Lunch at a Truck Stop with Wallace Stevens

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Lunch at a Truck Stop with Wallace Stevens

We are the mimics. Clouds are pedagogues.

A big but delicate man,

he doesn’t flirt with the waitress,

a comely gal in calico,

but orders brusquely:

meat loaf, mashed potatoes, sweet peas,

piping hot biscuits fresh from the oven.

 

The fluttering napkin looks small in his hand

as it parachutes upon his lap.

When the grub arrives, he bows his head,

Closes his eyes, and says,

“Tink a tank a tunk a tunk tunk.”

Opens those eyes, raises that head,

and smiles amid the clatter of saucers and cups.

old_21_truck_stop_1950s

On the Utility of Memorizing Poetry

illustration by David Rowe from "Financial Review" website

illustration by David Rowe from “Financial Review” website

Each year, our English Department requires all students to memorize a poem of at least fourteen lines and recite it in front of their classes.

Students choose the poems they recite, so the first step in the process is for them to read poems in search of a ditty or two that strike their fancy. Obviously, it forces them to read poetry.  Of course, every year a student asks if he can recite song lyrics instead, and I say no.

I explain that very few song lyrics can stand alone on the naked page without musical accompaniment. I recite these lyrics from Dylan’s “To Ramona (which, of course, I’ve memorized):

From fixtures and forces and friends

Your sorrow does stem

That hype you and type you

Making you feel

That you gotta be exactly like them

I’d forever talk to you

But soon my words

Would turn into a meaningless ring

For deep in my heart

I know there is no help I can bring

Everything passes

Everything changes

Just do what you think you should do

And someday maybe

Who knows, baby

I’ll come and be cryin’ to you.

And then I recite these lines from Yeats, which, again I know “by heart.”

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.

The difference is palatable.

Of course, the question of why memorize comes up. What’s the purpose? You’ll just forget it anyway, etc. I explain that in times of despair that poetry can provide solace by articulating powerfully the human condition, which has remained essentially the same over the course of centuries.

Ben Jonson’s dead son is my brother-in-law’s dead son.

My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.

Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

Oh, could I lose all father now!

I tell them that possessing a storehouse of poetry in the record collection of their minds can also come in handy at cocktail parities. Why rely on your own feeble wit when you can conjure TS Eliot?

On November the 9th, one of my colleagues asked me what I thought, and I said,

“I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.”

If he’d asked me how I felt, I would have said, “like ragwater, bitters, and blue ruin.”

Anyway, this year, I’ve decided to memorize a poem myself, and I have chosen Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress

As they are used to wear, and let the boys

Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

 

Take from the dresser of deal,

Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

On which she embroidered fantails once

And spread it so as to cover her face.

If her horny feet protrude, they come

To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

What in the hell does that mean? Here’s one cool, jazzy take from Kenneth Lincoln:

So a wench is dead, stretched out cold at the ice cream party. The dresser deal “knobs” transpose to “horny” bunions, glass to skin calluses. No empty jar lies here, rounding the wild, but a woman’s body in its cool opaque skin, thickened from walking the earth. Her “horny feet” index a prosaic, if bewitching reality, bunioned and “dumb” as the “slovenly wilderness”: feet are the earthen root, nonetheless, the vulgate “base” of a poetic meter iambically shamanic. She embroidered “fantails” on her bedsheet, her tail-end art. Those curlicues may rover her face, if they cannot mask her feet, which grounded her in reality, finally in death. So, for a fourth and final call, “Let the lamp” of nature “affix its beam,” the sun its sundown flame, as the seeing eye celebrates an inner light in mortal darkness, a comeback optics of imagining sunrise reborn at sunset.

[snip]

With rhyming comic finality (come/dumb/beam/cream), the refrain rides on a boisterous iambic pentameter, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The fourteen syllables curdle in a spondee (as with the twelve-syllable, shaggy last line of “The Snow Man”). There’s a youthful break in the pace, a jump-rope skip completing the Falstaffian form. From bunioned foot to embroidered fantail, earthly base to fanciful end, this elegy resists loss by making art of what seems to be, seeing what is, delightfully. It is an act of the imagination at a wake; the final test, to return to childhood joy in “cream” made of “ice” (Carolina “aspic nipples” sweetened). A concupiscent summer is whipped up from winter’s absence, the snow man’s “nothing” curdled by sweet belief.

So, fast-forward to that future cocktail party where some jackass is plastering lipstick on some political or theological or philosophical pig.

Simply say, “Let be be the finale of seem/The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”

Chances are his rejoinder won’t be in “boisterous iambic pentameter.”

emperor-illustration

Wesley’s Inferno, Canto 1

wesley-canto-1

 

 

In the second month of my 64th year,

I awakened in an all but abandoned

strip shopping center

 

where a scrawny hound

limped up and growled

mouth-foaming, rabid.

 

Suddenly, a screech —  an owl?

The hound turned around,

so I stepped away leaden-legged, slowly

 

away, inching straight ahead

with great effort, like in a nightmare,

petrified with dread.

 

Looking up, I noticed the car,

a cab, parked in the shadow

of a dumpster. “Sir! –“

 

“Shhhh, chill, thyself,” the driver said, “whoa.”

“Let me introduce myself.

I’m pretty sure you know

 

“The name Catullus. I’m here to help,

to be your guide,

but sushssssssssh, you whelp,

 

“you’ll awaken the dead

with that loud mouth.

C’mon, man, don’t be scared,

 

“Hop in. We’ll head south,

tour the hellscape,

the land of the uncouth.”

 

poemsofcaiusvale01catuiala

That Time I Got Called into the Principal’s Office for Teaching Filth

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Okay, the Prince of Lies wings his way upward and on a cliff encounters a woman naked and beautiful from the genitals up, but horror-show-hideous below, where “[v]oluminous and vast,” a hydra-like reptilian whiplash “of scaly folds” slithers.

Satan can hear the muffled howling of dogs, the frenzied yelps coming from . . . from within her . . . “about her middle round.” These dogs “kennel” in her womb, exit and reenter periodically, and with “their wide Cerberian mouths full loud,” let out “a hideous peal.”

[Gross!]

Next to her sits a blob-like creature not “distinguishable in member, joint, or limb.” On what might be considered his head, he wears a “kingly crown.”

[What the Hell?]

Well, boys and girls, sin is ugly. Check out Hieronymus Bosch or Breughel the Elder.

farting-painting

This unholy trinity described above consists of Satan, Sin, and Death. You see, one day when he was strolling the gold-paved streets of Heaven, Lucifer had this chick split open his head and emerge, Athena-like, fully armed.  A rebellious thought had roiled his erstwhile Seraphic mind and presto Trouble!

So Beautiful was this feminine doppelganger of a daughter, he had sex with her, impregnated her, right up there in Heaven.

Her name is Sin.

[Tsk Tsk]

After the war and the expulsion of the rebel angels and their general Satan, Sin gives birth to a blob-like boy who rips open her womb and transforms her limbs into snakes. This offspring, son of Satan, immediately rapes her and impregnates her with the above-mentioned hellhounds.

His name is Death.

Satan + Sin = Death.. . .

* * *

One cloudy day in the early 90’s, I receive an email from our new principal. He’d like to see me in his office, which, because of some construction, is a trailer. I don’t put this encounter off. I stroll over as soon as I can.

Once inside, I sit down on the proffered sofa.

“Well, Wesley. I’ve had a mother call and complain about one of your sophomore English classes.”

“Really? What’s the beef?”

“She says you’re teaching obscenity. By the way, what are you teaching?”

“’The justification of the ways of God to men.’”

“Huh?”

Paradise Lost.”

He smiles, nods. “Okay, thanks.  I’ll explain it to her”

* * *

Believe it or not, sophomores dig Paradise Lost if you set it up right and read a fluidly truncated version. You teach it like it’s sci-fi. After all, Hell in Paradise Lost is a far distant planet; Satan flies through outer space to find Earth.

You got monsters, battles, video-game like scenery.

Add to that full frontal nudity and the gorgeous music of the poetry.

 

 

Eve separate he spies,

Veiled in a Cloud of Fragrance, where she stood

Half spied, so thick the Roses bushing round

About her glowed, oft stooping to support

Each Flower of slender stalk, whose head though gay

Carnation, Purple, Azure, or specked with Gold,

Hung drooping unsustained, them she upstands

Gently with Myrtle band, mindless the while,

Her self, though fairest unsupported Flower,

From her best prop so far and storm so nigh.

 

[I’ve modernized the spelling].

 

serpent

Song of My DNA

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The scent of these arm-pits, aroma finer than prayer.

                                                      Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

 

Hunched over,

hungover,

tubercular,

I hack

dry spit

into a plastic tube

to mail off

to a lab

for a map

of my DNA.

 

Going back

 

far far

way down upon

the Pee Dee

River . . .

 

. . . farther back   Tou-la-loo-la-loo-ra . . .

 

. . . way way back. . .

 

. . . down south in the land of Indira

 

shanti, shanti-

sha-boom-bop-a-bop-a boom

 

bzzzzzzzzzzp

 

caduceus cubed

twining vine

serpents

split

splat

muck

wa-wa

BOOM!

universe

From Decadence to the Muni in Three Short Steps

man-ray-meets-wes

 

 

 

Think at last

We have not reached conclusion, when I

Stiffen in a rented house

TS Eliot, “Gerontion”

 

 

When I was young, I courted decadence:

a braless lover in her diaphanous blouse,

my amygdala aglow like phosphoresce,

my rented garret drafty in that crumbling Victorian house.

 

However, in middle age, decadence became passé,

radiators were ditched for central heat,

Man Ray lost out to Andrew Wyeth, and Sunday buffets

replaced sleeping the Sabbath away until three.

 

Now I am old, our children grown,

and though retirement offers a chance to pivot,

I must admit my wild seeds have been sown

as I stiffly stoop and replace my divot.