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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Pencil through the Heart

        Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has some kind of genius curator who brings in wonderful traveling exhibits to go with the pots and rifles and carriages of New Mexico history. When I was there a couple of years ago, the exhibit was about the independent press in the southwest. People lugged hand-screwed presses out from the east to print newspapers, religious materials, humor, poetry and art, like Gustave Baumann’s beautiful woodcut landscapes. The exhibit had the presses and the original books and broadsides. First intro to this year’s exhibit was a stack of newsprint on the cashier’s counter with a rough-edged typeface like that of an old typewriter. “Jack is back.” Jack Kerouac.
        In the center of the creaky wooden floor of the exhibit hall stood a long, narrow display case. In it lay the heavy roll and several stretched-out yards of the original manuscript for On the Road, single-spaced on teletype paper, the three-week outpouring that changed American writing and American culture. On a screen, a film looped, in which Kerouac’s priest friend from Lowell, Massachusetts, tells us he lived like a monk in a room with bed, chair, desk and stacks of paper, and, above the desk, a great crucifix. Kerouac tells William F. Buckley, Jr., that the hippies are better people than the beats, and that he himself never used the word rebellion, “being a Catholic.” He sits on the other side of a piano from Steve Allen and tells him his definition of the word “beat” is “sensitive.” Allen says, “I asked.” Then he plays some blues while Kerouac reads from his work, “I think about Dean Mor-i-ar-ty,” accenting every syllable. I’m pretty sure he was drunk, but the reading was pure and beautiful. So I wonder, did he have to drink to be able to do it, or did he drink because he had done it? This was a man uncovered to crazy depths. It wasn’t long before he died.
        Exit the hall through a little room with sofas and a rack full of books about Kerouac and walls covered with his haikus. They say he took the Japanese form and made it American. You could listen there to more recordings of his voice. Then another little room had wooden tables and chairs along two walls, heavy and scarred, like something from a forties newsroom. On the tables, old Underwood typewriters, like the one my mother had, a relic in a hard, square case. On the walls, an invitation to use the typewriters—they had to explain how to roll a sheet of paper in, like introducing a modern teen to a Victrola—to write your own travel story or a haiku.
        The one I sat down at couldn’t make an apostrophe. Hard as I pressed on the shift key, it came out a comma. Pounding keys seems too harsh for poetry, even if the poem is harsh. Typewriters hammer the words down. Word processors conjure. Etched in ether, the words don’t seem quite real until they are printed. Quills scrape, and pens glide. Pencils take a little more time. Maybe they are best.
This came out first:

            My mother typed fast
            With no mistakes.
            She died bent over.

        Her father wouldn’t let her go to college, even though she finished high school at 15. “I only went through eighth grade, and I did all right. Why should I send a daughter to college?” he said. So at 16, she went to Katherine Gibbs secretarial school in New York, where her classmates were all older and richer. They spent vacations in the Bahamas. She spent hers in the Bronx. She was always best in the class, and that made some of them mad. She learned to type very fast and never to let her fingernails show above the fingertips.
        Her doctor looked at the X-rays, but couldn’t see the first fracture in her spine. He thought the pain must be coming from a kidney infection, so he gave her antibiotics. They didn’t help a bit. He looked again, and this time he saw the crack. “I’m sorry,” he said. She asked whether she should take a bone-building drug. He said no, it wouldn’t do any good. Three breaks later, another doctor said are you kidding, start taking it right now. By then, she was so bent over, she couldn’t balance. She fell. In the hospital, she couldn’t sit up. When her lungs got infected, she couldn’t cough. She died bent over. 

            Found in the labyrinth
            A stick with eyes
            And three white beads.
                  I,m blushing.

        I walked the labyrinth up on Museum Hill. I was the only one. I heard someone say, “I think it’s some kind of Indian thing.” It isn’t. They’re all over the world, including Christian cathedrals, marked on the floor in tile. And it isn’t a maze, bounded by tall hedges. It’s a convoluted path that eventually reaches the center of a circle, then curls out again. The first one I saw was behind a convent near Niagara Falls, where I was helping chaperone a children’s choir. It was mowed into the grass, so the boundaries were soft mounds of taller grass. A sign said to walk the path your own way, fast or slow, and let your mind dwell on whatever comes. Right. So I started walking, and after a few turns found myself gazing at little flowers in the borders. What seemed solid green at first was sprinkled with all sorts of shapes and colors of blossoms. In the center, I sat down with some of the choirboys. “Did you have some big revelation?” one of them asked. Yes. I realized that once you see and believe that God has given you good gifts, you start to see them everywhere.
        The Santa Fe labyrinth made me see little things that I would not have noticed otherwise. Odd bits of wood. Purple sequins. Pebbles full of mica. That stick with eyes, little circles left where a twig fell off, and the end broken into a long lizard’s mouth; the beads from some child’s hair or zipper pull or shoelace. I picked them all up, and when I wrote about it, I thought about writing in public, and I turned the hot, ugly red that makes people think I’m having a stroke.
        One wall in the writing room was covered with clipboards for posting what you wrote. I stuck my two typed haikus on a clipboard with a cluster of other papers. When I went back the next day, my sheet was posted by itself. Maybe somebody liked it. How I wanted to be standing there and have someone read my sheet and say “that’s good” so I could say, charmingly demure and modest, that I wrote them. I didn’t sign them. Who would know me anyway?
        I was leaving when I saw the black and white photos in the hallway, realer than real, Denver in the 40s, like Kerouac might have known. There’s something about the neon on the storefronts, so bold and modern, and now quaint. And booze is always boasted of in neon. I went back to the writing room and wrote two more poems, in pencil this time. 

 New poems,
Carve ‘em out,
A pencil through the heart.

Where sins are cast in neon
I don’t go.
Got my own.
But I folded them up and kept them.

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