Monday, July 23, 2012


The last full week of July, my wife Kathy, sons Dylan and Harrison, and I traveled to Nags Head, North Carolina for a wonderful vacation at the beach.  We left home on Saturday, July 21.  Our other son, Zach, had to work, but would join us later in the week.  Kathy's parents as well as her sister and family were vacationing with us.  Dylan's girlfriend also would join us later in the week, driving down with Zach.  We all were looking forward to a relaxing time at the beach.

It rained off and on during our drive to the Outer Banks, but it did not slow us down.  The drive south into Southern Maryland, across the Potomac and through Tidewater Virginia to Hampton Roads, went very well.  We were on track for an early arrival in the Outer Banks until we reached a back-up in Currituck County, North Carolina.  We crawled the rest of the way.  Turns out there had been an accident on the Outer Banks side of the bridge across Albemarle Sound.  As frustrating as it had been to sit in traffic for over two hours, we were thankful to arrive in Nags Head safe and sound.  We reached our rental house, unpacked, and were ready to relax.

Traffic slowed its pace
to little more than a crawl.
Frustrations simmered.
An accident was the cause.
Sadness; but glad we were safe.

Salt air and sand dunes;
sea oats waving in the breeze;
waves breaking on shore.
The sun sets over Albemarle—
tensions slide into the sound.

The weather forecasts called for scattered thunderstorms during the first few days of our vacation.  A thunderstorm rolled through in the early morning of our first full day in Nags Head.  Lightning seemed to be all around us; one thunderclap boomed and shook the house.  In the morning, despite the storm, the air was just as humid as the day before.  In this flat landscape, water drains slowly-- there are pools of water everywhere.

First day on island—
thunderstorm, early morning;
rain, water, humid
air. We are surrounded by
water on all sides, but below.

On the morning of our second full day in Nags Head, North Carolina, I walked over to the beach, about an hour after dawn.  I had planned to go bicycling, but discovered that I had broken a spoke during my ride the day before.  Since I could not ride, the only thing left to do was sit on the beach and write poetry.

Surfers ride low waves
on a nearly flat ocean.
Fishermen drop lines
from Nags Head Pier; hope for fish.
Pelicans glide between waves.

Wind blows from soundside;
sun rising higher in sky;
It will be hot soon—
too hot to stay on the beach.
I will retreat to the house.

A broken spoke
kept me from biking today.
Had I gone riding
I would have been caught outside
in this morning's thunderstorm.

The weather cleared by afternoon and we went to the beach.  This would become our usual routine-- rise in the morning and pursue various activities, then go to the beach late morning or early afternoon.  We had a large canopy to shield us from the sun, which made relaxing on the beach so much nicer.

We sit on the beach
under the canopy's shade,
chairs lined up in rows.
We look like an audience
waiting for a show to start.

On Tuesday (third full day here), I bicycled to Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo-- 33 miles south across Oregon Inlet and beyond Pea Island refuge. It was a beautiful ride. The wind was blowing from the west on my way to Salvo; I moved along quickly-- 16 miles per hour on average. The wind shifted slightly on the way back, blowing from the WNW, and I had a stiff headwind for the last 13 miles. The ride over Oregon Inlet was great-- so high up in the air over the water! The causeway and bridge curve slightly, such that I had the wind at my back, helping to push me up and over the bridge as I rode south.

Oregon Inlet
bridge-- I soared over the world
as I biked across.
Sound and ocean; waves and sky--
a beautiful place to ride.

Wednesday, our fourth day at the beach, the wind blew strong out of the northeast.  I rode to Corolla, 32 miles into a headwind, to the northern end of route 12, where the pavement ends at the beach and only four-wheel drive vehicles and people on foot can continue.  I stopped and walked out into the sand, enjoying the cooling breeze and the beautiful morning.  The ride back to Nags Head, wind at my back, was a joy.

North to Corolla,
I struggled against the wind.
I reached pavement's end,
the breeze and waves, my reward.
Wind at my back, I flew home.

In the afternoon, as usual, we went to the beach.  The waves were big and powerful.

Wind from the northeast
piled up whitecaps, heavy surf.
We wore ourselves out
riding the waves, our bodies
like driftwood tossed on the sea.

Thursday morning, I took a break from bicycling and went to the beach to watch the sunrise.  The morning was beautiful, nice breeze from the southwest, low humidity, very comfortable temperature.  It was a perfect time to be on the beach.  I found a nice spot to sit and waited for the sun to rise, kept company by wind, waves, and solitude.

The beach at sun rise:
pelicans glide over waves;
plovers at surf’s edge;
sandcrabs dig out homes again;
seagulls stand guard on the sand.

What odd animals
these sand crabs—they build their homes
where the tide reaches;
each day they clear a new hole.
What a strange, but simple life.

We all went to the beach later that morning.  The waves were perfect for bodysurfing, breaking at just the right point to catch a nice ride into shore.  Zach, Harrison, Grant, and I stayed in the water, riding the waves for over an hour.  It was a wonderful day at the beach-- not too hot, wind just right, and the water was delightful.

Waves rolled in just right,
we surfed for more than an hour;
we studied the swells
and rode the best waves to shore--
moments of great joy.

Dylan spent time in the water with his girlfriend, Laura, who had driven down to Nags Head with Zach on Wednesday afternoon/evening.  As one might expect, they were inseparable.

Ah, how sweet, young love,
like a breeze on a hot day,
refreshes the soul.
For those of us in autumn,
perhaps we can find our spring.

Thursday evening we all dressed in white shirts or blouses and went to the beach to take family photographs.  Despite a few grumbles about the heat and humidity and having to pose, we got lots of good photos.  Then, we went to dinner.  As we walked into the restaurant, the hostess immediately noticed that we were all in white and asked, "Family photos?"  How obvious we were.  We had a wonderful dinner overlooking the sound.  Afterward, we went to a go-kart track for after-dinner fun.  Given the large number of people at the track, we drove in several groups-- Scott and Grace in one race; Grant in the junior race for younger kids.  Kathy and I drove in the same group while the others watched.

Fierce competition--
we speed round the go-kart track,
each vying to win.
Karts touch; we exchange glances;
maneuver for position.

Zach, Dylan, Harrison, and Laura were together in a group of drivers.  We watched a close, competitive race.

Brothers-- one, two, three--
race round the track, edging close,
blocking, cutting off--
then one makes his move, passes,
takes the lead, and two pursue.

No brotherly love--
each tries to pass the other
on the track tonight.
Serious competition,
then afterward, smiles and laughs.

Friday evening, we went out for our last dinner at the beach.  Eating out at the beach always seems so pleasurable.  Perhaps it's because a chance to all gather and relax around the table after a day in the sun and surf, someone else doing the cooking, serving, and cleaning up afterward.  Perhaps it's the opportunity to enjoy local seafood-- something we don't do much at home.  As with the other evenings out, we had a wonderful time, enjoying each other's company. 

Last evening out--
we splurge on appetizers:
hush puppies, crab dip,
calamari, fish nuggets;
then dinners.  We are fulfilled.

Our week at the beach ended on Saturday, July 28.  We left the Outer Banks along with many other beachgoers, all returning to our usual lives.  We got in the line of traffic moving its way off the island and to the mainland, at a not-too-hurried pace.  Hard to say whether the slow pace is due to the volume of traffic or just everyone's reluctance to leave.

Sunburnt and salt-scrubbed,
we reached the end of our week.
Waves caught, castles built,
wonderful days in the sun;
memories left in the sand.

We leave the island,
part of the slow moving stream
away from the beach,
each reluctant to go home,
hoping the tide pulls us back.

Monday, July 9, 2012

U.S. 1 Corridor Poems (update)

In my post of November 6, 2010 (see;postID=2489485122221987711) I wrote about my series of poems focused on the U.S. 1 corridor in Howard County and the ideas and scenes that influenced those poems.  Since that time I have added three poems to the series--"The Food Truck," "The Old Man at the Corner," and "U.S. 1, Howard County, Maryland."  In addition to "Jessup," which was published in 2006 in You Are Here:  The Journal of Creative Geography, two of the poems have been published or accepted for publication:   "The Food Truck" in the Spring 2012 issue of Poetry Quarterly, and "Patuxent River Story," in issue #4 of Symmetry Pebbles.

"The Food Truck" focuses on the Hispanic food trucks that can be found along the Route 1 corridor, catering to the many workers in the warehouses, industrial parks, or gathering hoping for day labor opportunities.  It combines the presence of the trucks with thoughts relating to the loss of livelihood by farmers in Mexico, put out of work by the flood of cheap corn from the United States after NAFTA took effect.  I thought it fitting to have a farmer running the food truck.  In Mexico, he grew food and provided for his family.  No longer able to compete, he heads north and provides for his family back home by providing food for workers.

In writing "The Old Man at the Corner" I had in mind the men who can be seen panhandling from time to time at major intersections in the Jessup area; in particular, the man I would see at the intersection of the off-ramp from I-95 and MD Route 175 west.  I have been part of the line-up of people in cars waiting for the light to change and trying to avoid eye contact.  It's easy to dismiss such people as wanting to avoid work, or trying to earn easy money by begging from others, but when I think about it, I can't believe that most people eagerly turn to panhandling.  Both this and "The Food Truck" came out of my thinking about what I would do or how I would feel if I was in a similar situation, if I had no other prospects or hope for feeding my family.

The last poem, "U.S. 1, Howard County, Maryland," is more of an ode to the road and the corridor, comparing it with other parts of the county-- parts that have better "curb appeal" if you will.  U.S. 1 was the original highway through the county, connecting Howard with Baltimore and Washington and other points north and south.  That role as "Main Street of the East Coast" has been usurped by I-95.  U.S. 29 has taken over the role of major local highway, connecting the nicer, more upscale communities within the county, and passing through Columbia, which can be seen as Howard County's "downtown."  U.S. 1, in many ways, has been forgotten... that is, except by those who find it to be an anomalous "eyesore" requiring a makeover to bring it in line and in compliance with the rest of the county.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

John and the Hired Girl

I've been working on a new poem within my Skimino Cycle titled "The Hired Girl."  As the title indicates, the poem focuses on the hired girl that John and Mary Ratcliffe hired to help work on their farm.  According to depositions from friends and neighbors in John's Civil War pension file, John and Mary hired multiple girls to help out, to some of whom John apparently (according to the depositions) took a liking.  That he had an affair with one is definitely known-- Mary names Melissa Hendricks in the divorce papers that she filed in 1873.

I don't know much about Melissa, which is making it difficult to capture her personality and voice in the poem.  She was rather "flat" in the first draft-- commenters who read the first draft said as much, and I have to agree with them.  Here's one little bit of information I know about her:  she was 18 years old in 1870, which means she would have been around 20 or 21 when the adulterous act occurred.  She was listed in the 1880 census as unable to write, but interestingly, she was not listed as illiterate (can one know how to read, but not write?).  She was living with her parents in 1880.  Not much in the way of facts around which to build a personality.

Each of the poems in the Skimino Cycle has required a fair amount of imagining to build the story around the facts.  But, the others involved people (mostly John and Mary) for whom I have enough information from which to create a well-rounded character.  This is not the case with the hired girl.  I am having to create her personality and character almost from scratch, and ultimately based upon how I think she related to John and Mary.  The problem right now is that, as a character, she is mostly a reflection of other people, without any real personality of her own.  I think she turned out that way in the first draft because I was trying to avoid making her come across as either exploited by John or as a seductress.  The result, however, was that she came across as "flat" and without any sort of feelings or thoughtful expression-- in a way, as dull and unintelligient.

The poem is narrated by the hired girl-- we are in her head as she goes about her activities.  The physical setting is the kitchen of the farmhouse, which is where I envision much of her interaction with John occurred.  The kitchen seems like a good setting-- the family hearth; the focus of much daily activity; where John would rest after returning from his trips out onto the prairie for hunting, fishing, and trapping (activities in which he engaged a lot, according to the pension file depositions).  If Mary is out in the fields, managing the daily activity of the farm, the kitchen would be a good location for John and Melissa to spend time.  Friendship and then intimacy could develop there, but also because it's a family space, Mary would have opportunity to interrupt and observe the relationship between them.  And, because ultimately the kitchen is Mary's kitchen, there is a violation of space even if there is not yet a violation of trust.

So, where to go with Melissa's character?  The difference in ages between her and John would suggest that she might see him as a "father figure" type, someone older and wiser from whom she can learn.  Someone who is more mature and perhaps understanding than the younger men of the community.  Perhaps she has a learning disability (which is why she can't write) or some other disability that makes her less attractive to younger men, but which John, with his war wounds (physical and perhaps mental), can empathize and see past.  They find solace in each other; they spend time together; they share a mutual understanding of each other's condition; and this leads ultimately to physical intimacy.