BELOW THE WATER LINE
When you're a kid, you think that
things go on forever - Summer
was fifteen months long, waiting
in a room for something to occur
was at least a year. Kids hear things:
they hear parents make mention of
something to come, or some aunt
start talking about next Winter.
It's all confusing. Time, overlaps
and stays, but runs straight out -
slow, and long. By the time
you're old, it's all different: Time
spins always, and spinning on
it spins just ahead of you but
dragging you along in its wake.
You hear all the jokes, with Death
around the corner - 'Don't buy
any green bananas; don't waste
your money on any multi-year
subscriptions.' It's all meant to be
funny, but things start to have an
end, an 'event horizon' as now it's
said. Now you want Time to slow
down, or even want it to stop.
Back in Elmira College, in those old,
dumb days, I had an English teacher
named Mr. Steber. That's really all I
recall. He was a good enough guy,
seemed a little overly busy, but, yeah.
I wrote a paper once, he loved it. It
was something that had been always
on my mind. Emily Dickinson. A
poem of hers called 'Because I
Could Not Stop For Death.' Never
a real big Emily Dickinson fan, this
piece had, nonetheless, long before
caught me up. I rather dislike
effeminate, closeted stuff, the sort
of material she wrote. It reeks of
another era, a time and place we
no longer 'get' or understand clearly -
how people thought, the sort of things
they harbored, the kinds of dreams
they had, the visions and images
they saw. Life may be one continuum,
and even that can be argued, but I
know for sure that my continuum
was never hers. No matter. And little
to do with Avenel - not an Avenel
type poem at all. Unless you'd re-write
it, maybe, 'I took my hammer, and
heaved it at your face: the scars are
real, they've left a trace.' Know what
I mean? Anyway, I digress. Back to
Emily: this poem always grabbed me
in a way I couldn't stipulate or describe.
As a youngster, I'd spend a lot of time
reading things a bit out of my league,
fudging some of it, pretending I 'got' it,
understood. Most of the times I did,
but still, there are places and experiences
and ideas and emotions you just can't
share, as a kid. You haven't amassed
anything to reflect from, you're still
reeling from 'first exposure' to things.
It's nothing but pretense, like writing
a mystery when you're seven, to use a
truly bad example. I'd read this and just
stick it in my quiver of 'things' to be
gone back to later. It's pretty much an
easy, nothing poem, as far as language
and the creative art of structure or
word-use go. Nothing magical, just a
matter-of-fact recitation about something
by someone. (You can find this by just
typing in 'because I could not stop for
death he kindly stopped for me'. It brings
you, first up, and it's really all you need, to
'academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu' - the poem
deals with stuff a kid doesn't need to 'see'
from that, rather weird, angle. Death
picks this person up in its coach, they
ride together through town, seeing the
sights, this and that, and eventually coming
to the grave. Forever. Eternity. The horses.
Pretty stunning, for me anyway. There are
a few bits of language (clothing stuff) that
are strange, but it's explained in that
commentary at the CUNY site. No matter.
The narrator's voice comes from beyond
the grave, a panorama of what it sees as
it passes through the small town where
it (she) lived. A slow-motion montage,
say, of Death's free ride, freely given,
and, sort of, freely taken : a dignified
grace of horses, facing eternity, the school,
with kids playing in the play-yard, fields
of grain, the setting sun. What else can
I say? It's difficult to share, unless you
too get the premise. There are some
weird bits of clothing mentioned in it.
I hadn't a clue, until much later when it
was explained for me, what the reference
was - 'tippet tulle' and such. All it meant
kind of, was that she was chilly and had
only a thin scarf around her shoulders.
This all sounds so vague, and stupid, but
the point I'm trying for is that I possessed
certain sensibilities that were not backed
up nor bolstered by the 'place' I was in -
a far more rather crude location. For instance,
I am used to the train platforms at Princeton,
and at Metuchen, one being half of the other.
By comparison, Avenel is none of that at all.
Princeton was all hi-hat, monied, fancy duds,
fine approached. Metuchen was half that, a
mixed, far less glorious, business crowd, one
that was engulfed within itself, doing chores
of a day's work. Princeton rather 'owned' the
chores. The Avenel station, by contrast, is all
nails and screws. The people who do the work
of what those who 'do' the work will need.
A real working crowd; maids maybe, janitors
and go-fers, getters, haulers, scrubbers. Those
who labor. Still using the train, but because
they 'have' to, not because the Lexus or Benz
is in the shop. Yeah, they'll all die the same,
and that same Death wagon will come get
them, whether they stop for it, or it stops for
them. Anyway, that's the essence here of my
silly lesson. I'd bet the tired, and the underclass,
are always the ones more ready to go.
So, I wrote this paper on that Dickinson poem;
it was more a labor of love than it was a paper.
I was in love with writing, and just went on
and on about varied points, critical and not
so. It was probably the most unschooled
piece of 'critical' writing this guy had ever
been exposed to - real punky, foot-up-
your-ass poetry stuff. That was my joke
about the metrical foot of 'poetry' and all
its academic junky stuff. The poetry
cokeheads, the metrical day-trippers,
the context whores. I loved it all and
ripped everyone and everything up,
like a real piece of Elmira Dadaist
writing. it was Art, man, A-R-T.
Made me feel good, at last, about
something. That was about 1975.
The Shah of Iran was on 60 Minutes,
Carter was in the White House.
America was underway with its own
re-examination of selfhood, the
Oakland A's won like three
pennants in a row, and maybe
World Series too, I forget. (plural,
series, that). Weird names were
everywhere. Rico Carty. Patty Hearst
as Tanya. The USA, like a kid running
off for the first time - everything under
review. All that hippie stuff was dead and
gone, except maybe for Wavey Gravy,
real name Hugh Romney. Everything in
its place was dead serious about itself and
darkly philosophical, and strange. 'What
are we as a people?' - stupid things like that,
as if anyone cared. We aren't anything,
asshole, just make sure you've
paid your cable bill.
I'd come home every so often to Avenel.
It was a different world, strange land.
Every kid I used to know was some
hippy garage-band pot-smoker. My
own brother was driving a lift-kit,
hot-rodded Chevy Nova, for God's
sake. No one had told any of them
them times had changed. The 1970's
in Avenel were like going back in
time, except that the time was only
three years ago. There wasn't a virginal
girl left, and all the guys were still
scrubbing their scabs and bumps.
Just all too much for me. I would just
sit and gape, wondering how did any
of this happen, and how'd it happen
here? There are some places always
thought to be on the cutting edge.
There are other, backwater places -
yes, like Avenel - that only get the
blowback, the effulgence that dribbles
in reverse and re-enters through the
old cracks. You do get a second
chance at yesterday! I realized all you
had to do was get on a bus or train
and return to Avenel - you get to
re-do it all again.