As both our schedules had been whipped into a froth by a wicked spring semester’s tail end, and as poet David Clewell’s window of internet access was limited, rather than the volley of e-mails typical of my Special Feature interviews, we had an “old skool” real-time phone conversation! And I’m so happy we did, as otherwise I would have missed the warm richness, the cadences of his lovely voice, and his wonderful, spontaneous laugh.
Below, as an introduction to the selection BETWEEN THE SIXTIES AND THE SAUCERS AND THE WILLY-NILLY GODS–LET ALONE THE VAGARIES OF ORDINARY MORTALS–IT’S HARD TO KNOW WHO NEEDS BELIEVING MOST, is our free associative exchange of an hour or more, which is not unlike the narrative arc of this delightful and provocative Special Feature.
NM: David, I was mesmerized and dizzy as I read this moving-at-the-speed-light narrative which begins at the slippery junction of 1967 and 1968. I held on for dear life as the extravagantly incongruous events chronologized in iii Disturbances in the 1967 Space-Time Continuum streamed into one raging river, plunging toward inevitable, dangerous falls. You articulate the schizoid zeitgeist, the collective chaos, without sacrificing precision, or distinction so well; I see a psychedelic Picasso’s “Guernica” studded with portraits of the “Heavies.”
And, oh, the delicious irony in the only “rocks” however slippery, that we can cling to as the waters swirl menacingly around us are the main characters, the space aliens who have landed at the State Junction 6 and 63 in Ashland Nebraska, and the 22 year-old night watchman Herbert Schrimer who has witnessed them!
You’ve subverted the usual Hollywood version as aliens as a vastly superior intelligence; your aliens, for all their supposed know-how, have landed in Ashland, Nebraska!
DC: Yes, they, perhaps, are wiser than humans, but are equally hapless.
NM: It seems your narrator is nonjudgmental, detached, almost like the space aliens? So, you’re saying Schrimer’s belief system, just doing his job, prevents him from assimilating another perspective, so much that he sublimates the experience so deeply it can only be retrieved under hypnosis almost a year later, is not under judgment?
DC: What interests me, in some ways touches me, is how much people need to believe in something greater than themselves. This need keeps people locked in their belief systems, even when presented with evidence to the contrary…it’s the faith itself I’m interested in…how “faith” dictates behavior, actions in accordance with that faith. It isn’t so much what one believes in, but rather the degree of faith one has in that belief that determines…
NM: One’s fate?
DC: Well, yes; in Schrimer’s case, his belief system of just doing his job justifies, no, determines, his detachment from experience, an experience which could change his belief system and therefore his life.
NM: His Colgate shield, so to speak?
DC: Yes, and in the case of the aliens, their interest is, at first, benign, but kindly—they hope they can do some good for our world by what they observe, by connecting…
NM: …“at first”? Because at first the aliens “believe” that humans will evolve out of stasis if they accept the existence of aliens via experience? And when they realize that Schrimer’s belief system is impervious, their own belief system is therefore challenged?
DC: Yes, and they realize that if their existence becomes a belief system, it, like other systems, will close the door to possibilities of assimilating other experiences. Therefore:
We want you to believe in us—but not too much.
–alien’s final words to Schrimer, “recovered” in 1968.
NM: Ok, so we’re doomed?!!
DC: Not really; it’s these beliefs, this faith that keep us humans alive, moving from one day to the next.
NM: that as long as we keep going, we’re not gone?
DC: You got it!
NM: Ah, and thus the double-entendre-ing of the title by the omission of an “IN” between BELIEVING and MORE?
NM: Genius! So is it just me, or is anyone else dizzy?
David, before we strap your readers in for this wild, exhilarating ride, I want to say thank you for an amazing conversation!
—Late May, 2014
BETWEEN THE ’60s AND THE SAUCERS AND THE WILLY-NILLY GODS—LET ALONE THE VAGARIES OF ORDINARY MORTALS—IT’S HARD TO KNOW WHO NEEDS BELIEVING MOST
i. All He Knew to Say
Saw a flying saucer at State Junction 6 and 63. Believe it or not.
—Ashland, Nebraska patrolman Herbert Schirmer’s log-out
entry for December 3, 1967 (3:00 a.m.)
Because he was twenty-two years old, naturally he thought he knew
everything, had already seen whatever there was to see,
and near the end of his shift, 2:20 a.m., it was just his luck
that the blinking red lights of a disabled truck at the roadside
would mean a slightly longer night than he was looking for.
But in his cruiser’s high-beams was something else completely:
a metallic craft with illuminated portholes and some kind of crazy
catwalk around it, hovering soundlessly a few feet off the ground.
He watched it slowly rising in the crisp Nebraska air, passing
directly over his car, lighting up the sky before it disappeared
like just another shot in the dark.
Back at the station to log out
before heading home, where he’d try hard to close his wide-open eyes,
he discovered that his routine, ten-minute final swing through town
had taken an extra half-hour. He wrote down his fourteen words
to prove he wasn’t quite speechless. Because he was an officer of the law,
he knew by heart the Miranda right-to-remain-silent bit, but he was also
twenty-two, and no way on Earth would he leave it at that for long—
believe the-rest-of-what-happened-or-not-out-there. Or not.
ii. A Little Too Quick to Respond
Are you the watchman of this place?
—alien’s first words to Schirmer, part of the lost half-hour “recovered”
during hypnosis sessions in 1968
And because he was a twenty-two-year-old officer of the law, he simply answered
Sure without asking any questions of his own, such as what
they could possibly mean by this place, more or less, if anything at all
beyond this immediate intersection of small-town country roads. Probably
he wasn’t thinking even as big as Ashland, let alone Nebraska or the rest
of the unsuspecting country—and especially not the whole precariously
lightheaded planet, where somehow they suddenly found themselves at that odd
interrogative moment spinning into the slippery junction of 1967 and 1968.
And what a watchman is supposed to do, exactly, in such a situation
is anybody’s guess. It’s a thankless job, so surely anyone would be grateful
at least for a freshly starched uniform, name tag, working two-way radio,
hot coffee, and maybe some semblance of a gun, no matter how underloaded.
And before Schirmer’s aliens actually arrived—when they were still traveling
mightily through stretches of empty interstellar space, only to wind up,
for all their cosmic know-how, in ASHLAND, NEBRASKA: POP. 2000—
there was so much genuine commotion already in the 1967 air
that watchman Herbert Schirmer couldn’t see any cause for alarm:
iii. Disturbances in the 1967 Space-Time Continuum
B-movie Republican Reagan is sworn in as California’s governor
one day before the Doors let loose with Light My Fire, and without even trying,
there will be many days for swearing in and nights to set on fire this year.
In NASA’s burning hurry to the Moon, the harried crew of Apollo 1 goes up
in launchpad flames three weeks away from liftoff. Sealed in for numbing hours
of routine system-checks, they were looking for trouble. But they never asked for any
so suddenly enormous that they couldn’t get out of it somehow alive.
And in the name of U.S. rocket science, it’s back to the Space Race drawing board.
Over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Moon’s so much closer
and more peaceful to the Human Be-In throng, where alternative-wavelength DJs
Ginsberg and Leary exhort thousands of un-Republicans to Turn on,
tune in, drop out. It’s a countdown to anti-ignition, a send-up in smoke
of the cartoon American Dream, the ultimate warm-up act for the tenuous
Summer of Love ahead, complete with tourists bus-tripping through the Haight
to See Real-Life Hippies! That’s what small-time Charlie Manson—
just released from jail again—is doing, armed with a guitar, his ingratiating
smile, and dreams about a family he’d one day more than own up to.
Hendrix is setting fire to another Stratocaster down in Monterey,
and it’s a different kind of scorcher altogether, this Summer of anti-Love
in Newark, Cleveland, Memphis, Detroit: fires there’ll be no putting out completely.
When heavyweight Ali says No to the Army, No to the war in Vietnam, and
I’m so pretty to anyone who’ll listen, he’s stripped of the crown he otherwise wasn’t
about to lose, and once more the country is torn between sheer outrage
and outright inflammatory cheering. And this stubborn split-decision fever
isn’t breaking anytime soon: it’s the big-screen year of Cool Hand Luke—or the year
of Bonnie and Clyde. Either Elvis, singing his still viable heart out on How Great
Thou Art—or the Beatles, getting by with a little help from their friends.
Consider the Patterson Bigfoot film just in from Bluff Creek, California:
when that creature slows down to look directly back at the camera,
it’s proof of an unabashed animal’s native curiosity—or
a man in a costume who’s checking to see if Patterson’s still shooting.
In the same discombobulated October week of the off-Broadway
dawning of Hair, with its promise of New Age relief on the way, astrologically
speaking—Aquarius ad nauseam—reaction to the escalating war
is heating up here at home: recruiters from Dow Chemical on campus
in Madison, Wisconsin—selling in so many words the future of napalm—
are confronted by hundreds of infuriated students. When police arrive
in their otherworldly riot gear, it’s obvious that no one’s had nearly
enough time to prepare for this outrageous midterm exam.
A thousand miles away, 100,000 protestors gather at the Lincoln Memorial—
the first-ever national anti-war demonstration. Some in that crowd
can’t wait to attempt the decidedly radical, non-metaphorical
levitation of the Pentagon itself—one handbill’s madcap version of a call-to-arms—
by chanting or singing or telekinesis or whatever passes these days for prayer.
Or even some literal heavy lifting, if that’s what finally has to be done
to exorcize the evil spirits of war. To let the sun shine in.
But the Pentagon ends up so easily holding its shadowy, dark ground.
And on the same day the saucer shows up at last and begins its descent
in the middle of watchman Schirmer’s particular nowhere—yet another
unfortunate they-never-land-on-the-White-House-lawn situation—
the first human heart is successfully transplanted half a world away,
and finally there’s a little good news this late in what’s been one
exceedingly strenuous year. This heartsick planet surely could use
some kind of lift about now, so let it be this groundbreaking surgery, or
a message of hope from alien beings who’ve gone so far out of their way again
to deliver it—if that’s what it turns out they’re here for.
In either case, may there be a few auspicious days on the bright side
before the complications unavoidably set in: the body, threatening
to reject the new heart it sorely needs, or the brain so close to shutting down,
unwilling to graciously entertain the idea of such unexpected visitors.
The heart patient won’t make it to Christmas, and Schirmer’s in no position yet
to get the celestial message. It will be next year before he remembers too much
of anything that’s happened. And as for those intrepid aliens themselves,
who either hurtled through so many light-years to reach us or otherwise managed
to wormhole their way into exactly the right galactic neighborhood—
it’s hard to believe they’re already leaving, almost as if
they were never really here, saving their very best advice for last:
iv. Running Down the Gods
We want you to believe in us—but not too much.
—alien’s final words to Schirmer, “recovered” in 1968
What a welcome change of pace on the part of assuredly superior beings
who must have known they wouldn’t always be there for Herbert Schirmer
or anyone else, for that matter. Because too often the faithful, whatever the faith,
believe until it hurts. Just think of the demanding Old Testament God, or
the Wizard of Oz, if you must. They’re working behind the scenes
in their respective jurisdictions, bent over improvised control boards—
pushing this, pulling that, frantically turning some other thing—
and throwing their weighty voices around. Go ask Abraham and Isaac, or Job
and his fed-up wife. Or Lot’s wife: for looking back over her shoulder toward home,
she was summarily iodized. At least the Wizard said he’d settle for a broom,
never honestly believing that Dorothy could deliver, and what else can he do
but sputter and play for a little more time? Those wayward Greek and Roman gods
weren’t any better—capricious, petty, quick to anger at any slight, real
or imagined—famously insisting on blind faith in their unruly powers.
And down here at the mortal level, it only gets worse: people who believe in
themselves too much, always asking much the same of others—their excessive trust
and understanding, yes, and even more distressingly, undying admiration.
It’s a patchwork of abstracted virtue sure to wear thin in this era of too many
prime ministers and presidents, attorneys and investment bankers, military
officers and corporate CEOs, preachers and physicians, artists and writers
and radio talk-show hosts and TV weather-people who expect us to believe
they can predict, a full week in advance, the daily highs and lows we’re in for.
v. Too Much 1968
No one could have forecast 1968, an unrivalled year of too much
believing, bleeding, and dying. And no nightwatchman anywhere on patrol
could so much as hope to slow its approach, so here it comes:
Walter Cronkite will return from reporting on Vietnam’s deadly Tet Offensive
to his anchor desk at CBS News, where this Most Trusted Man in America
stymies the Johnson administration by pronouncing the war unwinnable.
Then the massacre at My Lai, although details of those three lost hours
won’t be uncovered for another year: Lieutenant Calley’s I was just following
orders, his men in turn following his, and 500 women and children wiped out
for no military reason. When war-torn LBJ goes on television to announce
there’s no way he’ll run again, Martin Luther King can’t believe what he’s seeing,
can’t help his out-loud Amen. It’s a week before he’ll go down himself, for good,
on a Memphis motel balcony, and soon enough hard-running Democrat
Bobby Kennedy too, on a restaurant-kitchen floor in Ronald Reagan’s California—
too much and too much—and people who’d put their faith in them will try again
to sift through the sadness and anger for anything still left standing
if the cities ever stop burning again. And there might not be much.
Surely it can’t be Richard Nixon—inexplicably back from the dead
and calling himself The New Nixon until it’s all a bit much, tricked out
with those morally ambiguous Nixon’s the One bumper stickers—yet somehow
his Peace with Honor campaign catches fire at Miami’s Republican Convention.
Chicago’s Mayor Daley unofficially will host the bloody Democratic Convention,
offering his own butchered peacemaker’s pledge: The policeman’s not there
to create disorder; the policeman’s there to preserve disorder. And stumbling
out of this confusion will be Hubert Humphrey, too much the LBJ lap dog
to start pissing with the big dogs now. And believe it or not, it’s actually Nixon
promising, if elected, to end the war. He’ll keep referring to his secret plan
like something cooked up after spending too much time with Spanky and Alfalfa
in the Little Rascals clubhouse. But Nixon in the White House is a different story.
His new rough-and-tumble gang’s hijinks will be no laughing matter.
Before the year’s gone, Charles Manson also will remake himself with a vengeance—
more of a Family man than ever. He’ll pass long days in his homemade bunker
working up his own much-too-secret plan to launch a new, helter-skelter war.
He’ll listen too much to the White Album, finding messages he truly believes
were intended for him alone, already dreaming his way down the road
to his wild-eyed historical moment—a bare-bones production of Armageddon
and Bethlehem together, live in concert, high in the fabled Los Angeles hills.
The year cinematically ushered in by Kubrick’s expansive, luminous 2001
will go out with the Apollo 8 astronauts’ more immediate space odyssey:
clearing a flight-path for 1969, the much ballyhooed Moon landing still ahead.
They’ll take that lucky-shot “Earthrise” photo from lunar orbit—instantly
a Christmas-card classic presenting a beautiful, overwrought planet
in this far-more-flattering-than-usual light. Peace on Earth, then, as if
that could happen. And with honor, whatever that means. Back here at the movies,
a world away from the Moon’s breathtaking heights, this year will finally trail off
in low-budget black and white: Romero’s claustrophobic, unrelenting Night
of the Living Dead. And ready or not, when the lights come on again
it will be a new year where, when it comes to steering clear of zombies
or the landlord or even Richard Nixon in the flesh or in theory, at last
we might like our chances—if that’s not, just this once, too much to ask
vi. What Comes Back
We’ve been watching the human race for a long time, the space beings say
in too many preachy 1950s science fiction movies and in those slaphappy
pamphlets and books by people who’d trafficked, however briefly, with real-life
Space Brothers and Sisters. With apostolic fervor, they were forever talking up
the unearthly wisdom first imparted just to them—most often, oddly bland
concerns and admonitions about Earth’s new Atomic Age. But at least
in those glory days of flying saucers, before the darker UFO abduction ruckus—
forbidding Greys, invasive implants, human/alien hybrid babies on display—
a person could simply walk right onto a spaceship and straightaway get taken
for a ride: an exclusive, invitation-only adventure. And every one of them
remembered it completely, not a single minute mysteriously gone missing.
No hypnosis required. The experience was all theirs, anytime they wanted,
and always their decidedly unmitigated pleasure to relive.
Herbert Schirmer’s close encounter split the historical difference. Apparently
he’d held up his end of the wee-hours conversation, small-talking his way
inside the craft. But that was nowhere in his waking recollection.
He used to listen time and again to recordings where the aliens themselves,
unmenacing, came back to him in lengthy hypnotic regressions. Even then
he never quite got off the ground before everyone had somewhere else to be.
They made him a high-flown promise they’d return—Watchman, one day
you’ll see the universe!—and although he willingly believed they might have had
nothing but mostly good intentions, he didn’t get far when it came to thinking
it could really happen. That would have meant a little too much
hoping against hope—more than he could hold out for the rest of his life.
As if he’d ever have that luxury, that kind of time again.
vii. Where the Rest of Us Get Off
And when it comes to where the rest of us on Earth put our faith,
history tells us repeatedly that we have to watch ourselves.
We’d never knowingly get onboard with a bad idea, but it appears
that’s more than occasionally where we’ve been, right in the middle of
the wrong crowd again, and any lost time we can’t account for later
gets a little harder to make up. We really don’t remember being told
in no uncertain terms what to believe—let alone what for, and
how wholeheartedly—by someone plainly asking so many for so much.
The next time we get that carried away, let’s try not giving up too much
for no good reason.
In earlier, more optimistic days, we shook hands
on anything. Freely gave our solemn word. Made what we considered
sacrifices. Sizable donations. We signed petitions, paid most of our taxes,
and shook our heads when we got wise to another war we’d been sold.
We bought smaller cars and still recalled next to nothing when we woke up
to find ourselves as usual out of gas, muttering in the breakdown lane again
with no idea how we got there. We’d only wanted to go home.
This could be our final good-faith offer, when enough at last will have to be
enough. Then we make our move toward the door, where we get off
saying take it or leave it, no questions asked, believe it
or not, before heading back to anywhere we might have come from once—
palatial estate or cold-water flat, lover or leftover casserole, long-ago
hometown or faraway-planet-of-the-so-inclined—somewhere almost
always beyond belief from here. Back to those lives we’ve led ourselves
to believe in just enough: that as long as we keep going, we’re not gone.
David Clewell has published eight collections of poems–most recently, Taken Somehow by Surprise (Four Lakes Poetry Prize)–and two book-length poems (The Conspiracy Quartet and Jack Ruby’s America). His work has appeared regularly in a wide variety of magazines, including Harper’s, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, Ontario Review, New Letters, andYankee. His poetry is represented in five-dozen anthologies. He’s been the recipient of the Pollak Poetry Prize (for Now We’re Getting Somewhere) and the Lavan Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His Blessings in Disguise was a winner in the National Poetry Series. He directs the Creative Writing program and coordinates the attendant Visiting Writer Series, which he started in 1986. He was the Poet Laureate of Missouri from 2010-2012.
Nancy Mitchell, a Pushcart Prize 2012 recipient, is the author of two volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut, (Cervena Barva Press, 2009) and her poems have appeared in Agni, Poetry Daily, Salt Hill Journal, Great River Review, and are anthologized in Last Call by Sarabande Books.