Of all lies, art is the least untrue.
Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme: Pygmalion and Galatea (1890)
let me tell you about him. with sick hangover I crawled out from under the sheets the other day to try to get to the store, buy some food, place food inside of me and make the job I hate. all right. I was in this grocery store, and this little shit of a man (he must have been as old as I) but perhaps more comfortable and stupid and idiotic, a chipmunk full of beatlenuts and BOW WOW and no regard for anything except the way he felt or thought or expressed…he was a hyena-chipmunk, a piece of sloth. a slug. he kept staring at me, then he said:
he walked on up and stood there staring. HEY! he said HEY! he had very round eyes and he stood thee staring up at me from out of those very round eyes. the eyes had bottoms like the dirty bottoms of swimmingpools – no reflection. I didn’t have but a few minutes, had to rush. I had missed the job the day before and had already been counciled – god knows how many times – for excessive absenteeism. I really wanted to walk away from him but I was too sick to gather myself. he looked like the manager of an apartment house I had once lived in a few years back. one of those who was always standing in the hall at 3 a.m. when you entered with a strange woman.
he kept staring so I said, I CAN’T REMEMBER YOU. I’M SORRY, I JUST CAN’T REMEMBER YOU. I’M JUST NOT VERY GOOD AT THAT SORT OF THING. meanwhile thinking, why don’t you go away? why do you have to be here? I don’t like you.
I WAS AT YOUR PLACE, he said. OVER THERE, he pointed. he turned around and pointed south and east, where I had never lived. worked, but never lived. good, I thought, he’s a nut. I don’t know him. never knew him. I’m free. I can shove him off.
SORRY, I said, BUT YOU’RE MISTAKEN – I DON’T KNOW YOU. NEVER LIVED OVER THERE. SORRY, MAN.
I started to push my basket off.
WELL, MAYBE NOT THERE. BUT I KNOW YOU. IT WAS A PLACE IN THE BACK, YOU LIVED IN A PLACE IN THE BACK, ON THE SECOND FLOOR. IT WAS ABOUT A YEAR AGO.
SORRY, I told him, BUT I DRINK TOO MUCH. I FORGET PEOPLE. I DID LIVE IN A PLACE IN BACK, SECOND FLOOR, BUT THAT WAS 5 YEARS AGO.
LISTEN, I’M AFRAID YOU’RE MIXED UP. I’M IN A HURRY, REALLY. I HAVE TO GO, I’M REALLY DOWN TO THE MINUTE NOW.
I rolled on off toward the meat department.
he ran along beside me.
YOU’RE BUKOWSKI, AREN’T YOU?
YES, I AM.
I WAS THERE. YOU JUST DON’T REMEMBER. YOU WERE DRINKING.
WHO THE HELL BROUGHT YOU OVER?
NOBODY. I CAME ON MY OWN. I WROTE A POEM ABOUT YOU. YOU DON’T REMEMBER. BUT YOU DIDN’T LIKE IT.
UMM, I said.
I ONCE WROTE A POEM TO THAT GUY WHO WROTE ‘THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM.’ WHAT’S HIS NAME?
ALGREN. NELSON ALGREN, I said.
YEAH, he said. I WROTE A POEM ABOUT HIM. SENT IT TO THIS MAGAZINE. THE EDITOR SUGGESTED THAT I SEND THE POEM TO HIM. ALGREN WROTE BACK, HE WROTE ME BACK A NOTE ON A RACING FORM. ‘THIS IS MY LIFE,’ HE WROTE ME.
FINE, I said, SO WHAT’S YOUR NAME?
IT DOESN’T MATTER. MY NAME IS ‘LEGION.’
VERY FUNNY, I smiled. we trotted along, then stopped. I reached over and got a package of hamburger. then I decided to give him the brushoff. I took the hamburger and stuck it in his hand and shook his hand with it, saying, WELL, OK, GOOD TO SEE YOU, BUT MAN, REALLY I’VE GOT TO GO.
then I shifted into high and pushed my basket out of there. toward the bread department. he wouldn’t shake.
ARE YOU STILL AT THE POST OFFICE? he asked, trotting along.
I’M AFRAID SO.
YOU OUGHT TO GET OUT OF THERE. IT’S A HORRIBLE PLACE. IT’S THE WORST PLACE YOU CAN BE.
I THINK IT IS. BUT YOU SEE, I CAN’T DO ANYTHING, I DON’T HAVE ANY SPECIAL TRAINING.
YOU’RE A GREAT POET, MAN.
GREAT POETS DIE IN STEAMING POTS OF SHIT.
BUT YOU’VE GOT ALL THAT RECOGNITION FROM THE LEFT-WING PEOPLE.
left-wing people? this guy was crazy. we trotted along.
I HAVE RECOGNITION. FROM MY BUDDIES AT THE POST OFFICE. I’M RECOGNIZED AS A LUSH AND A HORSEPLAYER.
CAN’T YOU GET A GRANT OR SOMETHING?
I TRIED LAST YEAR. THE HUMANITIES. ALL I GOT BACK WAS A FORM-LETTER OF REJECTION.
BUT EVERY ASS IN THE COUNTRY IS LIVING ON A GRANT.
YOU FINALLY SAID SOMETHING.
DON’T YOU READ AT THE UNIVERSITIES?
I’D RATHER NOT. I CONSIDER IT PROSTITUTION. ALL THEY WANT TO DO IS…
he didn’t let me finish. GINSBERG, he said, GINSBERG READS AT THE UNIVERSITIES. AND CREELY AND OLSON AND DUNCAN AND…
I reached over and got my bread.
THERE ARE ALL FORMS OF PROSTITUTION, he said.
now he was getting profound. jesus. I ran toward the vegetable department.
LISTEN, COULD I SEE YOU AGAIN, SOMETIME?
MY TIME’S SHORT. REALLY TIGHT.
he found a matchbook. HERE, PUT YOUR ADDRESS DOWN IN HERE.
oh christ, I thought, how do you get out without hurting a man’s feelings? I wrote the address down.
HOW ABOUT A PHONE NUMBER? he asked. SO YOU’LL KNOW WHEN I’M COMING OVER.
NO, NO PHONE NUMBER. I handed the book back.
WHEN’S THE BEST TIME?
IF YOU’VE GOT TO COME, MAKE IT SOME FRIDAY NIGHT AFTER TEN.
I’LL BRING A SIX-PACK. AND I’LL HAVE TO BRING MY WIFE. I’VE BEEN MARRIED 27 YEARS.
TOO BAD, I said.
OH NO. IT’S THE ONLY WAY.
HOW DO YOU KNOW? YOU DON’T KNOW ANY OTHER WAY?
IT ELIMINATES JEALOUSY AND STRIFE. YOU OUGHT TO TRY IT.
IT DOESN’T ELIMINATE, IT ADDS. AND I’VE TRIED IT.
OH, YEAH, I REMEMBER READING IT IN ONE OF YOUR POEMS. A RICH WOMAN.
we hit the vegetables. the frozen ones.
I WAS IN THE VILLAGE IN THE 30’S. I KNEW BODENHEIM. TERRIBLE. HE GOT MURDERED. LAYING AROUND IN ALLEYS LIKE THAT. MURDERED OVER SOME TRASHY WOMAN. I WAS IN THE VILLAGE THEN. I WAS A BOHEMIAN. I’M NO BEAT. AND I’M NO HIPPY. DO YOU READ THE ‘FREE PRESS’?
he meant that he thought the hippies were terrible. he was being profoundly sloppy.
I PAINT TOO. I SOLD A PAINTING TO MY PSYCHIATRIST. THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY DOLLARS. ALL PSYCHIATRISTS ARE SICK, VERY SICK PEOPLE.
more 1933 profundity.
YOU REMEMBER THAT POEM YOU WROTE ABOUT GOING DOWN TO THE BEACH AND CLIMBING DOWN THE CLIFF TO THE SAND AND SEEING ALL THOSER LOVERS DOWN THERE AND YOU WERE ALONE AND WANTED TO GET OUT FAST, YOU GOT OUT SO FAST YOU LEFT YOUR SHOES DOWN THERE WITH THEM. IT WAS A GREAT POEM ABOUT LONELINESS.
it was a poem about how HARD it was to EVER GET alone, but I didn’t tell him that.
I picked up a package of frozen potatoes and made for the check stand. he trotted along beside me.
I WORK AS A DISPLAYMAN. IN THE MARKETS. HUNDRED AND FIFTY-FOUR A WEEK. I ONLY HIT THE OFFICE ONCE A WEEK. I WORK FROM ELEVEN A.M. TO FOUR P.M.
ARE YOU WORKING NOW?
OH YEAH, I’M WORKING ON DISPLAYS IN HERE NOW. WISH I HAD SOME INFLUENCE. I’D GET YOU ON.
the boy at the checkstand began tabbing the groceries.
HEY! my friend yelled, DON’T MAKE HIM PAY FOR THESE GROCERIES! HE’S A POET!
the boy at the checkstand was all right. he didn’t say anything. just went on tabbing it up.
my friend screamed again: HEY! HE’S A GREAT POET! DON’T MAKE HIM PAY FOR HIS GROCERIES.
HE LIKES TO TALK, I said to the checkstand boy.
the checkstand boy was all right. I paid and took my bag.
LISTEN, I’VE GOT TO GO, I said to my friend.
somehow, he could not leave the store. some fear. he wanted to keep his good job. wonderful. it felt very good to see him standing in there by the checkstand. not trotting along beside me.
I’LL BE SEEING YOU, he said.
I waved him away from under the bag.
outside were the parked cars, and the people walking around. none of them read poetry, talked poetry, wrote poetry. for once the masses looked very reasonable to me. I got to my car, threw the stuff in and sat there a moment. a woman got out of the car next to me and I watched as her skirt fell back and showed me flashes of white leg above the stockings. one of the world’s greatest works of Art: a woman with fine legs climbing out of her car. she stood up and the skirt fell back down. for a moment she smiled at me, then she turned and moved it all, wobbling, balancing, shivering toward the grocery store. I started the car and backed out. I had almost forgotten my friend. but he wouldn’t forget me. tonight he would say:
DEAR, GUESS WHO I SAW IN THE GROCERY TODAY? HE LOOKED ABOUT THE SAME, MAYBE NOT AS BLOATED. AND HE HAS THIS LITTLE THING ON HIS CHIN.
WHO WAS IT?
A POET. HE’S SLIPPED. HE CAN’T WRITE AS WELL AS HE USED TO. BUT HE USED TO WRITE SOME GREAT STUFF. POEMS OF LONELINESS. HE’S REALLY A VERY LONELY FELLOW BUT HE DOESN’T KNOW IT. WE’RE GOING TO SEE HIM THIS FRIDAY NIGHT.
BUT I DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO WEAR.
HE WON’T CARE. HE DOESN’T LIKE WOMEN.
HE DOESN’T LIKE WOMEN?
YEAH, HE TOLD ME.
LISTEN, GUSTAV, THE LAST POET WE WENT TO SEE WAS A TERRIBLE PERSON. WE HADN’T BEEN THERE MUCH MORE THAN AN HOUR AND HE GOT DRUNK AND STARTED THROWING BOTTLES ACROSS THE ROOM AND CUSSING.
THAT WAS BUKOWSKI. ONLY HE DOESN’T REMEMBER US.
BUT HE’S VERY LONELY. WE SHOULD GO SEE HIM.
ALL RIGHT, IF YOU SAY SO, GUSTAV.
THANK YOU, SWEETIE.
don’t you wish you were Charles Bukowski? I can paint too. lift weights. and my little girl thinks that I am God.
then other times, it’s not so good.
A star in the sky. How many words and tears,
What promises, what wishes made upon it,
How many heart-cries! For what endless years!
What dashings-off of verse and rhyme and sonnet!
Yet to the clear mind, too, it signs from heaven:
The Magi followed it with reverence;
So did the navigators…Einstein, even,
Could not without some fixed stars make sense.
Ah, to select a theme that once for all
Would captivate all men without exception –
Saint, atheist, hero, coward, freeman, thrall –
And then to realize one’s high conception
On the night’s canvas with a dot, just one.
What artist would not own himself outdone?
Photo: 29 March 2012: NASA’s SOFIA telescope and the FORCAST instrument captured this color-composite image of the planetary nebula Minkowski 2-9 (M2-9) showing a dying sun-like star.
That Sunday morning, at half past ten,
Two cars crossed the creek and entered the glen.
In the first was Art Longwood, a local florist,
With his children and wife (now Mrs. Deforest).
In the one that followed, a ranger saw
Art’s father, stepfather and father-in-law.
The three old men walked off to the cove.
Through tinkling weeds Art slowly drove.
Fair was the morning, with bright clouds afar.
Children and comics emerged from the car.
Silent Art, who could stare at a thing all day,
Watched a bug climb a stalk and fly away.
Pauline had asthma, Paul used a crutch.
They were cute little rascals but could not run much.
“I wish,” said his mother to crippled Paul,
“Some man would teach you to pitch that ball.”
Silent Art took the ball and tossed it high.
It stuck in a tree that was passing by.
And the grave green pilgrim turned and stopped.
The children waited, but no ball dropped.
“I never climbed trees in my timid prime,”
Thought Art; and forthwith started to climb.
Now and then his elbow or knee could be seen
In a jigsaw puzzle of blue and green.
Up and up Art Longwood swarmed and shinned,
And the leaves said yes to the questioning wind.
What tiaras of gardens! What torrents of light!
How accessible ether! How easy flight!
His family circled the tree all day.
Pauline concluded: “Dad climbed away.”
None saw the delirious celestial crowds
Greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds.
Mrs. Longwood was getting a little concerned.
He never came down. He never returned.
She found some change at the foot of the tree.
The children grew bored. Paul was stung by a bee.
The old men walked over and stood looking up,
Each holding five cards and a paper cup.
Cars on the highway stopped, backed, and then
Up a rutted road waddled into the glen.
And the tree was suddenly full of noise,
Conventioners, fishermen, freckled boys.
Anacondas and pumas were mentioned by some,
And all kinds of humans continued to come:
Tree surgeons, detectives, the fire brigade.
An ambulance parked in the dancing shade.
A drunken rogue with a rope and a gun
Arrived on the scene to see justice done.
Explorers, dendrologists – all were there;
And a strange pale girl with gypsy hair.
And from Cape Fear to Cape Flattery
Every paper had: Man Lost in Tree.
And the sky-bound oak (where owls had perched
And the moon dripped gold) was felled and searched.
They discovered some inchworms, a red-cheeked gall,
And an ancient nest with a new-laid ball.
They varnished the stump, put up railings and signs.
Restrooms nestled in roses and vines.
Mrs. Longwood, retouched, when the children died,
Became a photographer’s dreamy bride.
And now the Deforests, with four old men,
Like regular tourists visit the glen;
Munch their lunches, look up and down,
Wash their hands, and drive back to town.
Click here to hear Nabokov read the work (4:43)
Photo: Vladimir Nabokov with butterfly doodles by the author (1920s)
The Roman historian Titus Livy likened history to a collection of “fine things to take as models” and “base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” The contemporary American novelist John Crowley carries the thought another two thousand years along the road to who knows where, suggesting that “the past is the new future…its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.”
Fortunately so. We have little else with which to build the future except the driftwood of the past, salvaging from the journey across the frontiers of the millennia what mankind has found to be useful or beautiful or true, on scraps of papyrus and bronze coins, in confessions voluntary and coerced, in five-act plays and three-part songs.
America’s Founding Fathers exploited the resource of history as diligently as their descendants exploited the lands and forests of the Ohio River Valley and the trans-Mississippi frontier. They framed their several envisionings of a republic (Hamilton’s and Franklin’s as well as those of Jefferson and Adams) on blueprints found in their readings of Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca.
So in its turn the Italian Renaissance derived from the rediscovery of classical antiquity. The latter progression supplies the scholar Stephen Greenblatt with the premise for last year’s best-selling The Swerve, which accounts for the death and resurrection of On the Nature of Things, 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century B.C. Greenblatt subtitles his book How the World Became Modern, attributing the metamorphosis in large part to the recovery of Lucretius’ poem in a German monastery in 1417 by Possio Bracciolini, Italian humanist, Vatican functionary, and apostolic scribe.
Lucretius had infused his poem with the thought of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher teaching his students in Athens in the fourth century B.C. that the purpose of life was the embrace of beauty and pleasure – that the elementary particles of matter (“the seeds of things”) are eternal. Everything that exists – the sun and the moon, waterflies, ziggurats, Mother and the flag – is made of atoms in motion, constantly colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustible variety of form and substance. The universe consists of “atoms and void and nothing else.” No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the ceaseless making and remaking of despots and matinee idols.
To the modern mind atomic theory is old news, as it was to the schools of Stoic and Epicurean thought during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Christianity dispatched it to Hell, reconfiguring the pursuit of pleasure as sin, the meaning of life as pain. By recovering De rerum natura to the land of the living, pooling its resources with those dormant in the works of Ovid, Seneca, and Plato, the Renaissance redrafted the contract between man and nature, its embrace of truth as beauty and beauty as truth made manifest in the glory of its painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and literature. Over the course of the next six centuries Lucretius’ poem finds further development and expression in Machiavelli’s political theory, Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare’s plays, Newton’s mathematics, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
The circumstances at hand in the early years of the twenty-first century suggest that time is ripe for another redrafting of the contract between man and nature, with any luck of a magnitude comparable to the one that gave birth to the Renaissance. For the past fifty years it has been apparent to the lookouts on the watchtowers of Western civilization that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate either the promise or the theory of infinite growth – a.k.a. the American Dream. The simple arithmetic (too many people coming into the world, not enough water, oil, food, phosphorus) underwrites the vast landscape of trouble listed under the headings of worldwide environmental degradation and financial collapse. I read the relevant policy papers – on health, education, debt, poverty, homeland security, climate change, the extinction of species, the wars of all against all – and I notice that they tend toward a common awareness (dimly grasped but distinctly felt) that a global consumer society, if left to its own devices, must devour the earth. Not with malice aforethought, or as a matter of ideology, but because that is its métier – the scorpion that kills the frog on whose back it is crossing the river because it knows not what else to do.
The intimations of mortality lurking in the depths of the policy papers lead in turn to the recognition of the capitalist economy as an historical construct, and therefore, like a college reunion and the Colossus of Rhodes, a collision of atoms en route to recombination or the void. A story with a beginning (in sixteenth-century Holland), a middle (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions in England and America), and an end (foreshadowed by the financial convulsions of the past twenty years at all points on the free-market compass). Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible slouching toward Wall Street to be born, the lookouts look for salvation in technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine. My guess is that they’re looking in the wrong direction. To acknowledge the truth of the old Arab proverb that says we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday is also to say that we have more reason to look to the past – history as the phoenix in the attic – for the hope of the future.