Wednesday, March 5, 2008

My Dinner With Joe

An Essay by Philip Brady

Just as in the movie, I arrive first. The host swishes through a candlelit archipelago to my reservation behind a potted palm. Before I’ve deconstructed my napkin, a frocked waiter materializes. I don’t recall Wallace Shawn’s drink, but I book a Beefeaters straight up. When Joe rolls in, I duck around the plant to greet him. In the mood-light, he does look like Andre Gregory—maybe an Italian version—leather and indigo; though to me he’ll always be the frizz-headed kid I met thirty-five years ago. Since then we’ve been a few times around the block, and though our roads forked, we’ve remained close, glimpsing in each other reflections of unlived possibilities. I’m in New York for a poetry reading. Joe’s here for a job interview in the private sector after twenty years grinding for the CIA. It all feels stagy—crossing paths at the nexus of two worlds—but whatever our cv’s claim, we’re still two jocks from Queens.

Besides the martinis, tonight’s menu features a special: A ‘poetic/political dialogue’ moderated by National Book Award Finalist H.L. Hix. Titled God Bless, it’s a book of poems composed entirely of clips from the speeches of that great American poet, George W. Bush, pitted against ‘interleaves’ from the Islamic laureate, Osama bin Laden. Hix contends that since the principles won’t poke their psyches out of Oval Office and Afghani cave to face off, they’ll have to duke it out here. I sent Joe God Bless because he loves this stuff: while his days were spent pinning flags on maps, in the evenings he’d grab a beer and riffle through the last three decades of American poetry. But this book’s different from the tomes on Joe’s bookshelves, and different too from Hix’s other works—an eclectic range of poetry, criticism and philosophy. It’s shaken me up, and as for Joe, well, he’s no neo-com, but he takes verse the way I take martinis.

Looking up from the wine list, Joe shrugs, “No maison de la ferme de boone?”

“Yeah, some joint,” I roll my eyes.

Before we get to the main event, the proprieties must be observed. There’s the NBA playoffs, Joe’s son’s soccer tourney, gossip from old pals, our latest injury reports, a few jokes.

Cradling a bottle labeled with a griffon rampant on a grape-cluster, the waiter reappears, bends an inch, and uncorks. Joe winks at me, gives the Pharaoh’s nod; two ruby goblets are poured.

With the second glass of nostalgia, we get down to it.

“So, what do you think of Hix’s latest?”

Joe steeples his fingers; his tanned brow furrows.

“You know I love his books,” he begins. “Chromatic is jazzed—the poems really move, but they feel grounded too: there’s a story just underneath the surface, even if I don’t always get the thread. How about ‘Eighteen Maniacs’? All those funky handles: Dizzy, Cheraw, Shaw nuff, Coloratura. I’m not sure who’s who—it feels like walking a city street, getting an intense hit off each passing face.” Joe’s arm stiffens, leading a fast break. “Like the man says, ‘Watch expectantly to see precisely what is here./ Listen expectantly to hear precisely what is not.’ He leans forward, planting his elbows. “Remember his reading in that basement dive in the Village?

“Cornelia Street Cafe.”

“The poem about the dying woman whose husband is hearing voices?”

“Prelude and Fugue.”

“No way you’d know that from the text—but it’s there all the same, underneath. I sense it, anyway. And villanelles embedded in the paragraphs? Make it new, baby.”

I conjure a strange image: Dick Vitale meets Ezra Pound.

“But God Bless,” Joe shakes his head. “These poems sound…well, they sound like Bush. And he ain’t no poet.”

Joe swirls his glass of chianti. “I was thinking about the great political poems from Vietnam,” he says. “Remember Robert Duncan’s “Uprising?” Joe cants his head and raises a fork, going into hypno-drive. ‘…and the very glint of Satan’s eyes from the pit of the hell of America’s unacknowledged, unrepented crimes that I saw in Goldwater’s eyes’”

Joe’s fork taps the last anapests like a cartoon baton.

“‘Now shines from the eyes of the President, in the swollen head of the nation.’”

It defies age, Joe’s memory. Rap sheets, hoops stats, rock star bios or poems, he’s always has it on the tip of his tongue. Legacy of a geeky childhood.

“And Bly,” Joe exclaims. “‘The Teeth-Mother Naked at Last’? ‘The politicians lie, the ministers lie, the professors lie, the television lies. What are these lies? They mean that the country wants to die.’” Joe shuts his eyes, his fork beckoning for a raggedy chorus. “‘Do not be angry at the president, he is longing to take in his hand the locks of death hair….’”
Just off Joe’s elbow, a buttery shoulder glimmers over sequins. On my left, a snifter floats under a profile the Brits could mint. There are a lot of reasons to love New York, but one of the best is that two guys cantilating poems with enough hand gestures to land a 747 don’t draw a glance from tables inches away.

“They went past accusation, those poems. They don’t point a finger, ‘the President lies—or in this case, the President is an idiot.’” Joe says. “The lies and the idiocy are there in all of us. Bly knew that. They go beyond politics because they try to account for evil and stupidity.”

He’s on a roll now; I keep an eye on his forehead. We call it ‘the vein;’ when it throbs, Joe’s close to postal.

“Bly and Duncan understood that their personal identities were this—” Joe snaps his fingers. “Their forms felt energized because they came from something deeper than the personal. Feet in clay, ear to the wind.”

“Well,” I say, snapping into prof-mode. “You’ve seen Hix’s interview at the end of God Bless. The poets of the ‘60’s worked against the conventions of that time, he says: the stump-speech and sermon. Their long, biblical strophes ‘one-upped’ political speeches. New forms emerge from the constantly changing culture.”

Listening to myself, the voice sounds thin. Has thirty years of lecturing chalked my throat? I knock back a mouthful, feel the resin coarsen my fiber, and carry on.

“The poet’s a lightning rod—channeling the flow. We don’t hear sermons or stump-speeches anymore. It’s a post-modern climate, a different kind of critique. God Bless strips us down to who we are: receptors in a media-saturated world.”

“OK,” says Joe, tearing a sesame roll. “But the approach—is it new? Sounds like us v. them. You can dress it up in theory. But if this is meant to spark political debate, then why put it in lines? Why not call it ‘satire’ and run it in The Onion?”

“You’re right. It’s more than satire,” I reply. “It’s not just politics.”
I top off our rough red.

“Joe,” I say, gaining steam, “Isn’t it weird that 9/11 and your “war on terror” haven’t produced any cultural shift—no new artistic expression? Not that there hasn’t been a lot written—the websites are all blogged out. But mostly it’s just a reaction: screams and curses, the flip-side of the pablum from the White House. Nothing new—no new vision that lets us see things fresh, the way Modernism was born from the trauma of World War I and Post-Modernism and the Beats followed WWII, and Rock went psychedelic during Vietnam. It’s great that you’ve remembered those lines from Bly and Duncan—and I know you’ve got a whole cabal tickling the underside of that scalp: but there’s a lot to forget too. What about the bombast? You know, ‘Blood leaps on the wall…? The death-bee is coming’? It gets awfully humid. And if they were so humble, then what’s with the flowery vests?”

Joe’s eyes roll, his patience wearing thin. “What do you mean, my war,” he snarls. “I’m well out of it now.”

It’s so familiar, these contests. Seems like they’ve been going on since Stonehenge was a rock pile.

“Where’s the new approach?” I push ahead anyway. “Rap music? Language poetry? They seem more and more disengaged. Hix is trying something new; and all new art feels raw at first. He’s just, you know, ‘cleansing the doors of perception.’”

“Doors of perception, huh.” Joe reaches across the table and plucks off my specs. “Do you ever cleanse these?” He dips the filmy lenses in icewater and polishes with his napkin.

“Anyway, I hear the steak’s good here.” He thumbs the parchment menu.
It’s not for the steak that people comes to places like this; it’s for the improv. The violin musak, the faux-Italian china, the ceiling fan blades moving slow as clipper ships: all part of a set featuring ever-changing characters. The chefs are stage hands; the host directs; the waiters play bit parts, sensing when the conversation flags, cued to enter, stage right.
Joe doesn’t make entrances easy. When he snaps the menu shut, the waiter moves in, but Joe freezes him with a referee’s arm pump. “New means of expression, huh? Well, quoting Bush out of context—that’s a flagrant II. Ten game suspension.”

I grin at the stunned waiter and scan the calligraphy, spotting an old weakness, cherrystone clams.

“Calamari,” Joe lilts, making it sound like Hix’s nineteenth maniac.
“Why shouldn’t poets take a stand in your ‘real world?’” I continue. “Neruda does, and Yeats, and Milosz, and Soyinka.” Just saying the names sends a thrill down my spine. “Speaking against injustice doesn’t compromise their art. And they name names: United Fruit; Parnell; Gdansk; Mugabe.

“Anyway, isn’t that what Hix is up to?” I ask, crossing my dribble. “What you’re saying about transitory identity? Getting out of himself, giving over to the givens. Not his words, but Bush’s—which, whether we like it or not—are always in our heads. This is the ultimate surrender: Hix becomes what we all hear but never really hear.”

“Except that these givens,” Joe snarls, “are Hollywood-shallow. They don’t break through.” He chops the air. “Hix doesn’t knuckle under to Bush—even I know that’s what you guys call ‘subtext.’ It’s a jump-ball. Bush’s words v. Hix’s intent. And it’s a quick step from shuffling lines to slander. Do you know what I’d sound like diced up? Or you? Christ, you’re stiff enough uncut.”

Between us, a crumb-flecked linen tablecloth; two sauce-stained plates. A cocktail fork pricks a tiny liver-shaped heart of clam.

“And how come bin Laden doesn’t get the same treatment?” Joe asks. “He winds up sounding a lot better than Bush—not that that’s hard. What does Hix say, ‘arguments replicated from…? Why not quote him straight—toss in the anti-Semitic drivel and the melodrama—did you hear the one about ‘there will only be neck-biting between us.’ Christ. Neck-biting. I don’t know if you realize this, Romeo, but bin Laden’s no Che Guevera. Even among the radicals he’s a loose canon. What did Khalid Sheikh Mohammed say, ‘It’s a pity bin Laden has no intellect?’” Joe shrugs. “He and Bush are a good match.”

By now the waiter’s found his rhythm. His chevroned sleeve floats, disembodied, to refill glasses; his notepad, cocked for orders, hovers, poised. I steer clear of the unpronounceables. Porterhouse, rare. Joe looks up, heaves a sigh. Tuna nicoise salad. It’s the blood pressure—plus the fact that saturday mornings he still hobbles up court with guys half our age, though his knee cartilage is thin as an alibi. Or maybe he’s still chewing on “Uprising,” which recalls, ‘the fearful hearts of good people in the suburbs turning the savory meat over the charcoal burners and heaping their barbecue plates with more than they can eat.’

“Funny thing,” says Joe, stabbing a brown tentacle. “God Bless reminds me a little of what I was leaving behind in the Agency.”

“How’s that?” I ask, taking the bait.

“Well, usually we lurk under rocks, Hix and us.” Joe unrolls his collar, miming a spy. “By the way, where’s Hix these days?”


“Whew.” Joe’s eyes scan wind-swept buttes.

“But I mean poetry and espionage. Lots of cache, not much pub—when things are going well. We both use codes. It’s all about indirection, nuance. But in this book, Hix comes out straight—the way we had to after the WMD affair. And you see where that leads.

I take a sip, hold the glass globe steady in the air. Prismed in syrupy light, Joe’s face swells, contracts. We’re not young, even looked at straight. In high school, Joe once leapt out of a classroom window when the priest’s back was turned. Now, he’s like a city block seen from a rooftop: the gridded thrum. And as for a plot-line, it’s blunt as a highway-dash. Wife, children, and now a high-stress career, dead-ended.

The waiter swivels toward us, one arm tawny and the other emerald. We lean back to make room. With a flourish, he pilots the platters down; “Don’t touch,” he whispers to me. “Plate’s hot.” Though it didn’t burn him.

Joe’s salad glints with oiled peppers, tomatoes, egg slice and ribbons of fish. My baked potato yawns steam; broccoli stems sweat beads of lemon. The steak covers two zipcodes. A second waiter initiates the liturgy of the pepper shaker, followed by the ceremony of awe, in which we all join, conducted with nods and smiles, until both waiters withdraw. Silence descends as Joe and I address our separate fortunes.

As I worry the bone’s nape and Joe forks lettuce, my mind wanders over a star-strung skein of evenings. Pub grub at The Deer Park; bottomless National Bohemians at Dunkels; tranquil pints in Ballydehob; sessuins in Youngstown; belly-dancers in London, Haute Cuisine in Montpelier, chianti classico in Tuscany, palm wine in Kolwezi, saki in Osaka. Yet, I can’t connect the dots. What year was this night? When that one? Unlike Joe, whose days and nights are wound taut, my memories flash randomly, a highlight film of a game never played.

“I don’t blame you guys for the WMD mix-up.” I say, as the prandial mood dissolves, “Oedipus didn’t know either.”

“Hey, lay off the knitting needles,” Joe grins.

“Joe, remember that think-tank you were in a few years ago. They told you, ‘think way, way outside the box.’ What did you come up with? ‘Bin Laden’s delegating more. He doesn’t need to attack America again.’ Duh. Who couldn’t figure that out? But there were people out there who did know. I remember one guy—Appleman was his name. This guy’s a professor in some mid—western school. Doesn’t have access to a decent bagel much less classified intelligence. But he had bin Laden’s strategy down cold. Wrote a piece in that book I sent you, September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond. I still remember it.

I deploy my knife to count greasy fingers.

“One. America must be destroyed, and we can’t do it ourselves. We have to get the whole Muslim world worked up. But how? Attack America, so that… Two,” and I tap blade on middle finger, “America strikes back, killing thousands of Muslims… and Three, a whole generation of Muslims rises up against the US.

“The 9/11 book didn’t sell that well, but it wasn’t top secret. You could have passed your copy on to your pals and saved us a few wars.”
“Sure,” Joe snorts, pushing back his chair, “A million monday morning quarterbacks. Be right back.”

I sip, and let my gaze wander around the restaurant. Every table’s occupied; each party enthralled in their own world. A triumvirate in gun-metal gray conspire; a straight couple purrs, so frilled they must be back from a tango lesson. A divorced father passes a wicker basket filled with guilt and longing, disguised as bread, to his fey daughter. Each drama is so singular they all seem the same: they’ve taken on the gilded tint of passersby coasting by the stenciled glass logo.

Often, walking Manhattan streets, I glimpse a familiar face I can’t place until I realize it’s an actor—I’ve seen the face in commercials or on sit-coms. In this city, Hix’s ‘Doggin,’ ‘Tickle Joe,’ ‘Intervallic,’ and Klacktoveedsedstene’ rub shoulders with those of us still seeking names.

Joe weaves back. Before he reaches his seat, I’m all over him.

“This is why God Bless isn’t just political satire. You have to read the lines as Bush, then read them again as poetry. This gulf opens up, between the banal things Bush says, like, ‘We need more power, pure and simple,/ to make…the world a more peaceful place” and what we want from poetry. The chasm is the message: We’re faced with a vast emptiness. Hix doesn’t tell you what the emptiness means. It’s yours; you have to create your own meaning.

“For me, when I read Bush condensed and patterned, it’s like reading his brainwaves. It becomes apparent he wants no part of a certain kind of human experience that has always been poetry’s m├ętier: what we’ve called ‘the unconscious.’ Bly and Duncan tried to get there directly, through incantation, and ‘deep image,’ and appeal to a sense of community, and rich language. But it’s different now. We don’t share the same stories anymore; we can’t follow the same path. It’s as if we’re all bouncing around like random atoms. You say Hix is being transparent. But he’s not: when you read God Bless you’re also seeing in the forms—the villanelles, sonnets, odes—shadows of the poems you’ve loved in the past. And they’re not here now—maybe not even possible—and what’s closing them off is this chatter, this empty chatter, that’s all around us.

“That’s why this is new, and has to be new. You can’t follow Bly down the stairs as if he’s Dante. You’re on your own. And some people don’t want to go down the stairs at all. And suddenly you understand why Bush avoided the cave. Even when he talks about bin Laden, he has to talk from a safe distance, using religious cant—‘evildoers’—or Western TV slang—‘dead or alive.’ But what he can’t talk about is his own fear of the dark. So he attacks Saddam, a mirror image, a false king who attacked his father.”

“Thanks, Doc,” says Joe. “But in your world, where the seminar never sets, it’s easy to analyze. You get it wrong, so what? You’ve still got tenure. Nobody dies. But where I live—where we all live except you, Plato—it’s one shot and you’re done. You think that doesn’t make your hand shake?”

“Isn’t that built into any institution?” I ask. “Po-biz is as fraught with intrigue as the CIA, even if nobody gets killed. What if any system—no matter how weighty or fragile—can’t get it right, because it’s unable to extricate itself from itself? Forget Oedipus, you’re like Laocoon strangled by snakes. Didn’t matter that Laocoon knew the horse was hinky, he couldn’t find a way to untangle himself from institutional thought. The committee mind: it’s a nest of snakes, pulling you down.

“That’s why Hix had to break free from his own snakes—the expectation that poetry is beautiful and complicated and arcane. He had to wrestle loose from Bly with his shaman vest and mystical Duncan. Away from a ‘codified’ poetry that everyone admires and no one reads.”

“Sure,” says Joe. “He wants to be original. Wants to be new. That’s what pulls us down: our desire to be different. To be seen. We wind caught right here,” Joe taps two wine stains on the linen, “in the here and now.

“You want new forms—new ways to approach this crisis?” he asks. “Why? So you have something new to teach? I don’t need poetry to show me why I can’t escape. I want poetry to free me from the illusion of being separate. Because the truth is—and we’re blind to it—we’re all versions of one another. Bush doesn’t see this, so he winds up attacking his own reflection rather than facing the figure in the cave. Hix doesn’t see it, so he separates himself from his own poetic power to face Bush.

“You say God Bless reveals the power of poetry and the vapidity of Bush by cleansing perception, showing that we’ve been duped by a veneer of ‘poesy.’ You say that if the new poem is depressing, that’s because it reveals an ugly truth. But poems that live on the surface—even if the surface is shadowed—just drain capital: eating away at our expectations that poetry might offer sacred insight. Let’s face it, there’s enough bad verse out there already without a genius adding to it.

“I’m holding on to the belief that poetry can offer something else. Something that stays while everything else changes—our identities, our selves. Otherwise it’s all a shell. What holds the past and present together is…” Joe’s hand searches the air. “Unsayable,” he says. “That’s what those snakes are: the unsayable. They’re always there. Always the same. If we resist them—if we don’t hear them—we’ll never shed our skins. We need to listen, not wrestle.

“Think about it. Imagine you tried to take this evening home,” Joe’s gaze takes in the room. “All this talk: what you said, what I said. You script it out. You get all the details. You even look up all the poems we couldn’t quite remember so we sound better.

“And what if you went a step further—and described the whole scene: this stupid plant,” Joe plucks a frond-spear, and waves it toward the adjoining table. “The babe in the blue dress.” He flicks the stem on the floor. And the crumbs on your lapel.” He reaches over and swats my jacket.

“You could even make a movie,” Joe offers. “Like the one with those two Manhattan guys at dinner—no plot, no other characters. One of them goes on about escaping the world by dancing with nymphs and faeries, and the other wants his Daily News and coffee.

“You could plot out the space between these two guys, the way God Bless measures the gulf between idioms—or is it idiots. But what about the vaster space inside?” Joe brushes his hand across his dark shirt. “What you can’t get is the feeling of Duncan’s lines coming through me—not caring who I seem, who I am. It’s like driving to the hoop, everything slowing down, patterns coming into focus. None of that would be in your account. Sentences can’t say that. Not polemics, not satires, not movies. It’s only when you completely let go of identity that that stuff gets in.

“You know, that think-tank? It didn’t work because we were boxed into a notion of who we were. You can’t break that habit in a month. You can’t teach people to write outside the box, and return to the box every two weeks for a paycheck. That’s what jobs do to us: close us in till we crack, and lose whole parts of ourselves. You talk about Laocoon. What we were missing was the Sybil. We didn’t need an English prof’s lecture; we needed some crazed woman in a cave speaking in tongues. We’ve lost that part of ourselves—the crazy, unsayable part. Hix has been to the cave and spoken to that crazed woman. And instead of going there now, he decides to stand up for himself against George Bush—same way Bush stood up against Saddam.”

The restaurant’s starting to empty out. We’re reached the stage when my belly’s gone global and my feet are asleep. Somehow, the set has changed. The sequins have vanished, and so has the English nobleman. Reflections flit across the plate glass. A decanter of Calvados has appeared before me, as if unbidden. Joe sips coffee stiffened with sambucca.

I feel unmoored, wondering how many nights we’ll have, Joe and I, to be on stage together, wondering if we’ll always be pushing back, if the pattern will ever be revealed.

“What was that John Cage line?” Joe asks. “‘What we require is silence. But what the silence requires is that we go on talking.” He shrugs, “Maybe Hix just wanted to come out of the cave for once. Just to be seen for himself, one man in the light. The thing is, Hix can go back. I can’t.”

On the cab ride home, the streets glisten to sepia, just as they did in the movie. The conversation jumbles in my head. Hix, Oedipus, Bush, Joe, Laocoon. The faces and phrases soften to a whisper: ‘In far Wyoming a poet leaves a cave, walking toward Queens, where Delphi commands a summit between Bush and his exiled id.’

I strain my neck to peer at the countless lit windows above. Easy to lose myself, chauffeured through images of a native city I’ve never really lived in. Passing a silent breach, I sense the presence of the absent twins.

The vaster space inside. I close my eyes, let the towers rise pristine. But I can’t hold them. Other images crowd in, enclosed in a screen: flames and swelling dust, crowds fleeing, a close-up of an anonymous face, screaming. It’s the horror slide show of televised reality.

Do we need a different kind of art to cleanse the doors of perception?

Or does each freshly minted stratagem—the aesthetic equivalent of trendy restaurants and theatrical postures—merely clog the ancient passageways between lightning-rod skyscrapers and subways rumbling goatspeech underground?

And what about Joe, slouched at his desk under fluorescent light, feeling lost, trapped in the here and now?

I think of the ancient Athenian general who, after failing to protect the city of Amphilos from the Spartans, was sentenced to exile in the city that had defeated him. Living among his enemies turned out to be no punishment; instead, it opened his eyes and led him to compose his great histories. “My work,” wrote this disgraced general, known to us as Thucydides, “is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever."

I pray, under the penumbra of these spectral towers, let H.L. Hix return to the muse’s cave. Let Joe find a Spartan haven. Let us elude—or as Joe would say, ‘hear’—the serpents gripping our flesh.

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