Robert Sward, July 12, 2016, Bookshop Santa Cruz, reading on program with Dana Gioia. First Santa Cruz reading of “Love Has Made Grief Absurd,” A monologue in voice of a SF Bay Area artist struggling with ALZ.
( cont.) “Anyway, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is an interior monologue,” said the officer, finishing his balogna sandwich and washing it down with dark rum. Wiping mustard from his mouth, he continued. “The whole thing takes place in J. Alfred Prufrock’s head. That’s clear, isn’t it?”
I had read Browning’s My Last Duchess and understood about interior monologues.
“Listen, sailor: Prufrock thinks about drawing rooms, but he never actually sets foot in one. Am I right?”
“Yeah,” I said after re-reading the first ten lines. “I think so.”
“The poem is about what goes through Prufrock’s mind on his way to some upper-class drawing room. It’s a foggy evening in October, and what Mr. Prufrock really needs is a drink. He’s a tightass Victorian, a lonely teetotalling intellectual. Anyone else would forget the toast and marmalade and step into a pub and ask for a pint of beer.”
Setting down his pipe, the naval officer opened the flask and re-filled our coffee mugs.
“Every time I think I know what Prufrock means it turns out to mean something else,” I said. “Eliot uses too many symbols. Why doesn’t he just say what he means?”
“The city – ‘the lonely men in shirt sleeves’ and the ‘one-night cheap hotels’ – are masculine,” said the officer. “That’s what cities are like, aren’t they: ugly and oppressive. What’s symbolic – or should I say what’s obscure – about that?”
“Nothing,” I said. “That’s the easy part – Prufrock walking along like that.”
“Okay,” said the officer. “And in contrast to city streets, you’ve got the oppressive drawing room which, in Prufrock’s mind, is feminine – ‘arms that are braceleted and white and bare’ and ‘the marmalade, the tea,/Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me…?'” Using a pencil, the officer underlined those images in the paperback anthology.
“You ever been to a tea party, Sward?”
“No, sir, I haven’t. Not like Prufrock’s.”
“Well,” said the officer, “I have and I have a theory about that ‘overwhelming question’ Prufrock wants to ask in line 10 – and again in line 93. Twice in the poem we hear about an ‘overwhelming question.’ What do you think he’s getting at with that ‘overwhelming question,’ sailor?”
“Prufrock wants to ask the women what they’re doing with their lives, but he’s afraid they’ll laugh at him,” I said.
“Guess again, Sward,” he said leaning back in his chair, stretching his arms.
“What’s your theory, sir?”
“Sex,” said the officer. “On the one hand, it’s true, he wants to fit in and play the game because, after all, he’s privileged. He belongs in the drawing room with the clever Englishwomen. At the same time he fantasizes. If he could, I think he’d like to shock them. Prufrock longs to put down his dainty porcelain teacup and shout, ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all…'”
“Why doesn’t he do it?” I asked.
“Because Prufrock is convinced no matter what he says he won’t reach them. He feels the English gentlewomen he’s dealing with are unreachable. He believes his situation is as hopeless as theirs. He’s dead and they’re dead too. That’s why the poem begins with an image of sickness, ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ and ends with people drowning. Prufrock is tough shit, man.”
“You said you think there’s a connection between Eliot the poet and J. Alfred Prufrock,” I said.
“Of course there’s a connection. Tommy Eliot from St. Louis, Missouri,” said the officer. “Try as he will, he doesn’t fit in. His English friends call him ‘The American’ and laugh. Tom Eliot the outsider with his rolled umbrella. T.S. Eliot is a self-conscious, make-believe Englishman and you have to understand that to understand Prufrock.
“The poem is dark and funny at the same time. It’s filled with humor and Prufrock is capable of laughing at himself. Just read those lines, ‘Is it perfume from a dress/that makes me so digress?’
“You were talking about Prufrock being sexually attracted to the women. How could that be if he is, as you say, ‘dead.'” I asked.
“By ‘dead’ I mean desolate – inwardly barren – godforsaken. Inwardly, spiritually, Prufrock is a desolate creature. He’s a moral man, he’s a civilized man, but he’s also hollow. But there’s hope for him. In spite of himself, Prufrock is drawn to women.
“Look at line 65. He’s attracted and repelled. Prufrock attends these teas, notices the women’s’ arms ‘downed with light brown hair!’ and it scares the hell out of him because what he longs to do is to get them onto a drawing room floor or a beach somewhere and bury his face in that same wonderfully tantalizing ‘light brown hair’. What do you think of that, sailor?”
“I think you’re right, sir.”
“Then tell me this, Mr. Sward: Why doesn’t he ask the overwhelming question? Hell, man, maybe it’s not sexual. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe what he wants to do is to ask some question like – like what you yourself suggested: ‘What’s the point in going on living when, in some sense, we’re all already dead?'”
“I think he doesn’t ask the question because he’s so repressed, sir. He longs for physical contact, like you say, but he also wants another kind of intimacy, and he’s afraid to ask for it and it’s making him crazy.”
“That’s right, sailor. He’s afraid. Eliot wrote the poem in 1911 when women were beginning to break free.”
“Break free of what?” I asked.
“Of the prim and proper Victorian ideal. Suffragettes, feminists they called themselves. At the time Eliot wrote Prufrock, women in England and America were catching on to the fact that they were disfranchised and had begun fighting for the right to vote – among other things – and for liberation, equality with men.
“Of course Prufrock is more prim and proper than the bored, over- civilized women in the poem. And it’s ironic, isn’t it, that he doesn’t understand that the women are one step ahead of him. What you have in Prufrock is a man who tries to reconcile the image of real women with ‘light brown hair’ on their arms with some ideal, women who are a cross between the goddess Juno and a sweet Victorian maiden.”
“Prufrock seems to know pretty well what he’s feeling,” I said. “He’s not a liar and he’s not a coward. To be honest, sir, I identify with Prufrock. He may try on one mask or another, but he ends up removing the mask and exposing himself…”
“Now, about interior monologues: To understand Prufrock you have to understand that most poems have one or more speakers and an audience – implied or otherwise. Let’s go back to line 1. Who is this “you and I” Eliot writes about?”
“Prufrock is talking to both his inner self and the reader,” I said.
“How do you interpret the first ten lines?” the officer asked, pointing with his pencil.
“‘Let us go then, you and I,'” he’s saying, let us stroll, somnolent and numb as a sedated patient, through these seedy “half-deserted streets,/The muttering retreats/Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels…'”
“That’s it, sailor. And while one might argue that Prufrock ‘wakes’ at the end of the poem, he is for the most part a ghostly inhabitant of a world that is, for him, a sort of hell. He is like the speaker in the Italian epigraph, from Dante’s Inferno, who says, essentially, ‘Like you, reader, I’m in purgatory and there is no way out. Nobody ever escapes from this pit and, for that reason, I can speak the truth without fear of ill fame.’
“Despairing and sick of heart, Prufrock is a prisoner. Trapped in himself and trapped in society, he attends another and another in an endless series of effete, decorous teas. “In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.”
“Do you get it now? Do you see what I mean when I say ‘tough shit,'” said the officer.
“Yeah, I’m beginning to,” I said.
“T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock has become so much a part of the English language that people who have never read the poem are familiar with phrases like “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” and “I grow old… I grow old…/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and “Do I dare to eat a peach?” and “In the room the women come and go…”
“Do you get it now? Eliot’s irregularly rhymed, 131-line interior monologue has become part of the monologue all of us carry on in our heads. We are all of us, whether we know it or not, love-hungry, sex-crazed soldiers and sailors, brave, bored and lonely. At some level in our hearts, we are all J. Alfred Prufrock, every one of us, and we are all sailing into a war zone from which, as the last line of the poem implies, we will never return.”
Evanescene. Doty writes movingly, beyond movingly… about the death of his partner, Wally, from AIDS. “How can you hide, wrote Heraclitus, from what never goes away? Death is always present…”
“The physical reinvention of the world is endless, relentless, fascinating, exhaustive; nothing that seems solid is. If you could stand at just a little distance in time, how fluid and shape-shifting physical reality would be, everything hurrying into some other form, even concrete, even stone.”
This blog, by the way, is something of a journal, a record of many things, including the books and passages that have moved me. Stuff I want to store and go back to–and also share. So in some sense it’s also a basket, a container for what strikes me as wonders… and DOG YEARS is rich with wonders.
“The narcissism of depression is a hole with very steep sides.”
“Giving up the ghost–that is the best phrase we have for dying. The ghost in ourselves, the animating geist–in that last moment of breathing out, I swear it does go up.”
And then, for me, something most unexpected, Mark Doty’s riff on Judy Garland, a singer I have never “gotten.” And I am so moved by Doty’s take on Judy, I read those passages aloud to my wife and… well, no one, to my mind, has ever written so well, so genuinely, so movingly about Miss Garland.
“The purpose of poetry, it has been said, is to bring more of the unsayable into the world of speech…”
Can a tall, thin, 58-year-old Jewish man achieve fulfillment as a Rent-A-Santa?
A buxom aspiring female Santa Claus in a quilted down jacket swaggers out of room C1 in the Civic Center.
I’m next in line for my “Rent-A-Santa” interview.
“Ho Ho Ho,” she says over her shoulder giving me an unnerving sidelong glance, a sort of knowing sneer (“I know what you’re here for”) tinged with Christmas spirit. Santa Claus one-up-manship. She’s warring with me for the job of Santa Claus.
“Ho Ho Ho, yourself,” I answer, wondering what I, at age 6, would have made of a big-breasted female Santa Claus.
“Are you Santa Claus?” I might have asked.
“I’m Ms. Santa Claus. Mr. Santa Claus is home making dinner.”
My own children will be away this Christmas visiting relatives. I want to be Santa Claus because I know how much I’ll be missing them. I want to be Santa Claus so I can give love and gifts to other children. If I can’t personally give these things to my own children, I can at least try to give them to other people’s children. The truth is, I’m the loneliest man in town and I want to be Santa Claus so I can distract myself, so I won’t feel so much pain.
I haven’t practiced my “Ho Ho Ho,” but plan to wing it, “Ho Ho Ho”from the diaphragm, “Ho Ho Ho” from the heart.
I wanna be Santa Claus.
I’m Jewish. I have a beard and for 58 years have been wanting to participate not as an envious outsider, but as a wholehearted Christmas insider. What better way than to become the plump, white-bearded, old man himself?
I’m tall and skinny. I am a neurotic ectomorph. I have a lean, hungry look about me, sad hazel eyes and a slightly hooked nose.
But I do have a white beard of my own–tinged with wiry black hairs. I like children. That is, I like most children. Not all children. The little boy down the street who applied red enamel paint to my friend’s Boston terrier puppy will be lucky if he gets a chunk of coal this Christmas.
The door to room C-1 at the Civic Center opens and the Santa Claus personnel officer invites me inside. We shake hands. She introduces me to her assistant. The two interviewers sit at one end of a mahogany conference table and I sit at the other.
“What wonderful weather we’re having,” volunteers the female interviewer.
“Not at all like Christmas. This is going to be my first Christmas in five years without snow,” I stammer, violating my promise to myself not to ramble.
“Robert, to start off would you give us a sample of your “Ho Ho Ho?”
I take a deep breath and summon up all the jolliness I can muster.
“Ho Ho Ho,” I roar.
They nod approvingly and make notes on their lined yellow pads.
I’m feeling more at ease.
“What are the names of Santa’s reindeer?”
“Comet. Dancer. Prancer. Blitzen… Rudolph… hmm.” An un-Santa-like expletive follows.
I get only four right out of eight. I’m failing. What the hell am I doing here? A 58-year-old teacher, Fulbright scholar, Guggenheim fellow, author of 14 books, trying to get a job as Santa Claus and failing. I don’t even know the names of my eight stinking reindeer.
Again, they make notes on their lined yellow pads. It reminds me of visits to my therapist. I begin to sweat. I want the job and they know I want the job and I’m not going to get it and they know they’re not going to give it to me. The humiliation of it all. I passed my orals for an M.A. degree, I taught at Cornell University, but I can’t get hired as Santa Claus.
“There’s Dancer, Prancer, Comet, Vixen, Cupid, Donder, Blitzen…” they correct me. “And Rudolph doesn’t really count. He’s a latecomer.”
“What would you say if you had a kid sitting in your lap and he pulled off your beard?” asks the assistant Santa Claus personnel officer.
“Well, I’d try to control myself. I’d say something like, ‘See, I have a real beard, but it’s white and black because I’m young. And I wear an all white beard over my own beard so I’ll look older than I really am. People expect Santa Claus to have an all-white beard. But now you know the truth. I’m younger than people think.'” What a ridiculous answer, I think to myself.
To my surprise, the two interrogators nod approvingly. Again, they make notes on their pads.
“Why do you want to be Santa Claus?” they ask.
They’re wondering if I’m a child molester or a drug addict. They obviously don’t want a Santa Claus who’s going to arrive at some Christmas office party too ripped to climb out of his sleigh. But I’m just a straight, conventional citizen. Solid, stuffy.
I tell them about my children and how much I miss them.
“What will you say if children ask how come they didn’t get what they wanted last Christmas?”
“I’d say Santa Claus loves them and that he gives children what he thinks they need most. That he has many children to give things to–children in all parts of the world–and that some years he runs out of presents before he’s finished. But that he tries to make up for it the next year.”
“OK, but remember Santa Claus never makes promises,” says the male Santa Claus recruiter, hiding behind his hand. “Also you may be asked to appear in some unusual ways.”
Like a Rent-A-Stripper with a long white beard and a bag of toys jumping naked out of a cake?
To my relief, he explains: “Last year our Santa Claus was met at the end of a deserted mountain road with a horse-drawn wagon filled with hay. You want to be prepared for anything.”
“And Santa Claus does not use drugs and he does not accept drinks,” says the female personnel officer. “No liquor. No drugs.”
“What if Santa is invited to stay for dinner?” I ask, hoping at some point along the way the old guy will be invited to sit down with some generous family to feast in style.
“Santa Claus does not accept dinner invitations.”
Right. I should have known. He doesn’t accept anything. But how in God’s name is Santa going to fatten himself up if you won’t feed him?
Feeling depressed, I cross my arms and look down at my skinny legs.
The interview ends with them asking me to make up a story. My imagination fails me. I can think of nothing to say. I’ve written a novel, poems, short stories, magazine articles, and I sit at the mahogany conference table with nothing to say. I bombed. I need a drink, I think.
“OK, well, thank you, Robert. Don’t call us. We’ll call you… Thursday or Friday of next week.”
Thursday and Friday pass with no call from the Santa Claus personnel officers.
So this would-be Santa Claus sweats it out over the weekend. On Monday he can stand it no longer. Can he subject himself to further mortification? He must know whether or not he’s made it. Finally Santa gives in. He phones his interviewers. He does what they asked him not to do.
“Robert Sward?” says the voice at the other end of the line, “you’re Santa Claus.”
* * *
Hired as a Rent-A-Santa Claus, I immediately begin wondering if there hasn’t been some mistake. Me? Santa Claus? Surely there must be a hundred aspiring Santa’s out there better qualified than me. Over-sized professional actors with droll little mouths and long white beards. Accomplished, 300-pound dimple-faced singers of Christmas carols. Red-nosed, pot-bellied reindeer ranchers.
The truth is, I’m scared. Having gotten the job, I don’t know if I’m up to it. Think of the responsibility… “Sinter Klaas,” a supernatural being who brings happiness and who is supposed to know the names, addresses and dreams of every child on earth. Who knows the good ones from the bad and who loves both equally. Who has unconditional love for everyone, even noisy, runny-nosed, sneezy children who whine and cry and pull his beard.
Yes, this Santa Claus worries about being too thin and believes there is nothing more obscene than the sight of some undernourished Father Christmas moving about with obviously loose pillows inside his oversized polyester Santa suit. Better no Santa at all than an unconvincing, self-conscious, tacky Santa with skinny legs.
My friend–delighted, by the way, to be dating Santa Claus–tells me how, if everything goes well, I will not merely put on the red suit and fake white beard and “play” Santa but become Santa, just as good actors and actresses become the parts they play. And she promises to help me with the logistics of costume and make-up.
Still, I ask myself, what would my mother think, what would my father think? A nice Jewish boy, bar mitzvahed, educated, the works… and what’s he doing, our son, the crazy teacher, age 58, in a red suit trimmed with rabbit fur promising Barbie and Ken and GI Joe to gentiles? Flying through the air like a Jewish peddler in a magic sleigh… a bundle of toys he had flung on his back… and he’s giving them away, Gertrude, he’s giving them away.
And worse, what if, after boning up on their names, I confuse or forget some of my reindeer? Cutie, Blitzen, Bagel and Vixen… Donder, Dasher, Schwartzkopf and Prancer, like some New York law firm.
I buy a copy of Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, a facsimile of the original 1848 edition, and write down reindeer names in my Day-Timer appointment book for reference and study. I go to the downtown library and read everything I can on Christmas.
I begin to notice that when I talk to myself, I address myself as Santa.
I try not to let it bother me.
Santa’s friend tells him he’ll make a great Santa. That Santa’s “Ho Ho Ho” is just bravado. That that’s not the real Santa Claus. That Santa is a private, loving, soft-spoken person, that he doesn’t go to parties very much–only at Christmas–and that, when he does, he doesn’t stay very long because he’s always thinking of his unfinished novel.
With that encouragement, Santa goes to the Rent-A-Santa office to pick up his new suit and beard and his instructions. He also has to sign a contract. And there is a set of Rent-A-Santa rules, some already made clear, to learn:
- No alcohol, drugs, no smoking. Santa Claus does not smoke cigarettes because his uniform is flammable and he wants to set a good example for children and not go up in flames.
- Santa Claus does not accept cookies or cake to put into his big red velour bag “for the reindeer.”
- Santa is not a surrealist. He tells stories about sharing. He tells stories that have an appropriate moral message. Santa, in short, follows tradition. Charles Dickens over Richard Brautigan.
- Finally, he arrives at his gigs on time and already in uniform. He does not go first to the bathroom to “change” where he may be seen by children.
* * *
Santa spends a sleepless night and, at dawn, takes a shower, trims his beard.
Two hours before he is due at the community center, Santa does some yoga exercises: the Sun Salutation, the pose of the holly wreath. Then he meditates. Next, Santa lays out his clothes and begins to dress. He imagines himself a toreador preparing for what Hemingway calls “the moment of truth.”
He puts on his blue fleece-lined sweat pants and shirt, to which his friend pins four pillows–front, back, sides. Then he pulls on his red velour pants and socks. He borrows a pair of his friend’s red socks (one size fits all) to pull on over his own. He pulls on his high rubber boots with the white fur. His friend sews jingle bells onto his boots.
When Santa is at last ready, his friend begins to weep. She has helped create Santa Claus, a fantasy from her childhood, and has done so in the privacy of her own home. Here he is, as real as any Santa she has known. Only this is her own Santa. Santa seated on her sofa. And Santa is as moved as his friend. He feels himself transformed.
“I am the happiest man in the world,” says Santa seated in his friend’s car on his way to the Louden Nelson Community Center. Suddenly he hears children screaming and yelling, “Santa! Look, there’s Santa Claus.” A mother stops in the middle of the street risking her own life and the life of her child to gasp, “It’s Santa, Mickey, there’s Santa!”
Traffic-stopping Santa waves and waves and shouts over and over, “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to all. And to all a good night. And a happy Hanukkah, too!”
Copyright (C) 1987, 2009, Robert Sward. All Rights reserved.
“Seventy-five,” he says. “That’s a good number.” He’s in his 60s. What do you mean, “a good number?” “Seventy-five is a passing grade. If you make it to 100 you get an A.”
Apropos of nothing she says: “End of show. Lights up. That’s it.”
M is the guy my former wife left me for. Now we’re friends. Once came to blows. Now we’re friends. Her I don’t see so much. Him I do. He lives in L.A. He tells me, not a compliment, that I was one of the first, an “early adapter,” someone who early on (in the early 1970s) sought to cultivate the “extended family” thing (as a way of staying in touch with my children, five children.)
“Extended families are pretty common now,” he says. “But you got an early start.”
“Yeah, thanks to you,” I say. “You’re the dude who broke up the marriage.”
He knows and I know it would have broken up anyway. We talk about sex. “One can linger in love too long. When it’s over, it’s over,” he says. “Sexually people are more likely to click at the same time in the beginning. That’s when there’s some kind of simultaneity. But when it’s over, it’s over. There’s a simultaneity at the start. Both parties feeling pretty much the same thing at the same time. BUT, when it’s over, it isn’t likely you’ll find any kind of simultaneity.
I’ve been married four times and in truth, at same level, still feel married to each of my former spouses. Even wrote a book about it, a not very good novel, A Much Married Man.
Long interested in the nature of writers’ friendship. My personal experiences have been mixed, to say the least.
Lived in Canada for 14 years and got to know Al Purdy, well-known north of the border, little known in the U.S. If there’s any Canadian poet who bears a resemblence to Bukowski, Al Purdy’s the man.
A while back I had the opportunity to review THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS published by Paget Press. Today a scholar in Spain, researching Bukowski, emails a request for info about HARLEQUIN, a little-known magazine Bukowski himself edited in the mid-1950s. I had some work in HARLEQUIN and that scholar’s query brought to light this review, 980 words…
“THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS, A DECADE OF DIALOGUE, 1964-1974,” Charles Bukowski & Al Purdy, Edited by Seamus Cooney, The Paget Press, 117 pages, $10.00 paper (0-920348-25-4).
In 1964, Canadian poet Al Purdy (author of THE STONE BIRD; SEX AND DEATH; etc.) discovered and reviewed Charles Bukowski’s IT CATCHES MY HEART IN ITS HANDS (Loujon Press, New Orleans) for “Evidence Magazine.” Purdy mailed a copy of his review to Bukowski who responded with a letter and the correspondence that gave rise to THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS, A DECADE OF DIALOGUE was underway.
What was in it for Bukowski?
“Getting a letter from Purdy always got my day up off the floor. I found my life more than unappealing and his letters lent a steadiness, some hope, and some hard-rock wisdom,” wrote Bukowski in the book’s Preface. “I wrote letters to many in those days, it was rather my way of screaming from my cage. It helped, that and the gambling, the drinking, the paintings, the poems and the short stories.”
Purdy, in his Foreword to this handsomely designed Paget Press book, describes himself as “a pretty callow 45-year-old… with too much ego and too little talent.” Purdy is by turns modest, boastful, belligerent, charming, supportive–as only a friend can be–of Bukowski’s numerous ups and downs and not at all reticent about expressing his opinions.
Purdy says, for example, that the best American poets of all time are Charles Bukowski, Robinson Jeffers, and Emily Dickinson. He is unimpressed by Walt Whitman who, he says, makes him sick to his stomach. But he admires James Dickey, e.e. cummings, Ramon Guthrie and Elizabeth Bishop, poets who, Purdy says, “wrote a few poems” though they are not of the “top level.”
The letters are anything but mealy-mouthed and devious. Bukowski and Purdy alike delight in a cheery, take-no-shit-from-anybody attitude. Writing about the Black Mountain poets, who continue to be greatly esteemed in Canada, Al Purdy has this to say:
“I don’t like the togetherness let’s everybody pat each other of the Duncan-Creeley-Olson bunch. And I don’t like their so-called poems either. And I don’t like the holy attitude noli me tangere (whatever that means) of their awed disciples.”
Bukowski, for his part, says little about other poets. However, he comes through loud and clear in other ways:
“…I live in a whorehouse district of east Hollywood. I was walking down the street today when one of the girls in a love parlor hollared, ‘Hey, come on in!” I didn’t even blush, man…”
“…I sit here at my small kitchen table, after shooting my mouth all night in order not to have to listen to the other workers, and the half pint of Cutty Sark is about gone and only 4 or 5 bottles of beer left, and soon the sun will be making it in with its mockery. Somebody sent me a roundtrip ticket to Santa Fe, and I might as well go down there for a couple of days…”
“Drunk again… fuck guilt…”
If you like reading other peoples’ mail and have a taste for Bukowski, THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS are for you.
I’ve been reading Purdy for the last twenty years. What’s his take on this exchange?
“This Buk-Purdy thing was a private correspondence, which neither of us expected to see in public, gossiping away like a dumb loudspeaker. I do confess, it makes me a little morose, the way I don’t feel when I have lost myself in poems,” says the Canadian who concludes his Foreword with the words: “I hope nobody likes me for it, but someone might be slightly interested.”
Well, this reader likes him for it. I like in particular the sense I get of Purdy’s warmth, humor, generosity and his capacity for friendship.
Imagine, two poets who never met actually writing one another, helping one another and sustaining a friendship for over twenty years!
British Columbia’s [and Ameliasburgh, Ontario’s] Al Purdy and California-based Charles Bukowski had much in common. Exuberent, anti-academic, prolific, scarred heavyweights, survivors, veterans of innumerable brawls, literary and not-so-literary. Yes, both shared an appetite and burly love for strong drink and women. And both assumed in their poems the stance of the poet as tough guy and played the part convincingly. Both shared a suspicion of non-drinkers, critics and academics. Lovers of women, both spoke of womenkind in terms that might likely offend one-half the human race.
“I suppose I’ve been through the mill as you mention,” wrote Purdy. “I’ve ridden the freights, been in jail a few times, done a fair amount of fucking, been unwise, silly, foolish, cowardly, braggardly, loud, etc.–a character of excess in most ways…”
What did they say about one another’s work?
“I’m very like you in poems in many ways, and very unlike you in others. My so-called world-view is close to yours, tho at the same time has variations. But yours is only what I see in poems. Tho I think that must be, has to be, authentic.”
Can you guess who wrote the above? A free copy of the Paget Press book to those who guess correctly.
The answer is Canada’s Purdy who, by the way, comes across as more analytical, more self-conscious and oddly “stable” than Bukowski who, from the nature of his ailments and complaints, sounds as if he were more often than not in pain and, therefore, in need of his friend’s humorous advice and merry, if not raucous, consolation.
If you’re looking for a rough and ready view of the 1960s and early 70s as experienced by Charles Bukowski and his Canadian counterpart, check out THE BUKOWSKI/PURDY LETTERS.
Copyright (c) 1997, Robert Sward.
“Men have breast tissue, too,” said my doctor, a woman. And I got this little cyst or lump or something. So there I am today in Radiology, the only man in the waiting room. I don’t know if the thing is benign or not, but the muzak they’re playing is positively toxic. Hell, for me, would be an eternity of canned music. One tinny, one cloned musical cyst after another. Suspiciously benign music. Lumpy music made up of… I hate being here…
Women over 40 get these things, mammograms, every year, says the technician. Only one man in 500 gets breast cancer? Is that what she said? Or only one man in 500 gets to get a mammogram? Better my male breast tissue than my nuts. X-ray technican holds and squeezes my “whatever” into position so she can shoot the first of four x-rays. She sticks little “nipple dots” (“nipple markers”) on the places where the little cyst(s) might be hanging out. I put my arm up, first the left arm, then (later) the right and lean into this contraption, we shift around, struggling, plump technician and I… together we try to produce enough of something to be squeezed into immobility and x-rayed. What the fuck! And I don’t mind her squeezing me. It’s an odd way to spend your morning. We do a little dance. She leads, I follow… it’s all about getting my breast tissue into position. It’s a struggle… we finally get it done.
Then the wait for… we need to find out if she needs to do it again, if the first set of x-rays don’t work out. So I wait. Lying down. Sitting up. Dressing. Preparing to leave. Then simply waiting. Room has a pink orchid, possibly real. But stiff and unlife like. It wears a label:www.shopflower.com. And there’s a can of Suave, “fights sweat… 24-hour protection.”
And a copy of the Ladies Home Journal. What am I gonna do? My mother used to read this thing and I did too… years ago the Journal actually published some decent fiction. This issue offers “125 Beauty Boosters.” It’s for women. “Can This Marriage Be Saved? The Case of the Boring Husband.” And, to round things out, “Sizzling Summer Cookouts!” plus, just what we all need, “Fatal Drug Side Effects (What Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You.)”
Still waiting. One pink wall and three cream-colored walls and x-ray room itself is the size of a prison cell. Pink gowns…
X-ray machine has a name, the manufacturer? ” Lorad – M-IV” it says on the glass (?) shield to protect technician as she shot those images. Yeah, how am I going to know where I am if I don’t write these things down? catalog… it’s a way of paying attention. A kind of writer’s x-ray?
I read somewhere that men, aeons ago, were equipped to suckle their young. That’s why we still got nipples.
Read Sutter Cancer Center newsletter / brochure – “Healing Journeys” –
“Cancer or any life-altering illness can be viewed as both a curse and a blessing.
If viewed simply as a disease of the body, it is experienced only as a curse.
When we view illness in the context of the whole person (body, mind, emotions and spirit), we see its transformative potential as an awakening for the soul and spirit. Only then can we see it as a blessing and utilize its gifts.”
Continuing to transcribe notes I wanna save from old journal (about to stash it in a box for library / archive) and get on with next. Computer or not, I scribble happily onto paper… journals, journals, journals… hard to think of MacBook as a notebook. It’s a storage device, a magic window, music comes out of it (Keyboard Sonata in D Major by Haydn), and news, pictures…
Transcribing: Is God present in a dog the same way He is in a human? Do dogs have a Self? “Species concept of self…” I wrote and think I know what I meant. And a sequence of dialogues about a dog as sex counselor. It’s true. “Yoni, Poonani, Coochie!” That’s what a dog might say if he could watch a couple having sex. “Yoni, Poonani, Coochie!”
“There’s no groove to it, you can’t dance to it,” says Shelby the Dog. He’s talkin’ about melancholia. The line itself comes from old blues man.
Post-modern. Post-human. Post-literate. Post-civilization.
“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.” -Leonardo da Vinci. I think my dad, a podiatrist, understood. He was a foot man. I’m a foot man, too. I write poetry.
Overlapped in the 1960s at the MacDowell Colony with Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road. In The New Yorker, Dec. 15, 2008, there’s a feature on Yates and new movie based on novel… with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. That prompts this blog…
James Wood’s feature, “Like Men Betrayed,” suggests that Yates’ “stories and novels return repeatedly to the weakness and hysterical anxiety of mid-century American masculinity. His fiction, begun in the early fifties… was closely shadowed by the Second World War. For Yates, that war seems to have functioned a little like an impossibly stern father: no performance would ever suffice. If you fought in it, you never fought bravely enough… if you missed it, the rest of your life would be perforated with inadequacies.”
Somehow reading this I can’t help thinking of my own feelings prior to enlisting in 1950, age 17, in the U.S. Navy and requesting duty in the combat zone in Korea. I was too young to serve during World War Two, but felt compelled, as soon as I came of age, to go overseas… not to “miss out…”
I came out of the Navy with as many feelings of inadequacies as I had when I went in. Volunteered to go overseas, served in the combat zone, but the Korean “Police Action” turned out to be more a ground war than I’d expected and I judged myself negatively for being relieved that I’d chosen “soft” duty and thus avoided really being tested.
In 1953 I attended college with the G.I. Bill, but felt I wasn’t a real veteran, not the way the World War Two vets were. It’s sometimes called the Forgotten War. Once, home on leave, age 18, I asked my Chicago-based podiatrist father, “What do people think about the Korean War?” He grinned. Then he looked baffled. From his expression it was clear, they didn’t talk or think about it at all.
And yet at the time there seemed to be no other choice. And the truth is I’m glad I did it. Stupid and lucky, stupid and lucky… to come out of it alive. Feelings of inadequacies? Absolutely. As The New Yorker article suggests, “…no performance would ever suffice. If you fought in it, you never fought bravely enough… if you missed it, the rest of your life would be perforated with inadequacies.” For a male, at least, there’s always that question of bravery.
Pandora Radio, Handel’s “Water Music,” Suite No. 2 for Orchestra. Work in progress, “Unleashed: The Dogs in My Life,” Jim Aschbacher’s cover art for inspiration. Somethun’ new… “Dogs tell the story, in the Garden of Eden, when God threw out Adam, all the other animals shunned him, except the dog.” Dogs are family. There’s no borderline between animal and non-animal. Pets stand at the intersection of kin and kind–animals–dogs–says Marc Shell are family. More to come…