The Swashbuckling Syphilitic and the Jolly Drill Sergeant

 

blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein

 

The swashbuckling syphilitic looks a little like

a walrus with that mustache of his.

 

The jolly drill sergeant is, of course, clean-shaven,

close-cropped, and he barks his orders like a ramrod ringmaster.

“Step right up and burnish that brass!”

 

The swashbuckling syphilitic and the jolly drill sergeant

don’t see eye-to-eye. “God is dead,” cries the former.

“I must have missed the obituary,” chuckles the latter.

 

“Gaze into the abyss,” intones the syphilitic,

“but don’t lean too far over,” warns the drill sergeant.

 

“Whoever does not have a good father . . . ”

“What’s done is done.”

 

The jolly drill sergeant

Puts his hand on the syphilitic’s shoulder.

 

“Enough of this nonsense.

The Shnapps’s on me.”

 

“Alcohol, like Christianity, intoxicates!”

“Okay, okay, forget it,” says the jolly drill sergeant.

 

And so they go their separate ways,

neither one the wiser.

A Pickpocket of a Poet Rips Off Wallace Stevens

circa 1940: A pickpocket at work in New York. (Photo by William Davis/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

accompanied by a labored window unit

 

A motion, the sea voice fluttering, a cry

understood word for word, a summer sound,

tilting in the air, perishing, erased by rain.

 

A serenade, a night wind sigh, out of the spirit

of black waves, the virtuoso ocean

drowning out a song.

 

The wind blowing, a metaphysician

in the dark, a woman, drunk,

dancing a stumble on the shore.

 

Dee Dee Ramone, master of the mamba,

tell me in a doo wop how to get from East Erie

to the Commodore Club. All I know

it’s way above of the Crosstown.

Dee Dee Ramone

 

Dom Pérignon and Reefer

 

(Clicking on the above is worth it.)

Roy Cohn, J Edgar Hoover

no doubt no approve of Muddy Waters,

amassed, I reckon, a dossier on his ass

duly noting his non-workin’ mojo,

dat black cat bone,

his association

with John the Conqueroo.

second cousin of the accused.

Accused of what?

Possession of champagne and reefer.

 

The Sky Flashes, the Great Sea Yearns

 

I can remember as a boy lying on a pile of leaves I had raked the day before, bored, staring up at the clouds. For whatever reason, years later, I recalled this incident (if you can call it that) and told my mother, “Some of my best memories are of being bored.” For whatever reason, this nonsense delighted her, and over the decades she would sometimes remind me that I had uttered those syllables, as if they embodied some great truth about the human condition.

Balderdash. Poppycock.

Truth be told, my best memories do not include that time our broken-down train sat motionless for four hours somewhere between Edinburg and Inverness nor those hours spent sitting through seemingly interminable high school productions nor glancing up every three minutes at the slow clock ticking in Mrs. Waltrip’s Algebra class (even if she did occasionally enliven things by pointing at integers on the chalk board with her middle finger).

Of course, there’s a distinction to be made between mere boredom (languishing in a waiting room) and ennui, which might be best embodied by John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 14.”

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

Ennui is malaise, enduring, beyond the cure of looking up the etymology of “balderdash” (originally a weird mixture of liquids like beer, milk, Nu-Grape soda, etc.) or “poppycock” [which comes from the Dutch pap (soft) and kak (dung), so poppycock = soft-poop].

No for ennui, we need something stronger, maybe a serotonin enhancer, a love affair with Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, something more substantial than watching PW Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Diary of a Lost Girl (my morning’s entertainment).

The fact is I wasn’t really bored when I was lying in that pile of leaves looking at the clouds. I was using my imagination. I was happy.

 

 

The Elegy Season

For me, this is the elegy season.

When Judy was dying, I distracted myself by doing algebra, solving equations, but now she’s gone, I’ve been reading elegies, reminding my selfish self that losing a loved one is what happens here and all the time, as this link to a Facebook page abundantly demonstrates.

The old famous elegies don’t do it for me, not “Lycidas” nor “Adonais” nor “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” nor even Tennyson’s heartbreaking but morbid “In Memoriam.”

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.

The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.

O, not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

Auden, on the other hand, is closer to my taste, not his hokey “Funeral Blues” elegy quoted in Three Weddings and a Funeral, but this one called “The Cave of Making” for his friend and fellow poet Louis MacNeice:

Seeing you know our mystery
from the inside and therefore
how much, in our lonely dens, we need the companionship
of our good dead, to give us
comfort on dowly days when the self is a nonentity
dumped on a mound of nothing,
to break the spell of our self-enchantment when lip-smacking
imps of mawk and hooey
write with us what they will, you won’t think me imposing if
I ask you to stay at my elbow
until cocktail time: dear Shade, for your elegy
I should have been able to manage
something more like you than this egocentric monologue,
but accept it for friendship’s sake.

But the elegy that has – forgive the phrase – slain me is Donald Hall’s “Without,” which captures so beautifully – an awful word to use here – captures the horrors of dying of blood cancer and the empty feeling for who’s left over.

An excerpt:

vincristine ara-c cytoxan vp-16

loss of memory loss of language losses

pneumocystis carinii pneumonia bactrim

foamless unmitigated sea without sea

delirium whipmarks of petechiae

multiple blisters of herpes zoster

and how are you doing today I am doing

***

one afternoon say the sun came out

moss took on a greenishness leaves fell

the market opened a loaf of bread a sparrow

a bony dog wandered back sniffing a lath

it might be possible to take up a pencil

unwritten stanzas taken up and touched

beautiful terrible sentences unuttered

***

the sea unrelenting wave gray the sea

flotsam without islands broken crates

block after block the same house the mall

no cathedral no hobo jungle the same women

and men they longed to drink hayfields no

without dog or semicolon or village square

without monkey or lily or garlic

You can read the entire poem here.

Cool Rocking Daddy Missing Libido Blues

 

 

[I] had pretty plumage once.

                                                WB Yeats “Among School Children”

 

A good while back, my libido stole one of my bags,

packed his Hawaiian shirts and leisure suits,

hitched a ride downtown to Calhoun Street

and hopped a Trailways bus to Mexico.

 

Can’t really say I miss him all that much,

that Wicked Wilson Pickett shtick:

 

Uh, you know I feel alright!
Ha, Feel pretty good y’all
!

 

All that preening Mick Jagger wannabe shit.

 

No, as my dead old lecher

Daddy Yeats once wrote,

 

Better to smile on all that smile, and show 

There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

 

Still, it’d be nice to get a postcard, every now and then,

from some bordello somewhere south of the border.

 

 

Ground or Air or Ought

If you need a poem to help you cope with death, Emily Dickinson is your gal. I’ve read Richard Sewell’s 2 volume biography, and she was, as Robert Frost famously put it, “acquainted with the night,” or as my now-over-a-decade-dead friend Tommy Evatt used to say, “no stranger to heartache.”

During Emily Dickinson’s 56 years, lots and lots of people she dearly loved died.

She spoke from experience:

 

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

 

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

 

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

 

In my case, I’m not at the “formal feeling” stage yet, probably somewhere between “Chill” and “Stupor,” but by having read Tennyson and having read Dickinson, I know someday I can look forward to “the letting go.”

I can’t stress vigorously enough to my former students how the best poetry can prepare you for (in my case, the second worse thing I can imagine happening to me) by vividly making concrete the pain of loss before it actually happens and by underscoring the universality suffering.

Metaphors fail me – dress rehearsal, inoculation?

Anyway, Miss Emily, please accept this thank you note.