How Marianne Moore Helped Me Travel from a University in Fargo/Moorhead to a Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa

Marianne Moore

Over beers near the railroad tracks in Fargo, North Dakota, a concrete worker told me that a couple of my landscape poems reminded him of Elizabeth Bishop’s work. Talk about a pick-up line. I had to bite, and although I didn’t entirely buy what he was saying, as a policy I track down and follow up every off-hand comment or comparison related to my work, and since, in books of theory, you can hardly read about Bishop without reading Moore, I lucked onto an explanation of digression as a poetic device. In much of my work, I very consciously digress, but reading about it as a technique a “real” poet employed made me feel reassured. As I see it, utilizing something as a tool and comprehending that it actually is a tool are two different things, and awareness—or the lack—offer different consequences and rewards.

Obviously, I don’t always want to stray and I’m pretty prone to it so for at least a decade, I’ve been clinging to a four line ee cummings poem, “seeker of truth/follow no path/ all paths lead/ where truth is here.” Perhaps I needed to encounter that poem after living in nearly twenty different states and countries and over thirty varieties of house. It’s been my excuse to try and slow down despite an internal clock set wildly fast from childhood. That poem contains a philosophy I still believe: truth is right in front of our faces. However, digression is more than a poetic device and there’s something to be said for letting go of controlling what’s going to end up right in front of your face.

It was my desire to stay open to learning things I don’t consciously sit down to study that made me hit the road to the 100th Annual Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. And it was in Britt that I met Sidetrack.

When we met, she’d been mowing a lawn and I’d been running a low-grade manic for months. She needed a beer and I needed a better way to keep my jeans up which were suspended from my hips with a rope from the trunk of my car. I’d lost about ten pounds but my brain still expected my clothes to work so I’d walked belt-less into the “jungle” where the hobos were camped with one hand pretty much dedicated to the task of hoisting my trousers up. Consequently, I immediately elicited all kinds of skinny jokes. Thus the rope. Thus the chafing on my hips which is what I was trying to address (mid street carnival) when I ran into Sidetrack. She walked up to me and said, “You can use your bandana.” Which was true. So I slid the rope off and she pulled my bandana from my head and slipped it through the front two belt-loops and tied the knot. Waalah. My pants were securely up. Talk about gratitude.

And since we were both high by dusk every day, and the distinction between brain chemicals or booze is often irrelevant, we simply hit it off. I learned quickly not to take it personally when she wandered off mid-sentence with no explanation to work some guy over for a beer or follow a song on a questionable jukebox. I’d just keep writing or talk with someone else and eventually she’d return with another new or remembered story she wanted me to pen for her. Two days later, she would tell me I was the second female friend she’d had in her life. She’d already taken my hands and pressed my fingers deep into the scars on her scalp and running down her spine, but it was this declaration of friendship that really got to me. Sidetrack is at least a decade older than I am, and we’d spent barely a handful of broken up hours together, so no matter how I felt, I hadn’t expected that our interactions, brief and by chance, would mean much of anything to her.

But somehow we were making a friendship and with that comes certain responsibilities—so we set to following behind the parade route, scouring the road and grass for candy the kids had missed. By the time our pockets filled up, we had a whole repertoire of inside jokes and we knew, with a nod and a little eye contact, that we had each other’s backs. Or we wanted to have each other’s backs, would if we could. Turned out there was little we could actually do for each other, even in the same town. While I was trying to deal with a world champion barrel jumping Viet Nam Vet who’d become obsessed with me, she was getting picked up for public drunkenness and being dropped six miles outside of city limits with instructions not to return.

By morning, we were back together, me with a stash of 1970’s newspaper clippings I’d been given, sports pages with photos of barrel jumping Nam veterans, and her with the signatures of the cops who’d arrested her on her cap. What can anybody do? Fate is hilarious.

These days what I tell the avenging spirit of the ee cummings poem that lives in my brain is that not all paths are “paths.” Once Sidetrack hopped a train to go East and ended up so far West she was wading in the Pacific Ocean. Day to day after leaving her and heading farther east, I could hardly keep track of which side of the Mississippi I was on, had little idea (or concern) for where I was headed, but at any given moment, I knew where my feet were. And I came home with a suspicion that straying actually necessitates awareness—which is not bad for writers or readers. At the very least, as I become more open to the myriad forms of digression, my interpretation of life (and poetry) becomes less literal, my definition of “here” becomes more encompassing, and my awareness more acute.


–lisa gill

(One from the old archive: a version of this essay was first published in the Tongue by Mitch Rayes nearabouts a decade ago, and later part made my CNF dissertation at UNM. The bar conversation up top is one of the places I got to chat with Kevin Zepper, who probably remembers the concrete worker and who was referenced in my last blog post and who will read soon at Jules’ Playhouse. Image of Marianne sans archetypal hat from this link at Illinois.)