The Great American Songbook
By David BiespielOctober 14, 2016
We will arise and live inside future wars, Winston Churchill says in 1925, that will be even less romantic and picturesque. We will be a war, not of armies, but of whole populations, and be exposed, Winston Churchill says, to mass destruction by lethal vapor, and that even the gardener will exterminate the wasp nest with the right poison after measuring the exact amount to put it stealthily in the right place at the right time. Entire communities will be destroyed, Winston Churchill says, and not one wasp will get near enough to sting the gardener. But he will not regard the gardener as a hero — thus in accents, in parchment, myths fade into a 12-bar blues. Do you know the name of the gardener now or whether his eyes are bulging or soft? Or what purpose his hands have meant? Do you see him masquerade as a clown? Or a flagrant, broken butcher who tells jokes to the crocus bulbs with his red kerchief tied behind his neck and dripping with the sweat of anger? Death, then — is it said and done like a cyst, a sequence of ministering to anecdote, or antidote to a silent dip of morning crossing the miles of causeway to Lake Pontchartrain past the green orphan inches where everything is preserved beneath a lacquer of sunlight? It is pleasing, Winston Churchill says, to look back over the plains and morasses through which our path has lain in the past, and remember in tradition the great years of pilgrimage. Now: Do you notice the crows lifting above the southbound lights to the lake like mass effects in modern life? Or west of there, the way over the bridges, driving past the ringing refineries that exhale zeroes into the dark world where oil burns with the cat’s eyes of pot deals and hash hits, past the sand and clay layers of Humble Oil in Baytown and the ghost of Spindletop in Beaumont, past lunch pail, past soiled shoes, past Lake Charles and its average morning humidity of 90 percent, past Jeff Davis Parish which requires no explication, all of it reclaiming some lost checkpoint of flame or shades of wind the color of gunmetal, bad farms and the glamour of swamps? It’s not meticulous country down there, shadowed with rough, and shadowed with sad, and shadowed with hurricanes that drop into Port Arthur — Betsy and Rita, Humberto and Edouard and Ike — without any recess from the myths about backwoods and narrow stairs and a father hushed over a jam-jar-sized glass of milk. — I must have noticed one crow, at least, on that drive, must have noticed two crows and a thrush. I must have noticed even with my one eye swelled from so many years elsewhere, swelled as an oyster shell swells without luster or witness or the blossom and blush of withered berries. Those petals are now beginning to discolor toward the slum edges of autumn, discolor and wobble, naturally, and obscured, half in song and half, as reported, in warble.
Except for the old dog under my foot and the early shadows of summer, except for the thaw in the oceans and the bushy blonde wind, we are settling in all over on this bank of the city — though by the time anyone sees us through the leafage and leaf rot, through the routes they’ve taken and the disappearances, through the aromas coming off the waters, drifting past like a summer stepping out of fire — except for all that — we wouldn’t know how to smoke out the wives who have disappeared and the husbands who’ve died. Though there on the clothesline are his striped shirts and his boots by the back stoop of Del Mar — if his boots fit, anyone of us could stroll out in them before too late at dawn for a taste of beer and curse the foam and the inky drifts, the bridges, the reefs, the men in the water, and the women sleeping at the edge of the county line where the last of the tall weeds are waxed down. This looks to be Del Mar alright! Here we grew out our hair and fiddled with death, ecstasy got distilled in the rise to our feet, the tube times broke over the back, and the small swells from the south thrashed into boundlessness, and therefore the breakers closed out and our breathing got mangy, sometimes trashy, and sometimes sweet, sick, or silky, or crisp, or soft as a shell. We’d slide atop the hard swells and the sky would fade and the waters would move beneath our chests. And the clouds pass by and the birds cry as they passed overhead. All of it like the inside-outside rhythm of a heart, deep in pieces, trembling in the divinity of, I hate to say, escape and submission. When John F. Kennedy says, The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards as all paths are, he means that the cost of freedom is high. We have paid it, John F. Kennedy says, but one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender, or submission. Though Simone Weil says, Oppression that is clearly inexorable and invincible does not give rise to revolt but to submission. And yet, all that time alone in the turtle hour and with the air cool, we see the birds diving like mist into the water, with the first light catching the first waves — all that time paddling out into the salt of yearning. Therefore, suddenly, we settle into the barrels against the round sun beyond the dying night fires and the untroubled sand, settle out there into the first, low, scallop shapes of waves until we can stare back at the weak light in the far western edge, settle in, O, untethered land.
If I were to pick one season to love it would be summer with its rooster mornings and sliced artichokes that turn sparrows to lullabies. It’s then I can stare at the eyes of the roses and keep still and not know what discretion is needed to enter the florets in a missing pair of work gloves. Not one daddy is a rich man in my city though I sit for hours listening to the birds take quick and crazy to the sky. That’s how we know this corner of the mouth or that habit kept secret. Even Saint Peter cannot see it from a thousand miles above high cotton with the lights up and twinkling forth. In the year 1880, Thom. Edison’s patent drawing for the improvement in electric lamps shows the glass envelope and the coiled filament with its notion of connection and civic fire, but not the inert gasses at low pressure that becomes the stretched out high note of the USA. Though here, now, may I draw your attention to Figure Three where the light is going to rise up swinging — with the head of the filament like a minuteman with his powdered wig and revolution, and the side curls of the filament like the hair of an immigrant Jew, and the white thin collar of the filament, too, like a fisted priest in contemplation, and the long arms of the filament like a slave woman’s arms and a slave master’s, and the artificial legs of the filament — those are the legs of the amputated warrior. What lullaby will comfort the base and the connecting wire of the states to rise up swinging and spread its wings and take to the sky? Till that morning comes, only I will remember the empty crossroad where the melodies of summer were born in some young body in the middle of America where the snows came down in Yiddish flakes and a single peddler below used to hum — Oi Khodyt Son Kolo Vikron — Lullaby, oh lullaby — Oi, yiddle, yiddle, oi, yiddle — at the dining room table next to his new pals Irving and Max and Sheldon and Ira and Sol which is short for Solomon which is American for Shlomo. The fella’s from Des Moines and Brooklyn and Miami and Houston where they would gather mornings for round-the-clock specials and famous sandwiches — broiled genuine calf liver steak with onions, cold boiled chicken with sliced tomatoes, corned beef, pickled tongue, cervelat, knockwurst, kreplach soup, hot cabbage borscht with half a potato, cheese blintzes with chicken livers on toast. From everywhere in America now I can look out over the highest oak and beyond into the fresh Republican miles with all the crazy deprivations and corn-fed sinners fanning themselves against mosquitoes and the dead-stop wind off the Mississippi. It’s no use loving a season. No. So, hush. Hush. Little baby, it’s always been this way, over and over, even if hearts seem more coarse, and mothers and fathers stand by the days’ little seconds and ships of light, and the gardens are cutting up with yellow squash and cherry tomatoes. Even now I want to chitter at this wind and wake up with a new light on my face as it makes catfish diamonds on the walls, and drink cold coffee from a short mug, and study the curiosity of sparklers and pinwheels of the wildflower and showers of cosmos, and roses in the sky, fountains of starlight and hop-hop of thunder — with whistling for sleep, with the feathers and pearls of dreamers, and the distant whimpers and whispers of the beloved that become the coronet souls of green leaf and high grass, and the first bars are hummed above the cities — Ba-de-baaaaah, ba-de-dah-de-de-dap, daaah, Baaaaah-de-dap-dap-daaah, bah-de-da-de-daaaahh-dah. Baaaaah-de-dap-dap-daaaah, Bah-de-dop-dop-de-doppen-a-dah-la-la-la, Bah-dop-de-de-dop-dop, dop-deeeh-dah-de-dah-daaah.
Son of a Preacher Man
If I told you that once I read in Time magazine the name of a boy I knew who used his constitutional rights to shoot himself in the head over a breakup with a girl, you’d say, not that I was making it up, but that you know someone who once took you by the hand and led you into the soft-pistol dusk where nothing could reach you. That kid was 17, and seemed, I admit, to be going nowhere, as if walking the north road out of town alongside the night train rippling over to Quebec. Here, it’s July. The corn is gathering round in fine, dark, green tassels and clusters that I will not touch for fear of losing, not far off, their earlier shadows, although the grass is ablaze too and isn’t easy to whistle with. I believe I can hear him singing, maybe, of rain. And listening, maybe, to the river. And smoking a joint. The green light of summer slowly grazing the oncoming darkness. The high filling his hair like a dream of a bright world that sparks up the rows of houses. And them houses, one and the same, burning smoke up into the proof of unharmed night, untouched night. The boy walks like a small creature along the path side of the river, and not a logjam to be seen — I must tell you: the other side of the river is where Henry Thoreau in 1856 hiked the Table Rock outcropping on Fall Mountain, hiked up the glittered gravel under the loose hawks overhead but not under the new power lines, hiked past the moosewood’s green bark and the witch hazel, the beech and birch trees, and down below, the clock tower’s chime like the echo of a creaky fan shuddering across the two towns. If I told you why we came there, you would not ask about the long days and the heaving summers and the small bellows of desire the land makes. A breath comes and goes, comes and goes, that’s all. And the sky passes overhead in streaks of unmarred stars. No trouble to be seen. But it isn’t always easy, the days and nights filtering the hiss of dinnertime with a phone ringing in a distant room — and no one answering. And I may have to invent you to read this, to remember that boy as I have, his high forehead and sweet voice, the mood in his eyes like that of a lost cat, a name like Nate. But I will try to make you like me as I tell you all this, both of us wanderers who favor the river towns with their split personalities and shared graduation days, and the motel bars with their unnoticed dreamers drifting by after the dogs have strayed — and where the words for desire, for forgiveness, for waking to kisses on the cheek are held in the breath and are a gift. And the meaning of sleep is not easily understood. Sleep that drifts as the tongues of boats drift on the river with the assurance of a swirling wind. Lord knows, I have not washed my face, nor saved kernels for a new planting, nor written his full name in black ink. My handwriting is like that of a boy’s anyway — dark gazelles of letters with the bolts and crosses of the past. When you turn over the card onto which I must now scrawl his name, you will not find blood or bullets or wine, or even winter, not here, where the wind is like the sly quiet of time. His name is like the way we hunger, you and I, or the you I have made you into, to remember the words we have spoken to those who have died, hunger for the phone to ring and for someone with a familiar voice like smoke-filled air that comes and goes on the wings of sparrows — we hunger for someone like that, we hunger for him to lift up the receiver and answer it.
Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
Sometimes in midsummer I come to understand the proverb that a gem cannot be polished without friction, and that filet gumbo is rooted as much in bark as it is in death, and that the hard, glossy, secret flight of the afterlife is with you every day — just as the asphalt farm-to-market roads are, just as the fruit jars are, and the wild hogs, and the built-out places. That’s why if I had learned something all those years ago about history I might have known that in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. This fruit fly on the underside of my arm seems aware, if that’s what it is, of the predicament, twitching like an impatient knitter who has not given up on Allah and who will not speak about the sweetest dark that clots the land like one who will not give up on the spirit of the divine. So who does not wonder what to make of days like this one, when anyone seeking a sky that’s blank as words must believe in a borrowed primitivism kept in the pockets of old fathers, folded as clouds are folded, but un-crimped too, for the sake of a secret. There’s an air of mystery to that sort of secret, like a sky discarded out of its mirror, leading us falsely to a strange wish we might free ourselves with. Or else: The clouds recruit the hours to come in early with my machazomio! — As in winter, cleaned up and edged-out, I can touch that adversary like braille, and the years won’t harden or fit inside a palm. Even now, until I turn toward the big river, I will wait here, ready to be resurrected, heaving my spirit into the black dust and the pollen and the shriveling whistles of the damned, and I will bathe in the big fun waters, and we’ll go one, two, three, four, five six, seven, eight, nine, Baby, I’m so glad you are mine. Two. Four. Six. Eight. Ten. Baby, please, don’t leave me again. We’ll go like that, and the freakish belief of a soul lighter than a shadow will drift away like absentmindedness, but not like romance, not like soft voices on the back porches of July. We’ll go now, speaking without harm, speaking low, low, and close to the ear.
As Time Goes By
Don’t ask me why the street ran this way and not the other way. From Brownsville north to Hartford the road is called the Hartford Road. From Hartford south to Brownsville the road is called the Brownsville Road. The asphalt holds both light and darkness, and, going both ways, the road is like a tawny river to which the villagers come with their oxen and begin to plant seed into the dirt. I’ve sat in the town square at midday and looked across the low banks and not known how to name the birds. I called them unknown birds and had not realized my duty to them, nor to the trees in which they alighted. Just the same, I could not deny the multitudes on the sidewalks, the faces and shapes and bodies I have not yet invited home or lamented over, not yet been aware of the harm done to, but stood alongside with my ladder and clippers. And yet, still: Do my hands have a memory of their hands? Even museums hold time in their little objects. The world will always welcome shame and myth, and journeys to acquaint yourself with districts and provinces, with hills and groves, knowing that this lilac bush and that oak, or that moving target of footsteps, or this alley that came into being before we existed will remain when we are the dust. Do not ask, who will lay down their arms and who will march in your parade with balloons and dance with the cyclist and his fife. I do not envy them. Nor the drummer, nor the martial artists, because here is a school band in stirrups and red helmets high-stepping like a day’s glitter. And here too: So many slick marionettes. And no princess on the balcony, what with the conquerors having swirled, like gilded children, from the long war toward home, dragging — as the wind drags — behind their aging mothers.
You believe God is in the wind and spinning the late leaves over the heads of the buttercups. But take this single rose or these blossoms on the low bushes — they seem to ask you to pick them and scatter them across the city as you walk among the birds like a bird yourself, twittering on your toes in a straight line with little difference between your life and theirs, drinking the same luscious water from the pink and white feeders and the crazy cracks in the ground as they do, touching the grass and letting your body fall, where if you could pull the roots, you’d feel as if you were touching whatever is left of the sunshine on the earth. No, this is not a time for all that — life is too “Hey Ho,” is it not? Once, in the dark: I remembered to lock the door. But whether I was on the inside or the outside of the door, I don’t remember, as I don’t remember writing to you, “Never seek the wind in the field. It is useless to try and find what is gone.” — I do remember the taste of the glue on the envelope, the bitter taste on my tongue which must be what those who perfect war know about murdering a man, shooting the bullet between the lumbar and the sacrum as if between truth and loneliness. A man who once said this to his girl lives on the street one over from her father’s house. And he said, too: “Don’t forget me,” with a voice that was part blood in the mouth and part red sky. And she hasn’t as she hasn’t forgotten the stars or the sea or the wind that whips and dozes and drifts above thick grass, as she hasn’t forgotten slowly to climb into bed years after years later, long after he said, “don’t forget me,” because slowness is what the soft dirt does. Slowness is what’s left inside the old rattle. Slowness is lying face up in the snow. It’s what she keeps to herself. What she returns to. It’s one thing no one else has.
Magic Carpet Ride
When they found me after the war I’d been dancing like a dog into the trees and was drifting as if my legs were broken and my arms open wide, and the stars far off. It must have looked as if I were welcoming what we can see in the moments we awaken. As when the arms come back to your sides and your eyes close, and there is little triumph, but you’re breathing okay, and the sounds of your body rage against the lousy world — and the sun blinks out its exaltations and shines up the street as the rows of dogs head home without one salt stick to chew on. That’s when you think it best to walk down to the river like a prisoner who gives two thoughts to the weeds and the fur on the goats and the wet fields, who thinks about blood and the nausea of graves. And thinks this too: The ride is like the way heroin flashes. And all laments of the old blow like pollen. So that even if you have drunk blood, you will still know sweetness, still know how the wings of a bird work above the bridges and the furrows of the centuries. I’m like all that now, rotting in my suit and bearded face, leaning against a small fence because this is the mad hour where the sound of bugs eating up the leaves takes you away. On this ride, it goes likes this: when you surround yourself with porches and an empty chair, when you inflame your eyes and gasp for the wildness and sob over the bodies of doves, and even if you’ve never saved a life, you don’t know what you’ll find between fire and the mountains. Could be the senator dead on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen, and the war still going on with its buried shells. Could be the mouths of the newly born with their charms and sorrows. Could be a wolf running alone in a meadow in the twilight, a clock stirring in a dream, babbling about history. You could find all that down by the exhausted river like a side road leading to another side road, like, there, a blue jay vanishing under a lift bridge, leaving this kingdom for some other, and therefore you understand that it does not set you free, and still you don’t know what you can see.
I know Mary is nothing if not suicidal. She hitches her garter like a bride, and tonight has found the shrubs for a place to bed down under — with an eight ball for a pillow — somewhere behind the Irish pub we stumbled out of, sore as horses, missing the ditch by a step. This summer the trees started nice and easy and have ended nice and rough. This summer the trees have hives of silence. They give off a light under which a crowd can croon. The leaves are like confetti, the leaves are like a patch of bells. Even the riverboat queens applaud their greeny societies that have nothing to do with the closing of hands or a body abandoned to the night. Just now, after the casualty notification process is over, the neighborly policemen come by and rub their night sticks into the hours of the wind. They don’t worry about the way things might have been. When they watch the flies buzz, they do not know one Mary from another — Mary the right hand pilot, or Mary on the whale boat, Mary in silence or Mary at the altar, Mary the virgin or Mary the child riding her unicycle, turning her big wheel, or Mary the lunatic in the asylum, Mary the machinist who winks at moths and fish eggs, Mary the gatekeeper who completes the race and leans on her rifle and takes her position. Mary who comes in from the sugar field. Mary who lies awake listening to the rain’s own gods. Mary who shuts her eyes. Mary who keeps time for the band. Mary the convert who sings out to all of them in single file, shining their torches above the fish in the river. — And now if I sleep, I must choose, America, between the 10,000 Marys. But I mustn’t lose a minute of sleep about the way things might have been. No, not for Mary, mother of Jesus, or Mary, sister of Moses, Mary of Bethany or Mary of Clopas, Mary Richards, or Mary Poppins who keeps on turning, keeps on burning, rolling on the river.
David Biespiel’s ninth book, A Long High Whistle, received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. Recent books include Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women. He’s a contributor to The Rumpus, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Partisan, New Republic, Politico, The New York Times, and Slate.
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