Sunday, April 30, 2017

Dogged

Somewhere between dusk and evening, I felt something slip through a hidden entrance- a cracked door, a hole in the sky.  I might have been on a plane from Tokyo... thinking about the way birds fly in a line some afternoons-- as though they are desperately trying to give us a sign, read us a message... and we, the opaque humans that we are-- fail to decipher, to notice, to apply.  I was staring out of a window on a long flight where time zones, geography, space and cultures melt and blur... where the view of atmosphere and clouds takes us to a place which seems un-life-like... close to the place we began, to the place we will rejoin.  Somehow it seems we are not meant to experience the literal milieu of an out-of-world place, that we are meant to be walking on the ground, using our feet and our hands like the primitive beings we once were.

Miles above our home, things like death, God, eternity-- they are within our grasp, we think... dreams and fantasy seem possible... we are one with the clouds... we are in the place of vast infinity and space.  On the ground, in a tiny room of the city, death was paying a visit to a friend I'd made maybe only because his illness compelled him to reach out, to connect with someone with whom he'd never have made contact.  But there we were-- star-crossed and intimate-- we adopted one another briefly, like my seatmate who had bared her heart to me before dinner.

Last month my other friend finally released herself from the agony which had worn her the way some homeless men cling to an old coat which has long ago lost its usefulness, its shape, its reason.  She died like an abandoned animal-- like a dog, the expression is, I think.  Besides me, who was for whatever reason bound to execute her final perverse wish,  there was no one to relieve her, to administer, to comfort.  Her cat, to whom she dedicated her final choices, seemed oblivious and callow.  It ran from end to end of the apartment every time I entered, rejoiced at the opening of a can, purred with gusto after feeding... watched me hawkfully as I failed to find any reasonable solution for my friend's discomfort.  The cancer devoured her like a hungry hyena, but cruelly left just enough so she was conscious of the hell of her disease.  It went on beyond the limits of any decent humanity.  In Hospice they would have dosed her lethally with morphine long before.  The only metaphor I could summon was being in hard unproductive labor for a year.  It was that bad.  Relentless.  On the wall was no Do-Not-Resuscitate, no final instruction except a note requesting that her ex-boyfriend-- the one who had not shown his face for years, even though he lived nearby and was listed as next-of-kin-- be called to pick up the cat in case she died.  From its age, I suspect this note had been posted many years before she had an inkling of cancer, and maybe worried she'd drink too much and hit her head on the floor some night.  Or that one of the myriads of unworthy men she bedded would get rough.

Anyway, 'cats' was on the note; as long as I'd been coming in and out to help her, there was only one surviving animal.  I'd spoken to several people I knew about her situation.  It was dire and she was pretty much destitute.  Personally I was raised with dogs.  My mother disliked cats and associated them with spinsterhood and eccentric lonely women.  She was superstitious and not sophisticated about certain things, but she raised me to avoid their company.  Dogs-- honest and boisterous and loyal.  They stay with you when you're sick; they grieve for you.  But what I discovered among the population of animal-lovers in my friend-circle, was their sympathy for her cat was universal while all they gave poor Lucia was a tilt of the head.

I see hoards of homeless people on the street these days.  I can't take a subway ride without being shaken down by an outstretched hand and a story; it feels like the 70's again.  Yes, I'm a sucker for these people.  After all, I ended up tending to a lonely ill woman who wasn't particular nice to me, and would never have given much attention to anyone's suffering.  I stayed to the very end, to the moment of heeding the instructed phone call on the wall even though I could have punched her ex for his utter lack of showing up, whatever their relationship.  She had no one.

A few people absorbed the fact that she'd passed through my posts and poetry.  The reality of her death was the worst thing I have ever experienced; the agony and hideous lack of closure is impossible to exorcise.  But for a situation where I was not even allowed to arrange a burial or funeral, the number of people inquiring about the fate of the cat was overwhelming.  And not just inquiring-- scolding me, insisting-- bleeding for the cat who was old and fine and not particularly sympathetic or charming... with not a word for her owner who had equally prioritized her animals.

On the Tokyo plane, I watched Lion.  The credits gave statistics on the staggering numbers of lost and missing Indian children.  I wept through most of the film.    Three nights before, I was half asleep and happened to catch some blurb about one of the Beverly Hills Housewives and her new charity to save dogs from cruelty in China.  Yes, I love animals.  I have nurtured strays, fed (yes!) cats and sick pigeons,  felt sorry for dead rodents.   I tried hard to communicate with my suffering friend's cat who seemed to ignore both of us.  But what I cannot comprehend is the utter failure of humanity to sympathize with fellow men as much as they adore their pets.  There are many abused animals, I agree; but the number of sick and negected children-- not to mention neighbors and friends who suffer needlessly and die without compassion and care-- is baffling.

So while I love my neighbors' pets and will care for their dogs when they are sick or away, I can't help wagging a finger at people who cannot find time to look in on a sick or ailing or helpless human being whose unfortunate psyche is created to feel the pains of loneliness and isolation nearly as much as physical discomfort.  The homeless who sit on corners with sad-eyed and hungry  animals get way more financial sympathy than they do alone.  What is wrong with us that we seem to disregard our own kind in favor of animals who I concede have very little hatred in their hearts? But neither do babies and humans who have not been mistreated and punished and deprived.

Let's put the human back in humane... let us not forget our fellow creatures, unappealing and ruined and seemingly ungrateful as they may be; when you are sick and unable and tired and must deal with the pathetically inadequate medical system which favors the rich and the animals among us... it is not easy.  Have at least the sympathy of an average dog.  Amen.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Eyes on the Prize

During a week of prize-giving-- not the Olympics or Grammies, but the Pulitzers… I begin to think about what it is writers do, about what sort of literary cream rises to the top in this era of digital hocus-pocus.  Undoubtedly there is traditional wonderful work being done.  This is the first time I actually knew one of the winners; he seemed to be sort of a peer, and yet now he is crowned-- he has risen, perhaps never to return.

But which comes first: the poet or the poem?  Does everything that leaves the designated poet's pen become a poem?  Is mediocrity the inevitable by-product of awards?  So often the precious stereotype of the starving, desperate artist, awash in inspiration, drowning in passion-- it begins to peel away, to shrink beneath the satin robes of achievement.  

I've been playing blues for years.  For so long I had no deep respect for the tradition; I didn't 'get' it.  The first time I stood beside John Lee Hooker, some epiphany came through me like a sword… the music began to rise, it told its own story-- it wrapped around and inside and quietly shook me where I stood.  It was familiar, and new, and it took me with it like a train.  I've sat on the laps of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, I've stood beside them and felt something real and important-- some undeniable true cry of life listened to words that rhyme with heartbeats.   Does this merit a Pulitzer prize?

Last night I found myself in a neighborhood I don't often visit-- midtown east.  It was flush with tourists, bus-groups and wandering families buying Starbucks and souvenirs, looking up at office buildings and passing Duane Reades and bank lobbies on wide, lit streets.  Is this New York,  I asked myself?  Please, I wanted to urge the visitors-- this is nothing-- -these are convenience stores and real estate-- there is no city here.  There is no warp and weft and living tapestry; there is no music and no poetry-- no grit and color and shouting and history.

I grew up in the myth of my city.  I created my own legends, absorbed the atmosphere of the artists and writers and composers I sought out, breathed their breath and inhaled their message.  I grew up wanting to create my own language and a voice with which to speak.  I needed to have something to say, and I tried to dissect moments as I lived them so their content became my raw materials.

Recently I published a book of poetry.  It is a nostalgic collection of memories through which I'd hoped to honor the dream of my first serious love affair, and the first person through whom I began to see a version of life that was visionary and spiritual.  Of course, it could have been the psychedelics and other drugs, but there was music and original songs-- passion and a voice I will never forget.  He died so young, and I recently found a cache of letters he'd written and I'd never received. I felt compelled to write-- or maybe the poems wrote themselves.  I could have gone on, but I made a book… it has some truth for me, a fairly uncontrived recovery of the moments as they were revealed to me-- with some hindsight, but not too much.

I've had it on my mind to reach out to his family whom I knew very little, so long ago.  Today I managed to find a brother via Facebook, explained in a message who I was, asked if I could send a book.  He replied with coldness that he'd rather just 'leave it as it is'.  I was not just shocked but hurt, devastated-- cried for hours… knew I'd picked the wrong brother, that he'd never convey anything to the more sensitive sisters, or anyone else…  it was a dead end; I felt he'd sliced off my outstretched hand.

I often wander the city… listening to my own voice which feels sometimes like the crying woman in that Picasso mural who to me is the human 'star'.  I see so many broken people and these are the ones that enter me-- the ones I take home, the ones who tell their story at night through my fingers at the keyboard, or who sing to me as I pick up my guitar.

The man who won the prize-- he'd shared some poems before the book came.  They were large poems-- they had a purpose and a subject… but most of all, I realized, they were larger than the room in my apartment where he read them; they were podium poems-- a sort of speech or declaration… an 'address'.  Maybe that is the secret.  They were made to be heard.  To be spoken.  They were already famous.  He is a professional.

It's taken me 35 years to call myself a musician and even there I feel unworthy.  This is my work, my job.  Poetry is a calling--  a process-- a verb.  To call myself a poet seems premature and pretentious-- it presumes everything I write I consider some kind of 'art'.  My poems-- well, they are my poems; they are voices or songs or whispers.  They are as they arrive-- in their naked, broken awkward intimacy.. part of a process that weaves listening and coaxing voices from inside things.   They are not sure of themselves… they are being born, they are quiet and not famous-- not podium fare or poster-ready.   'Keep your eyes on the prize' is a famous American gospel lyric.  My poet friend certainly knows these words and they certainly guided him to some winning.  As for me, I guess I am too busy looking down-- listening.  I'm afraid I wouldn't know a prize if it hit me in the head, and I'm in some fine company here.  Amen.