The Ballad of Old Buck Roberts

 

 

For years and years he lived right here

in a tent on the edge of Folly.

He brewed his beer and wrote his poems

in the shade of a stunted loblolly.

 

He played at working construction,

could drive a nail I guess,

but what Buck was really good at

was downing his Inverness.

 

He’d have a drop in the morning,

he’d have a drop at noon,

he’d have a drop at midnight,

‘neath the light of a winter moon.

 

The cold on Folly ain’t that bad

(unless you stay in a tent),

but Buck would hum all through the night,

shivering but still content,

 

content because his poems would clack

from that old Underwood,

clack-clack-clacking, like a woodpecker,

on the edge of the stunted wood.

 

The VA doctors warned him

to change his lifestyle soon,

but Buck was a stubborn cuss.

He loved the light of the moon.

 

They found him dead inside a shed

on the side of Folly Road,

and in his hand he held a poem,

the last one he ever wrote:

 

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus [it read]

            At this here wedding in Galilee.

            He saved the bestest for second

            And provided it all for free.

           

            So I quit my job on the shrimp boat

            To follow Him eternally,

            No longer bound by them blue laws

            Enforced by the Pharisee.

 

            And we had us some real good times

            Till them Pharisees done Him in.

            Ain’t got no use for the religious right

            After I seen what they done to Him.

 

            Then when Saul Paul stole the show

            I sort of drifted away.

            Cause he never quite did understood

            What Jesus was trying to say.

 

            Paul was like a Pharisee,

            Cussing this, cussing that,

            Giving the wimmins a real hard time,

            Gay bashing and all like that.

 

            So I stay at home most nights now

            Trying to do some good,

            Offering beggars a little snort

            Whilst praying for a Robin Hood.

 

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus,

            It was the bestest day I ever seen.

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus,

            Partying with the Nazarene.

 

I can think of worse things

to have in your hand when dead

across the bridge on Folly Road

inside an old tool shed.

 

 

Hanging Out with Bob Dylan’s Namesake (or the Dangers of Memorizing Dylan Thomas)

Each winter, our English Department requires students to memorize a poem that’s at least the length and girth of a sonnet.  We select whom we consider the best, and they compete on grade levels to represent the freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior classes in front of three judges and an auditorium packed with their peers.  We call the competition Porter-Gaud Outloud, and once students reach the finals, they’re spot on.  Believe me, choosing the ultimate winner is difficult.

I, too, memorize a poem out of solidarity, and even though I’m renowned (yes renowned, dammit!) for having put to memory veritable library shelves of verse, I’ve discovered this year that if I’m not all that familiar with a poem, I have trouble memorizing it.

Now, if it’s a poem I know well, like Yeats’s lament “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” I can memorize it in no time and spit it out like a Gatling Gun:

Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.[1]

 

Last year, I did “Adam’s Curse,” a poem of forty lines, and had it down in a day.

This year, however, I’ve chosen a poem I’ve read only a dozen or so times, Dylan Thomas’s “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” a hyper-Romantic ditty suitable for someone bound to drink himself to death at the Chelsea Hotel at the age of thirty-nine.  I chose it because I’ve always dug the lines

Nor for the towering Dead

With their nightingales and psalms.

I’ll go ahead and provide the text:

In my craft or sullen art

Exercised in the still night

When only the moon rages

And the lovers lie abed

With all their griefs in their arms,

I labour by singing light

Not for ambition or bread

Or the strut and trade of charms

On the ivory stages

But for the common wages

Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.

 

You can hear Dylan doing it himself here.

The thing is, I keep mucking something up, like substituting “practiced” for “exercised” or swapping out a “nor” for an “or” or dropping the line “On the ivory stages.”

The good news is that I’ll have it down by the due date of February 25, but the bad news is that now I have Thomas’s rhythms and peculiar diction looping non-stop in the tape deck of my mind.

There’s only way to exorcise these voices, and that’s to write some doggerel, and because misery loves company, I’m sharing it with you:

 

 

From the Juke Box of Dylan Thomas

In my scratched and dented car,

With a broken right tail light,

I drive to and fro from bar to bar

Squandering a day that turns to night.

Not for the dead left in my wake I drink,

Nor for the lasses who have broken my heart,

But for the tunk-a-tunk-tunk, rinky dink dink

Of lovely pints on a luscious lark.[2]


[1]How apt a poem for the Age of Trump.

[2]If I weren’t channeling Thomas, the last line would be “Of yeasty brews on a beer-slopped bar.”

Reefer Madness

A member of the SC Medical Association and Attorney General Alan Wilson experimenting on a marijuana user

Alas, I find it necessary yet again to haul down from the attic James Petigru’s way-too-often quoted description of my native state:

South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.

What prompts today’s revival of Petigru’s apt observation is Attorney General Alan Wilson’s idiotic proclamation that marijuana is “the most dangerous drug” in America, edging out, it would appear, crystal meth, cocaine, crack, heroin, and [drum roll] aspirin.

[1]

 

Here are some 2017 numbers from the CDC:

According to the Centers for Disease Control, using data available for analysis on September 5, 2018, there were a reported 70,652 deaths attributed to drug overdose in the US for the year ending December 2017. Some deaths were still under investigation. The CDC projects that the total for 2017 will be 72,222.

Of these:

Opioids were detected in 47,863 reported deaths, and are predicted to be involved in 49,031 deaths.

Synthetic opioids, excluding methadone, were detected in 28,644 reported deaths, and are predicted to be involved in 28,644 deaths.

Heroin was detected in 15,585 reported deaths, and is predicted to be involved in 15,941 deaths.

Natural and semi-synthetic opioids were detected in 14,553 reported deaths, and are predicted to be involved in 14,940 deaths.

Cocaine was detected in 14,065 reported deaths, and is predicted to be involved in 14,612 deaths.

Psychostimulants with abuse potential were detected in 10,420 reported deaths, and are predicted to be involved in 10,703 deaths.

Methadone was detected in 3,209 reported deaths, and is predicted to be involved in 3,286 deaths.

Here’s what the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology has to say about marijuana:

Tetrahydrocannabinol is a very safe drug. Laboratory animals (rats, mice, dogs, monkeys) can tolerate doses of up to 1,000 mg/kg (milligrams per kilogram). This would be equivalent to a 70 kg person swallowing 70 grams of the drug—about 5,000 times more than is required to produce a high. Despite the widespread illicit use of cannabis there are very few if any instances of people dying from an overdose. In Britain, official government statistics listed five deaths from cannabis in the period 1993-1995 but on closer examination these proved to have been deaths due to inhalation of vomit that could not be directly attributed to cannabis (House of Lords Report, 1998). By comparison with other commonly used recreational drugs these statistics are impressive.”

What prompted Wilson’s injudicious misrepresentation of the facts was not a call for the legalization of marijuana in South Carolina but merely the introduction of legislation “that would allow patient’s to obtain it with a doctor’s prescription.”

More from Wilson’s press conference:

[Users employ] words like stoned, high, wasted, baked, fried, cooked, chonged, cheeched, dope-faced, blazed, blitzed, blunted, blasted, danked, stupid, wrecked — and that’s only half the words they use,” Wilson said. “Are these consistent with something that describes a medicine?”

Now that’s what I call scientific!

The truth of the matter is that your chances of croaking, bellying-up, kicking the bucket, cashing in chips, joining the invisible choir, buying the farm, and shuffling off the mortal coil are infinitely greater from a perfectly legal prescription of OxyContin than it would be from medical marijuana.

I’m in no way advocating the use of marijuana but merely pointing out the inanity of our public officials, how the Republican Party ignores science in formulating policies.

Speaking of gateway drugs, I’ll leave you with this:

 

 

On the Slave Ship Lollipop

I used to stuff my face with candy

when I was a little boy,

couldn’t cop enough Mary Janes,

would kill for an Almond Joy.

 

Then I graduated to the Real Thing – Coke.

I was popping five cans a day,

plopping nickels and dimes upon the counter

under caffeine and sugar’s sway.

 

Now I’m hooked on heroin,

am little more than a thug.

Wish I’d known then what I know now –

that sugar is the gateway drug.


[1]According to a recent study, “Taking a daily aspirin is far more dangerous than was thought, causing more than 3,000 deaths a year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Bring in Some Pillars and Resurrect Cecile B DeMille

I’m teaching Paradise Lost for the very last time, a poem I absolutely love.

I love its baroque poetry. Here’s Satan regaining consciousness after being flung across the cosmos into the fiery pit of perdition:

At once, as far as Angel’s ken, he views

The dismal situation, waste and wild,

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,

As one great furnace flames.

And I love Satan, tragic antihero extraordinaire.  Here he is, going all existential, vaunting heroically to his nearest mate Beelzebub:

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

What matter where, if I be still the same,

And what I should be, all but less than he

Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least

We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,

To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

But later, outside the gates of Eden in a soliloquy to the sun, he becomes perhaps the greatest of all tragic heroes, giving voice to his anagnorisis:

Me miserable! which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;

And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep

Still threatening to devour me opens wide,

To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven

Here he sounds like John Wayne in a western:

Whence and what art thou, execrable Shape,

That dar’st though grim and terrible, advance

Thy miscreated front athwart my way

To yonder gates? Through them I mean yo pass,

That be assured, without leave of ask of thee.

The poem encompasses all of time (the war in heaven precedes the creation of earth) and all of space (hell is on a distant planet on the opposite side of heaven).  Not only that, but Milton also evokes the Holy Spirit as a muse so he “may assert Eternal Providence,/And justify the ways of God to men.”

I teach the poem as adventure, as a sort of Marvel/DC Comics movie wannabe with Satan as a super-super villain who out-Hulks the Hulk, o’er leaps Spiderman, makes Superman seem like a patsy in comparison.

For decades, I’ve put on this shtick where I pitch an investment opportunity to the students.  I argue that PL would make one kickass blockbuster recordbreaking animated epic motionpicture experience.[1]  For a mere 100K investment per student, I could get the project off the ground.

Truthfully, PL really would be, if you could get around the fullfrontal nudity of Books I & IV, profoundly entertaining.  Certainly, the poem’s noble aspiration to justify Christianity should offset the horror that the darkened pigmentation of aureoles seems to provoke in red-blooded Americans. After all, we could run this disclaimer from Milton himself:

Nor those mysterious parts were then concealed:

Then was not guilty shame. Dishonest shame

Of Nature’s works, honour dishonourable,

Sin-bred, how have ye troubled all mankind

With shews instead, mere shews of seeming pure

And banished from man’s life his happiest life,

Simplicity and spotless innocence!

But dig this: as I was scouring the internet looking for images the spiff up my Keynote presentation, I ran across this fake trailer for Paradise Lost, the movie. Dig it:

 

I mean, y’all, just sayin’.


[1]Look at me going all Joycean with these fused compound adjectives.

Tied to a Stake

 

Tied to a Stake

 

“They have tied me to a stake: I cannot fly,

 But bear like I must fight the course.”

                                                                        Macbeth

Insomnia’s got me tied to the stake,

And the dogs of thought are snarlin’.

 

Is 3 AM too early, or is it too late?

How about fronting me a Klonopin, darling?

 

Too much screen time, not enough exercise,

A gumbo of gone-bad cod bubbling in my head.

 

O god, three hours from now, I’ll have to rise,

and shuffle off to class, the walking dead.

 

Open your books to page 77

Let’s see what John Berryman has to say

 

in this poem that he directs towards heaven,

in this poem where he pretends to pray:

 

Forsake me not when my wild hours come;

grant me sleep nightly, grace soften my dreams.

 

My speed freak heart’s drowning him out like a drum,

Way too much caffeine, not enough cream.

 

Shuffling Off to Brownsville

Shuffling Off to Brownsville

1 November 2018: Soldiers Deployed to Border to Confront the Saddest Caravan This Side of the Bataan Death March

 

You may know the mid-century cliché,

the crazed artist

spazzily slinging

paint on canvas,

an object of derision.

That’s the Trump Presidency,

sort of,  kind of.

Clown hair instead of beret,

and it’s shit being slung not paint.

Splat!

distracting you

from yesterday’s

splat!!

the story about

Splat!!!

Splats of yore — outrages

from. like two weeks ago,

have already disappeared,

hardened, crumbled into desert dirt.

Splat!!!!

Clunky Titles, Funky Poems

Relatively early in his career, Yeats would come up with long, unwieldy titles for some of his poems.

Here’s one:

To a Poet, who would have me Praise certain Bad Poets, Imitators of His and Mine

You say as I have often given tongue

In praise of what another’s said or sung.

‘There politic to do the like by these;

But have you known a dog to praise his fleas?

 

So in this vein, I humbly present:

A Subliterate Buddhist with Work Issues Writes to His Love Seeking Seventeen Syllables That Will Deliver Him from the Eternal Cycle of Birth, Suffering, and Death

 

Oxygen, shallow breathing, white noise, now!

O, lay a haiku on me, sweetie.

This here samsara got me so so down.

 

These damned desires breed so much sorrow.

Can’t concentrate on my breathing.

Got so much shit going down tomorrow.

 

O, O, O, lay a haiku on me, my love,

A haiku with the hashtag samadhi,

One that makes me the one I’m not thinking of,

One that will set this monkey mind free.

 

 

Um, om?