“American Election” by David Romtvedt

David Romtvedt


What would be best then, to go or stay,
to cross the border or once again to dawdle and delay?
It’s true there’s a fence, and men with helmets
and guns have little patience with an uncertain stance
or scornful glance. Ah, and yet, and yet,
every four years at this time I wonder and shake my head
and ask how can it be? How can it be?

On the street the taxis idle, waiting for a fare.
It could be me, running my fingers through my hair.

It would be better perhaps
to buy maps of the world, all those pretty countries—
rosy pink and forest green and pale blue—
and lay them out on the floor or tack them to the walls,
a montage of roads that are not mined and skies
out of which no bombs fall, no one sitting sweating
in the waiting room of a clinic, no one uncertain how
to pay the bill. But where would I go? Surely
Bolivia is no better than Buffalo, Wyoming,
nor Ecuador or the Dominican Republic.

Maybe Norway, those healthy and reasonable Norwegians
in hand knit sweaters with a government that guarantees
health insurance and a people that pays taxes for the common good,
and are all Lutheran but don’t much go to church.
I could run up to them on the street and shout,
“Just look at those fjords!” In winter
the smoke curls cheerfully up the chimneys
and in the not quite warm bedrooms beautiful
Norwegian women remove their sweaters
to reveal icy Scandinavian perfection.
Yes, I could live in Norway in the cool bedrooms
burrowing under the covers, my face buried
between Nordic breasts, my body warm.
On the other hand, what if I find no Norwegian woman
who wants me to bury my face between her breasts?
What if my life in Norway is like my life here. Like
in high school when my girlfriend called and said,
“Want to come to my house? There’s no one home.”
And I, salivating, thinking, boy oh boy, do I ever,
hopped in the car and drove to her house, ran up
the steps to the front door, threw it open, and shouted,
“I’m here” while imagining the buttons and zippers
to be undone. “I’m here.” I shouted again, “I’m here.”
But there was no answer, there was, as she’d promised,
no one home. How sad it can be in the far north
as the nights grow long and one is alone. My car
is buried in a snow bank and even if I dig it out
I have no license—it was revoked for drunk driving
and I can’t even walk to the post office and buy a stamp
to write a letter home to my ex-girlfriend and tell her
I don’t mind the joke she pulled on me. I don’t know
the word in Norwegian for stamp. And I don’t know
how to say, “How much?” Or “Do you sell envelopes?”
And where would I buy stationery? And it’s impossible
to use the phone because I can’t speak to the operator
to make the long distance connection. And what if
I’m trapped here forever unable to speak Norwegian?
All I can do is shrug and wag my head back and forth
as if telling a waiter to keep the change. Keep the change.
It’s a beautiful country but one day I’ll run out of money
and then what? Homeless on the streets in a greasy coat,
my hair matted, sleeping over a vent where steam rises
and the Norwegian social service worker will come for me
and put me in a group home where I’ll make ashtrays
from ceramic molds and have to attend group therapy
in a language I can’t understand. Maybe it won’t be
so bad. I’m told most Norwegians speak English
better than I do. Either way, it might have been
better to have never gone to Norway at all.

On the street the taxis idle, waiting for a fare.
It could be me, running my fingers through my hair.

And god forbid I’d end my days in some gigantic
city—Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur—
though I knew a Malaysian poet who loved the American
Beat Generation poets—Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti
and even Jack Kerouac though he was more of a novelist than
a poet and some people didn’t even like his prose. Truman Capote,
for example, when asked what he thought of Kerouac’s writing, said,
“That’s not writing; it’s typing.” The Malaysian, while visiting
the United States, found that he missed his wife. He wrote
a poem about having a six thousand mile long penis
that he would send home to her. But those are Asian cities
I’ve never visited. I loved walking the streets of Kinshasa,
the fires burning in the gutters, the music playing from the bars,
and the venders in the market screaming and smiling and spitting
and waving their arms and when I make my offer twisting
their faces into such contorted masks of pain that I am ashamed.
“Oh, please,” I want to cry, “Please take twice what I offered,
three times what I offered. Take all the money I have and give it
to your children, buy them a chicken or at least a dozen eggs
and not another five kilos of manioc out of which you make
gluey fou-fou that wears out your mouth and fills your belly
while leaving you hungry. Imagine fou-fou for Christmas.
The fires smell of eucalyptus leaves, and plastic bags, and tires.
No, not even Kinshasa, a big city I love, is where I want to go.

On the street the taxis idle, waiting for a fare.
It could be me, running my fingers through my hair.

But I have been happy in cities—in Mexico along the Reforma
where an angel looks down on us all and the US embassy
is gray concrete with a guard booth that has real glass
behind a steel screen. And Paris, who could say no to Paris
where on Independence Day night the sky lights up
with the history of the Republic told in music and fireworks,
explosions that hurt no one, guillotines that melt into dainty clouds.
Yes, Paris, that’s worth the price of the maps.

But the border here is with Canada not France and though
they speak French in Quebec, Vancouver is rainy and cold
and English though I should mention Stanley Park,
the sea wall and, when the sun shines, the people walking
and rollerblading and playing soccer and swimming and eating,
and there are so many of them, thousands, millions, it seems,
so there’s no room to roam. But there is beauty everywhere,
even in those nations we all know must be gotten rid of—
Iran and Iraq and Korea, no wait, only North Korea.
South Korea is good and Godly and I could go there but
those bad nations, those Axes of Evil, those cruel and bloodthirsty
monsters who want to take our Walmarts away and blow up
our fast food restaurants and who hate us because we are free
and hate freedom and want everyone to be in chains
dragging heavy iron balls like prisoners in hell and all
want to strap bombs to their bodies and blow themselves up
right along with us, those Axes of Evil, of course I can’t live there.

On the street the taxis idle, waiting for a fare.
It could be me, running my fingers through my hair.

It’s worth repeating that it rains on the British Columbia coast.
It rains a lot, starts early and ends late and what if I were there
and found myself depressed and far from home and I lost
my job as a teacher of English to Chinese and Thai immigrants,
how would I feel knowing I wasn’t a real Canadian even if
I looked like I could be. Anybody can tell the difference
between an American and a Canadian saying “about.”
In such circumstances, unable to accurately pronounce
the most ordinary of words, would I care who was winning elections
back home? Home, that’s the place. But I romanticize.
And so here I am in a long line at the Peace Arch border crossing
where the flower beds are so carefully laid—the brilliant red, white,
yellow, orange, violet, and blue. I’m surrounded by idling cars.
The drivers have rolled down their windows and the exhaust fumes
pour into the cars as music from a thousand CD players and radios pours out.
Off to my left is the Pacific Ocean. It’s low tide so I can’t see the water,
and under an unseasonably hot sun, the mud begins to stink.

from Rattle #33, Summer 2010
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