Wednesday, January 5, 2011

from A Process Beginning above My Grandmother's Well


I try to reach down deeply enough, it takes years it seems,
to find the bottom of my mind. This is no mere boast. I do
what I need, if only I knew after over seventy what is
necessary to bring up to the light the places in hell
reserved for those from heaven when they fall.
Blind Milton saw the place and there was no light for him.
Juan Flores drank until he could talk his way through doors
forbidden to Others. Changed his name to Johnny Flowers,
which happens to one nobody knows who needs a passport
to go through the door, one at a time. Do you need to travel

Then I listened. The words came alive in so many languages
I knew no meaning between the thousand souls was alike
but enclosed in the core of an entire culture, Mexico, say.
where I had been twice, even felt like I had lived there once.

There was from the first the well where all my life later
I lowered the bucket to draw up water, spill into a tin cup
and drink before hauling the rest to the kitchen. My grandmother’s,
the tall one who could hardly write her name but loved me so
she talked to me a long time and told me stories I heard
only after walking the pasture, opening the gate, closing it
to give the horse a flat-palm greeting, calling him by name,
but not Caballo, which could have been any horse in this little town
but would have been his name only if anyone had known the word.
Effie Druc(or s)illa Clifft McAlexander,
who liked to introduce herself, lopping off the "Mc"
for reasons of her own, said Come, Floyce Milton
(in that country a child was known by both his given names)
and, she added, sit a spell with me while I watch the convoys
passing by my picture window chewing Day’s Work
to stay calm.

She told me stories I could believe more than those
Juan Flores later heard in the bars, the lounges, the fields
where anglos let chicanos have work if they had proven
they could hold that job already. The same job.
They knew it would take them years.
It was why he changed his name, why he became
Johnny Flowers, who did not know his father,
he had never known him, killed in the war
against the Japanese, buried in Honolulu’s Punch Bowl.
But Juan Flores would come along later,
New Orleans first, then Mexico next, the first time.
First, my uncles came home from Europe and the Pacific
and never talked, just smiled if they were of a mind to do so,
dandled me on their knees when I was a baby boy,
and my father’s friends, with coaldust deep in the lines
of their palms and over and under their eyes, I loved
without knowing why my father was named Manuel Romain.

My grandmother did not tell me that story.
She told the son who stayed with her all her life, and he told
me how she was a little girl when her daddy, Frank Clifft,
started whoring in Fort Smith on The Row and her mother,
Pearl, daughter of Taylor of Tahlequah, the Cherokee,
took her own daughter with her when she went to hear the singer
on horseback with his Spanish guitar over one shoulder
and a sheaf of his own songs to sing in Witcherville,
Huntington, Mansfield, Paris, Arkansas,
where Pearl fell in love with Manuel Romain, his name was.
Effie played in the garden with the flowers and rocks
and there was always a garden no matter which hotel
and when, the weather was always warm
when her mother was in love and soon big with child
though she followed the stillborn son to be buried
with him in the same grave, she would always say,
my uncle said, with a sadness bordering on disgust,
and once her father was gone only God knew where,
and until she met Abraham, come from Virginia,
to marry her and free her, he thought, from her father’s
brother, her mother’s sister, and their son Tom Clifft,
of whom she always said, and to me many times as well,
Double cousins are closer than brother and sister . . .

I loved my father’s friends, the coaldust buried in them
as deeply as in my father’s body, the black and blue
slivers of coal, Richard Bartlett calling Floyce Milton!
entering the house and tickling my ribs, setting me off
into gales of laughter, I and the miner as well;
Bill Dursom, who loved baseball
and bought me a subscription to The Sporting News
once he’d left the mines and the South and managed
a ranch outside Cle Elum, Washington, with Greenwood,
Arkansas, and Spiro, Oklahoma, and points south of there
all gone from his mind but lodged forever in his memory.

I willed it done by watching the ball players on the field,
pitching through a tire hung from the top of bales of hay
in the back yard and that way learned before I knew.
One year I played football, a hovering, storming linebacker,
I loved the violence, I even loved to suffer the hit below my knee
I would never forget . . . time does not allow you to take it back.
And near the school year’s end I pitched and hit well enough
to throw a no-hitter and hit a home run in the same game.
Trouble was, I walked too many, too wild when I wasn’t perfect,
the coach said. Also, as I saw the ball I’d hit soar
over the left fielder and bounce farther away
beyond the only one between me and home plate,
I stood there until I saw it begin to bounce,
amazed at what I’d done, and reached third base before
I stopped, home plate left waiting to welcome me full circle.

And all the time I worked: asparagus in the spring, cherries
apricots, plums, peaches, pears, apples, nights of the pea harvest,
days filling sacks with potatoes, loading boxcars half the night,
bone weary but happy because I made my father who was poor
at my age happy too. Then the canneries, the longest job of all,
even when I returned from Massachusetts I worked nights
to bring money to the house Irish Cathleen and I were sitting
for my parents while they traveled back to Oklahoma, Arkansas.
And by then, there was no longer work, but labor.

As I grew older I no longer picked fruit but loaded the trailer
behind the tractor with the boxes of harvest to go to the places
where the fruit was processed, and where later still I worked
inspecting pears. Also, I waded through fields of corn to pick
samples to take back to be tested for maturity, and only then
were the cornfields harvested. I drove miles, through a canyon
and above the valley, where the farmers made their own brew
and would not let me go without having a glass. It did not matter,
I was a boy though getting old enough to be called a grown man.
I worked the nightshifts in canneries, I went home with women
who slept afterward as well as I. By then the only woman I loved,
Irene, was gone. She loved me, I knew, but there were reasons
we could only love in my car or hers, in the mesquite
or the mountain, or after mass on the hill above the town . . . love
not marry.


Before I left the valley there was a beginning and an end to things
that always recurred the following year, beginning with asparagus
at four in the morning, and near the end of the season four hours
became eight after changing fields, and by noon swimming in
the city pool with Jess Maltos, one of my two best friends,
the other Jerry Rupke, the son of a hired hand
whose sister watched her mother go to Herb’s house
and waited and when every night was that way she cried
into the lap of her dress held over her face in the hot shack
that was the only one she and her brother had ever known
and later burned when their father drank himself to sleep
one more night and left his smoke burning where it fell
below the daybed. She smelled it first, woke Jerry, and did all
they could to get their father out the door. He was too heavy.
Their mother said later she was fast asleep over there,
I’m sorry.

My own people were quiet, all save Effie and even then
spoke softly but one word following the next
and each uttered as strongly as a widow needed to be
always. The first time came when Effie’s mother knew
her only child had understood because she was there:
Manuel Romain rode a horse from town to town
with a Spanish guitar, the kind my father learned to play
and always kept one near. Spanish guitar, Manuel Romain
and his namesake said with nary a variant, Effie claimed.

I called her Grandma. My mother called her the same.
No stuff about mother-in-law. Effie did call me
her grandson, but only because the first one, Robert
Rufus, died two months after birth. Everyone was happy
I had appeared, for life. My name came from a man
named Floyce Been, as in "I have been but am no more,"
who came from Wales and worked with my father
in the same mine that blew up with Floyce Been there,
down there–two weeks or less or maybe more since
my father told my mother the bosses were doing nothing
to shield the men from the gas, and quit. At the end
of a June day in 1940 my father came home, washed his face
and hands, and embraced my mother Lorene, saying,
I did it, it was the only thing to do, Richard and Bill already
quit of the place. Floyce wouldn’t come with me, my father
Manuel Romain said. An immigrant from Wales
always needs the work, the money, the stability--such irony
even then. No wonder I loathed the word . . .

* * *

And I could tell how most weekends Jess Maltos drove
his illiterate father–called that because he could not speak
anglais but always smiled and nodded when I asked,
Comprende?–they drove Saturdays to Wapato, the town
above Toppenish, not far from White Swan and Brownstown,
where blonde Rita tended bar and the Yakima passed out
but awakened when she was ready to close, she was very kind
and the white men said she was a knockout, they wanted her
to like them, but I do not know if she ever loved any man,
though when I drank and shot pool there she was kind to me.

In Wapato Jess took the slatted hutches from the truck bed
and inside opened the top to prepare the first fighting cock
for battle. He and his father attached the steel spurs sharp
as razors above their claws and when the stakes were high
enough the birds were called together and each given a taste
of the other, a smell of death each cock fought to fly above
the other. Jess brought the official gamecock magazine
from Georgia for me to read. Such combat weaned me
from all violence unnecessary to save lives. Or so I believe . . .

I never learned to break through his father’s smile, to let
him know I too loved him. His mother knew I loved her,
she understood, Jess said. I don’t even know Spanish,
he said, that’s why I’m going to school to learn to teach
the language. I would like to help them more before they die.

Ah, so many words, other verbs, the way a sentence was built,
and never remembered, not even after two stays
in Mexico City with Manuela Roma, our friend Tim Reynolds,
who learned Russian, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, and when
Juan Flores–yes, I worked up the audacity to use that name,
though I had done so in New Orleans, but that is a story
for another time–asked Tim how he learned Spanish fluently
only after he came down here his first time (Juan’s too),
Reynolds matter-of-factly replied, From whores, bartenders,
cab drivers in Veracruz, then came here to learn more,
met Isabel Fraire one night Octavio Paz read and, later he wrote
from Texas he’d learned just in time to know how to answer
the incessant questions in Lecumberri nine days, beaten
for breakfast and interrogated until dark when they took pity,
maybe, but decided he’d learned nothing at Manuela Roma’s–
after all he and Isabel lived in the heart of D.F., in Hotel Londres
(Betty and I in Hotel Ibero, across the street, but before Tlatelolco)–
and deported him to Austin, taught Aristophanes, what he’d translated
in that hotel room, his version of "The Peace," with all the burnished
laughter and sorrow of his own voice, the kind that darts down the page
until it finds what it already knew was there but did not know till then
how to reach; and soon Isabel arrived, he quit teaching suddenly,
they flew off to London, where they lived together until she took
a plane back to Mexico City to see her kids and look for a publisher
who might put between book covers her poetry
compared to Emily Dickinson until she wished only to hear her own name,
writing Tim she was home to stay, they quarreled, he left London too,
traveled to the islands–the Pacific archipelago–and back to the States,
and his old haunts–Vicksburg, Mississippi, his birthplace; Antioch College,
Ohio, where he first learned another language–English, he said,
laughing always and only when we were drinking something cheap
like Tecate in cans after the tall bottles of Pacifico in Mazatlan each time
I traveled to Sinaloa to stay a week before proceeding to D. F.

* * *

In Pullman, Washington, near the Idaho line, in the Palouse country,
I had come to live eight years, the first seven writing and editing,
learning a skill to which I’d return years later, in Albuquerque.
I found the job opening in Seattle, applied, interviewed, and waited
a year, working canneries, drawing unemployment–
another job I would do twice, the first time in Toppenish, infamous for its
row of Indian bars, they were called, charnel houses I would say now,
and in Tacoma, where you could see Mount Takhoma, called Mount Rainier,
looming boldly over the city, one of the two mountains, the other Adams,
both mountains visible through the long window of my father’s house
when I was a boy. I worked behind the desk helping people fill out claims
and now I was putting my college education to some use, they loved degrees
and so I was hired to work for the state. Yes, I was using my education,
my father said. You used it or it was all for nothing. No matter it came back
on me. I had generations of poverty to overcome. My father said, A writer
has to know everything. But not me, still too young. For a third time Roethke
talked with me on the stone wall above the stone steps of Parrington Hall,
he the master, I the not-even-titular apprentice. I asked him for a letter.
I needed the money, could not return for another year to study verse writing,
had to pay off my three-month bill from the hospital, he knew what that was
and said, Sure, give me his address and I’ll write that guy in Pullman.

Henry Grosshans was his name, from Illinois, said he would lie awake nights
listening to the train whistle far off, wondering what really lay out there,
and after college went to war, commanding a naval destroyer, most dangerous
of all ships, I knew because my uncle Ernest said so once, one of the few times
he talked about his war; and Henry’s story I learned only from the foreman
supervising the printing plant in back of the building, saying Henry won’t tell
you but I will . . . and then was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, tutored by Isaiah
Berlin, Akhmatova’s friend, who wrote The Hedgehog and the Fox, the first
Tolstoyan Henry knew and Henry the only one I ever knew, I read only
Dostoevsky in those days. We took long coffee breaks. He liked to talk
literature and history and politics, a Kennedy man, a liberal without apology.
My friend John Friel, the designer in the office, painted huge canvasses
in his loft, a studio he shared with his Canadian friend who painted too
but smaller. John argued with Grosshans, would slide his coffee cup down
the hall in protest, and at last won a scholarship to study with Ruben Tam
in Brooklyn’s Museum of Art, lived in Japan after that, and last in L. A.,
on Wilshire, went to Mexico City with Betty and I, and his Berkeley friend
put us in a room in the convent her father, vice president of Ralston Purina,
and mother now called home, in San Angel, among the flower vendors . . .
and visited me, gaunt but cheerful, in Pullman when Paula and I that year
were beginning to come apart but still hung on, and John said, Sure, let’s
go downtown for a beer, and Paula smiled, wishing us a good time, she
had a book she wanted to read, the Iliad.

A year later Paula and I were quits and I left Pullman with a Master’s,
the first graduate degree of three that never turned out to be worth much
on the market, and I was heading for L. A. to ask Friel if he’d like to go
to Chile to see the Allende people, meet Neruda, go to Peru and Machu Picchu,
and in Taos McCord was surprised I hadn’t heard: John shot himself
not long ago . . .

After that, Albuquerque a week, San Diego six weeks, and hitching back
to Haines’s house where my car was waiting, John and Jane and her kids
filling the three-story house in Pacific Grove, too much room finally
for the Alaskan poet who homesteaded so many years and lived alone
learning the craft and yes, making something out of himself, he who had
painted before turning to poetry, but most of all gone to the wilderness
to live, as Thoreau said, and not believe he had wasted his days before
he died. Haines lives still, his poetry having become an American treasure.

Haines had taken me into Monterey to meet Witherup and Carmen Scholis.
Ferlinghetti dropped in and Haines exited, later telling me why, and Bill
and I, who had appeared in the same anthology not long before, went
to drink before I returned to Jane’s couch for the night before John said,
Call Hitchcock in Santa Cruz, and I did and stayed two nights with him
and his beloved, above the steep ravine behind the house, and helped him
haul a refrigerator back from town, on the way telling him I had this idea
of writing about some long poems I didn’t think were being acclaimed
as they deserved, and he said, That’s not for you, somebody like Rexroth
does that, you’ve got to earn the right . . . I remember he encouraged me
in San Francisco, where he kept his press in the basement and collated
his magazine kayak there, and told me once he’d publish my first book
if he could select the poems, and I said I had to do that myself and he said
nothing more.


Pullman, I know now, was where I needed to go to begin,
Seattle would not have me stay, the guy who hired me
as night clerk at the motel during the World’s Fair
was caught embezzling and the owners decided to keep only one
among us, the man with the most experience, a gentle man.
Off I flew to see San Francisco for the first time, with Monterey and Carmel
by bus. With me traveled Jim Wall, the Seattle native who showed me the life,
it was called, the male and female prostitutes working near Puget Sound,
First Avenue. On the Monterey Peninsula he hustled one woman one night
until she said she had to go with that guy over there and walked out
the bar’s dutch doors and he followed them, I never knew what transpired,
I had my own hustle: I read my teacher’s poem, "The Marrow"
in The New Yorker on Carmel beach and after the bottle was gone,
slept in the sun and the sun burned my skin before I woke.
I knew when I was wasting time, went home, back to Seattle
where the old woman with all her cats keeping her company
typed papers for people like me in her dark, crowded bookstore
a block down from where the poet Theodore Roethke taught poetry.

Roethke–his influences (Yeats, first always; Hart Crane–though that year
he said one Friday, "I don’t want to have to talk about that faggot!"–
and I went back to the apartment on the street heavily traveled
one way, where I lived briefly with Victoria, who thought I read
too much that weekend–Waldo Frank’s edition of The Collected Poems
and Philip Horton’s biography–the beginning of a long study of Crane),
Roethke’s friends (W. H. Auden–also homosexual but so what?
he didn’t say because no one asked–Stanley Kunitz, his friend
the longest time; William Carlos Williams; Robert Lowell,
when Life Studies was our text; Louise Bogan, years older than he
but his lover once, whom he said I could learn from because
the poems I brought for him to read outside class reminded him
of hers and if only I read her poetry closely I would begin to know
how she did it, the second requirement after you knew the work by heart,
which I never did, finally, though I could fake it in reciting first thing
after practicing all night). It may have been the first time I went deep
down there as I knew to go, but how would I have known already
if I had not learned to draw the water from Grandma’s well?

And what of Juan Flores? Did he ever know more than he learned
from those who traveled up and down the country to find work . . .
We congregated at Stockman’s Café in Yakima early in the morning
and the field bosses came by to choose among us and tells us where
to go, and all day we picked the fruit from ladders as tall as spikes,
those you leaned against the strongest branches you could find
high up and climbed to the top and lashed the rope to the limb
so you could pick it all, pick the tree bare, you needed such courage
I worked endlessly to find and when I did it felt like second nature,
though I knew better, I knew bravado was something I possessed
though I did not know why, nor did I truly care, at least not enough
to stay there year after year.


Twenty-two years here and I am still diving, always failing to go
down deep enough to bring up the cold water I love to splash
over my face and go to do that now after writing, ending only
in time to send it to you so you may read at your leisure,
after a day cleaning the houses of the rich who pay well
while you are preparing to write the play in which only you
would know enough to report from the other side of what you call
"the engine" where we, you say including me but I don’t know why,
learn about that world from work and nothing there can be hidden..
Not anymore.

Though Irish Cathleen does all she can to keep me alive
because she does not want to lose me, and I have no reason
not to believe she loves all I promised
from the first night in the houseboat
she saw I was reading Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return,
and loved me, God knows, we went downtown most every weekend
and loved to close the Downbeat Cabaret at Third and Yesler
in Pioneer Square, the only white kids dancing there.

I want to stay alive.
We were many years apart among the fifty since we met–
how many? . . . How long?
What do numbers mean?
What did they ever mean?
Why do I remember how many steps I took to reach the well
that was always, even now, on the stone-cobbled back porch?

(1–22 December 2010–5 January 2011)

copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander

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