Monday, October 28, 2013

Laudanum, Lethe, and Keats

"Ode to a Nightingale” is one of my all-time favorite poems. I’ve read it numerous times over a span of four decades and have never tired of its lines and imagery. The very first lines get me excited: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, “/ Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains / One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.”
I love that. What appeals to me most is the frank admission of pain, deep, internal dissatisfaction, combined with a yearning for its appeasement by way of a drug. He mentions two: hemlock and “dull opiate,” the latter of which was most probably laudanum (a reddish brown tincture with a bitter taste containing almost all of the opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine), easily available in the London of the early nineteenth century and which Keats is reported to have used to mitigate a chronic sore throat. During the time of the poem’s composition (sometime around April or May, 1819) he also suffered an intermittent toothache and a black eye which he got while playing cricket. The sensations he describes in a letter George and Georgina Keats (his brother and sister-in-law, then living in the United States) sound remarkably like those one associates with opiates:
Yesterday [Thursday, May 18th, 1819] I got a black eye, the first time I took a Cricket bat. Brown who is always one’s friend in a disaster applied a leech to the eyelid, and there is no inflammation this morning, though the ball hit me directly on the sight. ‘Twas a white ball. I am glad it was not a clout. This is the second black eye I have had since leaving school. During all my school days I never had one at all; we must eat a peck before we die. This morning I am in a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless: I long after a stanza or two of Thomson’s Castle of indolence. My passions are all asleep from my having slumbered till nearly eleven and weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation about three degrees on this side of faintness. If I had teeth of pearl and the breath of lilies I should call it languor, but as I am I must call it Laziness. In this state of effeminacy the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown. Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me; they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase  -  a Man and two women  -  whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.  
Keat’s description matches an equally beautiful and uncannily accurate description of several heroin experiences (heroin taken orally and hypodermically) by the poet Michael McClure in a collection of McClure’s prose titled Meat Science Essays:
There is no combat with circumstances or events  -  no boredom or intensity. Sitting on a bed or a trip are the same. There is quiescence even while  moving; there is an inviolable stillness of person. You are a warm living stone. In a fast open car you are a herculean vegetable  -  the wind on your face is a pleasant hand. You half-nod at the passing scenery. Eating and drinking are the same but without interest. You can feel yourself exist in a place or activity but without feeling of responsibility. There is nothing to drag you. You have occurred.
A new kind of self takes over  -  there is not so much I. I is an interference with near-passivity. This is a full large life  -  there is not much criticism, anything fills it. Rugs are as interesting as a street. Whatever is spoken is as meaningful as any other speech. Life and colors had a distracting sharpness before. You are glad they are toned down. You make study of yourself and nod on the passage of occurrences  -  everything is smooth and the same emotional weight. New correspondences are made, unusual things link with the common ones. There is time to study a face  -  thoughts are traced on it that you had not seen before. Suddenly you understand an old friend. Time does not bother, painful thoughts are fluffed like a pillow. A hand seems larger while you study it  -  it has details! Comparing the high to normality, you ask where the daily pains are; they are curious. You sort through them wondering why they are problems. They look different and easy. You take them apart and put them together in new ways  -  you find a few answers. Eyes and thoughts drift to something else. You go somewhere or you sit. You notice coincidences.
Life is an unruffled flow of the disrelated. If it bothers you, you don’t think about it.
… body and senses relax into new receptivity. There is a willingness to see and listen and to be heard and touched.
Predisposed tensions are eased. The still coolness of the world is a quiet adventure.
Hemlock is the poison Socrates self-administered in accordance with his sentence of death. He had been found guilty of refusing to recognize the gods, of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the youth. The trial took place over a nine-to-ten hour period in the People’s Court, located in the agora, the civic center of Athens, in 399 B.C.E. The jury consisted of 500 male citizens over the age of thirty, and had been chosen by lot. Most of the jurors were probably farmers. No record of the prosecution's argument against Socrates survives.
After a long dialogue among his attending friends on the nature of death and immortality, which is the substance of Plato’s Phaedo, the jailer brings Socrates his drink of lethal hemlock. Socrates asks how he should proceed:
You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world  -  even so  - and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
What ties all these narratives together is the perplexing issue of non-being. Or, more to the point, the strange mingling of Being and Nothingness that forge our lives, that shift and shimmer and seesaw in fluxions of spirit and flesh. It is a rich paradox that the more intensely we engorge with Being and whet our appetite for sensation and insight, the greater our vulnerability to pain seems to be. The more our consciousness dilates, the more of the world enters in. Consequently, the possibilities for experiencing loss, injury, and fear are that much greater, and the need for relief that much more acute. Anguish, malaise, and darkness intensify as the appetite for life intensifies, and as the pains inherent in life intensify with it, the attractions and seductions of Non-Being grow correspondingly magnetic. It’s as if the more passionately we embraced life, the more we craved its cessation. The more we crave Being, the more we crave Non-Being. It is a Moëbius Loop of irresolvable contradictions.
For a long time, I’ve craved non-existence. I want to feel non-existence. It is the one thing about death that attracts me. But, of course, the irony is that in order to experience non-existence, I cannot exist. And if I do not exist, I cannot experience non-existence. That being the case, the alternative is to live. Not just to live, but live with intensity. I can, with great deliberation, encourage a receptivity to all the vagaries of life, its voluptuous charms and peculiar ecstasies as well as its stings and entanglements. If the allures of death are too final, too extreme, too irrevocable, I can always become a thrill-seeker. Death will arrive one day anyway. In the meantime, I can flirt with Non-Being in its conceptual, metaphysical guise, submit myself to the influence of certain drugs, hypnotics and analgesics, or practice meditation. If I achieve the opposite of non-existence, then the craving for its opposite pole will grow to a point of such intensity as to jump across the abyssal frontier and satiate Being with Non-Being.
Non-Being is at the very heart of Being. It is Nothingness from which we derive our freedom, our fullest range of possibilities, our fullest absorption in Being. Non-Being leads to Being, and vice versa.
Such flirtations are painful. They will hurt. The stars we cannot reach, the mind ultimately bound to its little sphere of blood and bone, always restless, always uncertain, fearing and craving its end simultaneously, are the conundrums that feed our hunger for greater intensities of life. That bound us to life. That help us transcend life.
The pain is exquisite, and cannot be escaped. Nietzsche had a marvelous phrase for this phenomenon, “the wound of existence”:
It is an eternal phenomenon: by means of an illusion spread over things, the greedy will always finds some way of detaining its creatures in life and forcing them to carry on living. One person is held fast by the Socratic pleasure in understanding and by the delusion that he can thereby heal the wound of existence; another is ensnared by art’s seductive veil of beauty fluttering before his eyes; a third by the metaphysical solace that eternal life flows on indiscriminately beneath the turmoil of appearances  -  to say nothing of the common and almost more powerful illusions which the Will constantly holds in readiness.
Lethe is one of five rivers flowing through Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology, the other four being the Styx (river of hate), Akheron (the river of sorrow), Kokytos (the river of lamentation), and Phlegethon (the river of fire). Within the geography of Dante's Divine Comedy, the river borders Elysium, the paradisiacal resting place of the virtuous who lived before the birth of Christ, and so could not enter into the Christian heaven. In Classical Greek, the word Lethe means “oblivion,” “forgetfulness,” or “concealment.”
I had always imagined the water of Lethe to be dark and heavy and to taste bitterly of a cramped, subterranean world of sulfur and brimstone. Danté, however, gives it a very different description in Canto XXVIII of the Purgatorio in the Divine Comedy:
The water you see does not rise from a spring, fed by the moisture that the cold condenses, as a river does that gains and loses volume, but issues from a constant, unfailing fountain, that, by God’s will, recovers as much as it pours out freely, on every side.  

On this side it falls with a power that takes away the memory of sin: on the other, with one that restores the memory of every good action. On this side it is called Lethe, on that side Eunoë, and does not act completely unless it is tasted first on this side, and then on that. It surpasses all other savours, and though your thirst to know may be fully sated, even though I say no more to you, I will give you this corollary, out of grace, and I do not think my words will be less precious to you, because they go beyond my promise to you. 

So, not bitter at all, but more like cold, clear spring water.  

“Was it a vision, or a waking dream,” Keats asks at the end of his “Ode to a Nightingale.” “Fled is that music:  -  do I wake or sleep.”
This is the very state that Keats’s poem arouses each time I read it. If I give my attention completely to its lines I feel the same arousal of the senses while simultaneously feeling an abatement of life’s thornier issues. It’s as if his consciousness, be it under the influence of laudanum or not, transmitted the same resonances to my consciousness. This gives wonder to the power of words, especially written words, and the Lethe-like waters that flow through them.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


I like money. I always have. This is a strange thing for a poet to say, since poets don’t make money. Nor would I ever want to make money through the writing of poetry. The very idea of writing poetry for money gives me the creeps.
It happened once. Many years ago, a well-meaning relative asked me to write a birthday poem for his newly wed wife. Newly wed makes him sound young, but he was not a young man. He’d already retired from a long career as a mechanical engineer in the Bay Area. This was not his first marriage. Children from his first marriage had long since reached adulthood and had families of their own. He was an older man with a youthful disposition and a Porsche.
He offered to pay me fifty dollars for the poem. This isn’t a value he’d based on seeing my previous work as a poet, or decided that being a poet was a practice similar to, say, psychiatry or law and figured that my labor on the poem would roughly take an hour and so decided to pay a fee that would have the equivalence to that of a psychiatrist or lawyer. His offer was one of kindness. I was recently divorced, enrolled at San José State where I was about a year away from acquiring a bachelor degree in English (ironic that they call such a degree a bachelor degree) and was living very modestly, to say the least. The fact is, I was dirt poor. I was living in a small dilapidated house on Balbach Street in downtown San José, not far from an auto body shop and a porn theater.
I accepted his offer, though with great reluctance. I accepted it because one, I really did need the money, and two, I knew it was offered out of kindness. I did not know his newly wed bride very well, an Englishwoman in her forties much younger than he was, but I liked her. The knowledge of poets writing for royal patronage during the Renaissance also gave his offer a certain romantic appeal, albeit a very faint one, since he was neither a duke nor a lord but a retired man with a comfortable pension. He had a nice three-bedroom house in the Cupertino hills, but no Hall of Mirrors or coffers overflowing with gold florins.
As soon as I set out to write the poem, I felt intensely uncomfortable. A bad case of writer’s block set in. I wasn’t writing as I usually wrote, which was sheer word play, taking a sequence of words to the very extreme limits of meaning and beyond, creating the strangest, most bizarre imagery imaginable. Generating relations between things that had never been even remotely associated. Why? Because it gave me a sharp intellectual buzz. It got me high. It felt like speed, like Dexedrine or Benzedrine, two of my favorite drugs. But writing a poem FOR someone was a total drag. This I was unused to. What I enjoyed in poetry were moments of unabashed self-indulgence. Those dilations of self-hood that so enlarge our individual consciousness that our sense of identity and all of the burdens and complexities implicated in piloting and maintaining an identity, a personality, an often anguished temperament, becomes a vapor, a diaphanous nothingness. We lose ourselves in language in the same way a stream flows from the rocks and underbrush of the coastland and loses itself in the surf of the ocean. Language is oceanic. It doesn’t matter which language. All languages are oceanic because they’re limitless, bottomless, and full of salt and tears.
Accepting money for the production of an occasional poem to commemorate an event gave it the finite conditions of employment. I needed to create fifty dollars worth of linguistic merchandise. Which I did. I honored the request of my patron and managed to put together a body of language celebrating the particulars of a woman's birthday, though I can’t remember a single word of it. That was forty years ago. All I remember was getting drunk and writing it on the floor. The wine I drank to inspire the proper encomiums and corresponding tone and imagery cost me ten bucks, reducing my profit to forty dollars. Wine was the fuel necessary to the engine of my cerebral tractor as it moved in the field of my endeavor digging furrows I could plant with words and cultivate into fronds of rustling pentameter. What words grew out of that Dionysian strategy I can’t remember. At all. I don’t remember how many lines it had, what images I used, what rhymes or delicate tropes, what parabolas and parallels, what allusions and anchored abstractions. The whole thing is a blank. I hope the ultimate product was good. I do remember handing the poem over to the man, who wasn’t into poetry at all, he enjoyed mathematics and geometry. Poetry was a perplexing phenomenon. His expertise was in energy conversion and computational fluid dynamics, not assonance and alliteration, though those things do bear some relation. He was a nice guy, that’s all I remember. That, and the fifty bucks, and the immense discomfort in writing poetry for money.
So why would I say I like money? I do like money. But I also like keeping money separate from writing poetry.
There is an exception. Getting a hefty financial award for my poetry is wonderful. That I like very much. But grants and awards are a very different dynamic. The poetry is already a done deal. It’s not a matter of directing the poetry toward a goal, it’s a matter of collecting money from a person or institution who deems your work of enough value to confer money upon it. It’s not just a matter of money, it’s a matter of validation. The validation alone is worth more than the money, but the money is nice. The money is terrific. The difference in getting money for your writing (past tense) and writing for money (future tense) is immense. Nothing can poison a creative session more than directing one’s writing toward a goal. Publication, for instance. The purest kind of writing would be a situation where you wrote for the sheer enjoyment of writing and then deleted your writing as soon as you finish. Or, if you want to put some drama into it, write it on paper then set flame to it. Watch it go up in smoke. If you can create a situation in which to write for no other reason than the sheer enjoyment of writing, man, you’ve got it made.
But that’s a whole other subject. Let’s get back to money.

My attraction to money has nothing to do with having a lot of money. I’ve never had a lot of money. Not in the United States sense of having a lot of money. Having a lot of money is a very comparative and relative situation. Someone making jeans for ten to twelve hours in a hot squalid room crawling with cockroaches and lecherous supervisors for six dollars a day might think that having fifty bucks in the bank is a lot of money. I have never been that destitute, or exploited. But I do know what it’s like to be poor and having to make a tough choice between food and books. Thank god I’ve never been addicted to drugs but I have been addicted to books. I am an unrepentant bookworm, for which I have sometimes gone without a meal.
It has always been a struggle to make money. I have often hated what I had to do to get money. Wash dishes, scrub toilets, weed gardens, mow lawns, pick apples, drive a truck, deliver medical supplies, wash and fold mountains of hospital laundry, wax floors, wash cars, paint buildings, shovel dirt, eat shit, run mail day after day through a Pitney Bowes postage meter. Take orders, swallow my pride, assume the anonymous diminutiveness of a dung beetle while performing the menial chores of an ant and daydreaming about the books I wanted to buy. Go home with a brain numbed by soul-crushing routine. Go home seething with anger and frustration because I had to spend time taking orders and doing stupid shit rather than spend time writing. If this is what it has taken to make money, why would I like money?
Money fascinates and attracts me for the same reason that words do. Both are a form of language. Money is a form of representation. Money has value because people believe it has value. The words ‘bee,’ ‘candy,’ ‘teakettle’ and ‘stoneware’ all have definite meanings and produce definite images for people who speak English. In the sentence “my wife works in a bakery” all English speakers know what is meant by ‘my,’ ‘wife,’ ‘works,’ ‘in,’ ‘a,’ and ‘bakery.’ The weirdest word in that sentence is probably ‘a.’ Who can explain the reason for ‘a’? It doesn’t really need to be there for the sentence to make sense, though if I say “my wife works in bakery” it lacks a certain musicality, a rightness of sound. I need the ‘a,’ like I need a penny to make a sum of a dollar and six cents to buy a can of soda, or Perrier.
Money and language are both vast hallucinations. Who doesn’t like hallucinations? Hallucinations are pleasurable because they’re like dreams. They’re images with no power to hurt us. If we hallucinate a tiger, we can appreciate the tigerness of the tiger without the tiger threatening in any way to harm or claw or eat us. Hallucinating a giant man-eating vagina might not be so much fun, or a tarantula or gargantuan penis behind the wheel of a Ferrari. But I guarantee they’d be pretty interesting.
Money, lately, has really gotten phantasmal because when Bill Clinton signed away the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 he created a situation in which commercial bank affiliates were permitted to gamble with their depositors’ money. The Glass-Steagall Act separated commercial banking from investment banking. Once you get into investment banking, and do it on computers that flash algorithms in a split-second, you’ve got a situation in which money begins to lose meaning. Wealth, hosted on computer-based electronic trading systems, deal in debt or equity-backed securities. These phantasms of wealth assume the form of pension funds, hedge funds, or sovereign wealth funds, the key word, being, of course, fund. Fund as in fun with a d. D for dying. D for death. D for dinosaur. D for duodenum. Duress. Dune buggy. Dysentery.
Why does a dollar still mean dollar to the guy at the 7-11 or barbershop or law office? Why does a thousand dollars still mean a thousand dollars to the hospital administrator or electrician or casino cashier?
I have no idea. It amazes me that money still has meaning. I mean, considering the way it’s inflated, or in the case of the billions lost (presumably) to bureaucratic oversight, compacted into a football and tossed through the hot air of war-torn Iraq?
The dynamic that is money is based on the mystery of the zero. This is where the sign has no reality other than being a sign, a sign for nothingness, and that’s the beauty of it. This is where concrete reality ends and the heady world of the algorithm begins. Wealth, in its most abstract sense, assumes dizzying magnitudes with no corresponding link to physical realities. Like poetry, capitalism is unfettered by empirical limits. It is an abstraction of economic value and medium of exchange that eliminates the cumbersome yoke of corporeity and thrives on the performance of mathematical entities with no ontological status. Capitalism presumes an environment of infinite growth, and this is dangerous for a planet that is very much a finite entity.
Zero, which is a sign for nothing, for the concept of nothingness, but a crucial nothingness that allows for the multiplication of numbers into larger and larger sums, is the blood of the algorithm. It is what brings oxygen to the tissue of finance. It is to mercantile capitalism what the blood of young maidens is to the fangs of Count Dracula.
Zero is sexy. It is the very stuff of poetry. It is the very essence of the meta-sign, the first non-real thing to assume a conceptual existence in thought. No ideas but in things, said Williams. But what about zero? Is zero a thing? Can a no-thing be a thing? Can the no-thing-ness of zero be a thing-ness in the sense of being a sign? Can a representation of nothingness be a radical semiotic goldmine of chandeliers, magic potions, and Gilgamesh?
Yes. In the realm of the zero, assent and credence have no limit.
From that point of view, the point of view of zero, money is pretty interesting stuff. It can also do a lot of harm. Money, when it goes wild, destroys empires. Implodes. Collapses on itself.
When the paper in my wallet has less value than the pixels on a computer screen, it’s time to learn how to boil water and make soup out of dandelions.
When the coins in my pocket cease their meaningful clatter on the drugstore counter and become the dead metal they truly are, our routines will end and we will all have nothing but time on our hands.
Money is the reason I don’t have to sharpen a stick and go kill something. It makes more sense to like it than hate it. It is what people have to do to get money that I despise. It is what people make other people do with their money that I despise. But the heat and lights and running water, the handsomely upholstered chair upon which I do an abundant amount of sitting and the computer that I am presently writing this on are by way of, and due to, money. I could not pay for these things with beaver pelts. There are no beavers living nearby, so far as I know, and squirrel pelts probably wouldn’t be worth that much. The oldest form of currency are probably cowry shells. It is possible that if a local economy develops out of the inevitable collapse of capitalism, we may arrive at something similar to cowry shells once again. Buttons. Beads. Maybe pebbles, like the ones Beckett’s Molloy puts in his mouth and sucks, each one “smooth, from having been sucked so long, by me, and beaten from the storm. A little pebble in your mouth, round and smooth, appeases, soothes, makes you forget your hunger, forget your thirst.”


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Metamorphosis Revisited

When I met Gregor Samsa he was still a cockroach, erratic and skittish whenever the light came on. We often spoke in the dark. I empathized with the man. I mean bug.
Ok. That isn’t fair. You can’t call a man a bug because he chirps and eats dried skin cells. A man is more than a mandible, compound eyes and an exoskeleton. He was self-sufficient. He survived. He went about his business without injury to other people.
Identity is always a muzzy proposition, especially after a good night’s sleep. I frequently wake up in the morning unclear about my identity and role in life. Breakfast helps get me concentrated. I enjoy breaking eggs with a butterknife, calculating the right amount of pressure, giving the egg a little whack with the blade and if everything goes right the shell cracks easily and the contents slip into the pan where I’ve already melted some butter and I sprinkle some salt and pepper and begin to stir and it never ceases to fascinate me: that moment when the liquidity of the eggs congeals.
My visits with Gregor were brief. His body repulsed me. It saddens me to admit that, but it’s true. Nobody likes hanging out with a cockroach for very long. One is never quite sure which of the legs to shake in greeting. Or what exactly to serve for refreshment. Crumbs? Something gone bad in the refrigerator?
There is nothing more public than a sidewalk, which is where I go when my session with Gregor is finished, and I am able to think and write about other experiences. Things like socks and shoes. My steps are continually haunted by the generality of shoes. The geniality of shoes. The miscellaneousness of shoes. Shoe sizes. Shoe soles. Shoe tongues. Shoe laces.
Or clothing.
People don’t wear yellow enough. Why is that? It’s such a bright, happy color. Don’t people want to look bright and happy? Nobody wants to end up another hapless Gregor Samsa, late for work and hiding under the bed.
Wear yellow, my friend, wear yellow. Be a sun. Be a golden light to the world. Rise and shine and let the world feel what you feel.
What is it that you feel?
Take the armchair: the armchair is the very essence of benevolence. Next time I encounter my friend Mr Samsa I will invite him to crawl into an armchair where he may recover what is most human in him. That delightful warmth that comes over one when we surrender to the persuasions of gravity and let our bones and muscles go into a state of total repose.
Here, in a chrysalis of comfort, we can succeed at some inner metamorphosis. We can empty ourselves of ourselves and drift into other forms of being. Find ourselves smashed by gravity into opulent cognition. A cat’s cradle still entangled in our fingers. The predicaments of insects dissolved into trifles and silks. Permissions and emendations. Butterflies in our dreams. The Beatles reunited in eternity.  



Saturday, October 12, 2013

Oh Yeah, I'll Tell You Something

Fifty years ago at this time in mid-fall I had finally (finally!) gotten my driver’s license. I had failed the test at least three separate times and had been in a deep funk over this issue. Earlier that summer I’d used the money I’d earned washing dishes at a Chinese Restaurant called The Tea Garden to buy a modest 125cc Zündapp motorcycle. The motorcycle was crucial to my existence. It was both a vital means of transport and my bid at being the next James Dean. I wore a red jacket like the one Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause.
I had other passions at the time. These were getting drunk, getting drunk, and getting drunk.
Ok, that’s a bit of a misrepresentation. Procuring alcohol was not that easy, nor did I get drunk that much. But when I did get drunk, I really liked being drunk. And I did like Shakespeare. Getting drunk and Shakespeare. Getting drunk on Shakespeare is probably a more accurate representation of my addled and adolescent brain. Marijuana was not in use, at least by anybody I happened to know, and was still considered the equivalent of heroin. I do, however, remember being enthralled with Aldous Huxley’s articles on taking peyote and other hallucinogens.
My hero, in so far as a role model is concerned, was James Dean. His intensity, his disdain, his toughness, his openness to feeling, his acute and utterly cool sense of alienation. As for girls, they were stupendous, they were beyond belief, and they were utterly unobtainable. I was scared to death of them. They were a Mount Everest I had not yet mustered the courage or stamina to approach. My best shot was to lean against a steam radiator in the high school hallway with my red jacket’s collar turned up and do my best to appear utterly and sneeringly indifferent to all the proceedings of the world. I remember the great benefit of my geometry textbook because it was large and I could use it to put in front of me when the class was over and I had to stand up because the hard-on I was sporting was threatening to tear through the crotch of my jeans.  
Getting my driver’s license had been a stunning, life-altering achievement for me. My father had taught me to drive in a Hillman Minx, a British made convertible with the weirdest gear shift patterning in the known physical universe. My father, who had been a B-24 instructor during WWII, had not been a particularly patient teacher. His frustrations with my inability to follow through with his instructions increased the volume of his voice, which went from a moderately calm legato to an anguished and hammering martellato. I had a tough time driving it at all much less using it to take a driver’s license test. It is no small significance that the driver’s licensing bureau was located near Green Lake and the most confusing intersection I have ever encountered, then or now. And I’ve visited many of the world’s cities. It is not just a four-way stop, which I find maddening in the extreme because no one ever knows who got to the stop sign first or whose turn it is to go, but about five possibly six arterials meet at this point. Altogether it is a tangle of streets and signs more confusing than a constraint equation for a stress-energy-momentum tensor.
My favorite TV show at the time was The Fugitive, a show based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in which David Janssen, a Jack Kerouac look alike, goes underground and hits the road as a drifter in pursuit of the one-armed man that killed his wife while being doggedly pursued by Police Lieutenant Philip Gerard.  What I loved about that show as the way Janssen could never quite conceal his high education, refinement and compassion, his real nobility in other words, despite all the menial jobs he took. That would provide a useful model for my future employment; I could do any menial job to make money while supporting the noble and refined pursuit of writing, à la Jack Kerouac, until I became famous, hung out with Beat poets and led a life of desperate intensity and intellect while simultaneously pursuing exotic drugs and voluptuous pleasures. I would soon discover that being a “fugitive” was not nearly as romantic as it appeared in the TV show. I would leave school early, naively satisfied that a Bachelor’s Degree in English would be enough to secure a good, well-paying job. It didn’t. Nor would I ever be fated to step forward and come out of hiding to save someone from a life-threatening accident or disease, totally amazing the very people that minutes before had ignored, condescended, or mocked me. To this day, I do not know as much as CPR. If someone dropped to the floor with a stroke or heart attack I would not know the first thing to do.
This is all background chatter for what would prove to be the most remarkable event of that time. This was the emergence of the Beatles. This would prove to be bigger, even, than the tragedy about to occur some weeks later in November.
People often ask if they remember where they were when that tragedy occurred, because people often do. My memory is quite vivid: I was in an English class which was housed in one of several barracks-like outbuildings on the Roosevelt High School grounds, about to recite a speech from Macbeth I’d diligently and lovingly memorized, in which Macbeth contemplates the murder of Duncan (“If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly…”), when our teacher, a thirty-something woman whose name I have long forgotten, was asked to come outside. It was a bright, crisp, sunny day, unusual for November. When the door opened, golden light flooded in. When our teacher returned, she was crying. Everyone’s immediate assumption was that a member of her family had died. Then we were given the news: President Kennedy was dead. He’d been shot while touring Dallas, Texas, in a 1961 Lincoln Continental stretch limousine with the top down.
There had also been the civil rights movement and increasing mention of an Asian country named Viet Nam. These were events that flavored that era, though at the time they were somewhat distant to my imagination, apart from the shocking photographs that appeared in Life magazine of black and white people being truncheoned and hosed by an extremely hostile police force. There had also been the appearance of thousands of people at the Washington D.C. monument to hear Doctor Martin Luther King’s passionate and forceful eloquence.
The Beatles did not hit me with any strong degree of liking or disliking. These were the days of AM radio when everyone of a certain age either listened to pop music on KJR, easy listening on KIRO or Schubert and Brahms on KING. The songs getting most of the airplay during that time were “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs (which I absolutely hated), “It’s My Party” by Leslie Gore, “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels, “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton, “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons, “Walk Like A Man” by the Four Seasons, “Our Day Will Come” by Ruby and the Romantics and “Surf City” by Jan and Dean. By far, my favorite song of that period was “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, named after Ronnie Spector. This song blew my mind. Another odd song during that period was “Fingertips,” by Little Stevie Wonder. This was a very new sound, not quite Motown, not quite anything I’d heard before. It was jubilant and jazzy and cool in a way I couldn’t quite get a handle on.
I loved Motown, The Shirelles, The Temptations, The Crystals, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes. It was edgy, soulful, authentic and cool. Rock and roll, the real stuff, had disappeared by 1958, its leading practitioners either jailed or domesticated or, like Elvis, persuaded to go into the army. Almost as soon as rock got off the ground it freaked the public out and was quickly homogenized into the bland substitutes of the Bobbys: Bobby Vinton, Bobby Sherman, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin. Anything that kicked ass was rare. I don’t know how it happened that Motown was able to secure such a generous representation during that epoch of commercial blandness, but it was a welcome relief and I loved it. Consequently, I wasn’t quite prepared for the Beatles. They weren’t bland, that was for sure, but their sound didn’t have that essential substratum of pain and spirit and veiled agitation so evident in the Motown sound.
Motown was not rebellious, but it had a quietly subversive drive, a certain “other side of the tracks” quality that gave that music a dangerously appealing, exotic wild side. When Ray Charles sang “Busted,” you sensed that he was singing about a lot more than poverty. The song, which had been written by Johnny Cash, presented a dark reality that was quite unusual for pop music. “Busted” also had connotations of arrest for drugs, which made that “other side of the tracks” reality all the more exciting and palpable. Drugs were not mentioned in the song, but it was there. As soon as you heard the word ‘busted’ images of Lenny Bruce in handcuffs came to mind. Ray Charles wore sunglasses because he was blind. But it gave a look of distancing oneself from public view and a strong suggestion of dilated pupils, dilated mind.
I’m not even sure which Beatles song I heard first. It could have been “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “She Loves You.” It might also have been “Love Me Do” or “Please Please Me” which was first played in Chicago on February 8th, 1963. “Love Me Do” was first recorded in September, 1962, but wasn’t released in the United States until 1964, so that one can be ruled out, unless some friend of a friend recently returned from a trip to England had a copy that played in somebody’s basement. But that I think I would have remembered.
Whichever song it was, it didn’t grab me right away. My only memory of the Beatles that fall was the kind of derision my friends and I gave them. We didn’t as yet know what they looked like, but their sound was so openly jubilant and bubbly that it was easily dismissed as true rock. It was girl stuff. And the refrain “I want to hold your hand” lent it itself to many ridiculous and prurient permutations: I want to hold your tit, I want to hold your breast, I want to hold your cock, I want to hold your balls, I want to hold your car keys. But the more I listened, the more interested I became. The music was joyful and full of gusto as was surf music, but the sentiment was given further reach by its powerful rhythms and compelling melodies. The rhythm had an insistence that was exquisite and strong, like an amusement park ride. It made you want to thrust yourself about and do reckless and silly things. It made you giddy. It made you a little drunk. It made you want to take risks, especially with women, and discover (hopefully) what it was about the Beatles that was making the young women go so crazy. Who were these guys?
When I found out they were English the surprise was even more stunning. English? How did the English even know about rock and roll? When I saw the Beatles for the first time, on one of their first record albums propped up in a store window, I was a little intimidated. First, their hair. I’d never seen men let their hair get anywhere near that long. Secondly, the pointy-toed boots they wore with the high Flamenco heels were the kind of boots that serious hoods wore. Were these guys hoods? How could that be? Their music sounded so innocent.
By the spring of 1964 I would figure out, at least, that the Beatles were not that innocent. Or, more aptly, that their true innocence was not that innocent. They were promoting values that ran contrary to the usual dreary conventions of western capitalism. “Can’t Buy Me Love” joyfully mocked the masked aggression belied by the cornball custom of presenting a woman with an expensive diamond ring. The subtext there was pretty obvious: the intent of the mounted diamond was not so much a declaration of love as evidence of a man’s ability to make money. The subtext was also pretty clear: you were proving what a powerful man you must be in order to get that quantity of money. Suddenly the Beatles were saying nope, that’s stupid, you don’t need that, you don’t need to prove your love with money. Money won’t buy your way into somebody’s affections. You’ve got prove your love in more authentic ways.
But that would be another year. Fifty years ago, in 1963, I was happy just to ride my Zündapp, get drunk occasionally, and spout Shakespeare.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Mystic Kinetic Cut

I pour some coffee while the hibachi coals are dying the scales of the dragon twinkle I snap crackle pop I am a greenhorn recently jingled it means my words are blooming and you and I should get kinetic together. Our footing is composed of feet our syllables are impelled by breath a pencil rolls across the table I like to travel I grow into cats and prowl it’s a typical afternoon I pound the wall expecting slaps and Jean Paul Sartre instead I get my curves greased and a garden fascinates the senses.
The drum is a device for rhythm and there is a celebration in my knees I load my ribs with paradigms I gallop across my skin I am brooked by a wall my prophecies are steamed into wallpaper my cracked hands uncurl over a revelation mohair sparrows chowder and Bach.
Our ache is a general ache unpredictable and gallant anything can happen and often does this isn’t chronological no but it’s wiggling and apparitional a hypothesis sails at dawn with a spectrum of violent colors let us scream acceptance let us perforate the sneer of need.
I feel a little pink as I merge with emptiness the linen redeems the cutlery a bowl of walnuts is reached by the tongue of a soubriquet a little import named Arbuckle points to the door of a garage if I change into a stick a cyst of pathos will ensue the wood is beautifully grained can we assume that construction with nails hammers drills is a conversation held together by mutual interests and dangling modifiers move your finger along the frame of the painting see how it explodes into a river this is how the day unfolds this is how I flex my alphabet and tether all circumstance to a structure of words. The alphabet is expansive and plump. I beat my fists against the wall I hear the engine of a fishing boat a deformation of sound roiling the air this palette is thick with black watch as I draw an amendment for the constitution of a washbowl.
I polish the surface of a river with a rag of sunlight and feel magisterial I am swarming with bees sweet and shiny and copper the radiator explodes into a river and somewhere near Rocky Neck an egg in a nest of white feathers cracks and a form with wings newly made emerges the boat breaks and a plot opens the grass of the cemetery is charming and green death is a puzzle no one returns to tell us about it they just stumble across the heavens like clumsy brains of sunset vapor.
I expand so that I can know you your life is showing grow into a grievance bristle and sell things a sky rises the defense of it is natural the honors are all mine atoms split and materialize and draw the caboose like mules of sad energy I feel the soft green moss on the bank this is my heart it is the swirl of water in the river there is a necessity in all of us I have black tusks the sand is moving its proximity tickles as it blossoms into a cut. The holes are scratching their own emptiness it is a delectation for idle reverie coherence is clasped by ghostly conviction the bowfin is crammed with meat I am but a version of myself a tangle of hair in a crotch passes for beach grass whispers of corollary sound there is a vital usurpation in surf the road disappears beneath the wake of a philosophy as it rolls in sparks through the zone of a russet emotion that once loomed variable as a sanctuary within my heart and now hums inside a mailbox like a fossil of ancient feeling and rouses the expression of an otherworldly force it is Picasso knocking at the door all sternum ribs and rope he wears a stethoscope and a necklace of chili peppers the butterflies are on their usual excursion even in the snow their colors are more vivid than ever.
So what if this is an excursion of ink if the hair thickens then is the room beside itself or is it still just a room I am public as a frequency yet private as a testicle illumined by a knot of semen an alchemy of fingers releases the suspension it is green and black like the conversation of wood crackling with fire a grove of birch greets the blasts of wind with impassive contrasts of white and black it is like the parchment of angels the counsel of roots a mountain colliding with the sky and extruding their wonders in rock and ledge the clouds boil gleefully over the peak I reach for my zipper and purge a hectic embryo shouting feathers and singing to the bark of a tree. I wear a belt of car pistons and tremble with the ghosts of rejection I do a handstand I’m a naked resource I can paint a fire drill with a cube of butter and a wisp of incense. The gardenia weighs a pound and the radio does a sashay in the cabin of a spectacular nipple. It is a clear signal. Heave your mind into the universe and buy a motorcycle. Sprawl about in words. Visit Connecticut. Bring a ladder. Bring syllables. Turn derelict. It will all fall into place. Whatever it is. Slow thunder and sand. It will be drawn to you. You will be drawn to it. The times. The future. The conception of night and day. Life itself. The rhythms of the road. The sea. The sky. The orbit of a hand.




Tuesday, October 1, 2013


I’m greatly intrigued with the idea of another dimension. Dimensions, plural. Dimensions whose dimensions are different than the dimensions of our dimension. The fourth dimension, for example. A non-Euclidean space in which time has been folded into the batter of width and length and depth and vigorously stirred so that time and space are a perfect (or imperfect) blend of wormholes and quarks. In other words, a space-time continuum in which past, present, and future exist as a simultaneous unity. In which these words have already been written. Yet not written. In which these words exist as potentialities and actualities, histories and possibilities.
Or the idea that we are surrounded by entities, phenomena, that we cannot see, cannot smell, cannot touch, cannot even be imagined because they’re being is so far removed from anything we have experienced. Phenomena that may come to us in dreams, stand by our bed as shadows, float through our minds as premonitions and intuitions. There may be places that have a certain ineffable aura, an energy that cannot be defined, but that finds its way into music, such as the voices and rhythms that have come out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Or ghosts. Who hasn’t at the very least momentarily wondered if ghosts are real? One of the greatest plays in the English language is propelled by a ghost. When Hamlet stands at the parapet of Elsinore castle and follows his father’s ghost, an entire spectrum of thought occurs, an endless ramification of alternative actions, strategies, and consequences emerges. What does actually happen is really only the shadow of a thousand other unrealized possibilities. Possibilities in which Ophelia lives and Hamlet triumphs. So that what makes this play tragic is nothing at all predestined but the result of impulses and hesitations, a combination of arguments pursued and aborted, a jumble of trajectories as random as the balls clicking together on a pool table.
In all my sixty-six years on the planet I have not encountered a single ghost. This is extremely disappointing. Because the encounter with a ghost would provide evidence of an afterlife, evidence that one’s identity may persist in some form outside the body after the body has perished. Evidence that we possess a soul, an essence that endures. Most ghost stories declare a situation in which the soul of a dead person has assumed a ghostly presence because of an obsession, an unresolved trauma. The ghost, as in Hamlet, craves justice. The ghost wants the living to find its murderer and have revenge. Or vindication, acquittal, conciliation. These are qualities of an existence on earth, and are fundamentally social. Would such things exist in eternity? Are there beings, such as the plays and movies of the western world suggest, that go straight to paradise? And if the soul is eternal, why does no one seem to remember a before-life? Did we once inhabit a paradise and somehow fall into mortal development in the womb of a woman in order to spend X number of years as a human being? For what reason?
And what of the ghost itself? How do they speak if they have no larynx, no vocal cords, no throat or neck with the attendant and necessary membranes for making sound, or lungs for pushing those sounds into the world with air, or lips and a tongue and a palate for shaping those sounds into words? Do ghosts speak by some form of telepathy? Not having met a ghost, my only means of assumption is based on stories and plays and movies. The expression of ghosts in fiction.
There are numerous people who make claim to proving the existence of ghosts, but they’re means, however compelling, lack the empirical rigors of actual science, and cannot be believed.
I do believe, however, that in many ways we become ghosts to ourselves. We haunt ourselves. Old memories assume an obsessional proportion that can’t be resolved or shaken from us. They cling. And the older we become, the more ghosts we seem to accumulate. It is as if our being became a haunted house in which each room held a certain ghost. These are not simple memories but unresolved energies that crave resolution, frustrations that were frustrations when we experienced them, and continue as frustrations in an inaccessible past.
Ghosts aside, there are other dimensions. And where there are other dimensions, there might also be other beings.
In 2007, physicists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison devised a method by which the violent birth of the universe thirteen billion years ago could be detected in the form of tiny, vibrating strings of energy. These elusive entities are critical to developing a sound unified field theory. A “Theory of Everything” in other words.
The mathematics of string theory indicate that the world we know is incomplete. Not a big surprise. Anyone who has taken peyote, psilocybin, or studied physics has had firsthand knowledge of this. String theory determines the existence of six extra spatial dimensions curled in tiny geometric shapes at every single site in the universe. We call these entities strings so that they’ll have an image, but in reality they have no image. They’re infinitesimal knots of energy that have specific properties, but not the properties associated with a three dimensional universe, such as color, mass, and size. They exist purely as mathematical entities. What is weirder, is that these entities cannot exist unless they’re moving in a ten-dimensional universe. It is the exact geometry of the entities that determines what kind of particles will exist in a given universe, and the kind of properties it will have.
So: there are more things on heaven and earth than were dreamed of in Horatio’s philosophy, whatever Horatio’s philosophy happened to be.
So much for the unseen, for the invisible, for worlds and dimensions that we cannot apprehend through our normal five senses. But what if things that we do see that have no real existence? The borders of countries and states, for instance. In reality, there is no Colorado or Wisconsin or Iowa or France. No England. No Mongolia. No Cambodia. What was most recently Yugoslavia is now eight different countries: Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro. What divides these countries is determined more essentially by language and culture than an imaginary line on a map. Lines on maps do not exist; yet I cannot remove them from my mind. I cannot imagine a North America or Central America or South America without a Brazil or a Panama or a Mexico or a California or a Wyoming.
Which leads one to wonder: how many other assumptions are rambling and rumbling around in my brain that have no reality? I think of myself primarily as a poet. That has been the most general and acute sense of identity that I’ve had since about age eighteen; forty-eight years. Is it a profession? No. Not at all. It’s a divine calling. Poetry is more akin with shamanistic or religious pursuits rather than a standard career because one, there is virtually no money in it, and two, one does not carry the burden of responsibility in the same way that a defense attorney, commercial airline pilot or surgeon does. It is, in fact, a flagrantly self-indulgent, selfish pursuit, in which the poverty of the practitioner sometimes becomes somebody else’s burden. A parent, a soon-to-be estranged wife, a kind and saintly sibling. Most poets find a means to making a living in the academic sphere, but teaching, like working in a bookstore, is a form of midwifery. The ongoing struggle to find time and place to do one’s writing, is more apt to cause disputes among friends and family than harmony. Wives, husbands, friends and children all go neglected for the siren-song of the muse. It’s a strange identity to inhabit, particularly in the social arena.
The point of this is that we are born with identities, we create them. The phenomenon of identity is an interrelation between our internal emotional world and the external world of facts and vines and helmets and reindeer. And, however real it may seem to us, it isn’t. Identity is an ephemeral, protean circumstance of mood and serendipity, geography and language, costume and time. Morality, ethics, rectitude, mannerisms and beliefs are all very real on some level, but have no basis in actuality, in the empirical world of quantifiable events. Can there be any wonder, then, that there is a propensity to believe in ghosts? To believe that certain places are inhabited by spirits? That there are entities that endure when our body has succumbed to one or more of the thousand shocks the flesh is heir to?