From a Notebook, or Morning Jog

If you don’t like the dream, change it. Turn your dial from hearse to horse. Don’t kid yourself: the carbon underworld takes any charge. My hearse, well, it shivers, stands, becomes a stallion, runs off. So what I’m flip with grief? The grim reaper has a tear in his underpants. They fly off, crow like. Ha ha! Naked reaper. Now he’s just another dead guy.

**

My uncle M drank. Preferred vodka. Sometimes he’d go into the old horse barn and strike discarded radiators with a hammer. He was musical that way.

**

In my poems, or, go ask Freud

Old lovers flit through the trees—

Ah but what kind of trees—

Birches with gold ringlets

By the lake

Sometimes

High in the branches

They look down on me

Just a boy really

Searching

For mushrooms

**

Go to meetings with college faculty. More and more they speak neoliberal platitudes. They can’t hear themselves, or choose not to. Focus group. Task force. Sustainability. So I think about the Kreutzer Sonata—not Tolstoy, Beethoven, the second movement. I’m lucky, can replay the whole thing in my head.

**

It’s been said British writers have an elegiac sensibility while American writing is more optimistic. I don’t think so. America is a ghastly place. Writers have to move fast. Running for your life only looks like optimism—no one should mistake desperation for belief. Even Whitman would agree.

 

Ex-Cathedra

 

So it’s a day of not caring

Not caring when the bus driver

Won’t call out the stops

Though I’m blind

Not caring he resents his job

Or that I signify resentment

You see I’m lifting just so

Like a fabric airplane

So I really don’t care

When a big administrator

At my college says:

“Don’t tell me,

I care about the disabled!”

Like those white people

Who say, “I had a black friend once…”

It’s a day of not caring

A day for opening my throat

That I may sing

The song of statelessness

While rain comes down

A proper rain

And a green caterpillar

Feeling the thunderstorm

Walks over my wrist.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, or, Traveling with a Guide Dog

When, as I do, you travel everywhere with a guide dog public space becomes a confessional of sorts. It’s a rare day when a stranger doesn’t approach to say, “I had a dog like that once, but he died,” or, “Labradors, they’re the best dogs in the world, but mine’s dead.” The first time this happened I was a newbie guide dog user, alone, in the Pittsburgh airport, and a woman said, “I had a dog like that once, but someone poisoned it.” She had an overpowering minty odor and kept snapping her fingers. My dog and I ran away from her.

It took some time but I began to see these encounters as having nothing to do with dogs. Or the dog was simply a calling card. My guide dog Corky meant in the eyes of passersby that I was approachable and might well have a heart. A more sinister variant was that being blind they might believe I couldn’t escape—like a hapless passenger on the Greyhound. I chose not to believe the latter. I am, essentially, a boy scout, (OK, not really) but I do believe in kindness and I’m as naive as the next man, or woman, and what the Hell, I thought, it costs me next to nothing to talk to wounded, anomalous weirdoes.

Of course “next to nothing” is just faux metaphysics—it did cost me. You can’t absorb the griefs of subway riders and ballpark fans without grinding your bearings. Three years into guide dog life I understood that the village square is filled with Tennessee Williams characters, lots of Blanches and Stanleys whose hearts are so broken they’ll think nothing about approaching a blind man to talk about the deaths of their pets. And I saw that behind the stories of doggie demise were divorces, run away children, job losses, car accidents, so that I wanted to weep for our strangeness. This is a high gravity world.

As a poet this wasn’t big news to me. About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. Not only is it always occurring, but we’re invited to look away. Unless, that is, you go absolutely every place with a dog. On the airplane. In the shopping mall. Riding escalators. Then all bets are off. A guide dog user becomes a mark. In effect I became a walking minister. A circuit rider. My Finnish grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who preached to immigrant congregations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I saw Corky was my Model T Ford. The common street was our patch of souls.

I’m an irreverent fellow. But I couldn’t laugh at the unbidden, constant sadnesses of happenstance people. And I couldn’t let them dominate me as the price of listening. Nor could I let them ruin my days. Her dog had been poisoned. His dog lived to be fifteen but succumbed to joint disease. Her dog got stolen. His was shot by hunters. You’re sipping coffee. You’re sitting on a bench. The sorrowing come to you like birds.

The trick as I saw it, was to abandon belief in fairy tales. The guide dog schools like to say that with a dog the blind have newfound horizons, freedoms, opportunities, etc. They’re right. But one aspect of freedom is that you’ve become a citizen like anyone, and yes, because of your dog you’re interesting. I listened. Still listen. Just enough. Then I say, “I’ve got to get back to reading,” and put on my headphones. Or tap my talking watch, then say, “nice talking, but Ive got to go.”

My guide dog brought me love. It cuts both ways: I’ll be your confessor, I’ll be on my way.

Thinking (If You Can Call It That) About James Tate

 

My wrist didn’t break when I played tennis

Though I can’t play tennis—

More later—my wrist kept intact

While I did not play.

Most people don’t know

What’s in a wrist

Regarding it

Avec perfume

Or shaving,

But since I’m blind

Hearing tennis,

Ovoid snicks like

No other noise on earth

I dream now

Between beheadings

Of the lunate bone

Yes—moon on top

Of the wrist

It hugs ligaments

And the lower arm bones

Mainstay of the carpal

Moon dust

That’s coalesced

Into a perfect ball

That we may hit another ball

Thus expressing

Our vexation

At being.

Resisting Dread

I hate to sound like the old New Yorker, but a friend writes to say, dolefully, Trumpism has robbed her of joy. “I simply feel dread, all the time,” she says. As she’s a tough cookie, my friend, her admission is telling.

Dread is one of the features of life under fascism. The prospect of doom occupies our imaginations, it’s how big “F” and small “f” strongmen keep us in line. It’s hardly an original thought. But joy can be destroyed by fear and this I cannot give them—nor should you.

Oh I’m fearful alright. Plenty. But I’ll be damned if Steve Bannon will steal my iridescent, moon-glow, Wallace Stevens nightgowns.

A game I play, more often than I should admit, is a dramatic transference for which there may be a name but I’ve never found one. Perhaps there’s something in German. In short, I employ the characters of Shakespeare and Moliere as standard bearers for people I meet and especially for  public figures. The literary term for this is “comparison” but what I’m describing is better than that—“kayfab” is what they call it in professional wrestling, where everyone, both wrestlers and fans collectively pretend a false drama is real. Essentially I live and have always lived since my late teens in Tartuffe and The Taming of the Shrew and at this stage of life there’s no help for it. This is comedy as it’s lived but not necessarily admired. Moliere:

The comic is the outward and visible form that nature’s bounty has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see, and avoid, it. To know the comic we must know the rational, of which it denotes the absence and we must see wherein the rational consists . . . incongruity is the heart of the comic . . . it follows that all lying, disguise, cheating, dissimulation, all outward show different from the reality, all contradiction in fact between actions that proceed from a single source, all this is in essence comic.

Both Moliere and Shakespeare grew up watching morality plays, fables whose stock characters were invariably named God, Death, Everyman, Good-Deeds, Angel, Knowledge, Beauty, Discretion, and Strength. Because they lived during the first flowering of public literacy they understood the indispensable healthiness of word flipping. Talk about nature’s bounty! Words were no longer merely to be received and absorbed. Can you imagine the joy of a 17th century adolescent forced to watch Everyman or The Second Shepherd’s Play, as he substituted Satan, Life, Neighbor, Sin, Second Rate Demons, Ignorance, Ugliness, Gossip, and Basic Human Weakness for the stock characters of religious drama? Of course you can. Almost no one who’s lived through a high school production of The Man of La Mancha has not done this.

Comic irony is when you recognize the impostors beyond their appearances on stage. The characters in Tartuffe are at every holiday party. They creep through the workplace. Confidence men, hypocrites, exceptionally vain head cases, the credulous, and all who make their living feigning virtue. Ah, nature’s bounty indeed!

By living Moliere I reside in kayfab—I know the world may be better or worse than this adoption, but I can bear my illusions for not to live in Tartuffe would be, at least for me, unsupportable. Comedic representation is healthier than plodding credulity and more philosophical since incongruity is the mainspring for understanding the irrational. If you’re following me, you’ll say my proscenium of custom if it’s all Moliere, all Shakespeare, all the time, is a matter that must by necessity make me unreasonable. I prefer this to any conversation with the human resources crowd or political canvasers or god help me, professors at a conference. I’d gladly sip the milk of custom and spit it in a potted plant than talk to Orgon or Tartuffe. Contradiction isn’t a customary beverage. It’s milk and iodine and it’s healthier for you than any drink Madame Pernelle will offer.

Shakespeare was the first comic writer to dramatize reverse psychology as Petruchio, a wandering nobleman, undertakes the wooing of Kate who’s notoriously short tempered and cruel:

“Say she rail; why, I’ll tell her plain

She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.

Say that she frown; I’ll say she looks as clear

As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.

Say she be mute and will not speak a word;

Then I’ll commend her volubility,

and say she uttereth piercing eloquence.”

We are the ones invited to say she rail; we’re instructed to become as devious as Petruchio. Taken into his confidence we’re delighted by his promissory book of lies.

That’s comedy. Not as a vehicle for pratfalls or put downs, but discernment where the irrational is concerned.

I am in mind of Donald Trump as Tartuffe as he brags about his religious ardor; talks up his virtues; steadfast in his desire to win, needing to win because he has no inner life. And Orgon, who represents our soggy press corps, infatuated, until he can’t see what’s in front of him. And then, like Petruchio, who plans on subduing angry Kate with persistent, counter-intuitive lies, our press corps tells us how Trump-tuffe is wash’d with dew, clear, eloquent.

You see how it is. Perhaps it is thus with you?

 

Sibelius’ Honeymoon

 

It would not be you, dreaming, mid-summer,

Dreaming your grand piano, which, waking, you will play,

Not you, who, in love in woods, hand in hand with her

Plays Liszt, or when you wake, will play,

And it would not be you, hunched at the keys, mid-summer,

In love in woods, who paid some laborers to carry a piano

Far into Karelia, where you imagine

You will make at least three kinds of love.

Ars Poëtica, Remembered After Years

When I was four years old and living with my parents in Helsinki I was madly in love with my two toys—a stuffed monkey and a wooden top. They were my only toys. It was an austere world. Finland was still deep in recovery from WWII. There were no supermarkets. My mother and I stood in long lines at every small shop. Milk shop. Bakery. How my mother found that monkey I’ll never know.

I’d spin my top and it whistled and my monkey would stand very straight like Lincoln and he’d give a little speech. Wind pushed branches against the windows. I remember that the monkey favored banana ice cream. He knew the bright red banners of the street corner ice cream stands. And I recall there were many banners. Sky banners. I had blunted sight. These were green flags. For me the sky was always light green. There were trolley car green banners, a darker shade, inviting. Trolleys meant, climb into the greenery. Banners. They could woo me and win me.

That’s what I know. It takes a lifetime of skies and clouds to become today’s Stephen. Baltic clouds, pressed flowers in the mind.

I am not sentimental. For instance I’ll not tell you the monkey is still talking while the top spins. And I won’t say adult hands are an easy score to erase. I won’t tell you there was innocence.

Blind kid, strange city, the dissolving embraces of light when he looked closely. Yes, that’s still the ticket.