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: So, how was your poetry get-together the other evening? I assume the St. Lawrence Area Poets were in fine form.
John Berbrich: Oh yes, it was a grand time. Five SLAP members were there & read their stuff. Two folks from the audience took advantage of the open-mike afterwards, including the cafe owner who read his poems off his laptop. Good atmosphere, very convivial. I even sold a couple of Barbaric Yawps afterwards, nice.
William Michaelian: I like that — have Yawp, will travel. As it happens, last night our youngest son went to listen to a bluegrass trio at one of the downtown coffeehouses. They were okay, he said, although not really fine instrumentalists. But the treat of the evening was a shaggy guy about our age he’s talked to there several other times, who asked and then answered the famous question, “If you had one wish, what would you wish for?” He said he would like to be able to touch any object in the world and immediately know its entire history, and to see it replayed in his mind.
John Berbrich: Wow. A great way to do research. But that’s so different from the answer I would expect from most people, which would be to own stuff or to have like a bazillion dollars. There’s that can on the roadside. Who threw it there? Where did that person get the can? Who delivered it to the store? Who packaged it? Who made it? And I suppose you could take this back to the raw materials, all the way back to the elements & to the formation of our planet, back to the first glimmering fires of our sun, & back to the first moments of the Big Bang. But then there’s the Midas Effect, where every object you touch you see its history unfolding in your mind & it would be so confusing w/ all that information playing back simultaneously. If I had one wish I’d be very careful w/ it.
William Michaelian: In a way, having a wish is like winning the lottery. It’s like disturbing the natural order of things. There should be a wise old saying: “May your wish not be your undoing,” or something like that.
John Berbrich: Well, there’s “Be careful what you wish for — you might get it.” That one works pretty well. You’re absolutely right about the disturbance of the natural order. Perhaps that’s sometimes a good thing, I don’t know. I’ve always thought that if I won a large amount of money, millions, I would stick it in a bank, not tell anyone about it, & simply go on living my life as I had for at least a few months anyway, until I sort of got used to the idea. Don’t want to get totally unbalanced.
William Michaelian: Yeah, there’s plenty of time for that. But this lottery thing is something I rarely think about. For one thing, we don’t play. We bought a few tickets when it started here in Oregon, but that was years ago. I’m not even sure I’d like winning. But it would be an interesting experience. I don’t know. I think I’m a little too superstitious. I’d probably hear the voices of all the losers crying out in the night.
John Berbrich: So that’s what my dogs have been barking at. We don’t buy lottery tickets either, so winning is unlikely. Although I suppose someone could give some tickets as a gift. Too many people live for that big payoff. We’ve discussed this before, regarding lawsuits. It’s not what you have — it’s how you live, & I don’t want to live that way, waiting for that big hit. Savor my life, relish it, not feel as though I’m in some uncomfortable waiting room, hoping they’ll eventually call my number.
William Michaelian: And blaming the world if they don’t. We’ve talked about that before too. So how many poems did you read the other night? Did you have ’em rockin’ in the aisles?
John Berbrich: I read three from Balancing Act plus two others you probably haven’t seen. The Balancing Act poems always are well received. I’m becoming quite a ham.
William Michaelian: I’m not surprised. But isn’t it interesting how one adjusts to the surroundings? There’s the acoustic dimension, of course, the size of the place; and then the number of people on hand influences things, and their general attitude and receptivity, and of course their reaction — all of which are processed on the spot. Not to mention other factors — the day one’s had, the weather, health, happenings with friends and family . . . and then all of a sudden the moment blossoms with its own feeling, its own inspiration, and you just ride along with it. Or you crack open a couple of six packs like Bukowski.
John Berbrich: That would work too. There’s a big difference reading in the local cafes & reading at the colleges. Last winter I read three or four times at St. Lawrence University’s monthly poetry readings. The readings take place in a fairly posh setting, w/ comfortable chairs & a good microphone. The students are oh so serious, all of them, reading “significant” works. So sometimes the poetry drags, if you can understand it, because a lot of it is translated from German or French or some other outlandish foreign tongue. In the cafes, everyone simply wants to have a good time.
William Michaelian: The nerve of them. How many people show up at the college gatherings? Audience-wise, I mean. Or are they mostly students attending to satisfy class requirements?
John Berbrich: At the college readings I’d say usually three or four professors show up, as well as two dozen students, half of whom read. Everyone from the local population is invited, w/ perhaps four or five individuals taking advantage of the opportunity. Most of the students do seem to be connected by some class, but not all. The professor who organizes the whole thing is this woman from Spain, excitable & enthusiastic. She’s fun to work with. So if you’re in the area you could stop by. That’s 4:30 in the afternoon, first Wednesday of every month. But no lengthy manifestos, please.
William Michaelian: Well, I suppose I could dust off a few of my grade school manifestos. They run only two or three pages — large print, mind you. As I recall, the one that started the cafeteria riot was pretty good. I’ll have to see if I can find it.
John Berbrich: What were you shooting for? — larger desserts or what? I like that — a manifesto against cafeteria food. I remember w/ extreme displeasure those plates of uneaten Waldorf Salad & untouched bowls of Mongol Soup. All I wanted was a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza.
William Michaelian: I would have settled for waffles, perhaps with a touch of peanut butter smeared into the holes, and topped with warm boysenberry syrup. I haven’t found it yet, but in my manifesto I advocated building a playground fortress out of the serving trays. Those little compartments got to me. Looking at the food was like having to color inside the lines all over again.
John Berbrich: Were you the sort of kid who liked to jam square pegs into round holes?
William Michaelian: No, I liked to dig new holes — the deeper and harder to climb out of, the better. I’m still that way.
John Berbrich: You like to think outside of the box.
William Michaelian: Ah, now you’re getting into business-speak. Next it’ll be “pushing the envelope.” I never have figured out what that means.
John Berbrich: Whatever it is, very few people want you to do it, although it sounds innocuous enough.
William Michaelian: Innocuous. There’s another word that bothers me. I know what it means, but it sounds like a threat to one’s health. Careful. Don’t touch it. It might be innocuous.
John Berbrich: I will admit, innocuous is a rather high-falutin word for something that’s supposed to be dull & harmless. It does suggest a flagrant contagion of some dire sort, although I fear I may be pushing the envelope here.
William Michaelian: And the envelope is full of deadly germs — watch out! Is there such a thing as low-falutin?
John Berbrich: I suppose it’s ordinary speech, words like supper, nice, & television. Peasant words. Potatoes. Mutton. Lumbago. Practice these, Willie. Croup. Pig. Fiddle.
William Michaelian: Fig. Piddle. Sludge. Candle. Field. . . .
John Berbrich: Look, you need help. Here’s a tongue-twister I’ve devised to aid your quest to perfectly acceptable elocution. Say this five times as fast as you can, no cheating: Harry Potter Party.
William Michaelian: Okay. Harry Potter Party. Harry Potter Party. Harry Potty Potty. Harry Porta Potty. Hairy Donner Party.
John Berbrich: Woah. My initial reaction is that you’ve got a very — shall we say — challenged mind there. But I almost think there’s something prophetic in those words. Almost, I say. Now try this one, five times fast: “a synonym for cinnamon.” Don’t hurt yourself.
William Michaelian: Wait. Do I need a seatbelt?
John Berbrich: Quit stalling. Just say it.
William Michaelian: I am not stalling. I’m preparing myself.
John Berbrich: Okay. There. Ready yet, Mr. Innocuous? Spit it out.
William Michaelian: Better stand back, just in case. Here goes: a synonym for cinnamon a cimonym for synnamon a symmomim a cinnymon a mynosymocinnamim . . . c-h-r-y-s-a-n-t-h-e-m-u-m smells chrysanthemum. Ha! I knew I could do it!
John Berbrich: Sounds purely Joycean! We could be on the verge of a breakthrough, son. Stick out your tongue.
William Michaelian: Ahhhhhummblgh . . .
John Berbrich: Man, you don’t have to get it all over me. Thanks a lot. Just a second, please. ************* Okay, now. Here’s your last one: Aluminum linoleum, fast times fast.
William Michaelian: Fast times fast? How fast is that? Is it the same as fast squared? Oh, man. I caught you this time. Here you give me all these tongue-twisters, and then you come up with fast times fast. Okay, watch this — aluminum linoleum amuleum namoleum paluminum lunoleum maluminum pneumonia anatolia onomatopoeia.
John Berbrich: That sounds positively Latin! Great, we’re up to the first century AD. By the way, you did catch me. Your condition must be contagious. But you knew exactly what I meant, which indicates that your cognitive abilities are not entirely impaired. This is a good sign, indeed.
William Michaelian: Yes, but am I gaining ground or losing it? And can I regain what I have lost? If I can, then was it really lost?
John Berbrich: Merely a temporary condition, I assure you. You’ve lost nothing, only misplaced it. We must, however, continue your treatment. Here’s the last, five times fast: Unique New York.
William Michaelian: Now wait just a doggone minute. You said that one about the persimmons was the last.
John Berbrich: No, no. You’ve forgotten. I said it was the next-to-last. You’re slipping, Willie. Trust me. Unique New York, five times fast.
William Michaelian: Ah, very well, then. I’ll do it just for you, and for science. Who knows. Others might benefit. Unique New York New Yeek Yew Nork Oonique Ooyork Neweek Oonork Newreek O’Rourke. There. Did you get all that?
John Berbrich: Yes. Newreek O’Rourke. Wasn’t he in Joyce’s Ulysses?
William Michaelian: He was. It wasn’t mentioned, but I saw him in several scenes. Say, did you get that article I sent you yet — the one from the New Yorker about Philip K. Dick?
John Berbrich: Yeah, it was great. Thanks. The writer really captured the essence of Dick the Writer, & the Madman.
William Michaelian: Ah, so this must be your first move in a game of mental chess. You know you sent me that article. You were supposed to say, “Hey, I sent you that article. Remember?” Then I could have said, “Oh, that’s right. So you did. Well, how did I like it?”
John Berbrich: Hey, I sent you that article. Remember?
William Michaelian: Oh, that’s right. So you did. Well, how did I like it?
John Berbrich: Wait a minute — I feel like I’m in the middle of a Philip K. Dick novel. Reality seems somehow distorted.
William Michaelian: I’m glad you asked. I really enjoyed the article. The name Ubik caught my attention, since it appeared so many times in the Yawp. Any relation to Mel?
John Berbrich: Actually, yes. It’s a fairly long story, one I’m not sure Mr. Ubik would want me to divulge.
William Michaelian: How utterly intriguing. The Yawp’s mystique just grows and grows. But if you say we shouldn’t pursue it, then we shouldn’t pursue it. Have you read Dick’s Sixties novels Adam Gopnik mentions in his article?
John Berbrich: Yes, all of them — & lots more. There are plenty of others Gopnik could have mentioned — A Maze of Death; A Scanner Darkly; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. I really suggest picking up one or two of these at a local used book store. They are short & read quickly. But you'll want to read them over & over.
William Michaelian: They shouldn’t be hard to find, because there’s Sci-Fi aplenty in this town. What do you think of Gopnik’s assessment of Dick’s writing? — the hack’s habits, and so on, the flogging of the same three or four characters from book to book.
John Berbrich: It’s pretty accurate. Years ago I read a critic — I think it was Brian Aldiss — who admitted that Dick’s writing was “shoddy,” but also that the future he writes about is shoddy. It’s a funny thing. Dick can pen some awful paragraphs, but I recall years later some of his lines — not because of their fabulous literary craft, but due to their perfect, stark simplicity. Like sometimes Hemingway gets it exactly right w/ a string of words containing three letters & one syllable. Dick’s prose is extremely effective, although it’s not something you’d want to teach in a writing course or hold up perhaps as a literary model.
William Michaelian: If any models should be held up. But it sounds to me like Dick’s vision and ideas are what keep readers coming back for more. Even poor writing can be a vehicle for original thinking and a compelling story. Content is everything. As Gopnik mentions, “The typical Dick novel is at once fantastically original in its ideas and dutifully realistic in charting their consequences.” What of his madness? Have you been able to chart its progression by means of his books?
John Berbrich: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s all recorded in Dick’s Valis trilogy, although the idea of divine revelation does appear again & again in previous works. Another thing about Dick that Gopnik barely mentions is that he was heavily into drugs. He lived for the most part along the west coast, between San Francisco & Vancouver, submerged at least for a time in the sixties drug subculture. This obviously affected his writing. His craziness may have been chemically induced.
William Michaelian: Well, judging by Gopnik’s description of the vision Dick experienced upon opening his front door to the drugstore delivery girl, I’d say chemicals must have played a role. But no doubt his perception and personality were twisted and/or amplified in the first place.
John Berbrich: No doubt. In one of his books — I think a short story collection — he writes an account of his drug-taking years. Dick lists around two dozen friends who had died or suffered permanent severe damage due to chemical experimentation. It’s really heart-breaking to read.
William Michaelian: I believe it. I’ve seen the results first-hand, and the sad, sad aftermath. About what year was the account written?
John Berbrich: This is an estimate, but I’m thinking it was the mid-70’s. I’ve got to find that. Seems like it was appended to a book of short stories or maybe a novel. Now I gotta go down the stairs....
William Michaelian: All in the service of Literature, my good man. According to the article, Dick had his vision in February 1974. Since the description is so detailed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gopnik got it from the same source.
John Berbrich: Man, that is a long flight of stairs. And so steep! Anyway, I found what I was looking for. It’s in the brief author’s notes included at the end of Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, published in 1977. He concludes w/ a list of names & the results of the drug experimentation. I’ll leave out the names: “deceased; deceased; permanent psychosis; permanent brain damage; deceased; massive permanent brain damage; permanent psychosis; permanent brain damage; deceased; deceased; deceased; deceased; permanent pancreatic damage; permanent vascular damage; permanent psychosis and vascular damage....and so forth.” As you can guess, the book is a sci-fi look at drug abuse & the lifestyle that goes w/ it.
William Michaelian: My, what a cheery account. So; 1977. He was well into his own delirium by that time. As it happens, while you were downstairs, I managed to sneak off to Borders and have a quick look at the Philip K. Dick section. Man, they’re charging an arm and a leg for his stuff. There was a nice hardcover that contained his four Sixties novels — for thirty-five dollars. No Valis. Another book, I forget the title now, was priced at twenty-eight bones. So I’ll check into the matter again when I’m at a used book store.
John Berbrich: That new hardcover edition — that’s the book that Gopnik was talking about. Yes, you should be able to find Dick’s work at a used book store. Over the past few years some publishing house has been reissuing his novels in a very nice softcover form. I have Ubik & A Maze of Death. Both classics.
William Michaelian: I confess that I usually stay away from the Sci-Fi section in book stores. There are so many books lined up, and they’re all so colorful that I feel like I’m at a Donovan concert. Also, the people browsing there often look at me as if I’m strange. I feel safer in the Poetry aisle.
John Berbrich: In most of the bookstores up here all the aisles are fairly empty, poetry, sci-fi, even regular fiction. But in all honesty, some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered was found in the pages of a science fiction novel or anthology of shorter pieces. Besides Dick, favorite authors include Samuel Delany (of whom we’ve spoken), James Tiptree Jr., James G. Ballard, & Roger Zelazny. Each of these authors is precious, & their work is completely different. I’d hold it up for comparison w/ anything.
William Michaelian: Genuine observation and originality, of course, transcend any form — the form is a natural outcome of the vision and the need and desire to create. And each individual work should be considered on its own merits. Likewise, there is trash in all genres, drivel, salesmanship, and posing. Empty aisles. Does that indicate a voracious readership?
John Berbrich: I’m not sure. The shelves are full, it’s the aisles that are empty. People must have better things to do, like go 4-wheelin’ or maybe shopping at Wal-Mart. Or hunting — that’s a big activity up here. Someone told me that they’re opening bear season early this year, there’re so many of them.
William Michaelian: Yes, it would be a shame if bears outnumbered people. Then again, we are outnumbered by insects. It sounds like there must be many lonely books in your area.
John Berbrich: Yes, but I’ve a home for them here. Unfortunately, space constraints force me to be a little choosy when I’m selecting lonely volumes from the local literary orphanages. My shelves are not limitless.
William Michaelian: And yet what they hold is limitless.
John Berbrich: Absolutely. Speaking of limitless, what are you reading now? I’m just finishing up a collection of interviews w/ rock & roll songwriters such as Sting, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, James Taylor, Paul Simon, & plenty more.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. Well, I just finished Jack Kerouac’s Book of Sketches. And, believe it or not, I’m still working on that Odyssey sequel by Kazantzakis. I had to set that one aside while I was busy on my new books. And I’m now on the second chapter of Walden, which reads like scripture and is a miracle of clarity.
John Berbrich: Oh, yeah. Walden is a classic. A miracle of clarity, I like that. I need to read that one again — actually I’ve been thinking about Walden recently, as though the time for a re-read approaches. There is really nothing quite like it.
William Michaelian: Thoreau has such a great spirit and attitude. And a real awareness. Listen to him for just a few minutes, and you can feel the superficial falling away.
John Berbrich: That’s true. He sounds like a man standing up straight & tall, absolutely alone, telling exactly what he sees, w/ only occasional garnishment. He certainly tries to coax the best out of others & himself.
William Michaelian: He does. I love his thoughts on the burden of ownership, the burden of belongings. And it seems he knows his neighbors’ farms better than they do, as well as every nook and cranny in between. Why travel great distances when you haven’t even begun to explore what is close at hand?
John Berbrich: I love those parts where he explores the local region & meets the various inhabitants. I remember he thinks it wonderful that a potter lives in the area, that he himself could meet a practitioner of such an ancient occupation. I find Thoreau an inspiration. A man who would join nothing. A man who stood firm on his own two feet & wanted to look life (& death) straight in the eye. What more can you ask of a person?
William Michaelian: Nothing. I also like his description of cleaning house. First he moves his few pieces of furniture outside into the grass, then he throws some water on the floor, and then he sprinkles some pond sand around, and uses the grit and a broom to clean the surface. Then, after the floor has dried, he’s ready to bring in his stuff again — only to find that it seems reluctant to come in out of the open air, as if it were already beginning to take root.
John Berbrich: That cracks me up. He is such an eccentric, unique character. A real American.
William Michaelian: With a keen sense of humor to boot. Say, what do you think of this little haiku I hatched yesterday?
Beneath a pale moon
even a friendly pumpkin
shows its darker side
John Berbrich: Nice. Quite a picture, that moon & the pumpkin — I see it as a grinning jack-o-lantern. The juxtaposition of light & dark is very strong. One shining orb in the sky, one on the ground. Lots of comparisons. And consider how brightness makes darkness look darker. Contrasts. And as I said, a nice picture.
William Michaelian: Thanks. You mentioned brightness making darkness darker. That reminds me of a line in a poem I wrote — for the life of me, I can’t remember which poem, but it’s in Songs and Letters. It goes like this: Darkness wasn’t dark until light was born. Here’s another new haiku:
To feel such hunger
during the apple harvest
is my great fortune
John Berbrich: Hmmmm. Does this mean you’re planning to eat a lot of apples? Or sell a lot of apples? Or perhaps it’s a different sort of hunger — an empty creative belly, & you plan to gorge yourself writing apple orchard poems. Whatever, it certainly gets the reader’s wheels spinning.
William Michaelian: Well, it seems like it means something — perhaps many things. For instance, hunger in this case might arise from poverty. I picture someone wandering, and taking joy in whatever the countryside has to offer. And the person is not bowed by his poverty — in fact does not even see it has such. To enjoy a fresh ripe apple on a completely empty stomach, with alert senses, is truly a matter of great fortune. And yes, the empty creative belly is also part of it. Definitely.
John Berbrich: Indeed. The poem means many things, suggests much. Did you find any trouble shaping the thoughts to the standard haiku 5-7-5? Or did the words just tumble out that way?
William Michaelian: No trouble, only pleasure. I wrote three haiku over the course of a couple of hours, although I was wandering around doing other things part of the time. These two, and one other, all with an autumn theme.
John Berbrich: Timely. Okay, do you wanna share the third one?
William Michaelian: Well, there’s no reason not to. All three are going to be part of Songs and Letters — which, as ridiculous as it sounds, is now closing on 500 pages.
Blessed is the artist
who does not capture autumn
but lives it instead
John Berbrich: Autumn means so many things — ripeness, colors, the beautiful beginnings of death. Death, which itself is part of the larger cycle, leading to another teeming spring. The individual life has its autumn, those mellowing years, the harvest, the lowering sun, the morning chill. Yes, right, indeed — capture nothing. We impress by what we are — not by what we own, what we’ve captured. That’s all in your poem, Willie, plus a lot more.
William Michaelian: Beautiful. Thank you. It’s funny, but as luck would have it, I stopped at a used bookstore downtown today — the same place I found Brautigan and Haiku Harvest — and found a Penguin book that contains Basho’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” and other travel sketches. Let’s see . . . publication was in 1966, translations by Nobuyuki Yuasa. Have you seen the book? It has a nice long introduction that includes the history of haiku, three maps in the back, and a section of notes. The title of the first sketch is “The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton.”
John Berbrich: The version I have was published in 1974, translated by Dorothy Britton. In fact, she mentions Yuasa’s book in her introduction, thanking him for “English spellings of Chinese names.” I read this one years ago w/ great pleasure. Haiku always reminds one to look, to listen, & to savor.
William Michaelian: Which is proven by this delightful little poem on the third page of
Roses of Sharon
At the roadside
Perishing one after another
In the mouth of a horse.
John Berbrich: Puts you right in the horse’s jaws, doesn’t it? That poem’s not part of Basho’s Narrow Road is it? I can’t find it. But I found this one, written just after his departure:
Loath to let spring go,
Birds cry, and even fishes’
Eyes are wet with tears.
William Michaelian: Fascinating. Here we go again with translations. The Roses of Sharon poem isn’t from “Narrow Road,” it’s from “The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton.” But here’s Yuasa’s version of the poem you just quoted:
The passing spring,
With tearful eyes.
John Berbrich: Fascinating indeed. I went to a show at the cafe last night & afterwards perused the new arrivals on the bookshelves. Found Donald Keene’s 1955 Anthology of Japanese Literature, from the earliest period to the mid-19th century, a book I had taken out of the library many years ago but didn’t own. Keene includes his own translation of the same poem:
Spring soon ends—
Birds will weep while in
The eyes of fish are tears.
William Michaelian: Okay, that’s it. I’m going to learn Japanese. Call me again in fifty years. I confess, the third version is my least favorite. The first two both have their merits. If I were forced to choose, I’d probably go with the first. But I would keep the second close at hand . . . knowing I really hadn’t chosen at all.
John Berbrich: I’ll agree w/ you on that one. Keene’s book is nearly 500 pages & it’s just the first volume, running until 1868. It includes a 30-page excerpt from the Tale of Genji, a novel one-thousand years old.
William Michaelian: Oh? I’ve heard of that many times, but still know nothing about it.
John Berbrich: Arthur Waley’s translated it into six novels, I believe. I read the first one, some years back. It’s 250 pages. Based on that, I’d say the whole show runs to 1500 pages. Genji is this philandering prince. It was a good book, written in that still, quiet Japanese style. Worth looking into.
William Michaelian: Well, now that you mention it, the prince part I definitely do remember. Is the novel the work of one author, or many? Is much known in that realm?
John Berbrich: It’s all written by Lady Murasaki, who became a member of the Empress Akiko’s entourage in 1004, according to the blurb in the book. So I’d say she knew what she was talking about, court intrigue & all that sort of thing.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. Entourage is another word I get a kick out of — even more so when it’s in the company of a name like Akiko. But really, more than the word, it’s the picture that forms in my mind of a group of people walking so closely together that one has his arm in another’s coat sleeve, while somehow sharing the pants leg of the guy on the other side. And they are all unaware of it, and are wearing an emptessly purple expression — uh, I mean a purposeful, empty expression.
John Berbrich: Willie, sometimes I think you need your own entourage. The added responsibility may be good for you. Although I do like the idea of a purple expression. It conveys something hard to put into words. When I was a kid, the word purple & the color purple both put a certain taste into my mouth, slightly unpleasant, I can’t really describe it. Just hearing the word purple or actually seeing the color would do it. I’d get that funny taste in my mouth. Sort of dry & tangy.
William Michaelian: Dry and tangy. Hmm. It sounds to me like you actually tasted a purple crayon one day. Then later on you forgot about it, but the taste and association lingered. In any case, it’s fascinating and I will add it to your file. Are you affected strongly by any other colors?
John Berbrich: Pink always made me ill, I’m serious. Seeing pink or just hearing the damned word could send my belly spinning into queasy knots. Yellow did little to me or for me. I liked the standard blues, greens, & reds — oh, & orange. Fine, mysterious, evocative colors.
William Michaelian: Indeed, like the rich sounds of a foreign language. Unless it’s the subtle shade of a thorny rose, or a fleeting hue of dawn, or the spring serenade of a peach tree in blossom, I see pink as a color that doesn’t have the courage to be red. I have never taken pink seriously. And yet, obviously, where would we be without it?
John Berbrich: Good observation. And I forget — regarding white & black, one is all colors combined & the other is the absence of any color. Do you know which is which? And speaking of crayons, I always felt weird coloring w/ the “flesh” crayon, didn’t you?
William Michaelian: Yes. In fact, I avoided it. It felt like something akin to cannibalism. Over the years, I’ve heard many times that black is supposedly the absence of color. I don’t recall the reference to white. But I’ll tell you what: I don’t believe either statement. I feel there has to be more to it than that.
John Berbrich: Ah, Willie — that’s one of the things I like about you. You take nothing at face value. You’re always the jovial skeptic. Rather than project your expectations, you really look.
William Michaelian: The jovial skeptic. Wouldn’t that be a great statue to have in a quiet city park somewhere?
John Berbrich: Yeah. It would be an image of whom? — You? What an excellent reminder. And all the local pigeons would come up & introduce themselves.
William Michaelian: And give me their opinions. I like it. What about the out-of-town pigeons? Or do pigeons pretty much stick to their hometowns?
John Berbrich: I get the impression that pigeons stick close to their home turf — a park, town dump, or abandoned building. Downtown Russell has a few clusters. They flutter & flap in & out of the empty windows downtown & make that comforting coo-coo-coo sound w/ the curious trill. And they moan like exhausted lovers under the eaves.
William Michaelian: A wonderful sound, that sighing and throat-bubbling. You’re right — they’re hardly a migrating bird. I’ve never seen flocks of them visiting fields of corn stubble. I love the sound they make in big old barns, and the way they flap out through holes in the roof when they’re startled. Are there any quail in your neck of the woods?
John Berbrich: Every now & then I’ll startle one in the swampy woods behind our house. Not many. Lots of vultures & wild turkeys though.
William Michaelian: Lovely creatures, aren’t they? I’ve seen quite a few buzzards close up, sitting on the fenceposts by the pasture on the north side of our farm. And little quail families speeding along on the ground. Around here, wild blackberries can be a problem. They take over entire yards and hillsides when you’re not looking. The berries taste great, though.
John Berbrich: We have plenty of wild blackberries & blackcaps here, but there is no danger of them taking over. The things that spread like crazy are those wild morning-glories & sumac trees. I like the tropical look of the sumac & the lovely red they turn in autumn, but they grow like weeds. They sprout in the yard every summer. I mow them down, but they keep coming back. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
William Michaelian: Yes. What would Thoreau say? And what, pray tell, is a blackcap?
John Berbrich: It’s a berry something like a blackberry. Indeed, very much like a blackberry. But the women call them blackcaps, so I assume there’s some significant difference. All I know is they taste pretty good, much like a blackberry.
William Michaelian: Are they also thorny? Here the blackberries have wicked thorns. And I’ve seen canes on them a good inch in a diameter.
John Berbrich: No, they’re not thorny. “Eat me,” they seem to be saying. And we do, if the deer leave any.
William Michaelian: Apparently the deer understand the same language:
The sweetest berries
are claimed by the roaming deer
I search among thorns
John Berbrich: Beautiful. Willie, you really are becoming rather proficient at these haiku. I can quite easily see that one.
William Michaelian: Thanks. The form does have an addictive quality, doesn’t it?
The longest way home
is here, on memory’s road . . .
see how lost I am!
John Berbrich: That’s a precarious one. Reading that, I feel like I’m about to tip over. And now I’m being raked by the thorns from the previous poem, scratches on my forearms & across my cheeks. How’s this:
Old trees waiting for chainsaws
Not yet invented.
William Michaelian: Ah. And now we’re in the middle of an ancient forest. I like it.
Has anyone seen
My beautiful waterfall?
Last spring it was here.
John Berbrich: Let’s walk a bit farther. I haven’t been back here in a while.....
The old hermit’s shack,
But hidden in Spring’s closet
Is a waterfall.
William Michaelian: Thank you. You’re an excellent guide.
Deep in autumn’s shade
The stones wear bashful smiles
No door on the shack
John Berbrich: The shadow of nature:
To the side, a deer’s
Carcass. Armies of blue-red
Crows prepare for war.
William Michaelian: But the battle is soon over:
Absorbed by the night
Warriors dream side by side
Of games they once played
John Berbrich: Reality intrudes:
The games have ended
Morning horns announce it
The real thing arrives.
William Michaelian: Oh, those crazy, restless crows.
Birds called to action
In the middle of the woods
By a hermit’s snore
John Berbrich: Samurai Crovus.
Black blades scythe the air,
Launching from bony tree branch:
The bearded one wakes.
William Michaelian: He’s seen it all before.
While scratching his chin
He ponders crow for breakfast
Eats berries instead
John Berbrich: Relish the morning.
Surrounded by life
Thinks of the town over the hill
Filled with nothing.
William Michaelian: Sounds like Thoreau.
He bathes in the pond
Shivers like never before
At his good fortune
John Berbrich: I can feel those icy tingles.
Our sun, giant star,
The morning constellation
Of one burning point.
William Michaelian: And I the warmth on my back.
Tormentor of some
Yet bound by a higher law
Held back by the trees
John Berbrich: Let’s get a little closer.
Tired of shadows
And needing to approach God,
He climbed a tree.
William Michaelian: Good idea. Nothing better than a direct approach.
The pilgrim’s reward:
Silence, infinite bouquet,
The sun in God’s hand.
John Berbrich: Cosmic.
Feeling like a leaf
He swings on the knobby limb
Green, one of thousands.
William Michaelian: Good company.
His voice on the wind heralds
The changing season.
John Berbrich: Better to tell the truth.
Voices rise like suns and stars
Then fall, fall like leaves.
William Michaelian: Always.
Some land on the pond
And shimmer there, like a dream
In a young girl’s eyes.
John Berbrich: Always a toad about.
Dreams, like clouds, are light—
Floating solo or in packs:
Bright, suddenly grim.
William Michaelian: Until they disperse.
A single pebble
From an open hand changes
The sky’s expression.
John Berbrich: Everything is connected?
Ripples in time reach
The furthest shore—this air comes
From secret planets.
William Michaelian: Hard to imagine otherwise.
Siblings sown, unknown
To each other’s brooding glare,
Ancient now, gray-haired.
John Berbrich: Doesn’t require much of a leap of faith, does it?
A binary star—
William Michaelian: Examples abound.
Is of a similar mind,
John Berbrich: I remember pistils....
Ah, is it so different
From our common state?
William Michaelian: There are one or two distinctions, perhaps.
Restless, noble fool,
Man invented the shovel
And buries himself.
John Berbrich: Good observation.
He has invented
The automobile, and drives
William Michaelian: Counting syllables.
Are also high on his list,
Yet he grows weaker.
John Berbrich: You caught me.
Oh, entertain him!
Twelve inches will not suffice.
TVs grow and grow.
William Michaelian: A mere technicality.
Numb to the seasons,
He views nature on a screen
From a leather chair.
John Berbrich: But every inch counts.
In soft hand—flip from lions
To clear jellyfish.
William Michaelian: Well, I suppose, since you put it that way.
The big screen of life
Comes in high definition,
But so do game shows.
John Berbrich: Too much of nothing.
Use the old Oxford English
William Michaelian: Everything hidden in plain sight.
Waits like a friend on the desk:
Old words, new meanings.
John Berbrich: Just open the eyes.
There’s more there than you might think;
Open, look closely.
William Michaelian: I see.
Rats! I burned a hole.
Look under C: my conscience
Is punishing me.
John Berbrich: How orbic.
Conscience: I recall
We sizzled ant cities with
William Michaelian: A matter of perspective.
In the far distance,
Blackened towers of dried leaves,
Victims of the torch.
John Berbrich: Still room for art.
Sung by insect bards,
The terrible death-ray war
Shall be remembered.
William Michaelian: And inspiration.
The frogs are enthused,
Grand chorus ensues, issues
From lungs like bellows.
John Berbrich: The tale spreads.
A gifted swallow
Translates the epic into
Twelve bird languages.
William Michaelian: . . . and is passed on.
Young ants imitate
Who laughed at the flames.
John Berbrich: Farther than anyone expected.
Honking at dawn, geese
Circle above, preparing
To bring the tale south.
William Michaelian: Full circle, in fact.
A hermit is moved
By the sound, a week, a day,
Far away — such news!
John Berbrich: Another year complete.
He shakes his old head.
Stories of war and battle.
But was it a dream...?
William Michaelian: Memory comes calling.
He feels a warm hand
On his shoulder. In boyhood,
He did many things.
John Berbrich: A mix of sun & cloud.
More than he recalls.
The names, the faces—the past.
Where has it all gone?
William Michaelian: Alone, adrift, a quiet place to sit.
Recorded on leaves,
And on the palm of his hand,
The long, winding road.
John Berbrich: But there’s more.
As every road does,
This one leads back to the start,
To the beginning.
William Michaelian: Frost arrives.
The road less traveled:
What joy to follow it home,
Lost along the way.
John Berbrich: Eliot too.
Stumbling in a wood,
Into an eyeless valley,
Lost in your backyard.
William Michaelian: He canto believe what he sees.
Finding fresh mushrooms
As flat and white as paper,
He picks many pounds.
John Berbrich: A punny fellow.
Pale as a fungus,
White as the ghost that ate it,
William Michaelian: Hard to resist.
Beguiling — holding
Deep, dark secrets of poison
Pungency — beware!
John Berbrich: One must be careful....
The redder the apple, the
Swifter the poison.
William Michaelian: Sometimes, even that is not enough.
The fruit’s first arrow,
Color, penetrates the heart,
Weakens the victim.
John Berbrich: Did someone say dangerous territory...?
The shape, the texture—
Sensual, sensuous; fruit
Like sex: juicy, cool.
William Michaelian: Dangerous, yes, and wild.
Blind erotic world
Echoing with cries and groans,
John Berbrich: Primitive...Barbaric....
Devils released from the id
William Michaelian: An ancient ritual.
Enter priests in full
Raiment, chanting, voices strong,
Like warm, mellow bells.
John Berbrich: Vaguely sinister.
Flames crackle, shadows
Dance; distorted black shapes warp
To silent music.
William Michaelian: Hypnotic.
A visible hum:
Myriad bees, nectar-mad,
At the priests’ command.
John Berbrich: Ecstatic.
Dance-party crescendo; mead
William Michaelian: Out of control.
A night on the town,
But where is the town, my friend?
Everything’s a blur.
John Berbrich: Control is overrated.
Life’s a blur, my friend.
Now then, what is your pleasure?
I’ll buy you a drink.
William Michaelian: A fine proposition.
And so it is said,
From one bee to another,
At bee conventions.
John Berbrich: Not to be turned down.
Everyone wears stripes
And calls each other “Honey.”
Let’s get a buzz on!
William Michaelian: Sheesh.
From out in the hall
There comes a loud drone — a bee
On the hermit’s arm.
John Berbrich: But there’s more. Ouch!
The hermit demands
A drink. “One large stinger,” he
Says. The bee complies.
William Michaelian: Not a surprise.
“Let me rephrase that,”
The hermit replies, rubbing
His arm. The bee smiles.
John Berbrich: Our hermit quails.
If you’ve ever seen a
Bee smile, you know it is a
Ghastly sight. Run! Hide!
William Michaelian: And then flails.
There is no escape,
My friend — a bee in a dream
Is faster than light.
John Berbrich: The boats have sails.
Yet a dreamer’s sting
From a mad ferocious bee
Has no real effect.
William Michaelian: The kites have tails.
As if he’s possessed,
The dreamer, awake, is still
Afraid of the bee.
John Berbrich: The butler drinks ales.
His buxom girlfriend
Enters the bedroom. She says,
“Hey, Honey.” He screams.
William Michaelian: At that he never fails.
Little does she know,
He’s out of his bee-stung gourd,
Now a raving loon.
John Berbrich: The siren trims her nails.
Now she’s furious—
He’s too drunk to deliver
The milk truck at dawn.
William Michaelian: All the way to Wales.
Poor fool, stalled again
Beside the road, desperate
For an overhaul.
John Berbrich: While watching boats with sails.
Beneath the dirty
Hood, the engine spits and smokes.
He watches the birds.
William Michaelian: As he rides the rails.
In his paralyzed
Condition, even the birds
Remind him of bees.
John Berbrich: Banging in the nails.
Or is it the bees
That remind him of birds? It’s
Hard to tell these days....
William Michaelian: At the speed of snails.
For one who is numb,
That cloud on the horizon
Could be anything.
John Berbrich: The brotherhood of males.
For one who is numb,
A cloud is only a cloud,
Harbinger of rain.
William Michaelian: Cotton bales.
The fear here is clear:
Harbinger rhymes with stinger.
Or is it binge-er?
John Berbrich: Fishes’ scales.
Harbinger, like cringe
-er. Like injure. Like singe-er.
And it’s coming soon.
William Michaelian: Along the trails.
Much to his surprise,
Bringing bourbon and Seven,
Sir Harold Binger.
John Berbrich: Fingers on Brailles.
Speaking of surprise—
“Where’s that old reprobate,” says
A voice; “Where’s Hinshaw?”
William Michaelian: Blown by gales.
On the narrow road
To the deep north, is my guess —
If not, he should be.
John Berbrich: Avoiding jails.
Ah, a poet and
An outdoorsman. Narrow roads,
William Michaelian: While carrying pails.
His heart knows the way,
His feet are eager to learn,
His spirit takes notes.
John Berbrich: And tossing bales.
The simple life: fresh
Air, clean water, country life.
Horses not TV’s.
William Michaelian: Then eating kale.
Time very well spent
Admiring each barn biscuit,
John Berbrich: Up every hill and dale.
Old Nellie—the sweetest road
Apples in the world!
William Michaelian: In daylight bright and moonlight pale.
Grand tribute to life,
Mellow heaps steam in the sun.
John Berbrich: Time to go pick up the mail.
Keep thine eye clear, lad,
Lest ye step where no man steps
Sans a curse to shout.
William Michaelian: And the postman to regale.
Sane advice from one
Who knows, his experience
Lodged between his toes.
John Berbrich: For delivering the Holy Grail.
Aye, laddie. It is
Many a sad story I
Could tell. And I might....
William Michaelian: Which is currently on sale.
Please, go right ahead.
I will keep my handkerchief
Here, at the ready.
John Berbrich: Although the taste is rather stale.
Okay, here goes. But
First, a little something to
Wet my whistle, please.
William Michaelian: Even wrapped in percale.
No pun intended,
But yes, you need a good snort.
That is the mane thing.
John Berbrich: And stored in a krail.
A bold, lionesque
Suggestion, complete with fangs
And roaring humor.
William Michaelian: What, pray tell, is a krail?
Spare no cost, I say —
When it comes to road apples,
You deserve the best.
John Berbrich: Krail is a made-up word. What does it suggest?
“Watch your step.” Look be-
fore you leap. He who hesi-
tates is lost. Who’s right?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. Not entrails.
Reminds me of marching bands,
And the fix they’re in.
John Berbrich: ...Or a student at Yale?
Can’t get out of their
Own way. A celebration—
trumpets, drums, dancers.
William Michaelian: Perhaps wearing a veil.
The steady stomping,
Fancy shoes, shiny buckles,
And — impending doom.
John Berbrich: With his arms, beginning to flail.
This isn’t too smart—
To march off the edge of a
Cliff. Even a low one.
William Michaelian: And the sirens beginning to wail.
What about stepping
Off the edge of this strange page,
And falling . . . falling . . .