Friday, March 25, 2011
The Old Knickers
She wears threadbare floral prints.
She has a family back at the tenement
waiting for hugs and feed: hurly bulk of a husband,
perpetual scent of sweat, nails ringed with black.
Her hungry young are growling in the gulliver.
Had the shirtwaist factory floor an unlocked door,
she’d run out and home, into eager arms.
But the immigrants were not to be trusted. Still,
who’d ever have imagined that an oldwoodframefiretrap
full of sewing stations with frayed cords,
rooms packed to rafters with ready-to-wear,
could sear with such excitement
that doorknobs might melt?
Missus has now gone beyond the mullions, face blackened with soot,
once-long hair a smoldered bob and she sees the fire ladder
two floors shy of doing much good. Leaning out
over Greene Street her ears pop to silence and the sky turns crystal.
Her boys are off kicking cans in Miller’s field.
Firelicking closer, she’s urged to shuffle another inch.
She snatches up her children’s smiles, her parents’ final words,
her husband’s simple straightforwardness and urgent lovemaking.
She grabs old Mrs. Rosen’s hand, and together they rush down,
skirts billowing beneath them,
showing their old knickers to all the looky lous.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
I’m a stringer
between leafless trees
in a Minneapolis
ice grey morning.
They struggle, yet
hold their own
between flour mill
from 8th and down
the dead alley, I notice
abrasive brick sliding slow
beneath my touch,
so far removed
from the feel of skin.
If I could write
to you, I’d wax poetic
on streamers of industrial
white reaching for the skies,
and that lone crow
in our loading dock
eyeing me with
The bowlegged dog looked mighty solid
standing there, lord over the fork of a dirt road.
And as we, she and I, approached in our carriage
her boot eased back from the gas. I quipped:
Let’s let the lord decide which road we’ll travel.
As a poet I like to make vague allusions to things
like the work of another poet, especially knowing
that I stand alone, heel toe and unbalanced, entrenched
in ruts dug by the itinerant poetry wagon that crisscrosses
the solar fields. And as I struggle to keep my look of cool
and maintain a semblance of self-assuredness, a grooved out
beatnik hipster of daydream delusion, a tightrope walker
with Converse treads in the bumpy ditch of the
poetry wagon solo allusion semblance wheel rut—
wait, where was I?— that dog watched our approach.
We watched him. He stood solid. We rolled forward
nearing the point where a decision would need to be made,
because, after all, a man and a woman can’t just climb
into a carriage and set off on a journey together only to
pause indefinitely at the first juncture and be unable
to make a decision about which way to go, left or right,
or whether to fork at all, perhaps choosing to remain
stalled at the crossroads and set up shop selling groceries
and souvenirs to couples traveling on, undaunted
by the big choices. But we, she and I, are watchers
and we put our faith in the lord, knowing in our hearts
that he certainly wouldn’t steer us down
some dangerous path pocked out with wheel cracking divots.
He stood solid. We watched him. He barked one time
and turned to his right, our left, and raised his snout
slightly to sniff the breeze. We looked down that way
and the road curved a slope to where an old covered bridge
passed over a creek. The dog looked to us back over his haunch.
We had come some distance already and didn’t know
where we were at all. We trusted the lord though. In the short time
we had been together, he hadn’t yet steered us wrong.
But guide or not, we, she and I, had to choose our path.
We drove. We paused again. Backpedaled and turned.
That old covered bridge sure was pretty.
My mind breezes between things. Tring tong goes the bell, then a fist – leather gloved – pounding, pounding. Innocent Nine and I scuttle across dark carpet, try to peer between pulled drapes, but the crack left onto our corner of the world reveals nothing. Bam bam bam. The door, solid core I think, withstands another onslaught, but the hinge brasses blanch and shudder at the barrage. Innocent Nine and I exchange wide-eyed silence. Peripherally, I pick up the cheap steel deadbolt. In an instant, Nine is there sliding the bolt into place, without even a sound. He holds his head low under another volley of bams and tring tongs. Then, the noise stops. Nine bellycrawls back to me, whispers that he heard muttering, footstomps receding. Outside, a door muffles shut; a truck grunts and peels away. Innocent Nine looks up to me and he asks, “Dad, why do we hide from Swan?”
I ease back a drape in time to see the ice cream truck round the corner. Knowing he’s gone, I settle down for the moment to try to explain what Schwan’s represents, but my mind breezes between things and I find maintaining coherent thoughts to be a lot like Eskimo pies. While Eskimos have 381 descriptive words for snow, Baskin-Robbins has only 31 flavors, though that’s still more than Schwan’s offers at the door, but they do have those pies and Baskin-Robbins only deals in scoops. “Eskimos have only 1 word for pie,” I say, thinking it meaningful, but Nine, not even yet a teen, has already stopped listening.
The month of June in ‘92 was a scorcher. The sun had more than doubled in size, air conditioning was prohibitively expensive, and I was sharing an apartment near Lake of the Isles in South Minneapolis. My roommate was a young woman who regularly overindulged in smelly liqueurs. Back then I was an oil painter and my roommate, alcohol permitting, was my model. Jody and I would drink day or night, sometimes even finding some time to create art. More often, Jody and I would frequent one of several of the Uptown neighborhood pubs, spending our afternoons perched on barstools, watching sweat beads roll down highballs. By sundown and paychecks permitting, I’d be floating in a vodka tonic and Jody would be sinking beneath the bubbles of a fizzy green on the rocks with maraschino squeezings.
This one afternoon I was sitting alone in the apartment, Wink Martindale grinning from the small black and white TV. Jody hadn’t been around all day, but I was hoping that she’d call. I was itching to get to the bar. Just then the phone rang. Two minutes later, I was standing on Hennepin Avenue, waiting for the bus. Jody was in Uptown. Her parents had given her some cash to help her get by, and so, drinks were on her until the tap sputtered out.
I boarded the bus and dropped my change in the meter. Only a few sweat-stained riders were scattered about inside. I plopped into a seat as far from any other person as geometry would allow, and I leaned back and smiled. I imagined that Jody was already ordering me a cocktail. I could hear her voice calling the bartender man. “Hey man, can I get my friend a drink?” To my left, on the unoccupied seat across the aisle, was an abandoned paperback. As the bus arrived at my stop in Uptown, I grabbed the book and went to meet Jody.
As we got loaded, we read the works of Arthur Rimbaud. Years earlier, Jody had briefly grazed the periphery of the college-aged literati of Austin, Minnesota. Jody knew Rimbaud’s work somewhat, but poetry was a foreign language to me. Throughout high school, each year’s English class poetry unit was complete torture. I never liked the sense of disquiet and confusion that poetry raised in me. Mr. Leitie taught me to avoid poems whenever possible. For the first time, however, a whisper seemed to come off the weathered pages in the subdued lighting of that Uptown bar. Across the swelling Atlantic and half of the United States, the voice of a nineteenth century teenager spoke to me:
Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed. One evening I took Beauty in my arms—and I thought her bitter—and I insulted her.
Rimbaud was eighteen years old and he already spoke with an air of wisdom. How many young people mistakenly believe that they are wise with the accumulated knowledge of their few years?
I have seen archipelagos in the stars,
Feverish skies where I was free to roam!
Are these bottomless nights your exiled nests,
Swarm of golden birds, O Strength to come?
True, I’ve cried too much; I am heartsick at dawn.
The moon is bitter and the sun is sour...
Love burns me; I am swollen and slow.
Let my keel break! Oh, let me sink into the sea!
If I long for a shore in Europe,
It’s a small pond, dark, cold, remote,
The odor of evening, and a child full of sorrow
Who stoops to launch a crumpled paper boat.
Washed in your languors, Sea, I cannot trace
The wake of tankers foaming through the cold,
Nor assault the pride of pennants and flags,
Nor endure the slave ship’s hold.
Jody and I shared Rimbaud that one afternoon, but afterwards, the young man belonged to me alone. My years spent as a painter were in a long slow decline from a highpoint of mediocrity, and I knew it. For me, needing a life model was more an excuse to get girls naked than serving any nobler purpose. If Jody realized that, she never called me on it. To her credit, she allowed me the fantasies I constructed to give my life a greater sense of purpose, and to get laid. I had very little that I could call my own back then. I had my paintings, such as they were. I had Jody with me. And on that South Minneapolis bus, the great spirit of the clouds passed me a freebie:
—Sometimes in the sky I see endless sandy shores covered with white rejoicing nations. A great golden ship, above me, flutters many colored pennants in the morning breeze. I was the creator of every feast, every triumph, every drama. I tried to invent new flowers, new planets, new flesh, new languages. I thought I had acquired supernatural powers. Ha!
. . . I called myself a magician, an angel, free from all moral constraint.
. . . I am sent back to the soil to seek some obligation, to wrap gnarled reality in my arms. A peasant! Am I deceived? Would Charity be the sister of death, for me? Well, I shall ask for forgiveness for having lived on lies. And that’s that.
Jody and I read as the sun completed its rounds and dipped its orange blaze behind the trees and urban skyline. I didn’t tell Jody that evening, but by the time we were drunk enough to board the bus heading back to our dirty little apartment, I had already become a writer.