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Peter Johnson - Works and Interview

Peter Johnson is the winner of the 2001 James Laughlin Award for his second collection of prose poems, Miracles & Mortifications (White Pine Press, 2001). His other books include the book of short stories I'm a Man (2003); the chapbook Love Poems for the Millennium (1998); and the poetry collection Pretty Happy! (1997). Johnson is the founder and editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal and the editor of The Best of The Prose Poem: An International Journal (White Pine Press, 2000). He received a creative writing award in 2002 from Rhode Council on the Arts and a fellowship in 1999 from the National Endowment for the Arts. A contributing editor to American Poetry Review, Web del Sol, and Slope, Peter Johnson teaches creative writing and children's literature at Providence College in Rhode Island.

The David Cass Interview with Peter Johnson

"I have this suspicion that life is simpler than we make it, and that we don't need a lot of people to tell us how to live it, but then, again, I keep getting drawn toward philosophy and religion, still hoping for an explanation."

- Peter Johnson

This interview with Peter Johnson coincides with the publication of his new book of prose poems, Eduardo and "I" (White Pine Press, 2006.) Johnson was the founder and editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, which many believe began a prose poem renaissance during the 90s. His second book, Miracles & Mortifications, received the 2001 James Laughlin Award from The Academy of American Poets, and he has been awarded creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rhode Island Council on the Arts. He also has published a book of short stories called I'm a Man (White Pine Press, 2003) and he has a short novel forthcoming from Front Street Books. He is a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review, Web del Sol, Sentence, and Slope. He currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife and two sons.

David Cass is a poet and fiction writer who is the Literary Arts Manager at the AS220 Broad Street Studio, a nonprofit arts organization that offers free arts workshops and employment opportunities to Rhode Island Youth, specifically those recently released from the state's Juvenile Detention Facility, known as the Rhode Island Training School. As Press manager, he conducts poetry workshops and is the editor of Muzine: the Uncensored Voice of Rhode Island Youth, a quarterly zine that publishes the writing and art work of Rhode Island youth. He currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

David Cass: In your essay "The Prose Poem and the Comic," you say that the reason so many comic sensibilities are attracted to the prose poem, as opposed to verse, has to do with the "paradoxical nature of the prose poem, the way it so willingly embraces opposites." Would you say that it is the form of the prose poem itself that is mainly responsible for inspiring this yoking of opposites and the comic situations which develop, or is it the tradition of the prose poem which makes it a fertile ground for such exploration?

Peter Johnson: It's hard to say why the prose poem seems to predispose itself toward comedy. Perhaps many prose poets are comic poets because they studied the tradition and were influenced by poets like Max Jacob, Zbigniew Herbert, Julio Cortazar, and all those great poets in Michael Benedikt's The Prose Poem: An International Anthology. I only have my own experience to go by. Why was I attracted to the prose poem? Why did I decide to write them? I have always been attracted to gray areas of literature. My M.A. thesis was a translation of and introduction to Prudentius' Psychomachia, a 4th century Latin text. It was written in a pagan form (Vergilian Latin), but embraced Christian content (a battle between the virtues and vices). The heartbeat of that text sounds when those two forces play off each other. Similarly, I wrote my dissertation on black humor in the novels of John Hawkes. Again, opposites converging. When does humor become black? Who can say? Put five people in front of a large window at 4.a.m. and ask them to raise their hands when it's morning. Everyone will have a different interpretation. So there's a side of me that's comfortable in the midst of opposites. But I also have always been fascinated by surrealism and Dada and shorter genres, so imagine my glee when I came across Benedikt's anthology. But my experience isn't some blueprint for being a prose poet. I have certain interests and obsessions, a certain disposition and certain predispositions, that were probably always looking for an outlet. Instead of the sonnet, the prose poem presented itself to me. I felt freed from the tyranny of the line which I had studied ad nauseam for what seemed like my entire life, and I could finally speak in a more natural way (at least to me), instead of writing all the bad verse poetry I was writing.

DC: Benedikt's anthology obviously made a great impression on you. You must have felt as if you were looking into a crystal ball—reading your own future. But I'm wondering whether it was Benedikt's anthology that marked a critical change in your writing, steering you toward the prose poem, or whether it was some other factor. Furthermore, what was your experience like when you first experimented with the prose poem?

PJ: When I first "experimented" with the prose poem I didn't know I was writing prose poems. I was fooling around with character sketches. I had been translating the Greek writer Theophrastus, so I started to write a few comic character sketches, three of which are in Pretty Happy! When I sent them to journals, some meathead informed me that I was influenced by Russell Edson, whom I had never heard of. So believing that I should at least read the people I'm influenced by I sought out Edson's work, and one thing led to another, and I began to see that the prose poem had a long history of stealing from other genres like the character sketch, the epistle, the penseé, and so on. I also realized that many of the prose poems in Benedikt's book were similar to Kafka's parables and Novalis' fragments, and I had admired those writers long before I heard of the prose poem. But to speak more generally about influences like that, as I said before, we all have predispositions to certain ways of thinking and expressing ourselves, and if we keep our eyes open and are patient, those forms will present themselves to us. That's probably what happened to me and the prose poem. It wasn't something I thought about. In fact, it wasn't very cool to be a prose poet when I began writing them. They were very hard to publish. You felt as if you should sign up for some Prose Poet Anonymous self-help group, each session beginning with someone saying, "I am a prose poet," whereupon the audience, most likely wearing paper bags over their heads, would sympathetically nod.

How did I feel when I first started writing prose poems? I felt freed up, but this sense of freedom was quickly followed by frustration when I realized that freedom in poetry comes at a high price?an epiphany made even clearer when I edited my journal for nine years and realized that 99% of the poems I read were terribly overwritten. It was then that I realized I had to create the compression and tension I associate with poetry by trying different ways to make those leaps Bly speaks of in his famous essay "Looking for Dragon Smoke." By now, I hope I have internalized some kind of form that suits my temperament. Edson once joked that now there is The Peter Johnson Prose Poem, and even if some people think The Peter Johnson Prose Poem stinks, I appreciate that comment. But it all comes from persistence, which is why I get annoyed when verse poets whose poems are no more than personal observations periodically interrupted by line breaks criticize the prose poem.

DC: Speaking of "The Peter Johnson Prose Poem," I'd like to turn our attention to your book Miracles and Mortifications. You talked earlier about your comfort with oppositions, and I see that comfort working thematically throughout your poems. For example, in the second part of your book, "Travels with Oedipus," the persona comes into contact with mythic personalities from Western Civilization, both the heroes and the villains, and in each case the comedy undercuts grand narratives associated with these people. Interestingly, the comedy often humanizes the people behind the myths—Socrates has a booger in his nose; Hemingway knocks a trout out with a head-butt; a boy Hitler pretends to be a weathervane and whimsically gazes at the stars. Was that a conscious process, or do you think that comedy, in its essence, reveals the truth of the human condition, that every human being, regardless of their fame or infamy, is ultimately just as uncertain and fallible as the next guy?

PJ: I wish you had written a review of Miracles. Comedy involves contradiction and juxtaposition, both of which are inherent in life, so the human situation, whether it's now or in the days of the caveman, was there. I just had to pay attention to it. There are myths or grand narratives handed down to us about huge historical and literary characters and events, but we also have the right to personalize those grand narratives, which is what I did. In a way, though, those portraits are not fabrications. I'm sure Socrates stunk to high heaven and could have easily been spotted with a booger in his misshapen nose. We also could easily imagine Hemingway, drunk, headbutting a trout. But, of course, I'm making fun of these guys, too. Miracles worked for me in two ways. First, I was going through a period where I was battling with my teenage son, so I decided to take us on a tour of history, trying to teach him a few lessons. The models were already there: Don Quixote, Candide, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Poindexter and Mr. Peabody from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. The clash of these high and low sides of me creates the comedy, and I was constantly juxtaposing high ideas and language with the streetwise language and perspective of my son. I read a lot of biographies when writing these poems and many of the details were taken from them?the serious details that idealize these characters. The comic parts occur when I pretend I'm there.

Have you ever been around famous people or "big thinkers"? They often walk around with their zippers down and can be very big jerks. And this is where the second impulse to write these poems came from. I have this huge respect for the western canon of literature. I really believe in developing a historical sense. I had a classical education at a Jesuit high school, studied Latin and Greek, even in college, and always believed, or I should say, hoped that we could become better people by studying these great figures and their ideas. I very much want to make sense of the world and to use these grand narratives as a guide book. But there's a whole other side of me that is skeptical of grand narratives and hero worship. No doubt, if I had lived in ancient Greece, one minute I would have been sitting mesmerized at Socrates feet, while the next making fart noises when he was about to arrive at a startling conclusion. I often think my second impulse is the truer one.

I have this suspicion that life is simpler than we make it, and that we don't need a lot of people to tell us how to live it, but then, again, I keep getting drawn toward philosophy and religion, still hoping for an explanation. I like to think that many of the figures in Miracles would appreciate the book's humor. I like to think that the ability to laugh at oneself is a prerequisite for genius. If it isn't, I prefer not to be told so. But I didn't think about this stuff when I was writing the book. Again, my initial desire was to work through a difficult period with my son, to write something we could both laugh at because my son has a great sense of humor. It was a place to start, so that we wouldn't tear off each other's heads. The bonus for me was that I also got a chance to review my entire education. There are hundreds of allusions in these poems. I originally kept notes that I was going to append to the back, as Eliot did in The Wasteland, but I felt too self-conscious doing that; it was killing the spontaneity of the poems. One night I remember laughing and thinking, "Who do you think you are, you big jerk."

DC: Once again you mention opposites clashing, but this time the battle isn't taking place in your prose poems, it takes place within you. In this way, it seems as if your prose poems are organically connected to your personality. In one moment, you may feel ambitious enough that you might attempt to hold your poetry to the same standards of the canonized, like Eliot, but in the next moment you laugh at yourself for even thinking that, and, all along, your narrator is in a similar bind. You mentioned earlier your distaste for contemporary poets who criticize the prose poem while, in fact, their own poems are no more than "confessional babbling." Do you think that contemporary poetry needs to take itself a little less seriously?

PJ: Actually, I think contemporary poetry should take itself more seriously, though it might be more accurate to say that our poets should take contemporary poetry more seriously. Believe me, after editing a journal for nine years, I can testify that our poets have no trouble taking themselves seriously, but are you sure you want me to depress you with my complaints about contemporary poetry?

DC: Yeah, sure.

PJ: First, I want to say that over the years I have developed many friends who are poets—really good writers and generous people, people I trust and admire. But, for the most part, I'd rather read their poetry than do all the socializing. It's all about personality now, and you can do very well if you hang around long enough and are pleasant. Good poetry doesn't come from pleasantness. I think that on some level the poet must be an outsider. Of course, we have to try to get our work read and heard, but it's gotten ridiculous—too many readings and self-promotions, too many writing programs and conferences, too many interviews (I realize the irony here), just too much of everything with little quality control. It's hard to write anything authentic in such an atmosphere, and if you do, you probably won't get it read. I started to write an article about all the nonsense I witnessed while editing my journal but got too depressed to finish it. Some would say, "What's new?" and, of course, ass-kissing has always gone on, but it is new because never before have there been so many ass-kissers. If someone straps you down and drips water onto your forehead every two minutes, it's annoying. If they do it every ten seconds, it's maddening. That's how I feel when I open Poets & Writers.

There are so many contests and writing programs and summer conferences and retreats that it's mind-boggling. Yet, in spite of this outward resurgence of poetry, I'm convinced few people actually read very much of it. When someone tells me that they "loved" my latest book, or that it was "really wonderful," I always ask them what they liked about it, and they flash that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look. I certainly don't expect anyone to memorize my poems, but if you're going to excessively praise or, conversely, excessively disparage someone's book, you should be able to say something intelligent about it, and if you can't, then it's best to shut up. I could go on and on about all this, but I'll finish with a funny but troubling story. Last year, a guy asked me to read for this series, but we'd had another child, a boy, who was a terrible sleeper, and I was too pooped to do anything. He asked me if I knew this other poet, let's call him Jack, and if I thought he would read in the series. Then he proceeded to tell me how Jack was one of our best poets, someone who would be studied after we were all dead and buried. I knew Jack's work well, so I asked the guy which book he thought was Jack's best, and he said, "Well, I have to admit I've never read anything by Jack, but everyone says he's very good and that he's a nice guy."

It was a wonderfully comic and infuriating moment.

First, it suggested (and I think it's true), that you can actually become a famous poet through hearsay. Secondly, that line about Jack being nice was also telling. My plumber is nice and so is my paper boy, but that virtue doesn't assure me that the pipes will work fine or that the paper will be delivered on time. I hear this "nicey-nice" stuff all the time. "How did Jane or Bill ever get their poetry published by a major house," and people say, "Well, I'm not crazy about their poetry but they are nice people." Bizarre! Your goal should be to have people who don't like you like your work. You should want to be read without ever having to leave the house. Imagine, someone reading and enjoying poetry without attaching a face or personality to it! How revolutionary! I'm a wise guy, of course, but it really bothers me that it's nearly impossible to know what's good anymore because you can't trust reviews when there are so many careerists writing them. There is this big illusion that poetry is filtering down to the "common man," but I think the "common man" would think that most of us are flakes, and if the "common man" ever went to a poetry party, he'd probably punch someone out. I can't imagine what it's like to be a young poet in an MFA program who hates socializing. You can kiss your career goodbye unless your mentor is bright and secure enough to push your work. I think I'll stop here before I spin the chamber on the revolver and pass it to you. On the bright side, you just have to believe in your work. It's all about the work.

DC: You seem pretty critical about the poetry scene, but how did you feel when David Foster Wallace wrote that scathing review of The Best of The Prose Poem. I read your other interview in Another Chicago Magazine, the one reprinted on Poetry Daily, and was surprised you didn't mention it.

PJ: I did, but ACM left out that section without telling me.

DC: Why do you think someone as huge as Wallace would bother ripping apart a small journal? He even made fun of your name.

PJ: I'm sure there's some crazy-ass story there, but I'd have more luck experiencing the female orgasm than trying to figure out David Foster Wallace. We don't exactly move in the same circles. He's the ultimate insider who keeps pretending to be an outsider. But the review was funny at times, and you have to appreciate that my budget for The Prose Poem was probably less than the interest he earns on his MacArthur grant. It's also ironic that in his attempt to create a new genre, what he called the "Indexical Book Review," he unwittingly drew attention to the kind of creepy masturbatory intelligence that would undertake such a venture. But I do feel sorry for the many great poems and poets he unjustifiably attacked to feature his wit and intelligence. I felt as if I were watching a serial killer at work. It made me glad I'm not a genius. It must be very painful.

DC: I'd like to go back to your comments about "pleasantness," which made me think of Tony Hoagland's essay "How to Talk Mean and Influence People." In the essay, Hoagland says, "American Poetry still believes, as romantics have for a few hundred years, that a poem is a straightforward autobiographical testimony to, among other things, the decency of the speaker." What do you think could be done to change this belief amongst poets and readers alike? Furthermore, do you think that the prose poem generally suffers less from this belief than verse, and thus offers an outlet to poets trying to keep the poet separate from the poem?

PJ: It's important to note that Hoagland stipulates what he means by meanness. If I understand him right, to be "mean" isn't to demolish people or social conventions just for the fun of it. I don't think he sees the writer as being superior. The speaker can be decent, but if you're too decent, too empathic, as Hoagland points out, you may not be able "to set free the ruthless observer in all of us, the spiteful angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts." I agree with him that our current literary culture of pleasantness makes it impossible to deal with many of its complexities and paradoxes. But you can go too far the other way, too. In the course I'm currently teaching on black humor and contemporary poetry, we've come across poets who sometimes fail because they're just mean. Their own pathology, ironically, trivializes their attacks on the pathology they bear witness to. Bukowski can be a great offender here; Catullus, too, who I think influenced a lot of contemporary comic poets. I love Catullus' invectives, but often all you're left with is rage. In contrast, a poet like Ginsberg in "America," a very funny poem by the way, saves himself when, after attacking America, he says, "It occurs to me that I am America." Hoagland's narrator in What Narcissism Means to Me similarly often accepts responsibility for the mess he describes around him. He makes fun of duplicitous people and cliché-ridden New and Old Age mini-grand narratives, but he also makes us laugh at the narrative voice in many of those poems. In short, if the satiric or "mean" poet doesn't bring a certain humility or a sense of responsibility to the table, then he's in trouble.

How does all this relate to the prose poem? That's a tough one, since I think the prose poem has been appropriated by the kind of literary culture I've been criticizing. Twelve years ago, I couldn't give my journal away. Now it's hard to pick up a book of poems and not see a prose poem. In a sense, at least in this country, the prose poem was always thought to be a subversive and marginal genre, so it was the perfect form for someone who wanted to write like Catullus or Nicanor Parra. It was fun to be excluded from the Poetry Party. It got the edge up in you, fostered a little anger, which can be a very positive emotion in poetry. Anger can crack open the door to the authentic, so we can get a glimpse of it, and, really, that's enough for most of us. The problem with the prose poem now is that too many people are writing bad ones because they think it's easy, and they're theorizing it to death, spending way too much time differentiating it from a micro-fiction or an aphorism or a fragment or an epiphany, even suggesting that the prose poem doesn't exist, which, of course, is stupid. Many, many poems have been self-consciously written and received as prose poems. What's the big deal? I'm not going to be dumb enough to try to define the prose poem, but I know it exists. There are good poems and bad poems and which category they fall into has nothing to do with whether they are narrative poems, or surrealist poems, or prose poems or Language poetry.

DC: Well, I'm glad that you haven't given up on the prose poem. Your new book, Eduardo and "I" , a darkly comic book, in some ways is a continuation of the critique that took place in Miracles. Yet unlike in Miracles, where the target was oftentimes grand narratives of Western Civilization, in Eduardo your sight is aimed on contemporary American culture. And you also seem to target yourself more, your own contradictions, using a humor that is much darker and existential.

PJ: That question assumes that Eduardo, the main character of the first section, is a sort of alter ego, and, in a sense, he is the worst side of me, the anxious, obsessive side. But Eduardo is also much more than that. This book was written at a very odd time for me. On September 2, 2001, I learned that Miracles had received the James Laughlin Award, then nine days later the Twin Towers fell, then ten months later my wife had a baby. The book was begun shortly before 9/11 and finished in the summer of 2004, and I was emotionally all over the place. The character of Eduardo, who makes up the first section of the book, gave me the opportunity to grapple with certain issues. The first poem of Eduardo's section has a sentence that reads, "For once, the eye before the 'I,'" by which I meant, that the overriding narcissism of American culture momentarily vanished when we were visually confronted by explosions and Americans leaping from fiery skyscrapers. Unfortunately, Eduardo is still self-obsessed, making him distasteful even as he is entertaining, a real buffoon. I guess I'm saying that Eduardo is a cultural artifact as well as a literary persona. As an aside, he also exemplifies another obsession of mine: the double in literature, from Poe's William Wilson, to Borges' "I," to Berryman's Henry, and so on.

In the second section of the book, an "I" appears who is somewhat autobiographical but still a persona, still a bit wacky. This section, written after the baby was born, also begins with an allusion to 9/11. The rest of the book chronicles how the narrator tries to make sense of an increasingly absurd world, very often finding consolation in his wife and children. All of this, of course, sounds very planned and "literary," but in fact the first version of the book was very disorganized and emotionally diffuse. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. But after I finished it, I set it aside for a time, then returned to it, and began to see a pattern. Fortunately, I think I was able to keep the raw emotion of the first draft in the revision. There are twenty-four poems is each section, and I think the book, in general, follows a structural and emotional logic.

DC: Again you mention the importance of putting the "eye" before the "I," especially in regards to reacting to such a horrific event as 9/11; in fact, you say that it is the only way for one to react "authentically." I'm wondering how you, as the writer, make sense of your personas' reactions to the absurd world that they inhabit. On the one hand, your personas exhibit a remarkable alienation. On the other hand, there seems to be a real sense of community, a shared absurd world that seems to provide for everyone. Take, for example, your prose poem "Neighbors." At one point the narrator threatens to kill the "local loony" for screaming at his infant. In the next instant they've become "good friends," and the narrator follows the man everywhere even though he "can't make sense of his mumblings." Do you think that, in a strange way, alienation has the power to unite?

PJ: Well, we are all in the same situation; we just respond to it differently. Eduardo is alienated but because of his inability to see contingencies and his insufferably overdeveloped id, we find it impossible to sympathize with him. In contrast, the guy you refer to in "Neighbors," is harmless, and, for all we know might be closer to the truth than we are. The poet and the loony have always shared the same bed, and it's often hard to discern who's who. They are both outsiders. Whether or not "alienation has the power to unite" is another question, though we'll certainly find out after this last election.

DC: I see what you mean about the poet having to be a bit of an outsider, but these days it seems as if poets aren't just outsiders, they're completely ignored. William Carlos Williams wrote: "It is difficult / to get the news from poetry / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." Perhaps never before in history has that been truer. In this Orwellian day and age when the average person is constantly bombarded with advertisements and 24-hour cable and news that is increasingly from a very limited number of sources, how can the poet maintain his distance and still compete for the attention of potential readers?

PJ: For one thing, there will never be that many readers of poetry, so to lose sleep over that situation is pointless. I agree with you, though, that it is very difficult to promote your work and maintain a distance from the nonsense, but you have to try. For me, it is impossible to write anything worthwhile or to maintain an edge if I'm constantly worrying about this grant or that award or who needs to like me or how many readings I'm going to attend. If you want to be a plumber, you have to accept that you'll eventually end up with arthritis in your back and knees. Certainly, you have to try to get your poetry read and hope your work will find an audience, but once you start humiliating yourself for short-term praise, you might as well hang it up. Unfortunately now, everyone is a frustrated rock star. It's troubling to witness, but it's also very funny because many poets, especially the men, end up looking like parodies of rock stars. Instead of performing in front of thousands screaming fans, they recite their poetry to small groups of bookworms, and instead of being hounded and seduced by mini-skirted Barbie look-alikes, they're lucky to bed one or two terribly depressed and/or confused women at a poetry conference.

And yet who doesn't want to be famous?

Even I'd like to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. Just picture me with my shirt off in a leather vest and black beret, sporting tattooed, creatine-enhanced pectorals and biceps, a headline reading, "The New High Priest of Poetry"?an image which is as silly, not to mention as visually upsetting, as the fantasy behind it. In short, I don't really feel sorry for the plight of the poet. Many of us are way overpaid for what we do. Many of us have become too soft to be very emotional, and if you don't feel strongly about anything, all that's left is to write about language. But, in spite of all of the above, writing and reading poetry is worth it for those moments when you come across a poem or, if you're lucky, a book that forever changes you. We all hope to read, or, even better, to write such a poem. It can happen.

Prose Poems from Eduardo & "I" (White Pine Press, 2006)


This cave—my sadsick head—everyone fixed on a dark day when Death's face shone forth like a show dog's wet nose. For once the eye before the "I." "Try to keep busy," Eduardo says, wanting to cheer me up. "Stalk a beautiful girl, stroke her red hair, praise the curve of her shoulders in a hastily-learned foreign language." "Forget the girl," I say. "Forget the TV, especially." "How 'bout them ghosts," he chants, my head about to explode. And here's Mother Earth with fiery celestial balls bearing down on her; here's the American Sphincter Muscle as loose as a goose. "I'm talking about fear, Eduardo, about doomsday devices which may or may not exist." "Fly, then, false shadows of Hope, I shall chase thee no more." What drama queen said that? Nowadays we'd settle for a second-hand miracle, like last night on the outdoor patio, munching corn chips and guacamole, no fuel-filled planes overhead, no skunks hiding in the bushes.

Voluptuaries of all ages, of every species and sex: "Welcome!" And this is how we spend our days . . .


Eduardo thinks he's Bukowski. Even wants to be called Buk. He's shaved his head and glued a misshapen rubber ball to his nose, poured flesh-colored warm wax over his face, kneaded it like dough. Then a fake beard, moustache, and a black Dracula fright wig. "Love's a dog from hell," he says, and, "So I walk up to this fag poet and say 'Hey, Little Dick, take a sip of this.'" Eduardo hands me his bottle of tomato juice, mumbles, "That's right, motherfucker." Later, I find him crying over a Baywatch episode, the one where Mitch goes temporarily blind. Most of his makeup's melted, little of note except some bagel crumbs around his lips. He knows he should be sulking in a beat-up Ford Falcon outside the girls' Catholic high school, playing with himself as the dismissal bell sounds. He knows he should be helping some whore shoot up in her neck. But for Eduardo, just a little Baywatch, a bagel and tomato juice—cream cheese on the side.


"Life is worth living," I tell Eduardo, encouraging him to remove the plastic bag from his head. "Peach trees blossom, water continues to flow." But, for Eduardo, the word "apocalypse" exerts a strong attraction. Eduardo the Entombed thinks he will rise from the dead—a contest that can only end in a tie but without that one special handmaid to anoint his feet. I have come to offer humility, simplicity. Not the omelet, but the eggshell. "Do without doing," I intone, assuming my Repulse the Monkey position, surprised a year later when nothing's gotten done. Just a sharp pain in my left eyeball curling toward the back of my head. How about breakfast and a stroll on the beach. How about reciting the just-now-immediately famous lines: "the ocean stamping its turquoise feet / stranded jellyfish staring at the sun." But what does it mean? It means we're anchoring our heart-shaped boats to a nearby piling, awaiting the cry of a sea nymph's flute. Which is much much better than watching Eduardo, the self-proclaimed Fisher King, bathe the backyard elm tree in cheap table wine, then propose to it.


I judge a theodicy by the slant of its jaw, by how quickly my bowels act up, by the red apple resting on the bleached blonde's head. (Read "question" for "head," "answer" for "apple"). Get it, you naive divinity students of archery, second-rate hamartíans, always missing the mark? And here's Eduardo, dressed in spandex American flag bicycle shorts and a delicate red T-shirt. One black skate engraved with a white YES, one white skate with a black NO. He's discovered theodicy in the Roller Derby. The Elvis of Elbow Jabs, the Wizard of Whips. He's one tough cookie. Far from the Eduardo we discovered sitting on the toilet with a plastic bag over his head. So many Eduardos, it's hard to know who's the real one, so just keep moving, trail his sorry ass around a plywood oval track, listen to the roar from his tattooed, multiple-pierced, spike-heeled groupies. No 70s flashback here, just Eduardo making a point, jammin' with the best of them. "S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y N-I-G-H-T," the announcer bellows, dropping a blood-red handkerchief onto the track. They're off!


Be it acknowledged that when Mexican gods are bored, they get tattooed . . . Unable to derive satisfaction in the usual ways, we agreed upon something artificial. Eddie took the lead. The man does have courage, and I'd have never found Rusty Needle without him, nor met the Ivy League girl with a tomato-sized ladybug tattooed on her ass. We had decided to edit an anthology of poets with tattoos on their toes. "We can begin with my twin brother Ralf," Eddie joked, as I bared my massive big toe, nearly making the Ivy League girl pop out of her pants. "Ouch!" I yelled, but it all ended up fine: the Ivy Leaguer patting my head, hypnotizing me with her oyster shell necklace, murmuring, "Huzza, huzza," as the metal made its mark—Rusty Needle grinning like a hula dancer, everything fine until Eduardo said to cool it with the bad similes. But I was into it now, sweaty, all revved up like a hurricane, my Ivy Leaguer aroused, anxious as a winded poodle that just lost its little red bow.


We're starting a band, a real ass-kicking, girl-licking kind of thing. "My axe is the most powerful instrument in the world," Eduardo says, fingering his Les Paul with one hand, snapping the pink bra strap of his fourteen-year-old girlfriend with the other. "God damn," he yells, chug-a-lugging from a bottle of Jack Daniel's. "God damn this wondrous life." God damn, for sure, I think, watching him tongue the girl's nose earring, as she drifts into a drunken prepubescent sleep. Yes, music fans, it's girls, girls, girls, when all I wondered was whether you had to be a jerk to be a rock star. Because we sure is that. "Pass the loco weed," I say to a middle-aged redhead turntabling naked in the middle of the floor, no doubt wondering why her red go-go boots are nailed over the fireplace. Blow on my harmonica, that's what I'll do. Chatter in scat. I got no real words for this Vicodin moment, just a few blue notes mixing with the groans of a multitude of groupies. "Drop dead old man," someone yells from a pile of flesh. It's Eduardo, who's decided to name us The Eduardo Experience—a two-jerk band, noted for its obscurity . . .


Sometimes I'm cruel to Eduardo, sometimes embrace him gently like a porcupine. So it goes with one's worst self. You could say, "Eduardo's the one things happen to," or "I don't know which one of us has written this page." But that would be someone else's poem, someone else's nightmare. You could say, "God bless Eduardo, he lived like a rat," but, in fact, Eddie lives quite well, with little responsibility: Lots of steaks on the grill and fairways cut short for great backspin; lots of girls if he wants them, and he does, and he doesn't, and he does. Life's loud and unruly when he's around, though not much better when he's not. I'll miss his books of torture, his tiny oval pills, his two fish darting in opposite directions. But we know he has to go?"though remember," he warns, "I shall be with you on your wedding night," then leaps onto an ice-covered raft, disappearing into the frozen darkness of my skull. . .


I'm sick of peekaboo metaphors, weary of mad stabs at uncertainty. And there's a guy making fun of my name, a nasty little prick with a Polaroid moment stuck in his head—his mother cheering as another perfect number two vanishes down the drain. So I go next store and order the Stud Muffin sandwich. Try to be friends with my son, talk about responsibility, always responsibility, watch his fingers tighten around a butter knife. And here's a joke laden with loot: We bought a little pug to forget about the TV. We volunteered to open the neighborhood mail, to take deep breaths. It ain't easy training a dog. It ain't easy living with all this cruelty. For example: How many people have I wished dead? None. How many injured? None. How many have made me sad? A great many. I count them while trying to fall asleep. And how's your Reuben? I ask. And how's your Stud Muffin? he asks back, then homeward where we take the pug for a walk, not talking, momentarily distracted by one of those ellipses which make certain historians want to slash their wrists.

The Half-Full, Half-Empty Episode

A car that's a bass guitar rattles my windows—a ritual I run my life by unless someone knocks on the door. No one ever knocks on the door. Hello from the City where the natives drive little cars with big antennae, where pedestrians lug enormous "I"s on their backs. "As a man thinketh, so he is." But I ain't been thinketh so good lately, indecisive as a blind switchboard operator with two left hands. Hello from the City where it's morning, where the rain-washed speeding traffic can make a snake nervous. "Hallelujah!" I yell, tripping over annotated self-help manuals strewn across the floor—then dead-headed by the sight of two long-stemmed roses peeking over a windowsill, by a saxophone singing in the distance, by the hickory smell of bacon. "The correct answer," my wife explains, "is that the glass contains water." Hello from the City where certainty can be found in a rose, in the burnt portion of a cheese omelet, in the matching yellow headbands of two long-stemmed roses, in a lousy glass of water.


Yesterday I wondered why the blacks weren't rioting. Even I want to shorten the days of most white people I meet. Funny, how we're not supposed to say things like that—instead, slip into our iron shoes, stumble past each other as if we don't exist until my kid puts a .22 cartridge into the palm of your kid and shouts, "Bang!" Today our smug city streets are coated with ice, a few orphaned birds cling to frozen branches. I trod down to the park, anticipating The Final Showdown, which of course never comes—just a biting February chill, like a February thirty years ago, stoned in the bottom of a railroad car with Jimmy Reed. We were waiting for the crane to arrive and drop its chains. Later, at the Governor's Inn, Buddy Guy was playing. Jimmy said to hang close, cup my hand over my beer, "Don't stare." I was eighteen, two years older than my son, who goes to school with kids of every race and color, yet hangs with his own—mostly blond and blue-eyed boys, tapping their toes to the angry bass of rap, mouthing misogynies while Little League trophies tremble on their dressers.


Street prophet, soothsayer, stargazer extraordinaire. In fact, he's the local loony dressed in a red beret, sky-blue shirt and red pants. Every day the same outfit, pacing the same sidewalk, mumbling to himself or swearing at passersby as if his balls are on fire. One day he screamed at my infant and made him cry. "The next time," I said, "I'll kill you." I told him to imagine a noose swinging from the tree he was leaning on. "I'll lynch you," I yelled. Quite surprisingly, we became good friends. I can't make sense of his mumbling, yet follow him with the baby jogger every Sunday as he eviscerates cans of garbage lining our street. He's collecting doomsday articles, one about strangelets, tiny cosmic missiles that weigh tons and travel at 900,000 miles per hour, yet are only the size of pollen grain. In 1993 one entered the Earth in Antarctica and blasted out 23 seconds later in the Indian Ocean. No wonder he ducks a lot, and why bother changing your clothes when a little ball bearing might tear a tiny hole in your head, exiting your left testicle one nanosecond later. I explain this phenomenon to an old guy walking his nasty black mongrel. A year ago, his dog leapt out of nowhere, snapping at us. "I'm going to kill your dog," I yelled, which made us enemies for a very long time. But now he tags along?three wise men, amusing ourselves as the Earth takes a terrible beating.

The City

Meanwhile back at the branch, the long-awaited return of the cardinal while two saxophones butt heads in a nearby warehouse . . . City, my city! I've spent all day raking leaves from last fall, dodging two yellow jackets that haven't learned how to avoid people. But I have. Even in a neighborhood where prowlers pee in our backyard, or leave behind condoms and Dunkin' Donut bags. Today, I scattered rocks at the base of our fence. At night I opened our bedroom window, waiting to hear a tibia's sweet crack, the "shit, goddamit, shit," from the creep who broke my driver's side window, stealing our Linda Ronstadt CD. Thirty years ago, when he stole Santana Abraxis?the same guy, I swear it?I taped razor blades to the base of my 8-track stereo, one night forgetting the genius of the idea, shredding my calf while mounting a woman I would love but not marry. Meanwhile, somewhere in the country?Simplicity: an old man in his bathroom shaking off his penis for the fifth time, his granddaughter asleep on the back porch, watching stars flame up in a minute-by-minute account of the universe. Somewhere moose and little beasties run wild, while people sleep soundly, deliriously happy to be part of Nature's puny plan. But I'm happy, too, gripping the handle of a pellet gun, crouched half asleep beneath my bedroom window, humming the lyrics to Ronstadt's "Blue Bayou."

Just Listen

I sit by the window and watch a great mythological bird go down in flames. In fact, it's a kite the neighborhood troublemaker has set on fire. Twenty-one and still living at home, deciding when to cut through a screen and chop us into little pieces. "He wouldn't hurt a fly," his mother would say, as they packed our parts into black antiseptic body bags. I explain this possibility to the garbage men. I'm trying to make friends with them, unable to understand why they leave our empty cans in the middle of the driveway, then laugh as they walk away. One says, "Another name for moving air is wind, and shade is just a very large shadow"—perhaps a nice way to make me feel less eclipsed. It's not working, it's not working. I'm scared for children yet to be abducted, scared for the pregnant woman raped at knife point on the New Jersey Turnpike, scared for what violence does to one's life, how it squats inside the hollow heart like a dead cricket. My son and his friends found a dead cricket, coffined it in a plastic Easter egg and buried it in the backyard. It was a kind of time capsule, they explained—a surprise for some future boy archeologist, someone much happier than us, who will live during a time when trees don't look so depressed, and birds and dogs don't chatter and growl like the chorus in an undiscovered Greek tragedy.

One Hell of a Year

I've had one hell of a year and wonder when I'll have to pay for it, which is why I still wear my "New Dad" bracelet, which got me free parking and unlimited lousy coffee in the hospital cafeteria. I hold my infant close to my breast. I take him wherever I go. Who's going to whack a guy with a baby, who's going to say, "Give me your wallet, or I'll bust you up?" What kind of God would have man and child run down by a Mack truck, or crushed by a load of steel meant for the new Children's Museum? Even got some poems read this year and won a big award. Got to play with my wife in a hotel we could've never afforded. Got to New York, New York, where the food at the reception was great. And to the poet who said I mispronounced "Laughlin," I suggest a frontal lobotomy with a rusty screwdriver. And to the poet who said, "No one reads John Berryman anymore," I offer cement shoes and a bridge in Minneapolis to leap from. And to the poet who said . . . But, ah, this is a happy poem about the wonderful year I've had, which I know I'll have to pay for because that's how it works: a leaky cell phone, the old bone-in-the-throat gag, caught with my pants down at the Bill Clinton Motor Lodge, dead-headed by a socket wrench at 1 a.m. in the Cumberland Farms parking lot. But, again, let's sing a happy poem for my one hell of a year?for endless nights in damp and twisted sheets, or a simple cup of chai as I sit on my front porch, listening to my teenage son tell the whole damn neighborhood just how much he loves me.