An Old Rig and a Passenger

Wormy had a girlfriend, was in a relationship, he wanted to get rid of, to get out of. He had a plan. He wanted to do some time travelling on the scooter. I tried to tell him that was a bad idea. All times are the same, same rotten humans unhappy with their lot. The only road to true happiness was to live like a gypsy in a caravan putting down only shallow roots if any, keeping with your family. Nonsense, he said. The girlfriend was called Tilde, a nickname ascribed to her from the way her eyebrows grew: ~ ~ . The plan was I would give Tilde a ride up the coast with me to San Francisco, where she had a sister Wormy was in touch with who would take her in and help her find a job waitressing. Tilde had been tending bar at the Orange Orchid Tiki Bar and sleeping with Wormy and had grown accustomed and comfortable with the arrangement, but Wormy was beginning to feel cramped and closed out and wanted to kick out before wiping out, as he put it, and did something really stupid like get married. He would tell Tilde it was all over between them, but that I would give her a ride up the coast to her sister’s place. Tilda’s sister was some sort of professor at one of the Frisco colleges. Her beau was a veteran right fielder for the Kyoto Kinks who owned a fancy Japanese restaurant in Frisco. Long ways to go two on a Vespa, I said. Impossible. You’re not taking the scooter, Wormy said. You’ll take the Chevy. The Chevy was his restored 1956 two-ten with a rebuilt 265 cubic inch engine, 3 speed synchromesh manual transmission. Cream white with turquoise roof and lower side panels. Not as classic as the Bel-Air, but a nice ride for a coast cruise. Go ahead, Wormy said, who had backed the car out of the garage and was beckoning me to take the wheel and we’d go for a test drive around town. It was a different kind of time travel, the ’56 Chevy, and maybe I’d had enough of the scooter for a time, and I agreed to Wormy’s plan.

“An Old Rig and a Passenger” is episode 51 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

A Change of Clothes

Oracle. Fin de siècle. Redondo Pier. Fishing. 

I abandoned the rental running as Wormy had instructed and made my way down to the Redondo Beach Pier. From the sidewalk near Catalina and Coral I had glanced back and the rental car had already been picked up and disappeared. The classic fin de siècle houses along the Redondo beachfront had perished, replaced with balcony ocean view condominium and apartment complexes. Hard to say which era was the more degenerate. Probably all ages are similar in that human nature has not improved over time. Nor has god nature. The universe is not expanding; it’s stuck in its own muck. But the south Santa Monica Bay night was now cool, a fine mist rising from the water, the horizon dark, no sign of Helios. It would have been a good night to cruise Highland, Manhattan, and Hermosa avenues through the beach cities on my candy apple red scooter hog. I had rolled down all the windows of the rental, but the feeling of being open and about, out in the salty air, wasn’t the same. Out on the pier, a few folks fishing, some buckets yet empty, others grimy grey water, or busy with bait. As I was walking slowly along the pier railing, one of the fishers stopped me with the Two Years Before the Mast code Wormy had given me. In a bag in a trash can was stashed a change of clothes, and I used the Oyster and Shrimp Shack backroom to change. When I came out, I was now another of the fishers, and would vanish in their midst. As Risk Manager to the gods, properly speaking, I am an oracle, but I can’t foretell everything. Likewise, our pasts remain obscure, ambiguous, seemingly unnatural. My mother was a mermaid, my father a walrus. I’ve close affinities with the fishes of the oceans, seas, rivers, and streams. Shells and the creatures that live in them. Rocks, sand, and seagrass and sea wind. Though in some tellings, my mother was a twisted weeping cypress and my father a magpie.

“A Change of Clothes”
is episode 16 of
Ball Lightning
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Walter and the Panhandler

The gods and one's nature. Metamorphosis. Unhuman. Inhuman. Panhandling. Gold. Plutocracy.

Most gods have little choice but to follow their nature. It’s not so much that they are bound to, but that they want to. It’s what fulfills them, brings them happiness, even if its taste is bitter. It’s true though, that with a lot of hard work, one may achieve a kind of metamorphosis of one’s nature, changing, over time, but then that very change has always been a part of one’s nature, waiting in the wings, as it were. Metamorphosis is different from mutation or mistake or accident. The snail wants to be a snail, slipping and sliding slowly along its trail to and fro its eats. The seal is at home in her wavy salt water coves, climbing the rocks to dry in the sun after a meal of fish. So too the human can not be unhuman. Inhumanity is a different matter. One follows a slippery slope toward inhuman behavior, landing in the pond of selfishness, fed by streams of stinginess and hoarding. If you are happy, you will hand over some change to the panhandler on the corner, and not think twice about it. His cardboard sign may be filled with lies (veteran, three hungry kids and no place to call home, need money for ticket back home); so what, of these lies? Doesn’t all advertising fib? Appeals to the emotive, the passions. So when Walter and I reached the corner where sat the fellow with his sign (can’t work – groin injury), and Walter scoffed what was he, an NFL quarterback? I gave the fellow a greenback. Why Walter should care, Ray having just recovered the missing transaction of $300 million, is a story not of metamorphosis but of one’s nature. Walter is a miser. And, one of the wealthiest men in the world, he is, by nature, a panhandler who advertises by pandering to the base desires of a soft audience he detests. The language of the gods is not made of words. The best prayer, as Thomas Merton has told us, is wordless. As a flight of birds. As a sea breeze. As a flight of bills falling into a hat sitting on a sidewalk between two wretched legs. Words are seeds in bloom, flowers and weeds, wanted and unwanted. The bee is on your lips, her long tongue slipping through for the nectar of your words. It will take many bees to change these words to honey. The panhandler is working, similar to Walter, sifting his investment pan for gold nuggets, panning for gold. As an enterprise, it’s one of the most efficient. Surely, I told Walter, even you must appreciate at least that much. Money in one’s pockets, like gold, does nothing. It’s a dead weight. It must be circulated. This wretched state of affairs is part of human nature. Zeus blinded Plutus so that the god of money could freely pour the goods of his cornucopia without regard for worthiness. Thus we arrive at our current plutocracy, which affords sans philosophy, sans religion, sans love, sans hope, sans charity.

“Walter and the Panhandler”
is episode 13 of
Ball Lightning
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Poetry Footprint

Poetry High FiveAccording to the Global Footprint Network, the Ecological Footprint is “the metric that allows us to calculate human pressure on the planet and come up with facts, such as: If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American we would need 5 planets.” There are several footprints currently being measured, carbon and water, for example, and we are encouraged to measure our own personal footprint and to reduce the size of our footprint, “to tread more lightly on the earth.”

Maybe poetry does not have a footprint, but a handprint. A print that shows who was here, and this is what they saw, what they heard, what they tasted, what they touched and felt, what they smelled. But also, what they and those close to them thought about this sensorium of experience, how they responded, how they changed, what they promised and what they betrayed, how they might have wronged and how they might have been forgiven. To do all of that, poetry needs a wide spectrum of possibilities. Some of these possibilities might lead listeners, readers, away from well worn paths, into uncharted waters, rough seas, or lulls, or blank spaces with no echo. Other possibilities might lead readers back into cities with crowded sidewalks, or into libraries full of musty, dusty books. Or into parks, or taverns, or beaches, or mountains and lakes and rivers, or nurseries or old folks’ homes, or orphanages or prisons, or churches or corporations, or onto ships or bicycles or cars or helicopters or surfboards. The point here is that any of these possibilities, for any individual listener, might wind up a dead end, but it can’t be wrong if it widens the spectrum, for the wider the spectrum, the greater the possibility of poetry.

I sometimes wonder if human nature improves over time. In other words, are we better than our ancestors? We might like to think so. Technology and medicine, the comforts of modern housing and transportation, what we call advancements and improvements resulting in higher standards of living might lead us to think we are smarter, more accomplished, in a word, better than our ancestors. But what of our essential nature? Has that improved? Does it improve? Can it improve? I have doubts. I think we’re probably the same inside as we’ve always been. It’s the same old heart beating in the same old chest.

In any case, what inspires this post is another skirmish posted in the poetry war, an internecine, academic argument. I’ll just point to David Biespiel’s response over at the Rumpus, and interested readers can follow the trail-links from there. Like most wars, it’s sometimes hard for an outsider to get what it’s all about, but like most fights, this one’s about territory and who’s to have the final word. But it’s also about values, what we value in poetry, and whose values ought to prevail. It might be important to remember that what we value is not necessarily what’s good for us. What we value is simply what we want.

There is something about poetry to value, to want, that is relevant to the discussion. One of my favorite books of poems is “Paroles,” by Jacques Prevert.* Prevert lived in Paris during World War II, during the German occupation. Writing in 1964, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in his translator’s note introduction, said, “I first came upon the poetry of Jacques Prevert written on a paper tablecloth in St. Brieuc in 1944…a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on.” That “perfectly suited to” is important, for it values a poem for its success in achieving its purpose. Even if we might think the purpose is bad, it can still be a good poem. This is a sentiment many critics find difficult to stomach, but it’s vital to the health of a wide spectrum of poetic possibilities.

But there’s another reason I like Prevert, and that has to do with the idea of sitting out at a sidewalk cafe table writing a poem on a paper napkin, not even a paper tablecloth, a poem someone might read, or no one might read. Poetry was a way out of oppression for Prevert, and poetry remains a tool today for release from the natural malaise that comes from everyday life, even if that release is only temporary, and even if that malaise is from human pressure. The release comes in the act of writing the poem, not from the possibilities of someone else reading it or of having it published or some fantasy of poetic fame, but from the existential act that says, I am here, and this is what that means, for now. The act of poetry leaves a tiny Ecological Footprint. That sidewalk cafe napkin poem might be a good way to “tread more lightly on the earth,” even as it adds to the size of the poetry footprint.

*Jacques Prevert’s “Paroles” is Number 9 in “The Pocket Poets Series,” first published in the City Lights Books edition in July 1958, in San Francisco. I have the Sixth Printing, February 1968.

Related Post: Bukowski for President! David Biespiel and Poets for Democracy