The poet Brian Turner was an infantryman in Iraq when he had the experience described in this poem, which comes courtesy of the National Public Radio website. NPR recorded this story in December 2008.
Of the poem, Turner said: “I remember, it wasn’t very often that I did this, but I knew that home was approaching. It was sort of on the horizon. It was beginning to be much more possible. So I think I was beginning to allow myself little avenues into kind of nostalgia for home. Sort of flashing images of America were kind of going through my head. And I was missing home. I don’t know if anyone’s ever been on a bus when it’s cold, and there’s that sort of frost on the windows, and when you wipe it away you can see people on the sidewalk as you’re passing by. And that was the image at the end that I was trying to sort of think about and get at.”
It’s the sound from the aid station
that wakes me, thin steel
from Doc Cole’s six-string,
a 4 a.m. sound of sour whiskey,
heroin and sex and dying,
that’s the sound I’m hearing now,
slow as smoke from a factory
in Pittsburgh, slow as a needle
in the vein, slow as steam off the bath
or a lover with only the blues to sing.
I’m hearing America now.
I’m hearing jake brakes off the Grapevine,
county highways with wheat shocks
and Indian summer grass whispering,
foghorns under the Golden Gate bridge,
Ella Fitzgerald from a 4th floor window
in Birmingham, the handles of a suitcase
swinging on the downbeat of a man’s footsteps
walking out from a Greyhound in Sante Fe.
I’m in Wyoming. I’m in New York.
I’m leaning in to kiss a woman
in the cornfields down by the river.
I’m with children drawing portraits
in the sand, old men watching fireflies
the way Muhammad Ali lay on canvas
and dreamed. That’s what I’m hearing,
the wind on the redwood coast,
old as the ocean and hushed
by sheets of fallen snow.
Palm-mute the strings, Doc,
strum that song until I can see
the breath on a bus window, the faces
of strangers in the rain, my own hands
tracing the features of every one of them,
the way ghosts might visit the ones they love,
as I am now, listening to America,
touching the cold glass.