In 1853, A. C. Baldwin published a compendium of phrases that could be referenced by number, a code for conversation over long distances. He called this The Traveler’s Vade Mecum; or, Instantaneous Letter Writer, by Mail or Telegraph, for the Convenience of Persons Traveling on Business or for Pleasure, and for Others, Whereby a Vast Amount of Time, Labor, and Trouble Is Saved.
The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #7671:
“It Is No Secret Here”
Dirt, wrote a British anthropologist,
is matter out of place. Drop a grape
from bowl to table and we call it dirty.
Drop a grape to the floor and it is trash.
Bowl, table: these are ordering agents,
ways to tell the functional from fallen.
Skin, tendon: these are ordering agents.
You want to kiss my mouth, but not
the teeth inside my mouth. You want
to hold my hand, but not the blood
within that hand. There is a truth
in you, but it won’t be the dirty truth
until it tumbles into the air between
us. In this city, there is always
a long walk home in 7 a.m. light,
high heels stabbing the subway grates.
A walk home past gutters littered
with the non sequitur of chicken bones,
wings that once held a dream of flight.
The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #7405:
“The Offer Will Not Be Repeated”
Two men walk on a path.
One has a blade in his pocket.
We do not know if the edge
is grimed with paint, or butter,
or is clean as a newborn tongue.
One has an apple in his pocket.
Put a horse at the end of the path
and he is kind to animals. Leave
the horse out, and he is hungry.
They can stop and sit together,
knife licking away the skin
in perfect, blush-red strips.
One will look over his shoulder.
One will fail an appointment
he promised to keep. But they
can have this meal, if they
choose. Then keep walking.
The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #6459:
“The Country Is Quite Mountainous”
The goats of Kaua’i care little for our taxonomies.
No one has told them they are not mountain goats.
No one has shown them the logs of Captain Cook,
who seeded their ancestors with a casual hand;
no one has spoken of how the villagers stabbed him,
face down in the surf, before baking his skeleton
free of flesh. The goats gambol and bray on the cliffs.
They do not stop at dirt. They chew to the root.
We watch them from our little ship, floating in a
bigger blue thing they have no name for, under
the pull of our hot daily something. But these goats,
they orbit nothing. They move no way but forward.
The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #8206:
“What Is The Wholesale Price Of The Traveler’s Vade Mecum?”
I intend to converse with many. None in the same room.
I have a daughter to search for, an acre of farmland to sell.
I must confirm that flour is falling and copper is rising;
I must offer my compliments to the ladies.
I will be refusing all medical advice, except for that
of gentlemen known for their punctuality. Where can I find you
in this city? In this parish? In this Gypsy market with dirt floors?
If some think me babbling, imagine how a game of chess
appears to one who has only ever known a checkerboard.
I own one suit for going south and another for going under.
I traveled before I was born, and will travel after I die.
They will come together, each clutching their copies,
and raid my library. Beside Your love is reciprocated,
they will find four tickmarks. Beside I am fond of loneliness,
they will find fifteen. A wrought-iron gate makes beautiful
not its bars, but the spaces between its bars. Without structure
there can be no mystery. Dear sirs, thank you for this service.
You have shaken down the Garden of Eden for its seeds.
Poems reprinted from Count the Waves, W.W. Norton & Co., 2015, by permission of the author.
Sandra Beasley is author of three poetry collections: Count the Waves (W. W. Norton, 2015); I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize (W.W. Norton, 2011); and Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize (New Issues Press, 2007), and a memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Random House, 2012). Honors for her work include a 2015 NEA Fellowship, the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, and two DCCAH Artist Fellowships. She lives in Washington, DC, and teaches with the University of Tampa low-residency MFA program. To read more by this author: 5 poems, First Books Issue