Would you wear this.
She held the teeshirt out to me. Pale pink with Jenny Holzer truisms rolling down its chest. Abuse of power should come as no disguise. Sleeves gone—
By 1990 everyone was dying. I had a big car—a long ugly LTD somebody painted with house paint. Fordie. Elinor gave her to me. I couldn’t really drive. I drove Tom to the beach in it and I scared him on those big metal things in Brooklyn. I guess ramps? I had just gotten the dog. I was thinking we would move to San Francisco. The car starts breaking down I couldn’t afford to fix it the dog was too young so I left the car on the street and stayed home. Elinor never forgave me. She walked past it every day till the city took it. She loved that car.
Cydney asked me to write a score for her. You mean like music I asked. No, poems, she smiled. Poems for you to dance to. I wrote some stuff and gave it to her. I stayed for this. I got myself a yellow bowtie and sat in the audience. Almost like I was a composer but I was one of those guys who wrote lyrics. “The book.”
I met a girl, Vivien. Apparently she told Sarah she had been dreaming of me after seeing me in Orlin getting up from a table and adjusting my knees. That’s how she described it, like I was this old machine, my legs were leather. In a matter of months we got together then all the death began. First Tim then on and on and on. My sadness was a bell and she was in there with me though I’m not sure she knew it. She was a dark haired girl, sweet, not easy but smart and she wrote poems too. It was extremely bottomy sex (for me) because I was a lazy asshole and she was a complete power monger which was fun.
The place I found was carved out of sadness and sex and to write a poem there you merely needed to gather. There would be days in which feelings were so externalized that you just behaved like a painter a kid with deep pockets, bringing the lavender home. The poem was a grid—that swayed and moving through it you just picked up things and hung them on the grid all the while singing your broken heart out. Humming. It was a deep deep grey. In that place (and poetry most of all is a mastery of places, not the world but the weather of the states that form in your life and what you read and how things were taken and what came back) each of these series of occurrences creates a season. The seasons grow huge (till they die) and in each you create a new sense of what a poem is in relation to the space of your mind, heart, that kind of substance. It’s the bhav of the world you are in. In my courtship or early love with this girl (this is when it really ended) I went to India and I kept reading and thinking about India after the trip. I finally understood I was western. I had been thinking at the bottom of reality everything was that. Deep down that the world was catholic, and even white. And it wasn’t. Suddenly I didn’t have a tool. I was a baby. I came back and began researching this thing; certainly wondering about Hinduism as part of the thought because one day walking in a temple all I felt was bad. I didn’t have permission to be in there at all. I was overwhelmed to find that child in me. A frightened little catholic. Seemed to me this couldn’t go away but I needed to move it around.
I learned that a Bhakti yogi enters a room full of people and methodically moves this thing up and down—by telling stories and getting everyone to speak in unison and chant and sing—it’s like an invisible barometer he’s affecting: the quality of people’s togetherness in the room. That’s the bhav. I felt now that that was my job, to move it.
I’m also saying that a life has a bhav. A day has one. A poem is charting that. Perhaps giving the sweetest documentation of what anything is ever becoming. So a book of poems for instance over a short period of time, a year or two explains the bhav of that period and the poet approaches the explanation through form, she invents one that is most economically true to how reality occurred to her at that time. So. I came to understand that I was now explaining the world to a sad child. Which was me. And I would find her things and try to make a story for her out of what I picked up. I think I was starting to understand a poem as an allegory. A mysterious formula. And I was getting good at reading the things I picked up, mostly because I was very invested in making them sound good—not too false. Not trapping the poem in an oppressive order, but keeping the rhythm fairly close. It always needed to be able to turn around, to step out, to stop. The American language if you’ve ever noticed is entirely violent so you can’t go writing these pretty poems that lull and are devoid of the upsetting truths of the world. My poem would often simply stop.
When I didn’t leave the city I stayed here and made piles of things out of the sounds of basketballs thunking, elements of war (one in Iraq was happening. I flew right over that on my way to India) tiny leaves falling on octagonal bricks on the sidewalks of Avenue A and I remember Bob Perelman saying something about how we had to have gods that we told stories about and that notion hopped right into one. It was very complete. The world was coughing information up in record time. I used all of it. The sweep of upstate New York where the girl went to school. The buildings and lawns, and fruit stands. My experiment was emptying out now. And I rode it to the end. She even went to Russia with me at the end of our thing and she was leaving first so she demanded I write a poem before she left and I did. And then we broke up. It hadn’t ended totally, of course. It ended so badly that it didn’t stop. It disrupted my entire order. It ended the meaning of things. I just always thought the world was list. And now my list was broken. I was dead.
I remember a world going all cubist one morning when I was barely awake. I had sublet my apartment and I came back early. I was moving from place to place. Which was nice. It extended the trip. One morning the pieces just fit differently like something happened to my head. Rather than being sad, I had an ache. I bled.
Myra gave me a book called the Passion of Rumi. It told the story about him as a moderate college professor in Turkey with a family and some dirty saint came to seduce him and drag him into the presence of love and passion. He ruined Rumi’s life and some friends of his actually went and killed the guy but it was too late. Rumi wasn’t Rumi anymore. He probably changed his name. We don’t even know who the man he was, is. This made sense to me, to completely and utterly submit to the complete passion of the loss not even of the girl who was small and pretty wrecked herself, but whatever I had been building, whoever I had known myself to be and however I felt myself known in the eyes of the world. That person was done. It was hard not to die now, to take the easy way out and be actually dead, but I instead I saw it was time to stop counting, to stop regarding the world as a list and to consider existence and writing a poem as a matter of devotion, an expression of desire. It probably sounds like I had been there already but for one thing I had been drunk then, many years before when I came out all over Rose and I only understood desire with my mind.
Now I went on a little rampage in the world, standing at a party with a drink and stealthily moving the conversation over to sex and if she saw red, it was red and we immediately went out and had sex. I had no idea this was possible, that women were as easy as men. I mean I had known it over time, but never all at once. I realized I just had to establish a common ground and we could go have sex there. This wasn’t entirely passion, but it was sex and I needed to be as incredibly dirty and abandoned as possible in order to stay alive. This piece of passion that I held, a pounding in my body, was my slim candle, my connection to the world. I don’t recall writing any poems then. The whole thing backfired in about a year, feeling something a little like love with one of these people, a friend, and I pulled back to my corner and I love to think.
I saw Tony Feher in Key Food one day on Avenue A and I told him my problem which had now become that I obviously needed to desire one woman, and I was feeling some desire for someone and I said what should I do and he said proclaim it. He told me about a very beautiful friend of ours, Phil, and how he had once told him exactly what he would like to do to him, he was so gorgeous. Phil laughed. He said, Tony that’s sweet. Tony explained to me that I didn’t have to get the person. What you needed to do was announce your feelings, that was the truth.
Okay I tried it on this woman during a walk in the park. She said that’s sweet. I swear that’s what she said. I had just found a small baby sock on the ground at the entrance to the park. It was a small red sock with Winnie the Pooh on its side. The sock was still in the shape of the baby foot. I extended it to her. It was warm. In fact she felt it. She told me that.
I actually went to a convention soon after and I saw this same woman in the hotel lobby and she was doing this thing that Anne Waldman also does which is to bang her hip against mine while she talks. Is this a kind of magnetism. Am I in my body or not. The woman said she was staying in this hotel. The one we were standing in. I told her I was staying with my friends. She looked at me for a moment and then she wandered off into the crowd. Oh god, did she mean—I started looking for her, but it was too late. I felt sick. There was also another woman I was dating at this time and I wanted to announce my passion to her as well. But she kept standing me up. Finally I sent her a postcard with a dolphin leaping through a flaming hoop on its front. When you wiggled the postcard the dolphin leapt through. I felt that said it all and I had just quit jumping for her. Now what.
It was gay pride weekend and I had marched down Fifth Avenue with Ann and Heather and we were all looking for something to do so we wound up sitting in Mogador watching the people go by. A writer named Gabrielle Glancy came by and sat down. She always had very interesting hair. Dark and pouffy like an empress. She showed us a flyer she had about a lesbian sex auction, celebrating gay pride. Would we like to go. We would. It took us a while to decide but eventually the four of us were walking across town. It was in The Vault or one of those places. Paddles. A black box with a stage where women were chained and writhing and the club was a profusion of pens, mangers really where women in various positions and combinations were engaged in their pleasure. I was kind of disappointed. It seemed like there were legal limits to what you could do. Like there wasn’t even any fucking. Hard to believe but it’s true.
On a table, a long table, there was this beautiful girl with long curly hair lying on her stomach and her top, someone short and shorthaired for sure was massaging the beautiful girl’s asshole with a vibrator and slowly inserted a butt-plug with a horsetail spouting from it. We were all gathered around, the girl was writhing and digging it and as far as I was concerned, this was the show. People were getting auctioned up on stage but I didn’t see anything I wanted nor did I think I should be for sale. Over in that corner were a bunch of people playing with fire. Heather was drawn to that and soon she had her shirt off and she had a look of extreme release and soon her back was on fire. Ann was very excited by this and they were gone and I continued to follow the expressions of the girl with the tail or wandering around mainly almost ready to go home. The three of us did leave together and Ann and Heather seemed they had now joined forces and we all went to one final club with stuff going on downstairs. Cave Canem was what it was.
I saw the woman from the convention was there with her girlfriend. We told them about the Lesbian Sex Auction. Somebody we knew was up on stage with clothespins all over her naked body. We didn’t say who. Ann greedily described Heather’s flaming body. Heather was cool, even opening her shirt a bit on the back so we could see. And what did you do, the woman said, turning to me—just stand there?
At McDowell I saw a woman who looked like my last girlfriend but this time her hair was white. I cringed. It was like a negative of Vivien. It was like a film idea.
But within days I had come to the conclusion that whatever the outcome I would make my desire for her abundantly clear, and I would unleash every excess of power in my body and soul and mind to convince her that my aim was true and then I would have her. Not forever, just for now. I wanted her in a Rumi way. It was the desire at the center of the universe, this was the beginning of the love for which I had not died. I was climbing over the ramparts of my own death. It was the life. I didn’t need to marry her was the problem, but that was much later.
If passion was a substance I would say it is dark brown, and then blood red. It’s like wet grass, tons of it soaked in mud. It’s warm and it stinks like shit and it’s unaccountably and endlessly good. It’s thick and it goes on for miles and it isn’t so much deep as bottomless and it holds you in its grip, you never drown. And then it goes. That’s all you know.
I began to assemble my love in words (poems) and I was an idiot tramping through the woods as I did one night when I fled a casual three-way or a four-way with her and some other colonists. I wanted her too badly to share.
The feeling of these new poems wasn’t anything like the sad fog of the past. It was bright white and it had the power of memory and I cut scenes like a filmmaker so that in one I saw a character much like myself pacing in a winter room and I spoke to that adult now and was making something, a new three-part space in memory of that bright room in which I swore to open myself wholly to where I stood with her within that ideal space of possibility.
I invited her into my studio one day. Not to seduce her, but to let her smell it the space like an animal and see that it was safe. I knew in my heart that if she stood there, for a moment, later on she would be mine. And she was.
What I started to understand was that the poem was made out of time—past, present and future. It lives in the present, it breathes there and that’s how you let anyone in. I think people can feel this accessing of time in poetry very readily. As soon as the poem ceases to be about anything, when it even stops saving things, stops being such a damn collector, it becomes an invite to the only refuge which is the impossible moment of being alive. I lost her after a while, and of course she was never mine. I borrowed her and she borrowed me from our lives.
Yet in the middle of that…it was a stark white moment of sensational love, and then she returned to her girlfriend and I to New York and I told anyone who would listen the story of the incredible love which probably should be a book of its own one day, and while I was waiting for her (maybe to fade) knowing I needed to let her go, I went down to Cape Cod for a weekend to teach. It was remarkable. That October the skies were purple and brown and most of the houses were empty and sat on tight hills tumbling down to the ocean. There was a zendo in Truro. I got there late so they wouldn’t let me in but I came back. I loved it all so much I was at a party in a gallery and I heard about a house I could rent so I walked up its backstairs in the pouring rain and the ocean was right there and I wrote a check. In a few months I was living there with my dog I was writing a book. Because of course I hadn’t done much work in the summer when I met the girl. But I was in this new place and I was working now. In the middle of the day I went for a walk.
I loved the winter town. Provincetown, with all the flashy stores closed. This was the right end of the bargain for me. Cold and I even saw a woman with a black eye patch coming out of a convenience store the first night and I knew her instantly from a story I had been told almost twenty years before. She had been very close to a man, Paul Johnson, who I knew in Boston. Eva Nelson’s class. He was a lot like Rene. Do we meet the same people again and again. Paul was a queer who had my number. He offered me a couple of things I was barely ready to know, but in the centaur tradition of generous men he taught me. Paul was dead and his picture was there on her refrigerator. She had this little red fisherman’s house and Paul and she worked together fishing scallops (which is how she had her accident which he told me about the one time I ran into him in New York) and he was also close to her kid. Paul died when everyone did, of AIDS. I had learned about it in Nan’s video at the Whitney. Someone just casually said it, walking down Commercial. Now everyone’s dead—Paul Johnson…I felt I was here to visit him. I remembered seeing him so long ago in Cambridge. He was driving a cab. He told me about P-town and he just looked manly and large. Like that was pleasant for him. It seemed like he was “just working”—isn’t that throwing your life away, I thought.
But in fact he was fishing and having sex and then he left P-town for law school and fought for tenant’s rights. In college he was a skinny fag. In college he was bi.
I was standing in the middle of the winter town one afternoon and the sky was blue and the air was incredibly white and clear and there were boats in the water and it was sparkling, everything. The day was clear. Glass. I whipped out my notebook, stuck the cap of my pen on its back. I was ready to gather this and that. It would not be the whole text of this day, it would only be fragments. But I didn’t begin. It had lately been a problem that poems didn’t make money, you couldn’t sell them, so what were they worth. Everybody assigned them this grand art value. Everybody that cared at all. I wanted to be famous. Now I thought I would probably get famous and rich from fiction. So why was poetry still good. What was it worth. When I was younger I watched it become money and that saved me. It became my work. Now I was just standing in the day. Had I ever considered what this was worth. Just standing in the goods. If the words I plucked out of standing here were incomplete then probably they were not “it.” And maybe this was. The thing was existence itself.
Rumi had someone following him around all day long, while he spoke the poem. He was simply in it. I was in it too. The room was the poem, the day I was in. Oh Christ. What writes my poem is a second ring, inner or outer. Poetry is just the performance of it. These little things, whether I write them or not. That’s the score. The thing of great value is you. Where you are, glowing and fading, while you live.
Did I get out of it now? Am I done? Tom and I used to always go to parties together in the 70s. We even lived together for a while in my apartment and once in my absence he stretched out all my clothes, my grey beret, doing me. He said he was doing “Eileen” drag. Tom was a cute blonde and a great friend to have when you’re young. He’s also pretty good old. We had an agreement then to always go to parties together. Both being queer (and lonely) and usually impossibly in love. He loved Elio for a very long time. I loved Rose. So we were kind of companions, consummate dates. He came from an acting family, and seemed much more comfortable than me. In the world. When Tom arrived at a party he had this booming voice. He greeted everyone by name, ticked them off so they all knew they were there. He made people happy when he arrived. Tom’s here, they’d go. And he knew you too. However, there was always a point in the night when he’d say I’ve got to go, Ei.
He would look at me seriously. Are you coming?
Well, yes, no. I mean.
Over the years I discovered it was always good to go. I have a hard time knowing what to do. About leaving. I’d feel I was ready and yet I was too embarrassed to draw attention to myself by saying goodbye so I’d wait, or leave with Tom, or someone. Sometimes I’d just escape, not saying a word. I tried to get over it but it never got any better. I think a poem is like a party. Because it has to end. You’ve got to leave, eventually. Tom knew. I asked why he left so abruptly. I’ll tell you, Ei, he said, being manly. Miming his father. No, I guess it’s him. When I walk into in a room, I take a deep breath and when that breath is gone I have to go. There’s nothing left.
The thing is, when you’re writing a poem, no matter what you meant to say or do, when the leaving impulse comes, just finish your line and get the hell out of the room.
Though, sometimes, even if you said too much, you can still go back and fix it. You can actually learn to have grace. And that’s heaven.