cold clouds eat the moon / in the moist firefly air — three nights of bad dreams
LETTERS TO THE DEAD: TWENTY –TWO
Dear James Baker Hall (1935 – 2009)
You hardly know me and our contact was not literary. I was looking for a new car to replace the Subaru wagon which I’d purchased from Magistrate Jones over in Kentontown. (He bought clunkers at government auctions and resold them for a tidy profit.) It ran fine but I’d get an acid dust coating on my tongue whenever I drove it very long. I vacuumed and brushed it out many times – still the tongue coating. The driver’s door looked like it had had a Civil Defense symbol on it and I thought “Hell, they probably carried nuclear waste in this thing. I’m going to get cancer!” So I started looking in the Harrison Shopper which came to my mailbox on Tuesdays. ” Ah, here’s one: 1989 Sentra. High mileage but well taken care of. Dividing Ridge Road, Harrison Co.” When you answered the phone, I recognized your voice immediately. (Just the year before I had taken a credited summer writing class at EKU where you and Mary Ann were the keynote speakers for the final session. I’m sure you remember the faculty for that seminar – all the good old EKU writers like Dorothy Sutton and Harry Brown and you, the keynoter. They just don’t make them like you guys anymore.) I said, “Is this James Baker Hall selling the Nissan?” After a brief explanation, it was like we were lifelong friends. When I came to test drive the car, we spend most of the time touring your place (the barn across the road, the trees planted in the yard, your studio) and talking about tennis. I was the coach for Nicholas County and you were looking for local people to play. You set up a match but later had to cancel. (Ha, ha, probably good for me from what I’ve heard of how avid a player you were.) By the way Jim, I wanted to remind you about the car. The next spring I was driving home late from a school tennis match when that Hendrickson boy, coming down Piqua Hill, lost control of his car and hit me head on. Totaled. …The next time we met you asked about the Sentra, and when I told you the story you laughed and said the same thing had happened to your tennis game.
Jim, so many of my friends and members of our writing community have had you as a teacher. I sorely regret having missed your instruction, but I think your student, Whitney Baker, has produced one of the finest films on writing that has ever come out of Kentucky – “The Elbow of Light: a film on James Baker Hall.” It changed the trajectory of my own writing and also allowed me to get a glimpse of who you were as a person and a teacher…… All of us down here still miss you.
P.S. Below is one of my own poor poems that Whitney’s film inspired. I’m sure you’ll be able to help me whip it into shape.
New Year (2016)
(after Whitney Baker’s “Elbow of Light”)
Dog hunches on the rug
cat on the couch
the storm has me in a fidget
my squirm my twitch
devolved to a grating shuffle,
they look at me
and wonder what it would take
to get me out of here
out into the blow and drift.
I catch their snickers
pull out my mucker boots
my stormy kromer cap,
they don’t come to the door
I don’t look back.
From the porch
snow hides all my marker points,
I go straight into the maelstrom
eyes open to vast blankness.
I turn to go back
to stand by the hearth-stone stove
to listen to NPR about prisoners released.
But fuck comfort
for I”ve spotted a window in the shed
its loose pane
now a broken stem of glass
where an elbow of unknown light
is about to go unnoticed.
I hear Jim’s voice
“comfort is the enemy of joy,
sharpen your ear
to the sound of your fear,
it can change your life.”
My boots sink deeper
into the whiteout,
I know when to look head on
when to squint
Respectfully yours, Jim Lally
Dear unseen, unknown, uncertain source,
Could you please send a catalogue of words that mean good, happy,
yes, positive, hooray, yippee, yea and yay too?
You must have columns and pages and lists available for times when the butter begins to melt in the clean skillet
and the smell is good but the words are not good enough for that smell
of lusciousness, luxe, luck and fortune, that fragrance that a woman loved,
for sure, long before recorded time.
I need options for words I can say when the cream comes down in the
glass of iced coffee and the beauty of its coming leaves me speechless.
Please show me the choices you have available for the buttery yellow happiness of work going well, of nothing wrong, of things so right it may be bad luck to mention them—you’d know. I don’t.
I’d like the catalogue now, please, or at least in two days, like Amazon Prime.
Buying all the words I need could be a problem, so please send information on your literary leasing programs as well. Do you have rent-to-own?
And can you tell me how to reach you?
No words were needed
You’d shown me enough in your
loud, heavy heartbeat.
When Disney produced SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, did he know that jokes would be made about “Someday my prince will come”?
Did he have any idea that that “Heigh Ho” might refer to a prostitute who uses drugs?
Did he have a dirty mind?
Or is it just me?
Don’t answer that.
By the waters we call Bravo and they call Grande
we sat and wept, sat and wept, sat…
y no hubo quién nos conosolara
There on the mezquite
we hung our guitarras y guitarrones
smashed las vihuelas y las trompetas
contra las piedras del río
Los políticos y los periodistas asked us for canciones,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy
They said, “Sing us a ranchera, a narco-corrido!”
But how can we sing those songs?
Our joy has been taken from us.
Y en esta soledad, will she ever find us again?
Querida, we sing, ven a mí que estoy sufriendo
ven a mí que estoy muriendo
en esta soledad, en esta soledad
Our tongues cling to the roof of our mouths
the milk of our breast sours and dries
O Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us
Ay hija de Babilonia, bienaventurado el que tomará
y estrellará tus niños contra las piedras
*Psalm 137 is the principal intertext.
**The song “Querida” by Juan Gabriel, a Mexican singer of romantic ballads, is the other.
She asks if I will be okay
then interrupts herself- you are always okay.
I am a dice with six faces,
which one do you see?
Chatter, silent night
organic plague inception
Echoes fade in Rome
Plato brought an epoch
glue never gild a lily
Broken glass insane
taurus crashing china shop
I am the delicate strings on your acoustic guitar