in verse # 85:  Does Christmas Measure Up?

In this post, I will examine two of R. A. Christmas’s poems that are not in Saviors on Mt. Disneyland, looking to see whether, and if, and how, he measures up to his own “Bunk-House Poetics”.  The first is from the first edition of Hungry Sunday (1996, not the one pictured, which is the second edition, of 2006).

GHOST TRUCK

for RHC

Now I lay me down by the freeway,
in a duplex in Cedar City, Utah;

and twenty yards west of these bricks
rides the asphalt, as high as my roof,

where the line-haul drivers trade leads
all night in their big sets of doubles.

I open my window and listen
for morning on grandfather’s freight dock:

hand-trucks thumping past my head;
unloading those box-cars of sno-jel;

Grandpa pissed off at everybody;
my father hunched over the bill-writer;

Racer, and Herb, and Conley;
the hay truck burning on the grapevine—

we were watching the hot tires explode,
when a semi came honking down the grade

at ninety, with brakes lit like torches,
on the wrong-hand side of the road.

Sometimes, when it’s snowing, I wake
in the darkness of morning and listen

so far into the fall of a snowflake
that the plows have given up for the night

and the lanes are as quiet as trails
under snow that will never go home.

I put down my ear to the white line
and listen all the way to California,

for the ghost truck driven by my father
through the orange groves, Route 66

on the two-lane from Barstow to Vegas,
then he compounds up the Black Ridge,

climbing the white grade into Cedar—
there’s something about him still haunts me.

Pale dash-lights flicker in the cab;
I can see, through the sleep in his eyes,

the young hands, a green pack of Luckies,
these towns that he doesn’t understand:

Kanarraville, Hamilton Fort—
he thinks of polygamy, and chuckles.

The old International looms closer;
It stops on the shoulder above me.

The running lights glow on the trailer;
he gets out, whacks the tires all around,

vaults the guard-rail, comes down to the fence
and listens for the sound of my breathing.

His fingers hooked into the chain-links;
in the cold his sighs are like plumes—

dry flakes dusting his hair;
I lie here, waiting and listening.

“Remember the war?” he begins.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a soldier.”

“I remember it some,” I answer.
“I carried a candle in the blackout,

when the Japs didn’t bomb L.A.”
“I had a bad ear,” he continues,

“and my right eye wouldn’t sit straight;
People would stop me on the street

And ask me why I was there.
But mostly I remember driving,

“coffeeshops, unloading in Frisco—
I drove Tojo into the ground.”

“I waited for you,” I reply,
“the shape of your headlights in the darkness,

after Cub Scouts, after the games,
after church, after everything.

I waited for you like a demon.”
“I know,” he whispers.  “Take care.”

“I remember one morning,” I say
“Mom standing at a sun-struck window,

crying, with the phone in her hand.
‘The war is over,’ she said.”[1]

I don’t know what Sno-jel is, but when I ask Google, he gurgles back a page of irrelevant crap — including asking me if I don’t mean “snot-gel” — and then, on page 2 of his results, points to the first (?) publication of this poem, in Dialogue, v. 7, # 3, pp 54-56, with the line containing Sno-jel highlighted.  So whatever it was, in World War Two, Bob Christmas may be one of the few sources remaining who can save us from meaning snot-gel.

This version of “Ghost Truck” is considerably different from that published in Dialogue in 1972 — but after fourteen years, it should be.  Christmas republished it in 1998 in the first edition of Driving on the Lake Bed, and again in 2000, in City of Roses.  It does not appear in the second edition of the former, and as far as I can tell, the latter has not had a second edition.  In each re-publication, Christmas revised it, but far less drastically — mostly just small tweaks, some changes in punctuation (including a reversion in City of Roses to the most confusing feature of the first printing, the one in Dialogue:  overuse of quote marks in the conversation between father and son).  I don’t know why you should care about this, but I care about it because I love the poem.  And, strangely enough, the one line I remembered complete from that first printing — “I drove Hitler into the ground” — is revised in this printing.

I care about this because I’m preparing a paper for this year’s conference of the Association for Mormon Letters on humor in Christmas’s poems — one that hasn’t been accepted yet.  But it does my heart good to see that he is still writing and revising, right up to the end.  And I chose “Ghost Truck” to open this post because it breaks most if not all of his rules set forth in the ten “Bunk-House Poetics” poems in Saviors on Mt. Disneyland.  For example, I think Christmas is trying to get us to “experience some ‘feeling’” in this poem, which he warns us against in B-HP 1, and it’s written in fairly-regular blank-verse couplets (i.e. iambic lines), not the “free-verse” he endorses in B-HP 4, and it may violate the injunction to “Keep your lines and your poems short” in B-HP 8.  In fact, in this version, he seems to have lengthened it from its appearance in Dialogue.

The second poem is one not yet published, but set to appear in his next book, Leaves of Sass.  I am still delighted to see that the poem exudes that Christmas spirit still (what kind of still I think I know):

I WAS RAISED BY COMMUNISTS!

Thank God—because my sweet grandpa admired
Senator Bob Taft, disliked FDR, and was all for
shipping the Negroes “back to Africa,”

and my sour grandpa would back me into a corner
of his warehouse, and tell me I didn’t know how
to work, and why he hated the Teamsters.

And thank God (again) my folks unknowingly
let me sleep-over at a friend’s house, whose
parents were pinko-commie-sympathizers,

where I listened to Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson,
and saw his mom dance in her kitchen, when
pal Misha made bail for the Hollywood Ten,

where I learned (in ‘48) that Nixon was tricky
Dick, and us boys sang “This Land is Your Land”
to the Tubman Society in L.A.—all of which

prepared this Pasadena boy to later accept
and follow the greatest 19th century socialist
of them all—the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith,

who ran for President, promised to end slavery,
and infamously said, “I intend to lay a foundation
that will revolutionize the whole world.”  Amen.[2]

You can see the same grandpa in this poem that you saw in “Ghost Truck” — need I say, the sour grandpa? — and sympathize with the young man who still speaks to us in his own person, but now with no sense that the sense of a line should end with that line, and yet with a clear devotion to “‘the plain-style,’ everyday words, in striking order,” in keeping with B-HP 2, and it’s written in “a Germanic line of four accents, (with the accents falling on either side of a caesura),” in keeping with B-HP 6, and it evinces a “passion for a greater awareness of what it means to be alive”, in keeping with B-HP 10.  So I urge you to review those bunk-house strictures, and postures, and caricatures, as see if they would not do for you, too.

But hold on, I hear you say:  What would Christmas say?

Your turn.  I’m going to bed.

[1] Hungry Sunday : poems / by R. A. Christmas.   Provo, Utah : the author, c1996  — pp. 23-25.

[2] R. A. Christmas, personal communication, 22 January 2018 — i.e., he emailed it to me.

2 Thoughts on “in verse # 85:  Does Christmas Measure Up?

  1. .

    I know this is a side point, but I love that Amen in the second poem.

    • Dennis Clark on February 3, 2018 at 12:42 pm said:

      Agreed!

      That’s part of the common words in uncommon order that Christmas talks about as being the noblest art of poetry in English.

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