Most nights, usually late, after everyone was back in the apartment on Glenville Ave., friends would wander up into the apartment, too, and the kitchen would become a room of talk. More than a room. It was an arena of talk—of talk and discussion and debate and holding forth. We’d talk about friendships and politics and music. We read out loud passages from what we’d been reading and then talk about those. We’d talk about the neighborhood dogs, Sarge and Lady and Tut. We’d talk about Luba the Russian seamstress who worked down the street, and Jackie Pepper the wise-cracking waitress at Arthur’s Seafood and Deli.
We’d tell stories from the day and from our deep pasts. Here is Paul telling us about the fights that took place after junior high school in Bessie Baker Park in Beverly, Mass, where he grew up. “Bessie Baker, 3:15!” That’s what you’d say if you were daring your enemy to fight you later in the day after some stare-down during recess. Giff told the story of his little brother, Tucker, on the second floor of their house in Chicago calling down to him in the yard to throw the football up through the open window, and when Giff tossed the ball up—“a beautiful spiral!”—Tucker slammed the window shut so the ball broke through the glass. The Jewish kids in my neighborhood in Houston, well, I would tell them, we’d go wandering the streets in the mild mid-December nights to steal lightbulbs from the houses and smash them in the street near Godwin Park because the bulbs made such a pure explosive crack. We’d throw a bulb as high into the dark air as we could and wait for it to crash to pieces on the pavement—“Going Christmas shopping” was what we called it. And here is Nick telling about how much he hated his father’s nickname for him, Rascal. “Rascal!” his father would call in the grocery store when it was time to go and Nick would be playing in the toy aisle. So Nick got his parents to get him a dog. And he named the tyke, Rascal, and so that way he was never be called the name again.
If we couldn’t get the others to laugh, the story was a failure. If we couldn’t get the conversation to turn philosophical, same thing. One thing we never talked about was television. We didn’t have one and proudly we missed out on what was most popular in TV culture during those years in the 1980s. Proudly and sanctimoniously. It’s hard to explain how essential we viewed this act as defiance. We considered television culture crass, a corporate monster that would destroy our brains. Ideas weren’t exchanged on television, just flashes of spiritual death. We wanted above all substance, but on TV there was mere celebrity worship and selling beer with sex. Each of us might have given a different reason for why television was forbidden in the apartment but I suppose its absence meant we wanted to extol the intimate, to be redeemed by living fully in the moment.
Of the four of us who lived at Glenville, I was the most laconic. The others seemed to arrive in the kitchen each night with anecdotes from the day fully formed. When they told stories, they wanted to alter how you saw the world and to confirm some connection with all our desires. The feel of these conversations was like Paul Muldoon’s poem “The Grand Conversation” in which one’s entire ability to feel or be understood got put into the forefront of your talk—
She. My people came from Korelitz
where they grew yellow cucumbers
and studied the Talmud.
He. Mine pored over the mud
of mangold- and potato-pits
or flicked through kale plants from Comber
as bibliomancers of old
went a-flicking through deckle-mold.
She. Mine would lie low in the shtetl
when they heard the distant thunder
stolen by the Cossacks.
He. It was potato sacks
lumped together on a settle
mine found themselves lying under,
the Peep O’Day Boys from Loughgall
making Defenders of us all.
She. Mine once controlled the sugar trade
from the islets of Langerhans
and were granted the deed
to Charlottesville. He. Indeed?
My people called a spade a spade
and were admitted to the hanse
of pike- and pickax-men, shovels
leaning to their lean-to hovels.
She. Mine were trained to make a suture
after the bomb and the bombast
have done their very worst.
He. Between fearsad and verst
we may yet construct our future
as we’ve reconstructed our past
and cry out, my love, each to each
from his or her own quicken-queach.
She. Each from his stand of mountain ash
will cry out over valley farms
spotlit with pear blossom.
He. There some young Absalom
picks his way through cache after cache
of ammunition and small arms
hidden in grain wells, while his nag
tugs at a rein caught on a snag.
Coming in and out of the kitchen those late nights were friends, and girlfriends, and neighbors. There were the two young Cambodian boys, An and Jia, who liked to sit at the table and do their homework from elementary school and eat the fruit from the countertop. Jeff Smith was a regular, even just to drop by for a minute or two. He’d pace the kitchen with a conspiratorial air as if we were living in Paris during the Occupation. Accompanying him usually was Dayton Marcucci, who liked to wander through Boston’s streets dressed as a communist nun and lived in the bell tower of a nearby church, and who later moved to Pozzuoli near Naples. Jeff introduced us to Jade Barker. Charlie Weir, Paul’s childhood friend, would come down from Beverly with his guitar and sleep on the couch for several days. I close my eyes and I see them all arriving like phantoms: Jim Ditmer, Cindi Rittenhouse, Marc Maron, and Andrea Berman. Ted Lukes of Arizona and Gail Whitney of Minnesota and Vicki Halal and Jeff Hall. Laura Cavaluzzo and Mark Lurie and Chris Snell and Brooke Nelson and Laurie Geltman and Adair Peck, whose paintings of large-faced women we hung on the walls. Gavin and Zoia and and Shari and Izzy and Derek and Morgan. And the Miller siblings, Val and Rick. To keep moving in and amongst all that talk we would juggle. Two of us would grab the orange balls from the kitchen table and work over our patterns—behind the back, under the leg, four balls at once, and then finally passing six balls back and forth to each other. We’d juggle and talk into the night. All that talk was like juggling too—tossing the words back and forth, trying to throw them so the other person couldn’t miss. And when you’re on the receiving end doing everything you can acrobatically to catch what’s sent your way, even from the most erratic throw. We’d throw and gather in and toss up the talk back into the air. We’d scoot one way to stab an errant aside or leap to catch a high one. We’d dive to the ground. We’d play a bad toss off the cabinet like an outfielder gloving a line drive off the back wall. The pleasure of the talk became its purpose. The two activities of juggling and talking realigned our sensibilities toward affection and gratitude and love. We made distinctions about everything: the difference between liberalism and progressivism, between John Dewey and Jane Addams, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Grant and Lee, Nixon and Reagan, the Talking Heads and UB40. We talked about growing up and the meanings of names, who we looked up to and what scared us. We talked about our regrets and embarrassments and the craziest thing we’d done. Did we sing in the shower? Did we believe in God? Did we believe in luck? We made pacts about pulling the plug if one of us became a comatose vegetable. We debated the American Dream, whether it was an ethical doctrine, what it said about national identity and individual agency. We celebrated joy. And we did all this while half-baked with cheap weed, while drinking average beer and eating toast and smoking cigarettes. There was talk and more talk. It was a couple years of our lives in which our voices were our identities.
In every way these conversations were the practice of finding a voice, of being heard, and of listening. We were becoming artists of interest in the sounds of the mouth, as well as of pleasing each other, of finding all things fascinating. We were infected by talk as if we had happened onto some native language only we knew how to tap into. We were inflamed with words. We wanted each other to hear the soul in speech, what we might be struggling against, what was significant. It’s in these formative hours of becoming a voice—of learning to make metaphor to delight, to use the words of one experience to tell a story about another experience—that I first encountered Eugenio Montale’s “The Prisoner’s Dream”—
The zigzag of starlings over the watchtowers
on battle days, my only wings,
a thread of polar air,
the head guard’s eye at the peephole,
nuts cracking, fatty crackling,
in the basements, roasting
real or imagined — but the straw is gold,
the wine-red lantern is hearth light,
if sleeping I can dream I’m at your feet.
Even if the particulars of the conversation are gone now, the identities that were formed from the talk continued within us for years. For me, writing became a way to keep my end of the conversation going. The spirit of the talk was inclusion, communion, belonging. Only on occasion did someone come into the apartment and make a buzzkill of the talk. Usually it was because they’d be talking over others, stealing the conversation to prove how smart he was, how funny she could be. That’s when one of us—Giff or Nick or Paul or I—would crowd the interloper out by getting all appreciative of each of the other guys, of appreciating each other more than the loudmouth. We’d talk about how at home we felt with each other. We’d start juggling again in the center of the kitchen. We’d begin to listen to each other exclusively, alert and magnetic to each other, asking a question to keep the talk between us. We wouldn’t take our eyes off each other—the four of us in those moments. We would only look at each others’ faces so that the loudmouth could sense that the one talking was meant to be seen as the most interesting person in the world. It was unsportsmanlike. But it was our kitchen. Our primal talk. All that talk was a form of externalizing a kind of wildness inside of us. Later, writing would replicate that process. One of the thrills of being a writer is becoming aware of the wildness that percolates inside of you. If you’ve learned to listen, you’re able to hear it. It gets tossed at you. And you toss it back into words at the world.
One night I brought out and read some Ralph Waldo Emerson I’d been reading for a course in American Literature—
In good company there is never such discourse between two, across the table, as takes place when you leave them alone. In good company, the individuals merge their egotism into a social soul exactly coextensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.
And then we went on for an hour talking about companionship and irony and memory. Giff grabbed his coat and headed up to the roof deck to smoke a cigarette, so we followed and left our invisible selves back in the kitchen to carry on with the serious talk about the transcendental. From the roof deck you could see the trees in the breeze above Ringer Park. A few weeks earlier Jeff Smith and Paul and I and some girlfriends of theirs had taken mushrooms and climbed up into those trees like priests wagging our beards. We were hoping to find some antidote to trivializing our lives—that’s what we said anyway—and un-slaving ourselves from ourselves. Hallucinating in the early evening, we sat atop the thickest branches. It was like their functions no longer had any significance. What I could perceive from there was perception itself detached from the figure and form of the world. To be both inside and outside of nature was to renew meanings and meaninglessness of the living world. Since the appearance of the light and the trees, the park and the city streets, the noise of the traffic and the children playing in the park was no longer limitless, my awareness of this hallucinatory paradise and my ordinary reality became one—just like Ginsberg’s revelry:
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
Soon it was just Giff and me on the rooftop. I was talking about the trip I’d had in the park that other night, how overwhelming the flood of perception was. I adore the rational, I was saying, the utilitarian. But for survival we need to embody potential experience, I was saying, the primitive with all its possibilities of discoveries. Giff was listening. We were both standing now in the city’s darkness. The street lights had come on. What we think is the point is always somewhere else than where it’s supposed to be, he said finally. We’ve got to postpone our certainty, I said as all of the west side of Boston glowed in the dark, to allow the illusion to emerge, to keep what’s lost. We can’t get reduced to the smallest variant, Giff said back. We were both sitting on the edge of the roof with our feet dangling. Every moment is small and clear and free, I said, and then it’s gone. But the sweet faces of the people are still down there, he says. That is what you want to see, I said. Definitely, he said. I definitely want to see that. You’re trying to move and not wanting to move, I said. Well we’re just acting, Giff said, we’re just acting this out for someone else’s benefit. I don’t think meaning, I said, can be cast aside some day when it’s been outgrown.
We went on like that in conversation, effortlessly moving in step with each other, anticipating the other’s next move. We would build on each other’s approach, and you wouldn’t have known who was leading and who following.
“Primal Talk” is the thirteenth in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.