This week we’re delighted to feature a poem from our new summer Defy issue, 38.2. Miriam Bird Greenberg is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and the author of two chapbooks–All night in the new country (Sixteen Rivers Press) and Pact-Blood, Fever Grass (Ricochet Editions)–Miriam has crossed the continent by bicycle, freight train, and as a hitchhiker. She lives in Berkeley and teaches ESL.
“Ophidia” began as a series of fragmented recollections of a bicycle trip from San Diego to El Paso, and so it’s fitting to write this from the road a year and a half later, between breaks riding up one of the countless mountains between Kunming and Xishuangbanna, in China’s Yunnan province. Through 40km descents down serpentine mountainside highways and bowls of mixian for lunch in a different town every afternoon, one thing that keeps running loops through my head is that much-repeated quote—attributed to Dostoyevsky, or John Gardener, or someone else—that there are only two possible stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. It’s what I’ve been doing every day, as told from both sides (the person who goes on a journey is just as likely not a man, after all). But what I’m interested in lately are stories that happen between those two points, along the seams and in the roadside shade. Over the past fifteen years the US has been shaped by a series of disasters; this new century might be best characterized by a zeitgeist of psychic instability grown out of and in response to those disasters (imagine The Descent of Alette rewritten as narrative nonfiction). If the adage about two possible stories is true, then what I hope to chronicle are the intimate landscapes and sensory worlds of dispossession that are written in the margins of every page of those two stories. If I’ve been indulging in my own documentary impulse lately by telling true stories—complicated by the mask made of fog that is poetry, with its hazy relationship to truth (constantly destabilized by something as simple as syntax, or the way empty space makes its way around the words of a poem) and by my own reluctance to write a recognizable self into my work)—it’s because I’d like to make sense of the psychological spaces that reside between points of slow disaster, the stories of countless lives altered by tragedy or discovery, or both, which cast their small shadows on the events writ large on the world. What I want to explore in “Ophidia,” and in so much of what I write lately, are those small shadows, each cat’s-cradled out of breath and syntax.