by joshua heineman ( about cb )
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There are two paths to the extremes of life. One is to run as far as you can from existence, to observe life from the outside. The other is to wrestle with it directly.
The first path keeps you safe from the shit. It also keeps you safe from the bliss. Selah. The second path is drowning in a substance that is indistinguishable from yourself & still (still!) you cannot identify it.
Listen to me read “Letters from Saint Francis” at the venerable online literary magazine The Rumpus today
(& whenever from now on, really… this is the internet). Real happy to have a byline at that web address.
In a dream, I was home in the early morning standing at a large picture window w/my sister & a man I’d never seen before while we watched the moon ignite from the upper edges & explode outward, slowly & silently engorging & then engulfing the sky & dropping, bit by molten bit, into the land around us until everything was black - utterly black & empty. Then the dream went on. The world ends & still you have to go on.
I woke up in an empty bed. The sky was dark like the sun had gone out but it was only early. I found my wife on the couch, unable to sleep since four am. We talked for a while & then each fell asleep there beneath the same blanket. Unrecollected dreams. When I awoke, the windows were awash in sunlight.
Passing through Chinatown this early A.M., only half back from the lands of sleep, when I noticed the most unusually beautiful music coming from down the little street. Assured & exotic, with intervals I’d never imagined & a rhythm that went ill & then recovered & carried on, the song strengthened like a hurricane over warm water until I met an intersection & came face-to-knee with the instrument… a young boy riding a tricycle while out with his mother.
The rear wheel needed oil. I walked on, pleased that it did.
Strange moment, last night, reading August Kleinzahler’s “The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay” in the new Paris Review. Lindsay was a well-known but ultimately penniless poet who wandered from town to town trading his recitations (which were equal parts poetry & performance) for food & shelter in the early quarter of the twentieth century. Kleinzahler builds a vision of Lindsay as a polite Rimbaud chasing his tail in the foreshadow of Depression-era migrations:
“helping himself to pulled taffy in an abandoned farmhouse,
the sweet song of the bird called the Rachel Jane
serenading him from a mulberry tree outside the loft window
of the barn where he’d been sleeping on alfalfa, soft, frangrant&clean,
eating wild strawberries on the way to Emporia,
riding into Pomona on a handcar, likewise to Wellsville, where he engaged
in picturesque talk with a handful of Mexicans,
trading his rhymes for breakfast in Cottonwood,
enjoying a good audience for his rhymes in Elondale,
nearly boo’d off the stage in Newton,
windmills turning, turning on a hill as he approached Spearville,
the barley slick and fishy, the oats green&hairy,
Lindsay, Lindsay, belonging to one of the leisure classes, that of the Rhymer,
dinner in bang-up style at the Sante Fe Station,
sends ten dollars to Mother, buys fifteen cents worth of figs in Cimarron,
barters Rhymes for a sandwich in Insalls,
where the druggist refused him ice cream in return for the same,
sitting down with the rest at Grant Wood’s Dinner for Threshers,
caught up without warning in John Steuart Curry’s Spring Shower-Lindsay,
all the while ‘hoppers at him like hail, eating holes through his clothing”
Of course, Lindsay’s life as a touring poet in fame wasn’t so simple. Lindsay was a poet, yes, but he was also a man fixed in a world of multitudes (like everyone): hope, love, restlessness, hunger, aching, cold, suffering, &, in the end, a bottle of lye right down the throat, ending his life at 52. I expected to find the seeds of such despondency in Kleinzahler’s verse &, indeed, it was there:
composing the entirety of “General William Booth…” in his head,
standing on the shore of San Francisco Bay in despair,
ready to throw himself in, like Li Po into the Yang-tze, but sober”
But it was the closing line of the long poem that really caught me:
“Lindsay, Lindsay, in Pullmans, hotel rooms, packed auditoriums
from Brownsville to Bemidji, in flames, coming apart inside…
Poor little calf, good night.”
Bemidji, for those that do not know, is a small town in the far northwoods of Minnesota, a couple hours south from the Canadian border, east from North Dakota, west from Lake Superior & more than four hours north from the twin cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Bemidji is a quiet place with log cabins & lots of winter & endless lakes & trees. Bemidji is also the town of my birth.
Why did Kleinzahler choose to end the poem there? What was the impetus of the line? It turns out that Kleinzahler wrote a collection of autobiographical essays published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2004. A clue comes, I think, in his description of ‘soul sickness’ from this telling excerpt:
“Read as a book or viewed as a movie, this patch of hell-the ten or so miles of University Avenue that the number 7 runs along-is beginning to bring on the soul sickness that I suffer from time to time in places like Toronto and Minneapolis, those Protestant fortresses of boosterism and commerce. Once I nearly had a full-fledged nervous collapse at a Denny’s in Bemidji, Minnesota, my heart breaking into a thousand pieces while I chewed a wooden-tasting BLT. I never know where it will afflict me perhaps it has to do with biorhythms. No, check that: I know it’s not going to afflict me in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore or while dining in the Marais.”
The thing is, there is no Denny’s in Bemidji. There never has been. Kleinzahler is either recounting a false memory or has mixed two memories into one. The beauty & curse of memory is that it doesn’t much matter. Memories become the narrative of our lives. Our lives become the narratives of history. Civilization is built on tall, thin legs such as this & yet we’ve walked on the moon. It doesn’t matter. Does it move? That matters.
After I read Kleinzahler’s verse about Lindsay contemplating death on the edge of San Francisco Bay, I went to the window & looked out over the deceptive smooth blackness of that very bay… immediately connected to both writers in a way I couldn’t have been one hot minute before. That is real communication.
Perhaps Lindsay visited Bemidji, the little town where I was born some sixty years later. Between his birth & death in Illinois, he saw the country like a traveling jazz musician in a way. His visit is possible. But I think “The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay” closes there - in flames, coming apart inside - because of Kleinzahler’s, not Lindsay’s, turmoil. What a world.