Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare?
– Joseph Campbell
Three years ago, Paul Allen dared. The professor emeritus retired from the Department of English after 36 years, bought a camper and moved out onto the road to see what there was to see, write what there was to write. The poet and singer-songwriter left this place, where he knew where he stood, and set out to find his footing in the big, open world: a reality check of his own size among the birds and the trees and the highways and the battlefields and the campgrounds and prairie and desert and open mics and his pen and his paper. He dared to answer the call of adventure – to make his very own journey, his very own pilgrimage.
But, in a way, it’s also the College’s pilgrimage. He took a piece of the College out on the road with him, reading his poetry, singing his songs, visiting former students, getting new perspective, new material. In his search for song, his hunt for the poem, he’s found that, wherever the road takes us, we are never alone. From his campsite under the stars – or maybe from a pit stop along his way – Paul Allen shares his journey with us all.
Recalculating: An Essay from the Road
Nonbeing can never be,
being can never not be.
– Bhagavad Gita
Halt! That’s all, and the musket ball separates
Officer from his mount, and soul. I halt
197 years later.
Chalmette Battlefield, New Orleans.
No other order, his troops stood where I stand,
Fired on by “The Dirty Shirts,” Americans.
Disciplined Brits, they took it like gentlemen,
Were shot, at attention, until another officer
Left his own troop to give these
An order to do something else, quick time.
I face the Rodriguez Canal, hit by a volley
Of kid-yells on the Choctaw and Free Black
End of the rampart, Old Hickory the other end.
I’d like to hold the road a little while,
No agenda and the rest of my life to accomplish it.
My truck. My small camper. My nightly fire.
I cross borders, stop at welcome centers,
And grab brochures. Do I stay in this state
A couple of weeks to check out the Pow Wow
Or go south to hang out a day or two
At Willa Cather’s house in Red Cloud?
View New Orleans, Vieux Carré, a month
Of death and jazz, or Santa Fe, to stay
Among the bronzed artists, books, cafes?
So many towns to own! So many battles!
The nameless voice behind the MRI
Says, Maybe not so fast, old traveller.
Report: “The patient has multilevel findings.
L4-L5 disc degeneration …
Osteophyte complex extending into
Posterior disc … second osteophyte …
Pressure … thecal sac …
Arthropathy … L5-S1 disc degeneration ….”
My spine’s as crusty as my social skills.
I limp. I’m halt.
I’m getting a little scared
That streets of towns I’m stranger to will close,
Wood trails will grow over – stenosis of brambles.
And one eye’s going out (congenital),
A bad crossing in the retina. But I can live this life with a blind spot.
Even should it spread, I think I’d make
A better blind tourist than a crippled one.
There is no place or thing I ache to see.
It’s not the seeing but the being there
That moves me with at once a satisfaction
And a longing. Pure being in pure Thereness,
Wherever There finds me here and now:
Billy the Kid’s cell or grave; the street
In Clovis where Buddy Holly took a break.
I sit beneath the chair in Deadwood, where
Wild Bill Hickok sat as Jack McCall
(“Crooked Nose Jack”) shot him from behind.
The chair’s encased in glass up on the wall.
I stood where Meriwether Lewis began
His trek; I stood where Meriwether Lewis died,
Hundreds of miles in distance from each other,
And yet the two were one, the way I felt.
I stood at Jefferson Rock where Jefferson stood
– made it up o.k., the back, the leg –
And stared where Jefferson stared, below, where
The Shenandoah and Potomac meet
To form the whole out-west in Jefferson’s mind.
I lost my footing more in my descent.
Not so much to see these Theres, but be,
Being in them, of them, being them.
It’s as though when I luck on a place, the place
Has been waiting for me, no matter
How touristy. I’m quieted by the spirits.
Of course there are names – Jesse James,
Bob Ford, Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.E.B. Stuart,
Geronimo, Elvis – hundreds posted:
Who stood here, who walked there. I read
Them, but it’s the there and here that matter.
(I’ve read some saints who think such enstasy,
Such loss of world and being purely here
Might be the active presence of God). Maybe.
I’ll take the presence of Lost Bird any day,
Buried just outside the mass grave
Of her blood kin Lakota at Wounded Knee.
I didn’t have to see it. Get me there,
Guide me up the hill from down below
In the creek bed where her mother was killed
And had scooped some earth and lay on top
The infant, and four days later, in frozen ground
They found the baby girl under her mother.
Lost Bird. The little thing was alive.
Tell me the story and then walk away,
Leave me there awhile with the child.
I didn’t have to see Mark Twain’s house
In Hannibal nor the one in Hartford.
I stand in rooms until others leave
(It drives guided groups nuts for me
To hang back, and they have to wait).
I hate guided groups. I left the tour
In New Orleans Museum of Art when
Two loud couples discussed the painting
Of Andrew Jackson, “also known as Stonewall,”
One blustery husband said. I wanted to shoot him.
I don’t know art. But I’d gone with Lauren
To the house where Degas lived when he was here.
And when the group left the room where
He slept and painted, I held back and breathed
Him into me. I stood on the two-foot
Square patch of original flooring and felt
The difference between Degas’ floor and the newer.
I don’t see art as a connoisseur,
But in my mind’s eye smell the sweat
Or coal fire, feel the hands of the maker, know
The final stopped hustle of his stepping back,
His body relaxing for the first time in weeks,
To say, “I cannot do any more than this.”
It’s plain as a pikestaff: Tell me what you’re seeing
And I see, then let me be. But
I have to walk in the place, I have to feel
Original ground or floor beneath my feet.
It’s like some subcutaneous knowing that rises
To my skin, inside and outside one mind,
One world of being, whole and timeless as air.
Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation,
290 Sioux, plus or minus,
Mostly Bigfoot’s band who came surrendering,
Who’d lain in position four days because
Of the blizzard were gathered up (some
Hauled back from 3 miles away, managing
To run that far before exhaustion caught
Up to them as did the soldiers who fired
At close range to finish them off). More babies.
The dead were thrown into the deep pit
With its cleanly cut sides in frozen ground.
They rest in the place where Hotchkiss guns were placed.
People leave, as prayer, ribbon, rags,
Apple; those with forethought: Sage, or flowers –
Mostly plastic, but a thought. The Lakota
Woman I was with suggested I leave
Tobacco, which I did, a 17¢
Cigarette opened to the breeze,
And the tobacco was, my friend told me, accepted.
Below the hill, where slaughter was complete,
There stands a stand worked by a man in his 40s,
A woman, and an old man, a father or grandfather.
All day, they sort and string and sell their beads.
I picked up a pebble the size of a pencil eraser,
And knowing how sacred the ground there is –
As is the ground everywhere, I guess,
But especially there, so much blood, so many
Poverties – I asked the guy in charge
If I might have the rock to send to a friend
Who collects rocks from friends of hers who travel.
The man turned to the old man, the oldest
Of us all, and though the old man surely
Must have heard me, the man put the question,
“Can he have this?” The old man hung his half done
String of beads up, held the rock; open
Hand, closed fist, then open again
And said something I didn’t understand
In Lakota and gave it back to him, not me.
The man handed it to me, saying, “He
Said, ‘Yes. It is from this ground but has
No spirit power, since it is not round.’”
I gave the guy a fiver, which he accepted
And handed it to the old man who for the first time
Looked me in the eye. Then he nodded,
A nod that was both greeting and goodbye.
Museums, art galleries, graves, battlefields
Or natural woods where nothing special happened
Except life and death and endless resurrection.
All of them give me something there
Unmolested by dualities –
Past/present, good/bad, body/soul –
A kind of being that for once seems whole.
Jackson said that when this field went silent,
The fog and smoke lifting, 2,000 red
Coats broken and blasted from grape shot and musket,
And the wounded beginning to rise and stagger,
Here, here, there, there, here –
Jackson said it looked like the Resurrection,
The dead of the ages emerging from their graves.
And they’re here still where I stand still.
I’ll leave myself here too, as I left
Me other places on the road for you.
We all lose hair and skin. All day
We take a little of someone’s DNA
Home or to the next monument.
We lose 40,000 skin cells a day,
About nine pounds any given year.
They rise up to the surface from below,
They hold us together, die, and then fall off.
And because they flake from us like dust dots
Off Pigpen and drift, we pass them on to others.
You occupy me, I occupy your sons or daughters
Or teachers or friends, or friends of friends, strangers.
You picked me up when your arm brushed the counter
At the liquor store or pharmacy last night.
You dropped me on your table when you chastised
Your kid for a D. I’m in bed with you and your lover.
With more than skin and hair we gift each other.
There are 10 times more bacteria – bugs! –
In and on you than cells you claim as you.
Something in the air, St. Louis, I coughed
On the slanted, carpeted rest atop the arch.
Whoever touched that, laid their breast there,
Laid their breast on me and took me somewhere
As they rode the rattling tram down to the world.
Did you sneeze at the top? Within a few minutes – 30
In a space of, say, the cabin of a 747 –
Everyone’s touched by the spray, a kind of relay
Passing ourselves to lives we touch outside.
Sweat contains urea. Essentially, then,
We’re pissing through the skin. Then we touch.
In the arch, I breathed deeply between coughs,
Breathed in the kids on honeymoon, and outside,
The arch as background, I held the camera
Both hands taking on the Japanese family’s
Oils and breath as I took their picture for them
Then shook hands with the father in the sun.
I’ve left me in Nebraska and gathered you
In Memphis, Harper’s Ferry, Old Mesilla.
You pass me on as I pass you on the road.
I cannot die as long as you live,
I cannot stop as long as you move.
But all that’s simply riffing on the body,
Though body can be metaphor for soul.
Indeed, it might be more than metaphor.
Body is dust to dust, and dust to molecule,
Element, atom, energy. All is energy.
Lavoisier: “Nothing is born, nothing dies.”
All things made hold energy of maker.
So somehow else I am the arch itself,
That tug I hear on my flank up river,
The grain on the barges it pushes, and the barge.
I think we share spirit as equally
As body through the nine gates of the body.
Even with degenerating civility,
Living as alone as I can afford,
I and you take in each other’s selves.
The look in the eye of the clerk who hates his work
Is in our lives forever, remembered or not.
Here I give you the whispered voice of the woman
At Wounded Knee I mentioned earlier.
Take from her the fiery peace I found.
From me to you, the boy I met in Nashville.
Young man at previous week’s open mic.
He found me as I packed, journeyman
Blacksmith, wanted to be a songwriting farrier.
I gave him a CD, invited him
To my showcase the following week.
He said He had to work that day, 40 miles
One way, so he doubted he could make it.
When I got up to do my set that night,
I saw him from the stage all cleaned up.
After, he told me he had something for me,
As if being there (80 miles round trip!)
Were not gift enough for an old loner.
We walked out to his truck. He reached in,
Drew himself out bearing a horse shoe
He’d made for me an hour after work.
All the sweat, and fire, and clanging, and yet
Those rough hands gently presented to me the shoe
As if it were the rarest butterfly.
My album, his horse shoe; my horse shoe, his album,
Both signed. Thereby we traded names as well.
I left my town to be alone alone.
Now, crippled, a bad eye, and alone for
These two years, I know it can’t be done.
Choctaw, Free Black, coyote, caterpillar,
Samuel, Billy, Lauren, raccoon coming
Just to the edge of the fire’s light, you
In the arch and you not in the arch,
Woman, rain, rock, pebble, boy:
Whoever you are, holding me now in hand
As you read this, you are my eyes. I
Hear your hearing me, your steps my steps,
As mine are yours on your journey. For you
Do take my journey, I yours, your life on the road.
Our one journey is the one whereby
What we need is found in what we find.
You take the highway of your lover’s back
And off-road to the neck; you tour the heart.
You watch the sundown or sunrise come across
The lake of a job where everything fell in place.
You stand on the overlook of your child’s crib,
Your child, a sleeping village in the valley below.
We’re one, with and on the Plains of Chalmette.
Another officer, call him Captain Whim, leaves
His troops of starlings, sun, cloud-shadow, grass,
And orders me, and you in me, to move,
To advance – haltingly! – but advance
Back to our truck, our camper, our shared fire.
by Paul Allen, professor emeritus of English
– Photos by Gately Williams.