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Miles


. . . and although the Chinese police refused to allow me
into a town so near the border of Tibet,
and lifted guns to make their point, that afternoon
I played a game of pick-up basketball
with six of them: what hoops freaks!
—says
my friend D's twenty-year-old son from an internet café. Perhaps
because I'm from a certain generation and a certain unsophisticated
socioeconomic class, this casual ability to travel the planet
astonishes me: I worry how to tip in foreign currency
in a cab with the rigor that someone else might bring
to saving a marriage or forging a Middle East peace treaty.
And travel is astonishing; on the weeks-long

rat-infested vomit-sour voyage in steerage
from his shtetl in the "Old World" to America,
my grandpa Louie was ordered into the sunlight once,
to help in heaving cargo, and the passengers he saw there
—with their parasols and top hats, with their monocles
and their jaunty straw boaters, and white,
white clothes that had never contacted toil, "oont
vun vooman hass a green birt on her shoulder
mit a golt chain, OONT IT TALKS!"—these
were as amazing to him as the fearsome tribes of cyclops,
and the turbulent rivers of liquid gold, and the roc
that could carry an elephant back to its nest,

that other, earlier travelers vouched for.
Herodotus swears that far-off tribes of people exist
whose semen is black. And there are mermaids. Flying
mountains. When he journeyed across the brutal
Gobi Desert, Marco Polo heard of the spirits there, "they
call a man by his name and so lead him astray," or
one might hear "the tramp and hum of a great
ghost cavalcade and the sound of drums." In 1930
when Karl Jansky heard, for the first time, spritz
and sizzle from his radio antennae, he was traveling
—but in time, and for billions of years—and stood there
befuddled and charmed in the snow of ghosts

we know now are the background radiation of the universe's
birth from out of Nothing. All of those lone adventurers
challenging the Atlantic in a dinghy, or the sky
in a chair and 700 helium balloons . . . can we compare this
to the anomalous praying mantis found on a window ledge
on the forty-seventh floor of the Empire State Building?
How many thousands of miles was it, when my friend Dan
left his honeymoon bed—for better or worse,
the phone was on—and drove for an hour to Belle Plain
where the nursing home was, that had called to say
its dim, forensic-smelling halls now held
his mother's corpse? Another question is what

my grandpa Louie thought, when this photo was taken
in 1958. A little old man, a barely acclimatized immigrant Yid
who's stepped from some joke or textbook example, more
at home with a samovar and a Torah and a seder cup
than anything from the Buy-4-Less. I'm ten,
and out of the frame, as is my pal Llewellyn,
who's tossed a basketball into the air (and into
the frame), and yelled "Hey, catch!" so that
my grandfather—he who has possibly never beheld,
much less held, such an object—instinctively grabs it
out of the blue, and stares with a goggling wonder at
this globe of an alien world.


Albert Goldbarth

New Letters

Volume 84, Number 1


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