This is a true story made double real by its birth in
a common sort of suffering rolling through a regular life.
Quotidian and expected.
Lest you think that this ain’t true
that you may have stepped into a steaming made-up pile of surrealist goo
or, that you may be looking under a rock swarming with a re-telling of
last night’s all-in-a-wink phantasm weightless and indecipherable,
this is a true story.
It’s as simple as this
there was a lot of common suffering,
shit hitting the fan,
packed into fourteen months.
And then that most common urge to escape
the hot steel plate of worry
squeezing out the juice of sleep
leaving a husk of catatonia,
I found the pain of late night obsessing
could be palliated by a curious eccentricity,
with another obsession
I memorized 100 poems.
The list of woe goes like:
Both parents died (gracefully like snow on the water)
The house burned up (a blessing in disguise)
Two car wrecks (neither my fault)
Surgery and ongoing infection on my upper jaw (tumor happily benign)
Teenage children running amok (grown through it beautifully)
Started a new business (with competent partners)
The only thing missing was war, divorce and the birth of a child
to give a full and weighty list of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s
issues that cause post-trauma stress.
Everyone gets post-traumatic stress in this life or
you be livin’ under some supernatural tent.
For me it was the death of my mother who left behind a
sweet syrup of awakening mortality
and the death of my father who left behind some dough,
and a year of commuting to Florida to get my hands on a little of it
away from the commercial banditos who thought it was theirs—
my father finally teaching me the art of business from the grave.
It was a home in ashes and char
rising up again as a pleasure cave perched high and mighty.
A place where I wake most mornings able to see the sun pop up
marking the ebb and flow of season shifting orderly through a ridgeline of redwood trees.
Smack hard then smack harder as two ditzes drifting away from the wheel
crushed my car’s sleek lines to rumple
giving an added twist to a troubled spine.
The word tumor applied to me, ME and it dug out leaving
a gape between sinus and mouth.
The consuming groove of starting out new in business
finally taking off a klutzy suit of lingering adolescent doubt,
and all the while teenagers showing up late and
surly filling the two AM hours with dread.
Oh well, I’m up anyway.
Who could sleep?
With jungle drums beating out a blue ruin?
So much normal woe packed tight in an abnormal amount of time.
One thing on another until the weight of it
left me breathless and sleepless
With the bedclothes a prison,
the bed a padded cell.
I called on the only world I knew
that could guide me back to sleep.
I memorized poem after poem
Clicking off the light to let line after line
drift through the mind instead of
dread-of-days filled with undoable lists.
And lest you think this a rolling ribbon
spooling out from the hollow halls of dreamland
I’m here to tell you its a true story, true as they get anyway.
That once the table had been reset to serve normal meals of tribulation
maybe I’d give something back to the gift that made a tough year tolerable.
That my wife made a glittery decorated box to
tell all 100 poems one at a time.
That the voice coming through the costume became my own voice.
That it was a journey down a self-made trail with surprises coming,
learning (once again) that unfolding surprise is one of the essences of art.
That the listener is offered surprise,
That the poems were chosen to be full of surprise of one sort or another.
That it may seem weird that I wore a box and said poems right into
the ear of anyone willing.
And then, to do that on a wide plain of dusty dry lakebed, 400 square miles of it
400 square miles in the middle of the kind of place
where the next gas is eighty miles away.
That it may seem weird that I did that.
After two years of giving out poems
I threw the box into a swirl of bonfire on a dusty
blowzy midnight and watched it burn.
Mr. Dali might be rising over the horizon on a flaming giraffe
because as an after-burn I began writing
my own work flowing out one after another
but then this is a true story.
And that the box was reconstituted at the demand of friends and family poems were said right into the ears
of the eighth grade assembly, at a museum party,
auctioned off for $550 bucks for an hour of reading
that the poems (none of my own) were offered up
as unmediated songs of Psyche.
Then there was that the punk-tough girl in a gothy sex outfit
was moved to tears by some lines from William Carlos Williams’ Ivy Crown
and then she sang while her muscled guy in chaps wells up at her song
from Kurt Weill’s September Song
“Oh it’s a long, long while from May ‘till December …”
in a decent Lottie Lenya tribute acapella.
So sweet was her earnest voice
that a crowd gathered and left wet-eyed.
In the beginning, I stayed up at the three AM spook hour,
because who can sleep with the spirits
of over-packed days howling?
I filled my mind with poetry.
It started with Wallace Steven’s Sunday Morning
from there Wordsworth, and the usual list of
poets in the popular American Now, the Billy Collins
the Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Stanley Kunitz, then back a ways to
TS Eliot, Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Edna St Vincent, Marianne Moore
Oh-yea-I-like-Shakespeare, and put Hamlet vicissitating into my mind.
An AA Milne doggerel, long and hearty about a bear who thinks he’s fat.
Rilke and Keats all packed into my mind.
It could be a fairy tale mythy
and discounted in the glare of those realists
planning move after move.
But I burnt the Poetry Juke Box at a festival of burning shit up
thinking I was finished with my parlor trick
of spilling out soul-charged messages
direct into the next waiting ear.
Listen, you can hear the ocean of psyche right back into
your own flesh-shell pouring down the corridors of mind.
People lined up to be next and one after another
and in a crowd of 30,000 whoop-do-dooers
a festival of the arts they call it,
a city built up in a week on a featureless plain, a Dali-land
and I memorized a Haiku in Japanese because
a Tokyo-ite had come over and over to hear
mostly what she couldn’t understand
And after all this, it should come as no surprise
that the next year she was the first to line up.
And it should come as no surprise
that after two years I burned
the jukebox braying out a great yawp
with letting go of an idea
but it held me close enough still
that three little weeks after watching
the curling fingers of Shiva eat it up,
I began writing my own work out of
nothing more than a box of memory,
no workshops, no schooling and
sending the first of my efforts to a sister-in-law who
secretly entered me in the
International Society of Poets contest
where I became one of 105 third place winners
out of 25,000 with a bronze medal in the mail
followed by two months of messages saying
the I S P was having a hard time understanding
why I wasn’t buying the $119.95 claret cup I had won
and why wasn’t I interested in the $449.50 leather bound book
with a CD of William Shatner reading my work?
Could anyone make this up? But there you are
and after 35 years of painting, I’m writing every day,
could you make this up?
At my first public reading at
a local museum, an outdoor affair,
I started from the beginning,
the first poem about the song of
the Golden Crown Sparrow.
A birder in the audience
pointed out a trio of the self-same birds sitting on a branch,
a branch right above my head.
Could this be made up???
without seeing Max Ernst rowing across the pond of the mind?
Three birds landing above my head.
Well, at least they didn’t start
whistling their song.
Trilling a descending three-note scale
that’d make you think I’m really making all this up.
But as you descend the stratigrafy
in the geology of art-pleasure
passing all the levels of fun
one has making art happen
past the thrill of doing something born of thought
bringing it to light
past the making,
at the bottom of it all,
the happiest phantasmagoria
is the look on someone’s face when
the poem crosses the mind and plants itself,
finds a home in that mind
works its roots seeking the water of understanding.
In the lightening blink,
at electric speed,
the roots of the poem grip fast
all in an instant,
communicating something known,
reacquainting with what we prefer to pass by.
The look of one moment of that,
is what makes me come back and back again
to what opens the head like an observatory to the stars
unfolds a flower of the heart
grabs like the clutch of roots holding fast to endless dark soil.
All of this starting from the everyday
hurts and its ensuing insomnia.
All of this from the dark soil of no bottom.
UPDATE OCTOBER 11, 2019 A day in the life in the struggle to die happy…
UPDATE NOVEMBER 16, 2019
On Saturday evening The Poetry Jukebox was in San Francisco for Artumnal, the gala Black Rocks Arts Foundation benefit. Although it was great fun Richard says he is ready to give it up. After the first sayonara in 2001 when Richard threw the first PJB iteration into the fire, from the licking tongues of flames, arose Richard’s own voice and he began to write his own poems. However, when there was such a hue and cry for the PJB, I built a second PJB version that is the one extant today. If he decides that that one should go to the fire, I already have in mind yet another version that will be lighter in weight and ADA friendly so Richard can navigate better with the box on.
On Saturday I gave the last performance of the PJB at a Burning Man fundraiser. After 19 years, it’s time to hang up my cleats.There are 140 poems ± in the box. I’ve never charged $’s but all proceeds go to a non-profit. The box has raised $15K so far….
You access the po’ms by asking a life-question. A guy asked, “Where do I get the stamina to raise my kids? Here’s the poem I gave him:
THOSE WINTER SUNDAYS by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
As we left the venue, two giant security guys all in black were standing guard…one asks the box, “How do I stay married?” He got…
THE IVY CROWN by William Carlos Williams
The whole process is a lie,
Unless it break forcefully
all bonds of constraint, or,
Find a deeper well,
Anthony and Cleopatra were right, I love you or I do not live at all… …and I to love and you to be loved we have both strived to keep
the jeweled prize always
at our fingertips,
and we will it so,
and so it is past all accident.
He hands me his phone and says, “Will you please talk to my wife?”
I’m verklempt…just one of the many magical moments…