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Like a Lonely Astronaut The Driver Pennsylvania
photo by Carolyn Whitson
Renny Christopher is an Assistant Professor of English at California state University, Stanislaus, where she teaches multicultural American literature, poetry writing and film. Her book, The Viet Nam War: The American War: Images and Representations in Euro-American and Vietnamese Exile Narratives, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, was named Outstanding Book on Human Rights in North America by the Gustavas Myers Center for the Study of human Rights in North America by the Gustavas Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights. She earned her PhD in American Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1992; she also holds an MA in Linguistics from San Jose State University and a BA in English/Creative Writing from Mills College. In addition to CSUS, she has taught at UC Santa Cruz, San Jose State, and Cabrillo Community College, and has worked summers as a horse wrangler at Yellowstone National Park. Her poetry chapbook, My Name is Medea, won the New Spirit Press chapbook award in 1996; her poetry collection, Viet Nam and California, is from Viet Nam Generation/Burning Cities Press, 1998.
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Like a Lonely Astronaut
My small-town childhood was punctuated
Atlas rockets carrying Gemini capsules
Saturn rockets launching Apollo,
T-minus twenty and counting at Cape Kennedy,
roger Houston Control.
I wanted to blast off to the city
to buildings tall as rockets,
to a phone book bigger than eleven pages--
thick and rich
stuffed full of opportunities.
I didn't know, then, that like a lonely astronaut,
orbiting twenty thousand miles
above the Cape
looking down at the blue earth
looking down at
straight rows of pale new lettuce
in rich black loam,
furrows perpendicular to the roads,
sprinklers making rainbows in the sun,
looking down at ancient orchards of gnarled trees,
their trunks painted white,
they would call to me, still,
after so many years of orbit,
going around and around, higher and higher,
reaching for the moon,
still calling to me
as if it were yesterday that
I rode my bike past
nosy, staring cows,
and dreamed of reaching
T-minus twenty and counting,
roger Houston Control,
I want to come home.
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The best time was the mornings
when the job was far away.
Dad and I carried our coffee to the truck,
rode up the crowded highway, quiet,
Dad driving in his sleep,
threading traffic in a dream.
Once at the job we parked and woke up
from the freeway dream
took the tools from the lockbox in the back.
At lunch we ate in the truckbed
spare tire and rope coils for our chairs.
On the way home, Dad would talk,
telling stories of the war he was in
--the good war he called it--
or of driving midgit race cars
on tracks all up and down California.
He told stories of highways he drove
towing his racecar along--
the old road over the Cuesta grade,
the Coast highway to Long Beach
roads to anywhere that had a dirt track.
As he talked he drove one-handed--
left hand on the wheel, elbow out the window
in his right hand a bottle of pop
right foot on the accelerator.
Once, he asked me to drive home.
As I glanced at him in the passanger seat
I could see in the sunlight through the windshield
his temples just beginning to go gray.
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The first thing you see
in small Pennsylvania towns
are the graveyards.
No matter which direction you come from,
the graveyards are always there.
I remember the desperation
of old brick buildings
tiny enclaves of wealth
and the apartments above ancient stores
with broken clocks out front.
A steel working man who said
"I got thirty years--thirty years with them
an' I tell 'em, don't give me gondolas--
don't do it, but they don't listen,
an' I got gondolas again."
A girl, just twenty, with a two-year-old son,
"We had five dollars in the checking account,
just five dollars till Friday,
and I spent it on a lipstick.
I can't believe I do these things."
And an old woman, whose son, the youngest of eight,
had come after ten years to visit
bringing along a California girl
to see his dying homeland.
The old woman--not nearly as old as she looked
in lavender eye shadow and stacked-up hair--
blends in my mind with the others I saw.
She was a waitress in a diner, her second
husband a trucker who married her
to have a home between hauls,
and she believed drudgery and pain
were the nature of life
and couldn't believe that I,
an alien from another planet,
barefaced and longhaired and braless,
said that I wanted no children.
"Who'll be with you when you're old?" she
I looked at her son, who'd called
her maybe five times in ten years
and shrugged, not knowing an answer.
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