December: and once again I find my subject in that recent trip home to Louisville, freshened this time by a chance encounter with my ancient Master’s thesis, discovered in a storage bin at my mother’s home, as I hunted for something else. Its connection to Louisville: I wrote it in its entirety while I lived at the Tavner Apartments there, in the early seventies.
No: The Tavner Arms. My first own apartment, age 20, after the usual round of semi-communal arrangements in tenebrous basements and groaning aeries carved out of dilapidated turn-of-the-century single-family mansions in the Highlands. (Like many of you, I left home early.) How I came by it in the first place, lost to memory – although I recall its cost: 75 dollars per month.
The building, passed one rare free afternoon, from the outside looked essentially unchanged since my years there, spiffed up, yes, with new paint and bronze gutters, and yet retaining its modest Beaux Arts charms: rusticated stone first level, flat roof, arched windows crowned with pre-fabricated mascarons of alternating male and female faces, the whole overhung with the branches of massive oak trees.
With nothing better to do before I rejoined the fray at 2826 Eleanor Avenue, I parked and tried the heavy front door. Locked of course, as it never had been; its hallways oddly antiseptic-looking as I peered through the glass panels (the place had long ago been emptied of its former tenants and transformed into condominiums), before giving up and returning to my car.
Ah, but those tenants – the true subject of this little aide-memoire, and of that half-forgotten thesis, entitled – altogether naturally, I see now, The Old Ones and Other Poems. How could it have been otherwise? For at The Tavner, as I would soon learn, the “elderly” –the au courant term – surrounded me on all sides, whether by fate or design (actual nursing homes being astonishingly expensive even then.) Without exaggeration, I can say I was the building’s youngest occupant by half a century — which was fine by me. I’d happily accede to the occasional request to change a light bulb for bewigged and mustachioed Mr. E— or move a piece of furniture for wheezing, scabrous Mrs. H— or her husband, tethered to a hefty oxygen tank of the type I had last seen on Flipper; pretend not to notice here or there a suspicious odor, indulge decrepitude’s little oddities and pointless conversations, in exchange for the great fortune of being left largely to myself, free of the temptations I had so readily succumbed to in the recent past.
Free, yes — to read, above all, which I did, like a madman, skipping weeks of college classes and work, which resulted in probationary periods in the former case and serial, pitiable dismissals from the likes of Hardees and K-Mart in the latter. And to whom did I turn my attentions? Like any other fledgling, Artaud, Cendrars, Merton’s Cable to the Ace, Trakl, Guillevic, Milosch, Merwin, Bonnefoy, Cardenal, Yevthushenko, Li Po, the Beats, Machado, et al: the canon of the that blighted decade.
And free also to write, very badly, needless to say, pilfering shamelessly what I could from one newfound master after another. (You haven’t read truly terrible poetry, for example, until you’ve read my ode to female breasts in the Surrealist style of Desnos — e.g.,
Breasts of squirrels’ heads and potatoes asleep in the sack,
Whose thoughts if they think them and whose smell
Are the secret subtle meanderings of an insect across a tabletop
In the moments before it falls in a jar and breathes its last
under a sugar cube…)
Still, it was here that I fell in love with poetry, and became – secret I held fast in myself, fearing the ridicule of my moronic cohort — a poet. Eventually I discovered Follain, and Simic, Benedikt’s anthology of the prose poem, Parra and Ponge. So that my poems, day by day, grew if not better, quieter, less obviously emulative. Or merely emulative of – for me – better poets.
Nor, as I say, did I have far to look for a subject. It was all around me, in they – all the iterations of Mr. E— and Mr. and Mrs H— who were all around me. I’m not sure when I received this epiphany, but I can state that I have never had a better time in my writing life. Where my previous efforts had been scattershot, one-offs, now there was a theme, announced by a constantly changing dramatis personae each with his or her lines and back-stories to be composed, places to stand, props to handle. What a pleasure! To arise each morning coffee at hand and Marlboro Red between my lips, and know that I had merely to pick up where I had left off the night before, often literally, in mid-stanza. To find inspiration not catch-as-catch-can (frustrating at times as you know) but in the simple act of gazing into the little courtyard where shawled and gloved Mrs. T— tended her tiny garden of Shasta daisies, or in inhaling through the registers the turbid scents of Mrs. K— ‘s rassolnik. So the “book” took shape, organically as they say. At once, or once I began the writing in earnest, I understood intuitively the cumulative power of, say, Silence in the Snowy Fields or Invisble Cities, that was so integral to their effect on the reader, on me. And wanted it for my own.
As I write this note tonight, I have it beside me, the hardbound copy of that long-ago project, whose contents, alas save one, were never sent out (slacker), and that published on a whim in an obscure journal, just a few years ago. For what it’s worth, here it is, with the caveat that, well, you know, it’s not very good, only slightly less contemptible than its companions:
The Shoes of the Old Ones
Their makers vanished, along with the horses and clouds
That admired themselves in the cobbler’s window.
The uppers of heavy tooled leather, like an old-fashioned valise or portfolio
Into which important papers are slipped,
Bruised with the seal of a bank, or even an empire.
Thick-soled, cut broad across the instep,
Bearing, if somehow held close, the expected scents
Of their human owners: sweetish and fearsome.
I see them lined up beneath the pews at church,
Like sentences in an archaic tongue, punctuated by the tips of canes.
Right. Not wonderful. Though actually not altogether awful, either? I like the horses and clouds well enough, and the word “empire.” Yet the piece seems so strangely astringent, detached: the work of a novice who does not, cannot imagine himself fully into his subject, but regards it from a distance, too carefully, fingers enrobed not in blood but in craft’s plasticine gloves. Not lives, but pieces of lives, examined, not inhabited. (A quality shared by the other poems in the “book” – “The Eyes of the Old Ones,” “The Fingernails of the Old Ones’ – “as thick nickles.” Et cetera.)
I am 62 now – on the cusp of “early old age.” Still a decade, at least, before I reach the years of the old ones I wrote about then. All dead, of course. And yet, for a few moments here they are again, alive in these re-found poems bad as they are. What does Bachelard say?
“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”
And so it is. Though for “moments” substitute in my case “objects” or “aspects.” Of anatomy, gait, the look of a sagging sweater, the sepia gesture of removing a hat, arriving from who knows where to sit silently for their portrait on the blank page of my notebook. Each, I hoped, with its aura of inevitability, and completeness, which only poetry con confer – like those little gold-headed tacks in Transtromer’s “Vermeer” that
…flew in with astronomical speed
and stopped smack there
as if there had always been stillness and nothing else.
62! A fact that oddly does not strike me so much when I cast a furtive, fearful glance into the shaving mirror (terrified of what new lesion or bruise I might find there) or am accosted by that familiar stranger in a shop window, as it does when I am in the proximity of others. There, I see myself as I am: somehow still an object desire in my wife’s eyes, even envied for my vigor(!) in the furred gazes of the “old-olds” at the gym cum rehabilitation center I frequent; but for the greatest part a figure invisible, erased, as are most of his tribe – that one, say, fiddling with his shirt collar as he turns from some condominium complex, raising his arm in greeting as the girls’ faces light up and the handsome boy passes them, nods his silent assent to be adored from a passing car.