For all that things stay the same in the world—our politics are just as out of joint and deadly as they were in the 60s; the environment is still under assault; women’s rights are losing ground—there has been some lasting improvement. It’s still true that for all the complaining one might reasonably engage in, women’s rights are in better shape than they were 50 years ago. Civil rights are in better shape, some of the environmental regulations still have teeth. And one thing that is definitely better is the development of a societal acceptance of the concept of wellness, which B. never seemed to have much awareness of. I wrote once before that his last interviews and readings are pretty striking because of the infirmity so plain in a person who was physically damaged. In and out of the hospital, smoking a pack of cigarettes before 10 am, and the “gas and shit” blowing through his “tail” four times in 2 hours is a literal description, no metaphor. Thanks for that, by the way. Poetry, sheesh.
This was an age when everyone smoked, encouraged by TV ads for cigarettes. I remember layers of cigarette smoke, like cloud strata, stacked in my grandmother’s living room when she had company. I used to fly toy planes through them, playing like I was a pilot. Getting drunk was something you laughed at. Calf’s liver and onions fried in lard was thought to strengthen a person. There had been a beatnik underground smoking marijuana for decades, and jazz hip too often included heroin addiction, but when drug use got established as part of the counterculture mainstream, then drug use went the same route as cigarettes and booze, into nationwide brain-altering excess and eventually physiologic destruction. Artists were no different from anybody else, and I’ve remarked before how so many of the poets of the time destroyed themselves, either by drinking themselves steadily to death or outright suicide. Ann Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and I’m sure others, were poet suicides. Not much later you have the famous trio of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin who all went up in flames from pushing their bodies and spirits past the breaking point.
This poem is a record of persevering through the specter of bodily decay, brought on not by age but by not taking care of the body. Look, daily-meditating vegan yoga masters get sick now and then too. But we know this is not what B. is talking about. He’s a lot like the semi-autobiographical Bob Fosse character Roy Scheider played in All That Jazz. A total wreck in the morning, stagger to the mirror aghast at the image looking back, light a cigarette, swallow the handful of barbiturates and amphetamines it takes to get rolling, three or four cups of coffee in the shower, then the drugs start kicking in, “It’s show time!”, and off to the studio to make your mark as one of the top choreographers on Broadway. Except your physical heartbeat starts wearing thin, and now what? Jessica Lange, ravishing gorgeous blonde death herself, sets out to seduce you, that’s what.
B. knows what’s coming: “One day the whole affair will fall apart / with a rustle of fire, / a wrestle of undoing, as of tossed clocks.” Exactly. Maybe that’s a phrase that deserves wider circulation. “You’re tossing your clock, my friend.” Clocks are delicate and need to be oiled and set on a wall someplace for safekeeping. Pitch one on the floor and they get sprung. What really happens is that they speed up, and the harder they hit the floor, the faster they run your time out.