One afternoon in the Dugout on Commonwealth Ave. Marc Maron invited me to sit at a table with him. Marc was with Joshua Clover and a couple of guys from the English department I’d seen around but didn’t know. I knew Marc because we had been in some classes together. And sometimes he’d come by Glenville to talk about his favorite new writers and drink beer in the kitchen. And Clover, who went by a different name then, would show up at some of the same parties in Allston. They were sitting in a booth in the underground bar talking about deconstructionism: Derrida, de Man, Barthes, Lacan. It’s the new thing, one of them insisted. Then the conversation turned to politics. I was uneasy because I had become involved in the Mel King mayoral campaign and knew a good deal about the race, but I didn’t want to be seen as unserious about literature. So I said something about a poet I was just discovering, Robert Bly. I had just read his first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields. In my knapsack I was carrying the Bly book and another book of poems I was reading a lot, and I would poke around in these two books on and off during the day.
Even though Silence in the Snowy Fields was published in the spring of 1962, it was the first contemporary book of poetry I’d read with any seriousness. Since I was considering leaving Boston after getting my degree to move to Vermont, I took Bly’s winter poems about the deep unconscious as a kind of guide to living in the north. Bly, I was saying to the guys at the Dugout, doesn’t view life as abstract or accidental. I took a sip of beer and read some lines from one of the poems, “Three Kinds of Pleasure”—
Sometimes, riding in a car, in Wisconsin
Or Illinois, you notice those dark telephone poles
One by one lift themselves out of the fence line
And slowly leap on the gray sky —
And past them, the snowy fields.
The darkness drifts down like snow on the picked cornfields
In Wisconsin: and on these black trees
Scattered, one by one,
Through the winter fields —
We see stiff weeds and brownish stubble,
And white snow left now only in the wheeltracks of the combine.
Of course life is abstract and accidental, Marc interrupted, and that’s how our language becomes dogmatic. Dogmatic and structured, another added. I didn’t agree but stayed quiet. Though I wasn’t really sure. Bly’s poems were making me see how the unconscious resists the imposition of external structures, and even resists the aesthetic, instead focusing on the archetypal and on the passages of existence common to everyone. Just listen to this ending, I said—
It is a pleasure, also, to be driving
Toward Chicago, near dark,
And see the lights in the barns.
The bare trees more dignified than ever,
Like a fierce man on his deathbed,
And the ditches along the road half full of a private snow.
They were unconvinced. Clover spoke about how poetry should be a song of critical thought that should locate a reality devoid of myth in a language no one has ever spoken or heard before, and that it should take itself apart and eliminate from that text the living experience. There’s no way to overcome it, another said. Like many other English majors of our generation, we had been enlisted to disturb the tranquility of language. We were taught to think farther and farther away from everyday human experience. Our table in the basement of the Dugout was like a symbol of this battle. Our table would have been depicted only as a representation of how much we were able to face down modernism and that we mustn’t be deceived by the illusion of language. The role of reading was to see the insufficiency of language.
I wanted to believe this kind of theorizing, but really I rejected it. And I pitied them for chaining themselves to their generalizations. Language never seemed lost to me, nor the world that it’s meant to represent. It was as if these guys had been stood up by reality and so needed to blind themselves with weapons against the language of reality. Their heads were so filled with English department-isms that the small physical and psychic actuality of life was invisible. They still thought of ordinary life as inferior to the symbolic one found in literary criticism. I wanted to be accepted by them but not enough to disconnect my body from the world. In Marc I felt I’d found a comrade because both of us argued for not giving up the prerogatives of the flesh or the intimacies of imagination. I was too suspicious of the detachments of theory and hungered for what physically gave me pleasure. Language was one of those things.
On this particular afternoon I’d had a couple of beers and was in a swagger. I talked about the Mel King campaign and how we were trying to get Mel elected the first black mayor in Boston’s history. You want to see the contrast between the meaning of signs, I was saying, help elect Mel. I finished a beer and ordered another. They didn’t know much about Mel. So I told them that he grew up in the South End. His mother was from Guyana and his father from Barbados. In the 1960s he’d been president of Boston’s Urban League and worked to get ordinary citizens involved in the development of their own neighborhoods by staging tent cities protests. He’d been a state legislator. Harold Washington and Andrew Young were going to come to Boston and help register voters.
I talked about the importance of the new mayor being able to speak the language of the people. It was like knowing the newest dance craze, I said. King is the moon-walk candidate, Marc joked. He was pushing his hair behind his ears and stroking his goatee with his fingers. Right, I said. But not really. King, I said, is the guy who can’t get a ticket to the ball. We needed to fight to get him in there. The city’s establishment was keeping him out. They were trying to knock him down and kick him, I said. They were going to try to stomp him out. They were going to try to leave him bloodied in the street with nothing left but his trousers and a torn shirt. There wasn’t going to be any compassion.
I felt the guys at the table were listening now, and I made my little play: And out of compassion, I said, comes the true language of democracy, comes a common, moral language, a language of solidarity, of affection and grief and passion and poetry. And these established forces were going to try to kill Mel, I was saying, so no one would be able to speak that language. And Walt Whitman in his great elegy for Lincoln goes—
To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure deliberate notes spreading filling the night.
Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist and the swamp-perfume,
And I with my comrades there in the night.
While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed,
As to long panoramas of visions.
And I saw askant the armies,
I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags,
Borne through the smoke of the battles and pierc’d with missiles I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody,
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter’d and broken.
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
The light outside the cellar was darkening by now, and the bar seemed more dimly lit. Along with other upperclassmen there were gathered some professors and business types. In a booth in the corner I recognized some Red Sox players drinking beers and eating the free popcorn. Finally, I came out with it. The Mel King campaign, I said, was the sort of thing Derrida could never avow. You couldn’t trust him with such facts of life. But they weren’t having any of it. Literature and mayoral politics had nothing in common, one of them insisted and began to gather his things. Still, a couple of them wanted to see what Mel was about. They wanted to see him. Marc and Clover and the other guy split off from the group. But I took the rest with me.
It was a Monday night, and I knew Mel was talking at a house party in Allston, so we jumped onto the T and went over to the apartment building. Mel hadn’t arrived yet when we got there so we helped the host with some of the arrangements. When I think about it now, I suppose the rhythm of political meetings made me happy. So much of politics is symbolic speech in the service of the syncopations of the lives we actually live. But the ways we gather to vote is with our bodies. It’s the dance that goes along with those rhythms. It’s like a poem in some ways. The words of political speech are translated into images. And while words refer, images represent. The images are shorthand for an argument. When you think about it, you can see how both political speech and poetic utterance have their origins in life. The soap box speech and the poem are some of the ceremonies of life.
Soon the apartment had filled up, and people were lining the stairwell up to the front door. Right about then Mel came in. He had a large face with strong, warm intelligence in his eyes that seemed to arouse everyone in the room. He was staffed by just one guy, an old roommate of Jeff Smith’s I knew only as Spencer. We said hello and spoke for a minute. Then Mel slipped into the kitchen to make a phone call. He was going to speak in the living room—it had a high ceiling and a balcony. There were no chairs so everyone was standing. We became a small society of belief that political change was coming. Outside it was dark. Inside everyone was now excited and felt triumphant.
I found a place to sit on the floor near where Mel was going to speak and kept my eyes on his bald black head. I could see he didn’t know what to make of the crowd but was appreciative. He looked bemused. And then he started to talk quietly, earnestly, more like a professor in a seminar room than one of those happy political warriors. It was like he was doing a verbal dance, elaborately crossing his thoughts and emotions, but with a flourish too in a kind of poetry of community—
I first want to say that nobody does anything on their own. I may stand here as one man but it’s one man who is a compilation of thousands of folks who have been involved in this cause. I just want people to understand that because that’s some of the strength of what is happening with this movement. I stand here as a person who’s thrilled at what the movement is accomplishing. I have no question or doubts about what the long range impact is going to come from your work. People talk about the tent city we put together and the importance of people making decisions about what they wanted with the land in their neighborhood. The best things about this campaign is like the best things that happened when students stopped the war in Vietnam. And I think it’s important to put it into that perspective. If we are successful here in Boston, others will rise. They’ll rise in hundreds and hundreds of cities across this country. That’s huge because you’re stretching folks by supporting this campaign. If you continue to do that, no telling how far you can go. You have a right to this revolution because we all deserve the best of what is offered in this city.
By now I had given up my spot to a woman in a ponytail who was wearing a blue jean jacket covered in political buttons. The biggest was a blue one that read:
I was interested in listening to Mel, and also not. The guys from the Dugout had already left. When Mel was done and worked himself out of the apartment to get to the next house party on his schedule, I too headed downstairs too and walked out into the Boston night. I wanted to clear my head. Under a streetlamp I pulled out the copy of the other book I had in my bag, Out-of-the-Body Travel by Stanley Plumly, and read a few lines at random before walking back to Glenville. They were from the title poem, and they describe tension between a father and son—
And in one stroke he brings the hammer
down, like mercy, so that the young bull’s
legs suddenly fly out from under it . . .
While in the dream he is the good angel
in Chagall, the great ghost of his body
like light over the town. The violins
sustains him. It is pain remembered.
Either way, I know if I wake up cold,
and go out into the clear spring night,
still dark and precise with stars,
I will feel the wind coming down hard
like his hand, in fever, on my forehead.
After that I couldn’t get rid of the conflict about politics and poetry in my mind. I was digging myself into a psychic hole where the political life would call me up and plead with me: I’ll carry you, I’ll give you energy, I’ll fill your hours with citizenship and purpose. And the life of poetry would counter: I’ll arouse you, I’ll expose your spirit. And Plumly goes—
I watched you on the wrong side
of the river, waving. You were trying
to tell me something. You used both hands
and sort of ran back and forth,
as if to say look behind you, look out
behind you. I wanted to wave back.
What I had wanted was to cross over from one world to the other, and when I was in one of the worlds, I then wanted to reenter the other one. At that hour all I could think to do was look at the sky above me with its tiny explosions of stars and open harbors of darkness that we never really see. And then, in the way that images stray into our minds, I thought of the sky above Galveston Island back in Texas, and a catch of language came into my head that went—
We let our bodies down on the jetty with the tide high and the dawn light drifting at our feet, with the waterline’s azure palms uncurling and reaching back. She was a girl I don’t remember, our feet in the gulf water, whiskey, constellations clenching the hour’s teeth.
I fished into my knapsack for a pencil and wrote it down in my notebook. And then I wrote down also something about how I wanted to live next, that I needed to keep a wildness inside me if I was going to be a writer and mustn’t turn away from the terrors of the underworld.
“The Dugout” is the fourteenth in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.