Here are two poems by Maria Mazziotti Gillan about two experiences driving - away from home, to a new home, and driving to leave home behind but ending up back there again.
Driving to Kansas City
When you finished your Ph.D., you got a job in Kansas City
at the University and we drove there. I had never been anywhere
outside of New Jersey, and you hadn’t been
much farther than I.
The moving truck picked up our possessions, and we packed
our car with clothes and books, our children, their toys,
pillows, blankets, and we left. We decided to go the long way
so we drove through the West Virginia mountains where small
chimney cabins smoked and people sat on their porches
and watched us drive by. In the car we sang folk songs
and the children played in the back seat with their Matchbox toys.
When we got to Kansas City it was late, too late to pick up the keys
to the house one of the faculty members had found us to rent,
and the main road was lit up like Christmas or the Fourth of July.
Pickup trucks with shotguns on racks drove up and down
honking their horns and men shouting, their hands letting go
of their crumpled cans of beer. We looked for a motel,
but everyone flashed No Vacancy until one neon arrow flashed
different and we followed it to one of those 1940s versions
of motels, those seedy rows of cabins, where the owner hadn’t shaved
and smelled like beer. He grinned at me through rotten teeth.
He led us to a cabin with two swaybacked double beds and ratty
chenille bedspreads and a carpet that looked like it hadn’t been
vacuumed for three years. We slipped the sleeping children
into one bed and took the other ourselves and you fell asleep
right away, but I sat awake thinking I had to guard you
and our children, afraid the manager would come into the room
and murder us all, though I don’t know what I thought
I could have done to protect us.
Now I love expensive hotels, soft luxurious carpets, thick clean towels
and elegant bathrobes. I buy my clothes at thrift shops, my books
at library book sales, but I want to stay in expensive hotels
with doormen and porters, shiny elevators, solid locks
on the doors, the quiet that money can buy where even if I am
not safe, I believe I am, that no one would ever
harm me in a place so elegant and quiet and perfumed.
Driving into the Dark Sky
Yesterday, when I drove up Route 17 West, the sky,
the mountains, were covered in a blanket so gray
and bleak even I, optimist that I am, can’t fi nd a spot
of joy anywhere, not in the dark lines of the trees,
not in the black belt of the road winding in front of me,
not in the salt splashed on the windshield I have to squint
to see through. The farther I move away from you
the closer you are to me, though I try so hard
to leave you behind. I can’t erase the image
of you sitting in your electric wheelchair in your blue
Family Guy boxers, your rumpled white undershirt,
your legs so devoid of fat I can see every muscle
and tendon, legs that won’t hold you up, though you
keep forgetting you can’t walk anymore.
Your body is a mass of bruises and cuts from all the times
you’ve tried to climb out of your bed, the slap
of you falling and hitting the fl oor; your body is bent
in your chair, your head, too heavy for your shoulders,
leans sideways. I can drive for hours through the Catskills
and never leave you behind. Your eyes now seem
so confused. You struggle to remember what day it is
and insist on searching for me, even though Althea, the woman
who takes care of you, explains I’m not home; still, you insist
on being helped into your chair so you can see for yourself.
Remember that trip we took to Italy, when we walked
together through those ancient cobblestone alleyways?
I could not have imagined a time when you would not
recognize me. I see this disease erasing more and more
of what you were, and looking at you, so bent and beaten,
makes me want to howl with grief. You, who sang to me
while you played your guitar, “Black, Black Is the Color
of My True Love’s Hair,” I wish you would come back
to me the way you were. I am ashamed that I drive faster
and faster to escape the image of you with your lost
frightened eyes, your hands that can no longer hold
a piece of toast or a cookie, your head so bent
it is like an iris with a broken stalk.
I am ashamed at how hard I try
to leave you behind.
These two poems appear in The Silence in an Empty House
Maria Mazziotti Gillan's most recent books are the poetry and photography collection, Paterson Light and Shadow and the poetry collection, What Blooms in Winter . Her collection of poems along with some of her paintings is The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets . Maria's official website is MariaGillan.com.