Bart Plantenga

The One-Point-Five-Foot-High Teetering Stack of Forgotten Poems That Defied Purpose To Spite Me

I was sitting on the floor of the almost-empty Village Green apartment with a just-about view of the Hudson, a few leaves clinging to the grey-bark birch, lovely songbirds – a warbler, a wren? – on a cold morning. Taking a breather in the middle of another 14-hr work day.

I’ve been working for a long time, but I’m nearly done – two summer months and a winter month later – clearing out the attic of 275 boxes of another man’s life as well as emptying, renovating, cleaning and preparing my mother-in-law’s apartment for the realtor.

I had christened the attic the “Mythical Attic Archive in Upstate NY” [MAA/UNY] because those 275 boxes lowered down through a narrow portal contained an astonishing 100 years of a strange Italian dandy’s history: photos of grandparents, parents, fascists in uniform, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, business cards with Paolo’s many titles and pseudonyms and guises, a Masonic Bible, green Masonic robe, fake Aztec mandala, shell collection, The Prostate book, 2 bullets, pistol, naked Baroque cherub statuettes, a globe, slide projector, secret agent-style mini-tape recorder, Beltone Symphony Hearing Glasses, fencing sword, postcards of men in uniform, postcards of Fascist architecture, photo-op corsets, portable travel sewing kits, photos of naked women, herbal medicine regimens, Fernella Jools Sock Suspenders, even fragile light bulbs wrapped in 1994 newspaper, and so much more – 275 boxes more.

I imagined lining up my mother-in-law’s intriguing/annoying friend, Paolo’s objects end to end, snaking them across the floor from room to room through the house and then walking along this trail of mementoes and detritus to create a 3-Dimensional documentary.

I was still sitting on that floor, eating something, drinking cold coffee, when I noticed that among the mound of saggy, giving-way cardboard boxes, some 25 of these boxes contained remnants from our own deep pasts: mysterious radio show cassettes, tax files, letters on paper torn from spiral notebooks, punk LPs, smooth stones, empty Becherovka bottle, grade school paintings, beveled wine glasses from who knows where, band buttons, odd dusty books that we could not remember our interest in, cookware, an old bone-colored telephone ...

And suddenly there I was, facing two old “friends” – my past as a long-distance runner and my past as a poet. One box contained ratty yellowed clippings from my running days: In 9th grade I made honor roll and was the 2nd ranked runner on the cross-country team. My baseball team the Horseheads Masons [that’s right] went 15-0 and our team picture made the newspaper. In 1970, my picture made the newspaper as I won both the mile and 2 mile as Horseheads defeated archrival Edison. There is no news, however, of friend SB and I during graduation ceremonies refusing the cap and gown, refusing to say the pledge of allegiance, refusing to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Long-distance runners at the time swore by Alan Silitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. A quote written down [“It was hard to understand, and all I knew was that you had to run, run, run without knowing why you were running, but on you went through fields you didn't understand and into woods that made you afraid...”] perfectly illuminated our dilemma as 16-year-old cross-country runners. We were anxious about Vietnam but preferred debating the merits of Adidas vs Puma vs Nike and read Runner’s World like others read Playboy. A sudden realization, however: I’d spent a sad, prominent swath of my teen years running, training, and worrying.

Calculating modestly: 70-ish miles per week for 48 weeks per year times 6 years: 70 x 48 x 6 yrs = 20,000+ miles. Realizing I had run 32,186 km I began fully doubting who I was or had ever been.

I looked it up: the circumference of the earth at 36.5° north latitude is 20,000 miles. If I were to have run around the world in one go it would have taken me 20,000 x 7 min/mi = 140,000 minutes or 2333.33 hrs or nearly 100 full 24/7 days of running. Divide that realistically by 3 as in 1/3 of a day or 8 hours per day and we are suddenly approaching a year of running to circumnavigate our earth.

BTW: At this latitude, heading west – if running were possible, given that 70% of the earth is covered in water – I would pass through: Virginia Beach, Bristol TN, Tulsa OK, Taos NM, Carson National Forest, the Grand Canyon, north of Las Vegas, through Death Valley, south of Fresno, south of Salinas ... Mebashi Japan, Daejon South Korea, Handan China, Karasay Kazakhstan, Gahkuch Pakistan, Kholm Afghanistan, Babol Iran, Mosul Iraq, Al Bab Syria, Kumluca Turkey, Rhodes Greece, Pachino Italy, Pantelleria Italy, south of Tunis, south of Algiers, Malaga Spain, Marabella Spain ... Further realization: I never really went anywhere while running those 20,000 miles.

Then I removed the papers from a second box and from its contents constructed a ragged, wobbly stack on the shiny wooden floor. Turns out these were my old poems dating back to when electric typewriters were the fancy thing, written between 10th grade and 1992. Poems I’d forgotten I’d written, poems published, rewritten, mimeo copies, carbon copies, and poems I could not conceive of ever having written. I sensed a reckoning was about to occur and it wouldn’t be pretty.

The stack measured 1.5 feet tall and weighed 6.5 lbs., using a vintage kitchen baking scale rescued from one of the MAA boxes. I counted 653 poems while alphabetizing them. For the first time ever all of my on-paper poems were gathered in one place. Quite a feat for someone who has moved over 40 times in his life. A deep breath: Who had I ever been that would have allowed me to enter into league with these time bandits, to create an ersatz secret interior life of misapprehended desires and half-chewed dreams with words beguiling me while never fully obeying my dictates or my heart.
I was studying this untidy obelisk dedicated to fickle, narcissistic, anxious, delusionary uselessness; to poetry, a form of heart-to-heart communication that ironically lacked proper communication skills and thus evaded all meaning and effect. I simply do not recognize me. Perhaps there’s some ulterior sense to be made of this teetering tower?

The youngest/newest poem indeed dated from 1992 ... ah, yes, the year I basically stopped writing poetry – ironically with 3 of my best poems that were featured in Downtown’s special 1992 “Year of the Poet” selection. But, apparently enough had been enough, or more precisely, NOT enough; quatrain gun shooting blanks at a target that I could not actually make out as anything worth shooting at. [I have secretly written another 100 poems since, but none will ever be saddled with the responsibility of having to carry my fledgling ego on its back.]

And so – cringe – how much time had the writing of these poems robbed me of? I estimate spending roughly 5 hours per poem [many were long]. Of course, some took way less, arriving in a flash; some required peripheral notes, research, and gestation, took days, even WEEKS – what was I thinking?!

653 + 50± lost poems x 5 hrs = 3500 hours = 150 full 24-hour days of a life of youthful promise squandered. I wondered: Could these poems eventually face criminal charges as accessories to the crime of time thievery and deception? Or as illegal occupants inhabiting, scavenging, looting, shattering similes across the floor, leaving behind a ransacked mess, hiding the wrong words under pots, rearranging drawers, erroneous thoughts taped behind paintings on the wall?

Some poems were abandoned early on, others were almost too painful to reread, some I’d tinkered with for months, some I ransacked, recycling lines for other poems – like plundering your own bird nest to line another in a second tree. Some had great titles. Think: an impressive doormat welcoming you into a ramshackle home with most poems going precipitously downhill after the title.

Some did manage to magically emerge out from under the shadows of those I imitated as a youth: Kerouac, Bly, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Leonard Cohen, Dylan [Tarantula], TS Eliot, Patti Smith, Amiri Baraka, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Dorothy Parker, Frank O’Hara, Brautigan. Some rose to the deceptive status of submittable and submit them I did. All told, I’ve had 100± poems published. But they’ve always remained rejection slip magnets.
This is evidenced by the sizeable clump of rejection slips I found in that same box. To be honest, at some giddy point, rejection slips became a badge of courage, a key to another, more sublime realm, triggered by the woe-is-me joy of masochism predicated on the notion that rejection proves you are ahead of your time, are a pioneer of language to which the rest of society will eventually catch up to.

Your mind learns to collaborate, enthusiastically gaslight in efforts to sabotage your own poems so that when they’re rejected they will inevitably prove you are indeed a victim of ignorance and an unjust system. I used to save them all, dreaming of a day of great success when I could sneer at all who had ignored my talent, laugh at the past, blow the rejections like gold dust into their unseeing eyes.

Rejection slips lined end to end could get me from here to a long distance there – but then what? At some juncture, I stopped scrupulously rereading rejection slips, stopped trying to glean hopeful, secret messages from them, stopped counting them.

Very few – perhaps enough for a chapbook – of these poems remain so haphazardly, anomalously profound, having seemingly written themselves, that I continue to wonder whether I’ve been serving as a conduit for another spirit. I wrote them but haven’t the foggiest idea how. I’m as alienated from these miracles as I am from my disasters.

Some did get published. Roughly 15%, although a goodly number of those were self-published in journals I worked for or co-edited.

Others appeared in magazines so obscure that their existence is justifiably doubted until I show you the covers of Body Heat, Bil Bo K, Black Eye, Selah ... Most have been erased from any available collective unconscious – did anyone ever read them even back then?

I’ve won some awards, earned some cash that hovers around $500 total [or 14 cents per hour, or 72 cents per poem]. A few have been reprinted in anthologies or appeared in more than one magazine.

Later, after having denounced jockdom and the running sham, I, with great pride and puffery of a devil-may-care bon vivant often declared never regretting anything – in my life.

Maybe because neither running nor poetry was ever totally for naught. At some point I discovered girls liked boys who wrote poetry. Especially poems about them. And school “patriotism,” being the warped thing it is, my running heroics allowed me to emerge from my status as nonentity target of a bullyism cult as a heroic runner who put Horseheads High School on the map – a poet in jock circles, a runner among the bookish.

But now I’d rousted about my daydreams long enough. Time to cover my face with a makeshift heart-emblazoned tee shirt as facemask and climb back through the narrow portal up into the attic coalmine [so much dust it dimmed the one lightbulb swaying from a long cord] to toss down the last boxes and lug them to one of 8 dumpsters in the complex, evenly distributing discarded treasure as to not overfill any one dumpster and thereby annoy neighbors to the point of filing a complaint.

My 1980s no-regrets bragadosio now seems miscalculated or downright self-delusional-hypocritical. I indeed have acquired some regrets over the years and now often taunt myself by singing: “Regrets, I’ve had a few / And then again, too many to list, / having done nothing like I wished ...”

previous page     contents     next page


Blogger Jeffrey Cyphers Wright said...

Persistance, resistance, insistance. Way to got, Bart!

10:28 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home