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Amber Paulen

U.S. as Re-Fuel

Languid, listless summer has arrived. Today is the feast day of St. Paul and Peter in Rome, Paul having been locked in chains in the Mamertine Prison down the road, and Peter martyred by Nero in his hippodrome. The streets are silent and white from the sunlight, the harsh reflections. It’s difficult to hold words in my heat-logged head, more difficult to dissect sentences, paragraphs, sections. But I’m managing, with the help of icy coffee and chilled melons.

In a few days over a week I’ll be flying again, back to the country I have expatriated myself from. I am extremely happy to be leaving this sweltering city behind for half a summer, to strike out under wide night skies. The details of this upcoming trip are ambitious: we will cross the country twice driving. I will stop in cities like San Francisco, Portland, Boston, New Orleans and Nashville and minor towns like Howard City, Bradner, Galup, Windslow, Elk Grove or Lovington. There are many lovely people to see, and two parties, and so much to do between.

In preparation for this journey, I picked up The Air-Conditioned Nightmare to again read. Henry Miller breaks my heart, arouses my soul. Sometimes I forget what him and I have been through together, all that he has taught me. Sometimes I get the feeling like I’m reading myself, myself as I would like to be read and written. And so much surprises me, like his penchant for prophesy, mystics, the occult. I marvel at the nonsensical passages, sheer word gymnastics with a chaotic meaning that eludes once one starts unraveling. And I try to see how he arrived at the truth of his topics, how he kept his happy up-beat tone, as a war was raging, as literary rejections still came in. Henry Miller was able to stand in the midst of chaos, with the walls crumbling round him, and walk out with a perpetual smile.

But the States pissed him off. Repatriated because of World War II, he would have rather been an exile in Paris. His observations during his two year drive through the US are so astute that we are witness to results he predicted, not that much has changed in certain parts, but has remained frustratingly consistent. One of my greatest fears is having to eat at a restaurant in the middle of the country: that tasteless, packaged, chemical shit, somehow looking like the ideal picture even after it has been cooked. Here’s Miller on such a restaurant:

Anyway, it was air-conditioned, heavily carpeted, elegantly jammed, discreetly lit, pompously efficient in every detail. One could not think of food as being made of such crude, coarse things as parts of animals or vegetables buried in the filthy earth. The food was rather some sort of synthetic nectar smothered with whipped cream, something to swallow with eyes closed and nostrils stopped, a little sermon made expressly for the palate which would permit one to go back to the office and write inspirational letters about sewer pipes and gas masks.

Oh that last sentence, I want to roll in it. Inspirational letters about sewer pipes and gas masks!!

I expect this trip to play with my ideas, to rouse and mess my perspectives. I have spent the great majority of the last nine years on a continent I wasn’t born on, Europe. I have purposely accommodated myself to Europe as a preference, aesthetic, historical, but also because I enjoy not completely understanding the surrounding culture and language, the feeling of being alien. But I remain very American. I expect this trip to remind me of what I love about the States and what I hate, about why I am here and where my writing needs to go. This trip will be a re-fuel, I can feel it.


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