C’est la guerre

Danniel Schoonebeek

July 17, 2015 
The following is from Danniel Schoonebeek’s C'est la guerre. Schoonebeek’s first book of poems, American Barricade, was published by YesYes Books in 2014. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, Iowa Review, Fence, BOMB, and elsewhere. He hosts the Hatchet Job reading series and edits the PEN Poetry Series.


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It wears the salt out of you, it grinds you down a small chunk, boarding another train after five hours of sleep, your bags slung across your back and fending for silence again, this twelve-hour ride to New Orleans, city that care forgot, in which your sister awaits you, in which a nephew and niece and a house full of questions await you. What city are you today, texts Keely. And who do you love, you text back, who sits on your throne? It’s the foothills of Alabama blurring past you outside 28 inches of Amtrak steel. What you’ll do is claim unemployment benefits via telephone, New York area code 607, because this disallows the Department of Labor from reading your IP address and learning your location, and nobody sitting inside a government office has to mark an X next to your name and note the date on which you fled town. Claimant, says the machine on the other end of the phone. There’s a language to unemployment like there’s a language to any business. Ready, willing, and able to work. And sequestration. And you may speak your answers or say “help” at any time for help. A man with a gray beard and a huckleberry drawl boards the train wearing stonewashed jeans and an old U.S. Army field jacket. It’s 11:18 AM, the shadows get smaller, and he starts plowing himself through the booze. You study the trains and you study how alcohol works on these trains: if you bring on a bottle, it’s yours to drink when you need it, but only so long as you’re seated in coach. You can carry your booze into the bathroom and steal a few nips on the toilet, but everywhere else on the train your personal stock is prohibited. Which doesn’t mean you can’t drink whenever you want to. It means you pay Amtrak to serve you alcohol, which Amtrak will do almost any hour of the day, sun or moon. This morning you watch a man order two bloody marys at 9AM. The cocktail is clamato juice, absolut vodka, two pinches of old bay, and it runs him twenty dollars for both. During the hours you’re working in the leisure car, the guy with the beard and the drawl buys himself two fists of budweisers on five separate trips. Into the car walks a woman in a pink velour track suit, a pink baseball cap with rhinestones that spell out PINK on the front. “Fuck out of here.” She’s houting these words and she’s hoarse. Passenger left some papers on the table, passenger left the leisure car for a piss, passenger came back and her papers were gone. You threw my fucking papers away, she shouts in the conductor’s face. In the next two hours a man will throw up all over himself, you’ll watch a woman cut a man’s throat, and you’ll catch a wife fingering her husband in coach. But the offense that Amtrak employees find most unpardonable is swearing. Every time a person says fuck on the train, an Amtrak employee threatens to kick her off. A woman with her beehive hairdo stumbles into the leisure car and she’s huffing and slams her Dean Koontz novel down on the table. Conductor looses a sigh and asks what’s wrong. I’ll tell you what’s wrong. A man, some man just vomited himself back there in my car, she says. Sure enough this is the huckleberry guy and instead of kicking him off the train the conductors let him keep drinking, no interrogation. He buys a couple more budweisers, pleading his case to a different conductor, one who was never arguing against him in the first place. He catches the eye of the pink lady, still shouting about her papers, and in the same hoarse voice he shouts hey. But he’s got the drawl so it’s more like aye. She turns around and looks at him for a beat. She shouts what. I need shave, he says. Baby I need a shave.


That same death drive you feel to be standing at the gates of the White House when capitalism finally crumbles, it’s the same death drive you feel for this woman to shave this man. She’s staring at him like she’s concealing a weapon. Fuck it I’ll do it, she says. It’s a vulnerable tone, like he’s offered her a bargain, and it’s more romantic than a few of the weddings you’ve worked in the past couple of years. You tail them back to coach and take notes from ten paces away. On the few occasions you’ve tried to write postcards on the train, you’ve been forced to give up before you even finish the greeting. This is because it’s a steel bullet on the edge of no-control and it’s flooring over the very skin of America at 150 miles per hour. Which means on the third stroke of shaving the huckleberry guy (no lather), the woman cuts his throat and he starts screaming devil bitch in her face, except he’s got the drawl so the second word’s more like batch. Maybe he’s the mayor of a town people pity, maybe she’s a local celebrity, because the conductors still don’t throw either of them off the train, and the guy stanches the bleeding with toilet paper, the woman fetches it for him from the bathroom. A group of thirteen white guys pile onto the train with coolers and garbage bags and they’re all drinking Coors and wearing white v-necks. You want one, says a guy with a shaved head. We kidnapped our boss and we’re bringing him to the Big Easy before life is officially over. Fucking married, shouts one of the guys and takes off his shirt. He cracks you another beer before the conductor kicks them out of the leisure car, and you sit there alone, staring at a mother and her six-year-old son while you double-fist. You study the trains and you study how riding these trains works when you’re a mob of thirteen white guys getting shitfaced: Amtrak gives you your own car. After you finish your beers you walk back to coach and see a woman fingering her husband (you mouth a small prayer he’s her husband), but what pulls your eyes away is the howling and cracking of cans that comes from the car full of white guys. Poetry, they shout. Get your sorry ass in here and pipe the fuck down. And the terrible fact is you would. You would lose the whole night. You would wake up on the floor of the bagnio and your wallet beside you in tatters. But focus, former employee. What you need is a shower in the Amtrak bathroom, head down in the sink, and an hour alone to look over your poems and make yourself presentable for your sister’s husband.

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But crossing Lake Pontchartrain while the sun’s lowing fast into New Orleans is more grace than human ugliness can withstand. More grace than the seven retired Americans clucking behind you about the nuances of soda and why it’s so hard to find a wallet that won’t fall apart on you. More grace than the white v-neck guy who’s hitting on two minors. More grace than the Amtrak conductor who’s detailing his lifelong dream of building a chain of hotels and casinos on the water. These voices jocking around you: your cue to pour yourself a paper thimble of whiskey. And every night at the readings, before they say your name and recite your story, you hang your head and think of René, you very well incant around the x that her body leaves on the map. What are her eyes crinkling against tonight, how tall is the wind against her lip. In this life there are poetry readings that are a protest of themselves. Against the forces that lay you off and this need to love and fuck that can’t be acted upon. How is it possible we haven’t found a name for this yet? The Clash in 1979 singing about drinking booze for breakfast, being jobless, being reckless, and the entire song is a party about how you can’t fail. A whole art that’s about partying what destroys you. We would want to call it jubilee, and the anniversary in question is the remembrance of your own sorry life. You mouth this word seven times on the phone to René, jubilee. And when you arrive in New Orleans you walk clean through the station and there’s your brother in law in the family utility vehicle. Whenever people give you a lift from the station or across state lines or they’re driving you to a reading, you feel like it’s your responsibility to raise the hair on their knuckles. It’s a short drive to the Bywater, so you leave Hazim with a story about a man bleeding from his throat on a moving train in America. Break a leg, he says. Words that’ve always made your stomach feel like a flop house, and you’re hearing them more than you can stomach these days. Do you know the dancers say “merde,” you ask him. But he’s already rubbing his phone and worrying about bathing his children. So you say the words you say every time nobody’s listening: I’ll break everyone’s legs, thank you.



The child is taken with you. She’s your weird god in her chair swing, wearing a onesie that says I want everything, and she snorts or pounds her fists when she’s feeling poorly. Nora, Nora, you whisper into her peach fuzz. You mouth it like her name’s a valediction. And she bangs out this cry when she catches you staring at her. She dances in her chair like a shit. It’s the first word we make, you know, this wail of the speechless. And I think I’ll run through your streets now, you say to your sister, who warns you not to go anywhere. But you run past the live oaks, churches, liquor stores, dogs with no tails, bus stops. You photograph the falling down buildings and department store lettering. Do they even remember your name in New York? It’s a food town, but not when you’re poor. If you wanted to take your sister to a place from the papers, you’d take her to Dumont, you’d cough up the money and you don’t even wince when the bill arrives anymore. But nothing can stop a dead man, and one day in July the owner of this restaurant drives himself to Pennsylvania and shoots himself in a parking lot. Obama ate here, says sister, and she sits you down to a picnic table at Parkway. One fried shrimp poor boy, one pulled pork gumbo, one pink lemonade. They don’t even run you ten dollars. She’s on french leave from work and says only one cocktail so the booze doesn’t get in the milk. Across town you pull out two stools at the Sazerac Bar, jewel of the Roosevelt, and order the old fashioned and listen to your sister’s story about how she almost died in a packet boat. Truth is, you can judge any two bars against one another by ordering the old fashioned. Likewise you can tell which restaurants will fail and which ones you’ll frequent by ordering the turkey club on rye. The Sazerac Bar doesn’t slouch, but it’s the kind of place a rich guy brings a woman to show off his mouth. Like here come the wasps and the liver spots, no matter what. The mint julep goes better, but it doesn’t touch the one you had four years ago at Columns, which is another flytrap for assholes. Welcome to the end of the slumber of tourism. You know we’ve got original Paul Ninas murals on the walls of this establishment. The bartender points to them, one each flanking the African Walnut bar, and you ask him if management placed the mural of the white people and the mural of the black people on separate walls deliberately. Adverb meaning what happened here happened with an ounce of deliberation. He scowls you a good scowl and you wonder what it’d feel like to wear his suspenders.


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Your entire life you’ve had this suspicion about Americans: when it rains on a workday and the sun is still faintly showing, no matter what city you live in, you’d hand over your ID and renounce your citizenship if you could just lie down in the grass and sleep a few minutes. They’re telling you this, these faces you pass in the street on your walk to the Quarter. It’s an impossible city because it’s a city of spectacle. The buskers are earning their money but the crowds won’t hold up their end of the bargain. You stand with your sister in front of the Drunken Catfish Ramblers, and when everyone takes out their phones it’s like a prank on your generation. So you take out your phone and try to feel what they’re feeling. You want to toss off realism and learn to love the filters. But my money is mine you tell yourself. You feel shame and you feel a certainty: New Orleans is not a city you understand via privacy. It’s a city where you want to feel your loneliness exposed. New York on the other hand is a town in which the engine that drives workaday life is the desire to separate yourself from the populace you detest. In Jackson Square there’s a woman in a wedding dress in the drizzle and people are watching like it’s performance art and not her life that’s occurring in front of them. When you stood in the churches of Paris three years ago with Chelsea, you admitted it: “I feel the religious terror and it feels clean.” When you stand in St. Louis Cathedral with your sister, it’s more like everyone’s dicks and tits are hanging out and no one can find the fig leaves to cover themselves. And it’s possible the greatest feat of American capitalism was eradication: every day was a reminder, for centuries, that we came from Puritan maniacs, but now capitalism has helped us almost completely forget. Why else do you think we love the story of Jesus touching the sores. It’s not because it’s life, it’s because it’s disgusting and there’s no more work to be done beyond the disgust. “Who gives a damn!” Why not visit the gun shops and dream about buying the antique soldiers from the War of Irrelevants, why not finger the spines of your friends in Faulkner House Books and despise them. Why not visit the junk shops while your sister pumps milk and she’s locked in her car. Such a voyage unreels a film of houses, Vera emails. Houses that are dreamed, accepted and refused, without ever having been tempted to stop. But it’s not a dream, it’s not Bachelard, it’s not a house, you’ll call it enlistment. It’s the war, and it’s the war of irrelevants. But where is my trench partner, and why not call everyone else an opponent? Why not finger the face of the evilest man in history on the box of Hitler Stamps and feel for the missing ten in your pocket. There will always be the Empire State Building on a postcard you can’t afford, and your friends back home in the breach, in their houses and half-dreams, and you’ll finger their faces too.



From C’est la guerre. Used with permission of Poor Claudia. Copyright © 2015 by Danniel Schoonebeek.

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