It was the year when
"The wind from off the sea says nothing new."
Juan was drinking Paisano,
having passed by the bookshop with
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
in its window, and next door buying
with the bottle The New Yorker
because his teacher, Roethke,
has a poem, "The Marrow" in its pages.
It was the first poem by him Juan allowed
himself to read. The Paisano gone,
he fell asleep on the sand.
What were you doing?
Jim Wall asked him later–
trying to die at Carmel-by-the-Sea?
In the bar the sunburn smarts.
The girl entering through the dutch doors,
letting them swing behind her,
nearly hitting her escort following,
acts a little tipsy but she’s ready
to dance without her sandals.
Juan wonders aloud if she knows
The Barefoot Contessa . . .
but Wall is missing Marge,
her rowdy fucking, moaning like a cat
in heat, screaming, he says,
like my cock was a tom’s . . .
She even does "street jobs,"
when they need money.
His trust fund is never enough.
Juan’s first book of poems,
written his first week back in Seattle,
he calls "The Gate" but it’s not gold.
So many poems, so many pages
and nothing there worth working over.
"A man in himself is a city,"
and though these are California poems
Juan loves the good doctor Williams
whose Paterson is where he finds
the quote to lift . . . San Francisco
is the crux. Wall can have Monterey.
Jim took the girl back to his room.
Next morning he went out for a pack
of smokes and a fifth of whiskey
she gave him the money to buy.
Later Juan is walking the Ave
when Marge comes up,
throws her arms around him,
kisses his lips, big city Seattle people
walking by noticing, smiling.
I took such good care of Jim
he came home early, she tells me
in the all-night Koffee Korral.
She says he missed her so much
they’ve done nothing but fuck
all day every day since.
She’s happy when they have money
and she can do it with him for free.
Even so, she looks like she knows
she wants what she can’t have.
Seattle, Jim said, is my home.
I grew up on people’s doorsteps,
they had to take me in
or have it on their conscience.
When one family got rid of him,
he went to sit on another stoop
until the door opened
and he was asked, Would you like
to come in out of the rain?
He was so young to be orphaned
he was twenty-one when he learned
he had been left a trust fund
before his parents crashed
on an icy road through the Ozarks.
He bought a blue Cadillac convertible.
In a swanky apartment they lived
next to Ravenna Park, where Jim
when younger ran with a crowd
rolling fairies there for their money.
When his trust money was almost gone,
Jim told Marge he was going to be
dealing now, she could come in
off the street. Juan never saw them again–
he left Seattle. One morning on the front page
of the Seattle P-I there was Wall
with his cronies surrounded by police,
and below that photo, Marge ablaze
with anger in the city courthouse where,
the paper said, she was losing
the daughter Juan didn’t know she had.
It was then that Jim’s childhood story
came back to Juan, how people could not
refuse him lodging to appease
their own conscience. After Monterey,
Juan had asked Jim, What of the girl,
what of your own conscience?
That girl, Jim said, had Monterey,
Carmel too . . . if she wants.
She’s got money, she doesn’t need me.
And no need for Juan to remind him
he’d taken her money and skipped town . . .
what could Jim learn by now he did
not know already? The night they met,
Jim said he would show Juan Seattle . . .
his Seattle, here on the front page.
When Juan was again in Monterey,
he was with Cathleen, who wanted to see
the Peninsula with him. He was not like
her other men, she said. They were on
the wharf looking for a place to eat.
He never bored her, she insisted.
They were in love again.
It was like the first time every time
they came together . . .
Then they fought. If it was here,
he left and she stayed. Up there
she left and he stayed.
In Monterey then, they drank champagne
in the motel room. He read "The Gate"
aloud, the bubbles of her bath fizzing.
He could see all the holes, nothing
that lay fallow so long could change now.
He had taken too little time to learn
what made a poem stay alive a while.
He had read all the poets–Wilfred Owen,
Louise Bogan–Roethke said would help.
Juan wrote another book, "Identities,"
about Seattle, but it was not much better
even if he knew more about Seattle
than San Francisco or Monterey
and Carmel. Yet he still did not know
anywhere well enough to know where
he needed to be. One afternoon,
Roethke saw him waiting, and remarked:
Sometimes you have to wait half your life . . .
More than once Roethke wondered aloud
some variation of the question,
Who’s the best living American poet,
Robert Lowell or me? One night after a party
following his reading in Seattle, Lowell
and Roethke were sitting alone
and bemoaning their loneliness.
They were both a little drunk, the story went,
the booze was gone and it was quiet.
Don’t worry, Roethke broke the silence.
I’ll always be your friend, Robert.
Roethke died not long after that.
Lowell died a quarter-century later.
Now the history makers say Roethke was
overrated and Lowell not worth reading.
Juan has a theory it doesn’t matter when
you die as long as your mind stays alive
long enough to write what’s inside.
And of course the eyes must see, the ears
hear, the fingers touch, the tongue taste,
the nose smell the difference between
what’s living and what’s dead.
If he writes poems still, it’s because,
like he says, I know nothing so well,
and even this I will never know well enough.
Here he is, then, driving north
to Half Moon Bay, then through the city,
crossing into Marin, and she’s there,
opening the door, wearing nothing under
her apron. He kneels, kissing her cunt.
(15 April 2011)
copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander