“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
Wendt had been to the address before. It came to him slowly, the familiarity of the mahogany wainscoting and rail up the stairs to the main floor, the alabaster foyer with the spiral steps leading to the upstairs bedrooms and den, even the garden patio where the young film maker had set up the equipment for the interview. Hard to believe that thirty years had passed. He’d arrived in the city only a few days before. Sheila was still back East finishing her last quarter at Princeton. The occasion was a book party for Richard Brautigan’s Rommel Drives Deep Into Egypt. Catered by Kentucky Fried Chicken, they had provided, apparently at the author’s request, a life size plastic statue of the Colonel holding his signature bucket placed prominently in the foyer at the intersection of the party traffic. The life size figure had a startling peripheral effect in that it triggered the reflexive awareness of a presence. It persisted in making people jump. At one point, a short blonde in high leather boots who had come with the ghost of Lew Welch knocked it over, yelling at it as it tumbled down the stairwell, and a momentary quiet descended on the festivities.
He had met Irma for the first time that night. And Dick Granahan. Actually, had him pointed out. Roger Wilson. Peter Tobias. And Danni Markov, come to think of it. At one point he’d stumbled onto a den of vipers who had just come back from Afghanistan with a load of hashish. Nothing stayed in his memory for very long for almost a week after that. It had not been unpleasant but it was disconcerting. Maybe that was why he preferred to drink and get stupid. In that case, the memory loss was useful.
As if on cue, right as Jim Shue finished filming Wendt’s rambling free association on Jack Kerouac, the fish and chips arrived. Katje Marsh, intricate Japanese trout tattooed sleeves speckling both arms, poured him a glass of Guinness and pulled up a chair. She was the young woman Jim had been so taken with at Enrico’s. She produced a video blog devoted to Kerouac called Go Moan. She wanted to use some of the interview footage on her blog.
“As I always say, the poetry is free, everything else is for sale, lease, or rent.” He may have been leering. There was a certain tasty savoir faire about her manner. That and her tight youthful body.
“I really don’t have a budget” and reading his mind, as if that were difficult, “And I don’t fuck old men.”
Wendt felt the sting but covered with a weary smile. “Don’t knock experience. Once you’ve tried old, you’ll be sold.”
She had a charming laugh even when tinged with ridicule. “Listen, if I had to go to bed with every writer I interviewed or whose work I used in my blog, I’d never get off my back. I’m just trying to get a little information. I suppose I could go to the usual biographical sources. You are in Wikipedia, are you not?” At Wendt’s blank look she continued, “But I’d like to hear some of it from the horse’s mouth.” She added, “In a manner of speaking.”
“First I’m old and then I’m dog food.” He liked her even more. He might even be in love, at least for the moment. “What do you want to know?”
“I read somewhere that you were born in Dublin. Is that right?”
“No, no, I was born and raised in the good old US of A. In the country, in fact. On an old commune outside of Indianapolis. This particular commune dates to right after the Civil War, back when it was considered a utopian experiment. When I lived there it was a community of Reichians, pseudo-Mennonites, and conscientious objectors, like my dad. Misfits mostly. People who wanted to experience a different way of community long before it was considered cool to drop out. The land was owned by descendants of a local Civil War hero by the name of Jerome Doubling. The community got to be known as Doubling and eventually, with the inevitable elision of the final consonant, it became Doublin or Dublin. It’s in the same neck of the woods as places with names like Bean Blossom and Gnaw Bone.”
“So you grew up on a commune?”
“No, not really. My parents split when I was little and my mother, who was originally from Indianapolis, moved back. She went to work as a paralegal for the ACLU and my dad stayed on the land and became a cabinet maker. He had a PhD in psychology from Yale but he found his calling in making things out of wood. I always had the coolest handmade wooden toys as a kid. So I would spend summers with my dad on the land and the school year with my mother in the city. I got to experience a radical world in the summer and a conservative Catholic one the rest of the year. I attended Cathedral High.”
“And Dublin is where you met Norman Barnacle?”
“Yeah, his daughter lived on the land, and she brought him there to live with her. He was pretty old, ailing. Couldn’t get around because of his legs. Arthritis, probably. So some of us stronger boys were assigned the task of helping him. You know, push his wheelchair, provide a shoulder to lean on, that kind of thing. Everybody called him ‘Barney.’”
“He was one of the great Irish poets of the Twentieth Century. What was it like to be around him?”
“No big deal. I mean we were told that he was a great man, but that didn’t really mean much to us. And he was an odd bird. He had long white hair which back in those days was very unusual. And bad dandruff.”
“He always wore a dark blue suit, even in the heat of summer, and so it was quite obvious. He looked like he’d just stepped out of a snowstorm. Or got hit with a confetti bomb.”
“Did he ever talk about poetry with you? I mean, he was a world renowned poet and I assume he had an influence on you.”
“Not that I remember. And if he did, I wouldn’t have known it. He had a tendency to repeat himself, like a lot of old people do, you know, tell the same story over and over.”
“Really? For example? About Amy Lowell?”
“Never about poets. He used to tell the story about when he was a young man in Ireland and he was a champion cross-country runner and he had won some medal and had given it to a girl he fancied. And I think she took it and ran off with another fellow. It was either that or she turned down his marriage proposal. You got the impression that she was the one who got away. His first true love.”
“Did he ever recite his poems to you? Or talk about the great men he knew? He knew Yeats and Beckett and Joyce and Graves and Pound.”
“No, I don’t remember him reciting his poems, but you know at that age I would have taken it for senile babbling anyway.”
“Oh well, that’s unfortunate.”
“He used to recite the Iliad on special occasions, though. He would begin by saying ‘this is the story of the rage of Achilles, of pride and selfishness, of love and war.’ It would be in the evening, usually a full moon, July or August, around a bonfire, and it was mesmerizing, magic in a way. There was no TV on the land. There was barely electricity. And he spoke it as a kind of sonorous singing. I was always impressed that he had memorized all that. The names, the endless list. And the battle scenes. They were quite vivid. I could visualize them above the tip of the flames where the fire edged into the black of night. At dramatic moments, he would stab his cane into the fire and stir up the sparks. I think he enjoyed those recitations. He was going blind from macular degeneration at the time, but I didn’t realize the significance of that till much later.”
Whenever Wendt sat in front of a wide screen TV he was usually in a bar and expected to be watching a game or a sports show. He was surprised by what he saw.
Jim had wanted him to view the footage of the interview. Normally Wendt would have passed but the kid had paid him the two hundred, half of it by check which was not the preferred method but he could sign it over to Angie as part of his obligation. The check was written to the account of Spitz, Schein, and Shue, investment bankers from St Louis. Obviously he was someone to make nice with. And the three pints of stout mellowed him considerably as had the gut full of greasy fish and fried potatoes. Not to mention that Katje wasn’t tiring on the eyes and he was in no hurry to leave the orbit of her frank playful beauty. So he climbed the spiral staircase to the den and flopped down on the black leather couch
The image was startling. It was himself as he had not seen himself before and did not want to see himself again. He looked old. His age, but old. Still, a shock. He was reminded once again how mirrors lie. And the voice. It didn’t sound anything like he heard himself. Not only that, he wasn’t sure he liked what he heard himself saying.
“I was laughing. Everything I had been taught about poetry was contravened. Mexico City Blues. This can’t be real, I kept thinking. Like it was some big put-on. But I couldn’t stop reading, drawn to the writing by a morbid curiosity. I had to know how deep that well of innocence would go. The prose never reached the same intensity for me, only in maybe Railroad Earth or Visions of Cody — Joan Rawshanks In The Fog, wow! Has anyone ever listened to Pic? Or realize that it’s homophone in French means spade? And even though it’s considered politically incorrect, no one faults Samuel Clemens for doing the same damn thing.”
Had he belched? He’d had a nervous stomach despite his perceived nonchalance. They would have to edit that out.
“Jack’s characters are latter day Huck Finns. Innocents, stirred by the winds of circumstance. And do you think that Huck could be domesticated? Would you want him to be? The descent into alcoholism is the fate of lonely old men’s failed domesticity everywhere.”
He was mortified. His mouth moved on the screen and it was speaking gibberish not to mention that it looked like it belonged to a wrinkled rubber mask. He wanted to put his hands over his ears and cover his eyes at the same time.
“In Kerouac we see the supreme American innocence stomped on by the hobnail boots of puritanical culture and hierarchy. He is by turns ignored and excoriated. He is the behemoth in the room.”
His posture was bad besides. He should have sat up straighter. His gut took up the entire foreground. He looked like a lounge lizard, an over-the-hill John Travolta, barely staying alive. His teeth looked bad too. Why hadn’t he cared before?
“It is the intellectual priesthood and the sacrifices they expect that will kill you. You will be spread-eagled and eviscerated by the carrion critics who dine on the entrails of literature. What is perfectly natural is subjected to the mumbo jumbo of no-talent elitists. They, not alcohol, killed Kerouac.”
He regretted doing the interview but giving back the money was not an option. He had signed the release. He didn’t know anything about Kerouac, anything meaningful and insightful, anyway. He adored the man and his writing, but that was different from being able to speak objective truth about his genius.
“His bilingualism blessed him with an exceptional ear. It allowed him to code switch between French and English and chain together a unique syntax that accommodates both languages. And he understood the dictates of jazz improvisation. He learned how to invoke that line straight from Bird, Dizzy, Monk, and Bud, listening to Symphony Sid or some other jazz radio or in Minton’s or at the Five Spot. And he would blow like them at rent parties in a spontaneous bop poetry accompanied by his friend David on the French horn, a most appropriate instrument for him, don’t you think?”
His eyes appeared glazed and unfocused.
“Out of the crucible of cool came the hip new language whose progenitors are Lester Young and Lord Buckley, the new yawping of American poetry, its lexical and syntactic foundation. Jack gave voice to that language.”
It was the lighting. The lighting was bad he decided.
“Jack made it ok to be silly, to goof, to improvise, to be the fool.”
He consoled himself with the likelihood that his contribution would end up on the cutting room floor. Why not another lie?
When I was a young boy I would hold my father’s hand. That thought, those words, occurred to him as he wandered part way down the Lombard steps and then cut over to Chestnut before heading back toward Columbus. No reason accompanied them. Then the image expanded to the peripheries. They were heading for a white door. It was the door to a washroom at a service station. He had pissed his pants.
He hadn’t been expecting a crowd. Something was going on. And when he got closer he saw that there were cameras and a crew filming. It was a big production from the amount of equipment, not some handheld film school effort. Tracks for the camera dolly had been laid down and there were more people behind the camera than in front of it. Two actors dressed in black stood idly awaiting the set up. A fog machine, as if the local variety wasn’t good enough, was producing too much fog so a fan had to be brought in. All the while a young actress dangled from the crane in a harness. Everyone had their eyes on her, even the two cops obviously there for crowd control. The crowd was behaving itself, mainly neighborhood folk and tourists who had suddenly ended up in Hollywood when there thought they were in Frisco.
Not one to gawk, still Wendt was curious. He asked the big Samoan in the expensive suede black and orange team jacket, “What’s going on?”
“Eh, makin a kung fu movie, man. That Eve Won.” The big man pointed a large fist at the suspended actress.
“Oh, yeah? Never heard of her.”
The man in the suede jacket looked offended. “You never heard of her? Man, she been in alla big Hong Kong kickass flicks. She the best.” And then after an appraising glare, “What, you been living inna cave, man?”
So much for that. Wendt was about to duck into the entrance to the Art Institute when he recognized the couple coming toward him. Courtney and David. They were holding hands and had yet to notice him. When they did, they were delighted to see him.
“Carl, you’ll be glad to hear that I spoke with Nora White and she has no objection to you reading at the memorial for Ian Blake. She even suggested that you waive your fee,” Bloom beamed at him.
“Come on, Wendt,” Courtney twisted beseechingly.
“When is it?”
“Next month, the nineteenth. We were going to do it on the twenty-first, but the hall was already booked. Wednesday is not a great night for an event, I know, but it’s the only one we could get. Besides, Ian had a lot of friends and admirers. And you’ll be on the bill. That will bring a big crowd.” Bloom slapped him on the arm collegially.
Wendt tried not to growl. He didn’t say ‘don’t count on it’ but the twitch of his jaw spoke plainly.
“Are you here for the Kenny Retain show? I hear his oils are really amazing.” Courtney knew how to change a subject.
“Actually no, I came in to use the can. I’ve already seen the show and reviewed it in my column. It’s dog shit smeared on plywood with a palette knife. Though much to my dismay, I couldn’t use those exact words.”
Next Time: Nora White agrees to help Wendt improve his employment prospects. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY to read the pdf file.