What are you but a drifting cloud? inquires Philip Whalen in “Ode for You,” page 682 in The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, edited by Michael Rothenberg.
And the answer is yes, most certainly: I’m a cloud of water and blood, bone and skin, organelles and mitochondria, protons, electrons, neutrons. Scrambled eggs, scrambled brain. Flapjacks, flattery, fleece. Smells, sounds, thoughts, jungles of hair, jungles of phantom sensation. Jungles of real sensation. Sensations of jungle. Of coffee. Of chocolate. Of a hammer hitting something.
Metal. Something metal. It has that tinny sound. Like the quack of Vaucanson’s duck.
That wattle of skin you get under your chin when you enter your late sixties.
Language gets over everything. What slop. This slithery slippery stuff of travel itineraries and suppositions and maps. Paragraphs like zinnias, semantic kitchens full of symbolic knives. Hills like white dinosaurs. Sumptuously refractive chrome bumpers. Green tea. Rattly machines. Those lush curtains you rarely see in movie theaters anymore. The ones that part just before the previews start. Certainly not those theaters that show ads and TV shows and there are no curtains at all, just mawkish narratives about cancer survivors. Eric Dane on the bridge of a guided missile destroyer looking determined and undefeatable.
Empires, seminars, conversations, ganglions all over everything.
This is the wrong climate for developing a calculus of shadows. Better, instead, to develop the luster of association. Elephants eating acacia trees. Cubism. Graceful articulations, golden tinctures of glass, pulp fiction, acoustic religions, olive oil, bivouacs mastered by wrist.
When we went to Paris one of the first things I noticed was the good condition of the streets and sidewalks. You don’t find that much in Seattle. There are cracks and potholes and craters everywhere. Cranes and construction. The buildings get taller and the streets get worse. The rich get richer and the potholes get bigger. Why is that? The rich don’t pay taxes. The poor do.
This morning the ocean is imaginary, as the real one is 173 miles west, if we went to Long Beach, which is where we visited 9 years ago, and rode horses. I rode a dappled stallion named Apache through the surf. That ocean was real, but now it’s imaginary, as it’s in my head, where I’m busy remembering it, pulling its image up from my memory banks, and experiencing it again. I would describe this imagined ocean as largely abstract and visual, the more bodily sensations just aren’t there, aren’t happening, not that cold water, the smell of salt and sand and kelp and crustaceans rotting or scampering about, the spread of water over the feet, then suddenly up and past the legs all the way to the knee and higher yet and you think oh shit I’d better get out of here.
Memories are weird, you know? Like some sort of theater. The same cast of characters in which I sometimes play a role of commendable charm, though most of the time I’m being an asshole, those are the memories that stick, remorse being a powerful form of glue.
Why aren’t there jobs for daydreamers? And if there were, what exactly would those jobs be? What would they produce? Candles? Underwear? Dreams? People have their own dreams. They don’t need to be manufactured. And really, isn’t that what movies do? Aren’t they a form of dream? Well, they used to be, until they turned into 3-D video games for 8 year olds.
There was a time in my life that I thought being a poet was an actual profession, and that as soon as a book was published, museums were after your notebooks and letters and your closet filled with frilly Regency clothes and you acquired a castle overlooking the Rhine with a rose garden tended by angelic women named Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley or Katherina Baumgartner.
I learned soon enough that being a poet wasn’t a profession but a calling and that callings generally do not come with incomes. The idea is to sacrifice one’s financial security on the millwheels of commerce and quietly endure the tsunami of rejections until that one vital acceptance arrives and all is made good and wonderful in the world again as you cruise to the local 7-11 for a six-pack to celebrate.
Books are another matter. Especially now that these wonderful objects have begun to disappear, thanks to the tablets and pads in which the written word has become an electronic medium shining out of a cold hard corporate screen and the words are lost to pop ups and deletion, à la Orwell’s 1984.
Digital books are sent over a wireless network. A controlling company can make them vanish in an instant. Publishing houses that produce books as physical objects are also subject to control due to pressure from a government or vagaries such as market censorship in which only writing that is plainly marketable gets published and more obscure or difficult writing is rejected, at least by the mainstream presses, which come increasingly under the domination of myopic, profit-driven corporations. This, coupled with the near-extinction of independent bookstores, endangers free thought and quality writing. Nevertheless, it’s still much harder to control a physical rather than a virtual reality.
So then comes the task of explaining all your books to people dismayed to see so many books in one place. What is one person doing with so many books? Have you read them all? Are you a hoarder? A madman? A fool? A dangerous eccentric?
It’s as if you were one of those mad scientists in a late night horror movie sending a hunchbacked man out to find you brains and braunschweiger.
Tending to bubbling beakers of strange hideous fluids in a dungeon laboratory.
Creating Frankensteins of poetry, monstrosities of language sutured together with a bloody pen.
Howling to the heavens atop a storm-buffeted tower for lightning and inspiration.
If an ocean can be imaginary, so can a profession. Suddenly you’re a Prospero whose tiny studio apartment has become a Bermuda of speculation and whose library has become a dukedom.
But it’s ok. Deep down you know you’re not the problem. The problem is the pathology putting far too much emphasis on disastrous technologies and exalting wealth above the labors of the intellect.
The magic (and it is real magic) is to bring something into the world that hasn’t existed before. Something like Poland, or Lapland, a place that evokes roots and forests, shamans and mushrooms, and yet enough industry to make medicine grand without compromising anyone’s wallets or protoplasm. This requires real sweat, real splendor, real sacrifice. The kind of stuff Guillaume Apollinaire would enjoy. Machinery, bistros, massive odors and swollen abstractions.