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Snowing again here. Harshest winter since I moved North. In retrospect, I’ll like it except this should have happened when I was 20 or so. Come to think of it, the winter of 78 had two huge snow storms in Jersey within a month of each other. I remember shoveling Mrs. Boyle’s and Mrs Chris’ walks and then doing my own, because it had been a tradition with my father to shovel them before ourselves (they were both old) . Mrs. Boyle gave us brandy. Mrs Chris gave us a sort of royal smile, which I liked almost as much as the brany. She had a daughter named Dot, and a “ne’er-do-well” son in law named Kenny. You knew men in the neighborhood were not quite reputable if there was a Y connected to their names. It meant they had been good looking and beloved early in life but had failed to grow up.

I liked Kenny because he had played semi-pro football and could toss the ball better than any of our fathers, but he always tossed it too hard, and we’d fall down on the street trying to catch it, or it would hurt our chests or our hands, and he’d say: “when you can catch my ball, you can catch a pro.” He made the mistake of doing this to Oochie, a rough kid who later made it all county as a wide receiver. Oochie never wore anything but a shirt in mid winter. His dad was a Russian immigrant straight out of Dostoevsky who drank. When my mom asked Oochie where his coat was, he laughed, and said: “my dad drank it.” My mom went and got him a coat. Oochie wouldn’t wear it because he knew his father would beat him if he took charity. But he liked my mom after that.

So Kenny throws the ball at Oochie, and Oochie catches it. He’s skinny and only 11 at the time (1966. I’m flashing back). Kenny throws it even harder, claiming the first one was a mercy throw. Oochie catches it. The next one is aimed at Oochie’s head, and Oochie hits the macadam. He gets up with his elbow bleeding. Kenny says his usual: “When you can catch my ball, you can catch a pro.” And Oochie walks up to him and says: “Hey, Kenny… catch this!” And he grabs Kenny’s balls and squeezes them so hard Kenny goes to the ground. Oochie spits on him. He says: “I ever see you throwing a ball in the street again, I’m going to kill you.” Then he walks home.

So Kenny wasn’t all that bad and neither was Oochie. Kenny was just a little sadistic, like many mediocre men who haven’t grown up, and Oochie was the victim of sadists all his life and it had made him hard. But I got off the point of this story.

So in 78 there were two snow storms. Kenny couldn’t shovel because he had a bad back. He got me my first good paying job as a summer worker for Liberty movers back in 76, so I tolerated his bullshit, and maybe it was true. Maybe his back was shot. It was. 120 degrees sometimes in the hull of the truck, riding with the furniture, but 10 bucks an hour under the table–a king’s ransom in 78. I worked 30 hours and then they didn’t need the extra help because they’d moved the office furniture at AT @ T in Sommerville (or Sommerset). I forget. I got laid off, but I had 300 bucks swimming like a sleek shark in my pocket, and I spent it immediately on a cheap amp, a mike, and a Kelly green electric guitar with tan trim. I called it my “gator.” It didn’t matter that I knew not what to do with a guitar. I played piano. I played by ear. I figured I’d just write a song on the guitar, and then no one could tell me it was wrong because it was mine. I figured out some chords, got my blisters, and when my small hands porved troublesome (small hands on a guitar are far worse than small hands on a piano) I took off the high e string and found out this allowed me to play chords I couldn’t play with six. This has troubled decent and law abiding guitarists ever since, but I could now switch chords quickly enough to play basic songs. So how could I hate Kenny, no matter how many times he knocked me down with a football, or claimed his back was out when it snowed? He and Dot were not married, which meant they were common law. This made them different than all other people in my universe, and I liked that. Dot had a niece from Illinois who sometimes came to visit and stood in their backyard staring at me as I stood in my backyard staring at her–in mid winter, the grass all yellow and cropped, her coat a fake leopard skin. I was maybe six then and she was around my age, We never spoke. We just stared and because of all the clouds, and the grass, and the bare trees–everything that surrounded our stare, I kind of fell in love with her, though I never thought of asking her to play and after two winters of this she disappeared into the world of her far off state never to be seen again. I often thought I would go to Illinois and find her, but people in my neighborhood thought it was a trip if you walked ten blocks to the next parish.

Anyway, so I was thinking of all this while I shoveled, and I am thinking about it now. That winter, they took Kenny in an ambulance for bleeding ulcers. My mother was dead. We were slowly losing the house I grew up in and, in 1981, it would be sold off for less than we paid for it in 1961, and I’d have all my belongings placed in the bed of friend’s pick up including the piano my mother had taken a job to buy for me.. The neighbors would stare. They always came out for ambulances, fires, and disgrace. We fell down in low esteem after my mom’s death, my dad’s illness (neither me nor my brother and sister, nor my father knew how to grieve except to get angry, and stop mowing the lawn) . Someone called my sister a slut (she was 13) and the mothers told their daughters (who were not as virginal as the mothers thought) not to play with her, so one night I got drunk and tore off every gutter and drain pipe on the block. I tore down a fort fence. My sister needed some mother to take my mom’s place and instead she got the word slut. Anyway, we weren’t going to be missed after that, so I just looked at them all as they watch me pull away, and played the piano. I played ragtime. I figured it was appropriate.

But in 1978, I was still considered a good kid, someone who had just lost his saintly mother,and was a college student at Rutgers (a big thing in my neighborhood) and I shoveled snow for Mrs Boyle and for mrs Chris. Then I just kept shoveling. It was the first day I felt joy or allowed myself to feel joy since my mom’s death the year before. I remember watching the smoke of my breath and laughing as some kid threw a snow ball at my head. I remember thinking my mother would want me to be laughing, and that I could still close my eyes and see her exactly as she had been–perfect, poised with her double jointed and lanky arm at the kitchen stove, the stove speckled with Ragu, a cigarette in one hand, and a spatula in the other singing to Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?” When I couldn’t see her so clearly ten years later as I closed my eyes, she died a second time. And after all the moves, when I lost all my pictures of her, but found one in an old box, I was terrified because the woman in the picture did not match the mother in my mind, and she died a third time. If you ever lose someone you really love, you will find out they keep dying and each death is different, but it is grief anyway, and soon, if the grief dies, you will pick the scab again just to bleed a little for them so that they never think, so they never think you don’t love them anymore.

I shoveled every walk on my side of the street. I shoveled out cars. I shoveled until the whole sky took on the rainbow glory of my being snowblind. Every other house someone gave me a shot or two shots, and I had ice in my long hair from drivers gunning it to get out of a spot even when you told them not to gun it, and we stuck broom sticks, and orange crates, and folding chairs in the dugout street spots to make sure no one took anyone’s spot. I was a little drunk by the time I got done and returned to the warmth of the house we lost three years later. The radiators spit. The old furnace rumbled and chanted and did its version of Boris Godunov. I got on the piano and played Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, and Springsteen’s Meeting Across the River, and then some Bach -like piece I’d made up. And the drunkenness went away. I slept on the living room couch, woke up. It was night: disorienting. Outside, the stars inside the snow were glittering, and you could hear snow and ice melt all around you if you listened. That was a rough winter. Every winter is rough.

Now, at an age when most people are having their first grandchildren, I have two little babies. I want to tell them what their grandmother and grandfather were like. I want them to know their father had a whole life before them and it was all a prep for loving them. I also want them to know I am scared almost all the time, and its alright, because I know how amazing things are and how easily they can be taken away from you.. I want them to like their own version of the Kenny, and Oochie they will meet at sometime in their lives and to understand if not like them. My mother did not call him Oochie. She gave him the full majesty of his own name, Mathew. And my mother called Kenny, Ken. She gave me my full name too, Joseph. She understood that names were a power to do good or to do permanent unrelenting damage. She would never use the word slut to describe anyone. I remember that Oochie showed up at my mom’s wake in a jacket. That was his way of saying he respected her. I think he went to jail. Ken and Dot and Mrs Chris and Mrs Boyle are long dead, but not here. Here, it is snowing, and I have some shoveling to do.

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THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE

BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN

 NYQ BOOKS, 2013

ISBN 978-1935520-89-4

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All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.

Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision.  In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.

In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.

Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:

My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small

Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper

with orange vases, bright yellow flowers

and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,

especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.

The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop.  Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place.  Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.

The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.

Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a  more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:

 Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing

at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her

that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice

it has no right to require.

This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”

Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’  The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:

 How grateful I must

remember to be, to hold

so much in my hands.

so much in my hands.

I remember listening on a green transistor radio to the Frazier/Ali fight back in the late winter of 1971. I was 12, and at the height of my interest in sports. My Yankees had done badly that summer (they’d finished fifth in their division). This is not the dynasty Yankees: this is the Yankees of Horace Clark and a third baseman (Jerry Kinney) who hit under 200 without power. This is a Yankee team whose best and most consistent player was Roy White, and who had two starting pitchers who swapped wives and houses (Kekich and Pederson). I loved them without hope–the way it should be.

Ali had been out of the loop for over two years. He was cocky. I’d heard an old man say something I didn’t understand: “Say what you want about that mother fucker…he ain’t no fuckin field nigger.”

Ali’s tune up fight had not looked sharp and, in my neighborhood, where many young men were in Nam, and three of them on my block were soon to be dead, rooting for Ali took a lot of guts. Ali also rubbed it in so deep on Joe Frazier that you had to feel bad, or mad, or just humiliated yourself. Frazier had an amazing left hook and a stolid, cut off the ring approach that seemed utterly hard hat. The hard hats were not the friends of the hippies that year and visa versa. This was the beginning of the schism in the democratic party, between depression based old union democrat and prosperity, lifestyle based choice culture leftism. Frazier was a patriot. Frazier was a no nonsense, soft spoken guy from Philly. Ali was the pretty boy, the darling of the new global left–the most famous figure in the world. It was hard to root for him, but even after two years off, it was even harder to believe he wouldn’t somehow out dance, out box, and out think Frazier and steal his title while humiliating the champ.. I think working people were beginning to feel humiliated enough. They didn’t understand the anti-americanism of the new left, especially since it seemed to be led by and comprised almost entirely of little privileged shits from the burbs. Those kids mocked us. They were not like us. They saw us as white trash. They looked bored and unfriendly and we had no idea they’d gotten that bored and unfriendly look from the Velvet Underground and posters of various hipsters and fashion models. I remember a man in the barber shop saying: “those long hairs got their nigger, and we got our’s. Their’s is just like them: a fuckin wise ass.”

I rooted for Joe Frazier because he had a terrific left (I’m left handed) and was a short guy as was my father. He cut off the ring. He took a punch to land one. He had trained hard and beaten a bunch of good fighters to get the title. In my heart, I knew the war was wrong, the word nigger was wrong, the whole feel of that time was somehow wrong. I was against the war, and as an 11 year old, I opened my mouth and got my ass beat. We were a strange mix of working class anger, and old leftist virtue. In my house, my mother swore if she ever heard us use the N word, she would leave us at the police station and give us up for adoption. We knew she meant it. It was a time of splits: racial splits, class splits, most importantly a split between an old immigrant unionism which was at both the top of its success and ready to take a nose dive with the first oil crisis, and the new left that would later spend most of its youth and middle age analyzing itself.

I rooted for Frazier because he was the underdog–the fighter for those working class guys who were in Nam. It never occurred to me that the guys in Nam were not against Ali. When Tom Daley came back after two tours of duty and missing three fingers he said: “Ali was right… I was a fucking sap.”

So on March 8th, 1971, on the same radio station as my Knicks (think it was WOR) the fight was broadcast. it was close, so close, and Frazier won. I was ecstatic..It was a year for underdogs. My Knicks were defending champs. For a moment, a year before my balls dropped, I was a happy kid. But I felt bad for Ali. The next day in the paper they showed his puffed up face. They never wrote Frazier was in the hospital even longer. Two black men had beat the shit out of each other. Given the warped mix of class, race, pro-war, anti-war sentiments, some whites still felt proud and almost teary eyed that their good, patriotic “nigger” had won.

That’s what some idiot yelled to my dad when he came up the street from the bus that left him off from the 3:30 to 12 shift. “Hey Rocky!” The guy yelled, “The good nigger won.” My dad flipped his cigarette and yelled back: “Ali… won?” “No… you dumb bastard, the good nigger.” “I thought you said the only good nigger was a dead nigger,” My dad rejoined. “Ah Rocky… ” the guy finished in disgust, “you’d fuck up a wet dream.” I was up late because my mom gave me permission. My father looked at me: “kid… don’t ever be like that dumb shit… A little late for you to be up.” I answered my father, “I wanted to see what you thought Dad.” He said,” A lot of idiots think they won a fight and they never spent even a half minute in the ring… Listen, I want to show you what it means to be in the ring… don’t tell your ma, ok?” My dad made me get into a boxer’s stance after going inside the house to get the egg timer. For three minutes he hit me–very lightly with jabs to my arms, countered all my punches, faked me out, made me winded so that, at the end of those three minutes, I thought I’d puke my guts up. He said, “that’s what you heard tonight kid, except no punches was pulled, and it went all them rounds.That’s the only part of this that ain’t bullshit. That’s just a taste… boxers are just poor dopes trying to make some scratch… black, white, they get themselves hurt for the green. this was a big pay day. All this horse shit about this or that …you know what’s wrong with this country?

“What’s that dad?”

“It ain’t the boxers or soldiers who’s brutal… it’s all these goddamned spectators…” He threw one more jab at my arm. “Come on, Let’s go in and have some pie… Ali is a great boxer. If he’d been a little more in shape, goodbye Frazier. Joe is a great fighter… he’s got heart…Ali is the better man, but not tonight. The rest of us, we best pray we don’t have to get into the ring with either of em. Come on… I’m beat to shit.”

To introverts writers are glamorous. I am reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights and enjoying it, but I hate those who feel they own Joan Didion. I don’t know how many others feel this way, but I often become irate over the ownership of issues and artists. Nothing will make me back off an issue or an artist more than the disciples and gatekeepers of said issue and said artist. I can’t stand when people “collect” their loves and hoard them. Dragons do that. Introverts are dragons.

Maybe this is why I feel alienated from other writers. I never got into the glamor of being a writer. To me writers are the most uninteresting of persons. Most of them sit around looking slightly bug like and fearful until the book comes out or the poem and then you see the ferocity of the dragon in their work which is that bug projected onto the screen and blown up to three hundred times its normal size.

Writers never pick good places to eat; they pick overpriced places with bad food and indifferent service. I’m not heavily attracted to either the timidity or the ferocity of writers. Both are kind of mean spirited. I loath meeting writers, especially writers I admire. I would never want to meet Joan Didion. I am not an introvert with a vast glass unicorn collection.

To me, there is nothing more gloomy than attending a signing and someone almost knocks you over to get face time with an author he or she worships. It’s the literary version of a Black Friday sale at Wal-Mart. If Joan Didion came to campus people would jealously hoard her and feel ennobled that they were the ones she sat next to at the dinner table, blah, blah, blah.

Having dinner with a celebrity writer is no where near as fun as sitting around with some funny old lady who can tell a good story. Writers save their best stories for their books. That’s the place to meet them. Anywhere else and you have to deal with their hangers on and groupies. I’d rather have a tooth pulled.

This is my favorite Emily Dickinson poem, even though it is not her best. It is the poem for which I have the most affection:

348

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though—

I thought If I could only live
Till that first Shout got by—
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me—

I dared not meet the Daffodils—
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own—

I wished the Grass would hurry—
So—when ’twas time to see—
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch—to look at me—

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They’re here, though; not a creature failed—
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me—
The Queen of Calvary—

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums—

Besides her wonderful slants and off rhymes, the half smile of enlightenment seems pressed to her lips, as if the poem itself were everything we needed to know of dread and sorrow and of the gentle acceptance, and humor of things beyond consoling.

Spring is relentless in its coming, not a creature fails, and it is, as in many Dickinson poems, the passion and then the tomb–the imperial tomb of the Saturday vigil before the dawn. Emily leaves off before the resurrection. She, like Teresa of Avila, loves so much that she would not dare be wanton for heaven, but place herself in that realm of the sealed tomb–the dark night of the soul, the bridal chamber where the cross and the tomb are joined.

And who could ever predict or be anything less than awed by her wonderful and utterly unprecedented use of verbs: “Not all pianos in the woods / had power to mangle me–”. This is one of my most cherished poems. I always wanted it set to music and for Billy Holiday to sing it. She’s the only singer with the style and beautiful sad knowledge and ruefulness to pull it off.

I remember the 90s much better than the 80s because the 90s pissed me off. First, everyone started going grunge, but hell, I had worn flannels and work boots, and funky ski caps back in the friggin 70s and no one gave me credit for it. They told me I was a sloppy dresser. I was surly and moody, too, and took a dim view of humankind, and then along comes Generation X acting as if they had invented flannels and boots and baggy-assed jeans with holes in them, and the Fugs, and did they give me any credit? Well, Do you know Generation X to ever give anyone credit? They just bitch and moan about how greedy the baby boomers are, and then they bitch and moan about the human condition, and then they go gentrify some urban neighborhood, jacking up the rents, and filling it with health food stores and everyone looks very thin and very ungrateful. The 90s actually began in the late 80s. In Hoboken, they had already burned the poor out of their shit boxes and renovated the shit boxes. Then the artists started complaining it was too expensive to live in Hoboken anymore (They were right). They were replaced by surly Wall Street brokers disguised as artists. So the artists either moved to Jersey City or to Alphabet City (this was before Brooklyn) and I had a brief business with my friend Marco, helping artists move out of Hoboken. We had a pickup truck and a willingness to suffer. Lion claw bath tubs were all the rage, and, it being Hoboken in the late 80s/very early 90s, there was a whole field of old lion claw bathtubs. We moved that field of bath tubs. We moved it hither and yonder, but mostly to Alphabet City where the police were starting to beat up homeless folks in Tompkins Square Park because white people wanted to replace Puerto Ricans and turn Alphabet city into a safe, hip, organic, faux bohemian version of Disneyland Manhattan. White people are scared of homeless people. Did we do that? The white folks say. Of course not, we know everything there is to know, and we have read all of Howard Zinn and Chomsky. We also ride antique bicycles and act circumspect, skinny and beautiful in countless indie movies. Lets get these eye sores who will molest our cute children out of here! And that meant we got to move a whole field of antique bathtubs at the same time they were beating up homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. By the 90s I had been in the factory for years but had gotten more involved in poetry. I started running the Baron Arts Center poetry readings, and, for a while, the demographic included a lot of good looking 20 something and early 30 something people from New Brunswick (this is because slam and the brat pack had made poetry cool for a brief period). I finally had lovers in the 90s–just as my good body was going to seed and becoming a bad body. As I recall people thought muffins were good for you at the beginning of the 90s, and bad for you by the end of the 90s. I lived in the North End of Elizabeth on the border of Newark, and it was a good neighborhood for espresso, for Portuguese food, for Cuban food, for slightly burned on the top custards, for baseball games played by kids at night under lights, for Portuguese grandmothers all dressed in black with ankles the size of pit bulls going to mass, and going to the laundry mats, and scrubbing their section of sidewalks on their hands and knees. Allen Ginsberg was later buried in that neighborhood. The grandmothers grew to like me and suggested I give up baggy flannels and jeans for nice shirts with alligators on them and chinos. Then, they said, a good woman might like me. Somewhere around 1989 to 1991 yuppies tried to move into Elizabeth, but it was old world, with real bodegas and botanicas, and no brownstones. Elizabeth had the wisdom to replace most of its brownstones with fast food joints in the 1970s. Affluent bohemians need tin ceilings. All my friends and me had ripped off most of the tin decades ago. So we didn’t get gentrified. Plus, people actually had jobs in Elizabeth and could not be beaten by the cops who were their nieces and nephews and sons and daughters. Affluent bohemians who read Zinn and Chomsky can only take over your neighborhood if you’re broke and look dangerous. We didn’t look dangerous. We just looked like we ate too many custards. I liked the 90s. My cousin Ed had come to live with me in 1989/90 and had left me some good furniture (at a cost above what he had paid for it I later found out). Ed was gay and very good looking and had a bum of the month club. Ed was a player. These guys were very sweet and some would call me crying after Ed dumped them, and I’d have them over for coffee while Ed worked as a limo driver. I’d pray with them. I’d tell Gene, my favorite of Ed’s victims, that Ed suffered a traumatic childhood, and he was not ready for true intimacy. I did their Tarot cards. They said the same thing the grandmothers did: why don’t you dress better? Ed and the one ex he was still friends with took me out to a mall and forced me to buy stone washed jeans and a whole bunch of other stuff I probably ruined in the laundry. This was years before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out. When Ed left, he gave me a true compliment: “Joe, you’re the only person I didn’t pick a fight with in order to move out. I love you.” “Same here, Ed.” We parted on good terms, and it was only a couple years later that I realized what a deal he’d made on the furniture. By then, he had entered the seminary (Ed had flare). He later left the seminary and became a good teacher in Jersey City. (He had put my ratty furniture in storage in a wet cellar when he moved in. It could not be redeemed). I remember that I looked forward to hearing music again in the early 90s because it was just like music in the late 60′s and early 70s only slower and muddier and full of the surly nihilism that later became real and cheerful sociopathy in the 2000′s. I liked it. I also liked the Salsa music I started listening to: Ruben Blades especially. There was a salsa club just up the block from me and sometimes I’d go there with Cuban church members and get my groove on (which was not much of a groove considering I was a grunge white boy usually in flannels). My stone washed jeans and dress shirts made me sort of acceptable, and so I remember the 90s as a time of bridging many worlds and of steady work. I worked the night shift at National tool. We had a temporary bubble of prosperity in the 90s so the foremen stayed off my ass and I made my rate, made bonus, got overtime, and threw parties for my poetry friends. I also started taking people in–temporarily–when they needed it. I took in a guy named Jim who was slightly OCD, spoke six languages, and who, I found out later, liked pain. A woman I sometimes saw, sort of, had laid eyes on Jim, spoke French with him, and fell immediately in love. He left that day, taking his garbage bag full of clothes to move in with her, and then a month later, she called me up one night and said, “Why didn’t you tell me Jim was a masochist?” I said, “I didn’t know.” She said, “I don’t mind” but I really would like to do more than beat him up.” It turned out his ex roommate who lived down the block, this older man, had been his abusive lover and had broken Jim’s ribs a few times. This man later turned up dead, and Jim disappeared from the scene. I don’t know if he murdered the guy. So that was one person I took in. I took in homeless folks for a night, especially if they could cook, and I took in friends who were temporarily on the skids. I took in my sister and niece, and then they split to Florida. That’s when it occurred to me I was terribly lonely. My best friend, Joe Salerno died in 1995. That ended the 90s for me, the way Kurt Cobain’s suicide ended the 90s for others. The New Brunswick people became part of the exodus to Manhattan, and then Brooklyn (when Alphabet City became too expensive). The Democratic party, my own Democratic party sold me down the sewer with NAFTA. I remember the 90s as the decade in which the lifestyle blue state Democrats screwed over working class guys like me as badly as the Reagan folks did in the 80s. These new dems were people who saw themselves as “creative” and artistic and outside the box. They were entrepreneurs. They honestly thought they were all going to be Steve Fuckin Jobs–Zen masters of geek and slave masters of outsourced labor. They were the true grandchildren of the beats and saw pudgy white factory workers as so “post.” They completely ignored the fact that, by then, most of the factory workers were the very black and brown and yellow folks they pretended to champion. This was the decade of “post.” Everything was post. The music went bad again, and Madonna became a children’s book author. It never occurred to the white bobos, for all their reading of Chomsky and Zinn, and their “poor” bohemian lifestyles, and their tuva singer concert tickets that they had totally killed what little chance was left for unions, for worker’s rights, or for the real poor–not the “I’m a grad student and can always move back with my parents on Long Island” poor. Well, now, about 20 years down the line, those parents are old and there is no place to move back to, and being white is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember the 90s as being the decade where white liberals had one last fling. It is easy to live on salad with two room mates when you’re 25. It gets tired at 35. And tragic at 45. So it goes. Many married and are now eating salads on Long Island, or in some southern city like Nashville, so I don’t feel that sorry for them. I call these people knowers. They know everything. They don’t know half of what the old grandmothers knew in the North End: scrub your side walk. Love your family. Have nice times. Take care of the sick. Even with the coolest bicycles on earth and a basket full of veggies, you are going to die.

Augustine never says an angel spoke to him. Rather it is a child nearby:

I heard a voice from a neighboring house. It seemed as if some boy or girl, I knew not which, was repeating in a kind of chant the words: “Take and read, take and read.” Immediately with changed countenance (note the physical “converts” first. He is in the midst of violent weeping when he hears the voice). I began to think intently whether there was any kind of game in which children sang those words; but I could not recollect that I had ever heard them. I stemmed the rush of tears, and rose to my feet; for I could not think but that it was a divine command to open the Bible, and read the first passage I lighted upon.

In terms of revelation, this most well-reasoned church father, this prince of rhetoricians, this ghost that haunts the whole of Derrida is left weeping violently under a fig tree and allowing the chanting voice of some gender undetermined child to determine the course for the rest of his life. So…is this Magic 8-Ball thinking? Well, to a certain extent, sure, but there is a precedent for such epiphany. For example, Elijah in the cave when he is literally at the end of his tether and does not find God in the mighty roar but in the whispering breeze. There are also the words: “A child shall lead them.” Augustine, being a good persuader, even comes up with a recent precedent for such conversion by words in a moment of transit. He cites St. Anthony (the desert father) who converts upon happening to enter a church where these words from the gospel are being read: “Go, sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”

For Augustine, words are the most malleable and porous of substances. As a master of rhetoric, he knows how they can be bent, distorted, used to flatter, to convince, how empty they are, and yet he is a man of words, and it is by the event of the right words at the right time that he converts. It is written: conversion comes from hearing the word of God.

I think this could be changed to “overhearing” the word of God for, to a certain extent, the will of God in any conversion narrative works like the Eucharist: the actual presence of divine intention under the signs of chance–always the signs of chance. I know someone who converted because, while he was changing a car tire a pouring rain, he cursed: “jesus Christ!” And immediately, for no reason at all, felt a sudden sense of Christ’s presence. He said: “I’d been cursing like that for years, and I was not intending to do anything but take his name in vain, but, for no reason I can think of, my curse was a prayer and he answered it in the middle of the highway. I went to church for the first time that Sunday, and I haven’t missed since.”

Augustine longs for conversion, but his longing must take the form of chance, of the ordinary substance of chance under which hides the extraordinary presence of grace. When the moment of conversion comes, Augustine is not a master rhetorician, not a doctor of the church, not the first creative non-fiction writer: rather, he is a desperate screw up under a fig tree begging God not to delay his conversion any longer. He is in the place of terminus, at the threshold and end of his own effort where grace may act: and grace acts with the same substance that Augustine had used to gain favor with emperors, to seduce women, to lie and outsmart opponents: with words, and not with eloquent words, but with a repetitive, jump rope song: “take and read, take and read.” So under the signs of a child’s repetitive phrase, God’s grace comes to give Augustine the peace nothing in the world can give–the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Still Augustine is not merely passive. He must “hear” these words as the words of God and this is an imagination, a necessary leap into the absurd (some child is speaking for God) that most modern people, even religious folks would caution against. They’d say: “perhaps, but be careful>” They’d say: “faith is not a moment of overwrought emotion.” They’d say a lot of intelligent, well reasoned cautionary stuff, at which time, they’d be unconsciously, doing the work of Satan–for it is hard to see God in a world that no longer believes in Eucharistic reality–that reality of God’s actual presence hidden under the signs of the world–and not only the world, but the most inconsequential and dubious signs of the world–that all of existence might be fired in the kiln of God presence, and yet God is looked for in everything but the voice of some random and genderless child. Our ears, unlike a dog’s, are never at attention. God is always passing, but we hear the sounds of our day and nothing more.

Since I was old enough to remember, I was fascinated by the voice of a child that I always seemed to hear above the din of other children playing blocks away. As a kid, I made up stories that this voice was that of a child who had died a long time ago of some long illness that would not allow him/her to play. After the child died, God allowed the voice of the child to be heard on the street. The child was free to play. If you listened really hard to any group of children playing you could hear this voice.

Often I hear the voice of children playing in the distance.
There is always one voice louder, shriller than the rest.
It cuts through my life and makes its dark incision.
It is the thumb of Father Riordan, pressing home the word.

In this poem, children go to Father Riordan because he thumbs the ashes deep into their foreheads, and they like it. It’s a game: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The narrator of the poem, a nun, remembers her childhood. Father Riordan is long dead. She hears this shrill voice of a ghost child as if it were the thumb of sacramental grace–the sign of her own mortality and God’s presence in the world. This is the child she did not have because she has wed her self to Christ. It is her moment for God to speak to her as her lost child–and to remind her she is dust and shall return to dust, but the voice of the child is eternal.

To read Augustine is to be reminded that humility and majesty are not separate occasions. In lowliness, a person weeps and falls down on the body of Christ and is raised above the angels. This conversion narrative is, like all conversion narratives, both a transcendence upwards and downwards: words become the word, and the word comes to live under the signs of words–the mundane, the overheard, the ambush of a single phrase when our hearts are broken, our ears are desperately alive, and we are ready to hear.

I thought since I had to witness a whole bunch of snotty poets dissect the working class poets (or lack thereof) on a thread today, I’d have some fun and brand them as they brand folks like me.

First this is the general gist of what they inferred. All white working class people have disappeared. We don’t really exist and so must be represented by Philip Levine and James Wright–two men who didn’t spend as much time in the factory as they spent teaching at leading universities. They wrote about working class people. We were interesting back in the day. We had clout because class and fashionable communism (not the real thing, but the kind you embrace when you take a theory class) prevailed. Now all we got is the “white working poor,” and we all know those fuckers just show up in photos of fat asses in the people of Wal-Mart and as extras in movies that prove it was working class whites who lynched all the black folks, and the rich white elites tried really hard (they really, really did) to stop them Yeah, Sure. Right.

If every upper middle class southern novelist’s family had been as “different” as they are in the novels, there never would have been Jim Crow. So myth number one: working class white folks no longer exist and that’s a good thing because they lynched all the colored folks while upper middle class whites sang Joan Baez songs and went on secret life saving missions with their black maids to the poor side of town. Uh huh…. Fucking spare me. Now only poor working whites exist and that’s a bad thing because they’re really stupid, have fat asses, and vote Republican, and we all know what that means: they must be sterilized.

My own branding iron on artsy white folks: the first thing artsy white people check out are your clothes, your weight, and your shoes. The next thing they check out is what program you were in and who you studied with. Then they check out where you were published. If it’s a rainy day, and they’re bored, they may even check out what you actually wrote (to make sure its what they write, only different–different in the same way).

Artsy white folks call themselves foodies then waste 60 percent of the shit on their plate. Al dente is misapplied to everything. Everything is almost raw. This allows them to think they are cooking things the right way and showing off their good teeth, yet not eating much because all the chewing tires them out and reminds them they need to up their anti-depressants. Upper middle class white artsy folks do not like soft foods. They like crunch and bite, and things you have to chew for hours. They like soup, but only if its “comfort food.” Artsy white folks use comfort food, the phrase, the way pool players call a safety when they have no shot: it absolves them from being branded working poor. When I eat macaroni and cheese among artsy white folks I say: “I’ve had it rough lately. Time for some comfort food.” It doesn’t work for me because I’m husky and I never order anything I have to chew for more than four seconds. I also don’t wear the right pants.

Artsy white folks still hang out with people who fucked and dumped them and gave head to their best friend. This allows them to feel bitter indefinitely, and say sarcastic, bitter things while pretending they are mature and above holding a grudge. This also allows them to feel that they have real and important issues. Artsy white folks “grow apart.” They “move forward.” They “let go.” For some reason they use some of the same terms in romances as they do in business meetings.

Artsy white folks all try to look like William Hurt or the older Jessica Lange if they are over forty. If they are in their thirties, they all try to look a little like a cross between Natalie Portman and Kathleen Keener. If they are really artsy, they all look like Katherine Hepburn playing Joan of Arc in 400 dollar jeans (both the men and the women). There is always someone who looks like Catherine Keener among their friends, and this person is always mean and funny. Artsy white folks keep a rich supply of mean and funny people around them at all times. These used to be their gay or bi friends, but then they realized this was stereotyping, so now all their gay friends are happily married men or women who wear expensive Irish sweaters and really “grock them.” Mark Doty is always on their book shelves. Artsy white folks know enough not to listen to Pachelbel (though they have hidden him somewhere in the house with the one pack of cigs, and the can of beefaroni). They listen to Philip Glass instead, and, sometimes, even John Zorn. They go to Lyle Lovett concerts even if they never listen to country music. They want the whole country to be Brooklyn, Portland, or Austin, Texas. All artsy white folks eventually live in one of those three places. If they can’t, they live in Jersey City or in Nashville.

All artsy white folks can get really conflicted when the cashier says: Plastic or paper? They have different strategies for dealing with it. Some get haughty and say:”you must be joking,” And then hope the cashier gives them plastic. Others say paper and don’t really mean it. Still others look around quickly, say plastic and live with their decision. If they ever shop at Wal-Mart, they wear a disguise, do it in the dead of night, and make amends the next day by walking in the breast cancer or gay pride parade. They are all green conscious people who lived in the suburbs which destroyed the woods and created the fossil fuel emissions problem. Now, because they said oops and want to solve it, they all think they dance with wolves.They moved back to the cities because they realized the suburbs were a cultural desert and unsustainable. You’ll know when artsy white folks are moving back to your urban neighborhood because both the rents and the police presence goes up and everything starts to resemble a slightly cooler version of White Plains, New York.

Artsy white people might even be amused by this post if they feel superior to me (they do, and I agree with them) They know they are the exception. Artsy white people are always the exception. They hate cops and lawyers and the industrial military complex though they are usually involved in some form of litigation and feel “violated” when someone steals from them, and they do nothing to stop the poor from fighting wars for them. They love equating getting ripped off with being violated. They hate cops even though they are likely to call them first, and they deplore racial profiling, yet count any art house immediately to make sure there is enough of a sprinkling of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and cool white people to be worthy of their presence. They are always lauding people of color yet somehow manage to end up with each other–deploring those unenlightened working class whites and Republicans who give whites a bad name. Along with corporate Republicans, they rule the world, but feel really, really bad about it…you understand? After all some day we will all be living in Agamben’s post-identity community and none of this will matter. An artsy white person who likes you can always be trusted to take you to the “real Mexican restaurant.” That’s one of the things I like about them. Artsy white people are all knowing, and always know the real Mexican restaurant. They always know what’s real. After all, they invented it.

First tree I met yesterday turned out to be a black cherry–a friend I remembered from working at National Tool and Manufacturing. We had one on the fence border of the factory. Black cherries, originally a tree of the deep forest thickets, loves sunlight, and is what they call a pioneer tree: it will grow with black walnuts and other such sun loving trees on the borders of farms, or old orchards, and on the outer areas of thickets. It’s a late bloomer (flowering as late as June) and its bark which has been described as resembling thick charred corn flakes, and the rather tortuous path of its branches makes it look like a tree struck down by lightning–burnt to a crisp.

In winter location and bark is the best way to identify it. No farmer would purposefully plant it as a windbreak so the young trees with their smooth more typically cherry tree like bark are seldom seen. What you’re likely to see is a tree of a hundred years or more. There’s a reason farmers don’t always like them: their leaves contain the chief agent used in making cyanide (as do the seeds) and they can poison cattle. The reason you find them on the borders of farms is because, in their younger days, their bark is very similar to normal cherries or other desirable windbreak trees. They sometimes grow too thick to be fully cut down. The outer trees remain. Because they are a pioneer, they’ll also grow with Beech and other trees that are the first to move into a burned area of woods.

What I like best about black cherries is how ugly they are, how fully without life or merit they seem until flowering in June. They look charred and their branches go willy-nilly in search of the light. Sometimes they have blisters and boils and large humps. When they do leaf and flower their fragrance rivals the smell of lilacs and Linden trees. I used to go over to the black cherry at lunch time when it flowered and take in the scent, try to carry it back with me into the plant. Even had a poem about it, about Esau and his brothers.

At any rate, the twigs smell of almonds if broken off. The fruits are tart but retain some sweetness and they are now finding out these sour cherries are super foods, containing the highest levels of anti-oxidants. This is one tree I would definitely tell my kids not to swallow the seeds of (no one wants a kid to take in cyanide, no matter how low the dosage). Birds do, and that’s often how black cherry travels–by the process of “Scarification” (carried in the shit of birds).

So this is a tree that looks like shit, and whose seeds are carried in shit and yet its timber is the cherry wood used for making the most expensive cabinets, its fruits contain super amounts of antioxidants. The flowers have an amazing fragrance. It’s a very poetic tree insofar as its value, like the value of poetry, is not readily available. To see it in winter is to see a, charred, dead looking thing with equally dead vines and wild grape leaves still clinging to it. My kind of tree!

There are poetry workshops, but no reading workshops: how not to go over your time, how to choose a set, how to present yourself to an audience. So the poetry improves, but the presentation of it just keeps getting worse. I’m not speaking of spoken word here: I am talking about all poetry. Poets ought to learn how to present work as well as produce it.

I wish I could teach a workshop for a semester like this: first month, the students memorized two poems a week, but also practiced reading poems from the paper.

Second month, they slowly introduced their own work amid the poems they had memorized so that their poems were naked and rubbing up against Stevens and Ai, and whomever.

Finally, in the last month, three students would do a fifteen minute set per class, and leave time for criticism.

I don’t care how shy poets are; I’m sick of their introversion being inflicted on me via their bad readings. The second you stand up in front of an audience, you owe that audience a well articulated reading–not a performance, but most certainly a presence. Of course this would affect how poetry is written as well. Eloquence and the use of good rhetorical devices instead of syntactical sloppiness and an over reliance on images might start to prevail.

Show-don’t-tell is lousy advice. Horrible advice: showing must tell, and telling must show, or both are equally suspect. The ear matters too, and you cannot build that without hearing poems outside the confines of your skull.

For years I was practicing trans-disciplinary methods without anyone telling me, but now that the experts have discovered this sort of pont-consciousness (what I always called building bridges between disciplines). They are already defining it, and making it rule bound and snot-assed for academic consumption. So I am for the motley, and for what I will call cone scenting, and the experts will deride my definition.

Any real learning is contingent upon judicious digression. Digression in so far as it does not favor method driven process always meets with derision and censor. That’s how you know it is good digression.

Trans-disciplinary studies appear on the surface to favor pont-consciousness, but it is far from any real motliness because, far from wanting leaps, it wants dogged and processed focus between disparate disciplines: This means it wants to extend specialization into the realms of inter-disciplinary discourse where it does not belong. In short, it wants to ruin pont-consciousness by making it a specialized new discipline under the guise of branch learning. It wants to take the intuitive and kill it by algorithmic methodology. I was, at first, excited by trans-disciplinary studies. I am now afraid of it. So let me point out my premises:

1.Cone scenting is what a dog does when he seems to meander from side to side down the street. He keeps the scent central and fixed, by making a kinetic “cone” around it. The scent of true learning is that which favors a meandering–a dog’s nose.

This avoids what Thorstein Veblen called trained incapacity–a training so fixed on one thing and a method of seeing that no adaptation or flex is possible. In so far as trans-disciplinary studies seek to be respected for focus and methodology (in order to be seen as respectable) it fails miserably at good cone scenting. it rules out meandering–and that is a fatal error.

2. True learning occurs when both connects and disconnects are seen as equally provisional: nothing joins or adheres fully, and nothing is so disparate that it does not share some sort of baseline connection.

This allows both for fishing in wild streams (finding the connection between a blue jay feather and a rock on Mars) and questioning the methodology of the given and the categorical–which is, to me, the true aim of education: to enable a mind to intuit connection between disparate things (new metaphors, new bridges) while at the same time being able to intelligently question the structures and edifices built upon old metaphors of the categorical that may no longer suffice. Trans-disciplinary studies insists the disconnects be yoked together by a methodology. It is no more a friend of intuition than any other system. It believes system can replace judicious accident and the cultivation of continual and ongoing stumbling. Stumbling is the essence of discovery and learning. I see here, as with all pedagogy tied to power, the lust to remove ability and replace it with motion-study and mechanics. This would kill what I have been promoting all my life rather than aiding it.

3. Connections between disparate fields, methods and ways of seeing the world must remain undetermined to the degree that they do not become merely another form of determinism and authoritarian non-thinking. In effect, most of the meandering must be left as meandering with a “perhaps,” a strong perhaps attached.

I read Belly’s “St Petersburgh,” and listen to Ethel Merman sing “I Had A Dream.” I go for a walk and discover a blue flower with a yellow center growing up through a crack in the sidewalk. I find out it’s a day flower–native to China. I go home and play the piano for an hour. I do not try too hard to make a connection between these wildly disparate acts and experiences. I trust that the cone might yield a true scent between them sooner or later. I gather and I trust that gathering is, in and of itself, a worthwhile thing. One day, I make an analogy between the eco-rhetoric of invasive species (day flowers are invasive species) and the right wing rhetoric against immigration: this leads me to a contemplation on the dangers of any concept of purity. Ethel Merman’s imperfect but unforgettable voice is contrasted with the now fully trained, fully undistinguished “Broadway voice” of academic theatre programs. How is difference made uniform toward a “purity” or tyranny of semiotics: the Broadway voice, the slam voice, fry voice–all the indicators of meaning and power. How is the unique samed and butchered on its way to mass consumption? Now I have a broad idea called the concept of the pure and I can write several chapters on purity–including one which looks at the language of purity in speeches by radical left eco-anarchists, and radical right wing anti-immigration advocates. I can find the common ground of seemingly opposed forces, grounded in ideas of “purity.” This is not how trans-disciplinary study works. Trans-disciplinary study insists that connections be found right away. It has no patience of faith, no rigor of perhaps.

4. The dog chasing its own tail loses the yard.

In this sense all systems are utterly consumed in and with their own methodology or in and with their own process. This is what Santayana called occupational psychosis. Academics are very intelligent. They know bridges must be formed between disparate forms of learning and disciplines, but they attempt to build these bridges with materials of jargon and protocol that are antithetical to the very idea of bridges. They try to hammer in a nail with a blowtorch. Again, the thing is to leave the methods and standards home and believe that one is moving “toward” a standard and methodology–the toward is always more vibrant and thought provoking than the at. To be at a standard or method is to be fixed–to be without flux. It is comfortable. people love being comfortable. Nothing kills learning more efficiently than fixed “methods.” They offer a necessary obstacle. The true value of most academics is that it offers a worthy obstacle to learning which one, if one is so inclined, finds brilliant ways to overcome.

I have often been called a loose cannon: disorganized, lacking structure, etc. I don’t think this is true. I think I disrespect power–my own or anyone else’s, and like to circumvent the maze in which they would have me find the cheese, and if that’s a loose cannon, so be it. I always think: trust me, and not only will there be cheese, but some wine, to go with it. They never trust you.

To me a loose cannon is someone who doesn’t show up for the event he is in charge of, who creates havoc or a spirit of ill will. I always show up early. I often bring my own equipment, not trusting in other’s stuff. I am personable and kind. I delegate, and get others involved. What I am is creative and improvisational, and that’s enough in the rigid structuralism of the arts to get you branded a loose cannon.

I don’t like being controlled and I hate controlling people. I don’t like being held down so rigidly to a plan that I can’t have any wiggle room to change up if necessary. Everything in the arts now is booked a year in advance. Everything marches to the tune of grant requirements, and stipulations. It’s been this way for a long time, but now it seems to be this way everywhere.

Institutional art is an oxymoron. It’s like fat free sausage. Why bother?

Post structuralism means pure structuralism: structure for its own sake–no real reason to the rhyme except that control becomes the god of those who feel their world is spinning out of control. I find no peace or joy in it. My biggest flaw is that I can’t hide my hatred of being “processed.” Yet, in all of this,

I’ve had some high art moments lately–usually when alone, but not always. Let me count some:

1. I had the privilege of leading a writing workshop for a staff of an art newspaper. My structure for the workshop? I had them come to my house. I got pizzas. I made bolas. I looked at their former articles and had them cut the articles in half. I talked about the importance of visuals, of cutting to the chase, of economy–but with a personal voice. They really loved the bolas–which are red wine and diet cola–fairly common in Spain. Their editor-in-chief was happy with what we accomplished. I didn’t get paid, but I met some terrific people in the music and art scene, and I think this led to me getting a music gig later that more than paid for the pizzas. The wine was left over from a graduate party. So it’s a win/win: no grants. No outrageous prep. No elaborate materials, and this is exactly why I will be disparaged: because I didn’t cost some grant body or institution hundreds of bucks, they couldn’t claim me as proof of their and I had fun doing what I do well: editing, teaching, and drinking bolas

2. I had a student do a presentation on erasures–a currently popular technique in contemporary poetics. It went well. We erased an excerpt from a Virginia Woolf short story. Some really wonderful poems ensued. We had been talking earlier about gender, sexuality, queer theory (this is my advanced group). Someone brought in munchkins. I took the empty bag and shredded it and cast its shadow on the projector wall and improvised a dance to the erasures. We decided the erasures were so good, and the conversation on sexuality so good, that we would combine the short story with Ginsberg’s Howl as erasures, add music, and art, and videotape it with quotes from various theorists on gender identity and sexuality. We’d call it “Woolf Howl” (for fun). We are going to do it. We will use shadow puppets during certain segments. All of this came out of improvising on the elements we had in class–a structure made from high play.

3. A former student came over and we started to jam. He had never heard of the song “Black Coffee.” Now he has. I never heard certain versions of songs he played. We improvised, we noodled. We came up with a fifteen minute set–a good one, based on our willingness to enter play.

Art institutions could provide me and other artists with a place to do what we do. They won’t. Not without a lot of paperwork. In my case, I am considered a loose cannon, yet they are paying millions of bucks for research on creativity and overpaying so called creativity experts and specialists on game theory and play. They care more about the frame for the painting than the painting. So it goes. Again, someone give me 4 million bucks!

The radical poetry of 100 years ago was not radical in terms of style. It was conventional in terms of style and this doomed much of it (though not all of it) to being forgotten and rightfully so, but note that the folk songs and protest songs and blues songs of that period were not forgotten and still matter and register with intelligent and artistic peoples. Why? Because they were not written in the language of one’s betters, and therefore not some cheap and clumsy knock off of the prevailing aesthetic of the most middle brow literary magazines.

In point of fact, it was the urban decadence of cabaret, parlor music, vaudeville, and fast talking medicine show sharpies, but most of all, of the “othered” in terms of Blacks, Jews, and Irish that reinvigorated the pastiche and cut up sensibility of the high modernists, and this wave of influence has not yet abated.

In that sense, the accidental poetry of the people, that which is not striving to sound “good,” but is in love with its own sound productions is still the most pervasive influence on every form of poetry with the possible exception of surrealism, and one could make a very good argument that French surrealism, its particular zeitgeist, was made possible and viable by cabaret and circus performers, and then silent film performers (harlequin to Laurel and Hardy) who performed the surreal in their acts and on film.

Freud and Jung were after thoughts to give the surreal acceptable “forefathers.” A poem is first and foremost an organization and shaping of words that allows consciousness to escape its own worst grooves–both for good or ill (since some grooves are actually beneficial) or which makes those grooves refined to the point where they are strong and supple, and energy enhancing–the organized energy of life itself–what Blake meant when he privileged the imagination over nature and said that exuberance is beauty–the current of how one moves through one’s very being.

For all my ranting, and cynicism, and anger at my age, I have never not wanted to be alive–and to enter this current of being alive is my language. So for me: not perfection, but the force that moves through nature–not the mirroring of nature, but the homage to its storms and vital ugliness/beauty through words–the way mirrors would break if left in the wilderness–but the wind in their breakage, the weather of time and water in their distortions: I still want to write a poem that gives me the pleasures of walking on the shore of the sea in the fall when all the tourists have gone home, and the air is cool but not unbearable, and I am with my Emily and my daughter Clare (I have read poems by Vallejo that did that for me).

I want the word “my” to be as selfish and as unapologetic as an animal–my, my sun, my jacket rifled by the wind, my wife and daughter with me–my tribe, and on the 100th reading, the thousandth reading, salt in my spit and, if I am alone, fiercely alone with a whole congregation of stars.

I want to write a poem that takes on not the semblance of life, but its full and necessary ferocity, and on the last reading, is worn, eroded, impacted by the years, but far from being worn out–anciently sudden, and suddenly ancient: I want that broken music.

This is a political desire–if by political we mean to procure the necessary justice, and peace and compassion for such a life and aesthetic to exist. I want all of human life to be able to rest long enough to swallow its own spit and stare up at the stars, and hear the promise of some covenant–anything other than the drowning out of the soul by this twaddle we call the contemporary world. This is the extension of my own right to be fiercely and troublingly alive to every man, woman, and child.

I don’t want to save anyone: I want them to live. There is a big difference between wanting to save someone and wanting them to live. Those who save, kill all but what they will to be saved. Fuck that: I want everyone to live, and that is truly radical–to want even the mosquito on that beach, and the black fly, and the stranger’s dog who comes up and sticks its nasty wet snout in my equally nasty crotch and slobbers on me to be alive, and for me to be alive as I get royally pissed off–but in the full brio of being this animal who prays. I don’t want perfect conditions. I don’t want constructs. My poems will provide the leash on which the fierce love and sprawl of my life is lead. I want to be walked well by the tongue of speech–until I am dead.

True standards are physical measurements. All other standards are evil metaphors of measurement created by systems of power to maintain control and to replace thinking. All standards are a form of virtual thinking–the law put in place to preclude any daily or ongoing assessment of values–to avoid all questioning. This is why I hate grants and would prefer that someone who believed in my art just chucked me enough money that I could be an artist without having to comply with “Standards” I had no hand in making and which, to me, an old tool maker who constantly measured, are no real measure of anything except arbitrary whim and the power of gatekeepers.

This is how it works: systems prove their “moral” or aesthetic aptness by imposing, maintaining, enforcing, and setting standards that then take the place of real and thoughtful assessment. Challenge to these standards by certain necessary “rebels” are accepted because, like comic consciousness, challenges to standards by tolerated individuals either proves the standard by way of contrast, or defines the standard by how it is “resisted or challenged.” Resistance to standards by unapproved bodies meets with censor (the Plato model)–in this country by the gatekeepers completely ignoring the “other” as substandard. So we have both standards as virtual thinking and internecine resistance to standards as the tolerated bad-boy and virtual alternative to the standard. So how do standards ever literally change?

When a system becomes enervated, when its power is threatened by the entropy of its own standards, then, the third person in this evil trinity arrives: reform. The system “reforms” its standards. All those counter-forces it could not kill, it subsumes–but as the new standard making machinery which it controls. So the “standard” changes or is over hauled, but the principle of the standard stays in tact: virtual thought, virtual aesthetics, virtual excellence. The system can never allow real thought except through the tolerated “mavericks” of its own systemic family. These mavericks often adapt watered down versions of truly new thoughts outside the system and make them palatable. This I call saming the changes.

The internet revolution has taken books and publication out of the control of the gatekeepers and the prevailing standard makers. So I predict the “reform” (which is already happening) will not be related to “publish or perish” but to “get grants get prizes, and funding or perish.” It will become more important to have a grant from an approved body of authorities and standard bearers than to have a book. This will be the new road to tenure in universities: you are funded by rather than you are published by. This will be every bit as false (all standards are false) as publishing, but it will prevail because it offers a standard. All systemic being seeks standards to replace real thought and real change. The purpose of standards is to avoid ongoing assessment. The purpose of reform is to keep any real changes subsumed into the system.

I admit I didn’t like Denise Levertov’s work when I was a kid. I preferred the hilarity of Ted Berrigan, the obvious authority and beauty of Stevens, the light but dazzling cool of Frank O’Hara, and Ginsberg’s Kaddish as well as Reality Sandwiches. I was even more a fan of Spanish and Latin American poets–Hernandez and Vallejo in particular. I came to admire Levertov only after I was approaching forty and she had recently died. I was old enough then to appreciate her seriousness of purpose. I came to admire her the way I had Muriel Rukeyser.

According to my friend Joel Lewis, Levertov fell out of favor when she embraced the catholic faith and started writing poems about her religion. Recently, her letters with Robert Duncan have put her on the radar again. She was also heavily involved in the protest movements of the 60′s–the anti-war movement in particular.That made her popular then when the baby boomers pretended to be Che. When they “converted” to conspicuous consumption sans conscience, she lost that following.

Her poems have the rigor of Objectivism, though she is no Objectivist. They are not flashy. Their technique might be likened to the aesthetics of one naturally adverse to the cult of personality. Her poetry is incremental rather than linear, and I read much of her work as sprung from her brilliant adaptation of Williams’ variable foot (she wrote one of the most sane defenses of it). I’ve chosen a little poem because my computer has crashed and I am borrowing Emily’s until she wakes up. But this poem shows what I mean in terms of how she breaks, and shapes her poetic line:

Pleasures

I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies

within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull feathers of glass, hidden

in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board–

tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
belying design. Or a fruit, mamey,

cased in rough brown peel, the flesh
rose-amber, and the seed:
the seed a stone of wood, carved and

polished, walnut-colored, formed
like a brazilnut, but large,
large enough to fill
the hungry palm of a hand.

I like the juicy stem of grass that grows
within the coarser leaf folded round,
and the butteryellow glow

in the narrow flute from which the morning-glory
opens blue and cool on a hot morning.

Denise Levertov

Christopher Phelps said something interesting about Buber and the cult of personality. He tied it into the poetry scene, which makes it especially interesting to me (You could also tie it into a certain extent with why indie bands muted the role of the singer in the grunge era, still do to a certain extent by making the lyrics purposely subsumed into the overall mix, but this, to me leads only to fake humility–and inaudible lyrics–which is the height of arrogance).

Still, I had to go back to my Buber (which anyone who had me at Arts High knows I talked of incessantly): I equate his take on the cult of personality with insistence on a self as personage rather than as person–the self as set off apart from the dynamic of communion between I and thou, I and you, and I and it–the self as commodity, as product, as a sort of ongoing “value: the personality that says there is only I, me. This is in keeping with Kierkegaard’s despair which insists on the self, on “me, myself and I” (in Kierkegaard there are three despairs: the despair of being one’s self, the despair of not being one’s self, and the sickness unto death which is a despair so deep the person is not even aware of it as despair. This last was the despair particular to the Christian burgomasters of Denmark and, by extension, to all middle calls and proper materialists hiding under the sign of Christ).

When I read Buber speaking against the cult of personality, I immediately heard the voice of James from the Epistles, and understandably, because Buber is a great teacher, a rabbi in the truest sense, and the traditions of the reb is exactly the style James is written in–most especially the Rabbi as instructor on the relationship between shema and mitzvah–exactly the I/Thou relationship.

In Shema/mitzvah one is to love the Lord with all one’s heart, and mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self–a love based not on personality, not on a cult of personages, a love based not even on family ties, but on an extension of the Shema to all sentient life as embodying the Torah–Isaiah’s dictum of “God does not require burnt offerings, but a contrite and loving heart, a broken spirit, (broken meaning as bread) and good deeds done for the poor, the widow and the orphan”.
Within this context, Buber joins a rich tradition of Jewish rabbinical teaching against the idol worship of personages, Buber and Soren and Simone Weil, and just about all mystics and deeply moral spiritual leaders teach against the cult of personality in this respect (the irony is how the rabbinical tradition often became in the diaspora exactly that: a cult of personality). Buber and James sound very much alike in this respect, qouting James:

My brothers, show no respect for personages as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and fine clothes comes into your assembly and a poor person n shabby clothes also comes in and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say: “Sit here, please, while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my feet”have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

It was with this epistle in my heart, that I ran a poetry reading for 16 years. I always saw a poetry reading as a place where the field was evened, and personages would be dissolved into a communal act–a bread breaking, as what the slammers now call a third round, but which I called the open. A feature was not superior, but a presider with the host of the reading in a meaningful ceremony of honoring the “guest” among us, and that guest was, for that moment, a distillation of all we were enacting: a ceremony of presence, The guest should be one who could be present among us–a word among us, but he or she should not be above or better than or superior to us, although, while they were our guest, we should treat them with respect and dignity and attention. This guest should ideally rise up from among us, or be the “other” come to visit the community. The laws of Xenia applied to my idea of the poetry reading and both feature (guest presbyter with the MC of the reading) and the community who came out for the reading at obligations of hospitality that vanquished the cult of personality:

The reader was to be “present” among us–to preside as it were with the host in the meaningful enactment of this ceremony known as a reading.

The reader was never to over read, but to read just enough to establish a presence and to honor the dynamic between presbyter and community. The host was to make everyone feel welcomed, to show no partiality, to honor the guest by being generous. And so the guest received a gift (there should always be an honorarium, a giving from the community) and the guest in return gave his or her presence–not only by featuring, but by staying for the open and hearing the others, being among the others.

The community should be responsive to the guest. In the open, no one should be long winded or selfish or take the spot of the other. The host should be responsive to the poems as in an almost call and response. There should be either a break between the feature and open, or after the reading in which people are invited to break bread. There should be no respect for persons (the cult of personality), but there should be deep respect for self and other through communion and creation of a meaningful ceremony.

What I liked about poetry readings in the 70s and 80s was that it was the only place in the whole of my society where I saw rich and poor, old and young, ugly and sexy, mentally ill and normatives dissolved into an act of community–and without family or a wedding or a church being at the center of it. It was exactly the absence of the cult of personality that I admired and recognized a dimension of shema/mitzvah through. Features arose from the opens. Features stayed to hear the other poets. This is how I was heard and approached by Ruth Stone, Maxine Kumin, Charles Simic. These “personages” would stay and listen. They came over to me and gave me a kind word–for no other reason than that they recognized something in my poetry. I was treated with kindness, as it should be…

This has disappeared. In academia, opens are frowned upon and the featured poet becomes an act of conspicuous display–a temporary “idol” and in regular series, asshole features leave before the open as if they were too good to hear the others. Meanwhile people in the open over read (this was always a problem) or show up only after the feature has read (or leave after the open if the open comes first). Work shops are far more enmeshed in the cult of personality because everyone is there to have their work “seen” and to say they took a work shop “with.” Seen and with are deadly to community. Buber is right about that.

I have a vision for readings in which everyone is welcome–in which 80 year olds and teenagers, good poets and bad poets, normatives and crazies meet on equal footing because, in the ceremony of bread, in James and Buber, your “personage” is what you leave behind when you enter the temple. Slams blaspheme against this spirit with their own terrible enforcement of hierarchy. Slam grew out of the spoken word scene I came out of–bar readings, readings where anyone from a prof to a wino could sign up on the list and read. The “third round” is a pale ghost of this era. Slam is utterly caught up in the cult of personality, even with team poems. In this respect, Buber is apt.

When I ran the Baron Arts Center with Deborah Laveglia and Edie Eustace, we took money out of our own pockets to supplement readings. The same people showed up as regulars year after year. And sometimes there were thirty or more people going back to the diner after the reading. I came to love some of them, to be friends, and some died and I mourned. The features were both outside the regulars and from the regulars. Everyone who came each month eventually featured.

It was community in the way Buber intended it–beyond the cult of personality. Of course we knew certain poets were more talented than others, and, without snobbery, we appreciated them as such. We all loved Joe Salerno who came every month, but Joe loved people back, and could remember lines of people’s poems. I knew I was part of a meaningful ceremony, every time I put the key in the lock and hit the code to disable the alarm at the center. I knew it was the early May reading because the Lilacs would be in bloom outside the door.

After the reading, we often went to the diner, and sometimes we didn’t go home until almost dawn. I miss this. This made life a little more tolerable. It was what church was supposed to be and never was. Perhaps I am old and stupid, but without this, work shops and features and awards just seem maniacal, and sociopathic. I feel I am in some stupid brag factory where snobbery and “professionalism” are mass manufactured. Everyone is an award winning poet. Everyone is so and so at so and so. In our series, I used to make the bios up on the spot–in order to disrespect the gravitas of personality.

I once told the people at Baron the poet Adele Kenny was my ex wife (just for fun) and that we were working out our grudges and coming to an understanding. I responded to poems in the call and response tradition of my youth. I did not get involved in this to become famous. I got involved to have somewhere I could go where I felt welcomed and where I could practice my art. I find no place like this anymore.

I know a great deal about many aspects of poetry, but that’s not the point. I hate grade A student thinking which is always, always, always, about being a personality. I want to manifest the shema/mitzvah–the I/thou. That’s hard to do when everything is lost in “Studied with” “went to” and won such and such. Joe Weil–not the personality but the host who brought disparate things and people together, who believed in the motley is dead–replaced by who?

Christopher Phelps really got me thinking. It would be nice to feel that way again. I live with a wonderful poet, but this is not about intimacy (that’s based on personal affinity). I need communitas. Maybe because I’m extraverted? Who the hell knows.