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Danniel Schoonebeek: Excerpts From C’est la guerre

A poet chronicles a backstage view of America by rail.


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Photo courtesy of Veronica Rafael.

By Danniel Schoonebeek

In the Fall of 2013, Danniel Schoonebeek was laid off from his job as an editor at a New York publishing house. That same day he began booking a national tour in support of his first book of poems, American Barricade. During that time he visited eighteen cities, old friends and strangers, a handful of towns, and one unincorporated village. C’est la guerre combines travel writing, photographs, movie reviews, and essays. It will be published in late 2015 by Poor Claudia.

Tucson, AZ October 20-21, 2013

If you need a cheap education in how thoroughly
Americans have trademarked their own disgust, buy a
train ticket. In the same way René turned to you three
weeks ago and said, “young people don’t talk about
anything,” on these trains the cast outs and foamers and
elderly of this country will talk about little more than
how come they can’t smoke, what their devices won’t do
for them, how much a pretzel and coke sets them back,
the outrageous lives of the young who don’t read
bestsellers, and meanwhile the scree and the deer fences
and plains of Texas are reaching out around them in
every direction, touching the mountains they haven’t
looked at once. The hardest part of these rides, far beyond
the four hours of sleep and the rotten food and the delays,
is the people themselves. The guy with faded hand tattoos
who whisper-shouts nü metal lyrics to himself in the seat
beside you for hours. The woman beating her child in
public like what. The clucking, retired southern couples
incorrectly identifying every feature of the landscape as a
swamp, a forest, a bird sanctuary. The piss-drunk
Alabama guy who barfs all over the place at 1 PM, keeps
drinking, asks a woman to shave him. The woman who
shaves him. And no matter how much you love a person,
Tucson is still a 21-hour train ride away. “And a
civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a
disadvantage, or can exist only by putting human life at a
disadvantage, is worthy neither of the name nor of
continuance.” The conductor runs to the intercom and
points out the border fence in El Paso. He tells everyone
on the train to take out their phones and shoot a real
good one. Or the two undercover cops illegally searching
luggage downstairs after they board the train in El Paso.
They harass an old man with a cane and search his bags,
but all he’s got is souvenir sauces and trinkets from New
Orleans. They ask him how come no barbecue sauce. Or
this woman in a leotard screaming why’d you cut the
fucking power on my phone. Endless, endless toddlers
crying, endless cocktails. And why are you the youngest
person on these trains. Why is the only person you meet
a woman with a thicket of black hair who sleeps for easily
sixteen hours and is possibly dead. And how come, come
to think of it, you don’t even meet her.

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Los Angeles, CA • October 22-25, 2013

A man telling his life story to a stranger on an overnight
train is a warning shot. “He looks like what his mother
saw when she looked at him.” Or a man telling his life
story’s a smoke bomb without a holiday. You want to
wheel around and break it over his head, this bottle you
drank for dinner. A pocked man in wrinkled plaid who
leers at you with his kindness, maybe he’s a stepfather,
and he’s throttling the stranger beside him with life
advice. Like she’s not a grown woman who refuses to tell
her story to a stranger on an overnight train to Los
Angeles. And the five toughs who pile onto the train at
Yuma start cutting each other and pulling garbage out of
their hair. In this life we will stink of coke. We will set
the world record for fuck. But be reasonable, my baby is
trying to sleep, says the father behind them. Shut your
cunt mouth, they tell him. There’s your reason. “But we
need you another direction. Folks we need you another
direction.” The train isn’t moving and the conductor’s
snapping his fingers in your face in the dark. In the blat
people fill the aisle with blankets pulled over their heads,
arms full of junk bags and empty bottles. The conductor
turns a crank under each row of seats, grunting and
untucking his shirt, and they revolve one-hundred eighty
degrees. Folks, says the conductor. Everyone who was
coming, you are now going, that’s how you find your seat.
Everyone shares this nonsense look, but everyone’s too
exhausted to correct a man operating a crank. For a
glimpse there’s this communist island in the confusion,
everyone lying back down in the wrong seats, yes this
one is mine but please stay, people handing blankets and
water bottles across the aisle, a train whistle cutting a
hole through another deserted town. I’m barreling toward
you, but my back is turned toward you
. You pull the yellow
flannel sheet across your chest and punch the plugs back
into your ears. You delete these words from the text you
never send René. It’s 5:35 AM when you pull into Union
Station, and why does every town need a Union Station.
When has a train station ever united anyone except in
their desire to be plucked loose from the human
bathwater? She won’t look at them, which means the
toughs start harassing the first woman who crosses them.
“Why don’t you come outside and I’ll show you what it’s
like.” A man screaming these words into his hands
beneath a sign that says waiting. Two people who love
each other are punching each other in the mouth over
money and the woman is winning. The cops watch and
spit. They break it up like your step mom when she hauls
a bag of cat shit out of the basement. Greetings from
L.A., the postcards say it first. Land where the New York
poets would have you believe it’s worth living for the
vitamin d. Birds streaking the sky and you thank the cab
driver for doing his job dangerously. You want to call up
a pop star and ask her: you ever walk up to the front door
of an old friend’s apartment, toured all the way across the
country and you’re here for three nights, and when you
get to the buzzer there’s a stranger leaving and you don’t
have to push 2D? You ever get that instinct to call your
friend anyway, warn her that you’re here on her stoop at
5:50 AM, but you never do it? Because you want to be
those three knocks on her door in the first bruised hours
of morning, that fizz of panic in her brain, is it the police
or someone here to kill me, or just a man standing in the
hallway and holding his bags when she looks through the
peephole. Did you just break into my house, says Cait. It’s
a slavering kind of love that says love is the place where
you don’t have to look alive. She says your name a few
times, like she’s trying on shoes, and she climbs back into
bed. Face down and dead to appointments. And sleeps
with her childhood stuffed animal, a marsupial with a
pouch and pink fur named Pretty Bit. You can’t call it
phantom if the sensation was never there in the first
place. But this is how you remember them, like a pain that
isn’t there, all these animals of the people who’ve slept
beside you. Like a phantom is how you remember
Chelsea, the woman who never kept an animal, and
maybe your body sleeping beside her in its pelt of gray
fur was more animal than the animal she needed. When
she thinks of you some nights, if she ever thinks of you at
all in her saloon, maybe you’re that puff of smoke in the
foyer. And she said maybe I’ll see you some day when
they invite us both to a wedding. She said quit using my
life as fodder for your blubbering. And once swung open
the door to her studio this selfsame hour in Paris, dressed
in night clothes and pushed your face between her legs.
She wouldn’t share your bread the next morning and
laughed when she spoke French with the men in the
boulangerie. There’s no tour, says Cait. It’s this room
and that room and my belongings on the floor. Now come
back to bed or don’t.

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Danniel Schoonebeek’s first book of poems, American Barricade, was published by YesYes Books in 2014. It was named one of the year’s ten standout debuts by Poets & Writers and called “a groundbreaking first book that stands to influence the aesthetic disposition of its author’s generation” by Boston Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, Iowa Review, Fence, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, jubilat, and elsewhere. The recipient of awards and honors from Millay Colony, Poets House, Oregon State University, and the Akademie Schloss Solitude, he hosts the Hatchet Job reading series and edits the PEN Poetry Series. In 2015, Poor Claudia will release his second book, a travelogue called C’est la guerre.

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One comment for Danniel Schoonebeek: Excerpts From C’est la guerre

  1. Comment by Blaise Williams on July 20, 2015 at 6:55 am

    Blubbering? Keening prose chopped into what looks like blank verse but isn’t.

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