Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972. A gray cubicle, with piles of gray manuscript boxes and reams of galley and page proofs of scientific college text books, a beige desk phone, a Selectric typewriter, and production editor me. With a graduate degree from Berkeley, I had almost flunked the spelling test for this poverty-level gig. I had to promise to keep a dictionary (American Heritage, 1st edition) open on my desk (still open on this desk 45 years and many desks later). It would never have occurred to me to appear there not dressed in a suit coat and tie. Both my wife and her mother worked there as well. We got to commute together.
My mother-in-law, Mae Santamaria (may her god bless her soul), had enrolled in night school at Fairleigh Dickinson University. I don’t know why. Her job at P-H was secure. Maybe because both of her kids had made it through college, she figured it must be easy. Mae had been born in a small town in Chieti Province, Italy. Her New Jersey high school diploma was decades behind her. She was enrolled in an English Literature class. She didn’t mind the readings, but the papers bugged her. English was still not her first language. She had to get A’s. Solution: son-in-law.
Mae would show up at my cubicle and wonder if I might find the time to “give her some ideas” on how to address her latest writing assignment. Oh, she had to hand the paper in at class tonight. They were just 400 to 500-word freshman comp efforts. I would put aside my drudgery job work and bang out winners for her. It does not hurt sharing a conspiracy with your mother-in-law from which she owes you favors.
Then one day she came to me with a larger but no less immediate request—a four-to-five-page discussion of any two of Shakespeare’s sonnets collected in her Norton anthology text book. I had three hours. I chose two sonnets. The easiest route was compare and contrast. I showed how and why one poem worked better than the other. I remember being pleased with the paper when I handed it over to Mae. It was the best thing I had done for her. She got a C-minus and a scolding from her teacher for thinking she was smarter than Shakespeare. She was not happy.
Neither was I. I got the marked-up paper back from Mae (she threw it at me) and went over it. So, okay, maybe I needed to know more about sonnets, which had never really interested me. For the next year or so, during which time Mae’s daughter declared our marriage a big mistake on her part, I studied sonnets. I read them and I read about them. I started writing them and became enamored of their discipline and concision, of their subtle rules and strict injunctions. I read and wrote a lot of lousy ones. The form and its possible mutations commandeered my verse. Everyone else was writing without borders. In an ancient form I had found a cohort.
Keeping fourteen lines, I pushed the end rhymes inward. Leaning always iambic, I let lines find their own choral lengths. Sometimes the concluding couplet might rhyme or half-rhyme; sometimes, for effect, it would not. The classic two-thirds to one-third of observation to comment, specific to general, story to analysis held. I became convinced that this was the ideal length of a poem, the optimum focal verse aperture. Because of my alteration of traditional prosodic components, I could not justify calling these products sonnets. I called them instead sprung sonnets.
Over the next several years, free of New Jersey and Prentice-Hall, I composed a hundred-poem series to that ex-wife and -life, all sprung sonnets, called passage. Now, going on fifty years later, I still have not escaped the shadow of that C-minus. Thank you, Mae.
49 years later, like a ladder left in the attic
I once shook Bobby Kennedy’s hand on Main Street
catty-corner from the Sears & Roebucks where I had once
seen Annette Funicello pitching Kenmore appliances
(looking like yesterday’s forgotten pancake make-up)
about three blocks from where I guess I was conceived and
was born and grew up as innocent of history as the next.
Yesterdays like peanut shells on a barroom floor.
He was standing on the back seat of a white Impala
convertible with the top down coming out of the
negro ghetto, held upright by big black guys who
kept him from falling out of the car as he leaned
sideways (he wasn’t a big man) to shake our hands.
Hope wasn’t something you even heard about in church
in those days, but he was smiling this goofy real smile.
Rummaged through the evidence files again tonight
the moon past full and all the crows asleep inside the woods
the past dealt like tarot cards laughing at their own predictions
avoiding the present as the transparent pox that it is.
At three a.m. I understand that what we believe in is no more
than past hopes dressed in armored denial, the lies of survival.
We are each an archaeological site, an arrowhead here, a bone
fragment there, cracked and crushed to suck the marrow out
long-forgotten memories properly encased in common earth.
Imagine the chaos if death was not the only truth.
The photo is of my son Liam, on a beach in Tutuila, American Samoa, getting on a quarter of a century ago now. He had appropriated my hat. It is not a Samoan hat, though he is a hundred-percent Samoan. It is a palagi hat. Palagi, properly papalagi, sky breaker, is the Samoan term for Caucasians. I’m a hundred percent palagi. I adopted Liam, in Samoa, when he was one-month old. We spent the next eighteen years together there. He was an exceptionally brave child. You can see it in his face. He was fearless when it came to doing what he thought should be done.
Fourteen years ago, while still living in Samoa, I started writing a series of police procedural novels set in Samoa. I had lived and worked there for more than twenty years. I wanted to share what I had learned about this richly different place. I invented a Samoan detective, Sgt. Apelu Soifua, and through four books dwelled in his bicultural conundrum of an American-trained cop in a Samoan world. For years I had demurred, even though my island mentor, the Samoan playwright John Kneubuhl, had told me to just fucking do it. After Uncle John died, I took his advice. I had no idea at the time that I was committing a literary crime.
How dare I, a palagi, assume to write about the experiences and thoughts of a man from another—indeed a colonialized—culture? What presumption! Larceny!
I wish Uncle John was still around so we could mull this over. John was afakasi, half Samoan, half palagi. Born in Samoa, he had learned his trade under Thornton Wilder at Yale. He had spent decades in Hollywood as a very successful TV/screen writer, churning out scripts for such shows as Star Trek, The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West, and Hawaii Five-O, among many others. He was a master at cultural appropriation. In the end, he returned to his island home and roots in the masterful trilogy of plays in Think of a Garden.
Uncle John would have warmed to this debate. I know he would have railed against any ideology placing borders on an artist’s creativity. “How dare Shakespeare write about Danes or Italians?” “White-out Twain’s Nigger Jim!” A fifth of Scotch and a lot of laughs. Then we would have moved on to some more serious topic.
Is exclusivity essential to diversity? Is there any need in art for political police? And who are these people? Don’t they have anything constructive to do? How about trying on someone else’s hat?
(Det Sgt. Apelu Soifua Jungle Beat Mysteries: Pago Pago Tango, Fire Knife Dancing, The Dead Don’t Dance, Blood Jungle Ballet. Thomas & Mercer. Available via Amazon.com and http://www.johnenright.us)
There was a bakery over in the Mission that sold its day-old bread for ten cents a loaf. Every couple of days I would hike over there and bring back as much as I could carry in my rucksack. It wasn’t much of a hike, just a mile or so each way from the Haight. The bread was my contribution to the commune. In return, they let me sleep and eat there, a big old run-down house in a working-class neighborhood. I’d hitchhiked out from New York. I was the only one in the house from the East Coast. At 20, I was also the youngest. I didn’t fit in too well. One of my first nights there, we were all sitting around on the floor in the common room getting stoned, and everyone else was drinking cheap dago-red jug wine. I went out and came back with a quart of Rainier Ale. That somehow made me weird.
Often, the jug wine, or the sangria they fixed to try and make it palatable. would be laced with LSD. This was the summer before the Summer of Love. Lysergic acid was not yet illegal. And in the Haight was a small ghetto of adults who had not so much dropped out of their old world as dropped into a new freedom sphere of their own invention. Psychedelics had freed them. My commune mates were ex-lawyers and -teachers and -real-estate agents. One of the things they all had in common was that they no longer were what they once had been, like married or on a career path.
I had come to San Francisco on a vague poet’s quest. New York was still the literate center of the universe, but it was stale. The so-called Beats had abandoned Manhattan for the City by the Bay. In those halcyon hitchhiking days, a visit west was only four or five days of free rides away. I had been fired from my stat-analyst job at Fortune for showing up one Monday morning with a shaved head. (It was not attractive.) Such expressions of personal freedom were not tolerated at Time-Life Inc. So, I was collecting unemployment, $48 a week, and learned that I could collect it as well in California.
There was a man whose name I then knew, who that summer was sort of royalty in the Haight. He dressed in Oscar Wilde hats and capes and toured his tiny principality with a pair of exotic wolf hounds. Supposedly, he was the font of all local LSD. With caution and diligence, I managed that summer to avoid ingesting any of his product. Though it felt at times as if I alone was the only one not tripping, I confined myself to weed and Rainier Ale and became a non-participant observer of the encompassing alternate reality.
The source of my reluctance was quite simple—the verse the acidhead poets was churning out. I thought it was awful. The purpose of poems, I thought, was to clarify, to distil experience into shareable insights, not celebrate personal confusion. The solo inner vision is not communication. Much of what I read, in my jejune opinion, seemed speaking-in-tongues gibberish. They lacked all discipline, were amorphous, pure personal indulgence. I did not want that to happen to my poems.
This substitute for poetry was emblematic of the scene as a whole. The gaseous comfort zone this mini-subculture subsisted upon was comprised primarily of self-righteousness, a snotty self-righteousness at that—the less sense you made, the higher your status. That defense—it’s not that I’m not clear, it’s your fault for not understanding. The literary analogy was to jazz. But even jazz had rules and framework and was played by groups of men who understood one another. Coltrane always returned to the tune right on beat.
The smells—patchouli oil and incense, marijuana and unwashed bodies—and on the streets, the fog-cleansed air and the always chilled Pacific breeze. North Beach saloons and cheap Chinatown noodle houses. Stoned side trips to Mendocino and Big Sur. In 1966, $48 was equivalent to $480 in today’s dollars. I got to hear the music and watch the lightshows and the people at The Fillmore and The Avalon—the Airplane and the Dead, Big Brother and Grace Slick, Country Joe and the Mothers of Invention. The musicianship was often not the best, but it was the experience you went for, the comradery of crazies.
On the radio, ’66 was the summer of “California Dreamin’,” “Paint It Black,” “Good Vibrations,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Yellow Submarine.” But that was the other, regular world. As the summer went on, the lightshows got more psychedelic, Janis Joplin went beyond extreme, and the Grateful Dead would refuse to stop playing. How many rules can be broken?
Then there was the Oracle. In subsequent years, Haight-Ashbury became famous as a flowerchild haven, a refuge for damaged and disaffected teenagers. But in ’66 there were no kids there. It was all adults. They weren’t adolescent escapees. They saw themselves as pioneers. I was just an inexperienced kid and ignored. So, when a cadre of the senior acidhead elite decided to put out a community newspaper, I got to hang out with them as a goffer, the practical kid who remembered stuff. No one remembered my name.
The money all came from acid sales. A space was rented above the Haight Theater. Someone who said they knew what they were doing bought an ancient press from a shuttered newspaper upstate. A staff of exotic misfits was assembled. I don’t know what they were paid. I never was. At least at first, no one was in it for money. It was a community project. The explorers on the frontier of alternate reality required an organ to relate back their inner discoveries. It took us weeks to get that old press adjusted and balanced enough to print. It didn’t help that everyone else was tripping.
The San Francisco Oracle fulfilled and exceeded its mission. Its success and impact far exceeded the worth of any combination of its contents, much of which was either unreadable—due to the liberal application of colored-ink washes (ala Fillmore lightshows)—or intentionally unintelligible (unknowability being the hallmark of all true wisdom). The few pieces of mine that got published were unrecognizable, chopped up to decorate some mandala or unicorn graphic. Printed badly on cheap coarse paper (a bitch in the press), it had a good feel in the hand. It caught on among those who cared little for words.
At the end of the summer, with $40 in my pocket, I headed north, hitchhiking up to Vancouver to take a new route back to Manhattan across Canada 1. For the next couple months, I acted as East Coast distributor for the Oracle, until it became too popular and profitable. When it started making money, everything changed and I was out. Just as well. Its many-colored inks came off on your fingers.
Slanting sun through barren trees laying bars of shadow
across the awe-filled after-blizzard whiteness.
A murder of crows, fifty strong and as black as the snow is white,
fills the bare silhouette limbs, announcing themselves
in a fractured chorus of their only call. It is their season.
They rule the airways of my thought.
They depart en masse confusion, a cloud of dark chaos
and stragglers, leaving behind only frozen silence.
They were just a bunch of retired old guys who had outgrown the need to be authoritative. They met every Friday after four at the village saloon for drinks and a review of the week’s updates. They were: the former long-time town manager who now ran the community farm, the former publisher/editor of the island newspaper, one of his former columnists with a mysterious past, a poet/novelist who was respected if little read, and a rock-music reviewer/song writer. They were an institution unto themselves and no threat to the womenfolk. It being New England, not one of them was a Republican.
The name of the establishment where they converged was the Narragansett Café, though it did not serve coffee, never had. It was where the guys in outdoor work clothes drank when they got off work, where the village alcoholic widows felt at home, a block up from the waterfront. There was the requisite pool table, juke box, bar shuffle board along one wall—a proper chapel of ethanol culture with four muted flat-screen TVs.
The past and its players played a part in the group’s disputations—Brian Wilson, Bill Russel, JFK, Roy Orbison, Ted Williams, Fidel Castro—but the commonest theme was generally how to make sense of what was happening in America. As all Americans who cared were aware, this was a daunting task; but to these septuagenarians, the current social/political landscape was especially disconcerting. “It’s like a trailer park after the tornado,” one of them observed, “with survivors searching through the wreckage for whatever fond possessions they can salvage, like pieces of the Constitution.”
In their shared opinion, the democracy had been mutating into a financial oligarchy for some time. It seemed inevitable. Socrates and Mencken had predicted it. But the latest collapse of old values did seem extreme. They all had assumed that true social chaos would arrive after their departure, like the rising sea levels that would drown this oceanside saloon, but decades hence, long after their last drink. They had worried how their grandkids would cope. But like anything headed downhill, the disintegration had picked up speed.
One thing the old farts weren’t was naïve. They had been paying attention for more than half a century, through Vietnam and Watergate and a dozen bogus wars. They had heard all the prevarications, the dishonest disavowals, the “unknown unknowns,” and flat-out misinformation. They’d been around. Sometimes their leaders had lied. But those were lies that at least paid tribute to the truth by pretending to be true, and politicians caught in a lie paid a price for tarnishing the truth. Truth was different than belief or shared opinion or repeated assertion. Truth was provable. Truth was rational and scientific, based upon observable fact. Truth was undeniable and would win out in the end. No longer.
Truth, like politeness and courtesy, was no longer fashionable. Truth, in fact, had become the enemy of many. Unfortunate truths could be ignored, despised. Now it was the facts that lied, if they contradicted what one wanted to believe. Untruths were now just “alternative facts.” Reality was whatever best served your purpose. And no one seemed to care very much that the basis of all honest discourse had just vanished. If you don’t like my truth, make up your own. They shook their heads—unsustainable.
And then there was social media. None of the old guys quite knew what to think about that, except that it was not their mode of communication. It seemed to be all about speed and brevity and surface. Three qualities they no longer valued. An embarrassing constant contest of self-important distraction, a crowd to be lost in, and at least coincidentally complicit in the larger cacophonous chaos. One thing they were certain of was that any endeavor without gatekeepers could not maintain or even appreciate quality. It was emblematic of the society as a whole—all about more, not about better.
They had a lot of laughs. There was much to laugh about. It was hopeless, of course, which made humor all the more essential. Selfie-sticks, Twitter accounts, a newly elected illiterate buffoon for President who personified the tragic-comic punchline of it all. They never drank that much. Those days were behind them. They flirted with lovely Caitlyn behind the bar, young enough to be their granddaughter. By six they would disperse, their inconsequential council taking a recess until the next Friday, but never adjourning.
May my liver outlast my heart.
A new year greeting, a letter to Michael Joyce.
After midnight, day’s shift done. I work at the new book every day now. It is pretty much my sole waking escape from circling reality. So much aggressive distraction to ignore. The menu of things and events that interest me has shrunken drastically. Yesterday I tried and failed to watch a football game. I have the feeling I’m searching for something, but it’s not out there. Is it hidden in the words? Like a puzzle-lock–seven common words arranged in such an order that a hole is ripped in the scrim of illusions to reveal the glowing truth beyond.
I need some mushrooms. I need to go back there. That’s the right neighborhood. The simplicity of unity. Ran across a word today–entheogenic, “God-enabling,” as in an entheogenic experience. I once had those–in the redwoods, the Nevada desert, on a Marin ocean bluff where I knew I was the Golden Eagle I’d been watching all day, coming back to our nest. All thanks to the Fungod.
Just Jim Bean and ganja tonight, some barbecue chips. Time was never mine to waste. You can’t own time, rather vice-versa. There was a truth at the center of everything, just as in all dimensions, before the big bang. We all are particles of it, racing outwards. There is a truth too big to understand, but we will know it when it meets us.
Oh, and happy out-of-sync-solstice holiday. I have several times employed your Uppsala solstice celebrations account to remind people that they are still mammals first, only later one of the faithful.
Your ancient pal,