The Spirit of St. Louis
for John Speicher
I step out onto Wiborg’s at 4:00 p.m. under a cloudless sky, a jet trail over the Clubhouse, a slight breeze and the sun warm on my face, the new poems in a side pocket of the corduroy jacket I am wearing, a perfect one for a walk on the beach. I got that jacket because Speicher had one exactly like it. “On the beach” was one of his favorite expressions, meaning out of work. It’s a merchant sailor’s phrase originally. In the hospital four months before he died, Speicher had a dream of waking to ship’s bells. A while ago I memorized “The Golden Galleon,” a sonnet by Nelligan who was the Burns of Quebec only he wrote more like Nerval. The ocean is calm, the shallows inshore foam-flecked. I need to piss and will in the breakwater of boulders at the end of Hook Pond just before the empty spot where the Sea Spray stood until a few years ago when it burned. A sandpiper scampers ahead of me along hard-packed gravel, following the receding surf lines. A continuous thread of colored pebbles. I pick up a white translucent one. At 4:15 the beach turns pink. A quarter of an hour ago I was dropped off here by the man who is about to build a house for me. I wonder if he realizes what a grand thing it is to build a poet’s house. When Alexander the Great razed Thebes he left Pindar’s house standing. My worst feelings come from a bad opinion of others; my best from a good one of myself. A yellow Piper Cub roars by, following the shore. To my right is a miniature of a formation such as one sees in Utah, only it’s two instead of two hundred feet tall. At 4:40 I pass in front of the East Hampton Bathing Pavilion, and ten minutes after that stand in front of the house where Berry lived in the summer of 1952. Her parents would be out at the Club, a dinner-dance. She and I used to sit atop a low garden wall over the ocean, facing the pink night sky above town, hugging and kissing. Bent with age, a white-haired man in sky-blue denim combs the water’s edge ahead of me. Half a century ago I came to this very spot at the same time of year to build sand castles. Now I’m back, and, like the white-haired stranger, I am looking for good pebbles, something to carry away. I was smarter then. I would have gone barefoot on a day like this. To live is to walk alongside rivers, or over them. The ocean is a river too. The ancients thought of it as a stream circling the earth. What I was brought up not to call the undertow is a river in the ocean, called a sea-poose by the Indians 300 years ago and by Bonackers to this day. In Toulouse I flung a typewriter off a bridge into the Garonne. I go places by bridge. From Delancey Street a long ramp leads to an archway reading 1896 + Williamsburg Bridge + 1903. After ten minutes on the ramp wondering if I am going to be shot by a sniper, I get to that arch just in time to meet the oncoming “J” from Metropolitan Avenue and make eye contact with the motorman. We nod to each other as if passing in an empty field. He is a dark-skinned Hispanic, middle-aged, with a mustache. The bridge was started the year of my father’s birth. The retired Western Union operator I walked from 39th and Park to Grand Central the other day was also born that year. Either of them would have been old enough to have seen and remembered the man Cendrars saw in blue sunglasses pacing the corridor between compartments on the Trans-Siberian in the summer of 1913. A kid in a painted teeshirt and leather passes going the other way, unshaven, chuckling to himself. A gang or (who knows?) band name is painted all over the walkway: CRO-MAGS. I don’t want to run into them. A white fishing boat is the only thing on the water far below, pebble-sized as Mayakovsky noted. I gaze down at the Domino sugar mill. Mayakovsky misplaced it at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. I pass a spray-painted peace symbol dating from the Vietnam War and a row of yellow flags following a red one on the west-bound track. Seven workmen straggle along the trackbed. They are painting the girders bright orange. Right about here there was a burnt car last spring. The bridge angles down. The roadway is at a higher level now. Cars can toss things. I don’t have any insurance against flying objects. Another “J” rattles west overhead, 30 feet up. I run. Tree sprouts poke up through cracks underfoot. Last time I came through, there was a dead dog, a small brown mutt, curled up in a corner between a soot-encrusted sapling and the wall. Emerging, I glance up Driggs Avenue for the 61. It s coming. On the 64 overpass: BAMBU LOVES ELSIES ♥♥. I picture a pair of chocolate colored breasts with black nipples. I am Bambu. I lurch forward, nearly banging into the fare box. The driver stares, the map of Ireland on his face; he thinks I’m drunk. I am not Bambu. I do have a dirty mind. In the seat in front of me a big black woman in a raincoat is reading Jeremiah 6: “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed … ” We pass a prison surrounded by spirals of razor wire, a border between Hasidic and Hispanic territories. The woman with the Bible chews on a red licorice stick. At Flatbush an ambulance shrieks by. I get out. Too bad it isn’t Pennsylvania Dutch country. There are 23 Speichers in the telephone book in and around Reading. For 89 cents you can get a quart of birch beer, a drink consisting of birch flavoring, caramel, sugar, and carbonated water. A previous occupant of the room had stuck bubblegum onto the bedstead near the floor. Reality has so many ways of getting you. On the chair were poems of Mark Kirschen published in 1980 just before his suicide, a first and last book that I would like to read on the air. Fred Allen wrote four letters to me in 1943. We were proud. Radio was a celebrity thing. One evening I walked into town and back, barefoot under maples, with lightning bugs here and there in the nightfall, carrying my sneakers, where a moment earlier I had been admiring a purple cloud in the last stratospheric sunlight over the 1866 clocktower of the old State Normal School’s administration building. It keeps accurate time, although a teeshirt proclaims this to be a place where you can set your clock back 25 years. That may well be true. But there is no such thing as an anachronism. In 1937 Gide went up the Congo River by steamboat, accepting the hospitality of colonial administrators and tribal kings along the way, reviewing native troops, taking note of masks, talking drums, tales of juju and spirit possession, admiring the muscles of boatmen and bearers, swatting mosquitoes, and keeping a journal in which the colorful passing scene served as a backdrop to a soliloquy on European literature, art, and politics. Imagine Poe walking Highbridge. Without a bridge you sail or fly. Try an island. A place like the island in the land o’ lakes at the center of Siberia where Cendrars offered to fly his sweetheart in a monoplane and build a hangar of mammoth bones where they would make love like bourgeois. Is there a proletarian position? Naturally, the missionary. Early believers called it The Way. The Mayakovsky poem speaks of sugar being carted from the mill beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. He is talking about the Domino plant beneath the Williamsburg. He also has “victims of unemployment dashed headlong into the Hudson’s scowl” from the Brooklyn Bridge, quite a trajectory for a jumper. At the end of time the gods in final conflict burn the rainbow bridge to Valhalla. One may go further in a boat, balloon, or plane. The week Lindbergh flew, Dad bought the papers, all of them, New York Times, Trib, Herald, World, even the Brooklyn Eagle. The “Flight” file sat in a corner for years before coming to rest in an attic so hot in summer one speculated about spontaneous combustion. By the spring of ’48, the file had baked to a point where its whole top layer crumbled away on being touched. A favorite drink on the river was ginger wine. One camped overnight inside a disused covered bridge near Orford, sharing it with a family of bats. A bat relies on the sound of her own voice bouncing off obstacles to guide her in the dark. If muzzled, she runs into things. Her vocalizations pinpoint the flying bugs she eats. Relying on echo location at microsecond time depths, the bat is my soul emitting a symphony of tiny shrieks with each mouthful of air. Heavy netting shrouds the flight of strings. A paper airplane of folded yellow ruled paper. On papyrus a punning song lyric: “Acheron means ache …” Of the people at home in the house I was growing up in in 1945 I am the sole survivor. Two died of cancer, two of strokes. How do you describe a tunnel of Christmas tree lights seen for a tenth of a second from a Greyhound? From Dr. Genthe, I believe, was a little tin model of the Spirit of St. Louis, its front end all goose bumps, with a propeller you could spin. In the room where we ate, the windows faced sunset, and for a bit each year our supper table bathed in the warmth. The other day I passed a child imitating an ambulance. In ’68 I imitated a Paris police truck and was 32 at the time. I’m in a place with no telephones or mirrors. I have never been near anything like a river of sparks. Eileen described a river of broken glass, all red, and the temptation to dive in. I examine an oblong of yellow rock crystal with a cat’s cradle of white bands criss-crossing inside. On the day of judgment darkness will cover everything and the oceans will boil away, the sky turn to fire, the stars explode, and the souls of all that have died since the beginning of life on earth flash like lightning. It’s 5:30. At Georgica Gut I rest on a huge white drift log next to the words BRAD LOVES MICHELLE in ballpoint. How long is it since I wrote one of those? Snowfences belt the dune. Something of Georgica, its marshes and pond, with eelpots and wading fishermen, is already there in White’s watercolors of the Powhatan near Roanoke in 1586. Painted faces, fish traps in mild sunlight, curing sheds. Blue distance, golden wires, silent amid sedges, and, to rule the pure sugar melody of the Muses’ honey-winged song, a fancy most lofty, insolent, and passionate.
If like me you live in dread of a long-awaited call, you may speak with much humility but little interruption and more than likely in tongues, measures, rhymes, and puns. Pindar likened the writing of a poem to the building of a palace. (Byron commented on the Parthenon: Very like the manor-house at home.) You, though—you know who you are—are at home nowhere. Let the gold-trimmed columns of the porch put a conspicuous face on it, Pindar sings. The only things that even come close today are the golden arches of MacDonald’s which Raymond Foye told me many in India see as yet another gate to the unknown, each bite of a Big Mac being packed with ramifications going way back. I think of the poem as more like a mountain in a cloud, bright but not totally visible. In the Shiva Puranas a certain giant’s face is likened to Mount Kailash because of its huge size, white and bare. Nakedness, Jean Paul wrote at New Year’s, 1800, is the national costume of the human race. I’d like the whole world to see Rubin’s 27 pen-and-ink illustrations of Jean Paul, culminating in the vision of the poet’s child bride, a girl pale as a full moon in a blue dress at a candlelit spinet in the first half-minute of the 19th century, a span that witnessed both my mother and father’s births also, although after years at the knee of the belle époque all I want to look at is a flight of pure mentation such as the one last night by Al Robbins, a carving of red on red on gold on green on red-gold, lemon-yellow, pigeon-egg blue, on three screens, with a voice murmuring, I want to be there without getting there. The way it works comes less from the weight of the material than the energy of the thought process informing it. The old trick of letting the material speak for itself would seem an anachronistically theocratic ploy for anybody at the brink of a new era and one has got to suppose that’s what we think the next century will be. This afternoon I spotted my first tick of 1988, a minion of necessity swinging on the tip of a spear of beachgrass over a busy ant hill next to a mammal path in a world under the dominion of chance. One summer morning at age 18 on a westbound train crossing Missouri a month before they called at 4:00 a.m. to tell me Dad was dead, I woke up as my head banged into the seat in front of me and others were picking themselves up off the floor; there’d been an accident and now we were standing in the middle of a wheatfield, waves of heat shimmering in the sun between our air-conditioned coach and the horizon. My skin was all goose-bumps. Following others, I got off the train onto a tar road, in the middle of which I saw blood and a white hat with pink roses. I imagined a force tugging me toward a huge machine inside of which I was about to be ripped to pieces. As I remember this, a dab of white salve is melting on my cut finger which doesn’t bleed or hurt; the remedy contains essences of the five key flowers. Picture a man with a grocery bag trudging along next to a green fence under a factory skyline. You’re in a car photographing this with Larry Bair. Stuck to the windshield is a golden leaf interrupting the horizon like a golden blimp in a dream intimating that we’re leaves which come in the flowery season of the year and are each at the point of flying off the branch like a candle flame in a breath of air, only solider and also rather frighteningly toothy, having in fact teeth all the way round. Imagine a halo gradually coming to a point like a goblin’s ear and then developing teeth like ratchets on a wheel no longer willing to be a mere cog in the machinery but about to whir forward in the manner of Vishnu’s discus turning into a fireball in the back of your spine under a blackening thunder head, while for a moment a gap opens in the clouds high up and you see the top of the sky shaking like a poplar.