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Bach

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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.

Just before puberty struck with the force of the furies and made me a moody kid, prone to sudden bouts of gloom and equally sudden bouts of elation, it was discovered that I had a gift for music. The mode of discovery was a cheap 20 dollar Magnus chord organ purchased for my sister at the now defunct “Two Guys” supermarket.

Two Guys wasn’t exactly a supermarket, but, rather a combination of a supermarket, clothing, and toy store–with a little bowling and pin ball area for the kids to keep them busy, and way ahead of its time (Sort of a proto-Trader Joe’s/Wegman’s). It went out of business sometime in the late 70s, I believe, but, at the time, it was known as a place with good cuts of meat and an area to keep the kids occupied while the parents shopped.

Anyway, my parents purchased the organ for my sister who, after a few preliminary forays, never touched the thing again. Of course, I was not to touch it all, just as I was not supposed to touch my brother’s accordion years before. If my mother had not been ignorant of my brother John’s ability to involve me in con games, she would have learned years sooner that I could play any tune, and, often, its chord structures, simply on hearing it. John had caught me playing his accordion by placing the straps around my shoes (I was too little to make it go in and out any other way), and touching the keys or black buttons while I pumped furiously with my legs. After beating me up, he realized that I could play the keys while he pumped the accordion, and my mother would think he was finally taking his lessons seriously. She did not disturb his genius, but would applaud from the kitchen down stairs after we had played “The Merchant of Venice” or “Ave Maria.” She never found out I was the button pusher, key man, and so we got away with it.

The organ was a different matter. It came with a few books of popular songs, and had buttons you could push for the chords which were marked–white for major, black for minor. I was old enough now to be left home when they shopped, and my brother was out somewhere. Porgy and Bess was on WPIX. They often put it on if a Yankee game was delayed on account of rain. If not Porgy and Bess, it was “Pride of the Yankees.”

Because I was home alone, I could wallow in the music. It literally made the hair stand up on my arms, and I wept when Dorothy Dandridge sang “I loves you Porgy,.” I was a weird 12 year old. I turned the television off, and approached the organ I wasn’t supposed to touch, and played “I loves you Porgy” by ear. As is my habit, I played it again, never wearing it out, and producing the same physical effect upon myself–even more so–on the 10th replay. I was filled with static electricity, and nothing in me was silent except my “feelings.”

Odd to say, but this sort of hair standing up/weeping is not a faculty of the feeling sense–of a judging function. It is not a case of you feeling something is beautiful. The best way to describe it is that you–the you of opinion and preconception–vanishes. I consider all acts of creation to be acts of mercy. Some part of us becomes better than we normally are. Watch a child on a rainy day coloring away with a box of crayons–completely absorbed, at one with the motions of his or her hand. There is no rancor or ego or pride in it. Great artists might have enormous egos, but not while they are in the process of making their art: they are at one with humility. You are dreaming awake, and, though the act be deliberate, it is still, in some way, passively “received.” It moves through you not from you. It is what is meant by true engagement in a task. I can tell a tool maker is good, or a window washer just by watching him move. I know by the level of presence–if he is merely doing the task, or also being “done” by it. I believe talent and interest causes us “to be done” while we are doing. We become what we do–not only the performer, but the performed. Some force, call it the non-judging faculties of intuition/sensing, allows us to be entered and to truly enter. Noun and verb are one. The boundary between what we do and what we are does not exist in moments of creativity. Time, which is the most disgruntling of inventions wrought by the judging functions (thought/feeling), is suspended. Space follows suit. A musician keeps time, but he is not “in” time. An artist deals with space, but is never restricted by it–not while he or she draws or paints or sculpts. It is only through intuition and sense that feeling and thought may be suspended, and, also, oddly enough, given their highest realization. Plato was afraid of poets because they did not seem either systematic or deliberate enough. They did not move through intelligence, but, rather, by a great and, as even Plato admitted, often superior folly.

So I was in the midst of such folly when my parents arrived home. I did not notice the time, and did not hear them come up the dirveway, then into the house. I didn’t hear my sister complain that I was playing her organ until she screamed it two feet from me. My mother was looking at me strangely. She said: “I had no idea.” A month later, a piano was delivered to our house.

My mother said: “Bang on that thing all you want Joseph… I love you.”

I wanted to be a composer more than I ever wanted to be a poet, but it does not really matter: the process of writing, or playing a piano are exactly the same for me when I’m alone–suspension of time and place, a sense of being in the flow. I was too old to become a concert pianist. Physically, I lack both the dexterity and fingers to be a great pianist, but I can compose at will, without thinking about it. I can get on a piano and immediately make a decent musical structure. This has little to do with my intelligence and feeling functions, and everything to do with allowing the intuitive to hold sway. Many people do not become artists not because they are stupid, but because they are incapable of suspending the thinking/feeling functions. They fail to become writers and musicians and painters because they cannot enter their highest stupidity.

I believe crayons, and coloring books, and ink and chalk, and musical instruments, and toys should be strewn all over a workshop class room. Anything that allows an adult to lean over the paper the way a child does when he or she is coloring is all to the good. We make much of “professionalism” in the arts, but that is deadly to the creative process because it is exactly the opposite of what happens when we are in the act of making things. In order to “construct” we must be decreated. We must be taken away–our snobbery, our little clique in the workshop, our worst selves must be murdered, and then we can go where we must go in order to create.
So before I write, I often play the piano for two or three hours. I just play–sometimes the same thing over and over again until I am not there. I play to erase myself. Maybe I take a walk, or I do anything that gets me out of feeling/thought. I never force myself to write. I consider playing the piano, or a long hot bath to be indistinguishable from writing. So I am a big advocate of allowing painters or musicians into a writing class. Some people are picky when it comes to sounds, so it’s best perhaps to encourage artists to come and draw and paint, rather than to let musicians play. This is for “in class” writing. Many people resist writing among others. It’s unnatural to them. So here’s a compromise:

Bring knitting or drawing or music to the class. For the sake of others, use head phones with the music. Instead of writing a poem, you have the option of jotting down words and phrases and lines that just come to you–anything except what you must consciously think or feel about. When you have gotten twenty words, or a few phrases down, go off and make something out of them. Here’s an experiment: get hold of Bach’s cello suites. Jot down the following words and phrases: “Pristine,” “dork head”, “”I love you madly with my cello,” Sop”, “tumultuous”, “Red,” “Aqua”, “Lions,” “cleats,” “copper onion skins,”” Tangier,” “somber,” “rain,” “roof,” “night fall,” “demean,” “dapper,” “alba,” “sorcery.” As you listen to the cello suites, cross out all but three of the words. Take these words and make them the origin of a poem without ever putting them in the poem. Include something about the cello suites, or refer to them in the poem. Good luck.

Today I thought I should add my secret voice to your evaluations.
Your intelligence may be genius, but remember as my mother said also always be nice.
A seventh grade teacher consoled me when I was teased:
You can always tell the genius by the enemies who surround him.
Try, though it’s impossible. See JA. Make no enemies.
Well, you’ll always have aesthetic enemies just by liking something “they don’t.”
But I’ve noticed even one personal enemy is too much in the tiny circle of Prospero’s Kabbalah.
You impress me and you’re so young, so you have I think one task: Go on! Keep working,
and keep your opinions growing widening and changing.
One day love Chatterton. The next day read Villon.
One month give up to Proust, one year give up to Kafka.
Pound’s big canon is correct: Be curious like a physical scientist (Aggazis for Pound).
Keep your work, throw nothing away, it might be the best you’ll do one day.
Don’t be arrogant with the stupid as I was accused and am.
See the dynamics of politics and art but without getting bitter.
Reject none of the great religions—read and memorize all sacred texts without belief.
Or keep them with you if must for certain periods.
Be interested in all the arts. That includes architecture, dance, painting, sculpture.
Read more than philosophers in philosophy.
But don’t make your poems be a vessel just of abstractions.
Exercise in real life, stay healthy, don’t take drugs, don’t drink like kids.
Read all the old magazines. Find a library that has them.
Know 1952 and 1852 as if they were 2010.
Have together in your mind the value of the concrete particular.
Make your work dazzle but not razzledazzle—make your being elegant and defended.
Read all of Shakespeare and the great commentaries—that doesn’t just mean Uncle Harold necessarily.
Learn languages. Each language is worth 500,000 or more.
When you learn a language, keep it up.
Translate a page every day.
I mean mistranslate a page every day and that will be a religious duty.
Don’t be a Rilke—practicing vulnerability.
Make it your business to read Marx AND Finnegans Wake.
Search out no great men—be a great man.
Don’t let emotional problems destroy you.
Don’t commit suicide obviously, and learn to scorn it but not the victim.
Don’t get married too young and if you have to write love poems, do.
Try writing 20 songs a year.
Try writing short stories. Read Kawabata.
Read everything that Meyer Schapiro footnotes.
Learn to travel and be one “on whom nothing is lost.”
Continue reading James even if others tell you they haven’t.
They will and they will have the subtlest teacher. Therefore,
read William and Henry and their father. Good luck,
David Shapiro in a Polonius-like mood.