I don’t often write poetry. I’m hard on my work and I worry that my poems can be cloying and sappy. Then again, I myself am attracted to a bit of sentimentality in others’ poetry. I pulled this old piece out of a journal a little while back. It was something I wrote in college when I was feeling nostalgic for my coming of age in small-town America. Reading over the poem, however, I discovered that it didn’t really make sense. (“Isn’t that the case with most poetry?” you ask.)
It was marinating in fernweh, that sense of nostalgia for a place one has never been to1—because, in reality, that place only exists in one’s imagination. Fireflies don’t come out in the winter. And I can’t remember ever seeing one in California. But when writing this poem that’s what my writer’s mind saw. So, over 10 years later, I found myself editing a poem that was never meant to be literal, merely evocative, so that it “makes sense”. It’s called Back Roads.
I had to wipe the frost off my windshield tonight
With a pen cap and my down jacket forearms
Because I couldn’t find an ice-scraper
Amidst the crumpled Chevron receipts and empty Dr. Pepper bottles that decorate my car.
Blinded by my own steam,
I drove down Highway 16.
Its lines were beginning to lose the whiteness earned
From August road workers
Who had held up signs to stop carloads of children
Being driven to their first swimming lessons.
The clear black sky left me feeling timeless,
And, unhurried by a ticking sun,
I turned onto that country road my brother had shown me a few years back
Before he went to school—
That country road that loops in between the timber frames
Of abandoned mines not rife with enough disaster to be considered historic
Like the Jackson or Kennedy,
Where men trapped underneath age-old soil
Put down their pick-axes to hold hands and pray
As they waited to suffocate to death,
Without the chaplain of the mine there to sanctify their blackened skin.
On the way home I forgot which road to turn down,
And I guessed that it was the gravel road past the second mine
Instead of the first.
Its shadows had the feeling of the route I remembered,
But I found myself dead-ended in a pasture
Amongst foot-tall dandelions that had forgotten to wither.
Rather than put the car into reverse
To find the safety of the eleven miles of paved road,
I drove straight through the pasture.
I imagined it was July and that the fireflies had returned to this forgotten corner of California.
They turned on and off like hundreds of cigarettes being puffed out of tune,
The ashes of their falling light showing the scattering dandelion seeds where to land.
Blades of green cut into the exterior
And I rolled down my window to hear it all more clearly.