“. . . some right to be here and that there is value in it . . .”

 

I'll sell you this tree.

I’ll sell you this tree.

Ron Padgett is my brother’s age. Three years older than I. He writes poetry. His poetry is mostly of the kind that, when I read it, I say to myself (or out loud), I wish I’d said that. I stumbled upon this one early this morning trying to find a poem (a boring poem compared with Padgett’s) of which I could remember one paltry phrase. Yes, this popped up in a Google search—I did not have it in mind. I own two of Padgett’s collections and have read them, but, as anyone can tell you, I don’t remember such things as poems. (I don’t remember my purpose in going to the Kroger up the street was to buy paper towels when I pass the cheese counter and get sidetracked. “Sidetrack” was the name of a gay bar in Cedar Rapids, IA, when I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa thirty miles away. It was a relatively tacky bar in an old warehouse neighborhood built, yes, beside the railroad tracks.)

There is a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Cedar Rapids. I thought there were a couple, but I can’t find them in a Google search. I’ve seen this one because a professor at the University with whom I had something of a fling was into architecture and took all of his boys to see the Grant House. He was a singer and I was young and thin and recently divorced at that time. For one week I thought the singing professor (the professor of singing) was Him, but it turned out not to be so. He probably didn’t like the fact that I was so appallingly “out” and a drunk.

Oh, yes. I was writing about Ron Padgett. His poetry is the kind that almost anyone can relate to except people who think poetry has to have a regular rhythm and a certain rhyme pattern. I first discovered him when I started to read his memoir of Joe Brainard, his childhood friend who was also, I think, a poet—or a painter. Or some such. They were both part of the “New York School,” I think, but I’m not sure about that since I’m not a literary scholar and don’t know how to categorize poets. At any rate, they grew up together, and when Brainerd died of AIDS, Padgett memorialized him a biography. It’s one of those books I bought and started to read but couldn’t get into enough to finish. It actually wasn’t that long ago, or I wouldn’t remember it so clearly. I have about a thousand books like that. Perhaps if I had finished reading more of them, I would be a literary scholar. Who knows?

Joe Brainard loved pansies

Joe Brainard loved pansies

The Memoir of Joe Brainard is apparently one of those books I got rid of in my “great book give-away” last year.

At any rate, when I discovered the Memoir of Joe Brainard, I looked Padgett’s poetry up and bought a volume or two. The one I see on my shelf at the moment is How Long. I think there are some of his poems in the Norton Anthology of Post-Modern American Poetry, which is, of course, at my office helping me to pretend to look like a literary scholar. I guess my pretense has finally caught up with me because, as I may have mentioned in this blog before, SMU is putting me out to pasture at the end of this academic year. Oh well.

When I was in high school, I was a poet. That is, I wrote poetry. I entered one poem in a contest (probably the National Council of Teachers of English). It was called “Swinging Sam’s Sexy Sister,” and it was a direct result, I think, of my having read Ginsberg’s Howl or some other work of some other “beat” poet. The poem came back from the contest without a mark on it except some silly judge had scrawled across the top, “Plagiarized from e.e. cummings?”  Of whom I had never heard. So Mr. Simpson loaned me a collection of cummings’ poetry, and I immediately fell in love with “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” I used to be able to recite it from memory, not because I “understood” it (which I still don’t) but because I think it sounds yummy, scrumptious, lovely, beautiful. cummings is my brother’s favorite poet, which is why I mentioned my brother at the beginning of this writing. And if you believe that, I have pecan tree up on Preston Avenue at the entrance to University Park that I’ll sell you for less than a million dollars.

So now, if you’re still reading, you know perhaps why like Ron Padgett’s poem so much. Because I love the way it sounds, and because I do have “the sense that [I] have some right to be here and that there is value in it” even though I have definitely lost my god(s). My cats aren’t quite as humanoid as Padgett’s dog, but they do get to play with me –on their own terms. The poem:

Lost and Found
by Ron Padgett

Man has lost his gods.
If he loses his dignity,
it’s all over.

I said that.

What did I mean?
First, that the belief
in divinity has almost
disappeared.

By dignity
I meant mutual
self-respect, the sense
that we have some right
to be here and that
there is value in it.
(Values are where
the gods went
when they died.)

My dog Susie doesn’t seem
to have any values, but she does
have Pat and me, gods
she gets to play with and bark at.

About this poem:
“In the pile of miscellaneous papers always on my desk I found a scrap that contained the words in this poem’s epigraph, and I vaguely remembered having scribbled them down. That triggered the poem’s beginning: ‘I said that.’ I liked the unusual idea of quoting oneself in an epigraph. By the way, the corny play on god/dog was unintentional.” ––Ron Padgett

e.e. cummings explained here

e.e. cummings explained here

Acrophobia is a comfortable disease*

Watch out for kids from Sierra Leone

Watch out for kids from Sierra Leone

With apologies to e.e. cummings.* I’m not sure why that poem popped into my head. It has nothing to do with what I’m thinking about. Acrophobia is not a comfortable disease.

I am terrified of heights. I’d do almost anything to wiggle out of playing tour guide to a group of Lutheran kids from Sierra Leone who want nothing more than to go to the top of the JPMorgan Chase tower (55 floors) in Dallas. You can’t get to the top, but there’s a spectacular observation deck at the bottom of the “keyhole” on the 40th floor. About seven years ago I took those kids up there. We were almost chased away by the guards because the kids were taking pictures. Terrorists, you know.

Yes, I’m pretty much a wall-hugger by whatever definition you give the term.

Another wall I hugged was the stairway to the top of the steeple of the First Congregational Church of Nantucket in about 1979. I was there with the organ tuner. The tall ships were coming into the harbor. We left our work and scrambled up the tower. But when I got to the open space, I could go no further. The organ tuner yelled at me to come on up, or I’d miss the sight. I had every intention of missing it.

The first tall building (not that tall—only 34 floors) I was dragged to the top of was the Kansas City Power and Light Building, the Art Deco masterpiece that dominated the Kansas City skyline when I was a kid. Dragged there by my dad and an uncle when I was in elementary school. I remember my brother and cousins running around the observation deck and leaning over the balustrade as if they were on the ground floor while I hugged the wall.

About the time I hugged that wall, I had my scariest climbing experience. There was no wall to hug. My parents knew the Forest Ranger at the fire lookout tower near the top of Laramie Peak in Wyoming. We lived for the first six months of my life in Douglas, at the foot of the peak, and the ranger was a member of Dad’s Baptist Church (my brother and I were born in Douglas). One summer after we moved to Nebraska, we returned to Douglas and drove up the peak see the forest from the ranger’s perch. The family clambered up the open staircase while I sat in the car. A thunderstorm blew up. My terror of the stairs was not as great as my fear of the storm, and I managed to climb the tower alone in the rain.

There. Four examples of my acrophobia.

But (and I’m not getting all gooey and inspirational here—simply stating the facts) they are also examples of my overcoming my terror and having pretty wonderful experiences.

Art Deco from childhood

Art Deco from childhood

I know what Dallas looks like from above. I found my apartment, and I achieved some sense of how this city is laid out (John Neely Bryan or whoever set down the streets was, I am sure, drunk). I saw the Tall Ships in Nantucket harbor, even more magnificent than they had been at Boston in 1976. I had a real sense even as a kid how the Missouri river cuts between the two Kansas City’s.

And I saw the natural wonder near my birthplace. I don’t know how to explain that experience. In 2005 I tried to get there again and discovered that my dad had accomplished a remarkable feat simply to find the tower. I spent half a day driving around with the instructions of a park ranger at the base of the peak. But I didn’t find it on my own.

OK. So here’s the gooey inspirational part of this story. (Oh, puleeze!) In a very few instances I have overcome my fears and had important, exciting, lovely (you find the word) experiences as a result. And the fact is that, operationally at least, I am no longer acrophobic. That’s a lie. I never put my full weight down in an airplane, doing my part to keep it in the air. I still hate heights (you will never under any circumstance find me on the masochism machines at Six Flags).

I have demonstrated against the Viet Nam War. And against the unconscionable invasion of Iraq (see, we were right). And in support of the Holy Land Foundation five. I’ve stood in front of groups of people and talked about my beliefs. And I write here about myself in a way I shouldn’t.

Fear greater than lightening

Fear greater than lightening

I do quite a few things that belie my nature as a wall-hugger.

I’m not saying that climbing a fire lookout tower on Laramie Peak made me brave. It didn’t. But I’m going to die soon (oh, come on, even 50 years would be “soon” in the grand scheme of things) and I guess I’m beginning to understand that participating is the only thing that makes sense of my having been here in the first place. So I do it sometimes against my better judgment.

Perhaps cummings is appropriate.

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.

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*pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
—— electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
A world of made
is not a world of born—— pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if — listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go
——  
e. e. cummings