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Layover

by Robert Hass


Thin snow falling on the runway at Anchorage,
bundled bodies of men, gray padded jackets, outsized gloves,
heads bent against the wind. They lunge, weaving
among the scattering of luggage carts, hard at what must be
half the world’s work, loading and unloading.

Mounded snow faintly gray and sculpted into what seems
the entire vocabulary of resignation. It shines
in the one patch of sun, is lustered
with the precipitate of the exhaust of turbine engines,
the burnt carbons of Precambrian forests. Life feeding life
feeding life in the usual, mindless way. The colonizer’s
usual prefab, low-roofed storage sheds in the distance
pale beige and curiously hopeful in their upright verticals
like boys in an army, or like the spruce and hemlock forest
on low hillsides beyond them. And beyond those, half seen
in the haze, range after range of snowy mountains
in the valleys of which—moose feeding along the frozen streams,
snow foxes hunting ptarmigan in the brilliant whiteness—
no human could survive for very long, and which it is the imagination’s
intensest, least possible longing to inhabit.

This is a day of diplomatic lull. Iraq seems to have agreed
to withdraw from Kuwait with Russian assurances
that the government of Hussein will be protected. It won’t happen,
thousands of young men will be killed, shot, blown up,
buried in the sand, an ancient city bombed,
but one speaks this way of countries, as if they were entities
with wills. Iraq has agreed. Russia has promised. A bleak thing,
dry snow melting on the gray, salted tarmac.
One of the men on the airstrip is waving his black,
monstrously gloved hands at someone. He seems very much alive,
strong body, rhythmic, efficient stride. He knows
what he’s supposed to do. He’s getting our clothes to us
at the stop. Flowerburst ties, silky underwear.
There are three young Indians, thin faces, high cheekbones,
skin the color of old brass, chatting quietly across from me
in what must be an Athabascan dialect. A small child crying
mildly, sleepily, down the way, a mother murmuring in English.
Soft hum of motors stirring, through the plane’s low, dim fuselage
the stale air, breathed and breathed, we have been sharing.

 

Robert Hass teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. His most recent book is The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. (1994)


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