Posts Tagged ‘poet’

The Fox

Monday, April 15th, 2019

baby fox

Rex Abernathy died six months ago. When news got around that he had left his four-bedroom house on three-acres and a large amount of money to Elisha Montoya, more than a few people in our small town were outraged. I was not among the disapproving, nor can I imagine anyone else to whom Rex would or should have left his house and money, but I do understand why some folks were upset and why the local legal system took an inordinate amount of time investigating and finally validating Rex’s will.

When Rex died he was eighty-one and had known Elisha, who is forty-five, for three years. Their relationship was platonic, though platonic doesn’t capture the intensity of Rex’s love for Elisha and her children, Conor, fourteen, and Alexandra, eleven, nor does platonic encompass how important Rex was to Elisha and her children—a father for Elisha, a grandfather for Conor and Alexandra.

Having observed several hundred Elisha and Rex interactions in Mona’s, the bakery/café where Elisha has worked for the last three and a half years, I am certain Rex would have pursued Elisha romantically had he not been thirty-six years older than she.

However, from what I know of Elisha, I am equally certain she would not have been interested in Rex romantically even had they been closer in age. However, as a father figure in the guise of a grim loner waiting to be rescued from his aloneness, Rex was tailor-made for Elisha, her actual father a ferocious alcoholic who abandoned Elisha and her mother when Elisha was six.

A renowned sourpuss, isolate, and curmudgeon, Rex was so quickly and completely transformed by his friendship with Elisha and her children, it was as if he’d had a personality transplant—the donor a gregarious saint.

And, yes, to some degree, Elisha and Alexandra and Conor have had the same heart-opening effect on many of those who patronize Mona’s, the one and only bakery in Carmeline Creek, a coastal town on the far north coast of California. I, for instance, a middle-aged musician and poet, was terribly lonely and uninspired for seven years prior to Elisha and her children moving into the apartment above Mona’s; and since their arrival, I wake every day to poem and songs arising in me.

However, now that Elisha and her children have, as of ten days ago, moved from their little apartment above Mona’s to Rex’s spacious house on Carmeline Creek Road, my daily involvement with them has been severely disrupted and I’m beginning to wonder if my dogs Zerc and Raj (Xerxes and Mirage) and I were only of use to them so long as they didn’t have their own dogs (they inherited two from Rex) or a place to grow vegetables or a living room with a fireplace in which to while away many an evening.

What I mean is: now that they no longer need what I have to offer, I’m struggling not to conflate their no longer needing me with their no longer wanting me, if you know what I mean. For the truth is, I was reborn with the advent of those three in my life, and now I fear…

The phone rang as I was writing the words and now I fear—Alexandra inviting me to come for supper this evening at their new place and would I bring Delia Krantz because she no longer drives at night.

“Is this a large gathering?” I ask, hoping they aren’t throwing a party disguised as supper.

“Hold on,” says Alexandra, her Irish Spanish accent a faint replica of her mother’s.

She sets the phone down and I hear her say, “Mama? Paul wants to know if this is a large gathering.”

A moment passes and Elisha comes on the line.

“Hey Paul,” she says, her voice warm and poem-inspiring. “Don’t bring anything. This is a Mona’s leftovers affair.”

“Who all is coming?” I ask, trying to sound nonchalant. “Besides me and Delia and the blessed trio?”

“If I told you Grady and Flo, would you not come?”

I wince. “Who else?”

“That’s it. You and Delia and Grady and Flo.” She sighs appealingly. “We’ve been missing our evenings by the fire with you, and we want to get back to that soon. Okay? The kids insist.”

“Okay. Yes,” I say, smiling into the phone. “The dogs wonder where you went.”

Delia Krantz is ninety-three, sharp as a tack, and very funny. Born in Chicago, she worked as the personal assistant to movie producers in Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, after which she moved with her third and much younger husband Vince to Carmeline Creek, bought the old Dekker Mansion in the center of town, Vince absconded with Delia’s life savings, Delia sold the Dekker Mansion and bought a cottage at the north end of town a block from the beach and has lived there with a series of dachshunds for the last twenty-five years. She works part-time at the library and every summer directs a musical for the Carmeline Creek Lamplighters.

Grady Wickersham is from New Jersey. He is seventy-three, exceedingly wealthy, owns a large modern home overlooking Philomena’s Bay, and as far as I know, he never stops talking. Estranged from his two grown children born of a short-lived marriage, he owns seven mint-condition American automobiles from the 1960s, one for each day of the week. In the seventeen years I’ve known him, I have never seen him show the slightest interest in anyone but himself.

Florence Chevalier, Grady’s partner for the past five years, is Grady’s polar opposite. A yoga teacher and massage therapist, Florence is fifty-two, half-French and half-British, friendly, warm, brilliant, and Elisha’s best friend. She has a son, Braxton, a photographer who lives in San Francisco. Most people in Carmeline Creek believe Florence is with Grady for his money, but I believe she sees something in him no one else can see, something she loves, though what that something is I can’t imagine.

I am fifty-four, a native Californian, musician, poet, and owner of a small house on a quarter-acre I purchased seventeen years ago with money I made as a ghost writer. I would tell you the names of the seven books I ghostwrote, except I am legally bound never to tell anyone. The official authors of my books are household names in America today, and though I earned the tiniest fraction of what those official authors made from my creations, that fraction was enough to buy my house and keep me in groceries and guitar strings for twenty years and counting.

Twice married and twice divorced, no children, I have not been romantically entangled with anyone for ten years, three months, two weeks, and five days; but who’s counting? When it comes to companionship and just about anything else, I prefer women to men. I am profoundly heterosexual, distinctly feminine, and not in the least effeminate. When I go to parties and the women gather en masse in the kitchen and the men hang out in little knots elsewhere, I will be found in the kitchen.

“So there are these two old ladies,” says Delia, telling me a joke as we’re driving up Carmeline Creek Road to have supper at Elisha’s place. “Naomi and Ethel. They get together for lunch every couple weeks. One day over Chinese, Ethel says to Naomi, ‘So… anything interesting happen since last time?’ And Naomi says, ‘Oh not much, though I did get married.’ ‘Married?’ says Ethel, shocked. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were seeing someone?’ ‘Who said I was seeing someone?’ says Naomi. ‘I met him last week and decided to marry him.’ ‘Swept you off your feet, huh?’ ‘Hardly,’ says Naomi, shrugging. ‘But he meets my needs.’ ‘I see,’ says Ethel, blushing. ‘He’s good looking and good in bed?’ ‘No he’s ugly as a toad and I wouldn’t sleep with him for all the money in Miami if he was capable of such a thing, which he’s not.’ ‘So is he a good conversationalist with lots of money?’ ‘Nope. He’s a pauper and deaf as a post. I’ll be supporting him until he drops dead.’ ‘But Naomi, if he’s ugly and impotent and deaf and poor, why did you marry him?’ Naomi shrugs. ‘He can still drive at night.’”

During supper, much to my surprise, Grady speaks not a word and actually seems to be listening to what other people are saying. His behavior is so out of character for him, I grow more and more uneasy with every minute he doesn’t say something. Nor am I alone in my unease—Delia and Elisha and Conor and Alexandra keep looking at Grady as if he’s about to explode.

Finally the suspense becomes too much and Delia says, “I give up. What’s going on with you, Grady?”

He thinks for a moment and says, “You mean why am I not talking constantly so no one else can say anything?”

“Yes,” says Delia, nodding. “I’ve known you for twenty years and you have never once, until just now, asked me a question. And every time I have ever tried to say anything when you were in the same room, you interrupted me. Did you have a stroke?”

Grady laughs, and as he laughs, I realize I have never heard him laugh until now.

“You tell them Flo,” says Grady, looking across the table at Florence. “You’re a much better story teller than I am.”

Florence smiles at Grady and says, “Thank you for the compliment, but I think you should tell them.”

“Well, okay,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but please stop me if I go on too long.”

“Your voice is softer now,” I say, gazing in wonder at him. “If I closed my eyes I wouldn’t know it was you.”

“This is my real voice,” he says, smiling at me for the very first time in all the years I’ve known him. “I’m sorry you had to put up with that other voice for all these years.”

“Why did your voice change?” asks Alexandra, fascinated by this new version of Grady.

“Well,” he says, measuring his words, “to make a very long story short, I went to a healer, and he helped me so much that now I don’t have to talk all the time to mask my fear because I’m no longer afraid.”

“Who is this healer?” asks Conor, who is currently obsessed with the books of Herman Hesse.

“His name is August Quincy,” says Grady, smiling at Conor. “He lives near Fortuna. Flo heard about him from a friend and… the two days I spent with him were the most incredible days of my life.”

“What did he do?” asks Delia, mystified. “Hypnotize you?”

“In a way,” says Grady, nodding. “He helped me relax and then we… I know this may sound improbable, but he guided me back to the beginning of my life, to my birth, and from there we relived my life, resolving the many things that needed resolving.” He laughs self-consciously. “I think I’ll stop there for now because I really want to hear about all of you, since I never got to know you because I was always talking.”

After supper, over pumpkin pie and tea in the living room, Conor and Alexandra tell us about the fox who trots through the backyard every evening after they bring the dogs in for the night.

“Rex told us about the fox before he died,” says Conor, sitting on the floor between the two friendly mutts Larry and Mo. “He said in the fifty-six years he lived here, every evening, exactly seven minutes after he brought his dogs inside, a fox would come out of the forest to the west, cross the yard, and disappear into the forest to the east. He said the fox only crossed the yard after the dogs were inside for the night. Sometimes two or three foxes would go by, but always at least one. Every evening for fifty-six years. And sure enough, every evening since we’ve been here, a fox has gone through the yard.”

“Foxes don’t live very long,” says Alexandra, sitting between Elisha and me on one of the two sofas. “We got a book about foxes from the library and it said they only usually live for two or three years, though sometimes they live for ten years, but that’s very rare.”

“So let’s say the average life span of the foxes around here is two years,” says Conor, taking up the story. “If you divide fifty-six by two you get twenty-eight. Which means approximately twenty-eight different foxes were the fox that went by every evening when Rex lived here, give or take a fox or two.”

“But even though they were different foxes,” says Alexandra, nodding assuredly, “they always knew they should wait for the dogs to be inside before they went by, which means the older foxes must have taught the younger foxes to wait for the dogs to be inside before crossing the yard.”

“We’ve been experimenting since we moved here,” says Conor, looking at Grady, who is sitting with Florence and Delia on the other sofa. “One night we left the dogs out for an extra hour, and another night we brought them in a half-hour earlier than usual, but no matter when we bring them in, seven minutes later the fox goes by.”

“So he must be waiting in the woods with a view of the house,” says Grady, delighted. “And when you bring the dogs inside, he knows the coast is clear. Or she knows.”

I look at Elisha and say, “I can imagine two young foxes sitting with their mother in the forest watching the house at dusk. And now the back door opens and a human being comes out and calls to the dogs, and they go inside with the human, and the door closes.”

“But the foxes don’t immediately leave the forest,” says Elisha, returning my gaze. “The mother waits for seven minutes, until she’s certain the dogs are in for the night before she emerges from the trees, her children following her.”

“Or maybe they’re with a father fox,” says Alexandra, getting up to put another log on the fire. “The book we read said foxes are very good parents and their children stay with them until they’re seven or eight months old, which is almost full grown.”

“I wonder why their lives are so short?” says Delia, sighing. “They’re such beautiful animals.”

“Dangerous world,” says Florence, holding Delia’s hand. “A lovely world, but full of danger.”

“I wonder if foxes are born good parents,” I say, staring into the fire. “Or if they learn how to parent from their parents.”

“I think they learn from their parents,” says Conor, looking at his mother. “Rex told us the best way to raise a pup is to have an older dog for the pup to learn from. That’s why he always had one dog a few years older than the other, so when the older one died and he got a new one, the pup could learn from the older one how to be.”

Delia looks at Elisha and says, “Whenever I think of Rex before you came to town, you know what I remember?”

“Tell me,” says Elisha, who especially loves Delia.

“I remember the times when I would be behind him in line at the post office or at the bakery,” says Delia, laughing, “how I would always try to be extra friendly and extra generous to the clerks to compensate for how unfriendly and miserly Rex was. And then you three came to town and he turned into a whole other person, a sweet and generous man.”

“He learned from Elisha and Conor and Alexandra how to be sweet and generous,” says Florence, her eyes full of tears.

“I think he always knew how to be sweet and generous,” says Grady, remembering how terrified he was of Rex before the transformation. “I think he just needed to be awakened by their kindness, and once he was awake, there was no going back.”

fin

Ann Menebroker

Monday, July 18th, 2016

flora tw

Flora painting by Nolan WInkler

“the two figures, male and female, are naked and gracefully huge. their raised right feet begin a dance that never continues.” Ann Menebroker

I moved to Sacramento in 1980. I was thirty-one and experiencing a bit of success with my writing. I bought a piano and an old house in a quiet neighborhood and thus began my fifteen-year residency in that river town. I still own the piano and play her every day.

Immediately upon settling in Sacramento, I got involved in the vibrant poetry scene, though I was not a poet, and my first new friends there were poets, one of them Ann Menebroker. Known as Annie to her many pals, I met her when she was forty-four, a beautiful charming woman, shy and brave, funny and deeply serious—a humble and brilliant maker of poems. She died a week ago at the age of eighty. I got the news from our mutual friend Martha Ann, and I have been crying off and on since.

Annie was never anointed by academia, but she published over twenty books of poetry and her poems appeared in dozens of poetry magazines all over America. She was revered by hundreds of poets and is, to my mind, one of our greatest unknowns—unknown in the sense of never being ballyhooed by the grand poohbas of the American literary scene. Her poems were consistently good and often great. She was highly self-critical, but knew she had a gift and continued writing poems until the end of her life.

Annie was poor and for many years lived in a tiny house on an alley. She cleaned houses, worked in art galleries, and for a decade or so was averse to reading in public, a phobia she eventually got over, thank goodness. We began to correspond via the post office while I still lived in Sacramento, though we lived but a few miles apart—we enjoyed keeping up with each other in that old-fashioned way.

One of my favorite memories of Annie was a poetry reading she gave at Luna’s, a Sacramento eatery. Somebody on the bill with Annie brought along an electric piano, and when it was Annie’s turn to read she asked me to accompany her. I stood behind her playing ever so sparingly to not interfere with her marvelous words, and she seemed to subtly sing her lines to the quiet music, her voice deep and warm.

When I moved from Sacramento to Berkeley in 1995, our correspondence accelerated and today I possess a big box full of letters from Annie along with many of her published works. Most amazing to me was that she had this same scale of correspondence with dozens of other people, mostly poets. She made the news of her daily life, no matter how mundane, into delightful impromptu poetry.

In 1991 Annie wrote, “I have never thought anyone would truly be interested in who I was, as I figure I’m just another female bloke who has gone through life, ass-end first, often, in my struggles to grow wiser.

“I was child-like in the 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s. I may be growing up in the 90s. I drank and partied with poets by night, and tried to maintain this image of the better parent by day. I probably mixed both worlds to my disadvantage, often. The odd thing is, Todd, as wild as I considered myself, my kids have this image of the very good, caring mother. I hope that’s true. But I was pretty weak and confused.”

In 2003 she typed, “I do not like writing longhand. I used the typewriter as a teenager to write letters, and that—my dear—was so many years ago!

“My thoughts somehow run, where my body sits and lies! I feel I am someone else when I am working on a keyboard. That I exist in a more favorable disguise as a person of knowledge and wit and strength.

“Take away my keys and you take away my engine of existence! I am nothing!”

In 2004 she wrote, “A man on the street moved me, and also nearly intimidated me. I gave him $5. I had $11 in my wallet. I’d come to the grocery store and paid for my groceries with a check. He had spoken to me on my way in, and I liked something in his being, his voice. He practically demanded me to give him $5, but not in an intruding way. So I did. And he got all strange. He wanted to talk and talk and talk to this older woman who was suddenly talking to him and giving him $5. He wanted to write something to me, but couldn’t find any paper. He wanted to hug me and/or kiss me. I kept smiling and saying No, no, it’s fine. Please, may your day go well. We talked in the spirit of the street and he insisted on grabbing my cart and walking with me to my car to put my groceries in the trunk. I thought he would never leave and I wasn’t afraid, but people were staring at us and I was afraid they would insult him by asking me if I was being ‘bothered.’

“He said a few times, ‘Who are you?’ He said something else and told me never to forget, and I came home and was writing a letter to a woman poet down south, and told her [the thing I was never to forget] and she said, Annie, that’s a small poem. So I put it on top of a poem about winter I was working on but I’m not sure if the longer poem is any good, or that what I put on it makes sense. It was something silly, about the survival of a goose, what he said. I got it all mixed up. Does it matter? No.”

Several of Annie’s fine and inimitable poems can be found on the worldwide web.

Signs Of Spring

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Starry Starry Mona painting by Ben Davis Jr.

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Claes Oldenburg

Harbor seals have returned to the mouth of Big River, sleek silver gray cuties with childlike faces and spindly white mustaches, as curious about me as I am about them. When the wind is right and the sun is out, I will sometimes toss my Frisbee up into the offshore breeze and the disk will boomerang back to me, and the seals will cease their fishing to follow the flight of the disk to and from the sky, just as humans might watch the ball going back and forth in a tennis match.

The harbor seals of Big River are curious about singing, too. I recently had a wonderful experience singing to the seals, an experience witnessed by two people visiting Mendocino from Los Angeles. The tide was way out and the sun was shining when I stopped on the edge of the river to commune with a seal who had popped his head out of the water to take a look at me. Thinking he might enjoy a tune, I started to sing, knowing from past experience that high notes held for a long time are more intriguing to seals than low notes held briefly; and shortly after I commenced my singing, the aforementioned couple from Los Angeles, a middle-aged woman and man, stopped to watch the seal watching me.

After a minute or two of listening to my impromptu song, the seal sunk below the surface and swam away, but I kept on singing. The middle-aged woman opined, “Guess he didn’t like your song, huh?” And then she and her mate laughed. No. They cackled. At which moment, the seal returned with a friend, and the two seals listened to me for quite a long time.

The couple from Los Angeles conferred with each other about what they thought was going on, and decided to come a little closer.

Seal #1 then swam away again while Seal #2 stayed to listen, and then Seal #1 returned with two more friends, the four seals bobbing in the water close together and only fifteen feet away from me, listening intently and seeming themselves about to break into a four-part rendition of Take Me To the River. I’m thinking of Al Green’s Take Me To the River, not the song of the same name by Talking Heads, though one can never be sure about harbor seals.

Then the man from Los Angeles proclaimed, “This is impossible.”

And the woman from Los Angeles said, “It can’t be his singing. He must feed them.”

Well, I thought, marveling that anyone could doubt that these four lovely seals were listening to me sing, there are all kinds of food.

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” T.S. Eliot

I recently received a big packet of letters I wrote to my friend Bob between 1972 and 1977, hundreds of letters. He was cleaning out his garage and came upon the cache, and since he didn’t want the letters anymore he gave them back to me. The first several letters I read so annoyed me and upset me and embarrassed me, that I burned them, the woodstove in my office handy for the swift eradication of printed matter.

But then I regretted burning the letters; and a moment later I was glad I burned them; and then I regretted the burning; but then I was glad. I didn’t like who I was in those letters. I didn’t like how I came across. I loathed how self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing I was, sometimes in the same sentence. We were having a long distance dialogue, Bob and I, but because I didn’t have his letters to refer to, I could only guess at what he might have written to elicit the various responses from me, most of which seemed insensitive and pompous and stupid and obnoxious, so much so that I marveled Bob had stayed my friend. We disagreed about many things, but we also clearly loved each other. We couldn’t find our own ways in the world but had reams of advice for the other. I was forever apologizing for being such an asshole in my previous letter, and then I would proceed to be an even bigger asshole.

In some of my letters I thanked Bob for sending me postage stamps or a few dollars. I was poor in those days and he had a job working for the state, so he had a little money and shared some with me. (This would become the pattern of our lives, giving each other money when we perceived ourselves richer than the other.) In many of these letters I wrote about being poor, and I also wrote about what I would do if I ever struck it rich. I wanted to own a house with some land so I could have a big garden and a greenhouse and an orchard. I wanted to start a collective of artists. I wanted to make world-saving movies. I wanted to be a famous writer and musician. I wanted people to truly madly deeply love my music. I wanted love and sex and understanding and sex and to be left alone and to never be left alone. Forty years later nothing has changed and everything has changed.

I read a few more of my letters to Bob, and I burned those, too, though some of the letters I burned were terribly interesting to me and full of things I had forgotten. I wondered why I felt the need to burn these letters. When my father died five years ago (two years after my mother died), I inherited several hundred letters I’d written to my parents, and I burned all of those because they were the same letter written over and over again begging my parents to love me despite my being and doing everything they did not want me to be and do.

But these letters to Bob were a record of my life in the 1970’s, and they contained bits of wit and insight amidst the bravado, as well as some fascinating remembrances. Political events, movies, travel experiences, and relationships I’d long forgotten were chronicled therein; and plays and stories and books I wrote and subsequently lost were talked about as the most important creations of my life; and tales from my days as a working musician were in there, too. Even so, I continued to read and burn, read and burn, until Marcia said she might like to read some of the letters, and her saying that stopped me from feeding more of my past to the flames—the pile diminished by half.

Today I read a letter I wrote to Bob in 1975. I imagined Marcia reading the words, and I realized that the reason I burned those other letters was because of the very thing the letters so vividly described, which was that I was ashamed of myself for not succeeding as an artist, ashamed of being poor, ashamed of not owning a house, ashamed of not building that creative collective of fellow artists I so continuously dreamt about, ashamed of having done so little of what I set out to do so many years ago.

And this shame is something I still occasionally feel, despite the modicum of success I attained now and then in the intervening years. I understood that I burned those letters because they confirmed my lifelong suffering from two huge and insanely competing ideas trying to share this one little body/mind/spirit consortium called me: the idea that I am good and the idea that I am no good. Yet when I imagined Marcia reading these letters, I realized that despite the persistent (and annoying) neurotic overlay (which she is well aware of and forgives) the letters have their fascinating moments, so why not keep them around a while longer?

Miraculously (or matter-of-factly if you can’t stomach the idea of miracles), Bob and I still correspond by regular mail, a letter a week back and forth, though we no longer save each other’s letters. We just don’t. We are still the best of friends, having gone through thick and thin together for forty-five years, having been teenagers and young bucks and middle-aged farts together—nothing changing and everything changing so fast it doesn’t seem possible—waiting for Godot but no longer overly concerned that he hasn’t showed up yet because we now know he’ll get here when he gets here. Right, Roberto?

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” Pablo Picasso

We are nearing the end of pruning season. The plum trees, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are in their full glory of blossoming, the apples steadfastly approaching their blooming time. I’ve gotten a few phone calls from people alerted by the blossoming plums that they need their gangly apple tree pruned, their recalcitrant pear tamed just a bit; and these people want to know if I think it’s too late for me to help them this year.

I tell them it is never too late and it is always too late. There is never enough time and there is always enough time. I tell them that nearly everything we used to think we knew about pruning trees is not what we think we know now and that the secret to taking care of a tree is to listen to that tree and allow her to tell you what she needs. A few of my clients have a wee bit of trouble with the idea of listening to a tree, perhaps because they can’t imagine how a tree would talk to them, or if their tree did talk to them, how they would understand what their tree was saying; but most of my clients enjoy the concept of interspecies communication. What’s not to enjoy about a talking tree?

I wrote a novel some years ago, not yet published, the main character a man who prunes fruit trees and is also a poet. I append a poem this character wrote about pruning. I like this poem, though I would have written it differently if I, Todd, had written it. This is one of the trickiest things about writing fiction, at least the way I write fiction, and that is allowing characters to be who they are and resisting the impulse (conscious or unconscious) to make them into thinly disguised versions of the author, though one could argue that every fictional character is a version of the author, that we, you and I, are actually versions of each other, and that separateness is an illusion, not to mention the cause of all suffering, according to Buddha. In any case, here is Edward’s poem.

Pruning

Before I touch blade to branch

I walk around the tree,

stopping every step to study

the relationships of the boughs.

 

When I have gone round twice,

and know what I know from the outside,

I climb into the tree and memorize how

the branches emanate from within.

 

So when at last I begin my cutting,

I know how I will enrich

the tree with spaciousness.