Readers: Welcome to Plume Issue # 61 –
August: and as threatened, another anecdote from my miscreant youth – though not what I originally intended. Much shorter, you’ll be happy to learn. What follows is a result not of long planning but the serendipitous effect of reading, last evening, Phillippe Delerm’s La Premiére Gorgée De Biére, after which I turned to Phillis Levin’s new collection, Mr. Memory and Other Poems, and its centerpiece, in my opinion, the poem “Boy With a Book Bag” that details a disturbing first grade classroom incident (a rather mild but still terrifying assault on a new classmate). The former, from Delerm, comprises 35 two-page chapters, each summoning one or another “plaisirs miniscules” (the book’s subtitle) for examination in search of its semiotic-associative essence a la Barthes par Barthes; for instance: “L’odeur des pommes,” “Le dimanche soir,” “Un couteau dans la poche” – you get the picture. By turns celebratory and melancholic, it’s the kind of book that the reader believes instantly he or she might have written (if only the thought had occurred!), might put aside as I did and begin to write a little something, in the style of. Here, though, I parted ways with Delerm, who busies himself usually with enquêtes sur les événements actuels; whereas my own thoughts turned as noted to a much earlier time, narrowed eventually to one: the months between my 12th and 13th birthdays.
It didn’t take me long to land on my subject, either: cigarettes, specifically Marlboro Reds, in the box. (I’m from Kentucky, after all.) Hours passed as I sketched our – my and several friends’ — furtive pursuit of them, with its attendant comedies and vicissitudes, and of course the matters of concealment (Certs! Hai Karate!); their sundry enchantments; stylized gestures recalled as if from muscle memory: that rhythmic pounding of the odd new pack (usually we were to bum only one or two) against the heel of the palm, the flick, the cup, the slight pop of the jaw from which a smoke ring is launched. Other arcana, too — the craft of recuperating a damp or broken specimen, the bite of a match’s sulphur lodged under a fingernail, the locked vitrine at Taylor’s with its carousel of Zippos sporting mid-relief figures of horses and golf clubs…
All to be excised, in the end, in favor of a brief anecdote that occurred to me towards the conclusion of those more anthropological excursions (probably to reappear in poems or another — watch out! — Editor’s Note.) Inspired by Levin’s magical work, my little tale is set toward the conclusion of that turbid, agathokakological year, when one feels everywhere in oneself out of synch, the subject of ever-alternating forces, paralyzed by their conflicting attractions: to filch one of the lines in the poem, a “sensation”…“Akin to the pressure created/When trying to bring together/Like Magnetic poles”. One minute, stroking contentedly the neighbor’s cat, lovingly feeding it reserved bits of tuna or Dixie Loaf secreted in a napkin; the next to feel its frantic writhing as its sunk its claws into your forearms as you cut off it whiskers with scissors. Hardly an epiphany, I know: one would search a long time for a twelve year old unequipped with an invisible toggle switch marked “Innocent” and “Cruel” attended by some unknowable hand. But, appropriate, I think, as prologue to the events of that summer evening.
One of the places we used to gather back then was the lot behind Schmitty’s, a local dive bar as it would now be called, frequented by what we termed “alkies” – men – always men – ancient, our fathers’ age; dilapidated isolates that lumbered like carnival bears in and out of its rear entrance strung year-round with Christmas lights to relieve themselves (was there no restroom?) against the back wall. A procession we greeted naturally with a ritual chorus of ventriloquized groans and scatological monologue, which of course was hilarious. This must have been near the end of that year, since I remember that a few girls had by this time had entered our restive fraternity.
For as long as I had known it, that lot had been filled with ancient cars in various states of collapse: beautiful, I suppose, in a dystopian manner, with their old-fashioned radios, curtains of shattered glass behind which only a year or two before we’d played at driving, or cached ourselves among their hulking carcasses in endless games of hide and seek. Now their appeal was entirely utilitarian: they blocked the view from busy Bardstown Road as we smoked. One night, however, after a brief crepuscular downpour, ensconced as usual on a weathered seat dragged under a tree, our attentions were drawn from that improvised pissoir by the gentle rocking of a Nash, shorn of its convertible top, come to final rest perhaps fifty feet away along the fence line, in a particularly weedy patch set off a little from the others, illuminated by a lone streetlamp.
Patty L— was the first to investigate.
Patty. A slip of a girl as my Galwegian grand-father might have said, with lustrous black hair that tumbled down her back, who’d later fall into manic depression and homelessness. At present, though, giggling, sort of dancing to une musique inouïe, as she hovers over the Nash’s interior in the dusk, lighting a cigarette – and suddenly emitting a piercing wail, as actresses in horror films do when they stumble across the inevitable corpse. But, no body, of course – or no dead one. Instead, as we soon would see, one of Schmitty’s alkies recumbent in the back seat, pants around his knees, masturbating somewhat desultorily to, of all things, a hardbound book of Victorian nudes.
Was it she who acted first? I don’t think so, not intentionally. That was probably an accident – a match dropped in her understandable alarm. Nor was I the culprit – a follower, always. Lost to memory, then. But hardly anything else. Fireflies; petrichor, mixed with the tang of rusted metal. The ticklish-itchy brush of tall weeds and cattails against my legs as I picked my way through the maze of cars, like the others imagining what we might find there – for my part, oddly, an abandoned infant; others probably a litter of puppies or injured bird, optimally, a couple balling. All eventualities dispelled en route, however, by our unknown protagonist’s initial cry – pitched high, like Patty’s, but unmistakably masculine, and embossed with the unforgeable signature of physical pain. Finally, the figure of him as we crowded around: jowly and stumble-chinned, thick belly notched with his erection, etiolated thighs, book and squared outline of a belt buckle, gelid in the streetlight’s fluorescent gaze.
No – not the match, first the beer. His Schlitz, snatched from his side and poured in a slow anointing: forehead, eyes, interlaced fingers like folded wings, poised at his groin. Snatched, too, the book, by Scott M— held up for perusal, detective-style. Next his wallet, wrestled from a sagging pocket and thrust before his unfocused eyes as Tommy S— extracted the few dollars there, thanking him with a florid courtesy: gestures from a movie. So, too, the feigned kindness of a proffered cigarette, retracted brusquely as it approached his glistening, puckered lips. Our taunts and stage-voiced deliberations. (What should we do with him, Cap’n?) Once and only once his words: a mumbled apology in response to the expected peals of offended modesty when, in the course of things, the other girls — Sally S— and Barbara K– caught a glimpse of his exposed crotch.
Yes, throughout all this – all this, no more than a few minutes – he remained utterly silent, seemed to have resolved to respond to each new defilement with a groggy compliance – what other strategy could have had the remotest chance of success? Which, naturally, only infuriated, emboldened us all the more.
We weren’t an especially clever bunch. Here, for example, is Jimmy H —pinching the man’s nostrils until he opens his mouth, into which he feeds a crumpled page, poor stupid Tommy following with a fistful of grass. There, Sally twisting a desiccated nipple.
The finale, though: no accident, like Patty’s. Steve R—? Yes, this seems plausible to me as I write, for he had a streak of rage in him even then. Yet, really, I can make out only a hand, thrust from the surrounding shadows as from a black curtain into that icy spotlight, shaking a match in the time-honored gesture, before one flicks it, extinguished, into oblivion. Except not into oblivion.
Three, four, five “quick jabs” (Levin, again). My own hand among them. Not a sound, as I say. Merely the involuntary recoil of flesh — shoulder, forearm — a slight shuddering. Smudges the color of ham.
And then it was over.
Shall I tell you that we stopped because conscience suddenly overtook us, pity or remorse rising in one heart and leaping imperceptibly into another and another? Or was it the unexpected passing of a silhouette, Nosferatu-sized, cast against the rotted fence boards, that spooked us? (Boredom or the simple incapacity to imagine what might come next can’t be ruled out, either.)
Honestly, as the true origins of our brief frenzy remains a mystery so does its denouement — no doubt we dispersed soon thereafter on some pretext or other. I know we ever spoke of it again. Likewise unascertained the identity of our pilgarlic, our Piggy. I never saw him again either, don’t believe any of us did.
Later, though – did I feel remorse? Good Catholic kid scurry off to confession to absolve himself of this sin in private, that the rule of silence of boyhood companionship might remain inviolate? I don’t believe so; in any case, there is no such notation in my memory files. No more regret, anyway, than I felt after trimming Tim-Tam’s whiskers. But hardly the makings of a sociopath, as life has proved.
Some lines at the end of Levin’s poem might be worth considering. For, unlike me, we learn there that the narrator did not, in fact, actively participate in the attack on poor Victor, as he is named. Instead, she “hesitated/Mute as my useless hand in the air/Refusing to leave a mark on his skin.” And it’s just in this hesitation that she finds her punishment: the others will be (somehow) forgiven, while she is “Condemned to an island/Of Goodness, thereafter to see/The sad look of surprise in his/Uncurious eyes, his hand a lame/Bloated bird, their hands dipping in/For the kill, mine still among them.” She wants to act it seems, wants to join the acting others– but does not; yet still “must atone for/Doing nothing to save him.” Perhaps even then – at six or seven – little-girl Levin was blessed or cursed with a more finely tuned conscience than most? Quite possibly. Such people roam the earth. (Or does she castigate herself for the simple desire to join, as much as the assault itself?) On the other hand, had she acted, would that have provided some – yes – catharsis, and its accompanying “purification,” and “restoration”, that unlocated forgiveness? Also possible, I imagine.
But alluring as the analysis of these moral dilemmas is (or lack thereof on my part), what strikes me as I write tonight is the – to use another French word – jouissance of the poem – jouissance, that doubled word; as Lacan observes, that “backhanded enjoyment.” For despite its dark subject, the delight Levin must have taken in its construction shows itself in every word. Construction, exactly – as we know all memory is. Was there a Victor? A teacher named Mrs. Matarazzo who momentarily “left us to ourselves”? Et. al., et cetera? It hardly matters, not to us, at least. The poem is beautiful, its mysteries wide and ensorcelling. Convincing. Such is the one of glories of art, I almost wrote – seriously. To allow us, for a trifle, entrance to the author’s museum, safe, alone, where it is always past closing time and the guards and docents vanished and we may wander where we wish. And yet: where as much as we wish, the tiger will never leap out and dazzle us with his splendid fur; Pharoah not rise and take a pomegranate between his lips.
In his titular chapter, Delerm observes of “the first swig of beer” that it is “the only one that counts. Everything that follows is bland by comparison…” I’m not sure I would go this far. Still, some days — how true the petite epiphany of the passage’s final lines rings:
On aimerait garder le secret de l’or pur, et l’enfermer dans des formules. Mais devant sa petite table blanche éclaboussée de soleil, l’alchimiste déçu ne sauve que les apparences, et boit de plus en plus de bière avec de moins en moins de joie. C’est un bonheur amer : on boit pour oublier la première gorgée.
What we wouldn´t give to capture and encode the secret of pure gold? Instead, we sit at your sun splashed white table, like a frustrated alchemist intent on keeping up appearances – each mouthful is a falling away from pleasure. Happiness has a bitter taste when we have to drink [to write] in order to forget the first sip.