Mark Twain Tonight in an Iowa Library

Reader Benjamin David Steele remarked this month that he didn’t know I was from Iowa. It’s true, I don’t talk often about being from somewhere, part of my goal of not talking directly about myself as much as many successful blogs do.

Perhaps that’s my contrary streak. Yet if one has that trait, it may be that it can change direction on itself and careen 180 miles an hour the other way. Here’s something I was going to include as an aside in one of the two Mark Twain pieces preceding this one, but it was too long to be that.

Twain’s books weren’t all I thought of when I performed those Twain pieces ribbing poetry and poets this month. I thought of Hal Holbrook, who liked to say that he played Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens did, and I also would think of a beautiful, silent library—but to get to those places I need to think first of my father.

My father had no straightforward vocational life, much like the one I later had. If one thinks of the midcentury male American life as the one-job man during those decades, you may be demographically informed, but wrong about him. He set out to be a Protestant minister, as his father and one of his brothers had been. He changed his mind, ran the third grocery store in a tiny town (didn’t work out), worked on a loading dock, and then took a job driving a bread-truck delivery route between the many little towns in my section of Iowa. The workday was long, the trucks leaving from a barn on the outskirts of the county seat 30 miles away at dawn, driving there on the tractor-putting two lanes and repurposed stagecoach routes. In the afternoon on his route, he’d come through my hometown supplying the two grocery stores that still remained on the one-block main street. In the summer, I could arrange to ride along with him, sitting on the bare treadplate step to the right of the only seat, the driver’s, in his bread van as we’d both leave off for another small town. Behind his driver’s seat and my sideways crouch, the entire back of the box truck was filled with sliding wire racks to be filled and then emptied of loaves, buns, dessert bread products, and doughnuts. Between us, a doghouse cover for the truck’s engine and the long shift lever. My dad had a small transistor radio on a ledge near the windshield which, if there wasn’t an afternoon baseball game, was tuned to a country and western station—but there was music in the truck too, a thrum from the engine between us and an ostinato chiming from all those metal racks behind us.

We talked some, but it was mostly these loud musics and the everyday weight of the afternoons.

I sometimes wonder now if I’m recalling that sound when I play a Telecaster with its bridge pickup that can chime and clangor moreso than any other electric guitar: that sound of 1960 country music combined with those metal racks, all jumping like yapping puppies on their ledges as we traveled over the rural roads.

In each town, a store or two, the bread from trays transferred onto shelves, a few commercial words and small talk with the store owner, and back to the truck and eventually back to the county seat and the bread company’s office and truck barn. There my dad would unload the retrieved old bread and do by hand a series of books on the day’s commerce, something that took about an hour.

I watched this once or twice from my adolescent what’s-this-got-to-do-with-me nonchalance. Most days I had a more desired way to spend this hour.

The county seat had two things our smaller town didn’t have, a hobby store that is another story, and a library multiple times the size of the small one in my hometown. I could be dropped off within walking distance of either while my father did his end-of-day business.

The Kendall Young Library had all the things you’d find in most larger libraries then: multiple levels with steep stairs, the Dewey Decimal System arrangement, a card catalog, newspapers threaded onto majestic wooden rods as if daily Torah scrolls, a quiet and light somehow better than any other quiet and light: a romantic, forest of books light, a quiet of words.

My mother had worked out how to get books by mail from a statewide library system, and that kept me largely supplied throughout my childhood, but there’s a something difference in being in the presence of books and their specific possibilities. History was my main passion then, so that if some of these books in the library were old,* that was no drawback.

On one day there, I may have collected some books more quickly than usual, and I wanted to see what else was in this place. At one side of the largest room there were a couple of record players, a selection of records, and headphones.  I don’t know if it was the records or the headphones that caught my eye first. That records could exist in library-sized collections was a marvel, but headphones signified exotic hi-fi technology, though they were more likely only an accommodation to the word-quiet of the library.

One of the LPs that was there was the 1959 “original cast recording” of Mark Twain Tonight,  a one-man Broadway show in which the young actor Hal Holbrook in aged makeup played the 70 year old Mark Twain giving one of his turn of the century stage talks.

Holbrook continued to ride that act’s horse until he was playing a man more than a decade younger than he had become.**  I was about to find out why it worked so well. I put on the record and enclosed my head in the ‘phones.

Holbrook’s script (such as it was, he always worked from a surplus of Twain material, not a fixed text) was a master of the seamless excerpt. His Twain at first seemed for a moment frail, you wondered if he was going to falter, but the dry jokes were moistened as he worked the timing with an invisible stage cigar on the recording.***  Twain may have been a historical or literary figure, but the first 20 minutes had as much funny skewering of various hypocrisies for me as a contemporary issue of Mad  magazine. But along about the middle of the record, things got quite a bit darker. I’d gotten to the second side and a withering compression of the situation of Jim, the escaped slave thrown together with the runaway Huck, each escaping exploitation, when the hour or so expired and I needed to join my father for the ride home. My head came out from between the cups of the headphones, but I’d been inside part of Twain’s book. Huck and Jim couldn’t go home. I had to, and could.

That was my mother’s and father’s doing—both that I could take this journey that could stop at this library, but also that I had a home to return to. I rode home with my father, he was wearing his checkerboard shirt woven to match the printing on the wraps around the loaves of bread.

Kendall Young Library views

Period and 21st century views of the Kendall Young Library. How could I not have seen that skylight?

 

I did two things to check against this memory today. I re-listened to what may be the same recording I heard that day in the library, this time on Spotify. I found it much as I remembered it, which compliments the impressiveness of Holbrook’s performance. And I looked online for pictures of the Kendall Young Library. Here my memory got an adjustment. I recall, yes, that it was a fancy building, but the pictures reveal a beau-arts building more exquisite than I remembered. I was most shocked to see that it has a domed stained-glass skylight, something that no doubt helped with that light I recalled, but that I’d never noticed then with my head in books and sound.

No audio piece today, but thanks for reading.

 

*The old books were likely less old that I am today. I know I enjoyed books there from the 1920s through the 40s, which seemed like centuries ago then. Perhaps a teenager today with a City Lights chapbook or a Beatles LP considers those too archaeological finds from a stratum nearer the pyramids than their weekly life.

**I wonder, how did the makeup have to change from the 34 year old portraying Twain at 70 to the 80 plus old Holbrook doing the same.

***In preparing for what would be his most durable role, Holbrook wanted to know about how Twain himself performed. He has said that he had access to a recording made by an actor-impressionist friend of Twain doing his imitation of Twain in 1934 which is the only recorded clue extant. For visual business, there was also a silent Thomas Edison film of the 70-year-old Twain. Though Twain died in 1910, it’s not far-fetched that we might have had recordings of him. He was fascinated by technology and was known to have used recording devices, as well as having known men like Edison who made them.

The Workman’s Dream

Well, here’s an odd choice for a new Parlando Project audio piece: today’s song has lyrics from British-American poet Edgar Guest. It’s likely that you either know who Edgar Guest is, or you don’t. And if you do, you may be older than me, which is a rapidly declining Internet demographic, as most providers refuse to offer service across the river Lethe.*

Famous American wit Dorothy Parker wanted to help you remember—sort of—Wikipedia reminds us that she once poetically needled him: “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test than read a poem by Edgar Guest.” But now, folks may not remember Wasserman tests either. Wit has a short shelf-life I guess.

Edgar Guest was a public poet in a way that is unimaginable today. He had a newspaper column, a nationwide radio show; and ordinary, non-academic folks clipped and memorized his poetry in the first half of the 20th century. What did academic folks think of his poetry? Well, Parker nailed it.

Edgar Guest rocks the mic

Radio. It was a kind of wireless podcasting useful before YouTube.

 

His poetry is often folk-humor related, and his style isn’t always very elegant: doggerel. But unlike poets whose work is always with humorous intent, some Guest poems, like today’s, are meant to make a serious point, often in a sentimental way. While there’s no common objective criteria for “good poetry” it’s still safe to say that almost anyone who would have some criteria to evaluate poetry would agree that Guest wrote bad poetry—or at best, not very good poetry.

So, what am I doing, following up some posts featuring a poet like Yeats, who has both a popular audience and a rightful place as one of the most graceful lyric poets in the English language, with Edgar Guest?   Well, it’s my opinion that “bad poetry” or poetry that has intents and methods that are not in alignment with academic critical modes, may still have some value, some reason to exist. I don’t think this is a common belief, which is somewhat odd. While there are elements of theoretical snobbery in other arts, fans of serious novels may still like a quick plebian mystery series, cinephiles may enjoy an occasional piece of mass entertainment, jazz purists or avant garde composers may have surprisingly impure playlists—but serious poetry authorities tend to view not-great poetry as a Gresham’s law issue for their endangered art form.

I went looking for a Father’s Day text in the public domain and came upon this one. What struck me about it? Well, you and I may agree it’s sentimental, but it wears its working-class heart on its blue-color sleeve. Better Modernist poems have been written on this poem’s subject (Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”  for one)— but most of those are not available for my use today. And it’s not like poems about the world of work are all that common in Modernist lit. Instead, there are many poems about domestic life, lots about the human condition in general, erotic poems of love, visionary texts about the psychic borderlands, poems of scenic trips and museum pieces, poems about parenthood in its physical intimacy, and poems about economic and political injustice—but even the later are often absent the actual world and obligations of work.

Isn’t that odd? It’s as if poets are embarrassed to give evidence of their “day gigs.” Do we secretly expect that we are all still Lord Byron, with an inherited endowment? If we are any good should we be swinging from grant to grant, or have agents digging up the biggest returns as if we were rim protectors who can create our own shot while being a threat to sink the three from anywhere outside the arc? If we are serious, should we be beyond all that non-artistic, non-academic work?

Perhaps there are other reasons for this relative absence of the subject of ordinary work—and there are exceptions  in modern poetry—but even if we were to become one of those making a living with our pen or our mental flights alone, somewhere in our heritage we may have someone like the subject of Guest’s poem. I know I do. And from my age, from my era, I’ve even had the experience of being “the breadwinner” more than once in my life, the one working in a household and bringing in the outside income, while others do unpaid work.

This is no longer a gendered situation in our culture, but in my father’s generation this was the father’s prime job: the  job. Maybe for you this was another generation or even two generations back—we may have had forefathers. A lot of you had two parents doing “the job” (and yes, the unequal, unpaid woman’s work too) or one parent doing it all, or the most of the all.

That said, “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”**  This one goes out to those who didn’t get the service ribbons or the purple heart, who clocked in so we could write about time. In my case, they’re all gone now, but as Guest writes, I’ll sing “Out of this place of dirt and dust.”

The Workmans Dream

In the Broadside tradition, here are my chords for the song version I composed. I played it with a capo at the 1st fret, so the recording is in F minor. My piano, vibraphone and cello parts are simple: fifths, octaves and roots.

The player to hear my performance of the song is below.

 

 

*They say it has something to do with dog attacks on their installers, three-headed dogs at that.

**Leonard Cohen. For six minutes of REM performing “First We Take Manhattan”  see this link.

One Summer Morning, Which Isn’t

Here’s an audio piece that begins in the midst of a common life event: when a son leaves home to go off on his own independence. While this leave-taking could be for a job, or for military or other service, in the modern world, it might well be for college.

Other than its late summertime setting, and the odd moment when the son in this story is thinking of something he’s read in a book as much as what his father is saying as he leaves, there’s nothing in it that indicates the child is leaving for school. Perhaps the son (or the reader) at the start thinks that such a leave-taking will be the story of “One Summer Morning, Which Isn’t,”  but eventually things open to a broader story.

Many who read an earlier version of this were puzzled by the title. “Why isn’t it,  that, one summer morning?” they ask. I once revised the title to answer the puzzlement, but today’s version instead revises the text of the piece to try to better convey what I wanted to get at under its original title. Even that first morning in the opening is seen from two very different perspectives, and as the story expands I try to show that leaving-takings are, strangely, always present, they are not only a moment or a single day. Am I successful in that effort? I’m not sure. It’s gone through some revisions over six years, and by now I’m not even sure it’s a poem, or if it isn’t more of a compressed short story. Well, the new draft is done, and it’s ready for you to hear it performed.

Jaguar for Surfing Sounds

Listen! Gidget, Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Matthew “Hodaddy” Arnold

 

Today’s music is fairly spare: electric guitar, bass, and drums. Yes, that bass line, close but not identical, is meant to remind you of another piece of music, back before Steely Dan. The electric guitar is an inexpensive version of the Fender Jaguar. Just before the 4 minute mark on the track, that weird high wind-chimey sound is something available from its design: notes that can be plucked on the strings between the bridge and the tailpiece. I was reminded of this trick while listening in a car ride with my son when an old Sonic Youth track came on the radio earlier this month.

To hear “One Summer Morning, Which Isn’t,”  use the player below.

Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street

Today I step aside from our usual practice here, and present words I wrote. With opportunity, next week I should be able to return to “Other People’s Stories.”

“Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street”  was written recently, and includes elements of observations I made during a bike ride to school with my son in early May. In the course of writing the poem and revising it, I modified the events of that day. This is not unusual. The events of one’s own life have a fractal branching of meaningfulness that frustrate encapsulation. It may be useful to use those endless edges as perforations to tear away from all things remembered the shape of a poem.

I tested the revision before this one with a group of poet friends, and alas, it didn’t seem to work well for them. They were slightly puzzled why the speaker in the poem didn’t ask the child to stop and smell the blossoms, but altogether bewildered by the question (or the way I presented it) when the speaker asks near the end of the poem about memory being able to remember the smell of something overlooked in one’s past. That was useful information. They also made a very specific suggestion. Originally the blossoms had been tree blossoms, and though they were extravagantly fragrant on the morning that inspired the poem, I did not know in fact what kind of tree was bearing them. No matter, they suggested, it works better if you make them a specific tree.

Blossoming Plum Tree

OK, it was some kind of fruit tree blossoming, let’s make it a plum.

 

I read something once particularly wise regarding such honest critiques about one’s writing. It may have been from Kurt Vonnegut, or it may have been someone else, but the gist of it was that if good, honest, readers find a problem in a piece they are almost always right, even if they are often wrong about how to fix it. The suggestion to name the type of tree was simply right I thought, but how to deal with what they saw as the troublesome puzzle about memory?

What I was trying to suggest in my poem’s story was that we can indeed remember things retroactively. Things that were not noted at the time consciously, that were not filled out as if a contemporaneous diary as experienced, can still be recalled when we later find them important or precious. We do this partially from our subconscious, perhaps even from what the Transcendentalists would call the over-soul, but mostly this is augmented because our minds are great pattern makers, able to fill in gaps with all the other things we recall.

The readers who noted this as a problem were smart, perceptive people. They likely knew of this, but I still had perplexed them.

I could not remove this, for me it was the point of the poem. Sometimes, what folks most object to in a poem (or other art) is, paradoxically, why it needs to exist.

I made some slight changes in a couple of lines around that concluding question, hoping in this version to make this natural phenomenon of memory clearer, without hindering the “music of thought” as well as “music of words” that I think poetry should have. Maybe it works better now.

To hear my performance of “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street”  use the player below.

 

 

Biking on the Greenway with My Son and Bob Stinson

Minnesota goes wild in spring when it finally gets warm, and so today, which promises to touch 70 degrees, will surely display this. Like the day described in today’s episode, I’ll probably go for a bike ride with my young son, and we’ll ride on The Greenway, a several mile reclaimed railroad cut that runs, as time does, east and west through the middle of Minneapolis.

Raising a child as a musician, writer, and sometime bohemian brings extra questions. Do you want your child to follow the most conventional and unquestioning path? Certainly not. You encourage him to question things, even allowing that this will encourage him to question you. You look at your own life backwards as you look at his coming forward, and wish him adventures, but only so much. You know there will be hardships and wrong choices, but you hope only enough to be instructive. As an artist you may worship art, but you’re not sure you’re comfortable with him adopting all the tenants of that religion.

Today’s piece “Biking on the Greenway with My Son and Bob Stinson”  speaks of this from the seat of a bicycle.

Bob Stinson was the animating force in The Replacements, an ‘80s punk band that never tried to split the difference between insouciance and not giving a @#*&. As a guitarist he was an anarchist, and the band accidentally worked like the NY Dolls, the Kinks, or the Rolling Stones, with a great front man who had the lyrical wit and the staggering lead guitarist who embodied the music’s soul.

replacements on the greenway

The Replacements sit and wait for The Greenway bike path to come through. Bob Stinson, middle left.
The guy on the left is an artist. The guy on the right played in Guns and Roses. The guy on the middle right, writes songs.

The Replacements’ front man, Paul Westerberg, was quickly indicted as a fine rock’n’roll songwriter, which damaged the band because songwriting implies loitering with intent to commit James Taylor. The band rebelled by making sure that a regimented presentation of a set of songs was not the aim. On any given night, this could be inspiring or a shambles: Dada or do-do. Being blotto on stage to the point you couldn’t hide it was almost a requirement, and for no member of the Replacements more than for Bob Stinson.

Eventually the dichotomy demanded an ostomy, and Bob Stinson was asked to leave the band he founded. Things did not go well for Bob without his artistic outlet, and chemical dependency played out its run until he died, his body worn out at 35.

Self-destruction aside, you can see that as path of purity. Chasing after success and an ego-driven desire to rise above others can harm too. The addict and the monk believe they have two different gods, but they have the same scourge. Negation and creativity; the not this, so this can emerge, is part of the religion of art.

Music, Minneapolis, and life are different now 30 years later, and that’s the place my son now lives in. Somewhere 30 years on from today will be the place he will live in, no longer young, if he survives rebellion and conformity, if he finds the balance between the worship of the self and self-destruction.

This is National Poetry Month, so in the spirit of the Replacements, this is a post more about music, and the music in “Biking on the Greenway with My Son and Bob Stinson”  is not all that polished, tossed off by the LYL Band in one take. Still you might enjoy clicking on the player below and listening to it.

A Rustle of Feathers

As promised, here’s my “bird in the house” piece presented as a companion to Dave Moore’s episode from yesterday.

I wrote this about a decade ago. I was going through a bit of a rough spot in my life then, and just as the words place the narrator in the piece, I was alone in a house in the wintertime, acutely aware of the sounds in winter.  In that house, with no other human sounds but my own, I found myself thinking of my aged father, now widowed, living alone as well. In a somewhat morbid, gloomy mood I thought of unwitnessed death, of my father, or myself, dying alone.

Just as in the dream reported in Dave’s piece “The Bird Dream,” the trapped bird image came to me as I wrote the words for “A Rustle of Feathers.”

Odd that that trapped bird image occurred to both of us thinking of our aged parents. I don’t know if this is a common image or archetype, something that waits in our common human unconsciousness, waiting for a writer’s words to awaken. “A Rustle of Feathers,” with it’s aged narrator in an otherwise empty house acutely alert to sounds, shares a bit of the mise-en-scène of Robert Frost’s A Old Man’s Winters Night”  that was presented here earlier this month. Possibly I had read the Frost poem somewhere in my youth, but I don’t believe it was present in my unconscious as I wrote this; but shortly after I wrote “A Rustle of Feathers,” I did think that Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven”a poem widely known to Americans of my generation—might have been a subliminal influence.

The Raven and Poe

Yes, I am using a plucked feather as a pen—but it’s a goose’s quill—so get out of my house!

Musically I was thinking a bit of a Johnny Cash feel as I composed the music, but I’m not sure that much of that came through in the final result. The guitar sound is a lovely example of a Fender Telecaster using both it’s pickups.

Well the muses keep dancing, and they are hard to keep in our narrow field of vision. The piece got written, and now it’s here for you to listen to. Just click on the gadget that appears below to hear it.

The Bird Dream

You can be in my dream, if I can be in yours. Bob Dylan said that.

You may have noticed that blog post frequency has fallen off a bit this month. Well besides the usual struggle of an upper Midwest winter, both alternative Parlando Project reader Dave Moore and I have had some extra tasks this month. I’ve been helping transition my mother-in-law to new living arrangements, and Dave has been working on editing a book of his father’s sermons.

Today’s post  is a piece that Dave wrote a few years back about his parents, and his father’s experience after Dave’s mother had died.  Like many good stories, it seeks to find meaningful connections in the flow of coincidental events.

And speaking of coincidence or archetypes or something, I wrote another piece myself a few years back. Though I did not mention it explicitly, my piece was also engendered by thinking of my father now living alone after my mother had died. Both pieces used the image of a bird trapped in a house.

I’ll not attach any more meaning than that to this. Today’s piece is Dave Moore’s story, read by Dave. Click on the gadget below to hear his story. Tomorrow I’ll post mine.

Homeopathic Hometown

Today’s piece recounts a common Midwestern experience, returning on a holiday to the much smaller town where one grew up.

For my post WWII generation, these smaller towns retained in our youth much of the vibrancy they had gathered in the first half of the 20th Century. The American rural world was larger then. Car travel was still not universal. Small farming and small manufacturing and small schools hadn’t been efficiently improved to larger sizes. Mass media, which seemed so large and potentially dangerous then, amounted to radio, newspapers, magazines and eventually a trio of gray and silver TV stations as the little rounded screens hovered into homes like flying saucers. So these little autonomous towns continued, 1950 like 1920.

How many of us, old now, can still, in memory, walk down main streets of their towns and small cities of their youth, seeing the storefronts, and hail silently the adult walkers and lost peers who might be walking there too? As I meet and talk to people near my age whose childhood was in larger cities, I find that they too had similar memories of neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were in effect, villages inside their cities—but this piece is about small Iowa towns in particular.

When we grew up, went to college, or left for adventure, marriage, or other work, we left a town and a time. When we went back to these towns, to visit our parents, our parents and our towns are found changed, not into coral bones and pearls, but into places slowly emptier and less vital. The storefronts empty and the eyes less bright; the houses, faded with dead paint and backs swayed.

Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Eventually, it is as if the thread of memory has been unraveled from a large ball of yarn, and now the ball is no more.

In this way, our hometowns disappear, becoming gradually diluted of everything we could return to. Today’s piece “Homeopathic Hometown” is about this. Homeopathy is the theory that you can dilute a medicine until it, like our hometowns, retains nothing—or next to nothing—of the the medicine, and yet the solution will somehow “remember” the medicine and its effects.

That of course is how nostalgia works. We remember our personal version of the hometown, and find there is a hole between the molecules as we revisit our hometown. I suspect those without the specific gravity of our memories live now in a different appreciation for the place. It will take time for their own dilution to complete.

Bowie Low

Iowa! What am I doing in Iowa instead of Berlin?
I wanted to see late 20th Century decay, but, hog lots?

 

Musically, I was trying to emulate here the sound and feel of the David Bowie/Brian Eno “Berlin Trilogy” when I wrote and recorded this in 2015, about a year before David Bowie would suffer his own sea-change. Much of what sounds like keyboard syths in the mix is instead “normal” guitar filtered and delayed. I think the mix works especially well with headphones or earbuds on this one.