Monday, December 29, 2008


I have a fascination with postcards. My father, who nurtured this fascination (along with our shared love of any kind of box), once sent me an entire series of postcards that were supposedly damaged by the claw of a wild beast, the tire of a speeding car, etc. His ultimate achievement arrived in a plastic bag with an apology from the post office.

Once, interviewing for a job, I met a delightful couple in McAllen, Texas (he's a professor and she's an artist) who share my love of tacky postcards. Their favorites are the kind that have multiple views of a place, so when I see ones like that, I put them aside to send to them. Right now I have one of Ohio, Missouri, Graceland, the Greater Columbus Convention Center, and U.S. Route 40. I also have a great shot of the highway sign for Ouachita National Forest Scenic 7 Byway and the heavily curtained interior of the Jewish Chapel at the U.S.A.F. Academy in Colorado. My other prize postcards include an exterior view of the Indianapolis International Airport, a photo of a "mechanical cotton picker," and a train labeled "Metro Link at Union Station" from St. Louis. The crown jewel of my as-yet-unsent collection is a photo of the exterior of the Kentucky State Penetentiary, Eddyville, Ky. I've been keeping these to send to McAllen, but they've sort of piled up in the last few years while I've been meaning to buy a postcard stamp.

Once you start talking about postcards, you find aficionados everywhere. One of my college professors asked us to send him a postcard after we graduated, one which imitated the message on a fictional postcard in a William Faulkner story entitled "Old Man." You put an x across the window where you supposedly spent the night and write "This is where were honny-monning at." I did this more than once, and sent the results to lots of people in addition to that professor.

Here is a poem about postcards:

Once I got a postcard from the Fiji Islands
with a picture of sugar cane harvest. Then I realized
that nothing at all is exotic in itself.
There is no difference between digging potatoes
in our Muriku garden
and sugar cane harvesting in Viti Levu.
Everything that is is very ordinary
or, rather, neither ordinary nor strange.
Far-off lands and foreign peoples are a dream,
a dreaming with open eyes
somebody does not wake from.
It's the same with poetry--seen from afar
it's something special, mysterious, festive.
No, poetry is even less
special than a sugar cane plantation or potato field.
Poetry is like sawdust coming from under the saw
or soft yellowish shavings from a plane.
Poetry is washing hands in the evening
or a clean handkerchief that my late aunt
never forgot to put in my pocket.

by Jaan Kaplinski, translated from Estonian by the author with Sam Hamill and Runa Tamm

I like the comparison of postcards to poems, like images you can save in a drawer for years until you get around to them.

There are places you can go where it's difficult to find an odd or tacky postcard--many big tourist destinations are like this, whereas a trip through Indianapolis or West Virginia can yield unexpected bounty (even if you don't do what I consider cheating, which is to pick out one of the cartoon pictures of an outhouse or whatever).

If you think about it, it's not that hard to pick out something to amuse a friend and parody "wish you were here" or even "this is where I spent my honeymon." I guess I really should be getting along to the post office to buy several postcard stamps, so I can send some of my backlog off to McAllen.

It would help me find a way to part with one or two of my favorites if you tell me about the best postcards you've ever seen.


Cschu said...

I am a College professor and once (YEARS ago), I had a student who wanted to miss the week after spring break because he was going to Africa on vacation. This was going to take some extra effort from me (and him), but it seemed like a good opportunity for him. In the interest of one of my mantras, "never let your classes interfere with your education," I agreed to excuse his absences, but I extracted the price of having him send a postcard to some friends who love postcards. No mention of me or other explanation, it should just show up mysteriously. For several years afterwards, we managed to get postcards sent to them from various parts of the world. We did eventually tell them it was us, but we kept it up for a while. It was pretty fun.

Anonymous said...

Love the story of your father! :) I have a thing for postcards as well.