Poetry Is A Crowded Room
Attending the Cirque De Penumbroi, a poetry happening in the partially demolished Reed Hotel south of Market, Carl Wendt, last of the hardboiled vigilante poets, is guided to the performer’s facilities on the second floor by Allie Gary, a tall blond explainer dressed in a flight attendant’s uniform impersonating the Muse.
from Ode To Sunset, A Year in The Life of American Genius,
a fiction by Pat Nolan
On the second floor, doors and door jambs stood unattached. Outside walls were bared to brick where some clumps of lath and plaster clung like unintentional art. Interior walls stood alone, skeletal in part, demarking where rooms and hallways had once been enclosed. A combination of rooms formed a larger suite lit by natural light from windows, many with casements missing, banks of led lights, and large raggedy cloud shaped holes in the ceiling revealing the partially naked interior structure of brick and girders of the floor above open to the elements. A fair representation of performers milled about in the ambient noise of their social interaction, waiting to go on, and as well those who had already used their allotted time and were now making themselves stupider with drink and drugs.
A widescreen TV offered the image of Yuri Khasid. Bands of pixilated noise broke up his features at regular intervals, interrupting the illusion of presence. His voice was a blurry buzz with a Russian accent. He had shaved his head and wore a monocle, the dark shadows of his trademark leather Gestapo trench coat readily identifiable. He was in hiding disguised as Max Jacob dressed like Fantomas. Unless his pursuers were familiar with obscure early 20th Century French poets or French pulp villains of that era, his was a perfect masquerade.
Allie pointed down at what had once been a hallway to the door at the end. “Through there and make a right.”
“I thank you, my bladder thanks you. Don’t go away, I’ll be right back.” The sex option appeared to be the winner. Over her shoulder he caught a glimpse of Igor, the tech savant in orange Converse prowling around the wires near the TV with a lap top. He’d only ever seen him in the company of Kay Syrah and he knew that she would never deign to be a party to this party. He was wearing a black IFIRP tee shirt with the slogan Take Back The Word!
In fact, Wendt didn’t think he’d meet anyone he knew at this shindig, yet here was Ray Panta, plumber turned poet, author of Shit Flows Downhill and If You Stepped In It Once, You’ll Step In It Again. Ray was exiting the door Wendt was about to enter.
“Hey Wendt, they add you to the bill?” And as if his question had been answered by Wendt’s non-committal expression, “A lot of people bailed when they saw the condition of this place. Not to mention that they have to recite their poems through a bullhorn.”
“Yeah,” Wendt agreed, “Not a lot of bullhorn poetry being written these days. I think that went away with the 60’s. Now there’s rap. Who needs a bullhorn when you can be on the radio, right?”
“Yeah, well, whatever you do, don’t flush!”
“Problem with the plumbing. It’s complicated. I had to jerry rig something to keep the shit flowing. Who else was gonna do it?” He glanced at his hands wrinkling his nose. “Now I gotta go find some place to wash these. Let that be a lesson to you, Wendt. You can’t escape your past. Once a plumber, always a plumber.”
Wendt made to pass through the door.
“And remember, don’t flush!”
The room was not empty. A clump of people grouped around a tall skinny man who spoke in a low resonant drone. Wendt frowned at them thinking that it might be another line, but no, to his right was a door upon which someone had drawn a circle with uterine cross and phallic arrow combined. Wendt tried the knob. “Ocupido!” a weak voice claimed. Of course.
He didn’t have much choice but to focus on the assembled and the man addressing them. He recognized him now, Regent Snore, also known as the Black Finn and sometimes the Whispering Finn, for his barely audible sandpaper rasp. He was an old philosopher poet, wire whisk of waist length hair and matching beard to his chest, famous for his ‘seven chakras of poetry’ theory. He spoke around his sole remaining tooth as if in italics and Wendt had to tilt his head to the right to make out what he was saying.
“. . .sentimental naturalism governed by hard facts and brass tacks, reactive, in the grim grip of ignorance, the dull zeal of simple being—here I am here I stay.” The old poet held up two fingers and scanned the attention level of his audience like a practiced mesmerist. “A pathological obsession with sex, the body, and all its functions. The purpose is sexual conquest through the clever device of double entendre. . . .” He spoke the phrase with the appropriate accent. “. . . saying one thing yet meaning another as the dual violation of mind and body in a masturbatory cycle of desire and regret.” Now with three fingers, “The will to power, to dominate and conquer, through ruthless pathological vengeance by any means, including sex, human sacrifice, psychic cruelty, in the annihilation of the other. Self-conscious self-righteous goal oriented competitive predator.” The one tooth managed a knowing smile. He held up a hand, fingers splayed, thumb tucked into the palm. “Freedom, the sound of one hand clapping, the hum of the void, of singular unity. I am not you, this is not that, dream state in which the poet is unaware of his creation. Self-illuminating, the now, the undifferentiated consciousness, the stem cell of being, the silence that is before, after, within, and surrounding each syllable with peace and bliss.” Then the arresting Buddha leaf hand and a brow of seriousness. “The point of no return, eternal childlike innocence, non-judgmental acceptance of the illusory nature of poetry. Shout loudly many pleasing and displeasing words and observe their pleasurable and unpleasant effects and realize that all words are as illusory as echoes in a dark cavern.” Then joined by the thumb of the other hand. “The state of continual poetic awareness. Yet where there is me there it is. Poetry is love and those who love poetry are poetry as poetry loves them. The poet as poetry has nothing in common with anything and is nothing to anyone.” With an intake of breath to emphasize the fullness of his body, the glow of which he seemed to want to emanate, “A bath of light in which there is no membrane separating the poet from the poetic. Yet this is voicelessness, a divine aphasia in which words are unnecessary and the poet is one with poetry. A poet is poetry’s way of making a poem and a poem is a poet’s way of making poetry and poetry is a poem’s way of making a poet. . . .”
There was more but the door opened and Marci Duchamp, author of Round Trip, in a very skimpy outfit and peroxide fright wig that looked like an explosion in a shingle factory stood on the threshold trying to decide which foot to put forward. Her face was as white as a boiled sheet.
“You ok?” Wendt offered.
She looked at him with large unfocused red rimmed mascara spider eyes. “Yeah, something I ate. Or drank. Or smoked.”
“Ok, as long as you’re ok,” and squeezed past her.
A gray tarp hung over the opening along an outside wall missing halfway down where the tub or shower had been and shifted alarmingly in gusts of wind from off the Bay. On the back wall a large hand written sign said Do Not Flush. Another sign with an arrow pointing at the commode read Shit. Wendt didn’t have to get any closer to believe the truth of what it said. Another sign above the shower drain said Piss with an arrow pointing to the little lake of urine in the depression in the floor.
Wendt stood at its shore and gazed down at the space between the tarp and the half wall of obviously unstable masonry and thought why not. He let go a high arc to splash and dribble against the tarp and gather at the gray edge before raining down the side of the building. He heard shouts and craned his neck to look over the edge. He was directly above the line to the porta-potties in the alleyway.
Jimmy Price, author of Regards & Regrets, was next in the line that had formed. He didn’t recognize the woman behind him, and was relieved that Price didn’t recognize him, especially after the unfavorable rating he had given his selected poems in the best and the worst poetry book ranking in his Poetry Month column. That had been a few years back, but as he knew from past experience, poets have short attention spans but very long memories.
Back in the hubbub where street poets mingled cheek and jowl with pretentious literati, Wendt recognized P.J. Maas, poet laureate of Daly City. Patty Jane looked like she was wondering why she was there, a pink chiffon scarf tied loosely around her neck, tasteful gold earrings and frosted curls to match. Maybe it was the business attire and the rigor of her pale red lipsticked smile that radiated her discomfort like a beacon. That and the fact that she was being ignored by the elite little clusters that congealed at these kinds of affairs. He looked around for the Viking flight attendant. He had become very interested in getting over his fear of flying and wanted to arrange for lessons.
She was holding forth in front of a camera. She caught his look and smiling came to stand at his side when she was done. “What are you so smug about?”
“I just couldn’t help but notice the startling similarity of this gathering to the nine circles of poetry hell. They’re all here, the back-stabbers, the frauds, the psychopaths, the deluded, the angry, the envious, the excessive, the horny, the waiters.”
“Not food servers. I mean those waiting in line for their turn at the brass poetry ring. As Ted Berrigan was supposed to have said, ‘American poets think you wait in line to get famous.’”
“I don’t think I follow you.”
“Being a poet is like playing the lottery, but obsessively so, and hoping for the big score that will set you up for life. Otherwise you can find yourself on the trading floor and sweating the rise and fall of your literary stock. Most poets who think they’ve made it are actually in a kind of limbo. They’ve seen the promise of fame and critical acclaim but will never be on the receiving end.”
“That must be discouraging.”
“It is a kind of hell. Everyone’s caught in a never-ending daisy chain circle jerk of treachery, fraud, and greed. Lust is its own special category because it conveniently covers not only sexual obsession, but the insatiable desire for money, fame, and power.”
“You’re saying all of that is represented here, by these poets.” Little furrows accented the space between her pale eyebrows like exclamation points. “Don’t you think that’s a little negative? There must be some redeeming qualities represented here.”
“You mean like altruism?”
“Sure, doing something good for its own sake.”
“First of all, altruism is often the lair of the sanctimonious spider. Take Gilda Narrenschwann, for instance.” Wendt indicated the short lithe woman, author of Mushroom Cloud Alphabet Soup, in the peasant blouse and multi-colored ankle length skirt made from old cravats talking with Mandy Airhat, author of The Crimson Cap, a long poem with Freudian overtones, also about mushrooms. “She claims to be a poet of ecstatic vision. Now you might think from talking to her or reading her poems that she’s a goody two-shoes from all that syrupy politically correct sentiment she gushes as the wishful thinking of an enlightened naiveté. She’s actually a two-faced bitch and if you don’t fall in line with her way of thinking you are obviously subhuman and will be eliminated from existence in her rosy universe.”
“Sounds like you’ve had some personal experience.”
Wendt had a yen for a cigarette but obviously it was a smoke free environment though certainly not dust free or drug free or alcohol free. “Ah, that whole holier-than-thou earth mother routine gets old after a while, especially when you realize that she’s just as self-serving as anyone else and not the least bit shy about self-promotion.”
“You must know everyone here.”
Wendt scanned the room. “Surprisingly, I do.” With that admission came an unease, until then dormant, that somehow he was out of the loop, that he had not been included in the festivities, such as they were, as the most visible flaneur poet of the city’s bohemian culture, that his hipness and savoir faire were a little threadbare and worse for the wear, that he was a has-been. But looking around at the clashing egos and seething aggression, did he really need to feel shabby or miffed or piqued or take umbrage or irritated or sulky or resentful or pout or chafe or fume or foam or hurt or rankled or brought down or worked up or indignant or peeved? What did Virgil say? Tantaene animis coeleatibus irae, how can so much animus reside in the minds of the gods? Yet a shadow of doubt was evident in his consternation.
“I’ve crossed paths, and swords, with most of these poets at one time or another. Some hate me for my stature as a published, prize winning poet and critic. Mainly as a critic. Otherwise it’s just the usual ambivalence and envy. I’ve attained something they wish they could, but then, as Heraclitus said, if wishes were fishes the oceans would be overpopulated and we’d all be on a sea food diet.”
“Did Heraclitus really say that?”
Samantha Bahdra, author of Yab-Yum Yum-Yum, sauntered by, a raised delicately drawn eyebrow and come-hither purse to her lips.
“Someone else you’re surprised to see?”
“Oh, Sam and I go way back. She tries for that sacred profane Kathy Aker blood thirsty Kali priestess persona. She’ll fuck anything on three legs—pardon my proto-Indo-European.”
Allie Gary flicked a set of polished nails. “I know what a three legged fuck is,” and gave Wendt a meaningful look.
“She writes a sonnet for each of her liaisons but under the guise of some famous historic or literary personage.”
“What oldie but goody is she with you?”
“I’ve managed to stay out of the dustbin of her histrionics. Otherwise I’d be just another jaded skull strung on her metaphysical necklace.”
He watched Bahdra buttonhole Gil Gamic, publisher of Inky Dew Press, a short man with a fleshy bulbous schnozzle and a hipster fedora. He was in a group of writers that included Poetry Dude Art Wrytic, author of Kayak Angst, Luce Cannon, author of Out Of Control, and the Vietnamese poet Vo Erh, author of I like To Watch. He recognized blogger Kay Passeau among the set, a member of the Barracuda School of Poets aka the Snarkacudas. She was at the periphery of the circle talking with Harris Tottle of the successful poetry blog, Tottle Along. Wendt really didn’t get blogging. He had to ask himself, when the world of discourse is paved over with soap boxes, what do you stand on to make yourself heard?
“Do you really think they all hate you or bear you ill will?”
Wendt examined Allie’s expressionless face to gauge if she was toying with him. “Well, to quote Pound, ‘the vendetta of imbeciles is endless.’” He surveyed the scene. “Poetry is a crowded room. Someone’s toes are bound to get stepped on.”
Caveat Lector: Ode To Sunset is satirical fiction, not a roman à clef or veiled autobiography. No actual poets were named in the writing of this fiction with the exception of dead poets who serve as historical or literary markers as is often required of dead poets. To read more of the scurrilous and louche peregrinations of the last of the hardboiled poets go to odetosunset.com
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US and Canada as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels. His most recent books of poetry are Exile In Paradise (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2017) and So Much, Selected Poems, Volume I 1969-1989 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.