I admire a small stone and a pair of clam shells: mementos from last weekend’s party on the beach. In thinking about bathing the stone in salt water, an occult practice suggested in Aidan Wachter’s book Weaving Fate, I’m reminded of Devin Johnston’s Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), a book I read last fall. Although most of Devin’s books are collections of poetry, the above book is a work of criticism — as were the books on Irish poetry published by Devin’s father Dillon Johnston, who Devin thanks in the above book’s acknowledgements.
I introduce each figure here, as each plays a part in my tale.
Dillon taught in my department, his time overlapping that of his more famous colleague, the poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Dillon is the one who founded the press here at my university. His name now graces our reading series.
And oddly enough, Dillon lived for a time here on Shady Blvd, this street about which I’ve been writing — his home Mitch Easter’s home, two doors down from my own. He settled there in the wake of a divorce, and stayed there for several years.
Indeed, in all respects, he seems like an interesting character — someone I would have liked to have known. By the time of my own tenancy on Shady, however, Dillon had moved on to Wash U., where he trained several of my friends and colleagues. Our times thus never aligned in our respective homes — though I suspect Dillon’s stint overlapped that of the Gay Wizard.
For hyperstition’s sake, let us assume the two to have been friends and neighbors. The story of their friendship is one I venture to tell in what follows.
A neighbor with a chainsaw helps me remove a fallen tree. He relays the yard’s history, helps us decipher the boundaries of a garden, one he tended in years past. He’s a contractor. A worker who works with him brought music and, with a wheelbarrow, lent a hand removing the tree. To both the worker and the neighbor, I am thankful. Yellow daffodils sprout around the house and in the yard. I imagine plucking a sprout of onion grass and eating it as seasoning atop a baked potato. This I do.
I recovered a shoe of Frankie’s while out walking this afternoon. It had fallen yesterday along her walk with Aunt Jojo. There it was beside an odd property: a house set back in a patch of woods with an American flag and “private property” signs out front. Further along down the road past several other houses stands a weird Republican-seeming neighborhood of ugly stone-faced McMansions around a private lake. Not one of my preferred places to walk — though I admit enjoying it, particularly when a beautiful heron flew overhead. The bird appeared shortly after my recovery of the shoe. I paused and admired the bird as it flew past, sensing in its appearance a sign of good luck. Greetings, friend! My cosmology permits perception and experience of a many-voiced cosmos. Sarah and Frankie sit beside me, for instance, as I write. They play a game involving a toy sword in a toy stone. Frankie retrieves the sword and Sarah declares her a Queen.
Gardens brighten the day, as do messages written in chalk on streets. Bees give me pause. “Hello friend,” I say to one I admire. So, too, with mushrooms, dandelions, wild strawberries. Off the streets, behind the doors of homes, live others. The facade of each home serves as an emblem of the one or many private, undisclosed storylines within. All of them parallel worlds. Other people’s games. And sometimes we meet, we intersect. We enter each other’s discourse. Communication happens intermittently, both frequently and rarely. We produce a kind of mail art, signaling to each other as if across mountaintops with mirrors, and discuss redesign of the neoliberal world order, made happy by each other’s laughter.
During break time, I stare at pinwheels, rosemary bushes, a neighbor with a cat on a leash, a Royal Enfield motorcycle with a Cozy sidecar parked in front of another neighbor’s home down the street. I walk about, listening to birds, the wind as it rustles the leaves in the trees, motivating as well some wooden wind chimes. The cry of a waking baby returns me indoors, where we dance to tunes by NEU! and Pere Ubu. Time for redirection. Sarah’s suggestion: download into being a children’s book on Buckminster Fuller. The baby rests on Sarah’s knees as the three of us chill on the couch vibing to Future Shock — Volume 1, a compilation released by Names You Can Trust.
As the sun descends, shining through the window in the room above the garage, I stare down at a book propped open on the dining room table: The Living Book of the Living Theatre. I learn about Judith Malina and Julian Beck and the direction they took from the philosophical anarchism of Paul Goodman at the time of the Theatre’s founding in the mid- to late- 1940s. The couple launched the Theatre at their 789 West End Avenue apartment in New York. In 1951, they staged four one-act plays by Goodman, Gertrude Stein, Bertolt Brecht, and Federico García Lorca. In later years, the Theatre became communal and nomadic.
On these walks each day around my neighborhood, I weigh possibilities for revolution and admire trees and gardens. Yet so much else of the capitalist neighborhood seems distant, alien, preconstituted, practico-inert. Little sense of community other than polite hellos. Nods of the head, the assumption being all of us are “about our business,” do not disturb. This is what it’s like, existentially, to live under the regime of social distancing — while in some more abstract sense, everything around one is the land of Trump. Time to practice drumming and horn-blowing. Noisy, clamorous complaint. Yet the parent in me knows to be quiet so as not to wake the baby during her nap. She’ll wake on her own when she’s ready. Or WE will: into happier times, each day tending toward the better. So too with consciousness. The surrealist revolution attempted a synthesis, an overcoming of dualisms, did a stately pleasure-dome decree: dream-states and pleasure-states reconciled with reality. Or so it seemed as I sat after my walk, mind at play. A student’s paper has me thinking about the politics of “liberation.” By dream or by memory I summon up before me a book from Verso, The Dialectics of Liberation, resting in a stack of books across from me atop Lenore Kandel’s Word Alchemy. What better thing to read? Dialectics of Liberation was a congress held at the Roundhouse in London in 1967. Radical “anti-psychiatrists” like David Cooper and R.D. Laing met with Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse and Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael, among others. Paul Goodman was there, as was Gregory Bateson. A “curious pastiche,” as Cooper says in his introduction. In a kind of “circus poster” at the start of her book Word Alchemy, meanwhile, Kandel announces, “ALL dreams ARE true / THIS is a dream / THIS is TRUE.” Kandel’s poems are funky, wonderful, and witchy.
Neighbors across the street waste the entire day — a day of blue skies and sunlight — leaf blowing. Imposing that sound, inflicting it on the neighborhood, the ones doing it thinking themselves “improvers.” They’re the ones fucking with the planet. That used to be a source of rage on the street where I grew up. An old man who lived down the street from my parents refused to stop leaf blowing, so an angry dude who lived next door stormed out, tore the device out of the old man’s hands and beat him to the ground with it. Police had to intervene. That was my parents’ neighborhood. Meanwhile I sit here passively in my present neighborhood, feeling the role of the one angered — but trying to breathe and relax my way through it, knowing it too will pass. Go for a walk, I tell myself. Wait it out. The angry guy across the street, Mr. Vigilante Justice of Tough Guy World: he, to me, is the embodiment of toxic masculinity and the authoritarian personality. As an environmentalist, I find myself viewing people like him as the Enemy, the Adversary. As one such man blows leaves, another wipes out a stand of bushes with a chainsaw. This is Trump’s America. Drive elsewhere and men buy records and walk dogs. Continue around a bend and there are cops blocking off streets, cars hogging streets, people out in the streets for a parade. Neon letters appear lit from within. The sound of my baby’s heartbeat. We are where we are. Perhaps it’s time to stop eating animals. How about books? Should we buy and read books? If so, which ones? Rebecca Solnit’s book seems interesting: Whose Story Is This? In general, the books in the “Current Events & Politics” section seem terrifying. But perhaps we’re not where they think we are, whether they be white men or journalists for Teen Vogue. What is one to do to overthrow fascism here amid a world thinking itself animated by the Christmas spirit? Perhaps it’s time to read Dante’s Paradiso. Everything I pick up at the local bookstore seems intensely allegorical — sometimes uncannily, frighteningly so. Yet in it all, I sense a spirit of benevolence.
A squirrel hops into a field of grass after a rainstorm, most of the ground around it covered in fallen leaves, the whole still wet from the storm. I relax with potted cacti and other indoor succulents, all of us reaching toward windows wanting sunlight. Honoring this demand shared across ages, Sarah and I rouse ourselves for our walk. Along the way, we converse with neighbors, some of them with dogs, one couple expecting like us, plus a woman I know from a sangha that used to meet here in town. A weird record turned up in the bins today: Harry Partch and His Strange Musical Instruments.
A recent book features an essay by music scholar Mina Yang calling Partch a “Hobo Orientalist.” He composed music that was to be played upon unique instruments, using scales of unequal intervals. Partch was one of the first twentieth-century composers in the West to work systematically with microtonal scales. An interesting find — but not where my head is at. I’d rather be licking bits of cranberry curd.