Over the Border

II. Austin
1This is the 'Woo', a dorm named Goodall Wooten
3Once boys only, eternally rootin' tootin--
4beers poured from balconies onto the heads
5of passers-by, and one famous resident
6who'd slide down a pole in his boxer shorts;
7now co-ed and substance free, but low-rent
8still and half-empty out of term. I am old
9in this company but can stretch my money
10to a month among the manuscripts
11if I can bear the noise of intimacy:
12next door a couple makes hours of love
13with a knocking sound and breaks the clinch
14at 1 a.m. for post-coital video
15whose wailing sound-track is Chinese.
16But how few among these Texans are like
17the yahoo and the red-neck we suppose them:
18kids of intellect, whose casual talk
19is subtle: two boys obsessed with tennis
20wait for Wimbledon to start, and measure
21champions: Sampras and Agassi,
22Becker and Borg, Edberg and Laver:
23'Don't talk to me about McEnroe,' says one.
24'John McEnroe is something God did.'
25And all of them cunning with computers
26with odd fields of study, the woolly aphid,
27the pancreas, a numbered gene, some star
28you cannot see, a potentate in Siam--
29a boy who wants to animate, an engineer
30who will make bridges so light and cheap
31that famine workers will carry them in trucks.
32Of course, my room is ragged--two beds,
33a knee-high fridge, a pair of narrow desks,
34yellowing stucco and a ceiling fan.
35My balcony overlooks a basketball
36court, elevated on girders, with parking
37underneath, beyond it an alley
38where street people sleep among the trash cans.
39~
41and I am back in touch. My daughter
42in Frankfurt destined for the Ukraine,
43she is fascinated by cannot bear
44the smell of smoke constantly in her hair.
45My step-mother numbers off the pills:
46warfarin that I knew as a rat poison,
47digoxyn, a beta-blocker, aricept,
48a steroid for his lungs, but radiation
49seems to have cleared his prostate,
50so the latest news is only half-bad.
51My amusing fiancé fears my travels
52will get me put away as sick or mad
53and of my work remarks, 'So you spend
54your days reading other people's mail?'
~
55A Gutenberg Bible and the first
56photograph (bitumen of Judea
57on pewter, eight hours exposed),
58the desk of Edgar Allan Poe (don't touch),
59a picture of Marilyn reading Ulysses
60(doubtless striving for a shapely mind),
61and the walls a kind of Parnassus,
62after-life for poets and novelists
63who sell their papers and their likenesses
64into the keeping of the Texans.
~
65'There's that ole rascal Rick Greene, one of our
66re-peat customers' says Tom Best, under
67his cowboy hat, first of old friends I see.
68Then Pat Fox, photographer, designer
69and amputee--she runs the Reading Room,
70having quit the Pentagon after a mugging
71in D.C.--'He struck my leg with a pipe
72and wondered why I didn't fall. I kept tugging
73on my bag and I wouldn't let it go
74and he tugged and whacked till he was
75bewildered by a leg that wouldn't break.
76I left the city and the job because
77of the risks .- But I never thought a jet
78would crash just in the spot where my desk was.'
79Here too, I find Jim Watson, English prof
80in a family of surgeons. His father
82watched the fluid shoot three feet from a skull
83packed with a 'myriad' of tubercles,
84and then he faced Julia and her clan
85who in madness could only pray and accuse
86the doctors of killing a healthy man.
87After work, Jim pours me Johnny Walker Red.
88Tears hinted, he laments his father's going
89and tells me Frost alone got it right:
~
92but first we come to the double bill-board
93for micro-surgical vasectomy
94reversals--this on highway 290
95outside the town of Dripping Springs.
97ranch and birthplace--we board a little bus
98where the presidential voice speaks loud
99and tells us that in Hill Country we're in
100'a very special corner of God's
101real estate.' And why not? A sparse heaven
102of low hills, caves meandering in limestone,
103juniper and shinnery oak rising
104from thin soil beside the Colorado
106on LBJ and the western White House,
107a president hurtling about his own land
108in a Lincoln, great sheets of splash
109when he fords a brook at reckless speed.
110You knew you mattered when he called you here
111to watch his many televisions and inspect
112his longhorns and his pricey Herefords.
113He is buried, with all his distress,
114in a family plot with a spot reserved
116has rescued the face of the Great State
117with wildflowers that asphalt was killing:
118antelope horn, baby blue eyes, turkey-foot,
119knotty pondweed, zigzag iris,
120big love nolina and kidneywood,
121false garlic, false nightshade, false gromwell,
122rabbit tobacco and barometer bush--
123gracious additions to a legacy
124of civil rights won and a long war lost.
~
125Another day brings us to the town of Hunt
126that stands a hundred miles from anywhere
127on the mind's map, farther than quaintness
128though it is quaint: the bank is a counter
129in the general store and the restaurant
130closes for meals. No, farther--in the land
131of true oddness, where farmers reap
132a kind of lunacy with a callused hand,
133there is a man who took to raising
134monuments in his meadow: cubes of wood
135like long coffins stand in a wide circle,
136some propped up, standing as a human would,
137supporting others laid horizontal,
138sprayed with concrete that would fool a druid
139unless he came up close and knocked for
141A hundred swallows nest in the high places
142where coffin on coffin makes a corner,
143and if anything can surprise me here,
144it is their sudden flight, the three arrows
145of beak and tail out of an aperture
146in a nest of mud you didn't know was there.
147Around the monument are faces,
148all familiar, splayed noses that vanish
149under a thick brow; three of them, twelve feet
150high, serene where the hawks flourish.
151It is Easter Island in a sea of grass.
152In a pen across the lane alpacas
153are lazily grazing on the things of Texas
154and wondering who put them there.
~
156the immortal cowboy who could wrestle
157a steer with only his teeth. As a child
158he watched the ranch dogs tugging steers, bulls,
159calves and cows, and learned to bite the upper
160lip, then twist it down, no sweat at all.
161There he stands in the photograph, showman
162with his hands in the air and his teeth clamped
163on the steer's lip and the beast not knowing
164what is coming next from this rodeo champ.
165He made all the money he could handle
166and then the Wild West Show went bust.
167Will Rogers said everyone loved old Bill--
168and that may have included animals,
169except for the horse that kicked his skull,
170which, sadly, was his last unbroken bone.
~
171At the Renaissance market at 23rd
172it is the summer of love again:
173beads strung as they do it in Ecuador,
174hemp necklaces, tie-dye, scented rocks,
175lava lip gloss, magnetic bracelets,
176horseshoe nail business card holders,
177potpourri, candles, Guatemalan hats,
178and the works of 'Fluteman Eric' in bamboo.
179I walk in a forest of gray pony tails,
180and marvel at their will to continue
181in the creed of their youth: peace and free love
182and Hendricks on guitar and Kent State
183and Woodstock and My Lai and Chairman Mao.
184These are the flowers of 1968.
~
185At C.C.'s coffee shop on Austin's Drag,
186a man sits with books and muddy papers
187that he carries about in shopping bags.
188On a table by the sidewalk he props
189his ikons and translates, or says he does,
190the psalms of David from ancient Hebrew.
191He is a man of huge emphasis,
192and says that the Palestinians must be
193crushed, and as if it fell to him, insists,
194'I don't like it, but they leave me no choice.'
195My attention wanders from this war-like
196scribe, and I look to the sniper's tower
198up and down the Drag as they did in sixty-six.
199Depression, rage, a tumour in his brain,
200nothing accounts for his day of madness,
201thirty-one wounded and fifteen slain;
202I'd have thought him more sane than my psalmist,
203marine, bank clerk, and an Eagle Scout--
204I'd have missed the point, until I had seen
205bodies, one with a bullet through his mouth.
~
206I slip in to Mass at St Austin's Church
207beside the dorm and hear a young priest
209who lived nine hundred years ago;
210he turns to an aged concelebrant,
211'Father Phil knew him well.' The old man glows
212and the congregation convulses.
213He says, 'Norbertines are an order
214dedicated to pure liturgies
215and when asked what they would die for
216their answer will always be elegance.'
217Laughter sits on the Lazarus will
218and the sickness of the year is less,
219but I think, 'Lord, the man you love is ill.'
~
220I am in dispute with Austin's birds;
221at morning, a starling fights me at Starbucks
222for a pastry--wins a scrap from my hand
224I will feed a bluejay by the Ransom Center
226But under the trees I confer with a scholar
227who fears my work will trespass on his theme
228and in the midst of diplomatic talk
229a pigeon swoops down to bite my sandwich;
230I throw him the crust and he withdraws to some
231high bough and from his terrible vantage
232discharges on the bald pate of the poor
233professor who mops his scalp with a hanky
234and goes off, still anxious and unsure.
235At evening I eat at a taco stand
236where a grackle lets out a cruel shriek
237and flies at me like a Messerschmitt,
238nakedness of appetite in its beak.
239Another Mass, another priest, this one
240from Japan, describes a peasant convert
241who grasped Father and Son but of the third
242asked, 'Who is this strange, honorable bird?'
~
243Elsewhere I'd fill an evening with talk
244but without work or love or television
245I am compelled in Austin to walk
246away the heaviness of shapeless time,
247so face south towards the Colorado
248River where the Congress Avenue Bridge
249pours out into the first hint of shadow
250a million and a half freetail bats
251seeking their thirty thousand pounds
252of bugs and flies each night to make fat
253the nursing newborn 'pups' who must migrate
254to Mexico in the fall. From gaps in
255concrete and steel they shoot like twists
256of black paper in a savage wind
257or a billowing of ash, and they are gone
258into the hunting ground of residential streets.
259Most nights, I amble back by the Capitol,
260its red arches and dome of granite
261all vast, as if in 1888
262they uttered its dimensions like a vow
263or statement of purpose in a place
264that seemed empty, ungoverned and remote.
265On the grounds, the bones of memory:
266tributes to the Alamo, firefighting volunteers,
267the Texas Rangers and disabled vets,
268the cowboys and the female pioneers.
269And then the blinkered boasting for the dead--
270a monument to confederate comrades
271in what it calls 'The War Between the States.'
272I see the poor men on Guadalupe:
273one half naked by the Baptist Church
274who sits cross-legged through the days of heat,
275his skin exposed but still untouched
276by a sun that is furious till dusk:
277his legs and arms are thin but not like death
278and his eyes are empty though intent .-
279I think of snake or grackle when I pass,
280as pass I must. I see another man beside
281the Wells-Fargo bank, probing its machine
282with folded envelope, a search for money
283in its lair. Then he forces a stick in--
284to no avail--and he ends by shouting
285against the steel and striking with his fist.
286Another day, there is a chance to help:
287I come upon a woman slipping fast
288into a coma, her young husband stoned,
289and I do the little that I may, call
290for paramedics from a merchant's phone.
291The poor are with you always when you walk.
~
292I wake to good-byes. The files are closed
293and put away--not a word more to type.
294An hour left, I am in the grip of ghosts
295and with a ten-dollar Kodak pursue
296friends and strangers with a tearful snap.
297I am troubled by a sense of something owed,
298though bills are paid and no one's left to thank.
299I climb aboard the train, my bags are stowed,
300and I settle my limbs in the last seat
301among the bodies headed north and east.

Notes

2] 'Woo": at 2112 Guadalupe, an eight-story dormitory serving University of Texas at Austin students. Back to Line
40] 7-11: a convenience store named for its open hours. Back to Line
81] Thomas Wolfe: American novelist (1900-38), author of Look Homeward, Angel, You Can't Go Home Again, and other fiction. Back to Line
90] A poem in Frost's Mountain Interval (1920). Back to Line
91] Hill Country: large central-Texas region dominated by hills, stretching from Austin to San Antonio. Back to Line
96] LBJ: Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-73), 36th President of the United States, whose ranch was in Stonewall, Texas. Back to Line
105] Pedernales: tributary of the Colorado River. Back to Line
115] Lady Bird: Claudia Alta Taylor (1912-2007), Johnson's wife and widow. Back to Line
140] Al Shepperd and Doug Hill erected two replicas of the Moai Statues of the Easter Islands, and of Stonehenge, England, on their land on a highway outside Hunt, Texas. Back to Line
155] Willie M. "Bill" Pickett (1870-1932), cowboy and circus performer. Back to Line
197] Charles Joseph Whitman (1941-66). Back to Line
208] feast of St. Norbert: June 6. Back to Line
223] Daddy Warbucks: a character in the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist. Back to Line
225] a baseball team: the Toronto Blue Jays. Back to Line
Publication Notes: 
Richard Greene, Boxing the Compass (Montreal, Quebec: Signal Editions, 2009): 75-84.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire / Sharine Leung
RPO Edition: 
2011
Rhyme: 
Form: 
Special Copyright: 

Copyright © Richard Greene and used by permission of the poet.
Authorization to republish this poem must be obtained from him in writing.