Poetry from Kat Henry
followed by Q&A
after A.M. Parker
are easily mistaken for vandals. In the poem
about the vagrants, the woman’s voice is
hoarse and the man splatters snot rockets
on the side of the dusty road.
On the side of the road where they live
grass lays in a checkered plain
visible from space. The vagrants are homeless
so they live everywhere. I’m ready,
are you? the man asks the woman.
She coughs. On the side of the road where
the vagrants thumb for rides and kick rocks
at each other’s feet, the grass is unaware
of the slow ticking of the Earth underneath.
The vagrants scratch their itches, sing songs about
where they’re going, where they’ve been.
They have been everywhere, and they sleep well.
In the poem about the vagrants, because their lives
lack detail, falsehoods proliferate. They move
across vast plains of Sahara, Mojave, Kansas. Dust—
she coughs. Their scalps are scrubbed
clean with sand. The grass remembers:
bending toward the Earth in worship,
growing up, seeding toward the high sun.
In another poem about the vagrants
their stomachs are thin. They never
comb their hair though it grows like cattails,
long with sorrow. In this poem the woman copies down
everything the man says and the man
never listens. Prolific at poetry and progeny,
he says. Um. They spread a blanket
across the grass and picnic—in each hand
a red wine bottle. In this poem about the vagrants
they are sometimes vandals. Abruptly
a line of porcupines crosses the road, one after the other.
The man makes a joke about them. He stole the joke
like he stole the bike—carried it on his back
for weeks, refusing to leave the woman behind.
Not a very good vagrant. Why must
my hair grow so long? the woman asks
the man. It’s a sign of your age, he says, like the dinosaurs.
He carries a revolution in his pack
under the iron skillet. What it is
they have given up in search of beauty, and
freedom, and stories to tell.
Education, the vagrants say,
is learned. In this poem they are wrong—
it is received. Turning their phototrophic faces
to the sun, they bask in themselves.
They know what they’re not and they
don’t care what they are. The equator, they say,
is where the party’s at, where the pieces fit—all those
folks stomping and shaking their cattail dreads to
drumbeats, that’s where we should be. Embarking
with sand on their lips they sing songs to
the North Star, etc: Andromeda, Cassiopeia,
Orion, Poseidon. They are interested
in what is coming, happening, on this warming Earth.
And when they finally arrive, the tropical sun strikes
their faces like a hammer hitting a home run—
rattle, burn, scar. But they
consume mugs of Labrador leaf and rose petal
tea with every meal, telling new stories
of raising spiders in plastic bags,
of staying alive on roots and cigarettes,
saying, repeating, Well,
it’s one thing to go, another completely
to head the other way.
Kat Henry wrote this poem while a student at the University of Michigan. “In northern Michigan for the summer, I was dreaming of life on the road and imagining (one might say romanticizing) a life of vagrancy and total freedom. After I read this poem at an open mic at a bar in Ann Arbor, I read it to a homeless man, who said he could relate to it. It was the biggest compliment I’ve ever received on a poem.” After graduation in April 2011 she lived on the road for a while, and made the necessary edits to the poem. She loves hiking, cooking, gardening and traveling. Her poems have appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Anemone Sidecar, North Central Review, and Susquehanna Review. She lives in Arizona.
Q: The poem is “after” A.M. Parker—can you discuss how his work influenced yours?
A: Alan Michael Parker wrote a book called The Vandals, full of poems all about vandals: what they do, what they believe, who they are. The poems are incredibly insightful, intelligent and witty, and his characterization of the vandals struck an inspirational chord in my poetic mind: except that instead of vandals (and their implication of destructiveness) I imagined vagrants. I replaced the blatant (though minor) violence of the vandals with the suggestive (and probably more dangerous) violence of hunger and homelessness experienced by the vagrants.
Q: Parse the differences among vagrants, hobos, nomads, homeless, and holy wanderers.
A: I have to admit that I have, in the past, read the Wikipedia articles about several of these. However, I will attempt to create original definitions that may shed more light on the nature of the vagrants.
A hobo is specifically someone who rides the rails: that is, hops freight trains. I think the word was historically used to define people (especially men) who did this during the Great Depression. In any case, the word certainly has a historical sense about it, and
there are very few hobos still in existence (at least in America!) Hobos might travel for a particular purpose, such as looking for work, or for pleasure. Because they ride trains, they are able to travel across vast distances over a relatively short period of time and with little or no money.
Nomads are people who live a nomadic lifestyle. Unlike the others, they do not come from any particular, specific place, though they probably stick to a general region. Additionally, it is implied that all or part of their sustenance comes from the land or from their relationship with nature, for example, nomadic people of Siberia and northern Europe who follow reindeer herds, drinking their milk, eating their meat and making clothes from their hides. Being on the move is the way they live, rather than a “break” from their “real” life.
Homeless and vagrants are the most similar among these: they both choose (or, infrequently, are forced) to live outside the bounds of normal society, and usually do not seek or find continuous employment or stable living circumstances. I suppose that a vagrant is a type of homeless person. A typical homeless person travels infrequently or not at all, preferring to live in a city where he has a community and knows where to find and how to get access to food, shelter, etc. A vagrant lives on the road; he may stay in one city for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, but he always returns to the road and moves on. Homeless people are often targets of violence, anger, and discriminatory treatment in the communities they inhabit. Vagrants often experience similar discrimination, but because of their transitory state they are also likely to experience the hospitable generosity that is so often shown to travelers. Vagrants, like vandals, may be considered a minor public nuisance, and are likely to have their evening barbecue by the lake interrupted by the police because the people who own second homes on the lake don’t like all those dirty kids and their dirty dogs running around.
Finally, holy wanderers: those who travel in search of spiritual enlightenment or with the aim of converting others to their beliefs. I would consider Mormon missionaries an institutionalized form of holy wanderers. Some holy wanderers preach on street corners, others meditate in the woods in silence. Some live lives of asceticism, intentionally depriving themselves of basic needs and comforts, and this they have in common with those who choose homelessness or vagrancy. This kind of ascetic lifestyle, combined with travel, can help those who seek it to achieve spiritual enlightenment, or at least a new way of looking at and understanding the world.
Q: Tell us more about porcupines…
A: Porcupines appear in at least one of Parker’s vandal poems. They are slightly absurd creatures because of their juxtaposition of cuteness and deadliness (think Pokemon?) Also, it is a myth that they can shoot their quills at predators. I wouldn’t get too close, though.