Page Two: Looking Up

Along the path back to wonder

Page Two
Far too many think that it is revolutionary to damn the present, to attack the government, to heap scorn on those who have different political beliefs, and to find malevolent corruption everywhere – especially in anything that might pass for an act of grace. Without hesitation or compromise, they go on to declare the modern world doomed and gray and dying. None of those assertions is revolutionary. They are, instead, what have become the all-too-easy, mass-produced, predictable, stereotypical statements that are so common as to come from even the mouths of babes. By now, when that tone is used to denounce oppression, it becomes an extension of oppression; to damn what is wrong without imagination or vitality is to accept and reinforce what is wrong.

The only truly revolutionary activity in this modern world in which we live is to look up. Instead of wallowing in too-convenient despair, instead of always looking down, looking up becomes the courageous act. What used to be the unbridled optimism of the great American dream has become so draped in the ribbons of failures and the floral arrangements of hypocrisy that what was once progressive is now soulless. The landscape has changed. Now, to look forward, not back – to express hope and not constantly reiterate factory-created, vacuum-packed despair – is to entertain the transcendent. Modern despair is so lazy: Pessimism has become the last refuge of true scoundrels, and the absolute insistence on the sanctity of the negative makes those scared of appearing fools feel that whatever opinion is thus expressed is safe.

Anyone who knows me at all well knows that I've never done a good job of falling in love or being in love with people. On the other hand, maybe I've done too good a job at or found it too easy to fall in love with ideas, with culture, with great works – films, paintings, poems, stories, novels, television shows, music – and their creators: writers, poets, filmmakers, painters, dreamers.

Even in the latter arena, I am no longer nearly as promiscuous as I was for so many decades. So hungry for love, for feeling, so scared of intimacy and life, that I devoured the culture's remnants, reflections, and refractions for years, falling crazy in love time after time after time – with a consistency that was mundane but did not stain the magnificent.

I loved, and I believed. Reading Lynd Ward's graphic novel God's Man: A Novel in Woodcuts for the first time, I believed in the devil (I thought he would be in the room with me when I finished the book). That same summer, living in a school bus in Vermont, I discovered Dashiell Hammett and understood true style – though I knew it would never be of me. After the second time I saw Citizen Kane – when I really watched that 1941 black-and-white movie, freed from the mindless trappings of cultural deification – I ran for blocks and blocks, for blocks and blocks and blocks, knowing I would never be tired in the same way again.

Sharon wanting me to kiss her on top of a manhole cover after we had seen Chappaqua in a theatre on the far East Side of New York City so that people would think our kissing was responsible for the clouds of steam escaping from it. Staying up all night reading The World According to Garp. (Yes, to those who know me: John Irving had been a writing teacher, but when I knew him, he'd written only Setting Free the Bears. After that came The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage, so who was prepared for Garp?) Finishing the book in the early afternoon, then walking long into a fresh day, driven by a new, raging belief in love and family.

Finding and falling for all the directors and the films of the French New Wave, but especially for Godard and Truffaut. Still, it wasn't until almost 2½ hours into Jacques Rivette's three-hour-plus Celine and Julie Go Boating that I understood God – and that love, at least, could be known. The endless magnificence and incomprehensible destructiveness of love nailed by Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends and Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. Watching Nick Ray's In a Lonely Place for the first time (when it was screened by CinemaTexas on the UT campus), then taking the 16mm print home to watch two more times before morning. John Ford and again John Ford and even Ford again; Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin but especially Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Buster Keaton! Smaller but still intense explosions occurred when I saw Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance, Alan Rudolph's Songwriter, and the startling surprises of Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl and Real Genius.

In postadolescence, I walked the streets with her, seeing only her eyes and her body before I knew anything about how to feel; she lent me the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out! and Absolutely Free, changing my life. And Bob Dylan a million times and each time the first time. Hearing Noel Harrison (that's right, Noel Harrison!) singing Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" on TV. Following him from show to show that week. When my girlfriend, during days of PayDay candy bars and too much J.D. Salinger, played me Judy Collins' version of "Suzanne," I thought it wasn't as good.

There weren't hundreds of these affairs – loves so intense and insane that as they began I could not imagine them ever ending – there were thousands: Joni Mitchell, Talking Heads, Waylon Jennings, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. Reading Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita – oh, good goddamn, the devil comes to Soviet Moscow!

Discovering one of the few true humanists – Jean Renoir – or that great American poetic filmmaker Preston Sturges (almost no one quite as cynical nor nearly as romantic as him) and finding Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat at a drive-in theatre. Listening to Suzanne Vega, Joe Ely, Willie Nelson, Phoebe Snow, Moby Grape, Laura Nyro, Townes Van Zandt, and Jonathan Richman (Radio On!).

Not being able to put down Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry when I was hitchhiking from Vermont to Boston, so I read it with thumb out and continued to read it in every car that picked me up. One day in Montreal, after terribly failed sex in Cambridge, though I had loved her so long or because I had loved her so long, I wandered the streets mad and lost. Watching Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch that night saved my life. Just as after the first time I saw it in New York City, when we walked out of the theatre to find the city was eerily quiet in the middle of the day.

Thinking her way too New Age for me until I heard song after song after song that knocked me out on KGSR, all by Eliza Gilkyson. Finally seeing Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid uninterrupted on the big screen after trying to watch it too many times on TV, when I thought nothing of it because it was interrupted by so many commercials. Listening to many minutes of electronic music on a Boston FM station that led into Buffy Sainte-Marie's musical rendition of "God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot," a verse from Leonard Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers. Driving all the way across Boston because on a hip AM radio station I just had heard Guy Clark's "Old No. 1," so I had to find the album. Patti Smith, Maya Deren, the Incredible String Band, Janis Joplin, and the Jefferson Airplane with Grace Slick, and Grace Slick times a thousand. Discovering Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams Jr., Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Rosanne Cash, Joy of Cooking, Loudon Wainwright III, Tim Buckley, and the Beach Boys. The thrill of hearing the Byrds do "Mr. Tambourine Man" for the first time, which proved almost as intense as when I would hear them cover Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd" years later.

After a midafternoon romantic encounter, I almost started crying – crying because there, on her bookshelf, was an almost complete collection of Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout. The miracles of Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Bob Marley, Sex Pistols, the Clash, X-Ray Spex, and Rachel Sweet singing about a truck-stop queen.

There is no way lists such as these can be anything but enormous failures, because so much more is always left out than can be included. But there were years of falling in love too many times and too often, always from my deepest heart, making the most sincere commitment to forever, with monogamy as promiscuity and promiscuity as monogamy. Again and again, the good lord baby Jesus would shut my mouth, open my eyes, and rip the top of my head off for all the wonders of the cosmos to fall in.

These loves never stopped, but the frequency shifted down to the painful slowness of a drop of water working its way out of a faucet. There was Pulp Fiction and the unexpected absolute romantic maturity of Before Sunset and Amy Winehouse, but though I smiled and was filled, I no longer ran.

For two days now, I have not slept. I have not done any of what I'm supposed to be doing. Sometime back, I first came across Frank O'Hara's poetry. I always knew of it, but I hadn't read it. Then I read "The Day Lady Died," quoted a bit of it in this column, and vowed to read more. Forty-eight hours ago, I bought a collection. I thought I would never love as I now love again. The last good kiss may have been years ago, but it has been a very long time since I was so affected.

Reading O'Hara is reclaiming the New York City that I grew up in as a teenager. It was a world of movies, $1.29 steak dinners, the chaotic swirl of 42nd Street, Radio City Music Hall, Book Row, and Fred Mogubgub's billboard reading "Why Doesn't Someone Give Mogubgub Ltd. Two Million Dollars to Make a Movie?"

This column quoted some of this poem, but now let's again look at "The Day Lady Died." O'Hara gives the most mundane account of his day. "It is 12:20 in New York a Friday/three days after Bastille day, yes." Then he goes on: "and have a hamburger and a malted and buy/an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets/in Ghana are doing these days." And the New World Writing anthologies were always ugly. Lovingly, he offers brand names, "casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton/of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it."

All of this leads to the last part:

"and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of

leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

while she whispered a song along the keyboard

to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing"

Here is that stunning, unexpected beauty of the last line that explodes the whole poem above it. As I read O'Hara, this poem proved not to be a standout but one great one among many.

From "Memorial Day 1950":

"Our responsibilities did not begin

in dreams, though they began in bed. Love is first of all

a lesson in utility."

From "My Heart":

"I'd have the immediacy of a bad movie,

not just a sleeper, but also the big,

overproduced first-run kind. I want to be

at least as alive as the vulgar."

On and on, poem after poem, I'm remembering quite explicitly who I was and who I am. Transcendent poetry, not a rebirth of wonder but discovering that wonder may have never left. Sometimes there is joy in just finding hints of the chance that one is not as alone as feared.  

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

popular culture, wonder, Frank O'Hara, love, New York City

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