Friday, October 26, 2012

Dream World


I don’t mind being dead. It’s ok. Really. I’ve discovered a whole new way of being based on non-being. What else can you do? I like being invisible. I like groaning and rattling chains. I used to be a writer. Still am. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that it’s not me that’s dead, but literature. It was killed by Facebook. It was killed by Twitter. It was killed by poorly funded public schools. Look at me now: opium greets the brain with a hug. I live in a dream world. There are many other artists and poets and writers here. I’ve met Keats. Can you believe it? What a nice guy. And Shakespeare. We had a blast. Now I know where Falstaff comes from. I’ve ceased thinking of writing as a mode toward pedagogy and social change and more as a total, unabashed indulgence. A pharmacology. Pennies tossed into a fountain. It’s tempting to squeeze it, but what’s to squeeze? There is nothing to squeeze. The realm of writing is an abstract, Hegelian sort of place or non-place for beings or non-beings. A non-place for non-beings. Former residents of Planet Earth. Who are now forgotten except in little books that get published occasionally and then set on the shelves of a small press distributor like still born babies in jars of formaldehyde. I used to hit the bars on Pike Street. Now I cook, and sew, and manufacture little embellishments of language. Doilies, I guess you could call them. Remember doilies? Nobody uses doilies anymore. They went out of style sometime at the latter end of the 20th century. My favorite coffee mug has a picture of the Beatles on it. How twentieth-century is that? It’s the Beatles as they appeared on their Rubber Soul album, the one with “Norwegian Wood” and “Nowhere Man” in which they resembled the romantic poets of England’s Regency period. Cry on the debris, I say. Let it happen. Nothing is ever truly dead. This is a proposal of snow. It falls, turns the world to a monotone of white, then goes. Sun comes out and it’s gone. It is our veins that carry that indispensable burden of ourselves. That red liquid working its way round and round. Can that be dead? Yes. But meanwhile, bank your grace on a laughing smell. Embrace a peacock. Dance your candy into accordions and coins. Dimes and silver dollars. Dig a hole. Drive a cab. I know what it’s like to be dead. I know what it is to be sad.
 
 

 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Elegy for a Dying Profession


 It is an odd, somewhat pleasant, somewhat painful sensation to discover that your so-called working days are over. First, the assumption itself could be wrong. Maybe my social security will be destroyed by Republicans. Or Democrats. Maybe the cost of living will force me to go groveling for work once again. But for the sake of argument, I’m going to say it’s over. Finis.

I will say this, categorically, unequivocally, and with extreme prejudice: I hated every job I ever had.
Something went gravely wrong in my employment history. Was it my attitude? Could have been. I never actually wanted a job. It’s not that I’m lazy. There are some forms of work that I enjoy. I always loved writing. I wanted to be a novelist of eccentric books with eccentric characters, eccentric ideas, and eccentric events. I wanted to be next Richard Brautigan. But by the time I really got serious about becoming the next Richard Brautigan, Richard Brautigan stopped being Richard Brautigan. He took a shotgun and blew his brains out in Bolinas, California.
I’ve never met anyone who truly enjoyed their job, no matter what that job happened to be. Everyone I’ve known has hated going to work. Hated the stress, the bullying, the boredom, the dull, demeaning, repetitive tasks, the pettiness of office politics, the withering looks of disdainful superiors, the insomnia caused by having your schedule constantly changed and the festering wounds made by the digs and cutting remarks of a perennially understaffed crew. You don’t need to be a writer or poet to hate these things. But the passion to write does put you in a peculiar relationship with the world because you’re producing something nobody really wants. It was once considered a high calling. People used to respect that ambition. Not anymore. Tell someone you’re a writer these days and you’ll get a blank response, as if you’d just farted, or scratched your crotch.
It is not infrequent to hear, at the reading of a famous poet, particularly one of the edgier bards a little out of the mainstream, how do you survive as a poet? How do make you a living? How do you support yourself? The sensible answer, which is the one most frequently given, is learn a trade. Become a carpenter. Become a veterinarian. Go to med school. Go to law school. Attend a heavy equipment training school. In other words, don’t be a poet. Be a carpenter, veterinarian, doctor, lawyer, or heavy equipment operator. Everybody wins. The future poet earns a living and the famous poet goes on being a famous poet with less competition.
Poets who offer this advice mean well. They really do. They know what it’s like to be poor and hungry and work at a craft that is roundly unappreciated and unrecompensed. There is a luxury in writing without the constraints of courting conventional taste in order to make money. But after so many years go by, perhaps they forget how exhausted one feels after a day of work, how terrific a beer tastes and how easy it is to turn the TV on and the let day’s stresses melt away while Bryan Cranston cooks another batch of meth or Olivia Munn engages in spritely repartee with Emily Mortimer. The eyes close briefly and the next you know it’s 11:00 p.m. and time to go to bed. Maybe there is time for a haiku, or to tinker with a sestina before crawling under the sheets.
William Carlos Williams was, as everyone knows, a doctor. He managed. He wrote a lot of poetry. My hat is off to that guy. I don’t know how he did it. Between patients? So I’ve heard. A line or two at the typewriter, then go take a look at Mrs. Pelagatti’s psoriasis.
Of course, the above scenarios all pertain to poetry. Nobody expects to make a living at poetry. You’re making a product for which there is absolutely no demand. Nobody wants poems. Handing someone a book of poetry in this day and age is tantamount to handing someone a paper bag full of dog shit.  
Writing is different. There is a far better prospect at making a living. What do J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins all have in common?  Crappy, inane, mediocre books. Yes. But apart from that. That’s right. They’re all fucking rich. So how do you, dear reader/writer/blogger, also become rich? I wish I knew. I don’t know what the formula for writing a highly marketable book is. Mediocrity? Perhaps. But there are a number of books that are actually pretty good that also command respectable sales. I would ask someone really smart in the business who also makes a lot of money. The writers of HBO’s Deadwood, for instance, or screenwriters like William Monahan, Diablo Cody, or Tony Gilroy.
Writing screenplays is an option I let pass. I never gave it a shot. There were two reasons for this. One, I don’t like competition, and I can’t imagine anything more fiercely competitive then getting people with pull to read one’s scripts. And two, I wanted the quiet, secluded life of the novelist. I love movies, but drama has never been my forte. Nevertheless, if I were a younger person with a passion to write and an aversion to poverty, I might take a shot at the brass ring in Hollywood. Though I would also have to imagine myself as a completely different sort of person. A louder, brighter, more aggressive person. A person who does well in social circumstances, parties hard, works hard, networks with the dexterity of an air traffic controller and kisses ass with relish and moral abandon.
I was always drawn to the novel. As Jack Kerouac and Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood have all amply demonstrated, there can be poetry embedded within the scope of the novel. The novel is a have your cake and eat it too situation. You can write poetry, put it in a novel, and provided you don’t put too much of it within a novel, you still have a chance at some marketability and paying the rent without having to serve dinner to petulant assholes or gaze at spreadsheets in a cubicle.
Novels demand time. Poems are small. Novels are big. Poems are born almost entirely from the imagination of the poet. Novels require research. Hours of proofreading and editing. And if novels aren’t your cup of tea, there is also non-fiction. Writers such as John McPhee, Jonathan Raban, Diane Ackerman and Barry Lopez have made pretty good livings at it. The question is: is this still a sensible career choice for someone who loves writing? The prognosis, at least from my bruised, disillusioned point of view, is not good.
There was a time when the demand for good writing was high and paid well. That time has gone. Not even the Huffington Post pays its contributors. Good writing is no longer valued.
I know. This is depressing. There are people, and I count myself among them, who can’t do anything but write. Here is a list of things I cannot do: quickly understand instructions; follow orders; make change; be polite to idiotic and demanding customers; practice fundamental math skills; remain concentrated on a boring task; fake enthusiasm; tolerate stress; perform routine tasks in a brisk, able manner.
What’s left? Writing, of course. Writing you do in private, at home. Preferably at home. If you have a home. If you don’t have a home, à la Jean Genet or John Keats, a temporary home will be provided in the form of a couch, or prison cell.
There are jobs such as teaching that provide a half-way measure. It is preferable, for some, to at least be able to talk about writing when you can’t write than serve espressos to impatient yuppies or caddie for the Wall Street crowd. That will require a degree, which will require a loan, but if you’re willing to take a chance on that avenue, go for it. It’s better than washing and manicuring poodles.
I’ve often wondered if being a late night security guard wouldn’t be a good job for a writer. After you’ve checked all the doors and rest rooms for malefactors the time is yours to dream and reflect and get some paper out and write.
My strategy paid off pretty well too. Just stay alive long enough to collect social security. If it’s enough to live on, or can be compounded with a few literary awards, then you’ve got 24/7 to write to your heart’s content. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Pound of Consciousness for the Production of Suds


Step respectably through your sleep. There is a cure in the curve. Rattle a dream. Let us talk as the propeller churns the water and pulls down movement. Figure a lip. Ask the man of bitumen if he can heal a cow by fondling a velvet button. The aluminum sweats. The river sighs among its ensemble of rocks and argues prospects of old lumber with transcendental nails. The canvas flaps and hammers at the pink horizon and cuts the sky into folds of Byzantine undulation. Proposals of French simmer at the thermometer and although the moose is monotonous the amber is mean. I sob to consider the ravages of age and demand a pound of consciousness for the production of suds.

Money convulses under the strain of a massive torrential paragraph. The predicament is various and writes itself into a wilderness of boundless speculation and leaves fluttering and odors exploding and siren songs drifting from a region where there appears to be a lot of water doing what water does best. Create moss and apples. The words pull themselves into a fiction. A fable of woven silk. They evolve into a large butterfly with diabolical colors and fangs drooling rabid ideas of language. It takes wing. The landscape below is patterned with the labor of farmers. Money convulses in the bank. The sound is twitching. It is fat and violent.
Yesterday I saw hundreds of crows fly south in a loose formation. They appeared to be in a party mood. The world seemed incidental, like the shadows in a cemetery. A place of epitaphs and memory and stone. I’ve always thought of bas-relief as a form of pronouncement in stone. Crows are more like omens. Ghosts denote loss. Locomotive abstractions boiling with solitude.
Words are ghosts. They play absences like characters in a play. They enlarge the sovereignty of existence. They’re placentas of meaning that evolve into huge civilizations. Moody turns of thought that jerk and argue against the thunder and waves of the ocean. It’s why sideboards differ from belts. In the house of language the rattle and squirt of hot acetylene words solder stories of heavy frame and recognition. Railroads ape the fight for conquest. Saloons enhance the character of spurs. Angels scratch themselves feeling the nascent rub of warm and garrulous wool. The hills are folded into oddities of rock and grass. Swallows thread the meadows. Spring flexes its muscles. A stream of people escape the drudgery of a sleeping expressway. Sometimes it helps to swim. Consider space as a diagnosis of hats. The result is a buckle. The sublime is washed in rain.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How To Build A Drunken Sandwich


 
Things You’ll Need 

1.      200 pounds of burning circus

2.      Charcoal passions glistening with rain

3.      A large oak barrel full of rhinoceros warts

4.      The tibia of a snowman preserved in a freshly frozen haiku

5.      A beautiful agony wrapped in tinfoil

6.      A splendid enthusiasm for playground slides

7.      A hawk, a horizontal perspective, and a grapefruit

8.      Mini peanut butter cups

9.      A hard day’s night and a flock of syphilitic cherubs

Here’s What You Do 

1.      Place your materials on a work board. Strum the stars with supple speculation. Notice how everything applauds a buffalo.

2.      Be athletic.

3.      Attract chickens.

4.      Write a letter to your favorite surrealist poet. Be sincere. Most everything in life is beyond our control. The perihelion of Mercury heals the blindness of descriptive geometry. Kick your employer in the ass. Emotions are strange experiments in honesty. 

5.      Draw a hospital with a pencil of dust.

6.      Rescue a bank. Let your fingers walk on a quiet dollar. Polish the pennies with brass polish. They must be shiny for the solder to stick. Repair the damage caused by language.

7.      Spin the wool of resolution. Nothing is no longer nothing. The universe is vast and old and rare things happen all the time. Steep your senses in mute redemption. Say to yourself: I’m alive! Go on a long journey. When you return, hammer each nail with the deliberation of a mallard migrating to China.

8.      Say something enormous and wintry. Avoid adjectives. Space ruptures semantic stability. Inflate a pink balloon and shine like a soda. Pack description with flashy horizons. Go to war against banality. Let your words carry the sentence to the end of the universe. Notice how the planets conjugate gravity in naked space. Be flexible. Remember: color is to paint what meaning is to pain.

9.      Take off your clothes and burn them.

10.  Create a baby universe in a laboratory. Mingle among its various moods and choose one to cultivate.

11.  Build a cabin on the Snake River.

12.  Play blackjack with a Russian janitor.

13.  Rob a planet with a waxed and luminous thighbone.

14.  Honor a bug with fervid approval.

15.  Parody a color with a talking sponge. If the color talks back, imitate your emotions with a sidewalk and a sparkler until the larynx of a pizza tray shoves its pepper at a peacock and laughs.

16.  When lightning sweetens the breath of Wisconsin, and density accelerates the hug of the sublime, ride an elevator to the top of a pea and smear ketchup on a landslide. Cut the sky in two. Crash into walls. Velocity is proportional to distance. Avoid fractions. Put a bead of meaning on each syllable. Explode your head with sunlight and clarity.

17.  If the firmament rattles with inexplicable tokens, bring a tiger to an October wedding.

18.  Your sandwich is finished. All that remains is stone and string and a few paper cups. Fire charms the sway of the wind.

 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Gravy Scribbled On A Table

 
I like the romantic idea of an inner blue fire communicating with the outer world of reality and worry in words of molten gold hammered into a shield of poetic reverie. I see a limousine on Willow bend into sense. I see an algebra of clouds plunge into menstruation. I see a testimony of rain fall through itself. Details happen to meaning like hit songs encapsulating segments of time and space in a jukebox. And look: my pockets bulge with change. That could mean a lot of songs, or a moment of reverie alone in a booth. With a martini. An imagined martini. Would an imagined martini be better than an actual martini? My roots are soaked in alcoholic Technicolor. I am like an orange peel abandoned to the candy of pure energy. All things flow. This we know. And yet I stumble occasionally as I roam this planet. And just when I think I’ve got it all figured out I see a splash of paint on a canvas and wonder what the fuck. Look at those circles flip and rise. You know what, I need a new hat. I still haven’t found the right hat. This is where so many of my problems arise. Not having the right hat. I abhor nothing so much as the wrong hat for the right head or the right head for the wrong hat. I envy thunder. I wish I had a voice of thunder. I know when I’m losing someone’s attention, like say at a poetry reading, just before the reading begins, and someone new enters the room and that’s it, my interlocutor walks off and the conversation dies. I live in Bohemia with whispers and lips. I arise and go look for news in the Paleolithic morning. Later I sit down to write and apparitions appear on the paper. It is hard to adapt to this world. There are so many assholes. You’ve got to elbow your way through them. Elbows are underrated. They’re more than just hyphens. They have the innocence of a prostitute’s tear. An old house ripples through my memory like a languid breeze sifts through a forest and I pull my toolbox out of the closet to fix the toilet seat for the umpteenth time. Our apartment is a ship. Wood cracking in the sea. But this is not my address. Think of this as a gardenia in the mud, or just another wad of irresponsible language. Language is inherently weird. Language finds its source in sky talk. The drift of clouds, the flight of birds, the clash of winds. I appoint you chief architect of a dangling espousal. Shakespeare sitting alone in a booth. Muttering an astronomy of words. Canadian maple. The unspeakable, the untellable, and everything that can and is and isn’t. For instance, we all know that fire translates mass into energy. But if we see a suitcase on the floor tangential to a spot of grease why should that give rise to thoughts of Emily Dickinson writing about death? Because she did. She wrote a lot about death. Perception is ceaseless revelation. Toss that load in the washer, brother, and lean and loaf and study a spear of grass. Take up boxing. Start a blog. Each burst of feeling is a propeller churning the water and moving our boat forward out into open water. It is remarkable how much never gets said. Everything’s happening everywhere. It’s morning at the Rio Tinto Zinc Mines. It’s Jack Nicholson grinning broadly in his umpteenth movie. Structure is a refuse from chaos. A pair of gloves on a porch railing. Somewhere somehow there is always a way to answer the hop of a sparrow with a cry of mute subconscious bullet, even if it’s just a blog entry, or gravy scribbled on a table.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Melted Language

Yesterday I went to renew my library card at the University of Washington. I urged Roberta to accompany me because I wanted to visit the special collections library and get a look at Minutes to Go, the collection of cut-ups put together by Sinclair Beiles and including work by Beiles, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Brion Gysin. It is Gysin who is credited with developing the cut-up technique, which he discovered by accident when he was cutting some cardboard with his knife for some pictures he wanted to mount in his Moroccan apartment. There were some newspapers beneath the cardboard and he noticed that the knife had sliced them as well and that when he rejoined sentences and paragraphs surprising new images and meanings emerged. Thus began a whole new way of composition.

Although it wasn’t that new. Gysin was quick to point out that cutting up and collaging sentences and paragraphs is a technique that had been in long use by painters. George Braques and Picasso, for instance, liked incorporating everyday fragments of wallpaper and packaging, bits of wood and cardboard into their earlier Cubist paintings. Gysin also argued that T.S. Eliot’s seminal modernist work The Wasteland used collage, and the Dada poet Tristan Tzara had produced a recipe for creating poetry that involved cutting up words and putting them in a paper bag. Burroughs found the cut-up technique hugely exciting and called it a way to alter reality. Cut-ups lead to a pluralistic perspective obeying an unknown logic. They make explicit a psychosensory process that is going on all the time. “You remember Korzybski and his idea of non-Aristotelian logic,” Burroughs observed. “Either-or thinking just is not accurate thinking. That’s not the way things occur, and I feel the Aristotelian construct is one of the great shackles of Western civilization. Cut-ups are a movement toward breaking this down. I should imagine it would be much easier to find acceptance of the cut-ups from, possibly, the Chinese, because you see already there are many ways that they can read any given ideograph. It’s already cut-up.”

I would love to own a copy of Minutes to Go but the cheapest copy I’ve been able to find to date on Amazon is $164.97. And it’s a very slim volume. So I opted, at least for the time being, to go for the more economical route of reading a copy at the library.

The special collections library is located, appropriately, in the basement. It has a nice subterranean feeling to it. One is in the realm of the dead. The buried. The nearly forgotten. The ancient and rare. And added to all this Gothic ambience is the ritual of getting into the library. You have to fill out a little form at the desk in the entryway asking for your name and address and phone number. Then you are given a number inscribed on a piece of folded plastic, such as they give you in buffet style restaurants, so that the person who goes into the archives for your item will know where to find you. You must use a pencil, which they provide, not a pen. After you’ve filled out the form and left behind any valise or purse you might be carrying, the gate is buzzed and its latch released and you may enter the inner sanctum.

So it’s a bit fun to go view items there. A young Asian woman was sent to get Minutes to Go and returned a few minutes later with the slim volume encased in a plastic sheath. I felt a little nervous removing it because it was so fragile. The publication date, 1960, isn’t all that remote in time, but long enough for paper to begin to deteriorate. Why, I wondered, hasn’t this little book been republished a gazillion times since its initial release? What is it doing in a special collections library? Why isn’t it readily available at bookstores?

I love the work in this little book. One of my favorites is Brion Gysin’s “Open Letter to Life Magazine,” which was a cut-up of the article Life published on the Beats in 1959. “Sickle moon terror nails replica in tin ginsberg,” it begins. I love that. Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it. The full letter is available online (click the title) and is one of the few works from this collection that I’ve been able to find published elsewhere. There are also some excerpts published in The Third Mind, a collection of essays about the cut-up technique by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin published in 1978 by the Viking Press.

Corso is the one contributor/collaborator who evinces some ambivalence over the technique. Because it is a technique. Putting together a cut-up is not unlike working on a car. You’re using source material you’ve chosen, but apart from that, the material does not emanate from you. If you think of poetry as the residual artifact of a visionary experience, this would be the opposite of that. The material does not come from inside you. But then, neither does language. What you find in the dictionary is a cut-up. A collage. All language has a mechanical aspect to it. Words are parts working like so many gears and cogs to provide movement and meaning. Each sentence is an engine with the power to raise the dead à la Frankenstein or animate a universe of cable and pulley in a cacophony of delirious trigonometry. Like it or not, no one ever wrote a poem that streamed out of their being with the purity of a spring. Not unless that poem wasn’t a language at all but a consortium of sounds with no meaning attached, a form of phatic communication similar to the caterwaul of howler monkeys or sorority girls.

That said, I do share Corso’s ambivalence. I enjoy doing cut-ups and fold-ins and exquisite corpses, I love collage, but there comes a point where you feel detached from the material. I like the romantic idea of an inner blue fire fueling a poem of soulful wholeness, a living entity of words that cannot survive disassembly and reassembly because it’s not a machine but a living breathing organism. A poem, in other words, that is genuine and sincere and writes itself with the guidance of angels and cosmic intuitions tied to a brilliance of deep down soulful effluence of myriad being. “The individual poem stirs in our minds,” Robert Duncan observed, “an event in our language, as the individual embryonic cells stirs in the parent body. The beginning of the poem stirs in every area of my consciousness, for the DNA code it will use toward its incarnation is a code of resources my life pattern itself carries; not only thought and feeling but all the nervous and visceral and muscular intelligences of the body are moved.”

Corso no doubt felt Duncan’s articulations when he wrote in the postscript to Minutes to Go: “… and so to the muse I say: ‘Thank you for the poesy that cannot be destroyed that is in me,’ for this I have learned after such a short venture in uninspired machine-poetry.”

I tend to shuttle back and forth, sometimes preferring the stream-of-consciousness, visceral outpourings one finds in Kerouac or Joyce, and sometimes preferring to get out of myself altogether and assemble something using chance strategies in an effort to tap into a larger universe than the one cooking in my brain. For what is a cut-up but a fondue of melted language?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Not So Sweet Emotions

Emotions are weird. It’s like having weather inside you. Strange, erratic weather. Lows, highs, pressure gradients and heat lightning.

The reason I find drugs so seductive is because I don’t like the way I feel most of the time. My emotions have a tendency to migrate toward the dark. I know euphoria. I have felt euphoria before. I love euphoria. But finding euphoria as a feeling that I can have inside my body whenever I might want it to be there is as elusive as finding the Hope diamond in a Crackerjack box. It just doesn’t happen. Not like that. Not like turning on a light switch. If it happens it happens and I’m thrilled and surprised and hope it lasts but it doesn’t. When it goes it goes and I can’t bring it back like changing a light bulb.

The emotion I’m most familiar with is dread. Angst, and its close cousin despair. But is this a feature of my personality or the product of a realistic view of things? A predatory, sociopathic, treacherous and completely unregulated criminal class of bankers and investment brokers are stealing money from the American public while the President and the Attorney General stand by and do absolutely nothing. There is a large group of people passionately committed to the removal of Medicare and Social Security. The president, who promised to end war, perpetuates war. There are thousands of weaponized drones murdering and surveilling innocent people in the name of fighting terrorism. Glaciers are melting. The oceans are rising. Drought and overpopulation are creating impossible conditions for people to survive much less live happily. Potable water is disappearing. The environment is full of toxins. Fascism and illiteracy are on the rise in the United States. And so on.

I don’t like feeling anguish and despair. I really don’t. They're ugly emotions. This is why I like it when, on rare occasions, I might be prescribed codeine or given an injection of morphine. I find all the woes and evils of the world much easier to accept. If there is a way to induce these feelings naturally, I am all ears. I’ve heard that meditation and breathing exercises help. I’ve tried them. They don’t. Vigorous exercise helps, but it’s still not quite the same as 25 milligrams of Valium, or the sweet persuasions of codeine.

I have no control over my emotions. I don’t know anyone who does. The Dalai Lama, maybe, but I don’t trust him, not since seeing him shake hands with George W. Bush with a big, fatuous grin on his face. What would the Buddha have to say about this? Show compassion for all people including war criminals? For obscenely wealthy elites who contribute to the destruction of the environment, the loss of social support networks, the health of the economy and exploiting the health and labor of those who are less fortunate? Probably. The Buddha would probably smile beneficently with a hint of underlying sadness and acceptance of evil and say, Yes. Show courtesy and compassion to people who do bad things. I’m not sure I’m on board with this. I’m definitely not on board with the Pope. His idea of showing compassion is to ride around in a Popemobile waving sagely to the madding crowd.

Whatever happened to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? He passed away in 2008. He may have been the real deal. David Lynch, who is no stranger to the weirdnesses of evil, remains enthusiastic.

One thing I have noticed about holy people. Their concern is directed outward. They might meditate, or live ascetically in mountain retreats, but there is always evident a willingness and visible effort to help other people. The sick and dying. The hungry and abandoned. You never hear of saints committing suicide, getting drunk or shooting heroin. They’re generally to be found among the suffering, working in hospitals in desperately poor countries. So there is an answer to the crippling effects of anxiety. Go help other people. It’s simple. Unless, of course, you’re a selfish asshole addicted to writing.

I hate regret. Regret is one of the worst. I have thousands of them. The practice of writing promotes the illusion of going back in time and correcting things. This is because revision is a natural part of writing. But you can’t do that in real life. There is no time travel. There is memory, but that’s not the same as time travel. That’s not the same as going back to undo a stupid thing you did, or unsay a stupid thing you said. How nice that would be. Show up right after you said something gauche or just plain hurtful and awful and erase it. Delete it. Or say you insulted someone but the insult was weak. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back and sharpen it up. Put a little more wit and edge into it. A little more steel. And then twist.

Imagine having the opportunity to go back and rectify a bad decision. Get a law degree instead of a useless bachelor of arts degree. Become a radiologist or heavy equipment operator. We inherit the decisions we make in our twenties. This is clearly fucked up. Maybe at one point in history people were able to admit to themselves that they’re not going to become a script writer for a popular TV sitcom or the next J.K. Rowling and at the ripe old age of 45 go back to school and get a degree in medicine or law but you sure as shit can’t do that now. I can already hear vociferous disagreement in this quarter and I hope I’m wrong but I know of few people, no one in fact, who was admitted into graduate school in their late 40s, incurred a massive debt, but then went on to get a tenured position teaching contemporary literature at Harvard or Princeton. Besides. I’m 65. That clearly ain’t gonna happen.

It’s hard when you discover that someone else is leading the life you had mapped out for yourself. For me, that person used to be Richard Brautigan. He wrote a quirky, highly eccentric and imaginative book which sold millions and made him millions. But that didn’t last. The person currently leading my life is named Tom Robbins.

I could not be a J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins. I can’t write like that. I wouldn’t want to. It’s just too stupid. The money is a lure, but there are limits.

My favorite emotion is resignation. Resignation is as close as you can come to codeine. Or Valium or Xanax or Ativan or Seinfeld reruns. It is non-addictive and has no side effects, but it can take some effort to obtain. Sometimes it’s easy. There are certain inevitabilities that are easy to accept and for which it is easy to relinquish all pretense to control. I can easily resign myself to winter. I can’t control the weather. I can argue with the calendar and refuse to flip the pages forward to December, or go around outside in a T-shirt and shorts, but I can’t argue with the cold. I’ve tried arguing with the cold and it doesn’t work. I just end up looking like some old vain crazy person, a shaggy-headed King Lear shaking his fist at the heavens. There is drama there, and possibly some catharsis, but King Lear and his fool can tell you there is nobody up there who could give a flying fuck what some disgruntled mammal on earth has to say about inclement weather, treacherous family members, or gout.

The kind of resignation I find most useful but hardest to obtain is when something foul or untoward occurs on a personal level. I publish a book, but the book is a flop. The book doesn’t sell. No one reviews it. It is ignored. I must, then, resign myself to the fact that the book is a failure and let it go at that. But how? I must admit that I’ve either written a bad or mediocre book, that despite my hopes of stunning the world with my literary genius the actual work might have merit, but just ain’t that great. Or, the book really is a stunner, but hardly anyone reads anymore, and those that do read or already overburdened with material and suffering from a bad case of option fatigue. In which case it is vain and silly to write anything with a view toward publication. Just write, enjoy writing for the sheer pleasure of it and nothing else and then stuff your products in a drawer à la Emily Dickinson. Or post it on a blog.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Mnemosyne's Jukebox

Smell doesn’t work for me. Not when it comes to memory. If I make a list of odors in my life I discover that they are all too common to attach to any particular incident or gestalt. Coffee, bacon, scrambled eggs, gasoline, cleansers, perfumes, shampoos, fish, waterfronts, forests, drugstores, hospitals, Laundromats, delicatessens or barns are all too general and prevalent and arbitrary to attach to anything specific. For me, what triggers memory is music. Usually a specific song. “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Paint It Black,” “She’s Not There,” “Go Now,” “Paperback Writer.” Songs, quite generally, of the mid to late sixties, when my brain was young and boiling over with hormonal Sturm and Drang.

The 70s would prove a very different time and my response to the music would be accordingly different. This was a time characterized by a great deal of personal frustration, intellectual growth, romantic confusion and broadening of the emotional spectrum.

There are a lot of songs I remember from the 70s that attach to very specific feelings and incidents, most being very unpleasant. Every time I hear “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers, a song I came to positively loathe, I remember the months I spent looking for a job in Seattle after moving back to Washington State from California. They played the shit out of that song in the mid-70s, although I pretty much hated it the first time I heard it. I don’t know why. It’s not a bad song. Maybe it’s because they were singing about having no worries and I was stuffed with worries. I was choking with worries.

Any song I heard in the 70s was either going to grab me or piss me off. Most likely piss me off. I did not like the change in Zeitgeist. I did not like the altered direction . I did not like boogie this and boogie that. I did not like the sudden trend toward career and money and social status. The songs remembered from that era are remnants of incongruity and pain.

Another was “I’m Not In Love” by Ten CC. That song I really liked. It was so moving and dreamy. I really liked the feeling of it, the way it moved like a slow wave on a foggy sea full of mood and sweetness. I was lying on a mattress when I first heard it. It was late and I couldn’t sleep. The mattress was on the floor because I couldn’t afford to buy a bed. The radio was right by my head. I had just moved into a studio apartment on Capitol Hill after finding a job folding towels and gowns in the laundry at University Hospital. I had been divorced three years but was still obsessing about my marriage and feeling profoundly lonely and dejected. Romance seemed like light years away. I was in my mid-twenties, a poet whose job prospects would probably never amount to much, and the Zeitgeist had changed from a celebration of life’s sacred principles to one of unabashed materialism. I liked the feeling behind that song, someone evidently falling in love while simultaneously trying to deny it, and succumbing to it, dissolving into its bittersweet recognition. It was a great song to listen to if you were feeling isolated and lonely.

Songs get muddled with videos in the 80s. I remember Simply Red’s beautiful song “Holding Back the Years” and how much Mick Hucknall reminded me of Dylan Thomas as he wandered what appeared to be a rural town on Britain’s northern or western coast.

Bob Dylan all but disappeared. There is nothing by him that I remember with any degree of intensity or charged feeling throughout the 70s and 80s. Then, in 1997, he put out Time Out Of Mind, which had several songs on it that would come to mingle with the events of my father’s death. “Not Dark Yet,” which is one of the most beautiful and meaningful songs I’ve ever heard filled a big part of my emotional life in 2001 as my father withered away from cancer, and the long rambling “Highlands,” because it reminded me of my wife’s mother, who passed away in 2004. She was from Methilhill, Scotland, and Dylan borrowed his imagery from Robert Burns.

There are songs that relate to specific times and places for reasons too elusive for me to figure out. Why should I remember so vividly the temperature and smell and details of the basement room in my father’s house circa age 16 (ostensibly my room, though it never felt like my room, I had three other siblings and we were always trading rooms) when I heard “She’s Not There” one afternoon? Or “House of the Rising Sun” one summer afternoon at a beach on Lake Washington? Or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” one evening as I was leaving work and stopped to hear the song even though I was risking missing my bus it was so captivating and powerful?

When I say remember, I mean really remember: the sound of the Pitney –Bowes machines, the chatter and laughter of my co-workers as they were rushing to take care of loose ends and close things down for the night, the darkness because it was winter, my eagerness to get the hell out of the mailroom, and then that sound, the ambiguous, dislocated chord progression and syncopated sixteenth notes, dit dah, dit dah, dit dah, ominous and rueful and hypnotic, the savage punctuations of Cobain’s Fender Mustang roaring its distortion like a mortally wounded leviathan , and Cobain’s anguished cry, I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now; entertain us / A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido / Yeah, hey, it was haunting, and powerful, and I stopped in my tracks, as they say, to listen. What is this? I wondered. It was the first rock song I’d heard in years that really grabbed my attention.

There are some songs that connect deeply with me and when I first hear them the moment, however banal the actual circumstances, become vivid and strangely enduring.

But then, why should I remember Paul McCartney’s stupid “Admiral Halsey” and the afternoon in San José, California circa 1971 that I was driving a used Volvo to work in my ex-mother-in-law’s modeling agency as a janitor? I hated that song. What I remember was thinking how perplexing it was that the same man that wrote “Yesterday” and “Penny Lane” and “Eleanor Rigby” and co-wrote so many unbelievably great songs with John Lennon like “A Day in the Life” could write something so vapid, so monotonous, and so inane as to want me to have a car accident just to stop it. And the change that occurred. Every time I go online and google up the hit songs from the early 70s I am amazed at how shitty the music became. How shallow and infantile and imbecilic all those songs were. “The Candy Man,” “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree,” “Tubular Bells.” “You’re Having My Baby.” What the fuck happened?

“Admiral Halsey” played almost exclusively on AM. AM was totally, aggressively, shamelessly commercial.

Those were the FM years. If you wanted to hear something decent you had to find a radio with FM. But even there, the DJs would play a song I really liked, “Cowgirl in the Sand” or “Light My Fire” or “Stairway to Heaven” or “Free Bird” and play it and play it and play it until I either had no feeling for it anymore or I just began to hate it.

It wasn’t just the 70s. Songs have had an impact on highly specific moments of my life since Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” when, at age nine in the summer of 1956, I sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor of a friend’s bedroom in Golden Valley, Minnesota. We played the 45 over and over on a tiny record player, shouting Day-O at the top of our lungs, daylight come and we want to go home. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered why these workmen were going home at daybreak instead of nighttime like most people.

That same year, Presley’s “Hound Dog” knocked me out. It was wild. It was my first big connection to the thrill of rock. But then it was followed by “Love Me Tender” and I felt betrayed and turned all my allegiance to Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone.

“Everybody Wants To Rule The World” reminds me of a sunny Colorado morning in early October, 1984, a trip I made to Denver with my brother to help our schizophrenic mother move out of her mother’s posh condo apartment to far more modest digs in another apartment building. A sad occasion. I remember how the song, which was coming out of a bedside clock radio in our motel room, made me momentarily happy. I still really like that song.

“Lies,” by the Knickerbockers, is forever ingrained in my mind as the song that came out of George’s ’55 Plymouth sedan radio the night I got beat up at a New Year’s Eve party in 1965. It’s the first thing I heard when George started the engine to his car and the radio came on. I remember how strange it felt to be so collapsed in pain and humiliation while such an energetic rock song was filling the interior of the car. The song continued to get some airplay into 1966, but hardly at all after that. It didn’t even get much play on the oldies stations. I didn’t hear it again until a few years ago, on YouTube. How strange to hear it again. It all came back. My missing teeth, the blood in my mouth, the black eye, the feelings of confusion and shame, the acute betrayal of friends.

In December, 1966, at the house of some people I did not really know but who were all dropping acid together I heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” come out of a radio atop a refrigerator just as the acid was kicking in and I had begun getting that ineffable feeling of cosmic giddiness, an ecstatic feeling of unreality and ultimate ontological silliness, the universe with a clownish aspect, but also a little ominous. Events that night turned horrific and ugly and my body atomized into ghostly incorporeality and I ended up spending the night in the hospital along with several others of that group that had dropped the same powerful shit, one of whom, an Asian man in a pea jacket, had been dragged in by the police, unable to walk apparently. So that years later, whenever I hear the opening refrain of that song, let me take you down, cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about, I get excited and nervous.

I wonder what song would serve me in the same way Proust’s madeleine triggered À la recherché du temps perdu? Is there one particular song that could so transport my mind and imagination to a time and place fraught with so many sensations and charged with so much significance I could write volumes of prose out of it? I would not choose, for instance, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” because that was event in which I had stood outside of my life, and it would not serve as an inspiration for an extended work, unless I wanted to represent my life as a phantasmal dispersion of atoms adrift in a tumult of tinsel and AM radio.

I could choose “Like A Rolling Stone,” a seminal song for me in many ways, but my feeling for that song has changed over the years. The same emotion isn’t there. The excitement is gone. Now when I hear it, I concentrate on its lyrics , which have never ceased to enthrall and fascinate me, but time has dimmed their luster. I percolate their tincture and dye, squeezing them for every last drop of residual stimulation, or steep my reflections in curious details about the song’s genesis, such as Al Kooper’s organ playing, a parable of serendipity. Kooper, who had initially been enlisted to play guitar but deferred to Michael Bloomfield’s matchless wizardry, was just using the organ as ruse to continue to be a part of the song’s making, so that he could remain in the studio and contribute something, anything, and even though Kooper’s unrehearsed and awkward switch to the organ had put him an eight note behind the rest of the band, and the recording engineer was surprised to find him sitting there, but too late to yank him out of there, he stayed, and it ended up adding a key element to the character of the song.

I used to be enthralled by the song’s anthemic jubilation, the exhilaration of homelessness and raw impulsive freedom, the vertigo of its dazzling surreal images as it itemized the weirdness of modern urban life, the tumultuous excitement of its headlong dereliction shouted poignantly in the refrain how does it feel, and although many years later I can still hear these things, they’re initial propulsive thrill has gelled into granite. The song is a monument. “Like A Rolling Stone” has become a kind of Mount Rushmore. It feels public and open and belongs to everyone, like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” or Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Excitement remains for a few other songs I haven’t played to death on YouTube. But they’re recent. I really like Adelle, for instance, and her magnificent “Rolling in the Deep.”

Songs are like smells in that regard. I love the smell of bacon, but after a while it becomes just that: the smell of bacon. Nothing more, nothing less. It is what it is.

If I could smell a song, what would Dylan’s “Lonesome Day Blues” smell like? Alfalfa? Diesel? Dirt?

I know what greasy spoon restaurant kitchens smell like. That would be the smell of the Dylan and Robert Hunter collaboration “It’s All Good,” in which politics is mingled with bad hygiene: “Big politician telling lies; Restaurant kitchen all full of flies.”

Edith Piaf’s haunting “La Vie en rose” has always made me feel nostalgic for a time and place I never actually experienced but intensely imagined as my true reality. I place the song not when it was first released as a single (1947, the year of my birth), but the Belle Epoque, the 1890s of Paris, when figures like Mallarmé and Proust and Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant and Eric Satie were around. That’s the time and place in which I should have lived. That’s where If find my deepest rapport. It’s weird having memories for a time and place in which you did not exist. I might be persuaded to think it’s all just fantasy, an illusory bit of time travel, but when I hear “La Vie en rose,” it feels quite real.