The Conversation Continues
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Well, well ó we meet again. Just a little while ago, I was reading about Samuel Beckettís play, Endgame, which was written in French and first performed in London in 1957. Beckett must have been something. Apparently, Endgame featured one character who couldnít stand, another who couldnít sit, and two others who were unable to come out of their garbage cans. Isnít that a fantastic premise? ó although, I donít really know what the premise is. Every time I read something about Beckett, the main message seems to be that he distrusted meaning, felt hopeless and helpless in trying to express it, and that the more he did try to express it, the further away from it he drifted. And yet he felt driven to go on trying. No wonder he liked Finnegans Wake. He must have seen in it some future possibility beyond words, yet through them. Itís fascinating, these restless brains at work, and the strange miracles they produce.
John Berbrich: I havenít read Endgame, but I like some of Beckett very much, especially Krappís Last Tape. Two Irishmen youíre talking about, Willie. Restless brains . . . Strange miracles . . . These people are visionaries. They have a strong sense of something they need to express, these geniuses whose lives seem to be nothing but writing. They are often ignored in their own time, called hero by some, villain by others. How many of these literary monsters are writing today? The future will decide, as is said. Some will be ignored forever, and forgotten.
William Michaelian: Such is reality. It seems likely that the world recognizes and remembers only a small fraction of its geniuses, and that some who are remembered would actually pale when compared to some who arenít. Think of the countless folk musicians who have wandered the earth, the bluesmen, the writers, artists, and poets, not to mention the geniuses from other walks of life, the architects, the craftsmen, the slaves, all of them working and living and dying, needing to eat and rest and watch out for their children. Joyce and Beethoven were here, and they, too, were occupied with trivial matters, with broken shoe laces and brimming chamber pots, with landlords who couldnít see beyond their noses. An important part of genius is sheer determination.
John Berbrich: Indeed. Also necessary, and weíve discussed this before, is a strong dose of self-confidence, almost arrogance. Some souls are restless, unable to conform; they must bring their own unique vision into existence. This reminds me again of Zamyatinís We, the hideous world of enforced conformity. Youíve got to admire people like John Cage and Harry Partch, M.C. Escher and Pablo Picasso, E.E. Cummings and James Joyce. And like you said, how many others will never be known, wandering souls, wisps of smoke, valleys of dreams.
William Michaelian: Yet their presence, too, must have its effect. By the way, here are a couple more Beckett tidbits I picked up. One is, he took dictation from Joyce and copied down parts of what was to become Finnegans Wake. Also, I didnít realize he had won the Nobel in 1969. He didnít attend the ceremony, but rumor has it that he gave much of the money to artists in need. Finally, hereís something interesting he said in an interview when he was seventy-six: ďWith diminished concentration, loss of memory, obscured intelligence . . . the more chance there is for saying something closest to what one really is. Even though everything seems inexpressible, there remains the need to express. A child needs to make a sand castle even though it makes no sense. In old age, with only a few grains of sand, one has the greatest possibility.Ē
John Berbrich: I really like the sand castle part. I picture all these adults standing around theorizing about what the sand castle represents and just why the child feels the need to build it, et cetera, et cetera. And there in the middle is the child, building, touching every grain of grain, absorbed in the moment.
William Michaelian: Exactly. And before their eyes, the child become a lumpy old man, his child-thoughts visible and dancing around him. Is he gifted? Insane? Perverse? An argument ensues. Soon, with their backs turned to the infinite roaring sea, a giant wave engulfs them all. A century later, the waters recede. Virgin sand. More children. Circling gulls. An endless horizon.
John Berbrich: I recently wrote a rather long short story about adults building a sand city. Iíll send you a copy. Itís pretty much autobiographical.
William Michaelian: Oh? Iíll look forward to it. And now, since weíre on the topic of sand, let me give you a few lines from the Odyssey sequel. Odysseus has just been telling his wife and son about some of the amazing things that happened to him while he was away. . . .
Odysseus sealed his bitter lips and spoke no more,
but watched the glowering fire fade, the withering flames,
the ash that spread like powder on the dying coals,
then turned, glanced at his wife, gazed on his son and father,
and suddenly shook with fear, and sighed, for now he knew
that even his native land was a sweet mask of Death.
Like a wild beast snared in a net, his eyes rolled round
and tumbled down his deep eye-sockets, green and bloodshot.
His tribal palace seemed a narrow shepherdís pen,
his wife a small and wrinkled old housekeeping crone,
his son an eighty-year-old drudge who, trembling, weighed
with care to find whatís just, unjust, dishonest, honest,
as though all life were prudence, as though fire were just,
and logic the highest good of eagle-mounting man!
The heart-embattled athlete laughed, dashed to his feet,
and his homeís sweetness, suddenly, his longed-for land,
the twelve gods, ancient virtue by his honored hearth,
his son ó all seemed opposed now to his high descent.
The fire dwindled and died away, and the four heads
and his sonís smooth-skinned calves with tender softness glowed
till in the trembling hush Penelopeís wan cries
broke in despair like water flowing down a wall.
Her son dashed and stood upright by his motherís throne,
touched gently with a mute compassion her white arm,
then gazed upon his father in the dim light, and shuddered,
for in the last resplendence of the falling fire
he could discern the unmoving eyes flash yellow, blue,
and crimson, though the dark had swallowed the wild body.
With silent strides Odysseus then shot back the bolt,
passed lightly throught the courtyard and sped down the street.
Some saw him take the graveyardís zigzag mountain path,
some saw him leap on rocks that edged the savage shore,
some visionaries saw him in the dead of night
swimming and talking secretly with the sea-demons,
but only a small boy saw him in a lonely dream
sit crouched and weeping by the dark seaís foaming edge.
John Berbrich: Wow. Easy reading, vivid, throbbing w/ life. I like the way itís written. Telemachus is 80 years old at this point? And a drudge, too....I always suspected. Sounds like six beats to a line, w/ an occasional seventh thrown in for variety. A strong, vibrant drumming to each line. Very nice, Willie, thanks.
William Michaelian: My pleasure. Telemachus is still young, but, to Odysseus, he suddenly seems old. So much for ďand they lived happily after after.Ē Anyway. This has proven to be another lucky find, an excellent companion for Finnegans Wake. Good old Nikos Kazantzakis. In the meantime, you mentioned Partch and Escher. I know nothing about them.
John Berbrich: Harry Partch was a hobo for awhile. He was a composer for piano & other instruments, then became disgusted w/ the limitations of piano & destroyed all of his compositions. A musical adventurer & pioneer, he invented dozens of instruments & a microtonic scale of something like 41 or 43 notes. His music is really bizarre, youíve never heard anything like it. He even did a piece based on Finnegans Wake. I have a few of his recordings & they are amazing. He died in the early 70ís. And Escher ó well, youíve seen his art around but just didnít know it. Heís the fellow who draws logically impossible landscapes. A staircase goes up & joins another rising in another direction & people walk up the different staircases w/ different centers of gravity. And then youíll see a flock of geese in the sky flying towards a flock of ducks & in the center they join passing in opposite directions & somehow they turn into fish. Google both of these guys & check it out.
William Michaelian: Interesting. Partch, born in 1901, Escher in 1898 in the Netherlands, both died in the early Seventies. The Escher artwork, well, youíre right, it is familiar, but strange. I see Partch also invented instruments, and that much of his work was performed using these instruments. His parents were missionaries in China; he grew up in the Southwest; rode the rails in the Thirties. As I said, think of all the geniuses who have wandered the earth. If I could get your radio show, Iíd request a few minutes of Partch ó although, something tells me that if I try hard enough, I can find a sample online. After all, I did find Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake. Another great thing to listen to would be Joyce and Beckett talking to each other.
John Berbrich: Indeed. The recording of Partch I taped from an LP I found in a public library in Connecticut. So you might want to check some of Salemís splendid & well-stocked libraries. Really, this is like nothing youíve heard before. Partch has the voice of a craggy mountain-top sage, one whoís lived in trash cans & suckled on bottles of cheap bourbon. He apparently wrote an outrageous & outlandish manifesto against formal music, but Iíve never been able to locate a copy. And Escher, yes ó walk into any head shop & youíll find examples of his work.
William Michaelian: Something I do every day. This Partch character sounds intriguing, especially now that I know he wrote a manifesto. You donít happen to have the recording based on Finnegans Wake, do you?
John Berbrich: No, I donít, Iíve only read about it. I came across old Harry like this: I was perusing the used record bins at the public library in Rockville, Connecticut, which were pretty extensive, looking for the unusual. I used to sample Russian, Scottish, French, African, Chinese recordings, & would tape what I liked. I found a record called The New Music, I believe ó this was roughly 25 years ago ó which featured John Cage on one side & Harry Partch on the other. I had heard of Cage & was suspicious, but Partch was a complete unknown. The Cage side was ridiculous. As I recall, a 22-minute piano piece that made no sense whatsoever. No melody, no rhythm, no nothing, only unconnected sounds. The jacket notes said that Cage had to write out the score (even though it made no musical sense) due to the danger of the pianist hitting a few random notes that did accidentally sound like something. Would ruin the piece, apparently. Now Partch on the other hand ó my friends & I went wild over his raw creativity. He became a kind of cultic figure for us, an American dadaist/surrealist who actually did something. And in those primitive pre-internet days, information was so hard to come across, we could find out nothing about Partch. He remained a completely mysterious, iconic figure.
William Michaelian: Which only adds to his effect. Speaking of the Internet, I found a page about a book by Partch called Genesis of a Music. Hereís the description:
Among the few truly experimental composers in our cultural history, Harry Partchís life (1901-1974) and music embody most completely the quintessential American rootlessness, isolation, pre-civilized cult of experience, and dichotomy of practical invention and transcendental visions. Having lived mostly in the remote deserts of Arizona and New Mexico with no access to formal training, Partch naturally created theatrical ritualistic works incorporating Indian chants, Japanese kabuki and Noh, Polynesian microtones, Balinese gamelan, Greek tragedy, dance, mime, and sardonic commentary on Hollywood and commercial pop music of modern civilization. First published in 1949, Genesis of a Music is the manifesto of Partchís radical compositional practice and instruments (which owe nothing to the 300-year-old European tradition of Western music.) He contrasts Abstract and Corporeal music, proclaiming the latter as the vital, emotionally tactile form derived from the spoken word (like Greek, Chinese, Arabic, and Indian musics) and surveys the history of world music at length from this perspective. Parts II, III, and IV explain Partchís theories of scales, intonation, and instrument construction with copious acoustical and mathematical documentation. Anyone with a musically creative attitude, whether or not familiar with traditional music theory, will find this book revelatory.
Sounds like this might be the manifesto you mentioned. And it looks like it might be available from the Perseus Books Group.
John Berbrich: Wow. Iíll bet thatís it. And John Cage even wrote a blurb for Partch. Hmmm.....I have to consider this purchase. Reviewing the lives & art of these characters, itís incredible how some people seem so lame & arbitrary while others are so radical & focused. They seem like entirely different species. Some have vision, while the others can barely see whatís in front of them.
William Michaelian: Sometimes I think they might be descended from visitors from other worlds. Wandering gods, maybe.
John Berbrich: Thatís really not too farfetched. Well, it is, but itís still a plausible theory. The problem is, if these wandering gods need to procreate as we mere mortals do, theyíd either have to inbreed or dilute their powers by pursuing conventional breeding techniques w/ humanityís humble masses. Nice to think that you might somehow be descended, however tenuously, from a god. Gives one a feeling of enormous potential & also of great responsibility.
William Michaelian: If, in fact, gods are superior. But weíd probably better not go any further, or weíll get all tangled up in definitions again. I suspect, though, that these wandering gods are on a completely different time schedule. Whoís to know they arenít still kids, for instance?
John Berbrich: There was at least one Star Trek episode based upon that premise. This dandy-looking fellow was a superior being w/ astounding powers, & he bedeviled Kirk, Bones, & the rest of the crew of the Enterprise ó until his parents called him home for supper. He threw a little tantrum but they insisted, & I think he dematerialized w/ lots of tiny sparkles, but I canít be sure.
William Michaelian: Of course ó where do you think I get my ideas? One thing that always cracked me up about Star Trek was how the landing parties were always made up of the most important, indispensable people on the ship ó the captain, for heavenís sake, the chief physician, and Spock. Then there was usually an expendable looking guy you knew would be killed. And letís not forget Scotty: Iím giviní it all sheís got, Captain! Any more, and sheíll blow!
John Berbrich: Oh, yeah ó that was a great show. Lots of comic relief. Each character was this perfect stereotype. My friends & I thought it was great. Imagine, this show is taking place in the future. There wasnít another show like it at the time. The only thing missing was a romantic interest, which would have totally skewed the relationship of the top three ó Kirk, Bones, & Spock. Uhura was a fairly good looking woman, but she had the personality of a doorknob. In the early days they had this blonde; yeoman Janice I think was her name. Kirk seemed to have a soft spot for her, but she was ditched before too long. You must admit, it was a lot better show than Lost in Space.
William Michaelian: Warning, Will Robinson! A pathetic show in comparison. June Lockhart, space mother, Billy Mumy playing the part of Lassie. Good for a few laughs, partly due to the evil coward, Dr. Smith. No parallel universes in that show, at least that I can recall. I always liked that idea. Hey ó I know what we need. We need a portal. Some special device left behind by the ancients that we can step into, and you can find yourself in Oregon, and I can suddenly be sitting at your table in the evening eating scalloped potatoes.
John Berbrich: That sounds like fun, but make mine greasy cheeseburgers when I materialize in your kitchen. The kids tell me scientists have actually created a transporter, only itís limited to very tiny items. Iím skeptical of this claim. Yeah, what would be better is some kind of a hoop thing like you mention. Willie, weíve got to find this ancient wonder instead of sitting around reading all the time. You start looking along the Oregon coast & Iíll keep my eyes open among the ruins of northern New York. It seems like one of us might find it. Or find something anyway. I have to mention my favorite part of Lost in Space. Every time they landed on a planet, some seaweed-covered monster would approach the ship in a threatening manner. No one was too concerned. ďOh, switch on the force field,Ē said Major West. But the force field never stopped anything. Every creature they came into contact with strolled right through it. And the crew was always dumfounded; they couldnít believe it. They had short memories.
William Michaelian: Apparently, their memories only went back six days. Once a week, their slates were wiped clean. Now that I think about it, there are probably portals all over the place that we simply donít recognize, because we assume they donít exist. Talk about limited thinking. Do you remember that episode of Twilight Zone, where a certain spot in the wall of a girlís bedroom is the entrance to another dimension?
John Berbrich: Vaguely, yes. The memory is very hazy. It could have been one of those episodes too scary to actually watch. Some nights Iíd be ready to view, but then that creepy music started & there was the picture of that clock; I was so terrified Iíd switch it off. I knew that somehow it was all real.
William Michaelian: Good old Rod Serling. I love the way heíd appear right in the middle of a scene to give his comments, while smoking a cigarette. Some shows were kind of spooky. Others were just plain silly. But the idea of going through a wall into another dimension is a good one. By the way, if you notice a few things missing from your refrigerator, that was me. On the reading front, now Iím reading Donovanís autobiography, of all things. Iíve read three chapters. He started with his childhood, writing partly in a Scottish dialect, similar to Robert Burns. Now heís about sixteen, and getting ready to hit the road. Pretty good so far.
John Berbrich: That does sound interesting. I always liked Donovan. Curiously enough, Iím reading Annie Dillardís An American Childhood, the story of her youth in Pittsburgh. Gorgeously written. It brings back a lot of my own memories. I love how she describes getting in trouble, the heart thudding in your chest, the feeling that the walls are closing in. Delicious, awful, memorable.
William Michaelian: High compliments. Is this a new book, or has it been out for awhile? Iíve only read a tiny bit of Annie Dillard, seems like it was in a magazine, or maybe several years ago I paged through one of her books in the library. What do you think? Is she someone I should add to my list?
John Berbrich: The book was published in 1987, so itís not new. Annie was in her early 40ís at the time, so the sheen hadnít worn entirely off her memories yet. I read her book, The Writing Life, last year & recommend it. Hereís a paragraph from An American Childhood, selected at random: ďWe children had, for instance, proper hands; our fluid, pliant fingers joined their skin. Adults had misshapen, knuckly hands loose in their skin like bones in bags; it was a wonder they could open jars. They were loose in their skins all over, except at the wrists and ankles, like rabbits.Ē She seems to remember very well what being a child feels like, aware of the enormity & strangeness of adults. Right now sheís up to about age ten.
William Michaelian: Now that you mention it, I think it was The Writing Life I picked up. I know Iíve heard of it, anyway. So, then. Iíll be on the lookout for both books ó although, at the moment, three seems to be about my limit. How are you doing on Finnegans Wake? Now that youíve read a few hundred pages, do you find the book to be more enjoyable, less, or about the same?
John Berbrich: Iím almost up to page 300. I just needed a break. I enjoy the book very much, but need to read other things as well or Iím afraid Iíll hurt my brain. Like listening to too much Harry Partch ó thereís a danger youíll become a loose nut on a bolt in the machine of society. Wait a minute ó that sounds like a good idea. A loose nut.
William Michaelian: Or a nut on the loose. Iíve passed the 500-page mark, and, I must confess, Iím enjoying the book more than ever. That might or might not be a good sign. For the last few days, Iíve been reading four or five pages a day, then switching to Kazantzakis, and from there I go to Donovan, who is really quite poetic in his own right ó not a surprise. One thing I've found with Joyce is that his language is becoming easier to read. I donít know. Maybe Iím actually learning his language. Sounding out words is easier. I still have to stop occasionally to study and pronounce a word, but in general I stumble less. I even wonder if, once Iíve finished the book, it might then be a good time to try learning another language ó you know, the kind people actually speak.
John Berbrich: Iíve found the same thing w/ Joyce. What was once impenetrable has become merely challenging. What language are you considering learning?
William Michaelian: Armenian, Spanish, and Russian, in that order. Then again, I might try learning all three at once. After all, one tires of assuming such things are impossible, or, if not impossible, nearly so, and therefore better approached in a sane and sensible manner. Anyway, I have a head start on Armenian, since I already know the alphabet and how to read, and have a small vocabulary. I also read music, having taken piano lessons as a lad. At some point, Iíd like to do something in the musical realm, although I feel that what I am doing is most definitely related.
John Berbrich: I had a brief fling w/ languages back in my distant bachelorhood. In particular, Japanese fascinated me. I bought these Japanese language tapes & listened to them all the time, drinking brandy & repeating phrases, drinking & repeating. I studied the various forms of the Japanese written language & could eventually translate haiku w/ some degree of success. I also tried translating poems in French, which was a mild success too. I donít think that I could attempt a language now, though. Too much static & garbled noise in my head. Good luck, Willie, in your literary & linguistic endeavors!
William Michaelian: Hey, I like that. It sounds like Iím sitting in a little boat, and youíre bidding me farewell and pushing me out into the mighty sea. Your method of learning Japanese is very appealing. I can see you sitting in the dim light with your tape machine, drinking and addressing the walls in Japanese, asking yourself questions and answering them. Speaking of the sea, your story about the sand and surf finally arrived yesterday afternoon. With any luck, Iíll get to the post office with the latest Rain Taxi today, plus I printed out an interesting and sort of long article for you about Beckett, written by Edna OíBrien. Your story was full of good observation, and progressed well as it matched the relentless, incoming tide.
John Berbrich: Thatís the way my friends & I built sand cities ó on Long Island, in Connecticut, Rhode Island, even California. Weíd build for hours, naming different neighborhoods & buildings & so on. Then weíd sit back wistfully & watch the tide do its work. There was a real sense of observing historical epochs speeded up. After awhile, even the mightiest city was nothing but lumps in the sand.
William Michaelian: I thought that was well conveyed. Can you still read the Japanese characters? Your haiku project sounds like a fascinating challenge.
John Berbrich: Yes, some. Some of the characters are themselves constructed of two, three, or four elements, which when combined make a poem, sort of. For example, I believe the word for ďsageĒ is combined of three elements, the ideograms for king or sovereign, eye, & ear. Like one who sees & hears in a superior fashion. You get the idea. I wish I had more time for it.
William Michaelian: It must be an artistic endeavor just to write the language, a calligrapherís delight. I guess the letters of all alphabets are pictures, in a sense, but in the case of the ideograms it is even more so.
John Berbrich: Yeah. The ideogram for ďriverĒ is two long parallel vertical lines with a shorter line running between them. Just like water flowing between the riverbanks, it makes a real picture.
William Michaelian: Pretty neat. What would you do, though, if you wanted to write something more complex, like ďbarbaric yawp,Ē just as an example? How would that be handled?
John Berbrich: Okay, that might take a moment. Letís see....Hereís a word naku. It means to sing or to howl or to cry or to chirp. Itís made up of two separate ideograms. On the left, a simple square-like box that means mouth. On the right, a complicated structure that indicates bird. Barbaric chirp? This is going to take some time.
William Michaelian: Well, it is a complicated idea. Or is it? I know ó whatís needed is a new combination of ideograms, little drawings that represent Whitmanís hat and beard. Something along those lines. Leaves of grass jutting up vigorously out of the earth?
John Berbrich: Yeah, but how would you draw leaves of grass? The hat & beard would be easy ó would look like you.....I have been unable to find a direct equivalent for barbaric. Hereís one, mikai, for uncivilized or uncultivated. Mikai seems to be made up of two separate characters, one of which means never or yet, or maybe not yet. The other is pretty complicated. Hmmmmm......
William Michaelian: How about this for leaves of grass: three blades of grass, but instead of being gracefully tapered, the tips would resemble little tongues of fire. Of course, Iím operating from the standpoint of complete ignorance. Another possibility for barbaric yawp would be the image of a rooftop with a wavy horizontal line above it.
John Berbrich: This could become the next universal language ó Williamideo Michaeliangrams ó to replace Latin as the lingua franca of the intellectual set. It would be very poetic, thatís for sure. Think of the beautiful pastels gracing the hallways of schools across the country. Roofs w/ wavy lines hovering above them, suggestive of the summer heat, indicating also the fever of artistic composition. This could be a new beginning, my friend.
William Michaelian: It really could. But I know youíre joking ó or are you? An undertaking of this nature would force you to see, to observe, to pay great attention. You would be a true explorer, discovering the world in all its amazing detail. Do you know much about the history of Japanese writing? How did such a wonderful thing develop?
John Berbrich: The ancient Japanese learned it all from the even more ancient Chinese. Let me explain. Thousands of years ago, the Chinese and the Japanese developed their own separate languages, completely different tongues as I understand it. The Chinese are the ones who invented the ideograms, while the Japanese had no written language. Eventually the two cultures met and exchanged knowledge. The Japanese borrowed the written symbols from the Chinese and havenít returned them yet. So the basic written symbol or character for ďsunĒ or ďfireĒ is the same in Chinese or Japanese, although the actual spoken word is very different. The Japanese call these pictorial ideograms kanji. They later developed a syllabary, called Kana, which is based on a symbol, not for an alphabet, as we have it, but for the different syllables. In other words, Michaelian would be written out in three or four kana, depending on whether it is pronounced with three or four syllables. The kana look like lines and squiggles to me; they lack the harmony and artistic balance of the original kanji. Of course the Japanese have modified the ideograms over the years, but most remain fairly identical to the original Chinese. So if you are a schoolkid in Japan, you have to learn the kanji and the kana, plus English, plus the Japanese language written in our alphabet. No wonder they are so literate ó they know words in about seven dimensions.
William Michaelian: Very interesting. Very interesting indeed. And this is just one type of ancient writing. Think of those that were lost, or that are still being studied. And think of how different the world was when they were being developed ó how few people there were, the wild rivers and forests, the mysteries waiting around every bend, the vast regions of the Unknown. And yet, since people could not see into the Unknown, they had no way of knowing how large or small it might have been. To find out, the Unknown had to be explored. Out of this grew the ancient alphabets, to try to express, to record, to give some sense of stability, to give it all a name.
John Berbrich: Yes, language is definitely a human pursuit. Some animal species have rudimentary spoken forms of communication, like crows and whales; yet, although I donít know for sure, I doubt they approach ours in complexity and richness. How do you feel about the idea of imposing a global language on everyone, so we could all communicate? Some people think this is a great scheme.
William Michaelian: My gut response is, I think itís ridiculous. As it is, many rich, wonderful tongues have been driven extinct, just as have so many plant and animal species. Diversity is strength, survival, color, inspiration. On the surface of things, language might seem to be a major barrier, but I donít think speaking the same language would solve anything, except perhaps in some commercial sense. As it is, those of us who do speak the same language fail to understand each other. And then there are the practical questions of which language, and who decides, and how could such a thing be brought about. What do you think?
John Berbrich: I agree with you entirely. Some people talk blithely about diversity, but what I think they really mean is people of all colors shopping at the same mall. Iím all for diversity: people hunting in the jungles, people fishing for their supper, meat-eaters, vegans, vegetarians, Arctic hunters, farmers....Like you said, I canít even understand the guy across the road; who cares about the guy around the world? Better than understanding is tolerance. Enforced conformity is Fascism. Most people will go along with the crowd anyway; you donít have to whip them into line. But languages, yeah ó let them grow and multiply. I like ours: derivative, flexible English. Or American, I suppose.
William Michaelian: Whatever you call it, itís crazy and still changing. Iím always amused by so-called defenders of the language, who seem either to have forgotten or are blissfully unaware of the changes it has already undergone. Instead of feeling threatened, they should be glad itís changing. Language is a living thing.
John Berbrich: Indeed. Language didnít develop because a group of brains devised a series of rules and a broad vocabulary. No, language mysteriously developed its own methods, which were later turned into rules by scholarly oxen. Itís true. A thing that doesnít change is dead. Change is a sign of life. But not an infallible one.
William Michaelian: Then again, it might also be that nothing is dead, because, even after death, whatever it is that is said to have died continues to change, until it is transformed into something that lives. Does that make sense?
John Berbrich: Yes. Itís why I added ďnot an infallible oneĒ to my statement. In that sense everything is alive. The Greeks had a word for it, I believe, hylozoism. I think this means that everything has its own sort of soul. But there must be something fundamentally different between you or me & a stone. I like to think so, anyway. Maybe they have slow souls.
William Michaelian: Speaking of stones, hereís a short poem I wrote a couple of days ago and added to Songs and Letters. It was inspired in part, I think, by our discussion of ideograms:
Upon these walls
are written a stone,
a branch, a bird.
In the brushstroke
of a word, the stone
is cold and gray
Above the stone,
of a graceful limb.
suggest the wind.
In the space between,
a sky of dreams
where you and I
far from the ashes
on our earthen floor.
John Berbrich: I like it, Willie ó I like it a lot. I like the swing of it, the staggered and suspended rhyme, the suggestion of something someone said to me tonight at a poetry reading ó that imagination is the intelligence at play. That sky of dreams. Is it the brushstroke that has lifted us up?
William Michaelian: Well, without it, there would be no space between. So in that sense, yes. And yet it is the empty space itself that becomes the sky of dreams, where the imagination is free to roam. Itís like discovering ancient drawings in a cave, or looking at constellations in the night sky. Iím glad you like it. Thank you. Tell me about the reading. Was it at the usual subterranean cafť?
John Berbrich: No, it was at the college, Potsdam State. It was a faculty reading, to celebrate April, Poetry Month. Something like seven or eight professors read, so I wasnít included; but Nancy was asked to read her work. In fact, she started off the evening and did a fine job. It was her first time reading her poetry in public, so of course she was a little nervous, but it turned out fine. She works very hard revising, revising ó is it a poem yet? ó and her hard work pays off. One woman read her poems in French; I liked listening to her voice, but could pick out only a word here and there. The other readers offered up a mixed bag. Some of the poems would have been more effective on paper, contemplative work better suited for slow mulling over. A few of these people are really quite good, with fairly expensive publications by big presses. In fact one of the poets, Maurice Kenny, says that he will appear on Garrison Keillorís Prairie Home Companion soon. Keillorís flying Maurice out to Minneapolis and paying him good money to read his poems onstage for the live radio audience. Thatís big time.
William Michaelian: That it is. It seems Mr. Keillor is doing his part in keeping poetry in the mainstream. Sounds like you had a pleasant night out. And congratulations to Nancy. Iíll bet it was a little scary, having to give the first reading. Have there been any literary activities at the cafť? Or is the young man in charge sticking with music?
John Berbrich: No poetry since that first night, & no music for awhile. Soon, though, I hope. Actually tomorrow is ďThe Cafe Cleans Canton Day,Ē or something similar. Lucas & the crew at the cafe will clean the park in downtown Canton tomorrow afternoon after the place closes up at 3:00, picking up trash & raking leaves. The town is donating trash bags & even giving out t-shirts to the participants. Nancy & I will help out, of course. And some students from St. Lawrence University are scheduled to help also, lord knows why. Sounds like fun except a cold rain is expected. Iíll keep you posted.
William Michaelian: Nothing like a cold rain to keep people moving. I hope thereís no driving wind to go with it. The Canton cleanup reminds me of the annual beach cleanup we have here in Oregon, where hundreds of people fan out along the Oregon coastline and scour the entire beach. Of course, as you can imagine, some of the stuff they find is pretty disgusting. I imagine your situation will be a bit more standard ó very few dead bodies, no rotting whale meat, a couple of derelict poets babbling nonsense ó and I donít mean the Berbrich family, either.
John Berbrich: Iíll probably hum a few bars of Eliotís ďThe WastelandĒ while we work. And Iíll let you know if we uncover any treasures. I like the idea of regular people cleaning up, not cuz they are getting paid but because they want to keep certain things decent. Too many people sit back & let the government do everything. Whenever I take a walk, which is frequent, I make it a habit to pick up one piece of trash to bring home & throw out. Admittedly, itís not a lot, but if everyone did it....
William Michaelian: Absolutely. It would be even better if they didnít dump their garbage in the first place. Imagine just tossing out poets when youíre done with them and expecting the street sweeper to pick them up. Some people have no class. Poets should be bundled and hauled away for recycling. Of course the smell is terrible, but itís the responsible thing to do.
John Berbrich: Sure, and then they could be rehabilitated into something useful like, I donít know, mindless functionaries. Every town and corporation needs them.
William Michaelian: I wonder. Whatís the opposite of a mindless functionary? A functionless visionary? Is that what a poet is? All functionless visionaries are to report to the hospital for their operations. Sounds like Zamyatin.
John Berbrich: Da. I am happy to report that the Earth Day Canton Cleanup was a qualified success. No one showed up, so the five of us worked ó thatís Nancy & me, Lucas (the cafe owner), Hansel & Sarah (who double as our son & daughter and Lucasís dedicated workers). It was 48 degrees; a cold rain fell the whole time. The town donated nine huge, sturdy plastic garbage bags, which we filled w/ wet leaves & trash & left on the curb, after picking through the trash. I induced a girl passing by to take our picture. We stood by the full trash bags, rakes in hand, sodden to the bone. Nancy supplied the camera. A local newspaper said to submit the photos & theyíd write a little story. The park looks cleaner. And I feel Iíve done my civic responsibility for now. I have a sappy, self-satisfied smile on my face.
William Michaelian: Well, after that sort of accomplishment, itís justified. Iíd love to see your picture in the paper when it comes out. As far as Iím concerned, your efforts should be documented on the front page. Have you received your T-shirts yet?
John Berbrich: Nothing was mentioned about them yesterday, although thatís not surprising when you consider that no one from the Town showed up. The way things go, I was afraid that weíd pile the trash bags alongside the curb & then get ticketed for littering.
William Michaelian: Thatís where the mindless functionaries come in. My guess is, no T-shirts were printed, and certificates will be issued instead, with your names misspelled. That happened to our son once, when he received an award for community service. Reminds me of one of my very first publications, in the Paterson Literary Review, when my name was listed in the contributorsí section as William Michaelson.
John Berbrich: Never heard of him. Iíll keep you posted on the T-shirts & will send a copy of the photo & newspaper story if it ever happens. Meanwhile, Iíve received the Rain Taxi you so graciously forwarded my way. Gave it a thorough perusing at a Potsdam coffeehouse the other night. The article on chapbooks & their history was interesting, but I didnít find too many other riveting pieces, as I had in previous issues. I was familiar w/ one of the reviewers, Mark Terrill. In fact, I wrote a couple of reviews of his chapbooks a few years back. Marvelous prose poetry, a form I usually donít care for. In fact, Terrill, who lives in Germany, or did at the time, had sent the manuscript to us here in BoneWorld for chapbook consideration. He withdrew it quickly, as it was taken by a publisher he evidently very much wanted to work with. That was fine w/ me, as weíre always swamped.
William Michaelian: Naturally, there is no end to the submissions. I, too, found nothing inspiring in Rain Taxi. I hope itís not the beginning of a trend. Such an ongoing battle. Are you getting caught up on your chapbooks? You were talking quite awhile ago about scaling back, sort of in self-defense. Or have some appealing new manuscripts arrived?
John Berbrich: Iíve been forced to reject several queries, some of which were rather appealing. Yes, once we get caught up, Nancy & I are limiting ourselves to one or two chapbooks each year, thatís it. Your collection is still in the works. I feel so squashed. Mainly, I have so neglected my own work that I feel restless, uneven, unbalanced. Hey ó weíve got spinach coming up in the garden; howís that for a non sequitur?
William Michaelian: Excellent. I love spinach. And you did say you feel squashed ó another vegetable. Change chapbooks to cabbagebooks, or chardbooks, and you have a veritable salad of possibilities. But yes, you must restore your writing and publishing balance. Iím still waiting for your first full-blown novel and other assorted epics.
John Berbrich: Yeah, Iím waiting too. Believe me, I have big ideas. Working on something now, a prose piece, donít know how long. Longer than a short story. Actually just getting started, getting in the mood, you know? Gotta feel this world before I can start writing definitively about it.
William Michaelian: Little by little, it will reveal itself. It will grow and develop even in your sleep. What a pleasure it is to work, to find out, to see where a piece leads. One thing, for sure, is true: If we donít do our work, no one else will.
John Berbrich: True, & that work is somehow vitally important. Why else would anyone write? Not for fame or money. Itís simply important, thatís all ó significant. This discovery you mention, thatís the secret of it. Itís more than just baring your heart; itís seeing where it all leads. Itís exciting as you write & little lights start going off in your mind, like torches in a dark tunnel, & you can see a little ways ahead now, then a little more. Itís physically demanding & rewarding. Exhausting too. A great habit to develop. Self-discipline. Creativity. Microcosm. Macrocosm. How does it all fit together? Write & you might find out.
William Michaelian: Thatís it in a nutshell. And this particular nutshell, I know, is exactly where I belong. Say, before I forget, someone visited my website today for a very interesting reason. They arrived after typing in the following search: ďRussell, NY opera house images.Ē Any idea what they were after? Russell seems a tad small to support an opera house. Is there a place there by that name?
John Berbrich: Actually, yes, & itís about a 1/4-mile from our house. The Russell Opera House is actually a lovely old theater located in the heart of downtown. The first floor contains the post office, the town hall, the clerkís office, food pantry ó everything a small town needs. The whole second floor is the theater. The seating capacity must be, I donít know, 500, 800, something like that. A couple of years ago a group of locals got together & decided to work on the place & open it back up. Although it had been vacant for decades, it didnít need much more than a good cleaning & some minor repairs. Except the attic, home to thousands of bats, required serious attention. Anyway, they opened up last summer, w/ a nice variety of shows. A local rock band played, plus a Barbershop Quartet. We attended one concert last summer given by Robin Hopper. Sheís a witty folk singer, school teacher, & story teller whoís living in Alaska now. But she grew up right down the road here. She put on a free show, donations only, & I think they took in a couple of thousand dollars in donations for the continued restoration & maintenance of the building. I heard that Robinís coming back this summer. She gave a wonderful performance. Also theyíve assembled a drama group for the performing of plays. I wish I had more time or Iíd get in on this; I still might. I donít expect to see opera there, but you might see anything else.
William Michaelian: I know ó you could play the part of an aspiring tenor with a baritone voice ó or barreltone, as Joyce said in Ulysses on several occasions. Your baritone could be a great source of frustration for you, so great that you have the evil idea of removing the vocal cords of a real tenor and using them to replace yours, leaving your victim screeching like a mouse ó or a bat ó yes, thatís it, a bat. At the end, the stage crew can release bats from the attic. Unless you think that would be overdoing it.
John Berbrich: Itís a great idea, but unfortunately the Opera House committee hired a local exterminator ó the Bat Man, he calls himself ó who did away with the winged horrors last fall. I would love to take a small part in a local production: some insane uncle or mad scientist, perhaps. I suspect theyíll put on dull plays embodying relevant social issues ó you know, meaningful stuff ó but I could be wrong. What a waste to go through all that work and preparation, only for something dreary and significant. I should write my own play. Willie ó youíre a genius ó thatís a great idea!
William Michaelian: How nice of you to notice. You should definitely write a play. Iíve thought about tackling the dramatic form myself, but have never settled down to do it. And of course youíre perfectly suited to play an insane uncle or mad scientist ó modeled, naturally, on Farrago. Really, itís lucky that you have the Opera House. If you ever get around to taking pictures of it, Iíd love to see what the place looks like. How does one rid a large building of bats?
John Berbrich: Sure, weíll get you pictures. About the bats, I donít know. For a house, I know he seals it up tight & nails a womanís nylons over the only remaining opening. The bats fly out the opening into the nylons & of course become hopelessly entangled. Next day the Bat Man then removes the bat-filled nylons from the house & burns up the nylons & his captives in a burning barrel. Supposedly this method really works. But on a huge old building, I donít know.
William Michaelian: Maybe he lures them out with a bat flute. Nylons and a barrel ó sounds fairly low-tech. We donít see many bats where we live, although once in awhile around dusk on a summer evening, a few will appear and flit around the maple trees along the street. They look like theyíre not quite in control of themselves, as if they are suspended by strings. You might consider using a few plastic bats in your play, operated by the stage crew from the rafters. Let me know when it opens. Dollface and I will be in the front row, cheering you on.
John Berbrich: Itís a deal ó Iíll send you a flyer. In the meantime, I have received that article you sent about Samuel Beckett. Read it tonight in a Potsdam coffeehouse. Very interesting, how Beckett is portrayed as an anti-literary literary hero, a man who put his writing before everything. Can you explain this anti-literature to me. Is it merely a protest against conventional forms of writing? That I could understand. Itís like punk rock viewed as a protest against corporate arena rock. That makes sense. But I canít understand someone writing in order to destroy writing. Why not concentrate on something constructive, like a good mindless functionary? Beckett does seem like a swell guy as described by Edna OíBrien: generous, big-hearted, & all that. Iíll have to read more by him & about him. OíBrien includes tantalizing bits about Beckettís relationship w/ James Joyce.
William Michaelian: That she does. Gotta have that gossip element. I donít know. I donít gather that Beckett was out to destroy writing ó that is, if you were referring to him specifically in that context. He was content to work, and to aspire to communication, and in the process to destroy himself ó as every artist should be, in the sense that he must be willing to go ever deeper to get at the truth, or at whatís real, even at the expense of his own precious identity. But youíre absolutely right. To really know, or to have a chance at knowing, we must read his work.
John Berbrich: So now Iíll look for his old, creased, & folded paperbacks when Iím book hunting. I wasnít saying that Beckett himself was anti-literature, but it looks like his work might have been viewed that way. In OíBrienís essay, Harold Bloom is quoted as calling Endgame ďthe last stand against literatureĒ in the 20th century. Again, Iím rather baffled by this statement. Without the context you canít tell if Bloom is praising Beckettís work or denigrating it. But I happen to know that Bloom loved Beckettís books. So what is going on here? Is Bloom praising Beckett for breaking or ignoring established literary form? This seems likely. But Iím not thrilled w/ the appellation ďanti-literature.Ē We should be rescuing literature ó if itís in trouble ó or perhaps healing it, not fighting it. Itís like manufacturing bombs for peace.
William Michaelian: And we all know how productive that is. As for Bloomís quote, when I read it I pretty much dismissed it because I knew it was out of context, and that it represented an entire discussion in its own right. Itís kind of like bringing up a subject, and then refusing to talk about it. In my simple mind, ďanti-literatureĒ means one thing: against literature. Certainly, stretching the boundaries as Joyce and Beckett did, and their desire and willingness to experiment, should not be thought of as taking a stand against literature. Itís obvious that their work, and their fierce dedication to it, made literature stronger.
John Berbrich: Thatís how I see it. And listen to this. In the early pages of Ulysses, Joyce makes this observation: ďGod made food ó the devil the cooks.Ē I was perusing Mark Twainís Following the Equator last night and found this on the second page: ď...plenty of good food furnished by the Deity and cooked by the devil.Ē Pleasant to think of master James Joyce reading master Mark Twain, isnít it. Or coincidence, perhaps.
William Michaelian: Well, letís see. Joyce wrote Ulysses between 1914 and 1922, I believe. Twain died in 1910. So in that case, itís possible both were drawing on older material. Fascinating, isnít it? Either way, itís a great quote. I havenít read Following the Equator. When was that written?
John Berbrich: Well, the copyright date is 1897, so sometime before that. I should get a wooden plaque made featuring these two quotes, then hang it in our kitchen. Maybe give it to Nancy as a birthday present. What do you think?
William Michaelian: Very thoughtful. Iím sure sheíd be pleased. After all, she wouldnít have married you if she didnít have a highly developed sense of humor. Now, about this Twain book. I assume, then, that the work is about dieting, and that the equator heís referring to is actually a hefty manís belt.
John Berbrich: Thatís a good try, but I think heís writing about a circumnavigation of the globe, complete w/ stops in numerous foreign lands & much foolery. Iím not sure if Twain is writing this book in earnest or whether heís joking around; probably itís a little of both. He does mention Oregon on the first page: ďin Oregon and British Columbia the forest fires were raging.Ē Earlier in the same paragraph they started westward from New York, so Twain & his traveling pals crossed the entire continent in five lines. When they hit the Pacific, they set sail for Hawaii.
William Michaelian: You mean itís a travel book? I never would have thought of that. I suppose the title still works, though. I guess Twain must have been a restless sort. I really admire the fact that he lived his childhood dream and became an accomplished riverboat pilot. His Life on the Mississippi is quite impressive for the information it contains, and the way it captures the colorful, rambunctious spirit of the characters of those days. Entertaining and interesting both. Also sad in spots.
John Berbrich: Twain packs so much vigor into his sentences. Each one contains a small explosive charge. Hereís a paragraph chosen at random: ďIt is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive. There are people who think that honesty is always the best policy. This is a superstition; there are times when the appearance of it is worth six of it.Ē This followed an argument on ship about the pronunciation of certain Scottish words. Twain, according to his account, settled the matter by inventing a couplet which he then attributed to Robert Burns. When the disputants heard that Burns had been invoked as an authority, the discussion was over.
William Michaelian: Ah, the wily character. I love it. Youíre very right about his sentences, too. They always serve a purpose. Do you happen to know if he and Whitman ever met?
John Berbrich: I donít know, though I wouldnít be surprised to learn that Twain had visited Whitman in his dotage at his house in Camden, New Jersey. Apparently Uncle Walt entertained quite a few illustrious visitors. I can imagine the electricity in the room if these two colossi had ever met. Have I told you about the time that Whitman met Edgar Allan Poe?
William Michaelian: No, you sure didnít. Did they really meet?
John Berbrich: Yeah, briefly. Let me quote from Whitmanís Specimen Days: ďI also remember seeing Edgar A. Poe, and having a short interview with him, (it must have been in 1845 or í6,) in his office, second story of a corner building, (Duane or Pearl street.) He was editor and owner or part owner of ďthe Broadway Journal.Ē The visit was about a piece of mine he had publishíd. Poe was very cordial, in a quiet way, appearíd well in person, dress, &c.; I have a distinct and pleasing remembrance of his looks, voice, manner and matter; very kindly and human, but subdued, perhaps a little jaded.Ē At this point, Whitman would have been a young man of about 25, Poe not really much older at 35. Two young men w/ two very different futures awaiting them.
William Michaelian: Isnít that the truth. So, tell me more about Specimen Days. Is it entirely
John Berbrich: Willie ó Specimen Days is a marvelous collection of notes, about 200 pages of Whitmanís fantastic prose. He gives a bit of his family genealogy on Long Island. He presents Manhattan as it was in the mid 19th-century, w/ the ferries, the horse-cabs, the throngs. He gives about 70 pages of the Civil War, right up close. He sees Lincoln, describes him. He meets William Cullen Bryant, John Burroughs, Emerson, Longfellow, sees Charles Dickens in New York. He writes pages & pages of nature descriptions ó stars, birds, flowers, trees. As an old man he liked to hobble off by himself in the woods. He had his favorite spots to linger & meditate. He writes of one time grabbing on to a tree & simply hollering as loud & as long as he could, like some wild barbaric primitive. Specimen Days is absolutely essential reading.
William Michaelian: Okay, Iím sold. Iíll make a point of getting this right away. I know youíve mentioned Specimen Days before, but somehow, it must have gotten buried in my notes. I suppose youíve read about that scene where Whitman wanders into the lobby of the Hotel Albert in New York, and all the men raised their newspapers to hide their faces, and after he walked out a man followed and asked him who he was and he said, ďI am Walt Whitman. If youíll lend me a dollar, you will be helping immortality to stumble on.Ē
John Berbrich: No, I havenít come across that one. But itís beautiful and worth at least a chuckle. As weíve noted elsewhere, if youíre going to be famous, it helps to be equipped w/ a large helping of audacity and arrogance. A sense of oneís own destiny is required, so you can sort of grow into your image of yourself, your projected self. Whitman was his own best trumpeter at the beginning, aided by the perspicacious Emerson, and youíd have to say he was certainly successful.
William Michaelian: Yeah, I guess you could say that. Did Whitman die a poor man, do you know? All along, Iíve been under the impression that he didnít make much money from his writing. Did he have any patrons, as did Joyce?
John Berbrich: I donít know about the patrons. He landed a pretty good government job after the Civil War as a clerk in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior, but was dismissed after six months when it was discovered that he had written an obscene book (Leaves of Grass). He lived w/ his brother in the early 1870ís until the royalties came in from the 1881 edition of his book, w/ which he purchased his own place. Iíd say he lived in a moderate poverty.
William Michaelian: Well, thatís not bad for a towering genius. Somewhere along the line, I did read about his government job. And now for some good news: while you werenít looking, I slipped away to the book store and bought Specimen Days & Collect. Itís a Dover book, a reprint of the 1882-83 edition, duplicating the old type-style, complete with a reproduction of the title page from the edition printed in Glasgow. Iíve read the first four or five pages ó delightful. Thanks for recommending it. Iím going to add to the daily mix. Besides Finnegans Wake, which Iím still chipping away at, and the Kazantzakis Odyssey sequel, Iím also about eighty pages into the Spoon River Anthology.
John Berbrich: Oh, those Dovers are beautiful books. Spoon River I read maybe 10 years ago. Very inventive, quite a good idea & some strong poetry too. I couldnít get into the second Spoon River though. Just seemed dull. Keep this up Willie & youíll be in danger of becoming an educated man.
William Michaelian: Ha! Well, Iíve been reading for years and years, and it hasnít happened yet. Just the oddest bits of clinging residue and no more. The long-term results are negligible, as proven by this little poem I just wrote:
Face to Face
Inside the cage
I have made.
Face to face
I see her,
of my days.
upon the latch,
I need only
raise my hand
to set us free.
Crazy, huh? Those words, ďthe specimen of my days,Ē have a familiar ring. Canít quite place them, though.
John Berbrich: Something youíve no doubt picked up during those years and years of reading. I like the crazy poem. Reminds me of a section of Walden, where Thoreau says that instead of caging a bird in his house like some people do, he has chosen to cage himself in his cabin among the birds. I like the resolution, your theme I guess, that by imprisoning others we imprison ourselves. We could all be free.
William Michaelian: Of course there are many people who would read a poem like this ó if, in fact, they read poems at all ó and declare it a childish waste of time. Get what you can while you can, get away with whatever you can while doing as little as possible ó you know the theme. Say, I am really enjoying Specimen Days. I love old Waltís descriptions, his reverence and amazement. Beautiful observations, the family graveyards, running wild on Long Island as a kid, the sights and sounds on Broadway. The book is like a good companion.
John Berbrich: Thatís a good way to put it, a good companion. Itís hard to stay away from this book for very long. Whitman writes any old way he wants, & it all sounds right. He breaks every possible rule ó & like Twain, every sentence counts for something & is infused w/ vigor. Whitman sounds like a giant. He is beyond my linguistic powers ó I cannot possibly describe him. But you are doing a pretty good job. Yes, great attitude.
William Michaelian: And didnít you grow up on Long Island? What was it like, knowing it was Whitmanís home ground? When did you first start reading him?
John Berbrich: I grew up roughly 10 miles from Whitmanís old stomping grounds. I lived closer to the city. I didnít start reading Whitman until I was in my 30ís, not having appreciated him in school ó as usual trying to avoid what my teachers tried to make us understand & appreciate. I came across Leaves of Grass at a used book sale in a library basement. ďWhat the hell,Ē I figured, & bought it. I was totally overwhelmed right off, & my admiration hasnít dimmed since. They built a big shopping mall in Huntington, The Walt Whitman Plaza, I think they called it. I never went there. Even when I was a kid it all seemed stupid, naming a shopping center after a famous poet. What were they thinking?
William Michaelian: They werenít. Their minds were numbed by commerce, leaving them with sterile vision. No one who has read Whitman could possibly consider naming a mall after him. Thoreau Plaza would be another disaster. And yet I wouldnít be surprised if itís been done. A bridge, perhaps. An old covered bridge miles and miles from town, across shimmering waters. Or a mighty fallen tree, commanding even in death, feeding new life around it.
John Berbrich: Thatís it, Willie! We need to draw our own maps, naming the features of the landscape all over again. Thoreau Creek. Emerson Grove. Mount Whitman. Zamyatin Falls. Steinbeckistan. This has promise. Each region, whether a swamp or forest or village, would somehow mysteriously exude the ineffable character of the author for which it is named. I like this idea a lot.
William Michaelian: Yes, I do sense a bit of enthusiasm on your part. In fact, didnít I see you the other day up on Hawthorne Ridge? From there you can take in the whole long valley known as The Song of Hiawatha, and see the road as it winds all the way into Kerouac. A great project. Itíll take us years. Weíll be a modern-day Lewis and Clark, traveling the land, studying the landscape, recording, naming. Rocinante. Letís not forget to name something Rocinante, in honor of Cervantes, Don Quixote, and Steinbeckís camper.
John Berbrich: Okay. Now, we have to agree on this naming stuff ó no fighting. You can be pretty stubborn, Willie, even when it comes to the smallest matters. And I have been known to exhibit a bit of pig-headedness myself. We have to try to get along here, otherwise weíll come up w/ crazy names for things, or possibly leave them unnamed. Imagine a town w/ no name. Wasnít that a song?
William Michaelian: I think you mean ďA Horse With No Name.Ē Unless youíre thinking of ďA Town Without Pity.Ē But I do think we can set aside our pig-headed stubbornosity for the common good. Think of whatís at stake. Which reminds me ó weíll have to name a couple of gloomy villages for Bram Stoker and Washington Irving, or at least Ichabod Crane. Is there a Sleepy Hollow someplace? I suppose there must be.
John Berbrich: I guess. I dunno. Central New York is rich in names taken from classical sources: Rome, Athens, Syracuse, Albany, Ithaca, Troy. Thereís even a town named Greece. And come to think of it, speaking of towns named after writers, near Whitmanís home on Long Island is a town called Melville.
William Michaelian: I donít know. It sounds kind of fishy to me. As it happens, my grandfather spent six months in Troy with his mother and grandmother way back in 1906 and 1907, shortly after arriving in this country along with several other family members. When his grandmother passed away, he and his mother moved west to Fresno, where he sold papers and hollered the dayís headlines on street corners. The one thing he never forgot about Troy was how cold it was, and how ice had formed on the walls in the place where they were living.
John Berbrich: Wow. Weíre roughly 100 miles directly north of Rome so itís colder here, but we have insulation which I suspect they didnít. Still, weíve had pipes freeze inside the house, although Iíve never seen ice on the walls. They survived somehow. People were tough. There are some poems to that effect in Spoon River, how the folks have grown soft. How things change. Vices become habits. Luxuries become necessities.
William Michaelian: Youíre right. It reminds me of the time one of our neighbors was whining years ago about having to wait for the hot water to travel through the pipes from the water heater in the garage to the bathroom at the other end of the house when she was the first to shower in the morning. I smiled and said, ďThere are people starving and with flies crawling on their eyes, and youíre mad because you have to wait a few seconds for hot water?Ē She took it the right way, of course. She and her family moved away, and now live in a yurt in Mongolia. Ha. Well. I could yak forever. But in order for that to be possible, we will need to continue this on another page.