How To Rehearse A Strophe
Carl Wendt, not quite Charles Baudelaire, not quite Charles Bukowski, but one of the last of the hard boiled, streetwise, post-Beat Neo-Romantics (in other words, a dinosaur) not sucking the institutional teat, author of Synthetic Lament, (rhymes with cement), recent winner of the Pillsbury Prize in Poetry, finds himself washed up like a wounded lovesick sealion on a sandy stretch of Pacific Ocean beach north of Frisco, and later a cliff overlooking the crashing surf, rehearsing the rhythms of his thoughts as strophes for an ode to sunset.
(excerpts from the final section of Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, originally published in 2017 as an online serial fiction by Pat Nolan)
The glare of white sand shadowed to gray, rumbling waves lost their green sheen, and the hiss of dissipating foam edged closer. Sea birds screeched, gulls hopped among the debris of apple cores, carrot ends, food wrappers left by his rescuers, and his own empty beer cans, slim jim sheaths, and chip bag. Otherwise he was alone. A wind skimmed the waves chilling the air. In the distance the orange orb crushed a stratum of cloud dyeing the horizon with the blood of its muted fire. “Suppose you really do, toward the end, fall away into a sunset which is your own self-ignited pyre,” the dying sun sang in his ears, a siren chorus with the shrill voices of cicadas.
Stupid. And I am the exemplification of that stupidity. Shake it off. Gulp in breaths of denial that it can’t be all that bad. But which is worse, the headache or the heartache. The topsy-turvy scramble to regain mental balance in the face of an onslaught of contradiction and self-delusion painfully limited by my bone headedness or the gut churning, heart arresting, adrenal fueled, fear-based realization that it must end, and the immense futility of it all. Is there hope, that mocking seductive chimera, fickle as flickering day or is there only dark despair and night? Well, you live, you die.
Getting to his feet, wrapped in the blanket and feeling the full cold weight of being soaked to the skin, he stared out at the giant orange eyeball above the vast eyewash sea that seemingly demanded, “Just who the hell do you think you are?” He replied, “Nobody.”
All the bad luck, terrible accidents, cruel circumstances, the waking horror I’ve been through, brushed off simply to continue. I can hear people say, “What great promise he had when he was younger.” At least I haven’t self-immolated as have so many of my contemporaries. Nora likes to joke, “There’s the smell of smoke about you, Carl, and I don’t mean cigarettes. It’s all those burned bridges.”
Me and my shambling machinations, in the end the question is who are these worthless pricks and why am I wasting my time trying to be one of them? I have no use for tight-ass flyblown poets, confining my associations to a few friends and lovers. The lovers never hang around for very long, and the friends have become victims of the three deadly D’s of friendship: disaffection, distance, and death. It’s when those names come with a face and a memory of palpable interactions that are no longer active on the perceptual plane, having achieved the stasis of the infinitesimal, that the truth of mortality sinks in or at least gives pause to the recall of a vivid impression. You live. You die.
I shouldn’t think of life as disappointing. If nothing else it is consistent in its suffering, and that, in the face of it all, I am helpless. There’s suffering because nothing stays the same which plays havoc with my desire to hold on to what works even if only for an instant which in turn causes the anxiety that makes me suffer. Nothing lasts forever and even that is gone in an instant. Life isn’t anything unique by itself. It is what comes after what went before and what goes before what’s to come. Conditioned by the past, it affects the future as a chain of instances linked by memory, desire’s intelligence. It matters not one way or the other. It is all the same. Life or death.
All I can hope for is a kind of intuitive understanding of death, dying, which surpasses reason and rules out any further discussion. All things, being impermanent, have no separate and independent identity. The absolute is inherent in all phenomena. Ultimate reality can’t be explained in terms of existence and nonexistence. Everything is real. Each thing is identical with all things. To exist is to be in relation to other things that exist. The universe is simply the set of all these relations. You live.
What comes of the illusion that even though I am edging toward the last days of my life that it is far from over, and joy and dread combined will find time enough to grow, planted in the fertile soil of anything of any moment up till now? Should I regret that at the end no one really ever got what I was doing and all the fame and attention are based on a house of cards, not on truth but on assumption and conjecture that have nothing to do with my poetry? You die.
I acknowledge that there can be no other way. I must say my goodbyes with the realization that the world says goodbye to you long before you leave it. Goodbye means the same in all languages although for some it is more definitive than others. In my language I must say goodbye to friends because either they died or I did, or they have alienated me, or me them, by their, or my, thoughtless behavior, which is a kind of death to me, and to them. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. So goodbye to those of parted ways, you are dead to me as I am to you. And those who have through necessity and circumstance physically removed yourselves from the immediacy of my presence, might as well be dead because memory is fickle and the longer separation is maintained the less the fact of your being matters. Nostalgia is merely the stubbed toe that calls attention to the foot and the blindness of inattention.
As the limping man, I am Jason, and all smithies made lame or hamstrung. The limping hero, one shoe on, one shoe off, the missing sandal, the single footed, the dancer, the shaman. I go through life doing the same old thing over and over and then one day it’s different. I’ve reached a threshold. Step across, carrying the bride of my enlightenment or disillusionment.
All I know is that every six months or so I die. I have died a hundred times a hundred, and it’s always the same death. I don’t know what dies, and why I have to be reborn again, always with the same high hopes, always the identical death. Death is a return to the cocoon. I should have died young like all the other promising poetry talent but through some fluke I was passed over. Now I am caught in the thrall of the denial of death syllogism: other men die, I am not other men, therefore I cannot die. I live.
What will they say about me when I’m gone? “He was a bit of a bastard and a bit of a genius too. He could be an egotistical drunk and even he hated his guts.” Some might even say I was being too easy on myself. Besides when I imagine someone saying something about me, they never say anything I don’t already know. I die.
When I still held the idea that I would end up in the ground like everyone else, I wanted the quote from Tristan Shandy on my tombstone, De Gustibus non disputandum est. I’ll settle for I am not done reading. Now more like the Icarus of my previous days I’m tempted to fly into the sun, but reborn in my epiphany as Daedalus, I hesitate, my shadow tangled around my feet. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk, something that Daedalus should have reminded Icarus, when the sun’s effect on wax wings is diminished. Where does that leave me? People don’t want the soul-fashioned-out-of-thin-air stuff anymore. They want conceptual and commercial or tritely trendy tried and true. No soaring on wax wings, no clambering up to a seventh heaven, no leaps off cliffs, metered feet fitted with the conventional cement of sensible shoes.
So who is the one called Wendt? To whom the mail is addressed, whose name appears as a byline or on the title page of books and in discussions on the art of poetry. It would not be obvious just by looking at him that he was well known as a poet although in the eyes of some he was a poseur, a mountebank, a throwback, a full-time charlatan. As it was, he recognized himself less in his own books than he did in those of others. His life was a flight from himself. Everything he ever was or could be was lost to inevitable oblivion. He couldn’t even remember which one of his selves had written this. Ink like blood flows in the slow spill of a lifelong intellectual sacrifice or suicide.
To be successful you have to believe in something. At the very least, yourself. I am too skeptical of everything, even myself, to be truly successful. I follow Descartes’ original proposition, dubito ergo sum, I doubt therefore I am. Even my small successes are not my own, but those of others who see something in my work, something worthwhile. Moments of faith have allowed me to write and being able to write allowed me faith. Yet I undermine it all by my lack of conviction beyond that original instance of creation. I’m only as good as my next poem. And a poem is just another bread crumb in the journey through the deep dark forest. The older I get the more I realize that it’s not just that the competition gets better, it also gets cuter. As Granahan once advised, “If all you got is technique, you ain’t got much.” Rationalizing with every breath, I follow the way of why, seeking the answer, any answer. But it’s always someone else’s answer and I hate being told what to do. Imprisoned behind the solitude of a fervent smile I am a virulent fever passing through a lukewarm crowd as my natural cowardice shrinks from the occasion. I mythologize my life to give it meaning at the most basic anthropomorphic level. Impatient with the slow return and low interest yield of poetry, impatient with a life that continually marginalizes me. Poets, like gypsies, are each about as welcome in polite society.
The wind riffled the edges of the army blanket wrapped round him lifting the free folds like the edges of a cape and in turn shuffled the neocortex rolodex between his ears and stopped at the appropriate citation. “It is he of the billowing greatcoat, Cedric Silkyshag.” Or Lazlo Pierce, his alter ego lothario, expert in passion. How does the Iliad end? He was a refugee from the age of heroes.
I am the hero poet awakening the sleeping images of the future which can and must come forth from the night in order to give the world a new and better face. I am the enemy of the old ruling system, of the old cultural values. Poets are necessarily anonymous. “I am a voice with no name,” echo the ages. Poets should prize their anonymity.
The absurd excitability of my system which forces me to create crisis out of every experience and puts drama into the smallest incidents of life makes it impossible to count on me in any way. I am no longer a poet. And then I am. At most I am a rendezvous of poets who, from time to time, appear as that one or this one with cocky insistence. For this very reason, like in some B western I find myself riding off into the sunset. Destiny imposes its own consistency and my thoughts and wishes are but a pretext for what I find myself doing. No passion, no act of heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling will preserve my life beyond the grave. All the labors of all my days, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the high noon brightness of my genius are destined for extinction in the vast solar munch, and the whole edifice of my literary achievement will inevitably be buried with me. A poet once wrote, “When I die I want to be buried in a book.” Needless to say, it was his own book. The Fates do not have “needless” in their vocabulary. Death is the ultimate defining instance. To live in the present is to live facing death. Man invented eternity and the future to escape death, but each of these inventions is a fatal trap. Only in facing death is life really life. Within the now, death is not separated from life. Both are the same reality. The search for immortality is a dead end in the labyrinth of existence. Death chews us up from the moment of birth and then shits us back out into a hole in the ground.
The blanket slipped from a shoulder and the dying breath of sunset pushed against his chilled torso, pulled at his sodden sanded hair. “I’m rich! I’m famous! Why can’t I happy with that?” And that caused him to cackle knowingly. He imagined the mess he must look. He just wished the day would end. Even if there was no guarantee of another one? Even. He was nothing when he should have been everything. The search for absolute beauty is the quest for death, the exercise of reason’s constant critique of mortality. From a technical point of view, the world is comical. Death knells come cheap.
I tell my life to myself as dreams, images, fantasies, and an array of deliberate states reflective of the vast inherent power of cerebral activity underlying consciousness. What I speak is never the absolute truth. It’s either a half truth or a truth and a half. I understand now that I am essentially a monologist in poet’s clothing. First of all, the monologue is an art without an audience. And without an audience, the expressions of artist and art don’t exist. It is an art of forgetting and of forgetting myself as a function that eliminates the subject, indifferent to the outcome. In this boundless universe everything is arranged according to the principle of cosmic necessity as a manifestation without self-consciousness. My monologue begets the world itself. The boundaries of art are breached yet no originality is attempted because to try to treat the monologue in terms of esthetics is pointless. The eternal monologue that accompanies my consciousness overcomes all obstacles and concentrates much too much in every nuance in the steady erotic connection with language only possible in perfect solitude. All distraction disappears and nothing remains but a hidden maze and the echo of fragments in endless pursuit of each other. I don’t know of any more profound difference in the whole orientation of an artist, whether I look at my work in progress, essentially at myself, from the point of view of a witness or whether I have forgotten the world, simply humming a tune to myself.
Well, it’s been going this way for a while, impatient with the inevitable, I want to hurry it along, don’t cry for me Argentina or Paraguay or Slovenia or Madagascar. It’s been a great ride, and I got everything I deserved, good and bad, and maybe a little something that belonged to someone else. And know that I loved you, all of you, but there was only so much I could give after I served myself. Thank you for your belief, your disbelief, your indulgence, your indifference. You won’t get hurt if you stand back out of the way, look on objectively and consider it the end of an era, my era and error, a bid for freedom, me free of pain and suffering, you free of me and my pain and suffering.
He felt a chill that cooled his liver and made him shiver. “This is the way the world will end, in rays, red,” Kerouac had dreamed, “silent, tired—the world of the mind is the real world—the rays of the mind, the real rays.” The old king must die before a new one is born, his legacy his grand illusion.
Gazing at the dying sun, what anthropomorphic arrogance is it that steals the essence of cosmic eternity and absurdly imputes it to an immortal self? Why must I insist on combining the attributes of myself with that of the universe? To be a poet means to calmly weigh the eventual terror and degradation of impotence at averting my own death and that of my friends and lovers, and by extension, the death of a clueless feisty species, the death of the planet, incubator of a vaunted sentience. And even the death of its vital star, that bright orange dollop sinking into the ironic sea. Will anyone mourn that in this place over a span of untold eons there once lived poetic intelligence?
He lit his last cigarette and stepped to the edge to relieve himself. As he watched the unremitting froth of breakers spray phosphorescent arcs among the jagged dark shapes below, hypnotic in their mutability, his attention turned to the next swell of wave approaching as the edge of a mysterious and chimerical energy. And what exactly is the attraction of that shaped force consisting of undifferentiated particles caught up in concert until it breaks into the disarrayed individual wash of ephemeral droplets? It was all he could do not to join the cosmic undulation and become a part of it all. He contributed a little of himself anyway which pretty much summed up his life as a poet, a piss in the ocean.
I am as eternal as the universe and so the endless sea of matter, constantly unfolding enfolded forms, will find something else to do with me. Then my spirit should not be afflicted or frightened for I am this enchanted unity stable in my oneness and will remain so eternally. I am a non-symbolic thing signifying what I am. Those who consider the divine one thing and I another do not know. I is another, the rest is silence.
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America 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 So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.