(Poem Begun on Thursday, October 14, 1993, at O’Hare Airport, Terminal 3, Around Six O’Clock P.M.)
Gray within and gray without: the dusk
is rolling west, a tidal wave of shadow
that gently drowns Chicago. Overhead,
the gray steel arches of this much-admired
architectural essay in public space
blend with gray sky and distill a double
sense of semi-enclosure, of concealment
in a universal open that includes:
the airfield with its pomp of taxiing
fresh-landed smooth-nosed behemoths;
the feeder highway sloping to an underpass
not far beyond a gray-ribbed wall of glass;
the taillights blazing ruby as autos brake
and fume with passion in the evening jam;
the silvery Midwestern sky, its height
implying an oceanic stretch of grain
whose port is this diffuse metropolis.
Without, translucent clouds; within, mute hordes
of travelling strangers, numinous, their brisk
estrangement here a mode of social grace.
No two touching as they interweave
and dodge in the silent interior dusk
beneath the mock cathedral arches, each
soul intent, each ticketed, each rapt
with a narrow vision, these persons throng
my heart with a rustle of love, of joy
that I am among them, where night and day,
mingling, make a third thing, a betweentimes
of ecstatic layover and suspension.
Women in gray jackets mocking those
of men, above their taut gray skirts, and blacks
striding enlivened by the dignity
of destination, and children unafraid
of being lifted up in aluminum arms;
brightly colored pools of candy bars; the men’s
room prim beside the equal-access women;
briefcases floating in a leather flock;
announcements twanging in the transfixed air
where cloudy faces merge and part again,
a cumulus of ghosts advancing, stern
yet innocent of everything but time,
advancing through me to their set departures,
through walls of gray, as nearby taillights burn
more furious in their piecemeal, choked descent.
Another fine transparency of film
is added to the evening’s shining weight
of lovely nothingness, among machines.
This poem—in ballpoint, on a torn-off scrap
of airline magazine—got lost, along
with several boarding passes, ticket stubs,
and airline napkins. Now it seeks me out
here in New Jersey, on November 5th,
a Friday, in a Fairfield Radisson
that overlooks an empty parking lot.
At dusk, the painted stripes devoid of cars
are like unplayed piano keys, a-gleam
within the drizzle that is lacquering
the Garden State. Beyond: Route 46;
an unknown mall; a stream of traffic glowing
white in the one direction, red in the other.
This poem again, its kiss of ecstasy
among waste spaces, airy corridors
to somewhere else, where all men long to be.
I strain my eyes, as neon starts to tell
its buzzing, shoddy tale; across the stream
of traffic hangs a weathered sign that spells
american way mall. The hotel room—
the shapes of luxury in cut-rate textures—
offers nothing superfluous, not even
a self-important so-called “scratchpad” near
the telephone, where travellers might write
how strangely thrilled they were to pass this way,
the American way, where beauty is left
to make it on its own, with no directives
from kings or cultural commissars on high.
It emerges, it seeps forth, stunning us
with its grand erosions of the self;
its grit of atomisms and fleet inklings
can carve a canyon or function as a clock
that wakes to tick one single tick a day.
The poem evaporates, a second time
is lost, and then a third, in your reading
here and now, which turn to there and then
as dampness overtakes, quick molecule
by molecule, the glowing moment
when God’s gray fire flickers on the edge
of the field of vision like a worm of flame
that struggles to consume a printed page.
Excerpted from Americana by
Copyright 2001 by John Updike. Excerpted by
permission of Knopf,
a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt
may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.