LARRY SMITH -
Sitting in the
Café Old Town
we wait our eggs,
as a few white clouds
. Lummi Island
My granddaughter plays
with her sausage.
My wife and daughter
is full of worries
as we talk of world concerns,
how much to be involved…?
And I am feeling almost overwhelmed
when I look down
at the sunlit skin
on the wrist of our waitress
into my cup.
Songs of the Woodcutter
From Chinese Zen Poems: What Hold Has This Mountain?
trans. Larry Smith and Mei Hui Huang (Bottom Dog Press, 1998; Out of print).
BIRDS SING IN THE MOUNTAIN STREAM
-Wang Wei (699-759 AD)
In calmness, the olive blossoms fall,
night echoes of spring hills.
The rising moon startles the mountain birds,
their song inside the stream.
From Thoreau's Lost Journal: Poems by Larry Smith (Westron Press, 2001)
"Myths are made for the imagination to put life into them" - Albert
IN WHICH HENRY DAVID DECLARES HIMSELF
I speak of Henry David
as one I am and watch.
As violinist must feel the music
through his own fingers,
as actor must sense his moods
study himself as cat a mouse.
Subject and object, matter and manner
all swallowed up in one.
I lick the salt of sweat
from my own blistered palm,
speak first and last of what I am.
From Working It Out (Ridgeway Press, 1998; fiction).
Soon I am to graduate from this college with a degree--Bachelor's of Arts and Sciences. Only for a year Maria and I have been married, so I'm not a bachelor. I'm also no scientist, and the only art I really know is my writing. To tell you the truth, it feels like trying on another man's suit.
I am sitting here at the Health Department's Clinic thinking about all this while Maria is inside having a pre-natal exam from Dr. Lorri Esposito, an obstetrician. While I've been carrying around a Grade Point Average, she has been carrying our little Maria or Marco junior. There's no way to compare the two--it would be like weighing wind and water.
I'm writing this down bit by bit in this journal, so I'm keeping it in present tense. You get the feeling of it happening. Maybe, one day it could turn itself into a novel.
Oh, the dark eyed girl in the corner who came in with her mother has just run into the little bathroom--a place Maria seems drawn to like a cat to tuna. Even with her big belly, Maria can move like a cat-woman. Ah, that huge curve of her body has become the source of our pleasure and pain. I love stroking it, rubbing the soft globe of it with baby oil. The doctor said my rubbing might help with the stretch marks, but I think she just wanted to give me something to do--a science project. Maria loves it though--it's one time she never complains--"Oh, Marco, do it some more, please. Back here around the sides more." Then she smiles deep and sighs like a kitten, "I love your hands," and who can resist?
To tell the truth, I have to watch it. You know, getting a-roused. I'm torn now, I tell you, between the mother and the child. Since we did that Sonogram thing where you can hear and see the baby inside the womb, I can't do it without feeling like an alien invading his soft world with my hard thrusting penis. It's strange, you have to admit. Oh, I want her plenty, but I also want her safe. It's all driving me quietly nuts inside.
It won't go away. I know that now. Like, when we went down to her mother's place for dinner last Sunday--oh, boy! Esther greets us at the door, makes Maria take off her coat and show her huge belly--"Oh, muchacha, tanto grande!" When she smiles back at me, I just grin. Then Esther turns and she asks it, "Well, Marco, how do you like it?"
"Like what?" I ask dumbly and wait.
"How do you like riding the hump--huh?" Well, there is a full five seconds of silence; then everyone roars with laughter and begins pointing my way. Even Esther blushes with me as she looks to Maria, "I'm sorry," she says, "that's what my father asked your father each time I was pregnant." She is hugging Maria's soft dome and crying for joy as I pass, slipping through the doorway and into the quiet kitchen.
Maria's step-dad Luis is there. He is always in this kitchen drinking slowly at his table from short, thin glasses.
"Marco," he says rising, "Come join me," and he holds out a glass of honey colored liquid. It is warm to the palm. He squeezes the muscle of my arm with his powerful hand. Years of truck farming in the Ohio fields have turned his arms and hands to stone.
"Sip it, my son. Drink slowly as the sun goes down."
"What is this, Luis?" I have to ask, for one sip has already taken me somewhere far out on the horizon where the sun is just above the trees.
Luis tilts his head slowly. "It's a drink from my native land: a mixture of tea and honey..."
"And...what else?" I nod, grinning.
He too nods, "Some Tequilla... and your Southern Comfort."
I sip again and it rolls gently over my tongue melting its way down my throat. It holds one quiet, turns the women's voices to music. I sit and I sip.
"Golondrina, it's called. Golon-drina--it's Mexican for the swallows," and he turns his hands into flapping birds. "Someday I teach it to you. Okay?"
"Sure...mucho, Luis. Mucho." And for the first time in a month I am rested. I can feel my heart rate slow to the movement of the sun into the trees. My breath follows the snow geese over the back field. I am inside this dream liquid as Luis pours us another.
"Marco, I'm going to tell you the story that goes with this drink. You've heard of how the swallows, the birds, they go back to San Juan Capistrano, si'?"
"Si'" I'm thinking Spanish now.
"Well, what you do not know is how my people celebrate this. On that day they walk over the border from Mexico and they go to sit all day in the warm sun, sipping glass after glass of Golondrina. They drink and they watch the birds come in, till the sun it goes down. Then they walk back across the border to their homes."
Luis reads my big smile as part of the landscape now, and it really is. I am already there with him in his place, feeling the warm descent of the sun.
"Soon," he says, softly reaching over to pat my hand. "Soon enough, you will have your Maria back again...and a child too to hold your dreams. Till then," and he raises his glass slowly in the last trace of sun, "we drink life together." And we do.
Thinking this now, as I sit in this clinic waiting for Maria, I cup my hands at my lap, lean back and close my eyes, and I feel the full sun floating into my cup.
I am the world-crier, and this is my dangerous career. . .
I am the one to call your bluff, and this is my climate.
(First Will and Testament, 1939 in CP 160, 161)
Who really understands another’s life, let alone his or her own? What takes a lifetime to create cannot be grasped in a few day’s reading or even years of research, and yet the attempt always extends our understanding of personality, character, and humanity. In the case of Kenneth Patchen, American writer and artist [1911-1972], the life story is doubly revealing for what it says about courage and character, and for what it exposes about the struggles of the writer-artist in America. Though studies of Patchen have begun to take a fuller look at his impact on America and its literature, I would broaden that focus here by including the impact of a turbulent America upon his own life and art. His is a story of the rebel writer in America—of the poet-artist who endures adversity and derision in order to create. In my earlier book, Kenneth Patchen (Twayne 1978), the focus moved quickly from the life story to a descriptive analysis of the literature. In this book, the life story is central. In agreement with the American Romanticists, who offered Patchen an early and sustaining vision, this study holds that a person’s life is his or her greatest work. Patchen believed that too, and this belief explains the central unity of his life and art.
Beginning in 1936 with Before the Brave, his first book of proletarian poetry, and extending beyond his death in 1972 to the books of his writing and art still being published today, Patchen produced roughly a book a year. One confronts in his writing an art fierce in character and dynamic in form. As a Promethean poet, Patchen defiantly created a vital art through four decades of struggle and denial. As one of America’s primary “poets of engagement,” he welded his life and art as one. For many he remains the model of a “rebel poet”—in the purity of his faith, the abundnace of his creative output, and in the example of his life. His self-proclamation as “world-crier” and “bluff” caller in a “climate” demanding such a “dangerous career” is ultimately revealing. Patchen labored hard at what he felt compelled to do— help create a new world order from the vitality of his vision and art. His moral position as artist is summed up well by his fellow poets. Kenneth Rexroth declares, “His voice is the voice of a conscience which is forgotten. He speaks from the moral viewpoint of the new century” (Bird 97). William Everson accents Patchen’s defiant stance, “I best see Patchen as one who cocks a terrible right arm against the glass jaw of New York, stunning it with all the contradiction of its values he can summon against it. And if it seems impervious to his passion and his power that is only the deceptiveness of time, for he will survive it, as the power of the poet always survives the metropolis that hates and ignores him in the moment of his accusations. Bless him in his pain and passion, for his cry is heard” (Homage np). Such devotional praise is rare, even among poets, yet characteristic of the many personal appreciations one finds of Patchen. These tributes rise in recognition of the moral values so deeply etched in his work and in the story of his committed life. Though he bravely declared and defied the violation of others, Patchen never raised his fist against another person. His art is measured by its compassion and commitment.