The poet James Tate has a poem entitled “Contagion” which begins: “When I drink I am the only man in New York City”. I have always loved this line ever since encountering it for the first time as a greenhorn college student who was falling in love with poetry. There’s a bosky isolato about the line as if amidst the thrill of a broken heart one could be wildly alone simply by choice. Never mind the evident psychopathology of the thing. You drink some darkness as the poet Robert Bly would say.
Then you’re in the dark alley of your private catacombs Your old mother is there and her mother’s mother and by god they’ve got bruises and songs and cutlery and busted dreams and cradle songs and hair pieces and shoes with tacks in the heels and Lord knows what else.
Turn a corner and the ember of a cigarette glows and its your dead friend back from the ocean and he doesn’t have to say a thing. He’s simply there like a cluster of wild roses.
I dreamt the other night that John the Baptist was instructing me on the eating of insects. I dreamt just last evening that a lighted manuscript, a book lit from within was before me–the book that my father has been writing in the afterlife. When I woke the wind was howling at the loose windows of the hotel here on the Oregon coast.
I am writing. I am the only man in Oregon. I am pierced by rays of dark matter. My job is to find the path back out of these lightless rooms. The writer must rearrange the small, stone idols atop Sigmund Freud’s desk. I and you who write must make sense for others. My teensy butterfly heartache needs be a Morse code for your teensy lightning bug heart. If it aint then its just flapdoodle solipsistic drivel. The poem, essay or story must needs be an opening for the others back at the base camp.
When I write I am the only man in New York City. There are Russian ghosts driving their carriages and one of them, the saddest ghost of all loses a wheel and the wheel rolls past me in the darkness of my private city. I am going to help find it. The wheel is rolling down the west side highway and headed for Battery Park. I know how to find it. I have the proper tin whistle. It was given to me by Madame Blavatsky. She gave it to Kenneth Rexroth who gave it to Sam Hamill who gave it to me while we were talking about wild flowers in a night garden. Things don’t “work” in creative writing the way they do in engineering. But they work. My tin whistle calls back the wheel and it skitters on its thin hub straight through the village and reattaches to the dead man’s droshky and he can resume his looping journey through the city that never sleeps and maybe, just maybe playing with words this way is why my dreams are sometimes real gifts. My father gave me a book last night while I slept close by the Oregon coast. I didn’t have to make this up.