Dear all of you ~
I'm in the bookshop with a cup of coffee and a headache.
The headache is not improved by the position of my chair and table, which face the self-help section, and so I can see titles like, The Happiness Trap, and The Idiot's Guide to Self-Esteem (paradox, no?), and Success Principles. These titles all make me nervous (except the Idiot's Guide, which makes me laugh) because I'm sort of a self-help hypochondriac. Co-dependent? Check. Low self-esteem? Check. Out of control with money? You bet. And soon I have an armful of books and guilt and I can't hardly stand it.
The self-help section is only made worse by the fact that it's next to the wedding book section. And they proceed from left to right. Therefore, after a single girl wanders past the wedding section -- the enormous pastel-covered albums with silvery script for the title, the portraits of sparkly shiny brides with their perfect unwilted lilies, the romantic rain-smudged pictures of likely-to-be-models-but-we'll-pretend-they're-real-people paired up under a streetlamp somewhere that must be Paris -- she can go directly, without having to even get out a kleenex, without having to turn to ask anyone for help, to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who will promptly tell her she's an idiot. Helpful design, this bookstore has...
But none of this is really what I wanted to write about. It just happens to be to the right of me, and I find it remarkably amusing. No, what I wanted to talk about was the poetry section, which is buried deep in the back (as they always are, which may be what drew me to them in the first place -- every kid likes hidden places, the tree forts, the blanket forts, the under-the-bed fort, the poetry fort...) and which is usually chock full of only the poetry books that high schoolers begrudgingly purchase for their summer reading ("um, do you have the EE-nid? by someone named 'Virgin'?") or that people fresh out of romantic ideas come to find for Valentine's Day ("101 love sonnets? PERfect"). I used to work here, at this very bookshop (why I insist on calling it a "bookshop" instead of a "bookstore" is not something even I fully understand right now... but go with me). And so I've helped these people locate Virgil and Whitman and Dante. And Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. (Though before you go giving that one as a gift, as my dear Hannah will tell you, you'd better read it first). And don't get me wrong -- I like the "old stuff"'; I've spent over half my life in love with a single Emily Dickinson poem. But sometimes, you need a little something fresh. And sometimes, miraculously, some slender volume appears between the canonical works, by some poet you've never heard of, and you open the book and start to read, and you get that gold-edged blue fuzzy feeling that a good poem gives you (or, at least, it gives me) which is a lot like the feeling of falling in love plus the feeling that it just might end badly plus the feeling you get eating the best melted cheese sandwich in the world. And so, that someone has given you exactly the right poem for the day.
And it's better than self-help. WAY better. This poem I've found, the one I'll post below, sounds a bit like self-help, but tongue-in-cheek, a sort of mockery of anyone who would use Frost's "The Road Not Taken" as advice for teenagers who are deciding whether or not to drink beer in the woods. And at the same time, it's a warm poem, and one that's very familiar, and consoling, and celebratory, and amusing, and reassuring. And a little more complex than "self-improvement" books with seven steps to a happier life -- this one, as a journey poem, takes in the whole of life (and death, I think), recognizes that bridges wash out, that you'll resent having to ever leave home, that you'll have to leave some folks behind or they'll leave you behind, that you'll lie, that you'll find some beautiful places, that you'll drink some really bad coffee. It could be a poem about crossing that river into an afterlife (the journey metaphor for life and death ain't new, after all); it could be a poem about a road trip and nothing more. But it does both, I think; it works on both levels -- the major metaphoric and the minor microscopic -- and the details make it palpable, sweet, endearing, and smart-alecky, all in one.
Today, this is the poem, my love + melancholy + cheese sandwich poem. I might talk more (and more coherently) about it later. For now, I just love it.
How To Get There
~ Troy Jollimore
You could veer off now, but it might be best
to keep to the route you've been following
for just a bit longer. That will give you a chance
to finish your book-on-tape, drain your coffee,
and ask yourself for the thousandth time
"Why didn't I just stay home?" Up ahead
you will come to a highway, eight or ten lanes of traffic,
a rainbow of car-colors, huge alien
billboards, drive-through espresso stands
like so many Monopoly hotels.
Make a break for the other side.
Swing as far left as you can go -- farther! --
and drive down that narrow country lane
for twenty of thirty miles. When you get
to the river, the bridge will be out. A dog
will appear as if summoned. This is your sign
to turn back, to look for the tiny side road
that you should have turned onto before, but could not,
because it's only visible once you've passed it.
When you reach the village
(the cluster of white houses)
stop and discard the map.
Also get rid of the passengers.
From here on in they'd only weigh you down.
Leave them by the side of the road. You'll need
a new identity. Call yourself 'Gary.'
Say that you're in 'insurance.'
You'll be due for a maintenance check about now;
use the time to visit the nearby diner
that sells the best cheesecake and worst coffee in the whole
Tri-State area. Flirt with the waitresses.
It might get you slapped but they'll love you for it.
By now you'll have lost too much time: you'll have to
revise destinations. Though in fact
it won't make any difference. Remember,
anyone with a knowledge of physics will tell you
that the road not taken would have led you to the same place;
or else, it was never accessible at all.
(published in Tom Thomson in Purgatory by Troy Jollimore. MARGIE, Inc./IntuiT House Poetry Series, 2006.)