Seeing America in a Clothesline: Allen Ginsberg Revisited

From the first time I read “Howl” as a teenager until the most recent the other night, I’ve found this launched rocket of prophetic imagery and generational solidarity to be a thrilling invitation to write for myself. Somehow, Ginsberg made it look easy, as if all you need do is unleash your own furies in their boldest, most utopian, and hallucinatory form. His “hydrogen jukebox” sounds so appealing to play on that I’m surprised that so little poetry sounds like “Howl,” as if everyone has scaled back their ambitions in favor of plainspoken rants or overly informed irony. Yet the more I learn about “Howl” the more I appreciate how crafted it is, how Ginsberg had his explosion of brilliance two months after his twenty-ninth birthday because he’ d already spent half of his life almost desperate to become a great writer. As a child, he’d been enchanted by hearing his father, a poet himself, read Milton and Wordsworth aloud. At Colombia he’d been a voracious reader who learned the English literary tradition from Lionel Trilling, the great books dean of the era. Before Walt Whitman became his obvious godfather, T.S. Eliot had deeply impressed Allen Ginsberg in ways that can be found in “Howl.” Though he sat down to his typewriter one day in his San Francisco apartment in August 1955 and composed the first draft in a visionary fever that was a bold departure from his previous poetry, Ginsberg was hardly an amateur. He’d finished an unpublished manuscript and filled journals with reading notes, poetic lines, haiku, conversational snippets, and whatever else caught his fancy. (The journal line that got “Howl” started was “I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned.”) He’d befriended William Carlos Williams, whose stepped, three line stanzas he initially emulated

I saw the best minds of my generation
…..generation destroyed by madness
……….starving, mystical, naked,

before switching to the long Whitmanesque lines

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked

Notice also the switch from “mystical” to “hysterical,” a change that Ginsberg considered key to his revisions of the poem, which continued for a year after that first magical sitting. Somewhere along the way, perhaps encouraged by Ginsberg himself, he came to represent the spontaneous poet for whom the fresh utterance is superior to anything hashed over and bent into form. Spontaneity may be essential to discovering a newness in one’s work, but it need not be divorced from studious revisions or deep immersion in the poetry you admire. For half a dozen years, I’ve had fun concocting my own “hydrogen jukebox” poetry that heightens the language as well as the story, but I’ve learned that it’s not as easy as it looks. That crazy blast of inspiration takes preparation.

Someday I may attempt my own “Howl.” Or maybe there are fragments in what I’ve already written. But there is another Ginsberg poem that I’ve openly emulated, “America,” written in the aftermath of “Howl.” Again, it was culled from his notebooks. It seems casual and spontaneous, but had a year’s worth of tinkering before Ginsberg was satisfied with his final draft. Unlike “Howl,” much of which has a private prophetic intensity, “America” reads like performance piece, a standup tragedy routine addressed to this great and fucked-up country of ours. It’s a litany of hopes and complaints that gathers force through Ginsberg’s funny and heartfelt choice of details, many of which may be outdated but could readily be replaced by the latest from Fox News and The Nation. But it’s not a poem of volatile inventiveness. It doesn’t have the “hydrogen jukebox.” It appears in the Pocket Poets edition of Howl that I first bought as a teen and have bought again several times since, but it’s not a poem that I remembered very well until it became central to my life.

Back in 2004, I did my best to ignore the Presidential race while living in the Adirondacks for five months in an off-the-grid lake house with a generator to power my computer and two bars worth of reception for my cell phone from a thruway tower miles away. I took a sabbatical from reading The New York Times, listened to Vermont Public Radio, and checked my e-mails once a week at the nearest library a twenty minute drive downhill by Lake Champlain. Age hadn’t mellowed my reactions to politics. To the contrary, George Bush’s smug indifference infuriated me, as did the press’s deference to his genial friendliness, especially on NPR which spoke about him–as it spoke about everything–with such amiable reassurance. I also feared that wooden John Kerry wasn’t headed for victory. So I caught as little of the news as I could while on this extended writing retreat. On election day I returned home to Woodstock to vote and went to bed when the early returns in Pennsylvania looked promising. Alas, the fantasy wasn’t to be. I woke up to another Bush term and took consolation by hiking Mount Wittenberg with a friend. At the start a dripping fog hung in the trees, a fair statement about life. But as we began descending from the summit the season changed as an arctic front ushered in a brilliant blue sky that crystallized the mountain views for miles around. We put on our hats, invigorated by this premonition of winter. No matter how bad our politics, nature abides. Even the balsam firs smelled sharper in the cold. The mountains bring you back to the essence of life, the hardiness of the trees and the rocks and the roots, the physical satisfaction of hiking and scrambling up and down outcroppings, the old fashioned freedom of being in the wilderness that’s so much more enduring that whatever hysteria fills the news. The forest quiet holds the deeper truths of our place in the world. After the hike I lived with this sense of renewal–okay, call it denial–for a month until I read Allen Ginsberg’s “America” and knew I had to face my love/hate relationship with this country at last. I had to write my own “America,” an experience I likened to being in couple’s counseling with a country that could give me both Wittenberg Mountain and George Bush. Here’s what I learned:


I’ve read your in-flight magazines.
I’ve known some of your people, a few hundred,
maybe more. But on the summit of Mt. Ajo I ate lunch alone.

America, you should have seen me play in the desert below:
stick batting sausage-like links off teddybear cholla,
then reattaching them by their own cactus velcro;
or plucking yellow bell pepper-like fruits
from barrel cacti to sample javelinas’ cuisine;
or casting saguaro for cowboy cartoons,
one tall cactus throwing two short uppercuts,
another galloping bowlegged without leaving its trunk.

On the summit of Mt. Ajo I looked over three lands:
Arizona, Sonora, and the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation.
The Indians ran a barbed wire fence up ridges
and rock spires, their border against cattle and Whites.
The Whites left a summit box rusted and padlocked.
The lone cedar defended itself, weathered branches
raised like antlers from its sprawling evergreen shrub.
Three nations naked with desert.
One car pulling a mile of dust on the park road below.

America, do you know how good pump water tastes from a canteen?
A tin of smoked oysters? Saltines?
America, whoever invented gorp deserves the Medal of Honor,
especially for this mix of dried bananas, coconut flakes,
cashews, and miniature carob kisses.
I brushed crumbs off my hands for the lizard.

America, your vast sky was so quiet
moments before the metallic scouring
I’d heard twice that morning but now finally saw:
three fighter jets tightening circles,
flashing razors of sunlight, suddenly aiming
to collide, then missing by eye blinks.

America, I won’t deny it: I was thrilled by your dogfight.
The jets circled again, this time for the kill;
two flaming streamers shed by the target plane
flamed out into curlicue skywriting,
skywriting I couldn’t translate into words,
but it held for a minute as the sky’s only cloud.
Far from its signal flares, the target jet rejoined the two
and flew in arrowhead formation over the Reservation.

And that’s all I saw until opening night two months later in Baghdad.
And this story could end with unsettled feelings about empire,
but in America the story never really ends, now does it?

Off-trail I made a new route down from the saddle,
pausing to shake a flurry of seeds
from dried rattles on a century plant stalk,
then finding a cattle skull up to its eye sockets in sand.
I shook the skull clean, laid it teeth down
on a pedestal rock overlooking the desert plain
veined green by cactus-thick arroyos.

Down the loose slope my boots carved long slides,
as if skiing on sand. Then funneled
into a dry wash with pillow-smooth boulders,
I descended wary of rattlesnakes but surprised none.
Hopping and jumping down this natural jungle gym
for a thousand feet, I trusted sand traps
to be kind to my knees. How daring I grew,
sliding off boulders taller than myself, gamboling
like an overgrown boy. America,
I tell you, I was happy again.
What could beat this day in your mountains?
At bottom a saguaro waved a big hello.
A yellow-eyed thrasher sang whit-wheet!
from the crown of its cactus.

In the arroyo I took a fresh compass bearing.
Only two miles round a ridge buttress to my tent.
Yet topping a rise I spotted trash strewn amid cactus:
golden potato chip foil pinned on a prickly pear,
two plastic water jugs punctured by needles,
an orange soda can rolled next to a rodent hole,
white cardboard from a cookie packet
tucked in the crotch of a cholla.
Who did this? Some high school doper or drunk?
Then I read labels: “Aqua Purificada,”
“Fanta Naranga,” “Cremes de Vainilla.”
The diet of illegals crossing forty miles at night
to avoid Border Patrol Jeep Cherokees.

America, you follow me everywhere.

Meanwhile, north of me in the Hudson Valley, the slam poet Elizabeth Gordon has used “America” as the model for an homage to her adopted city of Cohoes, an old brick mill town still far in spirit from the gentrification across the river in Troy. Her book, Love Cohoes, lives up to its title. It’s full of spunk and hard luck humor. “Are You Really Working Class? Test Yourself” commands one poem, which then quizzes you about washing up in a Walmarts bathroom, having bad teeth and unneutered dogs, and feeling shame over your shoes. Though rather new to slam poetry–a form that grants her three minutes on the clock, plus a ten second grace period–she’s of Irish heritage and clearly loves stories. Here’s her version of Ginsberg’s comic lament.

The Clotheslines of Cohoes
After Allen Ginsberg’s “America”

Cohoes, the ropes of your clotheslines are rotting!
Don’t you want to smell the Great Lakes in your sheets anymore Cohoes?
Don’t you want the sun to puff the turned-out pockets of your Dockers?
Dear Cohoes, we’re in trouble. Be honest: how many days before you open your utility bill?
Kim Jong Un wants your clotheslines Cohoes. Him wants them stiff iron posts, them balls of cement.

America’s got talent, talent and clothespins.

Lucille told me Cohoes how you used to tell stories as you hung our your clothes,
kids running through the arms of a whole building’s shirts, empty lines on wash day signaling trouble
bad trouble in the house.

I think tenements were little villages.
I think you’re a little ashamed Cohoes. I don’t get it, you’re so pretty.

Is it because they look like crosses two stories high? Is it because people say Cohoes is poor?

Oh Cohoes don’t listen to gossip! They do like crosses two stories high and we are poor!

That man who owns the laundromat? He’s not happy.

Don’t worry Cohoes. I’ll take in your clothes if it storms when you at Walmarts.
I won’t count holes in your socks or notice what brand undies you buy.
I don’t guess you buy the same brand Anthony Weiner buys but how can I ever know for sure Cohoes
if you let your clotheslines rot?

One clothespin holds two shoulders, remember? Jeans dry last. Pulleys squeaking as a load’s run out early
morning and back in afternoon or evening mark time much better than daytime TV.
Did you think of the bedridden and debilitatingly depressed when you let your clothesline rot Cohoes?

I tell you a secret: all Lucille’s sheets are white, white and perfect, sailboats at the starting line,
ironed clouds, clan robes in detox.

Oh Cohoes, I want to look up from doing dishes to see the prayer flags of your tank tops.
I want to feel guilty for sleeping when you’ve done two loads already.
I want to compete with you Cohoes.
I want to hang my clothes better and faster.

I want them to snap all dust bowl in the wind.
And I want to concede defeat to you Cohoes.
I want to say ‘You’re a better housewife than I am Cohoes.’

Show me the prom dress,
the cribsheet,
the tablecoth,
the robe washed for the last time.

Show me your stains and I’ll show you mine.

Meanwhile sunlight wicks the dew from every blade.
Meanwhile breezes dry the hair of the drowned and fill the shirt sails of the most desperate sailors.

I have a shawl I want to show you Cohoes.

Look at me when I’m loving you Cohoes!
My mother speaks to me from the grave.
She tells me you sell those dryers downriver,
sell those damn dryers to Yonkers.

Come outside Cohoes. Come on out.
Tell those chump squirrels–these ain’t no tightropes!
Tell National Grid–get your greed out of my pocket.
Tell your children–two shoulders one clothespin, thus.

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The Leslie Gerber Mashup Poem

Leslie Gerber has published a chapbook, Lies of the Poets. Here’s a mashup I’ve assembled from words and phrases. Call it my first Cubist Gerber:

Yesterday I Was In The World of Tomorrow

The canned air smelled of Styrofoam.
The thruway sky looked like weak coffee.
Jesus knew of the temple villains in Cambodia,
but spared no one Rockefeller’s gold-handed cane.
The handyman asked my wife for money, then asked me
if I’d ever kissed a brick before it fell from the wall or
stopped to watch ducks in a parking lot. I always
knew I’d grow up to visit South Beersville, or
the thruway sky looked more like cigarettes
than weak coffee. I haven’t forgotten
the billboards of Indians winning the lottery,
but another woman has left a scar on my heart.
They say she’s as beautiful as a cucumber.
They say she tamed Rockefeller’s naughty cane
by treating their horses to cocktails at the Waldorf.
I don’t believe it, not when the wind and the rain
complain in my basement. When I answer the door
the postman hands me a meteor. Even war is confused.

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OUTDATED: The Coffee Cup Poem

One of my fantasies has been to publish a poem on a coffee cup. So I was in luck over Thanksgiving weekend when I treated my visiting cousin and nephew to breakfast at the Outdated café in Kingston. A flier beside the cash register invited us to fill in a rather small box with an illustration for a travel mug. A winner would be chosen within days. We ignored the box but set to work on an acrostic poem that used the letters of “OUTDATED” to begin each line down the page. I don’t remember what the three of us wrote as a collaboration, but we did use “…dirty/Underwear…” to start the U line, and we had so much fun that we wrote a second poem, then brought both up to read aloud to the bearded cashier. He had the pained smile of a guy thinking, What did I do to deserve this job?

We didn’t win. Days later Facebook revealed the chosen illustration to be what you might describe as a sci fi deep sea diver’s helmet that my cousin hated but I sort of liked. Being a lawyer, he blustered and fulminated over our loss by e-mail, but, as a poet who has lost countless contests (and won a few), I reminded him that there’s no accounting for taste. Then I wrote another poem. It appears in the new Chronogram.


Once you sat
The tree of
All night
To taste the

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Praise for The Pocket Perkins

A small book fifty years in the making The Pocket Perkins offers brief writings on Life as a Writer, Walker, Pagan, Poet, Philosopher, Flaneur, Provocateur, Libertarian, and Libertine. As Michael Perkins writes, “To make a perfect sentence is a hard day’s work.”

“Michael Perkins and Francois de La Rochefoucauld will be running the aphorism club in the hereafter.” — Andrei Codrescu, author and NPR commentator

“In this handy volume, the beloved Woodstock poet-novelist-libertine-philosopher-hiker Perkins offers a potent distillation of 50 years of work, packed with pithy excerpts from his memoir, plus criticism, essays, and more, including an introduction by ‘Chronogram’s’ own Nina Shengold. Sprinkled liberally throughout are Perkins exquisitely wrought aphorisms, shining with bracing clarity. The Pocket Perkins can serve as an introduction to a true man of letters, a Greatest Hits, and/or a reminder that literary greatness walks among us.” — Robert Burke Warren, Chronogram

“May God give all who write the chance to have such a perfect testament to one’s talents as the new book being celebrated at the Woodstock Library Forum. The Pocket Perkins, culled from dozens of books and reviews by Michael Perkins, has an elegant format that keeps each singular selection to the confines of a page. These augment the Woodstock walker’s ways with short poems and a host of pithy aphorisms, and allow the joys of his prose to sing as memorable segments that lend themselves to rereading, or reading aloud.” — Paul Smart, Woodstock Times

“The only reason to interrupt your reading of The Pocket Perkins to the last page would be sudden death. The man writes in spectacular colorful words hoisting the English language to places it’s never been. I did not mind dashing to the dictionary at intervals as I was learning new ways of telling the story from this master. It is a literary buffet with practically every word as crunchable as a crisp autumn apple. There is a feast of aphorism, delicious poetry, with humor and irony spiced with life and death. If you do not finish reading this book before you die, there is no grave can block your eager return to get to the last page.”— Malachy McCourt, author of A Monk Swimming.

“Michael Perkins—a living National Treasure of the Woodstock Nation (a.k.a. the Ashokan Republic)—adheres to that old and almost-vanished livelihood known as ‘The Man of Letters,’—all of them, from poetry to pornography. I revere him as one of the very few conscious Neo-Luddites I know, a genuine ‘anarchist tory’ (as Orwell called himself) whose severe critique of modern technopsychosis harmonizes with a stoic-epicurean appreciation of life’s genuine good things—most of which cannot be commodified or down-loaded. A great aphorist in the tradition of Oscar Wilde and F. Nietzsche.” — Peter Lamborn Wilson, author of riverpeople and Ec(o)logues.

“Luminous, pungent, thought-provoking, revelatory aphorisms and short takes from a writer of profound integrity who speaks from his great, great heart. You’ll read it—and read it again and again.” — Patricia Eakins, author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories and The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste

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My WAMC Rant Against Golf

(WAMC broadcast this piece as a Listener Essay. The poem appears in My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse. WAMC has also broadcast my piece, “What Is It About Zombies?”)

No Golf in the Kingdom

By Will Nixon

The delusion that is golf I can only explain by believing that it satisfies an atavistic yearning to walk again across the African savanna of our origins as the cleverest beast in creation. Why else would people find manicured turf so appealing, plus artificial watering holes? Why else would Americans bring golf clubs everywhere they go? Aircraft carriers. Death Valley. The moon. You can’t escape their obsession. Once on a roadside litter pick-up in the highest and wildest road notch in the Catskills, I found a golf ball nested in the damp silt beneath a maple tree miles from any golf course, a demonic egg that infuriated me to write a poem.

What Kind of Mind Invented the Golf Ball?
Devil’s Notch, Catskills

Like this one buried up to its dimpled white crown
in damp silt between maple roots, so cocky
and clean, so perfect. All morning I’ve picked up trash
in this notch, where ravens broadcast from cliffs
and shadbushes hold smoke blossoms into May.
I’ve filled my yellow bag with the transparent brain
of a baggie submerged in a stream, Bud cans so faded
their words appear Russian, a paint can that burped
its last gob of white latex onto a stone wall—
the burial mound for bottle glass, burger clamshells,
a condom. The dead porcupine I boot-toed off the road
left a toothpick trail of quills. But a golf ball?
It doesn’t belong here! Not this alien probe
from manicured suburbs, where I served my youth
pushing mowers and painting garages. Only once
did I place my faith in my hands gripping
a golf club. At 17 I swung with fury and power,
topping weak grounders down the fairway,
or lofting grass divots I didn’t bother to replace.

What kind of mind invented the golf ball?
The same that invented the cover girl’s pout?
The perfect, unattainable sonnet? The insult
so clever and true it lives under your skin for life?

I lift the golf ball from its silt pocket,
dimpled eyes no different than dimpled chin.
I bounce it hard on the pavement, a bounce
it obviously loves, hopping over my head.
Even on Mars it would feel at home,
never lonely, hungry, or broke.
How can you make a golf ball cry?
How can you make it understand?

So I was adamantly opposed when, in the late Nineties, a developer proposed clearing a Catskills ridgetop for a golf resort. Wasn’t America already branded with golf courses? Why scalp a forest in a wilderness park to lay down perfect green turf like a skin transplant from the suburbs? Didn’t Canada geese already have enough grazing lands for themselves? No, I said, let’s save this ridgetop for the yellow bellied sapsuckers and other woodland birds.

So I hiked up there. Shangri-la it wasn’t. Heavily logged over the years, the forest was thin, runty, and sunny, a far cry from the wilderness protected farther up the ridge by the Catskills Forest Preserve with towering oak canopies and deep shade. But I did find something well worth preserving. Not one, not two, but three beech trees clustered together offering the mark of bear claws. In autumn the animals scampered up the trunks for the beech nuts in the crown. As it happens, the spread of bear claws is the same as our fingers, so I touched my fingertips to the claw scratches as my way of shaking hands. Americans may be golf maniacs, but I sided with the bears.

It’s a free country of course. No one will cure us of golf anytime soon. But I say, for a true adventure, try bushwhacking the Catskills, not golfing them. By bushwhacking I don’t mean donning a pith helmet and wielding a machete like a British character in a jungle movie. I simply mean leaving the trail to find your own way to the summit and back down again with a map and compass. As you go, you’ll discover a pride at navigating your way through the wilds, a pride as old as our ancestors out on those African plains. They didn’t bother themselves, chasing after little white balls. So why should we?

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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Bruce Weber and I Collaborate on a Poem (It gets wackier)

The August issue of Chronogram published a collaborative poem by Bruce Weber and myself.

Lines Never Written by e.e. cummings

under a gray sky epiphanies linger like frost on the tongue
sparrows taste best when swallowed by the sea
moose live long lives without reading Leaves of Grass
schoolyard sandboxes never forget their tragedies
kerouac’s mother refused to suckle him while drinking brandy
e.e. cummings loved the way vowels shimmy their hips
walt whitman placed dancing girls on his dope scale
congress has outlawed house plants that grow the color of money
many people have tried to ruin the alphabet
but no one can stop us from writing with shadows

We followed an exercise from the January issue of Poets & Writers:

“Compose a poem collaboratively with a fried. Write one line and send it to your friend via e-mail, or by passing a notebook back and forth, inviting your friend to write another line that builds on the first. Continue composing the poem together, line by line, until you have at least twenty lines. Then, each on your own, consider the draft and revise it independently. Compare the final versions.”

On a summer afternoon we sat down together at a table in Bruce’s backyard and wrote the following draft, trading the page back and forth. From this material I later wrote “Lines Never Written by e.e. cummings.”

The world looks more honest under a gray sky
especially the shades of reality pressed into a corner
Remember, e.e. cummings didn’t die for your sins.
He merely stood up for the freedom of the alphabet
Instead, you should write your name with the tree shadows
allowing them to escape into an infinity of grays
Oh, Walt, what did you do with your dope scale?
Did you leave it around the copies of Leaves of Grass
that you sold to the New England Society of ?
Those antiquarian genealogists of witches
and moose that scared Kerouac all the way to the sea
the night he decided to swallow a sparrow
with a glass of a brandy in an old school yard
the sandbox could never forget its tragedy
and Jack lived the long life of the road
even when living at the end with his mother
the old bitch who wouldn’t let him suckle during her soap operas
and when the grayness returned I beeped my horn
at least the geese were excited
they shimmied their hips like dancing girls
in the cafes at Bob’s All-Night Rendez-vous
where Congress had declared all house plants
had to grow the color of money
and the grayness of epiphanies
lingered on our tongues list frost

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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Two Modern Poems To Help Us Understand Orpheus

As I prepare for my Underworld performance with Chris Wheeling and Janet Hamill at the Spoken Aggregate wordfest on Sunday, August 26th at the Widow Jane Cave in Rosendale, I’ve been reading contemporary poems about Orpheus and Eurydice, the mythic lovers separated by death and then again his backward glance a moment too soon. Here are two short poems that have grabbed my attention.

The Entrance to the Underworld

By Gregory Orr

A common enough mistake:
looking in the wrong place.
It’s not a fissure
in the earth, or crack
in a cliff face
that leads sharply down.

You were looking in the wrong
world. It was inside
to that cavern
deeper than hell,
more dark and lonely.
Didn’t you feel it open
at her first touch?

Reprinted from Orpheus & Eurydice: A Lyric Sequence by Gregory Orr.

Necessary Shadows

“Because it carries
the past within it,
unlike mathematics,
draws backward.

This is the meaning of Eurydice.

Because the realness
of his inward being
lies at his back,
the man of words,
the singer,
will turn to the place of
necessary shadows.”

From the CD, Orpheus: The Lowdown, by Peter Blegvard and Andy Partridge, though this is, in fact, a found poem, a comment taken from George Steiner’s essay “A Future Literacy” published in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1971.

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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Orpheus and Eurydice: The Way to the Underworld, by Janet Hamill

[On Sunday, August 26th, I’ll participate in the “Spoken Aggregate” poetry festival at the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale from 1 to 4 pm. Three of us–Chris Wheeling, Janet Hamill, and myself–will present works inspired by the Underworld. Here, Janet previews her piece.]

When asked to contribute something on the theme of the underworld for this year’s reading at the Widow Jane Cave, I was immediately excited. The theme, given the setting, is entirely appropriate. Caves, caverns, steep descents, water, mist and mystery fit the universal descriptions of the underworld, or night journey, as treated by the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, ancient Greeks and Romans. In addition, the cave has the best acoustics a poet or musician could hope for, something that would have pleased the first poet, Orpheus.

When deciding what to write for the occasion, I gravitated to Orpheus. He is a timeless figure. Not only is he the first poet, but he also made a descent into the underworld. His myth may be the creation of ancient Greek myth, but his story has been a favorite of artists throughout the ages. In the world of literature there are Rilke’s sublime Sonnets to Orpheus; as well as more contemporary retellings by poets such as Charles Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Simic and Alice Notely.

Then, too, there are the great cinematic treatments of Orpheus. The films of Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy, Blood of the Poet, Orpheus, and the Testament of Orpheus and Marcel Camus and Vinicius de Moraes’s Black Orpheus. The Cocteau films are set in Paris, while Black Orpheus takes place in Rio during Carnival. Because I’m a rather eidetic thinker, I was especially drawn to the films for inspiration, and like the filmmakers, I wanted to create a telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in a contemporary location, in my case New York City. Beyond the films and the original myth, my other sources of inspiration were direct experience and a painting. The former was a recent trip to Governor’s Island, reachable by ferry, to read at the New York City poetry festival, the latter Arnold Böcklin’s famous 19th century painting of a shrouded figure being ferried to the underworld.

In addition to making Governor’s Island the underworld, my piece, The Way to the Underworld, takes other liberties. Orpheus is the one who has died and been sent to the underworld, and Eurydice is his poet-lover who travels to the depths in hopes of bringing him back to their apartment in lower Manhattan. Finally, after struggling to put write this story as a poem (I don’t do epics), I decided to write a short fiction.

This year’s reading at the cave may be the 20th in a series of annual reading, but it will be the first to emphasize themes and drama with four grouping of three poets each. I’m honored to have been paired Will Nixon and Chris Wheeling for this underground adventure.

–Janet Hamill
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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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Chris Wheeling Writes Poetry About the Underworld

[On Sunday, August 26th, I’ll participate in a poetry festival at the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale, “Spoken Aggregate,” from 1 to 4 pm. Three of us–Chris Wheeling, Janet Hamill, and myself–will present works inspired by the Underworld. Here, Chris tells us what he’s busy writing.]

When I was notified that I was one of the poets chosen for Spoken Aggregate 2012, I decided that I wanted to craft something special for the event. I think all of us in the Underworld segment wanted to do something new specific for this reading, and we have delivered.

In my quest for the future, I looked to the past. It was 2007, and I was attending the annual cave marathon, although I did not schedule myself as a featured reader. I signed up on the open reading list, despite not having any work with me that day to read. I made up two poems on the spot, one of which is the following.



The pillars
The foundations of the world
Impure earthly waters snake through

Not Hell in a conventional sense
Hell is a place where you can think
Hell is a place where you can think
Hell is a place where you can hear yourself think


Fast forward to 2012. I decided this small on-the-spot piece would be the seed of a mightier project. Thus, I went about reading and taking notes. I drew inspiration from T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books, Umberto Eco, Tolkien, my own fellow local poets, and so many more. I filled page after page with fragments. The nine lines above blossomed into over 10 pages of first draft. However, many of my learned allusions and references had to be scrapped due to making the whole mess fit together, as well as fitting within my time allotment for the reading. Pointlessly indulgent lines, although sounding good, had to be cut out. Some of my favorite phrases, deleted from the draft. Ah well. That’s the world of revision. I will most likely tinker with it later on, well after Spoken Aggregate closes shop for this year.

I originally titled the work “A Residency in Sheol,” however, I will most likely be changing the name to something else. At this moment, it’s “Voices in Exile,” but that might change before the 26th too. I decided to follow in the footsteps of The Waste Land, and make the poem in multiple sections that aren’t immediately apparent as to their connection. Fellow Underworld group member Janet brought up Arnold Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead” paintings and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, both of which provided further material for my Underworld poem. With Orpheus came the idea that it should involve love. With The Tempest and Prospero’s Books, a cloistered intellectual. Cave paintings, mines… a lot of ideas went into this. Maybe too many ideas.

The draft I’m currently staring at doesn’t quite resemble the grand artistic vision I had at the outset. Most of the fragments haven’t left the notebook. Half of the first draft has already been sliced away. But that doesn’t really matter, does it? The poem needs to be itself. I’m here to lend it a hand and bring it from the darkness of my mind to the daylight, only to shove it back in the cave on the 26th. Whatever it becomes is what it is. I am enjoying the challenge of writing a longer poem; I hope you enjoy what will be read at Spoken Aggregate this year.

–Chris Wheeling

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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Janine Mower Joins Our Final Summer Woodstock History Walk

For our summer finale, Janine Fallon-Mower will join our Pocket Guide to Woodstock Village History Walk this Saturday, August 25th, starting at 10 am at the Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street. Our tour will include a visit to Mower’s Flea Market, a beloved enterprise with its own colorful history. (Okay, pop quiz time: What do Woodstock’s outdoor markets and the Maverick Concert Hall share in common? No, not bugs on certain afternoons. Both can trace their origins to Red Cross fundraisers held during World War I.) But if John Mower, her husband, answers the question, “Where was the concert held?” by saying, “Right here on the lawn,” as he’s wont to do with a wink, don’t believe him.

Many of our walks have waxed nostalgic about Woodstock’s history as an arts colony, which is seen in the galleries, and as a Sixties mecca, which can’t be avoided, not with the tie-dye competition on Tinker Street. What I treasure about Janine is that she’s a historian of Woodstock as a real town, not just as a summer retreat of celebrated figures, but as a community where families have lived for generations, earning their livings by means that may have seemed ordinary at the time but seem extraordinary to us today, such as working in bluestone quarries or running summer boarding houses. In doing research for The Pocket Guide, I found Janine’s Woodstock history books invaluable. Her Mower family history has marvelous tales and details. (I’m still tickled by having read that “Albany ice cream” was once prized by youngsters in town. So there was life before Häagen-Dazs.) Janine’s two collections of historical photos, Woodstock and Woodstock Revisited, let us see more than words can convey. Yet when you talk with Janine, you sense that her passion for local history is more than a book project—it’s admiration for the many people and families whom she’s known.

Please join us for our final summer walk. The tour takes about an hour. The fee is a book purchase or $10.

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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