A Hero of Our Time

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Who are the heroes of our time? I was thinking about this question the other day, and I’m sure for everyone it’s someone different. For me, it’s not a specific person. I don’t have any living heroes, unfortunately. But I do have an image of a hero. I am picturing a man of no particular race or age. He’s an artist of some sort – a poet, or a poet-painter, or a poet-musician, or some combo of the three. He’s also a minimalist. His needs are very few, and he’s learned to shut out most 21st century distractions. He’s not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of the other social media sites, although he may have a blog. In fact, he does have a blog – the peacock must show his feathers off somewhere.

This man tries to keep one foot in the unknown as much as possible but also has a structured routine. He wears the same outfit every day. Black trousers and a black t-shirt. His wardrobe used to have more colors in it, but in a world where a man is assailed by so many hundreds of choices so many times a day, to have one less wherever possible is the best choice. His diet too is very sparse. He drinks coffee in the morning and eats very little – fruit, eggs, nuts, a small piece of chocolate; for lunch, he has the same thing every day – a liverwurst sandwich; and dinner is homemade, although he might eat out one night a week. His only extravagance with what he ingests is alcohol. He drinks wine, beer, hard liquor, all to excess, not so much because he’s addicted to it, but for the sake of his art. His Muses demand it.

“Ever since Liber enlisted barely sane poets among the satyrs and fauns, the sweet Muses as a rule have smelled of wine in the morning.” ~ Horace

Being drunk or hungover also gives new eyes to his art. Sobriety only sees half the picture, and too much sobriety is fatal – it’s how you end up with a Donald Trump, a Hitler or the Islamic extremist. It’s his firm belief that the halls of poetry are closed to water-drinkers. He also holds in high esteem Rimbaud’s famous line that the poet makes himself a seer by the long, immense and rational derangement of the senses.

Other than Horace, our hero’s heroes include many of the ancient Greeks, the famous Russian novelists and short story writers of the 19th century, a handful of German philosophers from the 19th and 20th centuries, and Meister Eckhart, William Blake, Beethoven, Bach, Delacroix, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce. It’s books by these authors that he will read first thing in the morning as opposed to the latest news cycle. That’s not to say he doesn’t pay attention to current events. He does, but only in small doses, and from the most detached perspective possible, so as not to get too much mud in his hair. What fascinates him most in politics are the eternal qualities of human nature to be found in it, and where these go slack, so does attention.

He sees no need to try to save the world if it cannot be saved by art. And he is not tainted by greed. He might’ve been tainted in his youth due to immaturity and the culture he grew up in, but never to much of an extreme, and he has seen enough to know that the rich are often the most miserable, and there’s very little – if anything – that they have that’s worth envying. Their lives are almost certainly empty beneath the façade, and his art is what he loves. Bringing it out from the very center of him like a silkworm does its thread. He only needs as much money as it takes for him to do that as often as possible and has no machinations or plans to defraud anyone in any business.

Our hero could live anywhere – in a big city, in a small seaside town, in the mountains. Wherever it is, he can often be seen talking brisk 1-2-hour walks, usually in the afternoon or early evening or sometimes very late at night, after he’s done with his creations. He goes out in search of some beautiful thing he vaguely intuits. He doesn’t know what it is, but he knows it’s somewhere. He looks for it in the faces of the passing people, in the reflections of the mountain stream, in shop windows, in the changing shapes of the clouds. He feels he is getting closer to finding it every day. Every day he trembles on the edge of it and every day comes home empty handed. But art is his meditation, his silkworm’s thread, his mad, wall-eyed ecstasy, and sometimes he finds it in there.

“For whether we agree with the Greek poet that ‘Sometimes it is sweet to be mad,’ or with Plato that ‘A man sound in mind knocks in vain at the doors of poetry,’ or with Aristotle that ‘No great intellect has been without a touch of madness,’ only a mind that is deeply stirred can utter something that is beyond the power of others.” ~ Seneca

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Poem: Insomnia

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This was first published here, along with 4 other poems on Menacing Hedge.

Insomnia

3 a.m., in Wedding, and the wet streets gleam like blown glass;
trees in a broad current appear to be sailing off.
A heavy truck idles at a gate,
hazards flashing.
A shadow climbs out.

3 a.m., in a phosphorescence among sunflowers,
devoured by peacocks
and grey wolves
and the voice in the walls.

The sky swirls with glaze-green tidepools, a ring of Nibelungs,
fog-white, blue-pale,
gliding fires and no sign of dawn.

3 a.m., in a building of dark halls, locked doors
and conspiracies,
of old leaky plumbing and betrayal,
of tiny rooms where people are asleep, like caterpillars
in the rainforest,
dreaming of peril and fertility.

I lie down on my lumpy duvet amid the hiss of glowing radiators,
jars of walnut oil and turmeric,
images floating across the room:
a Peruvian mask, a coral shell
necklace of light,
lies, rapture.

The windows hum with blue electricity.

My Supersonic Trip to Innsbruck

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Last Tuesday, just after I woke up to start getting ready for my trip to Innsbruck, I saw that a comment had come into my blog about something I’d posted a little over a year ago. In the post, I had used the main character’s real name instead of giving him a pseudonym, and that’s how the person who had commented found the blog. She is the daughter of the main character, and her comment that morning led to an email correspondence between us which led to me anonymizing her long-deceased father, a former mechanic and business associate of mine, giving him the pseudonym George Washington Silt, which isn’t too far off from his real name, which I was hesitent to part with I love it so much. The blog I had written about him is here.

Anyway, when I woke up that morning and saw the comment, I didn’t read it all the way through at first. I scanned it and saw this: George Washington Silt, my father… Oh, shit, I thought. I didn’t realize George had a daughter, let alone one that would find my blog a year after I’d posted it, and ten years after his death. I put my phone down before reading the comment through. I figured it was too early to read what I was expecting to read; I needed to take a shower, get some coffee in me and finish packing before facing up to the hurt I caused. So that’s what I did and forty-five minutes later, when I read the comment through, I was relieved to find that George’s daughter took the post well. She understood that nothing I had written was malicious, and even said the story made her laugh, and that George would’ve gotten a kick out of it too. Still, there were some facts I got wrong – this is why I am a writer of poetry and fiction and not facts – and she clarified those, and also made clear that her father, though not perfect, wasn’t simply insane, or a drug-addict, he was a good man with a good heart, an infectious smile, a great sense of humor, and brought warmth into many people’s lives.

I couldn’t agree with her assessment more and knew it from when I first met George, in about 1995. As I said in the other post, he was one of my first mechanics, though he never worked in my shop. He worked out of the garage at his house, and I used to go there afterhours and bring him my equipment for repair. I remember it something like this: I’d come rumbling into his driveway in my rusted-out 1984 Isuzu Pup, get a couple chainsaws or cut-off saws out the back of the truck, and knock on the garage door. The door would then slowly open, and first I’d see George’s unlaced sneakers and his pant-legs sitting on them in little bundles. Then the door would pass a hand with a cigarette burning between the fingers, and then a little portion of his belly shoving through a button-down shirt whose buttons were invariably stuck in the wrong hole – they were in the hole either above or below the one they were supposed to be in, and the shirt would be off-kilter, sliding off one shoulder. Finally, the door would glide past George’s grinning face, the sun in his eyes, his jet-black bowl-cut glittering like a forest mushroom. He’d stand there looking at me, take a long, deep drag from his cigarette and, still smirking, say something derisive and hilarious about our two scumbag competitors, Tweedle-dee and Tweedledum.

So that was the image I had of George when I read her comment about his infectious smile, etcetera, and that was the image I took with me to Austria.

The easyJet flight we took from Berlin to Salzburg lasted an hour and cost €14. The train from Salzburg to Innsbruck cost €19; this is the great thing about living in this part of Europe. For under €40 you can go to Austria, Italy, England, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, etc., etc. In South Florida, where I’m from, €40 MIGHT get you to The Villages, the golf cart retirement town in the center of the state where 4/5 of the residents are Trump-zealots, drunk on firearms and Viagra.

The last time I was in Salzburg was in 2013, two months after my son was born. This was a rough time for me, to say the least. I hadn’t yet even seen my son, not in person. I’d seen pictures of him. To say I wasn’t getting along with his mother would be an understatement, but I wrote all about that in Fortuna Berlin. We’ve since fixed things to the point where they’re almost perfect now and I will soon be deleting the novel, replacing it with something that I can tell you, at 45,000 words in, is going to be 100x better.

So as I was saying, I wasn’t in a good place the last time I was in Salzburg, but I didn’t let it totally ruin the trip. Going through some old notes the other day, I came coincidentally across an entry I’d written when I was there. The entry was about how I was in the Festungsbahn, a traincar that takes you up the mountain to the Hohensalzburg Fortress. I was sitting in the Festungsbahn with a bunch of drunken Austrians. They were laughing and talking loudly, but their accent was so strong (& my German so bad then) that I didn’t understand anything they were saying. All their words sounded like one impossibly long German word strung together with Origami ribbon. Finally, when they got out, the old man who was reading the newspaper next to me said something about how they were so noisy he had to read the same passage “drei mal.’ I understood that and would’ve loved to have left it at that – understanding him – but he went on talking in his strong Austrian accent, and all I could do was smile and nod, pretending I not only understood him perfectly, but that what he was saying was too humorous and absurd to offer a reply. It might not have even been funny for all I knew, but he went on, and on, and I sat there with my ironic smile, saying nothing. By then it was too late to admit his paragraphs had fallen on deaf ears, but I think he finally realized it. He offered me a cough drop. We were dead silent after that.

That was the only thing I wrote down from that trip. I was only there for a day, enough time to see the fortress, visit the house Mozart grew up in, and go to some bars and coffeehouses.

This time we only had 6 hours there. We walked around the city, visited the Salzburg Dom, one of the biggest and most majestic cathedrals I’ve ever been to, and after that ate a light lunch with beers at a dark little restaurant in the Altstadt. Then it was off to Innsbruck by rail.

If you’ve never been to Innsbruck before, I recommend it. It’s one of the prettiest towns in Europe, and it survived WWII unscathed, so the old buildings are much as they have been for centuries. We stayed at the Maximilian Hotel in the Altstadt. The hotel is named after Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor (1508-1519) and former resident. He was also the subject of a few Albrecht Dürer paintings, and I couldn’t help making a few sketches of him too when I was there. Here’s one:

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So, after checking in and getting unpacked, we walked along the River Inn, through the Altstadt, checked out the Goldenes Dachl, the Stadtturm, and stumbled upon Hotel Golden Adler (aka Best Western Plus), where the likes of Mozart, Goethe, Paganini, Heine, Albert Camus & Jean Paul Sartre all stayed. Goethe came twice. The first time was in 1786 on his way to Italy. He only stayed the afternoon and spent most of it talking to the son of the landlord, according to an entry from his Italian Journey diary. The second time was in 1791 when he stayed two nights with the Duchess Amalie of Sachsen-Weimar. On the bottom floor of the place, there’s a room called the Goethestube which, according to the literature, was once a meeting place for Tyrolean poets, painters and musicians. When I was there it was closed for renovations, along with the restaurant. Only the Best Western Plus part was functioning. I walked through the entrance and poked my head in, just long enough to see the arrangements. I didn’t want it to be said that the doors of that sacred domicile were closed to me in a way they hadn’t been to the others.

We wanted to go skiing, but with the €14 airfare, we were already reaching the top of our budget, so we decided to skip it, but not without regret. I started skiing when I was six, and sometimes I wonder what it’d would’ve been like if in my 20s I’d moved to some little mountain town and became a ski bum instead of opening up a tool rental shop.

On our first full day, we breakfasted at the hotel and then took a long walk along the river, down some random streets, and ended up at the Ambras Castle (Schloss Ambras Innsbruck), which sits in the hills overlooking the city and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The castle, when it was first built in the 10th century, was a fortress. In the 16th century, Archduke Ferdinand II, converted it into a renaissance castle as a gift to his wife, a commoner who he’d married under conditions of secrecy, much to the disappointment of his father. There’s a little cave-like structure outside the castle called the Bacchus Grotto where Ferdinand II used to hold drinking parties where the guests were strapped to what looked like an electric chair and were not allowed out of it until they’d drained the leviathan bucket of wine set before them. Now that sounds like my kind of party. I was beginning to like this Ferdinand II. I liked him even more when I saw his collection of armories in the castle and the Chamber of Art and Wonders (Kunst- und Wunderkammer). Ferdinand II was one of history’s most prominent collectors of art, weapons, scientific and musical instruments, rarities, curiosities, natural objects and wonders of nature. Unfortunately, the Habsburger Porträtgalerie, which contains paintings by Hans Burgkmair, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velázquez, and others is closed in the winter so we missed that. One of the best books I read last year was the Autobiography of Cellini, the 16th century Italian goldsmith and soldier. I was reminded of the book when I was looking at the collection of finely-wrought suits of armor in the castle, most of them worn by famous people of the time. “I wonder,” I said to Erica, “if Cellini had any connection to the stuff here.” I’d no sooner asked the question than I stumbled on a painting of Charles de Bourbon (1489-1527), a French military leader who in the conflict between Karl V and Pope Clemens VII de’Medici, was apparently killed by a bullet out of Cellini’s hand. He mentions the event in his autobiography.

“I pointed my arquebus toward the thickest and most closely packed part of the enemy, taking direct aim at someone I could see standing out from the rest.”

Some of the pettiest, most cowardly, self-serving, sniveling little shits I’ve ever encountered have been dabblers in the arts. The worst are the ones who do it not so much because they enjoy it, but so they can tell people they do it, to get them laid, or give themselves an identity. I’m never more suspicious than when I meet someone who calls him or herself a poet. I might admit I write poetry, but I would never call myself a poet. The name’s been hacked to bits my too many poseurs, mopes, vulgarians, chickenshits, also-rans, jellyfish & creampuffs-de-jour. Which is where Cellini comes in. He was a man’s man, hot-blooded, fiercely independent, mean as a Gila monster, but also tender and loving, honest-to-a-fault and a master of everything he touched, be it rock or gold, paints, ink, poetry, weaponry. If you’re sick of the Facebook/Instagram poetry coterie, I suggest Cellini’s Autobiography as antidote.

The next day, which was also the last day of our short trip, and Valentine’s Day, we went to the Tiroler Landesmuseum, the Dom zu St. Jakob, the Hofkirche, and ended up at a little restaurant across from the Goldenes Dachl where we ate Tyrolian specialties, drank beer and watched in amazement the only cook serving the place, a stoic, fat old man with hands quick as finches in a fruit tree that’s just beginning to blossom. The food was great, and the people were friendly. We had quite a different experience from what one recent jerkoff had posted on Trip Advisor. I was going to post just an excerpt of his diatribe, but it’s too good to delete anything. It needs to be read in whole, parsed, dissected and, if possible, immortalized in the Goethestube at the Best Western Plus.

Rude and racist staff. Wrong order and hair on food.

Look, the food wasn’t all that bad but it wasn’t the best I have had either. It is traditional Austrian cuisine but I am sure you can find the same type of food at any other city. The service was extremely appalling and staff were very rude and dismissive.

The staff had the audacity to offer us the “only” available seats for our family on the landing between two stairwells. To set the scene, when you enter into the restaurant, you arrive at a small narrow walkway which is adjacent to the open bar and kitchen. There is a small bar stool with some tables on the side for you to wait to be seated. There was no urgency for us to be seated as soon as practicable and staff did not advise the wait time to be seated at the actual restaurant on the second floor either. We took up the offer seeing as it was almost midday and we had only just arrived in Innsbruck. It was quite an awkward and out of place set up. To make matters a little more interesting to observe, many other incoming restaurant goers were offered seats up in the second level not too long after us after a very short wait time.

Now onto the food. We ordered four main dishes, alcohol and coffee. The wrong coffee order was made and it had alcohol, which was not to be consumed by a minor. When this was pointed out to the staff, they did not admit they were at fault and nor did they apologise for the error or provide a solution to the issue other than offer to “add whipped cream”?! I am sorry but adding whipped cream will not eliminate the alcohol that is present.

In addition to the wrong coffee order, we also found a piece of eyelash/eyebrow hair on our food and drinks – which in itself I am sure will speak a lot out the work health and safety environment within their kitchen.

He never elaborated on the racist accusation, but it should probably be noted that he was a white guy from Australia. Also, the eyelash/eyebrow must’ve been pretty long to span the food AND drinks.

Friday morning, we left Innsbruck on the train to Salzburg. It’s a two-hour trip, and to pass the time I’d brought along Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky has always been a great solace of mine, though I’m ashamed to say I haven’t some of his great tomes. I still haven’t gotten to The Demons or The Idiot. George Washington Silt read The Idiot. I remember talking about it with him in about 1998, shortly after he got out of the madhouse. He said the book was in the library when he was there, and he liked he liked how it was still relevant. He said it reminded him of South Florida in general, and the tool rental business in particular – everyone was screwing everyone else over. An honest man doesn’t have a chance.

I was only about 1/8 into Brothers Karamazov when I came the Schiller poem Dostoyevsky’s character Mitya quotes. He also quotes Goethe. Something about kissing the hem of the robe that God enwraps himself in. I looked out the window of the train at the lofty mountains and the landscape flying by. I thought about the marvels of modern transportation, and I thought about Goethe in 1786, in a horse-drawn carriage, passing through Innsbruck on his way to Italy. What would a Goethe be like today, in the world of high-speed trains, cryptocurrency, nuclear fission, oil drilling, bioplastic, data mining, self-reconfiguring modular robots, ultra-high-definition television, augmented reality, sneakers-with-lights-on-them, and so on, and so on? No wonder why polymaths don’t exist anymore. There are too many fields, and too much to know. But, it’s true – everything ends at the same place – with your lips on the hem that God enwraps himself in. Not that I believe in God. I don’t know what I believe in. I try not to think about it, and in meantime give the widest possible birth to the fire and brimstone crowd. Some of my least trustworthy customers when I was in the tool rental business were pastors, and I’m sure George Washington Silt would agree. He said it best. He said, “Ya gotta look out for them Holyroller types. They start talking about that God, and as soon as you look up into the sky to see what all the fuss is about – as soon as you let your guard down, that is – they’ve got your pants down at your ankles and are slippin’ you the big salami. It’s no good, I say. No good at all.”

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On Poetry, Editors & the Pushcart Award

Sketches from Berlin

I don’t trust awards, and usually just roll my eyes when someone mentions they’re a Pushcart nominee. Every poet, it seems, has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. And if they haven’t, it’s probably just because they don’t kiss enough ass, or have a poetry zine of their own to return the favor. It has almost nothing to do with the quality of the work. Merit doesn’t get you very far in the poetry world of 2019. Look in the most prestigious zines. They all have one thing in common. The poems they publish, almost without exception, are sloppy, amateurish, pure dung if I’m totally honest. What were the editors thinking, you ask. The answer? Often, it’s the poet’s name or reputation that gets him or her published. Often the editors have their own self-interest in mind. And just as often it’s that the editors, being perhaps highly intelligent, perhaps…

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On Poetry, Editors & the Pushcart Award

I don’t trust awards, and usually just roll my eyes when someone mentions they’re a Pushcart nominee. Every poet, it seems, has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. And if they haven’t, it’s probably just because they don’t kiss enough ass, or have a poetry zine of their own to return the favor. It has almost nothing to do with the quality of the work. Merit doesn’t get you very far in the poetry world of 2019. Look in the most prestigious zines. They all have one thing in common. The poems they publish, almost without exception, are sloppy, amateurish, pure dung if I’m totally honest. What were the editors thinking, you ask. The answer? Often, it’s the poet’s name or reputation that gets him or her published. Often the editors have their own self-interest in mind. And just as often it’s that the editors, being perhaps highly intelligent, perhaps masterful essayists, or journalists, or documenters of hard and concrete fact, flail as poets and as editors of poetry because the je ne sais quoi that’s required for that most unique of arts is just not in them. And most times they don’t even know it.

In a word, they’re in the wrong field.

They were supposed to be software engineers, or doctors, or historians, or math teachers. Instead they’re fumbling with dactyls and sestinas. It’s like if I were suddenly called upon to be judge of a synchronized swimming competition and imagined myself an expert, despite never having done it myself, or knowing what to look for, let alone the rules. Poetry is different from all other forms of writing in that it requires an inborn talent that can’t be taught.

In every endeavor but poetry, people with no natural gift can still succeed by diligent study of an art; but in poetry, no one who lacks the natural gift can possibly succeed through art.” ~ Vico

And yet it takes the eye of an artist to be a good judge of it, and most editors, not having that eye, can only look at grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, the broadness of vocabulary, or what they themselves are capable of to distinguish the good from the bad. So what follows is mediocrity publishing mediocrity, and the stuff that bucks the trend or goes beyond the bounds of common understanding (and not just for the sake of wackiness) being overlooked or ignored altogether.

Vico makes another wise and thought-provoking observation when he says,

The sublimest task of poetry is to attribute sense and emotion to insensate objects.

Borne out of this thought, I have to believe – given Vico’s huge influence on James Joyce – was Joyce’s famous line,

Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.

Which is not so different from W.C. Williams’ famous and much debated line, “No ideas but in things,” or what he was getting at with his red wheelbarrow poem.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

In other words, so much depends on the use of objects to enforce ideas and call up vivid images in the reader’s mind. Ezra Pound invented a word for this. He called it phanopoeia, and you would think the word would be somewhere in the minds of our most esteemed and highly-paid editors, but I have my doubts, so many of the images called up in the poems published in their mags being a fuzzy and confusing jumble of pabulum.

But back to what I was saying about the Pushcart Award.

There are so many 1000s of poetry journals out there, and so many 1000s of Pushcart nominations doled out every year, usually (I imagine) to friends of the editors or people the editors hope will return the favor, that it’s hard to take too much pride in being nominated. But since I am a writer and not an editor, have no clout, and nothing to give, and am not particularly popular in social media, it feels just a little better that the editors at Red Fez – one of my favorite lit zines by the way, and a long-lasting one too – saw fit to nominate an inconsequential scrub like me for my poem about Key West. I do not expect to win the award. In fact, I know I won’t. But sometimes, I take a break from my novel and write a little poem and send it in, and it’s good to know people appreciate it.

Bone Island Elegy

The first time I visited Key West
was over thirty years ago, and I’ve been back
almost once a year ever since.

There’s something about the place
that keeps sucking me in. Something in the glow
of the bright, emerald-green
waters;
something in the salt
winds, and bleached conch
shells washed up in the sands;

and in the shadows of the coconut palms
and the dreams of the derelicts sleeping under them.

It’s a kind of mysticism,
but not without a touch of deep,
raw, almost palpable melancholy,
which is always there.

But you feel it most late at night,
after all the bars have closed,
after the music’s gone out to sea.

A faint, almost imperceptible trembling
in the silence of the island.

Something breathing,
something alive but in great pain.
Something that never sleeps because it can’t.

Its breath cuts into you.
The ocean bounds you on all sides.
The nerve opens.

Maybe it’s all those Indian bones
under the island
or a warning signal of some ancient prophesy.

Or maybe it’s just the curse of beauty.
That soft curse
that lets you know
you’ve found it,
you are someplace precarious and holy.