I make a quick sartorial scan: sweats and parkas, leather vests and lumber jackets; the temperature outside is 24 degrees F, and these guys have apparently just come in from a long day's log-rolling. Only the Reader is particularly gussied up (in a sign of respect for any audience that could trade a sure-fire Saturday night for the chilling unpredictability of a poetry reading).
By gussied up I mean the long black skirt instead of the long black pants. (Sartorial aside: with just two outfits to your closet's name, you turn your daily maintenance into a snap: Reader is up and out the door every morning in 15 minutes flat--5 to scrape and swab the carcass, 2 to cover it with cloth, another 6 to intravene a coffee buzz, 2 more to bag the day's array of paperwork for portage, and--voilà!--fait accompli!--one Reader to go! No wistful gazes at the mirror, no existential agonies about subliminal meanings, no torture over Style or tone, Vienna or sienna, Fauve or mauve. Why sweat it? Dress for mourning all year long--and you're ready for whatever life might throw your feckless way.)
Because who knows what the fuck feck is? In a fit of benevolence this winter night at the Elliott Bay Book Company, life throws my way a wide-awake, well-disposed roomful of working readees. Maybe half are college age. Some friends, ex-students. A goodly number more I've never met. (How many strayed this way by accident? How many to escape the cold? No show of hands. Fess up, I say, I won't be mad, I'm a lover of truth. But no, if any of these guys wandered in for simple comfort, they refuse to admit it.)
So suffer they will. I start with a round of farce--excerpts from Variété, based on Mauricio Kagel's composition of the same name. The show, from the people at Toronto's Volcano theater company, features performances by a bevy of Cirque du Soleil sorts--acrobats and clowns, the villainous and the voluptuous, fire-eaters and contortionists--and will open in Toronto on January 30. My script is for the hapless emcee, who appears on stage intermittently, with a mechanical creature in tow. (She's Mademoiselle Noir: her first name's Bête; her sisters are Film and Pinot.)
Considering the bookstore audience's probable expectations ("Hey, Harriet, how about highbrow poetry tonight?") they're downright merciful. They make just two of those collective groans that tell a punster she's gone too far; they sound occasional foghorns of appreciative laughter. I finish the farce-part with a ballad salty enough to spice up Toronto's Anglican landlubbers: my Puget Sounders set off rounds of applause, not buckshot. My courage is buoyed. (It doesn't hurt that a resuscitative angel approaches, bearing a goblet--Rick Simonson, host of the Elliot Bay reading series.) Onward, by the grace of Dionysius, I plow.
My latest book, Eyeshot, ends with three poems that prompt most readers (including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's veteran arts reporter, John Marshall, in his article anticipating the reading) to wonder whether I'm on antidepressants yet. Hell, no, I've always liked the middle ages, and my own is no exception. Among other things, I tell the crowd, I have noticed that the increase in years brings a corresponding decrease in the charms of necrophilia. (Surely this will reassure them about the state of my spirits. But no.)
So I read them Borges' knockout little poem "The Suicide" ("Not a star will be left in the night./The night will not be left./I'll die and when I do/so will the whole unbearable universe...") My version ends with a zinger of a double-negative: "I'm watching the final sunset./ I'm listening to the last bird's notes.//I'm leaving nothing to no one." This is serious poetry. I hit them with sane manias, I hit them with heartbreaks, I hit them with bones and bananas. They take it sitting down. Nobody ups and walks. They're either happy or hurt. That'll do.
As poets go, I'm a pretty fastidious lingo-slinger: the matter of the means matters as much to me--maybe even more--than the meaning of the matter. (I feel for Brendan Behan, said to have responded, on being asked the message of a literary work, "Message? Message? What am I, a bloody postman?") Seldom in life and even less often in art do I know what I mean. Others are born for manifestos; I've been working 40 years on blots and inklings.
The P-I made a headline out of my advancing years. (I'm the age of an interstate speed limit.) But, you know, time doesn't have any inherent power--only the power we give it. Wittgenstein says our lives are endless in precisely the way our visual fields are endless. But it takes some wrenching to get away from the clutch of our own devices--clocks and TVs, pension-calendars and penny-pinchings. (Borges says you can't count days the way you count dollars: every day is different.) And yet we spend all our time on the same old simulacra.
Words to this effect I blurt out, because by now the crowd is my confidant, my colluder, my counsel, my kin. Say what you will about first-rate rain and second-rate sophistication: Seattle's a haven for writers, a heaven for lovers of nature and art. There are only two places I'd go these days to read for free (with time so short)--and Seattle has both of them. One is Elliott Bay Books and the other is that wonderful little Wallingford hole in the wall for poetry, Open Books. (You can't beat the Wallingford proprietors for heart, the unsinkable Christie and John, who have tended Open Books for decades now. The result is one rare refuge for poetry.) To them and to Rick Simonson, Seattle readers and writers owe a tip of the literary hat.
So get a life. Indulge your blooming bibliophilia. And while you're at it, sign up for Nikolai Popov's celebration of the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, sponsored by the UW's Simpson Center for the Humanities. (A literary scholar and translator, Popov is, like the Dos Passos character, able to be silent in several languages--which makes him the perfect host for this public all-day, all-night reading of James Joyce's Ulysses--a book so rich in avenues and alleyways there's bound to be a passage made for you.) Set aside the centennial date on your calendar--that's June 16--and join the happy listenership. Or--if you want a shot at the podium--throw your name into the ring by sending it, together with a list of your three or four preferred episodes in Ulysses, to firstname.lastname@example.org. In all their glory of sou'westers, corduroy, or Gore-Tex, Seattle's working logophiles will show. Call it perspicacity, or perspiration, or precipitation--but take it from me: they make a reading sparkle.