Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Archeology Unearths the Bluebird Cycle of Poems Absolutely Without Merit




I was rummaging around in the catch-all drawer of my dresser and came up with a number of interesting items—missing cuff links, a nice never used Christmas present wallet, a great bright and braided cloth hat band perfect for my battered everyday brown felt, and a little red pocket note book missing one cover.
I had been searching for that little book for some time.  I carried it in my shirt pocket in 1979-80.  It was sent to me as a present by the British anarchist Arthur Booze whose quirky cartoons I had made a regular feature in the Industrial Worker. It was a pocket diary from the Transport and General Workers Union. It contained a map of the London Underground inside the front cover and a few pages of almanac information including high water tables at London Bridge and Rules for Shop Stewards.  In the back were a few color pages of maps of London, Great Britain, and Ireland.  A little elastic band could hold the book closed.
I used it not as intended as an appointment book, but as a phone book and a catch all for notes.  Among those notes, mostly written in pencil and hard for even me to read, were several poems.  These represented my first efforts at verse since incredibly gwad awful juvenilia written in high school and my first year of college.  Taken together, I thought at the time that perhaps they could be the beginning of a collection which I tentatively named The Bluebird Cycle of Poems Absolutely Without Merit.
This was the low point of my life.  Early in ’79 I had arrived back in Chicago after of few months of exile in Madison, Wisconsin, where I had gone, tail between my legs after being disgraced in my union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  That itself is a painful story which I will refrain for the time being relating.  I arrived back just in time for the infamous Blizzard of ’79.
For the first few months, I slept on a couch on the back porch of my friends and fellow workers Mike Hargis and Judy Freeman.  I would bundle in several layers of shirts, a battered corduroy sport coat, and a great old heavy Air Force overcoat under several layers of blankets and quilts often wakening covered in snow.  Later they would make room for me in the apartment and still later, after I got a job, I moved into a near-by sleeping room or stayed in a single-room occupancy hotel in Uptown. 
I got a job at a printing plant specializing in carbonless paper forms located a few blocks away.  I swept the floors, baled all of the scrap paper and cardboard in a giant compressor/baler, cleaned the restrooms, unloaded trucks, and sometimes helped load big paper rolls onto the presses.  It was the most menial work in the shop.  But it paid enough to get my own room.
When I was not at work or asleep I spent virtually every waking hour at the Bluebird Tap and Liquors on Irving Park Road just west of Ashland.  This joint should not be confused with the trendy Bluebird bar now patronized by yuppies and hipsters in now fashionable Wicker Park.  This place was a dive.  If it was not actually on skid row, it was within spiritual spitting distance.
Underneath the neon sign, the front was a dingy and cramped package goods store.  Just behind was a narrow bar room—a long, long bar, rickety chrome barstools with cracking red Naugahyde upholstery, a juke box, a single TV perched high over one end of the bar, a perpetual blue haze of  smoke, and the persistent odor of stale beer and vomit.  The joint opened promptly at 7 am with a line of shaky heavy hitters already lined up for the morning eye opener.  It officially closed at 2 am, but they frequently just turned the sign and the light in the liquor store off and kept pouring till the last drunk passed out.
I slipped easily, far too easily, into regular status among a colorful but used-up bunch.  On lean days, I could nurse a 35 cent glass of Old Style for an hour or more.  I made it my business to be witty and entertaining and so was able to cage drinks from the guys with real jobs—city laborers, cab drivers, machinists, etc.—or from the bar tender.  On paydays when I was flush I would knock back shots of Christian Brothers Brandy and stand a few symbolic rounds myself.  Once in a while someone would hit it big at the track or stumble into some kind of windfall and the whole damn place would drink until the lucky one was broke again.
Besides winning bets on trivia, telling tall tales, and occasionally singing an Irish or sentimental ballad, one of the ways I entertained my fellow sots and earned my freebies was writing and reading poetry that I began scribbling into that little red book.
Much of the stuff, as you would suspect, was too dreadful for further consideration.  Much of it was maudlin, because that’s what drunks do best.  But in the interest of brutal honesty and personal catharsis, I am going to publicly share some of those here for the first time 43 years.
The first entry showed no promise.

A record with a scratch
            the same grove plays,
            the same grove plays,
            and will again,
            and will again
           
I let the tone arm rest
            because I love the tune,
            because I love the tune,
            and fear to have it end,
            and fear to have it end.

Songs of pain and passion
            waiting for the bump,
            waiting for the bump,
            that sends the song its way,
            that sends the song its way.

Then there was a woman.  Of course there was a woman.  There always is.  This one was a lovely bar fly with shining dark brown hair and large warm eyes.  She was the steady girl of my best drinking buddy, a tree trimmer for the Parks Department.

Too many poets have
            written of her eyes—
                        like pools in moonlight,
                        like oceans to get lost in,
                        like midnights of anticipation

But they were not your eyes,
            yours when the glisten in laughter,
            yours when tear with pity.

I lack the words to say
            how they make me ache and long,
            how they make me hope and grieve,
            how they make me want to live and die.

Your eyes—
blue eyes, green eyes, grey eyes
shifting and changing,
jet black at the center,
dark somehow.

And I miss them already,
            I miss them so much
            I wish I had the voice
            of those dead poets
            to tell you just how much.
You get the picture now.  Not exactly immortal verse.  But wait!  There’s more!  How about that specialty of drunks, self-pity!

I have been where
            the heart breaks
            echo of the walls,       
                        so have you.

I have been where
            the smoke hangs
            as heavy as the hearts,
                        so have you.

I have been where
            dead men speak as live
            yearning all the while,
                        so have you.

I have wept when
            they have wept,
            for them but apart,
                        so have you.

I have been where
            I am torn asunder,
            aching with the pain
                        so finally have you.
Stuff like that ought to win any woman’s heart, right?  How about simple bitterness?

I have fucked by life
            like a fifteen year old virgin
            with a five dollar whore.
                        clumsy and quick,
                        two jerks and a squirt,
                        wilt and then guilt.

There came a time when the barfly of my dreams had a fight with her old man, my best friend.  Being of sterling character I stepped right in and she seemed amenable.  I even took her and her two children down to meet my father who was managing the old Sports and Vacation Show at the International Amphitheatre.  I told him we were getting married and I was going to be a step dad.  I confirmed for him all of his worst fears.  Of course I was pre-mature.  Before we even consummated our new found love, the lady was back in the arms of her old man.  It was not the first such experience of my lovelorn life.  

I was only the eunuch
            they could fly to
            when lovers frayed
their lives to unbraided hemp,
when other hands
reached out in solace
with prick straining
against their BVDs.

            Only the eunuch
                        of the four walled
                        empty harem
                        with ear and eye
                        but no other organ
                        playing a tune to them,
                        no cantatas of passion,
                        never, ever a fugue.

            Only the loving eunuch
                        with the sweet
                        castrato voice
                        to sing them
                        velvet solace,
                        wrapping them in memories.

            Only the healing eunuch
who listens
to their daily crucifixions,
pulls the nails from their hands,
anoints their wounds,
and sends them          
safely back
to their persecutors.
             
There was one last entry.

At a certain stage
            of drunkenness and stone,
            dreams drift
            as the seeds of cottonwoods
            by a dry Wyoming creek.

There you have it in all of its sordid glory.  Say fella, all this crap oughta be good for a couple of rounds of Christian Bros….
           

2 comments:

  1. I'm just thankful that God didn't give up on this Murfin man. He was really down - what pitiful stuff. What humble beginnings of our Murfin poet lauriette today.

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  2. My dad was a regular there and the owner (Whitey?) Was a good friend of his. My dad was John Lannon...maybe you knew him. I was just trying to figure out where the place was, I forgot, it has been many years. Saw your blog, very interesting. ..looks like a lot of memories were made there.

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