A young man tonight in a suit: let’s say his name’s Hunter and he’s pacing outside of a room.
The room is not lawless, if that’s what they told you, and he buttons and unbuttons his jacket.
Inside the room there’s three men and they’re drinking three glasses of milk. Like so, like so, and like so: each man takes a gulp and swallows a story he likes to tell to himself in the dark.
The first man’s gulp: each morning I defecate swiftly and never find blood in the bowl.
The second man’s gulp: my wife, to whom I belong, she won’t defile her (illegible word) by allowing a child to fall from it.
The gulp of the third man: once in the bathtub I was glad all alone at the bottom, my army men joined me and I threw them a war in the water, a long time ago, as a young boy, and it strikes me now like a sound is straining to hear the dying out of its echo.
Inside the room there’s three men and we need their business. But Hunter has no idea what he’s going to pitch them.
It’s not lawless, the room, and the laws they change every day. Today the law is child’s play: we need three businessmen to pay us to sell their diapers. If we want to sell their diapers we need a pitch. And the pitch must destroy our opponent’s. The law of the pitch, which never changes, is this: a pitch is a pitch because it’s lawless. Say whatever you need, torch whoever needs torching, to hell with the laws of the room. But the law of the day is you must win the hearts of the diaper men.
And Hunter, like anyone, is not lawless himself.
I’ll never rehearse, I’ll never write the words on my hands, he says. Crib notes is what Hunter calls them. If I cut my way through the brush in a blindfold, I’ll win the hearts of the diaper men.
When the door cracks open and he’s summoned forth by his boss, Hunter walks into the room and starts talking without introducing himself:
Gentlemen now that you’ve squandered an hour of your lives
on my opponents who are divorcees and want to deprive you of
money (who will die with 11 pounds of undigested red meat
in their guts) let me tell you a story about my wife she makes
homefries gentlemen her homefries they’ve already broken our
unborn daughter’s heart that’s how much she loves them with
If I told you Hunter’s a poet and this is a poetry reading, how would you answer. Here’s how I’d answer: I ought to hate Hunter for this but I don’t. I ought to seize Hunter by his lapels and hiss in his face, money does not solve the problem of people who can’t reconcile themselves to a language that won’t behave. I ought to tear a page out of the Godot I stole from the bookstore when I was fifteen and staple it to Hunter’s forehead:
vladimir: You should have been a poet.
estragon: I was. (Gestures towards his rags.) Isn’t that obvious?
But you have to think of the three men with their three empty glasses of milk, alone in the room and arguing about what to do with their business.
I liked the kid, says the third man. When he talked I felt like the
story couldn’t end until the story was over—the kid made me feel
like a kid again.
I am the father of no man, says the second man. And diapers or
no diapers I belong to no child.
But you still belong to your wife, says the first man. And nobody
wants to die alone on the john shitting blood.
Later when Hunter gets drunk, the boss shakes his hand and cries. Hell of a pitch, says the boss. And the next morning Hunter flies home and the sun is American sun when it strikes the ice in his drink.
I’m admitting to you this is a poetry reading. That’s me waving to you from the audience.
And so far tonight, the only word Hunter’s spoken is the name of his first poem. This first one tonight, he says into the microphone, this first poem tonight is called “Pitch.”
Elsewhere in the dark a woman is reading a poem. My breast, she says, and the mind scampers off to its shallows.
When she knows she must bring her body to bear through language, what word can a woman choose? What word can a man choose? One day I’ll read my poem to a room full of bodies, we say. Do we decide in this moment, with a small twinge of pain, to speak in the same language we use when we describe our bodies to doctors?
The mind rifles through its rolodex of genitalia. Cock, tits, girls, box, knockers, twins, prick, melons, whang, cunt, tool, cans, pecker, box, sausage, jewels, crank, weapon, bush, klackers, dick, knob, peter, jugs, whacker, snatch, wood, snake, gazongas.
One by one the words crumble in the harsh light of what the body tells us we want.
Inside a poem I decided one night that the word for my genitalia was garbage. I was thinking of a young man who’d accidentally thrown away his paycheck and he’s rummaging through the trash to retrieve it. But standing here tonight in the dark while a woman is reading a poem, I’m compelled to write down that my genitalia is more like a nothingness. It wants to be neuter. Or like a punk rock song sung by a woman in 1978, loud and you can’t understand the words and a saxophone is breaking through the timbre somewhere in the background.
This next poem is called “Salt,” says the woman. And the mind fires itself at a friend you’ve known since childhood. Nickname you gave him was Salt and to this day it sticks because that’s what you taste on your tongue when you speak to him. I have nearly completed your disappearance, says the women. And the mind clamps on Salt in a photograph with his father, a man whose job is watching a river of garbage. A man who earns money by watching a river of shit flow out to sea. These, says the woman. These are the hours of blankness. And where is Salt while you stand in the dark at a reading tonight. The mind like a crosshair on his body while he sits on his stoop in the cold, drinking a beer he hates and a fear he can’t shake in his blood. Only your little time here, says the woman. Only your little time here and your breathing.
Frank Bidart: a poem read aloud is by its nature a vision of its nature. Vision you cannot now reenter, from which when you sound the words within later unaided and alone, you are expelled.
“A poem read aloud is by its nature a vision of its nature.” You say this out loud again. You say it a fifth time.
These words wring you into yourself until you bang your head once more on the bolted door of your body, through which you have entered to get to this door.
Which is to say: you can’t suss out their meaning, and it’s this fact through which the words compel you to scream.
Next time you feel the mind depart from itself at a reading, follow your mind through the streets. Follow it down the footpath to your childhood home, where you enter your father’s bedroom and lift his dead wristwatch off the nightstand and hold it to your ear in the dark. Ask yourself what word sent you off on the warpath. What word wrung you into yourself. There was a curtain that blew through the room tonight, and the curtain left you feeling too human for even yourself.
And you know poetry and punk rock are not all that dissimilar.
Vladimir Mayakovsky: great scream of poetry, my books are going straight toward you.
From a poem called “Screaming My Head Off.”
And someday the bricks are gonna fall, writes Ian MacKaye, and I don’t want to have to use my hands.
This song is called “Screaming at a Wall,” he says into the microphone.
If you’re lucky, someone will scream in your face a few times in your life and you’ll have a hard time making out the words. Maybe it will be a woman and she’s screaming I am meant to be who I am into the telephone. But when you strain to remember her voice and the words as she spoke them, it strikes you now like you’re trees in a windstorm and you’re knocking against a wall behind which your sleep is disturbed. And so these words become the words she spoke. Or maybe one day it will be a man in a punk band and he’s missing one hand and screaming into your ear, something like: screaming gets you nothing. The first time you hear these words you mishear them: free men give you nothing. And you’ll never hear the words the way they were written or screamed in your face, even after you’ve learned the words to the song.
Or maybe it’s a poet who screams in your face. Only the poet will not be the screaming. The screaming is somewhere off in your shallows, where the body wrings into itself. And the room will be silent and the windstorm is outside the room. And the room is not lawless, if that’s what they told you.
At a poetry reading, one law of the room is you don’t cry out in terror or throw a tantrum with your body.
This is not the law at punk shows.
Wear leather and bang into strangers, torch whoever needs torching, yawp and flail like a freak. The law at a punk show is that punk rock wants to be lawless.
But what happens when you stand in the dark at a poetry reading and all your body tells you it wants is lawlessness?
Anne Carson polls a room full of 700 bodies on the proper pronunciations of the word skein. She asks the men in the crowd to chant what a bargain! when she raises her hand. The women she asks to chant let’s buy it!
And everyone chants it.
Or Derek Walcott looks out at his audience with disgust. Why aren’t any of you Americans writing poems about empire, he says.
Charles Bernstein is reading Blake’s “Sick Rose” behind a curtain on the Bowery. He reads it again. He reads it a fifth time. The entire room wants to join him in destroying the invisible worm. He reads it a sixth. Then at one point he’s shouting lines from Whitman’s “Respondez!” in the dark.
Let him who is without my poems be assassinated. Let him who is without my poems be assassinated.
Or it’s years ago and nobody knows the name Brigit Pegeen Kelly, but her poem is called “Song” and the song is the head of a dead goat suspended from ropes in the forest as it sings back lowly and sweetly to the rest of its body and the woman beside you lets go of her husband’s hand.
“It’s a kill yourself kind of day,” Cate Marvin begins a reading.
Or John Berryman crackling through the stereo piss drunk in 1963 leans into the microphone and tells the audience: Henry has a hard time, and people don’t like him, and he doesn’t like himself, and in fact he doesn’t even know what his name is.
The feeling you have before you perform, Eileen Myles is saying. Like you’re going to be executed. You feel like you’re going to shit right there. It’s a holy feeling.
(And nobody wants to die alone on the john shitting blood.)
Or the first time you hear Dottie Lasky screaming at a room full of bodies about why it’s a black life.
Or Macgregor Card is reading his poems wrong on purpose in the voice of possessed Danny Torrance at summer camp.
Or Sampson Starkweather is reading Henri Michaux. People laugh coolly when he reads the lines like animals stop dead as you pass, or your fatigue stretches out to the country of Nan. But now in the middle of the poem a line makes someone next to you moan with a hint of anguish: someone has slobbered on the laugh of your little girl. Slowly the room is warped, it uglies and wants the bricks to fall, and people are whistling and shouting and stamping their feet as the poem wrings to a close: I am rowing, I am rowing, I am rowing against your life, says Michaux.
Words I want to seize Hunter by his lapels and hiss in his face.
Or the house lights accidentally blare up on Eileen Myles and she doesn’t miss a beat: I mean jesus it’s like the bathroom in here all of a sudden.
And then eight lines later in a poem she calls “Hi”: you made me monstrous and I love it.
Next time you want to scream your head off at a poetry reading, go hoarse why don’t you. Think of Hunter, in his suit, in a tower, pitching a Wallace Stevens quote to a room full of businessmen: I’m telling you gentlemen, money is a kind of poetry. And think of the word you will whisper when you name your genitalia in the dark. Think of the laws of your father’s dead wristwatch. And tantrum and flail your body why don’t you. Your body which wrings its own neck with the words it can’t keep from misbehaving. And think of your friends, dying alone on a stoop in the winter. A curtain is blowing through each of their rooms. And the rooms are not lawless, if that’s what they told you. And why don’t you think of the young man who leaves the reading tonight and walks straight to his bedroom. Who takes out a postcard and writes on its back: but I do write into my empire, Mr. Walcott. I mean can’t you hear me screaming at my wall.
This essay quotes from Deborah Landau’s poem “Someone,” from her book The Last Usable Hour (Copper Canyon).