Do you ever get the feeling that reading words is a form of auto-hypnosis? As you read them, as you enter into a text – or a story – or a poem – or a novel or a screenplay – sometimes the words have an almost hypnotic effect. At least, they do on me.
Some of Kenneth Koch’s words do that to me.
He is a poet I come back to, again and again. Some people do that to you. Do that to me, I mean. He does it with his words. With the images those words make in my head … with the places they take me. I’m speaking about him in the present tense but Kenneth Koch is no longer among the breathing: he died in 2002, after a long battle with leukemia, a disease whose name has always given me a little frisson of unease. Leukemia is, according to the anonymous experts of Wikpedia, a group of cancers which begin in the bone marrow and result, inevitably, in abnormally high numbers of white blood cells. No one really knows what causes it –
And no one really knows what makes a good poem a great one. I certainly don’t know what makes certain words affect me in certain ways at certain hours of certain days or nights when my eyes scan them and some of the still-functioning parts of my brain assimilate or process them in different ways. It’s a mystery. Just like it’s a mystery why certain pieces of music or certain performances – I’m thinking of Keith Jarrett’s piano improvisations at Köln – do the things they do to me. I still remember the first time I heard that recording of Keith Jarrett improvising, with the microphone capturing his humming to himself as he played – and the almost hallucinatory effect his music had on me. Rows of notes, flowing, building, pausing, returning with a rhythmic vengeance…then moments of unexpected silence…it pulled me in. Took me away into its own universe. It still does.
Some of Kenneth Koch’s writings do something similar to me.
This poem is one of them.
Part of the hallucinatory qualities it exercises have to do, I think, with the idea of conducting simultaneous conversations with/to various (different) persons (people) all at once. The only people who do that are freaking nuts. At least that’s how normal people view them. ‘Nuts’ – or schizophrenics – or those suffering from bipolar disorders – or those affected by cyclothymia. I know a little bit about the latter two, they have showed up occasionally in my family tree and at times, looking in a metaphoric mirror, I see the eyes of a cyclothymic stranger staring back at me. Who is that person? And why are they looking at me in that tone of voice? Seeing the world through different eyes – shedding your own skin and pulling on, what? another personality? a disguise? Isn’t that what aliens are supposed to, when they secretly visit earth, don’t they pull on a human suit, so we won’t see the real being, who occasionally peers back at you from that mirror?
The whole thing – literally seeing and talking to different people at the same time – well, to really do it, maybe even if you’re not an alien, you have to try … to allow yourself to – to be or become different people. At the same time. All inside you. Whew. What a concept. I have no idea if it’s ‘true’ (or ‘right’) or not…but damn, it sure’s got a convincing ring to it….don’t it?
So does this poem. Many ‘convincing rings’. The places it takes me to – maybe the places it will take you to? – all feel real to me. Part of the understated genius of the man, Kenneth Koch, who wrote these words and stitched them together. Before leukemia took him down another, unexplored road of mutating blood cells.
I read it and re-read it and each time … it seems to take me on different byways and detours, into different places I didn’t think I would go.
If you let yourself take it all in – not just to the words, but the hidden undercurrents, the silences, the spaces between the lines, those moments when Kenneth Koch probably paused, between some words, waiting for the next one to come –
Maybe it will take you to some of those places too.
Like getting in a car and heading down the highway for an unknown destination … you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know how long it will take you to get there, and, best of all …
Once you turn the key and the engine starts, you don’t really care.
To Various Persons Talked To All At Once
You have helped hold me together.
I’d like you to be still.
Stop talking or doing anything else for a minute.
No. Please. For three minutes, maybe five minutes.
Tell me which walk to take over the hill.
Is there a bridge there? Will I want company?
Tell me about the old people who built the bridge.
What is “the Japanese economy”?
Where did you hide the doctor’s bills?
How much I admire you!
Can you help me to take this off?
May I help you to take that off?
Are you finished with this item?
Who is the car salesman?
The canopy we had made for the dog.
I need some endless embracing.
The ocean’s not really very far.
Did you come west in this weather?
I’ve been sitting at home with my shoes off.
You’re wearing a cross!
That bench, look! Under it are some puppies!
Could I have just one little shot of Scotch?
I suppose I wanted to impress you.
The Revlon Man has come from across the sea.
This racket is annoying.
We didn’t want the baby to come here because of the hawk.
What are you reading?
In what style would you like the humidity to explain?
I care, but not much. You can smoke a cigar.
Genuineness isn’t a word I’d ever use.
Say, what a short skirt! Do you have a camera?
The moon is a shellfish.
I can’t talk to most people. They eat me alive.
Who are you, anyway?
I want to look at you all day long, because you are mine.
Might you crave a little visit to the Pizza Hut?
Thank you for telling me your sign.
I’m filled with joy by this sun!
The turtle is advancing but the lobster stays behind. Silence has won the game!
Well, just damn you and the thermometer!
I don’t want to ask the doctor.
I didn’t know what you meant when you said that to me.
It’s getting cold, but I am feeling awfully lazy.
If you want to we can go over there
Where there’s a little more light.