slot.
For “residence,” I wrote Paumanok and returned the card along with two twenties,
receiving in exchange a metal key attached to a plastic polygon,
then walked over to the local food mart for bread and beer.
A bored teenager rang me up, stifling a yawn and grimacing
at the hours still to go on his graveyard shift.
4. Room 219
Consider the artwork on the wall: a western scene, cowboys seated on logs around a campfire; coffee, snow, the low of little doggies;
Consider the lucky horseshoe wallpaper, mismatched at the seams, peeling along the baseboard;
Consider the mustard-yellow bedspread, a curiously-shaped stain—like Texas after meltdown—occupying its midsection;
Consider the antiquated television set on a roll cart;
Consider the curtains smelling strongly of cigarette smoke;
Consider the blackened bottom of the tin ash tray;
Consider the bent quarter jammed in the Magic Fingers control box;
Consider the rattling a/c unit blowing mildewed air;
Consider the fraying carpet’s pattern of aqua and olive polygons;
Consider the rotary-dial telephone that every so often rings twice, no one on the other end;
Consider the poorly photocopied listing of local eateries: The Hoof and Horn, Over Easy Diner, Rosie’s Place;
Consider the cracked mirror, the leaky faucet, the mold along the shower stall’s frame;
Consider the upturned ice bucket, the drinking glasses with crenellated paper caps, the sanitary band over the toilet bowl;
Consider the lamp with its genie-bottle base, its lampshade of caramel and mocha stripes;
Consider the contents of the nightstand drawer: crushed Marlboro pack, two halves of a torn lottery ticket, one half stuck in Gideon’s Bible, marking the thirty-fourth Psalm, where someone has starred verses 19 to 21;
Consider the housekeeping cart parked outside Room 210, the open door exposing total disarray within;
Consider the ice machine—“sorry out of order”—next to the empty vending machine with its ghost array of candies, chips, gum;
Consider the view from the threshold: Dairy Freeze, Aces High Bar, Sinclair filling station, junk lot acreage, mounds of defunct tires, train tracks disappearing into wasteland;
Consider the western sky, the scintillation/glow/mélange of colors suggesting the place to go lies still farther west;
Consider Whitman’s “successions of Americanos,” those “generations marching” —even here, this forlorn place, even here the successions passing by;
Consider among them the ghosts, the revenants now come back to haunt this motel, this room. Call upon them, bid them enter:
Bogart, Kerouac, Hopper, Steinbeck;
Agee, Nabokov, Roethke, Lange;
Call upon them: Mary Austin, Nathaniel West, Joe Hill;
Emma Goldman, Woody Guthrie, John Reed;
Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, James Dean;
Call, call upon them: Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo;
Ai, Agnes Martin, Standing Bear, Zitkála-Šá;
Call upon them, bid them enter;
Call, too, those once turned away, the ghosts unwanted who could not stay:
Miles, Zora, Langston, Bearden, Bird;
Call upon them, bid them enter, these successions, these Americanos on their crisscrossing journeys through the States.
5. Letter to Richard Hugo from the Americana Motel
Sir—I address you now as I did
the one and only time we met,
crossing the campus in Spokane,
when my “Excuse me, sir” made you scowl.
“Only time anyone calls me sir,”
you said, “is when I’m getting tossed
from a bar.” A high school kid who had walked
over to the college to hear you read,
I hardly knew what to say to that,
and when you said, “Well?” I could do no better
than, “I want to be a poet.” To this
you shook your head, dismayed, doleful, grim.
“Do you? Well, son, the world doesn’t need
any more poets. You don’t choose to be
a poet, it’s poetry that chooses you.
If and when it does, you’ll know. But hell,
for all I know it already has you pegged.”
As you started off, you waved me to follow,
asking “Who do you read?” My answer—
Dylan Thomas—caused dismay. “No, no, no.
Read James Wright. Read Robert Bly. Read Roethke.”
Then: “You have to live the poems, capiche?”
Now, decades later, I reread your poems
in this flophouse, one of those “motels
constructed on the come,” you once described.
I’m in the midst of my own cross-country
ramble, everyday passing through another
of your triggering towns, far enough down
the line to have lost track of what I’m doing,
where I’m bound. When I started out
I had in mind an Emersonian quest
to “interrogate the great apparition.”
Early on, I had some idea
what this might mean. That was the beeline phase,
when I rushed along, one place to the next
confident I would find myself somewhere.
Now no longer so sure, the journey
has turned haphazard, roundabout, “a bent road,”
in your words. Reading your poems, I think
you had some inkling about apparitions
great and small, but you were never so bold
as to name them. You perceived the many shades
of gray; you acknowledged the discrepancies;
you dropped hints but never disclosed
what you had discovered at the source.
Better enigma than resolution, you said,
and so spun your wheels in these conundrum towns
where no one visits the graveyard, yet graves
are always decorated with fresh flowers;
where the water tower, newly painted
each year, is nevertheless thick with rust.
Towns where you hit rock bottom and kept
on falling, “a world the color of salt
with no young music in it.” Somewhere
along the way it seems I’ve crossed
inextricably into your territory:
arriving on the outskirts I saw the water tower
and recalled a harsh death, sordid affairs,
the cruelty of friends, the blessing of strangers,
everything that has happened here in this place
where I have never been. Turning the page,
I can say, sir, your words are still spot on:
“an imagined town is at least as real
as an actual town.” There’s another line
from Emerson—do you know it?—something
about finding an “unapproachable America”
in the West. “Unapproachable.” That’s good.
Brilliant when considered from the vantage
of this primal triggering town of yours,
an unapproachable place of sorts,
ripe for “the imagination’s impulse
to create unknowns out of knowns.”
Well, there it is and here we are, capiche?
If I’ve stopped making sense, slurring my words
(just as you did in “that beautiful bar
in Milltown” or the seedier one in Dixon
where five bourbons brought you “to some
other home”) it’s because I’m working my way
steadily through a second quart of beer
and fifteen hours on the road has left me
frazzled. That night in Spokane, taking leave
you wished me good luck, a blessing of sorts.
Now, years later, I raise the bottle in
your honor and warmly return the wish.
Sir: Wherever you are, wherever you’re bound,
in cracked iambics I bid you good luck.