Friday, July 03, 2009

From Albatross to Marbles to Beckon: Ali Finds a Bunch of Old Poems and Papers and Shares His Enthusiastic Perspective

I have the day off. The weather is perfect. I'm well-rested, I've slept it all off. So how am I spending my holiday? Reading through my old notebooks and typewritten pages from (roughly) the years 1983 through 1993.

I have them stacked - 20 notebooks and/or folders high - in the high shelves of my kitchen. It's a strange sight - coffee mugs and drink glasses on the lowest shelf, plates and bowls on the next one up, dense notebooks filled with 3/4-attentive notes for psychology lectures and poems in the margins and back pages. Yes, I was a poet then. I tried my hand at writing fiction here and there. The poetry worked well. The fiction struggled.

I'm spending the day rereading the contents of my mind from 20+ years ago, hoping to gain perspective on where I find myself today. There are no clean/clear answers. There's a lot of longing in these poems. And surprisingly many of my attempts at humor back then still generate laughs today. But most of all there's a young man who took himself and his thoughts (moreso than his experiences) way too seriously.

Yes, some of it is poignant and direct. A poem called Sad Song, written on May 8, 1988, two days after the end of the longest relationship of my life up to that point, is sad and beautiful and heartbreakingly honest. If I could remember exactly where it is, among the giant paper piles in front of me, I would quote from it.

But I will quote from the poem that impressed one of my best friends back in 1984, a friend to whom I was very impressionable. The poem was called Albatross. We were going to name our literary journal after it. We never got that far. The opening lines of Albatross (12/2/84):
When morning arrives, let's all hold hands
And spit our existence into a pool of melted popsicles
And we'll wind up in intensive care
But who cares?
And we'll comb our hair with tree branches
Don't you dare...touch my hair
Okay, is it appropriate for me to critique my teenage self? First of all, the final two lines of the verse are fucking amazing. I slay the forced existentialism that preceded it (line 2 where I even include the word "existence"). I make the reader forget the wordplay (care/cares) and the fact that three out of six lines starting with "and" is two too many.

I was so proud of Albatross back in the eighties. Its one word title would signify the writer in me to the friends close to me, much like my creative mid-nineties self could be defined by those two one-word poem titles: Marbles and Bakersfield. (If any of you know the whereabouts of Marbles or Bakersfield, please let me know. I can't find a single copy of either one - electronic or paper.)

But who am I kidding? Sure, I wrote the occasional philosophical thinkpiece like Albatross. But mostly my 1980s poems were there to house the contents of my heart. Love poems - beautifully worded, forever unrequited. You see, my heart gave way to my head (still does) and my poems allowed me to think my way through every misguided crush, every appropriate crush, and every missed crushless opportunity staring me in the face. I mean - poetry aside - who would go out on a date with an alluring girl like S.M. and end the date by driving past D.L.'s house, all the while telling S.M. of his unrefined lust for D.L.? I would, that's who. It was April 1 1984, the day Marvin Gaye died. We went to see Footloose. And not only did I fuck things up by discussing my love for another girl, I outed myself as an apprentice stalker by driving past that other girl's house. Which was completely out of the way - at least six miles away from Doylestown. Six miles was a long way for teenagers back in '84.

This perspective that I have now, it was absent then. But I'm more of a blogger than a poet these days so let me just get it all out here in the open, in this forum, at this moment - Sue Morris, I sincerely apologize for making us drive past Donna Lutz's house on our one and only date. Oh and Marvin Gaye, I apologize to you too. On your death day, I sullied your name and your sexual legacy.

But I'm here to write about my poetry. Back to my pile of papers. What is this beautifully typeset collection of loose pages? Holy crap, it's The November Magazines!!?? My first attempt at anthologizing myself! On the title page, beneath the brilliant title, I write: 
What brought me here. A non-linear history in three chapters. A history of the great glorious Harvest Years (1985 through 1990 or, more liberally, 1983 through 1993).
So what did I choose to include in The November Magazines? I am both apprehensive and excited as I consider turning the page. If this collection truly does end in 1993, then it might just include Marbles and Bakersfield, though I believe the latter was written in 1994. Damn, that's a fact I should remember. Okay, turn the page:

Wow. I forgot about this. Centered, in glorious unknown font, I offer the reader two bookend quotes, from the qualified beginning and ending years I promised on the title page:
I never play basketball now - Paddy Macaloon, 1983
I used to shoot hoop - Snoop Doggy Dogg, 1993
Damn I had perspective even then. I even got the "Doggy" into Snoop's name. He wouldn't drop it until 1995.  Turn the page. It's the first chapter of a novel I don't remember writing. Wait a second - The November Magazines is NOT a poetry collection. It's the NOVEL I DON'T REMEMBER WRITING. Here's chapter two. And chapter three. 

And it's kind of awesome. I need time to think these pages through. Three chapters is a lot for me. Sure, each chapter bears little resemblance to the others. Each paragraph bears little resemblance to the others. No discernible plot. Just memories and more and more memories. It's a history of my life. And indeed it does cover those years. I'll give you the final sentence of each chapter. It will be sufficient. It will explain me to you (then and now):
You could have kept your promise of eternal love but you didn't. (end of chapter 1)

There is a blessing on the ground. (end of chapter 2)

In the November magazines, there's always a picture of you trundling up the riverside, walking back from your car, clutching the November magazines. (end of chapter 3, also the greatest sentence I've ever written)
One reason for my confusion: I recall being overly proud of the title The November Magazines and used it more than once. Whenever I anthologized or compliationed myself in the mid-90s, it was my go-to title.

More poetry. This is called The Night Before Thanksgiving. Written on the night before Thanksgiving (11/25/92). This one I remember every second of, every moment. I wrote it for someone I missed dearly in 1992.  I wrote it for someone I unreasonably avoided in 2009, as recently as a week ago. Sorry for the avoidance. Here's where I get the most direct in a generally indirect poem:
Just think somehow
Of pleasant thoughts of me
The man you remember
The solitude, the sender
Of all love your way
Anonymous and in decay, I miss you
Wow. Some things just don't change. I turn the page (real time) and there is another poem about the same person, the same fear and feeling. Wow, Ali, just because someone doesn't call you back within two days doesn't mean you have to go all fatalistic. From Dearest You (11/27/92, two days after the night before Thanksgiving):
Dearest you, do you still
Wear black against your will
Say words for sake of listening
To the blind forbidden thrill
To the deaf and deafening shrill
Yes, there should be a question mark somewhere in there. And yes, it's pretty great. Next, there's some claptrap (yes I used that word) about "that blessed year of 1989." Really, all that was blessed in 1989 was February and March and November and December. The rest of it I could do without.

I think it's coming.

Yes, chronologically, it had to show up some time. I found one of my great long lost poems. Marbles. 6/21/93. Let me read it now.

(Two minutes later). Surprisingly, not that good. But in a few places it shines:
you had the kind of broken smile
reserved for a metaphor writer
in the depths of the loneliness jungle
a gallon of heartache, a liter of will
can't be a writer if I can't buy a thrill
Yes, I did switch to not uppercasing the first letter of each line. It happened some time between November 1992 and June 1993. Since then I've alternated between the two methods pretty randomly. Please let Bakersfield be found soon. If Love Had a Halo. No. Swirl. Better. Ever the Fortunate Soul. Forgotten but pretty good. No Bakersfield in this pile. It's okay. Something has to remain lost or we wouldn't bother looking.

Look, here's a printout of a letter from 1993 I was planning to mail to my friend John. Or my other friend John. Not sure. What's important is that I once truly, sincerely believed that Pain Makes You Beautiful by The Judybats was the best album of the first half of 1993. In retrospect, it's clearly Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair (release date 6/22/93 - the DAY AFTER I WROTE BAKERSFIELD). Sure, it's possible I just hadn't heard Exile yet (it's not on the top 5 list) and sure the Judybats were underrated but still.... I have Pure Guava by Ween at #3 so that could be #1 and.... wait, you probably don't care.

More stuff from the 92-94 era. Pretty good. Here's the awesome String of Pearls (132 lines of pure cleverness). Here's another letter to one of the Johns. In which I offer 11 alternate names for testicles (Judds, Dibbits, Clem & Phil). In which I ask "How many Long Beach Crips does it take to change the lightbulb?" (Yes Doggystyle had just come out. Yes I answered the question. Yes I can tell you that it takes 5 of them. No I cannot elaborate although I do so in the letter.)

No sign of Bakersfield (interestingly, it was originally called Riverside.) And suddenly we go back into the eighties. We move from odd-fonted early Word printouts to crusty typewritten pages. Something called I Wanna Be Degraded from 12/7/84. Five days after Albatross but a million years removed. I simply will not quote from it. I recover from whatever degrading angst was torturing me to write Walled City eight days later on 12/15/84 (Inside my walled city, I can look at the sky / I will always know that no one's looking down at me). Wordplay. Then - January 1985. One of my favorite months ever. It's when Kaari blew on the key. It's when"No Impulse Shopping" became a catchphrase. And these last two sentences will only both make sense to me. Some of you will get one; some of you will get the other. No one will get both. There will be a future blog post to explain everything. Yes, Kaari took the key - actually the entire keychain - and placed it in her gloved hands and blew on them with her warm breath.

One last poem because my fingers are tired. The Sun Never Shines for Darkness (2/4/85) in which I lament my advancing age and disappeared childhood. I was still a teenager. The opening lines:
I hate it when they call me "sir"
I'm only a guy with a life
I hate it when they call me "mister"
I'm just a guy who's real nice
From there I write a life story of a poem, from baby to boy to man to corpse, age impending and relentless. I'm a fatalist by the third verse and a reluctant atheist by the fifth. I realize now that the poem was inspired by an incident that happened to me at the movie theater where I worked. I was the ticket seller that night. A customer called me "sir." I was horrified. I felt old. That one perceived but not real slight inspired a carefully written, precisely metered 48-line poem (12 verses of 4, every third verse indented). Two decades later, a painful divorce would inspire maybe one poem and half a bad short story. Life.

I promised that would be the last poem. And it was. But I just found a note. The handwritten note is from me to my then-girlfriend Lauren. Judging from the sentiments expressed, the note is from the first year of our 3.5 year relationship. I read it and I am flabbergasted by what I wrote. Was I really that much of a smushy-voiced sentimentalist? Did I actually say "weekends" instead of "weekend" when I meant to say "weekend" because I was invoking the ex's lingo? Did I really refer to myself by her nickname for me (the nickname I hated) not once but twice, in two different forms? Did I really substitute the word "kiwi" for vagina? Yes to all of that.

And another note. To the same person. Written on the letterhead of my old Ventura County job. In which I leave my work number. Because she's sleeping in and I'm heading to work. This must have been when I was living in Newbury Park. Anyway, in the note, I propose marriage. I don't remember doing that. I don't believe she answered. We never made it that far.

Here's something called Beckon. It's a song not a poem so you didn't catch me in a lie. It's a song because I called it a song back then (in a note at the bottom). I can imagine singing it and I probably have, to myself, toward the microphone of the mid-priced boombox I owned then. It's from 10/2/85. I begin by repeating the line "My only other dream was too real to mention" 14 times. I then follow this with an eight-line verse. I know enough about myself to be certain that I wrote this about a dream I had about a girl named Gretchen. We worked at the movie theater in the summer of '85. She went away to college (St. Olaf, Northfield, MN) and I pined/longed for her. I never asked her out because I was a shy and shyness made for better poetry. I remember the dream. In it Gretchen and I drive across the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, toward the east bank of the University. We go to the Big Ten bar and eat subs and drank beer. Some other people from the movie theater are there. This never happened in real life but I remember the dream so well even today.

When we worked together at the theater, we were both given performance evaluations by our boss, Mr. Engebretson (shout out to Mr. E!). I don't remember the range of the rating scale but I know that Gretchen's final score was 14 and mine was 8. Her score was the highest of everyone there. (Why did we so blatantly share our confidential scores? Oh because we were young and we didn't give a fuck.) My 8 was actually pretty good; Mr. E was a harsh reviewer. Anyway, that's why I repeated that line in the poem/song 14 times. And that's why the subsequent verse was 8 lines long. Because of our ratings. That little trickery of numbers and words sums up my relationships with females in the 80s (and half of the 90s and maybe my whole life if I think of it): a private joke, written in a private forum, full of meaning and obscure references, dripping with personal importance... never read or sung aloud to its intended recipient, almost never given on printed page to its intended recipient.

And then, four years later, when I did give another girl everything I wrote about her and she said "Is this about me?" as she sat upon the late, lamented mini-papasan chair from Pier 1, in the sunny second floor apartment at La Casa Brea in Brea, I couldn't just say yes. I had to give a qualified yes with a lengthy explanation. Could anyone have more blatantly walked into more missed opportunities than me? But there's a silver lining in all of this regret. Two silver linings, actually. One, at least I have the poetry. Two, some of those girls - they're still single. 

(I will be posting some of these old, long-lost, pre-Internet poems on my poetry blog - link at right - in the coming weeks/months/years. Happy Fourth)

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