True North: A Poet's Test

How about this: tonight you’re walking home and you see a man with eight words painted across his chest:


truth is not decided by a majority vote


True to your nature, you scheme up a story. Centuries ago a king spoke these words before his people stoned him to death. My god, you’re thinking: I’ve found my next poem. I’ll consult my Historia Regum Britanniae the moment I walk through the door. But you prevent yourself. When you hunt down the name of the king who said this, will your poem no longer hold true? Let’s say these words were spoken by a woman accused of witchcraft and nobody burned her alive—do you render your poem false to yourself? You want the truth, you follow the law. But you want the truth to wear your clothes. So you decide to undress in front of a mirror and interrogate yourself. Because after all, on whose authority is your poem true or false. When it comes down to you and history, who wears whose clothes?



(A poet in front of a mirror)

Let’s say you’re a horse. People place bets on you to win money is why you are here. Note that a small man is mounted on your back. He stows a leather crop in his boot and beats you with it when it’s time to outrun the others. The steel in which you are standing is called the starting gate. The man strokes your mane and whispers your name in your ear. Your name which is Drop Dead Gorgeous. When you hear your name you think you hear gunfire and storm through the gate. This is your life. But Gorgeous: the gun hasn’t fired yet. And what you’ve committed is what they call in the business a false start.

Have heart. This happened to a man named Jasper Johns too. In the 1950s, Jasper loved a man named Bob. Every time Bob called his name, Jasper tasted pop rocks on his tongue. He smelled gunpowder and fireworks when he saw the sun coming up, and words like white and gray were slathered in red paint across Jasper’s dreams.

Jasper was a man with what we call synesthesia: “a sensation in one part of the body as a result of a stimulus in another.” A blurring together of the senses in which the senses unite to misrepresent the world. A false experience of the life we all live. And so, with only a broken compass to guide him, Jasper painted the world he saw and called his painting False Start.

Like you, Jasper stormed the gate when he thought he heard gunfire. This was his life, gun or no gun. And thirty years later a man placed a bid on Jasper and won his False Start for seventeen million dollars.

As history goes, this is one instance in which money decides what is true.



True or false: poetry makes nothing happen. It’s been said that Auden wrote these words before the coroner had a chance to pronounce Yeats dead. Seventy-three years later, these words sniff at your crotch and peck in your ears and you take them, on Auden’s authority, to mean that your work does not have to deal with injustice. You like soda and celebrity antics. You like when people can’t help but stare at you. You’re thinking: maybe my poem can wear those clothes. Because Ted Berrigan said poets should try to sneak coca cola into their poems but he wrote lines like my friends whose deaths have slowed my heart stay with me and you see him some nights in the dark and wasted on pills and pissing the bed with a gutful of syrup. And when scraggy men shake cupfuls of coins in your face you want to give them money but it’s my money and you need it and how are you supposed to say that to anyone in America. Isn’t this the nation where your true job is not being poor people. And still more words are licking the salt from your palms: what is poetry that does not save nations or people. A poet who wasn’t American asked this. His answer: a song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment.

You’re thinking: marauders! I snuck a coca cola into my poem and all I got was this slit throat. And the lines I wrote to save nations or people—they didn’t move a molehill. You want to know which of these poets is traitor to you and which is the sage. You watch pornography, you’ve visited graves, you’ll riot in the streets if you have to. But how do poets exist if they’re all these different people at once?



Or maybe you became a drummer by listening to records and banging on trash cans. Or maybe you became a poet by reading books and scratching up loose leaf. A guerilla education of this sort we call immersion. Or how about this: one day the singer in your band shows you the tattoo on the inside of his lip:


true til death


A decade later you linger over these words. Is death a destination? As in: no sleep til’ Cleveland? And when we arrive there, are we relieved that death at last proves us false to ourselves?

You know a woman who believes death is the caveat of a true life. But you’ve never asked her: can a person—can a poet—remain true beyond death?

Albert Camus: “it is probably true that a man remains forever unknown to us and that there is in him something irreducible that escapes us.” When you were younger, you lay on the floor in the false dawn one summer and thought you might take your life. You thought: now there’s a headline—Poet Takes Life on Floor. But you lingered over these words as well. You wanted to stripsearch the people outside in the streets and never discover these words tattooed on their bodies:


false until death


It will be the world’s shame, you thought, if death proves itself the furnace in which we reveal our irreducible truths to nations and people.

And you suddenly wanted to ask the president a question: from whom do I take it when I take my own life? And mister president, where on earth am I taking it?

You’re thinking no: poetry makes nothingness happen. And yet we survive it. On these grounds you decide against death, because not even death can render you true. You immerse yourself thus in a new education—what is unknown and irreducible in nations and people—in order that these stones won’t escape us.



True or false: when the handsome poet at the cocktail party asks you what you do for a living, your answer ashames you. I write copy on Madison Ave, you say. Or how about this: I teach. You’re ashamed that the trumpets inside you don’t announce your answer with fury: I’m a poet. You think of the man who sat beside you on a corner in New Orleans one summer. Being homeless, he told you, is not my career. I have no career, no job, and no living. Being homeless is what life does to me.

One truth with which you live today is that poetry will not earn you a living. Make a list: in the last three years, writing poetry has earned you $1,145. This number astounds you. Working forty hours a week in the same amount of time has earned you, before taxes, roughly $93,500. This number embarrasses you. When a man in New Orleans tells you to walk down the street and tattoo on your body the single word that bears forth your life, the word is not copywriter. The word is not teacher or jockey or crooner or collector. And yet when a poet asks you how you make your living, it’s the money that answers for you. I write copy on Madison Avenue.

As history goes, this is one instance in which money decides what is false.



It’s a pity, and one which undoubtedly spoils us, that more writers don’t get tossed in prison for what we call false personation: “a person who knowingly misrepresents his or her actual name, date of birth, or address to a police officer with intent to prevent such police officer from obtaining such information.”



True or false: my name is Emily and if you ask me a jag of lightning should crawl down out of the sky and touch a child very slowly on the clavicle or else we’ll all go blind that’s the truth. Or my name is William. I was born one night when a wagon kicked up a dust cloud inside of my mind. Now whichever way the typesetter misspells my name is the clothes I’ll wear into history. My name is Eric my war name is George. Or hello there I’m Fernando but you can call me Bernardo or Gervasio or Uncle Pork or Pip they’re all me if I say so. Or how about this: my name is Noah. When God wrecked my house three centuries ago, I sailed the earth with no compass and no address and here on my deathbed I would like these letters that don’t find homes to be returned to my permanent address the dirt.

Life sentences, all of them.



But let’s say you’re lost in the woods. Maybe it’s the middle of your life and the woods are lovely and dark. The third time you come to the creek you realize your compass is broken. You’ve already eaten your map. But you’ve heard among lost folks there is a road they call true north. It begins by remembering you’re dirt. Your mother sprang from the dirt and you’ll follow her back down inside it some day. Until then you’ve got what they call a lodestar. It’s a little burning fist of nothing up in the sky. You give it a name that’s dug from your dirt alone. Something like Drop Dead Gorgeous. And you don’t have a career. You don’t have a job or a living, but you do have work. Your work is to walk toward the fist and tell it your name. My name is false start, for instance. Or: I give myself eighty-one names. Your work is to devil up a story about the fist. This fist belonged to a king before his people stoned him to death. And your work is to talk to the fist while you follow it north. Poetry makes nothing happen, you tell it. And yet it survives in the valley of its making.



Or how about this.

True or false.

Tonight when I name the fist.

Tonight when I name the fist I hear gunfire.

Tonight I hear gunfire and storm through the gate.

The man on my back with his crop.

The man on my back wears my clothes and he will not escape me.

He will not escape his nations.

Nor people.

And he will not escape his false starts.