Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Missed Opportunity

Offered the opportunity to be an Okapi, I declined. I didn't even have to think about it twice. The city in which I live has a zoo, and a few years ago this zoo was the staging ground for the birth of an Okapi. Everywhere you went they were talking about the impending --and eventual-- birth of that fucking Okapi as if it were some long-awaited prophet. The local newspaper had a contest to name the damned Okapi and once the thing was born you'd see photographs of the actualized Okapi on bus shelters, billboards, and taxi cabs. It was an unsightly creature. I'm guessing the zoo decided in the end not to play along with the whole newspaper contest and just sold the naming rights, because, unless I'm terribly mistaken, the Okapi was branded in the end. Honeywell, I think it was, or perhaps Outback.

At any rate, I did not want to be an Okapi. And I had zero interest in being a fish, no matter how "big and magnificent." I could have been a fish, though. That offer also was presented to me. As was the opportunity to be a bird. I'll admit that I gave the bird notion a bit more thought. I could, it was explained to me, be an exotic bird --a talking bird, even, or a bald eagle. The problem, however, was that once the offer was accepted it was not rescindable. I suspect that I would, at least for a brief time, rather enjoy flying, but wondered about the dietary aspects of the avian life, as well as things like life expectancy and predators.

I was mildly curious about the bird opportunity, is I guess what I'm saying, but ultimately not curious enough to give up being a man, even a deeply unhappy man.

Eventually the genie (I'm guessing that's what he was, even as he looked like an old man who had worked in a post office for many years and smoked too many cigarettes) extended his offer in ever wider directions; I could be a cheetah, a bear, an elephant, a chimpanzee, an otter, a pine marten, a hippopotamus, or even a rabbit (a rabbit? This was when I began to suspect that the genie was mad, although I had been presented with convincing evidence that he had turned Ray Wilson into a horse, this after Ray's wife left him for Pete Mickelson, the local State Farm agent/Lothario).

The thing was, this character, this genie, had just started showing up at my door one day, almost like one of these guys who's intent on feeding you the Book of Mormon. It was a very bad time in my life, and the genie clearly knew it, although I could never figure out how.

"Face it," he'd say, "You're no great shakes as a man. Humanity's got nothing more to offer you, and it's a two-way street in that regard. Yet you've still got all the stresses and burdens of trying to survive as a human, and it's clearly not working. You'll never be free in that human suit. This is your one chance."

I recognized the truth in much of what the man said, but the idea of being either predator or prey spooked me, and I was no big fan of the elements.

"Couldn't I be a dog?" I finally asked. "The pet of someone loving and lovely, someone with a kind pair of hands?"

"No offense," the genie said, "but you're not good enough to be a dog, and I couldn't turn you into a dog even if I wanted to. That's God's work, and strictly a posthumous option. You have to die to come back as a dog, and the selection process is rigorous to a fault. Dogs hold an exalted place in the Angel Guild. So, sorry, but in my line it's strictly hands off so far as dogs are concerned. I could, though, do a cat, but between you and me, most human-cat transformations end rather unhappily. Cats are easily bored, and tend to develop an opinion of humans that's even lower than your own."

I chose --perhaps unwisely-- to remain a man, but you will understand, surely, when I tell you that from the day that genie disappeared from my life my dreams have been about virtually nothing but flying.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Consolations Of Philosophy Are Precious Few

When you push it this far night after night you start to lose the battle with chronology. The story is what? Too many scraps and loose ends. Too many stray words.

Plodding. Bell burst. Black sky. Blue angels, kneeling. The man with an empty tower on his neck crawls across the long table and takes the flowers in his mouth. Bundle of ankle-bound bodies dangling upside down from a helicopter. Blind woman on the wall raises her chin, mumbles something about God. Not menacing: Puzzled. Pleading.

Sky, sea, land: layered like a '70s gelatin dessert. Fragments of a broken clown. Hanging man, upturned chair. Still, dark waters. Rock tumbler. Forlorn sign at the water's edge, no longer legible yet unmistakably a warning. Patch of tiny white flowers in the deep shadows of a dead oak. Rolling house, carried away on wheels with an old woman rocking a crying baby on the front porch, brown smoke billowing from the chimney. Fat man in a top hat tiptoes across an endless heap of skulls, wobbling, eagle-armed like a tightrope walker.

I can hear Chopin --or Arthur Rubinstein-- in the playing of John Lewis. I see the influence of John Singer Sargent in Francis Bacon. I believe that Maurice Sendak cribbed from Philip Guston. I could pick Steve Lacy's soprano saxophone out of a line-up. I have a radar for broken and neglected things, including people and places. I am able to communicate with animals, most keenly with dogs. I can parallel park like nobody's business and have a way with potatoes. I can go days without eating or sleeping. If you dropped me in the middle of nowhere I believe I would survive. Give me a job to do and I will do it reasonably well, or at least to the very best of my abilities. I have a high tolerance for pain. I am on occasion driven to tears by the abject posture and clear suffering of a stranger on the street. I have never had a decent photograph taken of me, which leads me to conclude that I am ugly. I am a hazard when bored. I can see in the dark, even when I do not like what I see.

I howl.

I can't tell you what you are looking for.

Now, again: the spy way the night feels, intrusive, the way it claims all sound, transmutes, muffles and swells.

Empty fountain. Bulldozer with wings. Dreaming rat in a drainpipe.

Too late: the lucid moment has dissolved.

Welcome to the Sacred Garden of the Sweet Dreamers.

Destination beyond this? Can't say. Can't see.

Waiting once again for the light to fetch me.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

You Were Always In A Hurry

Where were you going when I passed you walking on the opposite side of the street the other day? You always did have that purposeful look about you. Even as a little girl you seemed like you were in a hurry to get somewhere.

I knew how important it was to you to be on time. Even when you had no particular place to go you liked to keep a tight schedule. It was as if you feared being late for some vague assignation that was loaded with hypothetical possibility.

I suspected you liked to keep moving out of the certainty that somewhere --someplace other than wherever you found yourself at any given moment-- was something you couldn't bear to miss.

But what am I saying? I never understood what was going on in that head of yours. I certainly did find you fascinating, though; there was always something happening in and behind your lovely eyes, and there were an awful lot of nights where I laid awake trying to imagine what the hell you might be thinking. Every once in awhile I'd get a little glimpse; you'd choose to reveal something. Those moments felt like offerings to me, and I used to collect them and try to piece together a portrait of who you might really be.

Sometimes it felt like I was getting close, but then you'd give me some new fragment that didn't fit.

And you never did stop moving, which made it hard to keep you in focus.

I eventually had places to go myself, of course --no place special, really, when all was said and done. My destination was ultimately just the sort of constellation of bland compromises that constitutes most people's ultimate destination.

I can't decide if you were lucky or not, but you were one of those people for whom all would never be said and done. You'd say so yourself, and I can still hear you say it: Never, you'd say. Never, never, never.

Friday, November 12, 2010

From The Landfill: The Breaking Of Ezro

I slid unwelcome into this world,
battered by the disappointment of those
to whom I was delivered.
I clawed my way up from out of their
unhappiness and learned to believe.
I found a place to stand
and kept moving.

I had one man's words and flung
them like stones at the world.
I cried in the moonlight beside
damp fields. I was a young man,
and heard the midnight dogs of your towns
as if they were monastery bells.

You cannot imagine how lovely your world
looked from the outside, how moved
I was to hear radios playing at dusk.

My ignorance was immense. The weight
of my little life made me a bowed spectacle.
Your libraries were sanctuaries, a refuge
from the puzzle. I let myself go too far
beyond what you could make an effort to
understand. I knew I was a reminder of
something, shambling among you,
dirty because your world was clean.

You yanked your children around me
on the sidewalks, invented your own
strange versions of what you saw as my
disappearance and not my journey.
But your children never forgot me.

My message was how far I had traveled,
how far I would travel still, how easy 
it was to disappear when no one was
looking for you. My message was that a
man could so believe, that he could stumble so
long with a slim lozenge of hope dissolving
so slowly in his mouth and the truth snaking
its way slowly through his mute, plodding
heart and slithering even more slowly
toward his tangled tongue.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

After Dark

 Photos: Blind Child/Stop For Crazy Man/Police

There once was a dead man with a dog. The dead man, the dog, and the dead man's ghost all lived together in a cluttered apartment.

The dog seemed to have equal affection for both the dead man and the dead man's ghost, but the dead man and his ghost bickered constantly. They couldn't agree on anything. They argued about whose apartment they occupied, and contested the ownership of every single possession in the apartment. They disagreed over whose turn it was to exercise the dog, what music to listen to, and whether or not to watch television. The dead man would accuse the ghost of hiding a Lester Young CD or a book by Fernando Pessoa. The ghost would make petulant inquiries regarding a missing pair of sunglasses, and the dead man would wonder aloud whether it should be "pair of missing sunglasses," or even just "missing sunglasses," since a "pair of sunglasses," missing or not, seemed like a ridiculous expression.

On the whole the dead man spent a lot more time bitching and moaning, mainly because he could still feel things. What he mostly felt was pain. Pain and sorrow, although the ghost would claim that this was as ridiculous as "pair of sunglasses," since sorrow was obviously just another type of pain. The dead man would lament his inability to be more precise, or even to make sense of what he thought of as his predicament.

The ghost would at least allow that the dead man did indeed have a predicament on his hands. The law of things maintained that the dead man should have been gone; the ghost clearly had the law on his side, as well as a small and glum cohort of angels that kept coming by to check in on things and see if the dead man had been successfully evicted yet and driven into permanent exile. The dead man, stubborn for reasons he could not understand (he was reluctant, he supposed, to abandon the dog), refused to go.

Neither the ghost nor the dead man ever slept.

The ghost eventually became fed up with the whole shitty arrangement and went to live with the dead man's ex-wife in a house full of happier memories. And there, on lovely nights when the windows could be thrown open or on cold winter nights when lights glimmered on a Christmas tree, the ghost and the dead man's ex-wife would dance to the dead man's favorite records, including the Lester Young CD that the ghost had, in fact, stolen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Isn't a Man Sad?

But when he came home there was no one to tell what he had seen --and if he picked the flowers and brought them home in his hands, there was no one to give them to. And when at evening, past the dark blue shape of a far-off island, the sun sank under the edge of the sea like a red world vanishing, the hunter saw it all, but there was no one to tell what he had seen.
--Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family 

Is anything sadder than a train
That leaves when it's supposed to,
That has only one voice,
Only one route?
There's nothing sadder.

Except perhaps a cart horse,
Shut between two shafts
And unable even to look sideways.
Its whole life is walking.

And a man? Isn't a man sad?
If he lives in solitude a long time,
If he believes time has run its course,
A man is a sad thing too.

--Primo Levi, "Monday"

A man went out to his car one night, started the ignition, inserted a Chuck Berry disc into the CD player, and drove off into the darkness in search of space. He wanted to get out from under the street lights and the general overglow of the city, out beyond the tangle of freeways and the noise of rising and falling jets.

It was an old habit of his, to just pack his bags and go off in search of the unfamiliar. He'd been running from things most of his life, and had become expert in the art of retreat. He could by this time find the dead spots all over the country without an atlas. He knew how to follow rivers and find large bodies of dark water. He could feel the darkness drawing him like a magnet, and knew that where there was darkness there would be silence and space and, eventually, light.

There would be little towns thrown down in the middle of nowhere, towns where every home and business shut up early for the night. He'd roll down his windows and any music at all --Hank Snow, the Four Tops, Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed-- would sound like the most abrasive punk rock washing out into those dark and empty streets. There were forlorn motels in such places, motels where he'd have to rouse the owner and could pull his car right up to the door of his room.

On such nights and in such places he was almost capable of believing that he could still be anyone or anything, and that was a feeling he was trying to hold onto for dear life.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fumes, The Memorious

Embracing my shoulders for an instant with his dovelike wings, the angel pronounced a single word, and in his voice I recognized all those beloved, those silenced voices. The word he spoke was so marvelous that, with a sigh, I closed my eyes and bowed my head still lower. The fragrance and the melody of the word spread through my veins, rose like a sun within my brain; the countless cavities within my consciousness caught up and repeated its lustrous edenic song. I was filled with it. Like a taut knot, it beat within my temple, its dampness trembled upon my lashes, its sweet chill fanned through my hair, and it poured heavenly warmth over my heart.

I shouted it, I reveled in its every syllable, I violently cast up my eyes, which were filled with the radiant rainbows of joyous tears....

Oh, lord, the winter dawn glows greenish in the window, and I remember not what word it was I shouted.
--Vladimir Nabokov, "The Word."

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Letter From My Old Friend Ruckert


The calendar rolls over. When I stumbled outside to take a piss at two o'clock this morning the first snow was falling. This, of course, is traditionally the cue to dig out a copy of my beloved Jackie Gleason Christmas album (I own several, as you know). From now until the icebergs begin to recede from the fields out back, Gleason's deliciously bleak and narcotic masterpiece will be the soundtrack to my nights.

I don't look forward to the icebergs, which I assure you are very real. I had one last year that was the size and shape of one of those buildings designed by that cultural abortionist masquerading as an architect; I forget the fellow's name, but I believe you once wasted my time by taking me to see some museum he created there in Minneapolis.

I await the night when one of these bergs (to use the parlance, I think, of the old explorers) heaves its way through my fence and obliterates the house along with me in it. At this time in my life such a fate would not be unwelcome.

At any rate, I like to think that you can imagine me here, abjectly slumped in my green chair, once again pondering Jackie Gleason's motives for creating this Trojan Horse of a Christmas album --what kind of sadist would attempt to deliver holiday cheer with a series of kidney punches and low blows? It would of course be wrong to claim that this record gives me any real comfort or --God forbid-- delight, yet it is nonetheless dear to me. The copy of the record I now have in my possession originally belonged to my father, and once upon a time he saw fit to write his name on the album cover, as if he actually feared someone was going to steal the thing.

I still remember the old man sitting down every evening after dinner --unlike me, he'd generally wait until after Thanksgiving-- to listen to Gleason on the hi-fi he had there in the living room. The lights would be turned down, and the stringers of colored bulbs on our hideously flocked Christmas tree would look like tiny Cambodian fishing boats lost as sea and laboring through an impenetrable fog. And there my father would sit, his third or fourth or fifth drink of the night sweating on the lamp stand next to his easy chair, listening to Gleason and staring --like a man being coerced to sign a confession-- at that album cover in his hands.

You've seen the cover, Zellar. I'm sure I've showed it to you. It looks like a crime scene buried under several feet of snow. There's a photo of a rural mailbox, a mailbox wrapped forlornly with a red bow. There appear to be gifts stuffed in that mailbox, but they are almost certainly gifts that will never be opened, because something terrible, something unspeakable, has occurred in that house at the end of the driveway. I'll never forget the look on my father's face as he listened to that music --which as a child I couldn't even begin to recognize as Christmas music, so thorough was Gleason's bleak deconstruction of the old carols-- and stared into that photograph, which I now like to believe allowed him to stare into the bottom of everything, to see the inevitable disappointment on his children's faces come Christmas morning, to see his own failures and disappointments, to see the endless dark winter stretching beyond the holidays, to see the passing of things, the unstoppable passing of everything, everything, everything. As he stared into that photograph it's entirely possible that he could even see his own neglected tombstone in a snow-swept cemetery.

I know what you're thinking, Zellar. You're thinking, there goes poor Ruckert again, projecting. And perhaps you're right. I seem to have powerful powers (powerful powers?) of projection these days, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it.

Believe it or not, I didn't write you to discuss the lethal, slow-acting poison of Jackie Gleason's Christmas album. No, I intended to thank you for sending along a copy of your hideous magazine. I thank you because I am your friend, and gratitude seems expected, however unwarranted it may be. In this case, I'm afraid, it is entirely unwarranted. I am, I suppose, happy to hear that you are employed, Zellar, but I can't imagine what you are thinking. Nor can I begin to tell you how much consternation I experienced while paging through that goddamned magazine. Time and again I found myself shaking my head and pining for the consistent stimulation provided by the Highlights magazines of my childhood.

Still, I did read the thing from cover to cover, even as I wish I had not. If nothing else the experience convinced me that my retreat to this miserable hermitage was necessary, and must never, under any circumstances, be reconsidered. Someday, if and when you ever again manage to pull yourself away from your odious duties long enough to pay a visit to your old friend Ruckert, you'll have to attempt to explain what the hell it is you people think you're up to.

I'm sure there's a great deal I don't understand, but shouldn't one really desire to leave a large carbon footprint, if only to demonstrate to the mutants of future generations that giants once walked the earth? How can I possibly believe in a green world when I live in a place that seems to have been created by a God who owned nothing but various shades of brown and gray crayons and hadn't yet learned to color within the lines? But the snow, you'll say, the snow, Ruckert, is white, to which I will answer, no, Zellar, the snow is in fact gray, and will get grayer by the day.

I can assure you that, spurred by much of the nonsense I read in your magazine, I am more determined than ever to leave a carbon footprint that would be the envy of the giants of the Old Testament, a carbon footprint that would swallow both Paul Bunyan and his fabled ox without a trace. Everything I use is plastic and disposable --utensils, plates, cups, immense jugs of caffeinated beverages-- and powered by gas, oil, and aerosol; all manner of contaminants line the shelves in my bathroom, kitchen, and basement. Recycling in this godforsaken place is the exclusive occupation of ragged penitents, hermits, and the homeless (you might, however, find it interesting that the place where this pitiful army is rewarded for its garbage is called a "redemption center").

If global warming finally succeeds in driving this snow from my doors and ridding the frozen fields around me of icebergs I would be nothing but delighted. And if somehow I could also manage to leave a giant carbon footprint as well? I'll be damned if that's not a dream worth living for. What have I wanted my entire life but to leave a lasting message to the world I'll leave behind?

And what does that message boil down to, Zellar, and with what words is it most succinctly expressed? RUCKERT WAS HERE, ZELLAR! RUCKERT WAS HERE, AND THE SON OF A BITCH LIVED LARGE!

Engrave those words on a monument, bub, and erect it at the edge of my gaping carbon footprint, where future generations of wheezing pilgrims, outfitted in hemp and organic cotton grown in underground bunkers, can pause and --anemic with envy and delirious with meat cravings-- ponder with wonder my lonely and heroic existence.

I guess this is my version of a Christmas letter, Zellar, and so I will sign off with as much holiday spirit as I can muster: Ho-ho-fucking-ho!

Ad astra per aspera!

Ruckert, in exile.