Cycling in America
Not to suggest life simply rolls along like a hoop, but wasn’t that you
in 1960 beside the blue irises in the backyard, 7 years old and clutching
a new thought; everything else diminishing, receding; slithering away
into something resembling a Turner seascape? (She’s unconscious,
Mother sometimes said. Other times, She’s too sensitive for her own good.)
The new thought was Time. Your mind stretched like a balloon.
And isn’t this you now, precisely four decades later, beside blue irises
in another hemisphere and soon heading back south? Isn’t there some
sort of oblique cyclical inference here? That was certainly you right
through the ‘60s squatting on the sitting-room floor, stack of 45s
at your feet, ear glued to the old oak-veneer wireless set,
seizing words by the mouthful. Though her words were inexplicable.
How could anyone be a despicable loathsome creature one day, teacher’s
pet the next? And given that all those years stacked up like crates
for each new fact to nail you in, then abandon you; the British Acts of
Parliament in the Gladstone/Disraeli era, principal imports/exports, capitals,
population growth, plant cycle, precipitation cycle all swiftly departing,
and you, like Prufrock, marooned in anxious subjectivity; given all that,
is it any surprise—wouldn’t it, in fact, seem almost axiomatic—you’re baffled
now by maps, VCR instruction manuals and the Dow Jones Industrial
Average? No wonder you shun committees, study groups and audience
participation and you’ve forgotten your licence plate number. No wonder
your small house of knowledge keeps caving in, tiles whizzing off the roof.
Your brain fizzing. But it doesn’t matter. Nobody here’s entirely intact.
Everybody’s mixed-up and maxed-out. Everybody’s pre-approved
and post-dated. The cheque’s always almost in the mail, you can always take
another 40% off the lowest ticketed price, you can always Get the Credit You
Deserve, and nobody’s really talking anyway—everybody’s churning out
sitcom sound-bites and you’re, like, Hell-ooooo? You’re, like, gimmee a
break. You’re thin-skinned and heart-sick. No, you’re not. You’re down
at South Beach outside Versace’s mansion. Somebody’s wearing a 10-foot
albino python. Somebody’s handing you a 3-foot green iguana, not
inconceivably some distant relation to the 6-inch baby iguana brought in
by the cat. Now the cat’s disappeared. You walk and call, walk and call,
but he’s gone with his tinkling bird-warning bell and his cheerful disposition
and you’re left treading water with Matthew Arnold’s merman.
What did the vet say? If you love your cat you’ll keep him inside where he’s
safe. By all means, have his claws removed, protect your furniture; it’s what
everyone does here. You didn’t. Now he’s gone. Ergo, you couldn’t have
loved him. Do you love your kids? Kids are warehoused out this way
in new schools with plenty of computers and no windows. Plenty of
computers because these kids deserve the best in a highly competitive,
high-tech, computer-driven age. No windows because a) it makes for
cheaper air-conditioning, and b) the world’s a distraction. Ergo, poor kids
in tired old inner-city schools get a tired old inner-city view of life and richer
kids see only themselves. Yes, it’s a shaky line of reasoning but you’re
simply making a point. Besides, there’s the 24/7 camera surveillance to
consider, the armed security guards, the metal detectors, not to mention
the computers. It’s a no-brainer. Go figure. But back to South Beach,
where the sun that winces off the well-oiled buttocks of the boys
in thongs roller-blading along the sidewalk is the sun that further fries
the brains of the ex-crackhead, ex-psych ward, ex-Vietnam walking wounded
clogging up the large intersections, flogging The Homeless Voice for
donation, is the sun that gave Ralph his melanoma, is the sun that ripened
this orange in my hand; all of which could be taken as evidence of some
degree of universality, some cosmic connection. Also that Justice
is indeed blind and pitiless too. It could otherwise be seen as the flippant
finger of Fate flipping you off. Or else such conjecture is entirely without
point, possibly even designed to confuse. State Highway 29 is Federal
Highway 27 is Okeechobee Rd, along which the busloads of Haitian women
speed each day to the nurseries to pinch out and pottle up for your garden,
vivid clots of colour in straw hats and headscarves. Every week Octavius
unloads his men from his pick-up truck to mow, edge and prune your
garden and the gardens of your neighbours. Probably undocumented.
Probably illegal immigrants and you’re either helping the cause or else
you’re just one more fucking capitalist grinding your heel in some poor
sucker’s face. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,
the man once said, and not much has changed; you still know diddly-squat;
it’s still the same old dilemma, the same old dichotomy, and how much
to get involved? So you hand over cash and hope like hell at least
the attitude’s right, the smile the right width. But everything’s borderline.
Everything’s surreal. The truckloads of men hurtling down the interstate,
wedged in beside mowers and leaf-blowers and weed-whackers and ladders
and shears, like Lego men but black, loose-limbed. Just the other day,
three men in armchairs propped up on the back of a pick-up truck barrelling
down I75; once, a hefty woman pinning down a mattress atop a pile of
boxes. They’re thinking everything’s fine. They’re cool. You’re thinking
centre of gravity issues. You’re thinking carnage. You’re waiting for the
whump! that’ll launch them to their dooms, their trajectories quite possibly
intersecting with your own smooth ride towards your own doom. Then
you exit the freeway and head for home. You head for home:
a maximum of two pets allowed (dog, cat, pig, python, rat, iguana),
clothesline, garden shed, growing of vegetables not permitted. Approval
required to plant tree or paint house. Regulation mailbox. Etc.
Over my dead body is what you’d said, but here you are, living proof that
anyone’s high ideals can easily shatter in the icy stratosphere so far above
his/her credit limit. So you redefine and redirect your principles.
But it doesn’t matter, wherever you go they’re going to hunt you down.
They’re going to lean on you—pilgrims and profiteers—and they all weigh
much the same. Every day, the telephone erupts with more predictions
of domestic gloom: your drinking water needs testing, your house securing,
your windows tinting, your pests exterminating and everything insuring.
And the charities paying. Benevolent this, benevolent that. Every day,
the seductive glamour of the mailbox—nothing but cargo. Every night, the
mosquitoes you slap at in the dark, and their modus operandi is the same.
Your rage is out of all proportion. Or else your rage is entirely appropriate.
Ditto, your despair. Doppelgängers in the Age of Anxiety. Alter-egos
in the Age of Angst. Cargo: the accumulation of, the obsession with.
It’s the Age of Accumulation and we’re collapsing under the weight of it
and when things fall apart, watch them all scrambling for the spoils.
When the marriage falls apart, what happens to Yvonne from Beijing who
fell in love with the foreigner? Six years later it’s a mess. He has a temper
and a gun. He wants her gone. Get the hell out of there, you said, but she’s
a military daughter, she’s hunkering down; you’re waking at night in a
sweat, thinking open slaughter. There’s Ted. He falls in love with his
car; he’s out there drying it with a leaf-blower. There’s Germaine. She
loses Ralph to cancer; she’s selling his tools and wood-turning equipment,
she’s filling in the fishpond—goldfish belly-up and stinking to high heaven.
There’s you. What are you doing? You’re cycling in America where the
automated system’s following options always seem to be blue, red or green
and all you’re after is a little white, the white of the white flannel trousers,
the white of the white-wall’d town, and here you are, looping round
and round these primaries like a loping wolf, your lip curled back
in a snarl. You want to weep. You seem to be losing your balance.
Is this a vicious cycle? No, it’s not, it’s the good old hope/disillusionment
cycle you keep on peddling till the wheel falls off, and that’s when it hits
you: this is you, seriously wobbling now, with certainly a whole new set
of skills to learn. And what to do with all these stones, slap-bang in the
middle of the glasshouse (air-conditioned, very nice)? What to do now
the second daughter’s gone, and it’s Matthew Arnold all over again?
Linda Connell has recently returned to Christchurch after nearly seven years living in South Florida. Her first book of poems, Laughing with the Undertaker, was published in 2004 by Steele Roberts of Wellington. Poems have been published in Sport, the NZ Listener, OUSA Literary Review, Poetry NZ and Takahe, and will shortly be included in the biannual chapbook anthology Poetry Aotearoa.
Connell has this to say about her poem: ‘ “Cycling in America” was written during a period of intense frustration, as a response to the pressures and absurdities of trying to live the American Dream. I seemed to keep veering between mirth, scorn and rage and felt utterly out of place in the materialistic lifestyle of South Florida. Not that I didn’t enjoy the climate, become fascinated by the general craziness of the place and appreciate the cheap cost of everything, which meant I often found myself trawling the shops like everyone else, well and truly seduced. This of course added another layer of confusion to my warped attitude. I began scribbling down snatches of dialogue, thoughts and observations, and found myself cycling back through childhood memories of impotence and bewilderment, and eventually the poem emerged. I decided to construct it to read as stream of consciousness, gathering momentum and anxiety as it gathered ideas and wound its way to its final unresolved questions.’