Hay Scratching Hay

When I was a kid I fell in love with a Victrola in my grandmother’s attic. What was I doing up there? It was summer. Kids were playing ball. And there I was with a wind up gramophone with a metal horn. Blind kid alone with an old fashioned record player at the top of a Victorian house. I fell in love with that machine. It worked perfectly and there were dozens of records featuring the great Enrico Caruso. You have to picture me, five years old, a little lonely, and then stunned to hear such a voice under the eaves. I’ve loved Caruso’s voice all my life and yet, even now, sixty years later, hearing him pulls me back to my provincial first opera house.

There were lots of artifacts in that attic. A raccoon coat, a sea captain’s chest, a cracked boudoir mirror, cane chairs that were eaten through, dusty books, a sewing machine, oddments of all kinds, tools I couldn’t identify. I explored with my hands while the great tenor sang of vengeance or a broken heart.

Think about your private opera. I was lonesome as a cricket. I was in love with a strange singer.. Best of all I’d no one to tell.

I still hear the needle hitting the record. The sound of hay scratching hay.

In my case poetry has always been a kind of forsakenness. The solitude glitters. Do you know this feeling? Rain runs down the window and you press your forehead there. You see you need nothing.

D. H. Lawrence wrote: “It’s no good trying to get rid of your own aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your own aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.”

Yes there are moments when the fire warms and the inn is open. Family and lovers; neighbors, strangers well met—a trusty dog. Behind this scrim is the solitude. It was me. It was the voice of a tenor singing in the dark.

A Question as Autumn Arrives

This is the season of crickets: early autumn and the nights turning cold. We think of them as musicians of small disasters even though this is patronizing and humanly imperial. But children know the truth. The crickets are singing in dark houses with the windows flung open to the night.

The thing about children and crickets is that their hearts have not been hijacked by esoterica. The Gods live inside a child and a cricket without fanfare or holy books. And just so: the gods, children, and crickets are not thinking about the pale ministers or the farmers.

They sing to the astronomy of bodily pain and the unredeemable knowledge of no body at all.

Was it a child or a cricket invented the shakahachi flute?


The Psychopathology of the Rotary Telephone

I recall it as an imperial thing: heavier than an encyclopedia, squat as an animal.

I remember fearing it somewhat. When I picked up the receiver there was a woman’s voice—a dark inquiry from a stranger. She said I shouldn’t play with the phone.

Now, in my fifties I dislike the damned instrument.

I see college kids walking all over town and chattering into cell phones. They seem to be nothing more than mannequins granted the gift of speech.

I understand everything!

We require the fearsome Operator more than we knew.

In the good old days the Operator kept our conversations honest and short.

Honest and short! Imagine!

Yes and in the good old days one had to have a reason for placing a call.

I heard a college student on the bus just the other day telling her friend: "I’m on the bus. I’m eating popcorn on the bus. I’m going home on the bus."

God help us!

I dial an imaginary phone with my index finger.


Morning on the Bus

I rode the bus to campus this morning and overheard a conversation between the driver and a passenger. The two men talked ardently about the distinction between theology and religion or religious practice. The bus rumbled through corn fields and housing developments on a cold, snowy Iowa day and these two unassuming guys had a smart conversation about Zen Buddhism and the parables of Jesus and then, as the bus pulled up alongside the big shopping mall downtown they promised to get together for coffee. Some days it’s nice to live in a college town where everyone is most assuredly not what they appear to be. I mean that in the best sense. I mean this the way Walt whitman meant it when he said: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself." I wish more Americans had the luxury to live out their contradictions with curiosity and support from their neighbors. Why then we would be free of course. Why then we would be free.


Homage to the Grim Raker

The man across the street is raking his leaves but instead of using a rake he’s running some kind of hyper-industrial, mulching machine–a thing that sounds like a snow plough dragging against pavement, certainly there’s something wrong with the damned thing.  Accordingly he’s making a statement about his neighborhood and his place within it: he doesn’t care about the fact that he’s disturbing the people around him.  He is moving his leaves with sinister efficiency and he’s giving nature an obscene gesture at the same time.  I think he feels good out there forcing his outsized and outdated internal combustion engine over the dark lawn.  His wife comes out and shouts at him over the din and though you can’t hear what she’s saying, she sounds wildly happy about the torment they are together inflicting on Ridgeway Drive.

I wonder what it means when people are so utterly regulated to noise that they will endure it for the sake of something like ten minutes of convenience.  The mechanical leaf blowing gizmo will probably save the man all of ten minutes over an old fashioned manual raking.  In geologic time ten minutes is nothing.  In domestic time it is barely enough to make a can of instant soup.  So he can’t really be saving time.  There’s no way to justify the idea.  So what’s he up to?

He hates the sound of a rake.  That "long scythe, whispering in the wind"–the scratching of death, the scraping of "the grim raker"–this is most certainly what all that noise making is about.  "Death, where is thy sting if I can’t hear your crumby little scythe?"

Either that or the guy’s just an inconsiderate boor who likes Campbell’s Cream of Asparagus.

He ruined my raking this morning.  I like the ancient, dry, confirmatory scritch pitted against the oceans of leaves.

My friend, the Finnish poet, Jarkko Laine, once described dead leaves as being "death’s butterflies".  I like that idea.

I guess I’ll have to rake by night, while Mr. Asparagus is dreaming of oil filters and pop top cans.


Autumn Sounds

It is autumn and the trees are flaming red and gold. How do I know? Because people talk about it. They say words like "burnished" which they do not say ordinarily. No one announces in the kitchen: "That’s a burnished piece of French Toast." But the leaves are burnished gold. This is because Jack Frost sends out his minions by night, little copper smiths who buff every leaf. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the neighbors. "Hey, Joey, did you see the miniscule copper smiths burnishing your ash tree last night? It was better than Monday Night Football, I’m tellin’ ya!"

It is a beautiful fall day in Iowa. The little copper smiths have been working all night.

Others also work by night. The pre-Halloween toilet paper nymphs have been at work, festooning the burnished trees with bathroom tissue. And since this is Iowa City, people from Namibia and the Czech Republic inquire earnestly as to why American teenagers festoon the trees and houses with toilet paper by night. "This is how we express our love," I tell them.

It is autumn in the Midwest.

I can hear the local high school’s marching band through the toilet papered trees.

I wonder, if they had had toilet paper in the 18th century, if early American teens would have done this? Can you picture Thomas Jefferson sneaking out to cover the trees of the Custiss family of Albemarle County with Charmin?

All I can say is thank God we’re still a silly nation.

When I was a teenager in Geneva, New York we used to put a brassiere on the Virgin Mary who sat resplendent above a fountain. This was a seasonal ritual.

We also used to make relatively innocent prank phone calls to a relatively nice man named Donald W. Duck. This was also a seasonal ritual.

We discovered Mr. Duck because his name was in the phone book. We actually used to read the phone book for fun in those days.

We were looking for people with names like "Outhouse" and "Shickelgruber"—names we were assured could be found in any fair sized town.

I never did find the Outhouse family, though once, on a plane flight to Finland I heard the flight attendant paging a "Mr. Magnus Crapper."

What the flight attendant actually said was: "Mr. Crapper. Mr. Magnus Crapper. Please ring your call button."


To Autumn – Keats (1795-1821)

Highgate Cemetery, London

"Why are you taking us to the cemetery, Professor?"

I recalled D.H. Lawrence saying: "I like to try new things so I can reject them."

"So you can see how the Victorians pictured their place in history," I said.

Ravens were sitting atop Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s tomb.

"They buried him with a little bell, in case he should wake up and need rescuing," I said.

"Karl Marx didn’t get a little bell, and you’ll notice there are no birds on his tomb." I said.

"George Eliot doesn’t have any birds either, and look, her tomb is sinking. That’s because they buried her with all her books." I said.

"How do you know her tomb is sinking if you can’t see?" asks a girl.

"Because I read the books," I said.

You could hear a day laborer spading up wet earth beside a fallen stone.


Chautauqua Podcast: Stephen Kuusisto

If you’ve stopped by this blog before you know Steve was a guest speaker at The Chautauqua Institution recently.  You can read about his impressions of Chautauqua in this post: Chautauqua Mystique.

Better yet you can listen to his interview with host Paul Burkhart, Chautauquan and retired professor of Speech, Shippensburg University.