At first, the young filmmakers shooting Night of the Living Dead wanted to keep their terror pure. Neither the survivors in a farmhouse boarded up in defense against the ghouls out on the lawn nor the audience would know what had caused the dead to come back to semi-comatose life. There was no reason given, just dread. Which may be bold philosophy, but is probably poor filmmaking. An audience wants to know why. We watch horror movies to conquer our fears. To do so, we need to know the cause of the problem so that we can feel safe again at the end with a solution. Don’t send us out of the movie theater as uncertain as we are in real life where bad things so often happen for no reason.
So the young filmmakers gave in and drove down to Washington D.C. from Pittsburgh to add a scene with an explanation. They staged an impromptu sidewalk press conference. Several played hounding reporters. Several played government bureaucrats and military brass ducking into a limousine. Amid the hubbub a general admitted that the rising of the dead coincided with a space accident. A satellite returning from Venus had burned up in the atmosphere, releasing a rare form of radiation.
Now, you may think that the filmmakers chose this explanation by happenstance. The satellite could just as well have come from the moon or Mars. But if you believe in Thanatos and Eros, the interplay of sex and death as the driving forces in life, then the choice of Venus, the goddess of love, was no mistake. This death-obsessed movie needed a jolt of the erotic. Here’s my poem from Love in the City of Grudges:
The Nude Model With a Mortuary Tag on Her Wrist
How far did you walk from your cold table on wheels,
Smythe, Carol 40916? How many pasture fences
did you cross without scratches, road puddles
without muddying toes? Arriving late at the lawn party,
you mingle among wives in sack dresses
who envy your marble-white poses.
All the good husbands ignore how moonlight
sculpts your buttocks & casts a tail down your spine.
The forlorn painter who loved you without a word
shuffles under a spruce, his cheeks peeling
like papier mache. He never mastered the flesh
you modeled with such ease. For hours,
you were his Venus, until you asked,
so politely, if you might pee.
Is it tragic you died so young?
Or do we prefer you this way?
Breasts firm as refrigerated dough,
dew-polished shins smelling of hay.
All we know: You left before the party
spilled into the house, nor in the morning
did the posse, sweeping fields, drop you
with a marksman’s shot. Are you still walking,
luring farm boys down from their silos
to consummate in hay? Are you releasing doves
from their rib cages, leading you home to the sea?
No one enjoyed this poem more than Samuel Claiborne. Granted, he readily shares tales about sex, but he also appreciated the fusion between Eros and Thanatos. Half-a-dozen years ago, when I first tried out these poems on the local poetry circuit, I ran into him all the time at open mikes. Now that I don’t go out, I rarely see him, which is too bad. As a poet, he crafted his pieces, savoring sounds and words, producing poems that boldly stood out from everyday sentiments. As a man, he was almost larger than life, both physically as a big guy with a shaved head and a gregarious, almost aggressive manner, and as a very smart person with diverse ambitions and talents. He seemed driven, in part, by being a survivor. He’d once been paralyzed from the neck down for a month and still feels some numbness in his body. His brother died of AIDs in 1989. He’s been divorced twice. Yet he now has two grown children in their twenties, one of whom recently returned from teaching in China. He’s had a good career in computers working on data bases, software, and web sites both in the City and at home in High Falls. He’s been a musician forever, now playing solo improvisational piano and experimental music on guitar, viola, penny whistle, etc., though years ago he was in bands with his brother that played punk, rock ‘n roll, and blue eyed reggae. He once had his own dark room as a photographer. As a writer, aside from the sheafs of good poetry that he shared with me, he’s written a novel inspired in part by Hopi mythology. (At his place I once saw a Hopi dictionary the size of a cake box.) His late father, Robert Claiborne, had been the author or editor of more than forty books, initially about science and later the English language. In the 1940s he’d been a young Communist for which he was later hounded out of his job at Scientific American by the FBI, leaving him little choice but to support his family by being a freelance author. Every so often, Samuel delivers a fiery political commentary on WAMC. But, come autumn, he also goes hunting. Perhaps to prove that he’s not just another flaming liberal. Here’s what he had to say about my nude model with “Smythe, Carol 40916” on her mortuary wrist tag.
She is beautiful
But her teeth
Are stained carmine
Her complexion evokes alabaster
But is really clotted cream
Her hand rises in greeting
But raptly pulls you towards her
Than a barnacle’s
She’s a cool customer
With ice water in her veins
Leaves the bowels uneaten
A great lover
Who never tires
And never fails to please
She hurts so good