Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Poet as Prophet

Since today commemorates nothing in particular, I thought I would memorialize the occasion with a retrospective essay on the role of the poet as voyant, or visionary, in contemporary society.

I should probably add, as a legal disclaimer, that the opinions expressed here are not my own. Apart from these prefatory remarks and a remote gastric gurgle occurring at the very end of this piece, each of the following paragraphs was dictated to me through an Ouija Board by a gentle soul grown disenchanted with life in the astral plane of existence. Picture, if you can, a poor little poltergeist pining away for a human heart he can call his own. I am sure you would have shut your eyes and invited him into your home just as I did, if he had contacted you.

Like many people of a spiritually sensitive nature, I feel that the dead deserve to have their say in this world as much as the living. Rarely do poets permit the past so much unfettered access to the present. Whatever the risks to our own—often fragile—artistic identities, I think we should. So, I was happy when the fellow rapped on my door this morning as I was measuring out a spoonful of coffee. I filled the kettle with water as he filled me. Soon we were all whistling with glee.

I plan to allow him the use of my entire body.

Hopefully, just for today.

Madame Blavatsky, Poetry, and Me:
An Appreciation

[Being the antepenultimate lecture in a series I recently delivered at the University of Iowa School of Cooking, Creative Writing, and Paranormal Research.]

We take for our text today a cryptic quote from T.S. Eliot:

I shall not want Society in Heaven,
Lucretia Borgia shall be my Bride;
Her anecdotes will be more amusing
Than Pipit’s experience could provide.

I shall not want Pipit in Heaven:
Madame Blavatsky will instruct me
In the Seven Sacred Trances;
Piccarda de Donati will conduct me.

—From ‘A Cooking Egg,’ Poems, 1920

It is not easy to overestimate the influence of 19th Century Theosophist thinker Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky on the evolution of modern poetry; but it is always possible to try.

Helena Petrovna remains, if she remains in our minds at all, a mystery, a medium, a mystic—an enchanting metaphor, perhaps—the raisin in our rice pudding, if you will. Numerous numerologists have noted (with hysterical hand-rubbing) the mathematical symmetry of her name—the very recipe for collective wisdom as it is received around a workshop table.

We assign a number to each word, mix them together in a nonsensical way, add 1 tablespoon of vanilla, 2 cups of sugar, sprinkle with nutmeg and bake in a custard crock for 30 minutes at 350˚. When your crock has sufficiently cooled, refrigerate your poem for 24 hours. Multiply the result by infinity (∞), and cube that figure to the power of 10, and the sum is always the same: 0, whether you enjoy the results or not.

A casual coincidence? I leave that to others to decide.

Most often, we encounter Madame Blavatsky (if we read poetry at all) not in the coolness of our empty custard crocks, but as a dusty sunbeam on a deserted seat cushion, a glowing nullity, the lonely reminder of an absence in our lives: the Guggenheim Fellowship that never was, but still might be. She may be the most malleable public figure to draw the attention of a writer since Homer donned a spiked leather thong and tackled King Proteus.

Personally, I shall always associate Madame B. with the song of Shelley’s skylark: an eternal monument to Possibility, with a capital ‘P’, which rhymes with ‘C’, and stands for ‘Cruel,’ cruelty being the one cosmological constant in a world tortured by turmoil. Her preferred mode of apparition bears much in common with low pressure sodium street-lighting: that broad band of orange ectoplasm—so offensive to astronomers—which floats like the face of a friendly celestial visitor over our most crowded cities on cloudy nights.

Indeed, so large and so illuminating is her influence today, after a recent reading I gave in Waukegan, Illinois an aspiring clairvoyant (an MFA candidate)—Jack—I forget his last name—these earnest American graduate students are all the same—bumped into my elbow, causing me to splash burgundy on my new white canvas high-tops, so moved was he by my remarks on Madame Blavatsky’s book, Behold! The 12 Most Blessed Steps Toward A Poetic Career: Your Guide To Becoming A Gasbag. He had somehow penetrated my security detail in order to pluck at my sleeve and inquire breathlessly, “What was she really like?”

“Her table-talk does not survive,” I admitted, rather bitterly, as Jack was carried away. I watched his thin, white arms disappearing, gesticulating wildly at the crystal chandeliers high above the heads of the assembled autograph hounds in the hotel lobby. Disgusted with what the creature had done to my sneakers, I impaled a piece of poorly peeled Gouda with a pink toothpick. I had to catch a flight.

For that, and for many other offensive slights and oversights in my life, I have to make amends.

Clearly, Madame Blavatsky was a woman of voluptuous appetites. We can only speculate about how she took her tea: à la russe, with a dollop of Dmitry Dmitrovitch’s home-made raspberry conserves, or in the English fashion, with a decorous drop of milk and a sprinkling of refined sugar?

For my own part, as a writer myself, I am content to ask the difficult questions. The nonsensical answers which invariably flow from my fingertips permit me to live quietly off the credulity of others. It’s a living. The pen has its perks. Such as dining on stuffed doves and wilted beet greens with a spectacular constellation of actors, politicians, music producers, rap artists, and those other self-loving, self-luminous, self-absorbed objects one finds orbiting the intellectual firmament of New York’s trendier trattoria of a Friday night.

While I only talk trash at the table, like my friends, when I lecture I try to adopt a more serious, extra-oracular mode of expression in order to lend a shimmer of substance to my inane assertions. I hope you don’t mind the rattling tinfoil.

Really, what can one actually say about life, or death, or even doorknobs for that matter, which hasn’t been said before, and probably better, by somebody else, probably by Robert Benchley, in between highballs back in 1919? Like all successful charlatans, I keep careful accounts. I pay no attention to my own prognostications. But I will happily lift a glass of something good to those morons that do.

Still, the consolations of poetry aren’t really what we are discussing here, are they, Jackie?


I bring up the tedious subject of poetry only as a point of departure—the proverbial pine plank, if you happen to reading this passage while hiding in the hold of a cruise ship recently captured by pirates—a springboard to another, deeper discussion.

I wish to conclude my address this afternoon by pointing out something that looms much larger and lovelier in our lives, yes, larger and lovelier even than poetry. By that I mean, the mysterious force of Chance, as represented by the grandiose—almost gravitational—attraction of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

How she hovers over every event, every incident, every accident, every argument which occurs on this glaucous globe—every gathering of two or three believers—or non-believers for that matter—endlessly, annoyingly—vispering, “Vat eef...?” in thickly accented English, proposing an infinite number of alternative universes: where all you need is love, Art reigns supreme, comets are cabbages hurled at us by Heaven and the terrible laws of common sense do not apply.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

To Shakespeare

Since it is the old boy's birthday, I thought I would write a sonnet in his honor.

To Shakespeare

One name always flits across my lips,
whenever I pick up my pen to write;
the face of Helen launched a thousand ships,
but who will I fall asleep with tonight?

The hulls of Homer’s ships are mussel shells
shattered on a rocky shore. His words
sigh at the salty surf, turning vessels
over to scavengers, insects, hungry birds

investigating skulls and skeletons.
But you are different, Will. When you speak,
you seem to talk to me. My finger runs
along your margins now, along your cheek,

retracing in your features all I’ve kissed
goodbye. You are the only man I miss.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Takaaki, Part I

Since it is a dismally gray and rainy afternoon here in New York, I thought I would post another portion of my epic poem Takaaki, one which also takes place in the rain.

The whole poem is available in the current edition of the
Raintown Review along with some of the finest poems and essays you are likely to find in any literary journal published anywhere.

I hope you like it!

Takaaki, Part I

“Paint me a pair of bold anfractuous rocks
set somewhere in the Cyclades—a spot
totally removed from Time. No clocks.”
I’d settle for a sunny August, hot
enough to melt an Erlenmeyer flask.
We could emerge from a cool underpass,
catch a guitar weeping, an old song,
a crowd of children shrieking, a Great Lawn
surrounding people with some place to be
hurrying to different destinations.
“Who comes to Central Park on their vacations?”
I would demand of the demented bee
circling a can of garbage going sour.
Surely, God would not begrudge an hour

of timelessness unto humanity—
his representatives on Earth. He must
have made us and forgotten us. Maybe.
How else would you explain the missing bus,
the leaky awning, and the pouring rain,
this longing to be elsewhere? Hence, the plane
landing on a distant isle in Greece—
ahead of schedule—look—the Cyclades—
bathed in Hellenic blue. And far below—
almost invisible on the white beach—
there is a tempting red umbrella which
I am convinced belongs to me. Although,
it could be a reflection from the ad—
for Travelers Insurance—that is bad-

ly flirting with me from across the street.
A fault in one of its florescent lights.
Flutter. Flicker. Blackout. And repeat—
ad infinitum. How I hate these nights!
These vicious, tantalizing sights! To
say I hate New York would not be true.
We have a strange relationship, I’d say.
We need each other, sort of, in the way
a sad, sadistic cop requires a good
(but rather stupid) buddy on the force
to buy Budwiesers for him, post-divorce,
hear how he has wrecked his life. Ours would
make a fine, redemptive movie script,
down to the last, cheesy tortilla chip.

For now, a cone of pink chrysanthemums—
to match the dozen frosted donuts I
picked up from Dunkin’ for dessert—some
blocks back, before Zeus unzipped the sky—
will join our little shopping list. “How
much are these flowers,” I ask the fellow
sweeping up the petals, thorns and leaves
he has been pruning. “Not the roses—these,”
I point sharply at the mums again.
the chalkboard with the prices on it had
suffered like my patience from the mad
downpour. Slowly a young Mexican
lifts five green fingers in front of his face—
his exhausted face. What a place

to hide such beauty. “Yes, I’ll take those, thanks,”
I mutter roughly, with embarrassment,
pulling out a wet ten, with two yanks,
sending a quarter rolling down pavement
to gutter. Pirouetting on the drain,
it spins to rest, shining in the rain
atop a flattened cup—a blue pancake—
supporting crooked letters that I make
out to read, ‘Happy To Serve You.’
Exactly who is happy to be serving
whom lies beyond my powers of observing
because of how the cup is crushed. In lieu
of other parties with a claim to it,
I give green fingers a five-dollar tip,

go retrieve my quarter from the cup,
before somebody else does. In this town,
some moments are too precious to give up.
A lucky coin can turn your life around
like that: ‘Fortune rota volvitur,’
rolling to the sewer your last quarter,
while on ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ someone spins
above an orange pyramid. Who wins?
Who cares? I have my quarter and I’m glad.
The best ten dollars that was ever spent
by any man beneath the Firmament.
Do I exaggerate? Perhaps a tad.
But just a tad. That magic emerald hand
has turned ‘The Wheel’ into a salsa band

by changing channels. How I love TV!
Think of all the money that we could
save on drugs and psychotherapy
if human hearts came with remotes! A mood
is altered just by tapping on your nose,
fine-tuned further peeling off damp clothes,
then fiddling a minute with a nipple.
A politician still might come and cripple
sex, now and then, Monday night football
pre-empt some dreary real-life drama
with dancing linebackers, or a bomber
blowing up an airplane force us all
to interview a few shocked families.
But we could always turn off our TVs—

like that. Returning richer from the gutter,
I collect my donuts and cut flowers.
It seems the thunderstorm’s begun to splutter—
which I attribute to my quarter’s powers,
patting the faint circle on my thigh
embossed by my good luck. I decide
there is no point in waiting. I am wet.
I can’t get any wetter now. I bet
the guy who drives that bus is named Godot.
Assuming this, and better weather later,
we say goodbye to Jorge’s cramped bodega.
I need to meet Takaaki for a show—
War of the Worlds—at quarter after eight.
Taka-chan will shoot me if I’m late.

Takaaki entered my life as a leopard
print belt being unbuckled at the Y.
Until that Tuesday, we exchanged no word
apart from the prim, perfunctory, “Hi,”
one naturally nods when in the shower—
never letting eyes fall any lower
than chin, if necessary, collarbone,
carefully leaving ‘well enough’ alone—
lest a long, luxurious lather blur
the fragile line of bubbles separating
really clean from curious—creating
questions about conditioners and whether
grapefruit is a proper, manly scent—
even in a Thought Experiment.

Mesmerized by how that feline belt
crept through the four tight loops above his rear,
my mind filled with four-letter words, spelt,
‘Don’t ruin your Moon trip.’ Though sincere—
poetic even—this injunction—it
does not, I think, seem quite appropriate.
We’re not inside a NASA locker room—
pristine and clean and white. We’re in a tomb
below the ground on 47th Street,
surrounded by abandoned towels so stiff,
so stained with history, they’ve entered myth.
I sprinkled fungal powder on my feet
discretely. As my fairy dust descended,
I wondered if his buckle was befriended

by anything besides his fingertips.
I could, of course, conceive of other suitors:
shaggy carpets, pant hangers with clips
coated in red rubber, folding doors
with tiny metal doorknobs cast from stainless
steel. But it was none of my business
where, after leaving his seductive waist,
his buckle might intend to hang, how chaste
his companions: if they drink, or stink
of socks and jockstraps, Calvin Klein, or hold
silk stockings with more reverence, or cold
hands in handcuffs, or dead cats. (I think
what one discovers on a closet hook
more eloquent than any tell-all book.)

*Zip* that leopard slyly disappears
around the tan-line of Takaaki’s hips.
My eyes could spend the next ten thousand years
bouncing on his hips. But then my lips,
neglected and forlorn, might turn to dust
before I could express my love. Or lust.
I must not allow a sleazy rhyme
to swallow his humanity. It’s time
to treat the true Takaaki—the sweet face
we’ll sit across from in a steaming bath
in several stanzas—his smile, polite laugh,
how his eyes crinkle closed when I place
my feet in the hot water and I ask,
“Do you prefer my poems or pale ass?”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Takaaki, Part IV

I had a nice conversation with Takaaki this morning in Tokyo. There is more food in the shops now, less hoarding. Eggs can be hard to find. And local calls at night seem to be restricted by the power cuts (due to the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster) affecting cellphone service.

Still, he is adapting to these new circumstances and his new surroundings, a slightly smaller apartment near Shinjuku, having just moved. He mentioned that he has been reading his poem. (It really is his. All I am is his typist. The poem itself could not exist without him.) He mentioned that waking up one morning last week and finding himself an epic hero made him feel ticklish, as it probably would anyone.

Since it is National Poetry Month, and since there is a scene in the poem where I actually do tickle him, I thought I would publish an excerpt where we have a little fun. Maybe you will be tickled reading it, too. And don't forget, the whole poem is now available from The Raintown Review, one of the finest poetry journals around.

From, Takaaki: A Romance

Part IV

The crude compartment I created when
I focused on the concrete, glass and steel
elements of Takaaki’s place, I meant
merely as a skeleton. I feel
we ought to add some flesh: tatami mats,
seat cushions, delicate shoji—that’s
a pair of screens (with paper windows) which
separates the rooms. We’ll open rich
teak closets where folded futons wait while
not needed for a nap or other use.
Before you enter, though, remove your shoes.
Removal’s customary. On the tile,
out front, a pair of Muji slippers rest,
quietly, for comfort of the guest.

The kitchen lies left of his bolted door.
It’s small, but serviceable, black and bright.
It’s the best room in the apartment for
stage-managing a brief, pre-emptive strike,
or eating egg salad at night—egg
and bread crumbs are more visible. Pegged
to a cluttered corkboard two small keys
jingle if you pin a note. These
keys may unlock a mailbox, a padlock,
a fair or frightening future. (You can go
ask. I’ve got an aunt Pandora, so
I’d rather not.) Taka-chan will talk,
turning them around, when on the phone.
He is entitled to. It is his home.

I do not pry or criticize. I lack
those scholarly instincts. Where I may,
I study coffee tables. Here’s a snack:
a bowl of crackers on a bamboo tray
beside The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Does Azkaban share crackers with nude man
gyrating on the cover of HX
or dangle them in front of him for sex?
It’s not clear. Maybe Agatha Christie—
this book—a Japanese translation of
The Body in the Library—would prove
helpful in solving this small mystery.
If only I could read it. But I can’t.
These characters are hard to understand.

Takaaki must provide the weirdest clues:
a leather sofa, color of burnt butter,
a TV tuned to Will & Grace, not news,
chilly cha, a coaster, and another
Agatha, A Pocket Full of Rye.
These are the blackbirds baked into the pye
we set before the reader—who is king.
Don’t let these details fly away, but sing,
caw, croak, somehow illuminate
the mystery of love in ways which men
with tight abdominals, tight asses, ten
inches don’t. Let that crazy eight
I kiss, his double vaccination mark,
gradually start glowing in the dark.

Infinity is tough to represent—
with confidence—in the imagination.
You have to draw a diagram or rent
space inside a calculus equation.
‘We see that A means ASS and B means BUTT—
but double vaccination marks mean what?’
That depends. Some see a mad physician.
Some see nations exercising caution.
I see a boy unbuttoning his shirt
at school, as I once did, as a long line
of kids advanced. Most cry. A few grind
teeth. One estimates how much hurt
he can endure before his eyes or knees
collapse. Some cures look worse than the disease.

Takaaki closed his contact case. *Snap*
His irises were human once again,
not hard and blue, so Aryan. Adapt-
ing quickly to the future—the Martian
invasion postponed—he suggested we
play Scrabble. I agreed. He beat me.
The gap between our scores I can’t recall—
except that I was slaughtered. That is all.
My masterstroke, the word SYZYGIA—
conjunction of three bodies in a plane—
did not impress him much. I should explain.
He nodded, “Huh.” The word he won with: THE.
I hoisted myself higher in the bath
with half a mind to go and check his math.

I let it go, happy where I was:
pine paneled room, his holy of holies,
floating in a cloud of bath salts—suds—
slight variation in the Japanese
uncontaminated evening soak.
Steam drifted off the water, scented smoke.
Inhaling orange blossoms and hot wood,
I felt divine. And it felt very good
to be a god—for that one moment. Time
itself slowed to a complete standstill.
Not a single bubble burst until
Takaaki’s body settled in with mine,
his feet supported by my upper thighs.
Heaven is an easy sacrifice

for me to make when compared with love.
“Chutto samui ne?” his lengthy ‘ne’
sought confirmation from my hands above
all. “It seems everyone is cold today,”
I said, rotating the hot water tap.
His right foot trickled down into my lap,
thanking me. “Knock it off, you maniac,
that tickles.” “Turn then. I will wash your back.”
Takaaki pulled his knees toward his chest,
so I could circumnavigate the tub.
He lubricated me with Dove. I sub-
mitted to a scrubbing. But I guess
he felt I needed polishing—and bad.
He dropped the Dove act for a Brillo Pad.

My revenge came following a rinse.
I gripped Takaaki by his shoulder as
I worked. Although I left no fingerprints
or black and blue marks on his skin, each pass,
each soapy circle that the loofah turned,
his back grew darker—redder—like it burned.
“I hope you’ll tell me if I’m hurting you,”
I urged. He merely muttered, “Continue,”
to his patella, where his cheek reposed
until the buttons of his vertebrae
sank into his back like melting clay—
he thought that I was finished. Once I closed
the final circle, I drew a thin line—
a parallel—down the channel his spine

presented when he sat erect again.
He shivered like a town under assault.
Each muscle from his coccyx to his brain
twitched. It tingled. Instantly, I felt
a thrill of glee, pure reflexive pleasure—
an elbow in my ribs I may treasure
more than the Milky Way. “Dame dayo!
I hate it when you tickle!” “Yes, I know.
That’s why I tickle you,” I confessed—
I coughed—my lungs absorbing half the jolt
of that swift, thoracic thunderbolt.
The bath was thrown in chaos. What a mess:
the rug, the candle bobbing in the tub,
flame out, love drowning, glug, glug, glug...

‘Man has no more faithless friend than fire,’
I thought, as he retreated through the ripples,
leaving me, on my side, to admire
the swirling loofah, chocolate nipples,
suds rolling down his legs, joining clouds
of other bubbles in the bath. Doused
light retrieved, he stood. He pinched the wick
on a dry cotton washcloth. One flick,
one moment later, he ignited it—
the wick—with a free lighter from a brand
of cigarettes we stopped to buy in Grand
Central once: American Spirit—
whose roasted Indian, Chief Silhouette,
adorns a yellow background, calumet

in his hand, smoking passively, for peace.
His shadow decorates a shield, a sun,
a red one—rising, setting—as you please:
the symbolism of it weighs a ton.
I wash my hands of symbols. In the end,
we assign values to words, defend
the ones that mean the most to us. For me
that one word is Takaaki—actually—
the individual, not the poem—
the hand which animates those sliding doors
made of paper. All my metaphors
amount to nothing, really, minus him:
just words, just oscillations in the air
which might belong to anyone, anywhere.

Tail waving more triumphantly, our flame
burned brighter, elevated to a shelf
above the tub—a tiger cub—a tame-
er creature than Takaaki or myself.
“Do all descendants of the samurai
have fannies of such fearful symmetry
as yours?” His torso twisted and a face
erupted so demonic in the place
of his beloved features, it would take
more malice than I can muster—Milton’s art—
half of the true horror to impart.
I sank some inches deeper in our lake
of fire, seeking shelter from his grin,
pulling a sheet of suds up to my chin.

Around the corner of Takaaki’s hip
I saw a serpent peep, then disappear.
“Hey, Lucifer, hand me a Q-tip,
would you?” I asked, moving to bite his rear.
Dicks are fickle things—they come, they go—
the ass eternal. Michelangelo
chipped thus, at marble, sensing in his block
a boy resided, not a piece of rock.
The slab of dictionary I work with
may not be stone, it’s certainly not flesh,
the B-O-Y a word, three letters. Less
promising materials do not exist
to build a world around. I don’t mind.
We poets have to work with what we find.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Poet

The language he employed was plain,
As undistinguished as his face;
He mumbled in a monotone,
And, now and then, forgot his place.

Largely, he talked about himself,
As people do. I understand
His views on life extended from
A callus on his writing hand.

The critics charged, “These poems lack
That passionate intensity
Great art requires. Your words evoke
No worlds, they shed no light...” You see

His vision was quite limited.
He evidently had bad eyes
Like Milton and like Homer did—
Blind men who never missed a sunrise.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Simple Gifts

For Gavin

Of all the nooses I have chosen—ties,
nylon laundry line, black leather belts,
fairy hands fumbling at my throat—I
found none completely equal to the task
of enhancing my orgasms—and what’s worse,

un-poetic in the extreme. Always,
I wound up bug-eyed, twitching, coughing my-
self silly, dildo dislodged, coins of cum
scattered all across my hardwood floors,
dissolving the polyurethane finish.

I have no desire to wake up in Heaven
hanging from a big brass doorknob like
a retired Tory politician—even
a member of Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet.
Mom would never forgive me. So, I am

glad to have you here, thinking ahead.
Let us die a nice American death,
clean and simple as a Shaker hymn:
on hands and knees, your arm around my neck,
our eyes upturned in prayer, cock in ass.