Urbino, a Renaissance jewel in central Italy. My first visit there in many years. I knew no one there, nor was I in touch with anyone from my grandmother Antonia’s family—assuming any were left.
One evening, as I was ascending a cobblestone street towards the city’s outer walls, I noticed a group of people gathered around an uncovered manhole. Intrigued, I moved closer. A group of amateur speleologists was about to begin a nocturnal exploration of underground Urbino; to my surprise they asked me if I wanted to join them. Squeezing down the manhole’s narrow, vertical, metal stairs, I found myself in a long tunnel. The guides began talking, but I wasn’t listening, mesmerized by the scattering flashes of their helmets’ lights. I felt I was physically penetrating the past—an imagined past. My father’s city’s past, unknown to him and to me.
Zack was slim and handsome, of mixed race, and from the Midwest. He had spoken early on to me of his “protestant work ethic,” and already in those first weeks, when everybody was drinking beer from plastic cups and enjoying the good weather, I would see him putting his words into action.
Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.
—Elizabeth BennettPride and Prejudice
Nobody wants to hear about your trip.
—Amherst College Professor of English Theodore Baird
We don’t travel as a couple anymore, Bill and I, except for the shortest jaunts to Boston maybe once a year, in the summer to the Adirondacks to visit Bill’s brother and family, and to the Berkshires, where friends sometimes take us to indoor concerts at Tanglewood (Bill doesn’t listen to music outdoors). So I travel on my own, but more and more rarely: day trips with a friend, twice-yearly visits to Oregon to keep in touch with son Will and family, once a year or so to the Washington, D.C., area to see my sister, rare overnights to New York. I also dig in more closely here at home—not as closely as Bill does with his piles of books and constant reviewing and teaching at Amherst College, but still, closely.
I’m thinking of a classic geography text that explains how humans use rivers and mountains to mark their borders. The difference is that rivers help humans come and go from each other while mountains keep them apart. But from the textbook of my own travels, I know this isn’t true. The only real borders are those humans make themselves, in their own minds.
—Suddan Wisudthilak, Thai scholar
Two years ago, I stood aghast at the sight of a little island in the Moei River, the border between Thailand’s northwestern Mae Sot district and Burma, on which refugees from the latter had made their home.
“This is it—this is what they call a no-man’s-land,” said my friend, a local provincial administrator, who’d taken me there. “It’s not only that they lack a military force. For me, it also means there’s no humanity. Just look.”
It’s mid-January, and I’ve come to northern Michigan to see a frozen river layered with fresh snow. On winter days, a long time ago, a young woman skated across this river to be with the man she would eventually marry. She lived in Hancock, a town draped on hills opposite my vantage point in Houghton, which sits on highland and spills, like its sister, to the Portage River. Her beau lived on the Houghton side and worked in a hotel with cupolas and a grand ballroom, two blocks up from where I stand observing the expanse of ice. I can’t understand how she skated after a snowfall, or in bitter wind and blizzard whiteouts.
In Susan Sontag’s short story “Project for a Trip to China,” the unnamed narrator is invited on a junket by the Chinese government. The project unfolds as a loose association of daydreams, epigrams, facts, and memories triggered by the promise of this future trip.
The first empty ring echoed all over the room. Since we had left the island, the phone-bridge had been an effective method to recover some of the sounds that, in their absence, made our exiled evenings emptier. But when they failed to answer, uncertainty and impotence took control. It was still early there. Only the low-pitch whistle of the still-weak wind caressing the tops of the palm trees, that ambiguous premonition that could sway either way. This time it would be real. But not yet.
That must be the saddest piña colada in the world, I thought as I walked by Barrachina, the restaurant famous for being the birthplace of the Caribbean drink. This was a few months after Hurricane María destroyed everything we knew, and Old San Juan, an epicenter of tourism in Puerto Rico, was still without power. No one was drinking piña coladas. No one remembered that this place was the world’s idea of paradise. A lush, tropical island in the Caribbean with a landscape that offers all shades of green, blue, orange, red, pink, yellow, and purple. White sand and turquoise waters, ripe fruits, and a breeze that smells fresh and salty as the sea or deep and powerful as the soil. The sun is warm all year long, and the tropical humidity just makes it all feel more sensual.
Se acabaron las promesas, / decían nuestros carteles. [The promises have run out, / our signs said.]
So many perfectly good words have been ruined: Promise. Paradise. Free. Even: Like. Love. Friend. We know that the task of the poet is to renovate ruined words, to make language livable again. To make sure the mouth doesn’t hang off its hinges. To make sure the flame of the tongue stays lit in the storm of speech. But what happens when the poet tires of her labor? In English, this word for work is the same as the word for what a woman must do to push a baby out of her body and into the world. Mara Pastor’s new book of poems, Falsa heladería (False Ice Cream Shop) emerges from a double exhaustion and takes a big breath—then lets loose a current of sound—from the other side.
Isabel MeyersNatal Promise, Natal Debt: On the Recent Poetry of Mara Pastor