(for Denis O Driscoll)
A skinny, gummy old guy selling bric-a-brac splayed out upon sagging porta-tables along a boarded-up stretch of the East Village. He sits to one side overseeing, half-sunk into a well-frayed leather seat, chewing nothing but spittle and air, chewing and watching and ruminating. He has been hawker and watcher and ruminator here a long time, inhaling all the passing instants on this ever-passing street, instants gone between the in-breath and the out-breath, unnoticed by anyone but him. He is the stillness in the rush, the painter on the banks, the maestro with the steady point of view from which to frame perspectives and formulate truths. Everyone else on the street is in a constant in-between, precisely nowhere, attending inner anxieties, oncoming necessities, confined to their immediate personal zone, learning only how to get from A to B on time and in the straightest line, paying little attention to the content of their journey.
Passers-by don’t know anyone else in the flux, don’t wish to, make no intrusion, expect and allow no interaction other than automated courteous minimums. Stall-man knows more people than I can imagine, has studied gaits and grimaces for years, knows the common needs and individual philias that might bait from the flow, knows the customers that come and come again by what they browse through, purr over, haggle for, buy, and occasionally lift—or attempt to.
His junk-shop mirrors the inside of his slowly decomposing mind, his twentieth century western mind, forged during the economic miracle, the golden age of plastic crap. A last forlorn stop for the wash-up of a life lived as a sequence of disposable commodities. A museum of the outmoded, of what truly trickles from the penthouse to the sidewalk, of what, tumbling from heights of the spectacle, settles at the lowest rungs of obsession and need, in this vast lobby of oblivion called street.
It could be my mind too, of course. It could be the street-sale of my life. I am a cascade of unnecessary dolls and texts and toys and costumes and accessories and this is where the cascade has flopped down exhausted and prospectless, confronted with a rising, unfamiliar age requiring new designs and new functions and within which my absence and my presence will weigh exactly the same.
Wicker chairs, toasters, photo-mags, eyeless teddybears, miniature glass swans, obscure LPs, cat-cushions, cathode screens under a tar of dust… it’s like the hell of department stores. Though the air of numinous expectancy among the goods-for-sale is not hellish, more pre-life than afterlife. Hope will manifest itself no matter what. Here in the junk-shop—as in a huge, neglected orphanage in a country where only rare foreign merchants can afford to adopt—an auratic faith adheres or inheres to the unwanted, a faith that they may yet be brought back to meaningful life, they may yet be held up and loved, for the first time or again. What is needed is a divinely aleatory act of selection carried through by some connoisseur of the discarded, some rooter for valuable glint among the lots of the abandoned. She detaches from the unheeding mass to home in on the one-out-of-all-she-could-have, the one she finds lit out above all else.
For most of the disregarded articles, it will never happen. They have no inner light, no value, no attraction. Gone forever is their day in the chandelier sun, when they were positioned just right on the mantlepiece, in perfect balance within the intercrossing harmonies of an interior design, an adjunct of someone’s artful consciousness, cared for, tended, placed, defined. This real, original life, the one which called them up for being in the first place, is forever behind.
The mute, aggressive grief of the unclaimed is enough to make you choke. Each cast-out object is the sealed up catacomb of a lost existence, the multiple tunnels and skeletons of which must remain concealed inside the untorturable speechlessness of objects. Out of a kind of spite of the abandoned they never confess what wonders they have witnessed, partaken in. Silences impossible to breach yet tantalisingly productive to dreamers and poets. What happened to the jazzophile who dumped all his records? Is he dead, or was he sectioned? Does his much younger, occasional boyfriend, escaped from rural Milwaukee, miss him? Who took his spaniels? And the crabby old hoarder who stacked up all these pointless copies of Life and Reader’s Digest, and then poisoned himself by accident with the turpentine he stored in a Coke can? Did anyone at all go to his funeral?
It’s poetry books that interest me most of all in junk shops, potentially thrilling words fountaining from a forgotten poet ages hence in a raving narcissistic fever, then pored over, recited, debated by readers and rivals long gone. I can read poetry synaesthetically, in the necessary see-hearing way, and get the full benefit from it. I can bring the dead, abandoned poem back to life with the reviving sorcery of my eye-ear. And I have a need for poetry now. I’m bored with ordinary sights and sounds. I’m bored with chatter and chaff, with traffic lights and junctions and delicatessen window displays. And I’m traumatised by my boredom, weighed down, dragged down, sucked down by boredom. I need some elevation, quick. I pick up a weather-beaten copy of The Mentor Book of Major American Poets and flick straight in. I mate with my free kind upon the crags, says Ezra Pound.
I’ll take this, I tell stall-man and he asks a half-dollar in exchange for the priceless treasure in my hand. He notes my accent and good-humouredly probes me on origin, purpose of visit, length of stay, impressions-so-far of New York. I say I’m getting used to being surprised by how pleasant and friendly a place it is. He asks about my farm back home in Ireland and he curls his lip in minor upset—but only momentarily—when I tell him I have rarely even been on a farm, that though I am from ‘the country’ as we Irish call it, I am in fact terrified of farm animals and of the all-slaughtering machinery of farms, terrified speechless of slurry pits and stampeding bullocks and of the stations of the cross.
After a while, he invites me to join him in a small bar—basically two poorly lit sides of a lengthy black counter—across the road. He takes me quickly into his confidence. He believes that his long-hawked blockbuster zombie film project is finally about to come to fruition in Hollywood, California. He is considering actors for lead role. I say Richard Burton is hard to beat. He agrees but is more inclined towards River Phoenix. All the time he is handscooping from a basin of popcorn that he brims and rebrims from a machine at the counter-end and from which the supply of popcorn seems never to dwindle. I realise that he has been sipping firewater and living off New York’s miraculous popcorn for decades, waiting for that top producer’s call. Fame is such a melancholy hex to be under I reflect, as I congratulate him on his enormous success.
He goes back to his stall, which all the time he has been keeping a relaxed but sure eye on, and I stoolsit for an hour at the counter half-pretending to read Wallace Stevens’ Esthetique Du Mal :
… It was pleasant to be sitting there,
While sultriest fulgurations, flickering,
Cast corners in the glass.
while people-watching in bar mirrors. People seem much freer inside the apparent infinity of mirrors than elsewhere in jostled, compacted New York.
The following day I encounter (improbably, among the millions that are marching triumphantly along!) Denis O’Driscoll in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum and we stroll up Fifth Avenue towards the Guggenheim, discussing the long dead and very nearly unimagined Vachel Lindsay. I have just discovered Lindsay’s poetry in the Mentor anthology. Lindsay was, almost unbelievably to me, a performance poet of the swinging ’20s, influenced by jazz and other African-origin traditions and beats. He was feted in his day but forgotten again soon after, perhaps partly because his work unfortunately sometimes employs low-down racial stereotypes (although he maintained himself to be socialist and anti-racist). Denis knows all about Vachel Lindsay and is quite pleased to discuss him and speculate possible links to performance poetry in our day. Neither of us can see Lindsay, called the father of singing poetry, reducing down to today’s Slam- or Festival-tent-poetry varieties, compared to which his own practice was much more adventurous and varied. Jolting thoughts, I say, for it follows that the heyday of performance poetry may have been sixty years before it is generally realised to have begun; its past is in its future and its future buried decades ago in an Illinois cemetery, in the unblessed grave of a suicide.
Then Denis and I rap a bit about cultural milieus of the early part of the American century, when civil equality, nuclear fission and indeed much of what we think of as performance poetry were impossible…
He tells me he doesn’t like my first book (the likeable one) but that he likes my second book (the one not looking to be liked). He then compliments me on my review of Seamus Heaney’s late, post-stroke masterpiece Human Chain in The Stinging Fly. In return I admit that without Stepping Stones, Denis’s utterly comprehensive book of critical interviews with Heaney, I would have had no bright entry into Heaney’s work, in which I had, in several previous attempts, found little to identify with, coming, as I then felt I did, from an entirely different experience of rural Ireland to Heaney, and haunted by it in a much more aggressive way. Heaney praised and upraised in the land where I spent my time hexing and exorcising. Of course, each of us had our own good reasons. I could not describe, except in bad faith or satire or pure hallucination, any kind of pastoral utopia in Ireland. Stepping Stones convinced me that Heaney’s ultimately Catholic and nationalist utopia, populated by beautiful, singing shades and deep-rooted, meaningful undergrowths, although mythical, was genuine. I saw Ireland and poetry differently after reading Heaney through the panoramic scope Denis provided.
Denis only swims in deep waters and it is a pleasure to swim along with him for a little while where the splashing of the paddlers can’t be heard. He’s the best kind of elder, one who welcomes the idea-sparking friction of sincere and vigorous intellectual clash. I ask you, if you are not involved in argument with the elders—dead or alive—than how can you be learning anything, how can you progress? Argument is the action of culture and its actors evolve into greater parts. I tell him I think twentieth-century Irish poetry after Yeats and The Great Hunger is, with shining exceptions, a magnificent technical achievement, but not so great a moral or spiritual one; more remarkable for who and what gets left out of it than who and what’s included. He thinks me too judgmental in this regard. And maybe we are both right. Perhaps both quietism and judgement must be resisted in poetry.
We stop up outside the Guggenheim. There’s an exhibition of Russian Modernism on—or Rushing Modernism as I pun it for Denis’s entertainment. He smirks. A lot of breathless manifestos, I’ll bet, he says. We both have an interest in the pronouncements of artists about their art and poets about their poetry. Denis’s Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations is on my oft-consulted shelf, and his long-running quotations section in the Poetry Ireland Review was often among the review’s most stimulating content. I say I am usually more impressed by the visionary polemics of modernist painters than by their designated art objects, which in my experience rarely live up to their manifestos. I can admire the poetry of rushing modernist doctrine, but rarely can I invest its ikons with belief, and without belief an ikon is a mere object like any other. Certain paintings, however, and certain works of literature, inspire belief in me, by a kind of overflowing inner potency which I can’t explain and don’t wish to and which is so much more intense and noble than I or any human could be that it must be godlike, stunning me into a condition of worship and willing acceptance of everything that has or will ever happen to me or anyone else. Let’s say Piero di Cosimo’s Saint Mary’s Assumption in the Uffizi, gazing at that there I felt a kind of magnetic, thrumming, undeniable, tidal uplift in the current of my blood. I felt a definite, sincere promise of an endless light-infused afterlife at the end of all sorrows. I felt the actuality of my soul‘s nature as the overcoming of my body. Or let’s say David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, not a novel but a chasm, a vertiginous vision of human Fall, a true black hole condensed of all the world’s starlight and blood, and which I had to shut suddenly in my own dumbfounded face several times in the Biblioteca Mediateca Gino Baratta in Mantova for fear I would tumble down into it and never stop tumbling, never get out.
Due to superhuman works of art like these, I tell Denis, I can believe in everything—transubstantiation, resurrection, eternal return, all gods and all devils. I can believe not only in the literal truth of the Bible but in the literal analogue of every text and every thought there is. I am a catholic protestant muslim hindu animist transcendalist buddhist jew with hundreds of my own grottos and Djinns. Everything that is written or painted or played or imagined has come is coming and will always be coming to pass, I believe. And I will never know how, why, or from whence.
We shake hands, say goodbye, look forward to meeting again. Denis heads back to his hotel for a rest and, after an irritable period in the lengthy, slouching queue, I go on in to roam the Guggenheim’s architected spiral, gyring my way around so many hallowed images and—especially—manifestos of a time when the impossible seemed within reach, when ambitions of artists were sweeping and grand.
That night, stretched out on a couch in an East Village basement—all I can afford for a bunk in this city of 15 million profit-producing beds—I imagine a literary afterlife inhabited by all the great poets, all the most outlandish believers in the imaginary, transmutational powers of the sculpted word. In it, I bump into Denis here and there amid great rising cities and greater falling ones, at museums and libraries and carnivals and other public ceremonies of the vatic arts. I meet Denis and Calvino together at a Courtiers’ Salon in Beijing in 1420, Denis and Rumi in a dive in Tangiers in 1950, Denis with William Blake and Hildegaard Von Bingen on the roof of the library of Alexandria the day before the fire. Blake is teaching them both a new chant: What is now proved was once only imagined. Denis and Victor Hugo on a height overlooking Hugo’s reconstructed fifteenth-century Paris on Pentecost Sunday, watching—as if the ear possessed a sight of its own, as Hugo puts it—the sonorous confluence and upflow of ten thousand bells quivering towards us through the holyday mists like one great symphonic poem raising rooftops to the sky.
Denis in a New York bar in Free Ireland with Shelley, mellifluous sceptic, who cannot believe in the afterlife even though he is in it and, a little drunk, is trying to convince the barman, Vachel Lindsay, and the barman’s horror-movie-directing, popcorn-munching mate that in fact none of them exist because it can’t be proven that they do. When you can discover where the fresh colours of the faded flower abide, or the music of the broken lyre, seek life among the dead, declaims Shelley, quoting himself beautifully.
I wake in late 2012 in what we call reality, in which I will never meet Denis O’Driscoll again. He’s with Dante and Dylan Thomas and D’Annunzio and all the rest of them, in that imagined zone beyond the physically apprehensible, with which our only connections are our belief and our poetry. And I believe I can talk and walk anytime with him there, and he with anyone, with and through poetry, that throatandtongue of the impossible through which the ceaseless music of broken lyres and faded lilies channels into worldflow without end. Amen.
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