The Cliff Walkers
Newport, Rhode Island, 2012
Women in saris and baseball caps,
girls in short skirts speaking Italian,
all the world’s peoples walking evenly
along these cliffs, the ocean’s waves
droning below us, the sun high
and hot in the blue sky. A young
couple from Asia look solemnly out
to sea and teenage white boys,
Americans, in Ralph Lauren polos,
saunter by us on tan legs and deck shoes.
My toddler daughter is on my shoulders
and I’m sweating, the rotten scent
of seaweed a jarring sting to this idyllic
afternoon. The sound of the sea is muted
as if the waves are even further away
than they are, but we turn a corner
and the volume swells and she laughs,
high and loud and sweet. “What is that?”
she cries. It is her first time hearing
On the streets behind us, blue flags
mean public mansions but flagless
private homes remain in the midst of this sea
of tourists. There’s heavy traffic on the island,
to the restaurants and beaches; it’s Sunday
in July. A kite festival launches
a hundred plastic creatures bobbing
over First Beach (it’s orderly here,
with Second Beach and Third Beach
not far away, crowded with common
folk, but there are private beaches,
too, where this march of humanity
on the cliffs can’t go). One of the local clam shacks
has café tables with muppet-haired umbrellas,
and surfers in wet suits and tattooed body-
builders wander the parking lots and sidewalks.
The Ghosts of Old Money watch
in amusement, in disdain, in silence, as the hoi polloi, the very people they built these tall stone walls to keep out,
stroll in their shorts—all our exposed flesh,
some sleek, some wrinkled—trampling their lawns
and dirtying their hallways. A woman
in orange terry-cloth romper shorts and leopard
print heels films the back of The Breakers
with her Chinese-made camera and she narrates
for her friends, her accent impossible for me
to distinguish, general New England I suppose,
and her hair is bad bottle blonde. She is a Vanderbilt
nightmare, an Edith Wharton horror,
but we all are, even those of us in more sensible
shoes. What would Henry James think?
I’ve seen the New Daisy Miller and her
untamed brother running amok, howling,
pushing an empty stroller through
the crowd, while their ineffectual father
shouts, “Be careful, bud, watch for other
people.” Maybe the boy will knock an old
woman from Minnesota or Madagascar over the edge
and dash her average brains against the rocks
and maybe that’s what Henry James would want.
But no one here gets out alive, to quote Jim Morrison,
and that’s true whether you have millions or not.
Maybe this is Daisy Miller’s revenge: we
New Americans and peoples of the Third World
and steerage-class Europeans, littering their
once safe space, these refuges, and sure we pay
our twenty dollars for a tour of their estates,
the money still going from us to them,
but what can ghosts do watching from third
story windows, more silent than the watery
horizon, as condemned as the waves
to keep coming back, to stay and witness,
always lingering in their beautiful crimes,
these monstrous homes, wonders of economic
inequity (equity is such a funny word, money
and fairness always hovering around its definitions)
and they can watch, maybe recede into shadows,
but then they are compelled to come back
to the glass, and they see us with our soda- bloated bellies and our ear buds, our tan lines, and our tennis shoes, we who never play
tennis and we who are the winners, even if history
tells us everyday we are expendable, we aren’t,
no more than they were, and we are temporarily
the victors this afternoon, walking over their grass
and graves, because we are not dead and they are
and we have more salt-tinged air in our lungs
than they’ve had for a hundred years, all of us now,
breathing in, breathing out,
and my daughter’s small body presses into my shoulders,
her weight delicate and heavy at the same time,
and it makes me ache, because she is beautiful now and maybe
they watch her with her common youth and beauty,
and they weep.
The Buddha of Newport
He begins alone on the grass,
behind the fence—he must be trespassing—
this man with the tattoos on his arms.
He’s handsome in a hard way, square jaw
and muscles, on the back lawn
of The Breakers. He’s shirtless
and his chest and shoulders are thick
through exercise or manual labor, impossible
to tell which in this flash of an image.
He sits, his knees up, and he holds a can
of beer. I tell him he has the right idea
and he nods and smiles, mouth closed,
his eyes hidden by sunglasses. I hold
on to my toddler’s hands as she strains
to race above the shore, just another harried
father among many. This is July and the coast
is crowded with tourists from every nation.
But here is the Buddha of Newport, the Sphinx
of the Cliff Walk, and when we return
the same path he’s gained a friend,
a golden lab who sits as tall and dignified
as the man, a still-life with beverage and dog.
I smile, he smiles again, and I think
if I return again he will have gained
a girl, the swimsuit model sort, svelte,
and on another pass he’d have a Porsche
parked on the grass behind him. His hair
is short, army-style, and I consider this:
the wishes the Genie gave him, right
after he’s flowed, spirit-form, from out
of the cramped and dusty lamp, right
after the soldier uncovered him in the dry
dirt of Tikrit or on the outskirts of Bagdad.
The first wish, a mansion, an old one
with some class. It makes sense to the Genie,
give him an empty one, sure, one of these beasts
that sprawl all over this American island.
And he wants a beer, a cold one, a never-ending
one, and a dog, loyal and quiet, and make it
a summer Sunday and am I done yet? No,
it’s not just three? Can it get better? Get me
out of here, the soldier says, a world away
from this stupid war, sure, absolutely, Rhode
Island works, I’ve never been there, that sounds
good, it’s gotta be better than here and I’ve heard
they have good surfing and good clams.
On Visiting Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island
Queen of Heaven,
how did you end up
here, haunting this college
on the cliffs of Newport,
neighbors to the Vanderbilts
and the Berwinds and the Wideners,
barons of railroads and coal
and the old China trade, all that nineteenth
century wealth—you who come
from the sort of girls who have babies
in barns and who marry pregnant
and whose sons grow up to be outlaws,
not the sort of girl who goes to school here
at all or who once lived in these mansions,
how can you live here,
where there are no more stables.
No, wait, there must be
because we drove by the polo club
to get here and it was a game day
(the United States versus Argentina)
and surely there are horses there.
Do you go there some quiet nights
to find the scent of hay and manure,
the rough divots of a dirt floor,
senses surely more familiar to you
than the hardness of cold marbled halls
and all this wood, polished gleaming
by the hands of a hundred dead maids?
John A. McDermott teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University, where he coordinates the BFA program in creative writing. His poetry has recently appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Pif Magazine, Treehouse, Seneca Review, and Tar River Poetry. He lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, with his wife and daughter.
Q: Your poems are a vibrant meditation on the intersections of class and wealth and tradition in American life. How did you come to focus on Newport?
A: I have a good friend who lives on Aquidneck Island and when we visited him last summer I was struck by the weird static of all these elements bumping against each other. The stately homes, the history of Newport as a summer spot for the ultra-wealthy, the physical beauty of the sea and shore—and the tourists. It was a pageant of economies and cultures. Here was America at its lovely, messiest best. This might seem a bizarre comparison, but it reminded me of Nashville—another place where disparate energies bounce off each other. In that case it’s country music and Baptists and strip clubs and Vanderbilt University. And tourists. Replace a few elements (country music = country club, Baptists =Catholics, strip clubs =clam shacks, Vanderbilt University = Vanderbilt summer home) and you have the same funky dissonance. It feels very American.
Q: Who’s your favorite plutocrat, and why?
A: Ha, I guess I should say Vanderbilt—I do love his taste in architecture. For his liberal building of libraries, I’d say Carnegie. But my favorite is one I’ve been researching for a novel-in-progress. James Lenox, an early Manhattan millionaire, was a passionate philanthropist and book collector. He’s one of the three pillars of the New York Public Library (Astor and Tilden, the other two) and he’s fascinating in his curmudgeonly generosity. He founded a hospital, a home for the aged, he tossed his cash around pretty widely. And he was an obsessed personal collector of rare manuscripts and art, too. He spent fifty thousand dollars on books in one year—I think it was 1857. That’s millions in 2012 dollars and he wouldn’t let his book buyer—Lenox didn’t leave his house much and had a hired man in England do his shopping for him—reveal the cost. An embarrassed book buyer. I get that.
Q: As Issue 31 will be appearing in the depths of January, what kind words might you have to say for the first month of the year, or for midwinter wherever you may find yourself?
A: I’m a displaced Wisconsinite living in deep East Texas. I’d call it sultry, but it’s usually more like suffocating. Midwinter is the only respite we get, so it’s my favorite season. But even in Wisconsin, in the midst of snow and cold, I loved the new year. I realized a while back that one of my favorite things about teaching is the cycle of beginnings and endings. I love endings. And then the hope of starting over. My kind words? Wherever you are, whatever you do, find a fresh place in your brain. Begin again. I think “Let’s begin” might be my favorite phrase. Next to “Let’s have a drink!” and “I love you.”