To Various Persons

EasterBunnies

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.

RestAreaLandscape

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.

It’s snowing.

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. 

lucubrations

OnceUponAMidnightDreary

The word ‘lucubration’ – the plural is lucubrations with an ‘s’ – comes from the Latin lucubrare – meaning to work by lamplight – and by extension, to work at night.  Burning the midnight oil was a phrase I learned as a boy, from my mother, not merely an expression but something that became – and has remained – a reality in my life.

Lucubrations are nocturnal jottings, writings, studies or simply meditations – and all that results from or pertains thereto.

It can be very quiet and lonely, after midnight.

It can also be a time of inner darkness.  And sometimes, inner light.

And for me, it has almost always been a time when nothing else could get in between me …. and whatever I have been holding, hiding, or incubating inside.

Some of my lucubrations come to light, sometimes.  Others never will.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

And then, hearing or imagining he hears, a faint tapping, he (the Poe-ian narrator) stands:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

Doubting and dreaming are part of it, too.  Always have been.  I write these words in the harsh, pale light of morning – but I am thinking of the darkness ahead …. and the lucubrations that await.

animals, stuffed, plastic and otherwise

Lately I seem to be obsessed with small stuffed animals.

Everywhere I go, there they are.

It started just before Christmas, wandering the aisles of my local smalltown supermarket here in Talent, Oregon. I turned around – and there they all were, staring at me.

Supermarket stuffed Friends

Supermarket stuffed Friends

I had the impression that they were good friends. Mark Twain said, “Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” If you are stuck in a cage at the Supermarket, one out of three isn’t bad.

A week later, it was nearly Christmas Eve. ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…not a creature was stirring, not even a…

Frog?

Well of course none of the Frogs were stirring because they were caught in netting – and waiting with Zen-like patience to be adopted into a new home (and presumably one with a bathtub to feature their floating rubber talents).

Supermarket Frogs

Supermarket Frogs

Mark Twain also wrote, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

Hmmmm….a different take on the traditional Christmas Dinner, that’s for damn sure. I thought about that for a moment but then got distracted by a faint nearby birdcall….that sounded suspiciously like…

Quacking?

In a Supermarket?

Rubber Duckies

Rubber Duckies

Douglas Adams writes that – “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.”

But had he encountered this trio, I wonder what Douglas would have made of them? Whereas I, being the weird person that I am, immediately wondered: do ducks have…grandmothers? If so, when Litte Red Riding Duck goes to visit her Grandma Duckie in that lonely house in the bullrushes, would she say to her – ‘But Grandma, what big lips you have?’ To which Grandma, if I know her (and if I don’t…who does?) would be sure to answer, ‘They aren’t lips, Duckie…that’s my Bill, damnit!’

Kenneth Grahame, of ‘Wind in the Willows’ fame, once wrote a short poem about ducks and, among other things, their bills –

“All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!

Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river! ”

But my trio of Supermarket ducks neither dabbled nor quivered. They just stared fixedly at me, with those borderline frightening smiles that made me wonder: do rubber duckies come to life, Toy-Story-style, when all the humans have left the premises?

And if they do….will they keep on smiling? or will those red grinning duckbills reveal the razor-sharp fangs of….a Vampire Duck?

Needless to say, I got the Hell out of there. A week later, I was down in the Bay Area, visiting a cool museum in Oakland where my older brother had taken me, and I stuck my nose into the Museum store…only to find a row of noses pointed directly back at me…

Bear Travel Pillows

Bear Travel Pillows

I was speechless. I just stared back…incapable of words. Perhaps a few short monosyllabic grunts. No loss, my momentary inability to communicate verbally with my silent stuffed interlocutors. Gustave Flaubert said that, “human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to” – and momentarily it flashed through my frozen synapses that perhaps if I started tapping out a rhythm…they would all join in?

Three months later, I found myself entering the small, local Medford airport, en route from Point A to Point B. And who should be there waiting for me but….two incredibly lifelike canines, pointing the way with their muzzles and eyes to the Airport’s special ‘Pet Relief Area’.

Pet Relief Area

Pet Relief Area

Birds do it. Bees do it. Pets do it too. But do plastic dogs do it as well? In the wee wee predawn hours, when the entire world around them sleeps, do they carefully step down from their plastic pedestal and make their way over for a little plastic relief of their own? A generation ago, Philip K. Dick famously asked whether or not Androids dream of Electric Sheep? I couldn’t – and still can’t – help wondering….whether plastic dogs dream of plastic streams of pee…onto plastic fire hydrants?

Weeks later, returning to southern Oregon, I visited the cavernous costume and prop repository for a well-known local Theater company. Other visitors walked around, taking in their surroundings with an eye-level POV, but my view was yanked down, as though by the pull of an enormous unseen magnetic force, to meet another pair of eyes, staring not so much at me…but out into what seemed like an interminable void.

Dear Head

Dear Head

This was no stuffed toy. This was the real thing: an immense seemingly larger-than-life stuffed deer’s head. I couldn’t stop staring. And thinking…what his life had been like, back when he was still….alive? Did he run, did he leap, did he twist agilely in the air? At the moment of his death, did everything come to a quick clean end? Or was it drawn out? One of my all-time favorite storytellers, the late Philip K. Dick, once wrote that, “The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than the razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer.” Staring at this now-still deer’s head, face and eye, I felt momentarily balanced on a different kind of razor’s edge – the horns of a moral dilemma, so to speak – as this animal’s life and death seemed to come rushing back at me with whirlwind force, impossible to resist.

So I just looked at him. And then took his picture. Many so-called ‘primitive’ peoples believe the act of photographing someone – is akin to robbing them of their soul. But I wasn’t doing that with my newfound deer – it felt, au contraire, that I was trying, in some small arcane way, to restore part of his lost soul, or spirit, or whatever you want to call it, to him.

Time passed. I returned to my local Supermarket, where it all began. Life, or my existence, is apparently circular…what goes around, comes around. Once more I walked down those aisles…the small stuffed large-eyed Friends were gone, and the Frogs and Duckies had departed. It was an unseasonably sunny, warm, Spring day…the perfect weather to take a long nap after lunch, Siesta time for those south of the border. And then….I saw them.

Napping away, comfortably. The palomino horse’s head nestled comfortably against the torso of his friend, the alligator.

la hora de la Siesta en el Supermercado

la hora de la Siesta en el Supermercado

Augusten Burroughs, the brilliant and often twisted humorist, writes that, “Bad news should be followed with soup. Then a nap.” I don’t know what the news was or had been. Or in fact if these two stuffed friends had had any soup. But they were definitely napping. I stared. I stifled a yawn. Somehow everything seemed to s-l-o-w down….. When my eyelids, impossibly heavy, began to close, I knew it was time to get the Hell out of Dodge…before succumbing to the same deadly NTS (Need To Sleep) that nearly did in Odysseus’s men when they passed out in the Cyclops’s cave. I muttered quick farewells to the Nappers and made my getaway.

Days later, in the organic food supermarket, in neighboring Ashland, I needed some veggies. I went to the Produce Department. And there, swinging lackadaisically from a wooden frame above the bananas – was this individual –

Produce Department Simian

Produce Department Simian

Belying his seemingly relaxed stance (is it a ‘stance’ when you’re hanging from something? No? didn’t think so…), his eyes seemed sharp and glittering. They never missed a trick. They seemed to find me and ask me – yo, human bipedal dude, what IS your problem? We, the stuffed animals of the world, are in fact the dominant species so if you’re smart, you’ll a) get used to it, b) suck it up, and c) bring me the juiciest banana of the bunch….or else.

Stephen Hawking says that we humans are, “just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star.” I think he’s got a point. And while some of you, my fellow monkeys, may be the advanced ones he speaks of, my growing fear is that, with my apparently insatiable obsession with small stuffed or plastic animals, ‘advanced’ is not the right adjective that springs to mind. More like…perturbed.

Which (the state of perturbation) brought me, this last Sunday, to one more supermarket. In search, believe it or not, for donuts. And it being March, the aisles were festooned with chocolate eggs and other sweets in secular, sugar-drenched honor of the forthcoming Easter Holiday. And then I saw them, in the middle of an aisle…all lined up together, tiny heads and tiny ears and tiny eyes…

The Easter Bunnies.

Waiting with something akin to hope on their small furry visages…

Easter Bunnies

Easter Bunnies

But maybe it wasn’t hope. Maybe I need my glasses. Maybe it was just….resignation. But I don’t think so. Coretta Scott King writes that –

“When Good Friday comes, these are the moments in life when we feel there’s no hope. But then, Easter comes.”

Easter is coming. And hope – for a better day, a better life, maybe a better existence for so many who need it so badly – isn’t entirely dead. You can see it, right there, in that small furry face….

You just have to look closely….real closely….right in those eyes.

Ding Dongs

In 1967, the Hostess company introduced Ding-Dongs to North America.

A small round chocolate cake filled with a sweet creamy white center.

Like thousands and millions of other American teenagers, I acquired a fondness for them. Perhaps not an outright addiction, but I ate my fair share.

But Ding-Dongs have existed before their sweet junkfood iteration in popular culture in many forms.

A Ding-Dong is a slang term for a moron, an idiot, someone who ain’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

It’s also the sound made by a doorbell…

Ding Dong Doorbell

As well as a vulgar synonym for a portion of the male anatomy which you can imagine.

It’s inspired storytellers in many different media, including Comic Books and Graphic Novels…

Chip and Ding Dong Comic

And though ‘Ding-Dong’ is traditionally associated not only with the sound of bells but often with Holiday or Christmas-y lyrics, it’s also inspired other, more tongue-in-cheek interpretations, including this classic porcine version –

hamma-lamma-ding-dong

For the more traditionally inclined, there is a Ding Dong version of an apocryphal saying often attributed to the British Royals –

keep_calm_and_ring_ding_dong

And last but not least, no true appreciator or partisan or student of Ding-Dongology will want to miss some of the classic early advertising efforts that Hostess put forth, back in 1967, which seem both twistedly funny and almost prescient in our New Millenium –

Hostess_DingDongs_1967

As I write these words, it’s a cold snowy winter here in my home in Talent, in Southern Oregon….but I’ve got Ding-Dongs on the brain. And so to all – may your Ding Dongs ring forth….and do whatever else you expect of them as we near the end of 2013.

Or sells eternity to get a toy?

William Shakespeare asks, eloquently –

What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy?

I wasn’t thinking of Shakespeare when I stopped at Laughing Planet for lunch.  Apart from ridiculously good eats at more-than-affordable prices, I like Laughing Planet because of the decor – and, specifically, the cases of tiny Action Figures….miniature Monsters….

And just plain Toys.

Like these two.

"Blue and White", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Blue and White”, 17mm Zuiko lens

Nearby, a mutant warlike Crustacean kept company with what looked to me like a camouflage spotted Kangasoar.  But they seemed peaceful enough –

"Crustacean & Kangasoar", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Crustacean & Kangasoar”, 17mm Zuiko lens

Their neighbors, a strange Poodle and a winged martial Dragon, appeared to be monsters.

"Poodle & Dragon", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Poodle & Dragon”, 17mm Zuiko lens

But Friedrich Nietzche notes that –

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Of course, when it comes to gazing back from abysses, Edgar Allan Poe was no slouch.

"Poe & Monster", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Poe & Monster”, 17mm Zuiko lens

Poe notes, wryly –

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”

But even insanity has its laughs.  Or, as Lewis Carroll asks, in “Alice in Wonderland” –

“Have I gone mad?  I’m afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are.”

It seemed to me that these three chappies probably agreed with both Carroll and Poe –

"Laughing Toys", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Laughing Toys”, 17mm Zuiko lens

But all is not smiles and laughter here in this world of tiny ferocious beings.  This crab is no ordinary crustacean; with his multiple claws and toothsome snarl, he’s more a tidepool monster –

"Pissed-off Crustacean", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Pissed-off Crustacean”, 17mm Zuiko lens

Friedrich Nietzche (remember him?) asks –

“Is it better to out-monster the monster or to be quietly devoured?”

A good question to ponder as I quietly devoured my spicy Southwest burrito.  Toothsome hungry snarls seemed to be catching, as a nearby miniature Dragon attested to.  Tolkien admonishes Bilbo to –

“Never laugh at live dragons.”

"Dragon", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Dragon”, 17mm Zuiko lens

But, I told myself, he isn’t really alive. And though I hadn’t spoken the words aloud, they still garnered me an incredulous stare from this…..uhhh….what would you call him?

"Mystery Humanoid", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Mystery Humanoid”, 17mm Zuiko lens

Nearby, a strange pair cavorted.  A sentient 3-eyed Hand hung back while a long-armed simian seemed to ready himself for….leaping up, perhaps.  Or rising up the evolutionary ladder.

"Ape & Hand", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Ape & Hand”, 17mm Zuiko lens

The brilliant English fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett notes that –

“I’d rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.”

But the nearby toy monster was definitely no angel.  And whatever else he was – or wasn’t – the one thing that seemed abundantly clear, to my burrito-filled brain, was that he was….mystified.

"Mystified Monster", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Mystified Monster”, 17mm Zuiko lens

But lunch was over.  And so it was time to say farewell.  Two of my favorite toys – a green-headed helmeted Alien and his Cactus-Hound – stared at me belligerently.

"Alien & Cactus Hound", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Alien & Cactus Hound”, 17mm Zuiko lens

When I was young, sometimes, my favorite toys wound up bent and broken….played to death, as it were.  I think the same was true of my sons, when they were very small, and some of their toys.  The poet e.e. cummings says –

“You have played,
(I think)
And broke the toys you were fondest of”

"Green Alien & Cactus-Hound 2", 17mm Zuiko lens

“Green Alien & Cactus-Hound 2”, 17mm Zuiko lens

– but this pair – and their comrades – were anything but broken.  And now that lunch was finished, it was almost time for….a nice, relaxing post-prandial siesta.

The filmmaker Werner Herzog asks –

“What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.”

As I lie back for my siesta, I wonder….who will I dream about?  The Crustacean?  The Kangasoar?  Edgar Allan?  Or my new favorite, Cactus-Hound?

If I can remember, I’ll let you know.

Supermarket Buddhas

Went shopping yesterday for the basics.  Soy milk, eggs, tuna fish.  Chips, salsa, cheese.  And then, to my surprise, as I neared the checkout area, I saw someone I didn’t expect to see.

The face of a man.  Who once said –

“You only lose what you cling to.”

"Supermarket Buddha", 17mm Zuiko lens, Pop Art filter

“Supermarket Buddha”, 17mm Zuiko lens, Pop Art filter

Of course, that made me stop.  And think.  About many things.  Including the purchases I was just about to make – did I really need them?

After all, the Chap – Buddha – or as he is also known, Gautama Buddha – or Siddhartha Gautama Buddha – also said –

“Doubt everything. Find your own light.”

And certainly, looking at both the contents of my shopping cart, and then back to his face, the idea of finding my own light….took on a new….cast.

"Supermarket Buddha", 17mm Zuiko lens, Dramatic Tone filter

“Supermarket Buddha”, 17mm Zuiko lens, Dramatic Tone filter

By this time I stopped thinking about food and started looking around.  And lo and behold, I saw yet another Buddha, this one perched atop a refrigerated cabinet advertising a drink that many associate with energy – the energy to do, to be, to live.

"Red Bull Buddha", 17mm Zuiko lens, Pop Art filter

“Red Bull Buddha”, 17mm Zuiko lens, Pop Art filter

The man also said –

“There is no path to happiness: happiness is the path.”

But…will Red Bull get me onto that path more quickly?  Or move me down it with more energy, more zip, more joie de vivre?

"Red Bull Buddha", 17mm Zuiko lens, Dramatic Tone filter

“Red Bull Buddha”, 17mm Zuiko lens, Dramatic Tone filter

I didn’t have to think about that one for too long.

Part of the reason why was, I had glimpsed yet a third manifestation of the Buddha, one which resonated with me more than the preceding two.

"Naked Juice Buddha", 17mm Zuiko lens, Pop Art filter

“Naked Juice Buddha”, 17mm Zuiko lens, Pop Art filter

Naked Juice and Buddha.

That made me smile.

And reminded me of the words of the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh, who says –

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.”

And when I smiled, things seemed to shift….was it the colors?

"Naked Juice Buddha", 17mm Zuiko lens, Dramatic Tone filter

“Naked Juice Buddha”, 17mm Zuiko lens, Dramatic Tone filter

Or was it me?

Ted Grant, the South African Trotskyist and author – and, parenthetically, how deep is the divide between Buddhism and Trotskyism? – once said –

“When you photograph people in colour you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.”

Looking one last time at my supermarket Buddha, I had to agree with him.

"Naked Juice Buddha", 17mm Zuiko lens, Grainy Film filter

“Naked Juice Buddha”, 17mm Zuiko lens, Grainy Film filter

But as the saying goes, man cannot live by bread alone, so it was time to stop staring, and to get in the checkout line.  But even so, I couldn’t – and can’t – help thinking of what John Lennon said.  A propos of belief systems – and religions – and the tendency of people to need to ‘believe in’ something or someone.  It’s a famous quote –

“I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.”

Or, as Gautama B. himself said –

“You only lose what you cling to.”

I like to think of myself as someone who doesn’t need to cling.  Excessively.  But on second thought, maybe it’s time to be honest with myself – and maybe I’d better go back to the supermarket….for some Naked Juice.