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: Sorry about that. When I was trying to get the can opener, I pulled the drawer out too far.
John Berbrich: Are you okay, Willie? That kitchen knife’s sticking right out of your foot. Here, let me get you a rag....
William Michaelian: Yes. Please do. Thank goodness I don’t feel a thing. What I don’t understand is, how did it enter through the bottom of my foot?
John Berbrich: Well, you were all sort of contorted there, opening the utensil drawer. I really didn’t think it polite to ask why. I mean, people perform all sorts of idiosyncratic maneuvers during the day & night. So anyway, do you think we’ll have to amputate?
William Michaelian: That’s a rather brutal term, don’t you think? Couldn’t we simply revise the leg, say from the ankle down?
John Berbrich: You mean like...downsize it.
William Michaelian: No, more like copyedit. Enhance and clarify its meaning with a warm bath in Epsom salts, followed by a change of socks. But it’s just a thought. If you’d rather amputate, then feel free. Obviously the knife’s sharp enough.
John Berbrich: Well, when you put it that way — I mean, it sounds almost painful. Maybe if we could just have Dollface kiss it...?
William Michaelian: Why, you silly sentimental fool. It sounds as if you really don’t want to amputate. You know what happens to editors who grow soft-hearted. They soon become soft in the head, and then they leave everything in. Here. Go ahead. Take the knife. Or should we call in the prose?
John Berbrich: Sorry , Willie — it’s the colon that has to go.
William Michaelian: Hey, I like it — that’s real surgery. But tell me: does my colon, at least in some round-about way, have anything to do with my foot? Not that it matters. Oops. I just used one. I see what you mean.
John Berbrich: I’m afraid your condition’s only going to get worse. W/ a colon problem like that, no one’s going to want to be anywhere near you. And of course there’s a connection between your foot & your colon. Didn’t William Blake say something like, A butterfly cannot flutter without disturbing the orbit of the most distant star, or something like that? Wait; you’re talking about poetic feet, right?
William Michaelian: If you say so. You’re the editor, Mr. Semi-colon. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake also said,
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
Which reminds me — someday I’ll have to tell you about my little book within a book, The Annotated Proverbs of Hell.
John Berbrich: Oh, please do. Sounds like something written by Ambrose Bierce.
William Michaelian: It does at that. But it isn’t. Far from it, in fact. No, what I’ve done, actually, is “annotate,” with poems and sayings of my own, all sixty-nine of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell,” which are, of course, part of his book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This all came about several months ago, after I found a beautiful full-color Dover edition of the work at Borders. It includes the plates with his demented artwork and calligraphy, and then those are followed by a straightforward reproduction of the text. The Annotated Proverbs should really be read in order, but here’s Proverb 54 and my annotation, just for an example:
When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius, lift up thy head!
Genius describes what the spirit knows
And the senses fail to perceive;
The river wonders where the water goes,
Man what he believes;
Genius, is the night with eyes:
By Genius sown, of Genius conceived.
Crazy, eh? And this is all part of Songs and Letters — Volume 16, begun November 21, 2007, and finished on December 16.
John Berbrich: Crazy all right. I see in stanza three that you were suffering from that colon problem last year. Dover does publish some marvelous reproductions. I have a few. Blake is an original. That’s quite a project you undertook there, Willie. Strange how the creative process works. Suddenly, there it is, in full view, the next creative adventure. You can see the whole thing shining in bright outline; all you need to do is the work, the actually filling in of the thing. You actually finished the entire project?
William Michaelian: The Proverbs, yes. Songs and Letters, no. I’m now in Volume 19, and at present there are 627 individual pieces. I’ve been working on this book for over three years now.
John Berbrich: Right. That’s real dedication. If you ever printed these things into books you’d rival our old friend Proust. Despite the existence of books online, people are still crazy for real paper, even hardcovers. I have trouble reading too much on a computer. But if I sit outside w/ a good book, I can read for hours. If I had free hours, I mean. Not three hours, free hours. Gesundheit.
William Michaelian: Are you by any chance referring to Rabbi Yaakov Gesundheit, the chief rabbi of Warsaw from 1870 to 1874?
John Berbrich: I suppose I am, by accident. Tell me, how did the good rabbi’s name come to be associated w/ the act of sneezing?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. For all I know, it could have been the other way around. According to this article on Wikipedia, gesundeit is the German and Yiddish word for “health.” Under Origin, we find this note: “Superstitions date back as early as Ancient Greece (ref. Herodotus, History 440 BC). The soul was thought to leave the body through the nose upon death, so a powerful sneeze was thus considered an ominous event.”
John Berbrich: I see. What’s funny is that I feel great after a good sneeze. What does that mean, I wonder? And I also wonder — what if they plugged the deceased’s nostrils? How would the soul get out? Would it linger & rot, or what? What does Wikipedia say about it?
William Michaelian: First of all, I think the exhilaration we feel after a good sneeze can only mean that we are inherently evil. I mean, simple logic dictates that. As for the soul leaving the body, it seems to me that you couldn’t plug the nostrils quickly enough after a person’s last breath to prevent its escape — or perhaps escape is too harsh a word. Maybe exit would be better. The only sure way would be to plug the nostrils before a person dies. Of course this would cause death, assuming the subject was also bound and gagged.
John Berbrich: Wait. I think I saw this movie, years ago in the middle of the night. There was a mad scientist, whose name I believe was Dr. Farrago, & a buxom young woman secured to some sort of gurney, just as you’ve described. It was a delightful scene, as I recall, w/ the young woman struggling provocatively against her bonds & Farrago cackling w/ joy. Maybe it wasn’t quite joy, actually, but, whatever, he was certainly cackling. I can’t remember any reference to any soul, though, or perhaps it’s just that time has dimmed the memory. Quite a good film, really.
William Michaelian: So, you think you saw it, and you don’t quite remember it — no wonder it was so good. Farrago. I too have heard that name . . . somewhere. You realize, of course, that this is perfect material for that movie you guys were going to make for next year’s film festival. Or is it this year’s film festival by now? I’ve completely lost track. Gesundheit would make a pretty good title. Get a rabbi in there — give Farrago some real competition this time.
John Berbrich: Devilish companions — or adversaries. It’s not a bad idea. To clarify, the film festival is this year. I’ve written the screenplay; now Howie, the world-famous radio DJ from the Howie & the Wolfman duo, is working on the storyboard, where we’ll film various scenes & so on. I’m not sure that I should release the title at this point in the production. I do like the idea of a Farrago-Gesundheit film, though. Maybe next year. Which one do you want to play?
William Michaelian: Yes. I mean, it’s up to you. But whatever the subject matter, wouldn’t it be great if the words “A Farrago-Gesundheit Film” rolled at the start of any movie? It’s far better than, say, “Merchant-Ivory,” or the dozens of others. And I do think it’s wise, not releasing the name. If you did, it would be all over the Web in minutes.
John Berbrich: Yes, quickly to be stolen by cyber-pirates. “A Farrago-Gesundheit Film” is perfect, absolutely, I agree. Now we simply are compelled to make another film. Again, there’s the problem of you living on the West Coast & me on the East. The actual filming could prove to be a problem.
William Michaelian: Mere details, my friend. Let the ideas come first, and then something will work out. Have I mentioned lately that you should quit your job? Do that, and one major obstacle is out of the way. We have films to make, and the Antique and Junk Poem Shop desperately needs our attention. Poets are literally dying to get in. Speaking of poets, how did your evening go with the St. Lawrence Area Poets?
John Berbrich: Oh, we enjoyed a grand evening. Two new poets showed up. There was a lively exchange of ideas & we all read our homework-poems. And we made plans to hold another reading soon at the Arts Council in Potsdam, plus to distribute a bunch of those SLAP poetry newsletters at the SummerFest next month, a huge three-day street party in Potsdam. So yes, it all went quite well.
William Michaelian: Great — so you’re already to the leaflet stage. The SummerFest is the perfect time to distribute the group’s first manifesto. The one titled “This Is Not a Manifesto,” decrying the foolishness of manifestos. Will there be a parade?
John Berbrich: Yeah, they always have a parade. It’s really busy, the streets filled w/ people. Vendors set up kiosks along the sidewalks, hawking good food, tattoos, cool t-shirts. Local shops have great sales. And they erect a stage right in the street where bands play everyday. Rock, Celtic-Rock, Folk. It’s really a marvelous time. Plus Nancy’s jazzercise group performs in the street for 30 minutes before Johnny & the Triumphs take the stage on Saturday evening. It’s a tradition.
William Michaelian: Sounds great. By any chance, are you the Johnny in that group?
John Berbrich: Uh, no. I wish. Johnny Kribs is the guy’s name. He plays lead guitar & sings lead vocals. W/ a bass player & drummer, the band specializes in old rock like Creedence Clearwater Revival & the Animals. This trio really knows how to ratchet up the excitement.
William Michaelian: Exactly what’s needed. In fact, here’s a link to his website, John Kribs Music. Lots of interesting stuff. I see he’s been at it a good long while. Say, I’ve only read the first sixteen pages so far, but the new Yawp is shaping up to be a good one. I hope to write a little about it eventually in Recently Banned Literature. In the interim, though, I’ve posted an entry that lists all the contributors.
John Berbrich: Well thanks, buddy. Those names look pretty good there on your virtual page. I thought we had some wicked fiction in this issue, strong poetry as well. And a nifty mini New York theme section somewhere in the middle. Those things just sort of happen.
William Michaelian: Yep. Each issue has its own character, and is its own adventure. Picking up a new Yawp is kind of like getting up in the morning: who knows where the day will lead. That colon was for you, by the way.
John Berbrich: Thanks, but I already have one.
William Michaelian: What’s this? You’re refusing my colon?
John Berbrich: I know my refusal might not be politically correct, but you might need that colon some day.
William Michaelian: I appreciate your concern. But a gift’s a gift. Your refusal, I feel, somehow diminishes us both. Besides: colons are still relatively common. So please: take it: unless you find it offensive for some reason.
John Berbrich: Well like they say, never look a gift colon in the mouth: how’s that?
William Michaelian: Marvelous. And so true. I feel better already. Here: it’s all yours. Hey, I just noticed something. If you put little dots in the o’s in the word colon, and draw little eyebrows over the o’s, and kind of extend the l down a ways and give it a twist up at the bottom, you end up with a neat cartoon face. Try it. And if you change the angle of the eyebrows you can make him happy or sad or anything in between. And after that, you can read the review of the Yawp I just posted. I hope it doesn’t put you out of business.
John Berbrich: Wow, Willie. Thanks a bunch! That’s quite a thoughtful & rather thorough review of the April Yawp. Really, thank you. And thanks as well for neglecting to mention that the magazine’s at least two months late. I’m hoping to get that July issue out in August.
William Michaelian: Good, because you’re on the verge of upsetting the balance of the universe. Actually, it didn’t even occur to me that the magazine was late. Whenever it arrives, it’s there, it’s fresh, it’s welcome. This is definitely a solid issue. My colon — I mean, my congratulations. There are a lot of pieces I could and perhaps should have quoted. I love the untitled poem early on by Nathan Hahs, for instance; Bryan Henery’s story, “In the Garden,” is excellent. Nicole Glikman’s poems. Sara Dailey’s “Heart Swallow,” near the end. And many more. That’s why I wanted to be sure everyone was listed.
John Berbrich: Quite a solid bunch, yes. Makes it all worthwhile — the hours of sweat & toil, the bad checks, the endless stream of cigars & whiskey. Which reminds me — who’s the poet laureate of the USA right now? Don’t check wikipedia, you should know this one.
William Michaelian: I should? Why should I? I want to say Pinsky; his name pops up quite often. But I really don’t know. Wait. Don’t tell me — he submitted a batch of poems and you rejected them.
John Berbrich: Way wrong! You know, I would reject the poems if I thought they were crummy. Even if submitted by God. But no, it’s not Pinsky; he was poet laureate about 10 years ago. Give up?
William Michaelian: I thought that was apparent. “I rejected Pinsky” has a nice ring to it. Well, go ahead. I know I’ve heard somewhere along the line. In fact, we’ve mentioned poets laureate here more than once.
John Berbrich: Wait a second — let me check w/ wikipedia. Ah, I thought so — Charles Simic! But the funny thing is, just yesterday I started to read a book by Pinsky called The Sounds of Poetry, written some 10 years ago, when he really was the poet laureate. I like Simic’s work. In fact, we’ve had him on the Howie & the Wolfman show, roughly one year ago. He read a few short poems & was gone. But I liked the almost-rough humor of his work. And the brevity of it. The soul of wit, & all that.
William Michaelian: Yes. Of course. Well, there’s no reason you should believe this, but when I said Pinsky, I almost said Simic. But how did it come about that he visited your show? Was he expecting you to help salvage his career?
John Berbrich: I don’t really know. I suppose he was in town visiting relatives or something. I didn’t want to pry. Anyway, he begged so I could hardly refuse. You know, those two names sort of go together. You could combine them, like Pinic or Simsky. An obscure poet from Eastern Europe. I’m sure his work is very political. Hard times in the village & all that. Werewolves on the edge of town. A dangerous place.
William Michaelian: He sits in your little studio, coal dust on his shoes. “My name is Stanislaus Spimic,” he says. “I’ve been walking for thirty-two days. My dog, Kryzhestypol, died along the way. This poem is for him.”
John Berbrich: That’s exactly what happened! And at that moment, the fire alarm went off. You should have heard the clanging of those bells! Poor Spimic was lost. We led him, stumbling & staggering, down the corridor, up the stairs, along another long corridor, up another flight of stairs, around a corner, along yet another long corridor, & through the door, out into the sunlight. I think that he believed it was a raid of some kind. Was a pretty traumatic experience. The poor man was nearly in tears.
William Michaelian: Calling out from each landing, “Kryzhestypol, Kryzhestypol . . .” So was there really a fire, or was it just a drill?
John Berbrich: Actually it was something stupid, like a student burning toast or something. But the alarm really went off & the Potsdam Fire Department really showed up, hoses & axes ready. The entire spectacle was rather inspiring. Did I mention it was raining?
William Michaelian: No. In fact, you said you led Mr. Spimic “out into the sunlight.”
John Berbrich: Oh wait, this was a different time. The one in the sunshine was merely a drill. I must be confusing Spimic w/ some other Eastern European poet. We’ve had so many on the show.
William Michaelian: All victims of fire, I assume. Glassy-eyed, singed beards, morose. Partly burned manuscripts impossible to tear from their hands.
John Berbrich: Yeah, lamenting their deceased dogs & oxen & whatever. That’s a pretty accurate description, Willie. You’ve got a good eye for detail. A good ear too. Eastern European poets seem to be dogged by tough luck, no pun intended. Maybe we should try some Hawaiian poet, chanting of leafy jungle trees, colorful birds, perfect waves. And no snakes, that’s a great subject for a poem. I really feel inspiration coming on here. Can you feel it?
William Michaelian: Well, I feel something. But I’m afraid you’ve described only Western Hawaiian poets. Eastern Hawaiian poets are really quite disturbed. Or, as the old saying goes, K’anah k’leah kookoo, which means, roughly, Where I go, there follows a volcano.
John Berbrich: Wow, you know everything. So the East-West cyclic syndrome dichotomy even extends to the Hawaiian Islands, huh? How depressing. Ever been to Hawaii?
William Michaelian: Oh, I’ve rowed past it a few times, but I’ve never stopped. You know how it is. You’re expected somewhere else and you’re running a little late, so you say next time, next time, in rhythm with the oars. How about you?
John Berbrich: Nope.
William Michaelian: Ah. That nope of yours speaks volumes. It not only says you’ve never been to Hawaii, it says there are at least a dozen places you’d rather go.
John Berbrich: Well, in all seriousness, I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. It probably goes back to when I was a little kid. My father was in the Air Force & had been stationed in Japan between the second World War & the Korean War. He showed me all these little black & white photographs, mostly of himself chopping wood in a Christian Japanese orphanage. There’s my dad as a young man wielding an axe surrounded by a few nuns & all these little Japanese kids. There were other pictures. They worked on my imagination.
William Michaelian: I can see how they would. And still do. Well, maybe you’ll make it there someday. I wouldn’t mind going myself, especially to the rural areas. But I suppose things have changed a bit since Basho’s time.
John Berbrich: I’m inclined to agree. I certainly wouldn’t know what to expect. I suppose a startling blend of old & new, mostly new. But I guess every place changes over the years, over the decades, over the centuries. Whatever comes, we’ll still have Basho’s poems, a literary chronicle of a long gone past.
William Michaelian: I wonder what people think of him there, if he’s revered, taught in schools, and so on. Maybe the younger folks think haiku is silly?
John Berbrich: I don’t think so. I read someplace, not too long ago, that there are thousands of haiku journals being published in Japan. The Japanese seem to have a thing for tradition, for the past, yet have the ability to savor it alongside modernity. If I ever get there I’ll let you know.
William Michaelian: Or I can read about it in your subsequent book, Letters from Japan. And in the future, that too will serve as a marker against which change can be measured — in what you saw, and in yourself. Three or four months ago, at the end of the little street where the guy who looks like Vonnegut lives, we noticed a new gap in the skyline. A nice old tree, some sort of cedar, had been cut down behind the fence in someone’s backyard. We still haven’t gotten used to its absence. I drive up to the stop sign, expecting to see that tree. And yet I’m sure some people never noticed. And people new to the neighborhood certainly won’t miss it, just as we don’t miss things that were no longer here when we first moved to the area. I wonder if the birds are still talking about it. The crows were crazy about that tree.
John Berbrich: The birds may be composing poems & songs about it right now. Change is wonderful, change is sad. Change is inevitable. There’s a line in an old Jefferson Airplane song: “Life is change; how it differs from the rocks.” Yet even the rocks change over time. To a young child, it all seems immutable; to an old man, life is a spinning whirling vortex, twisting towards a black hole. Although perhaps one reaches a point where it all begins to slow down, where the mad dashing acceleration stops, where the things of life stabilize once again into nouns, permanent, solid, dependable. So I guess the crows will adjust.
William Michaelian: Most will, I’m sure. But there has been a rise in suicide among them. Some mornings, dead crows line the street. Crow poets. Crow philosophers. Crow bars. Crow nightclubs, for that matter.
John Berbrich: Crazy, man. Crow bars, I like that one. Mad crow disease. Sounds like the neighborhood’s going downhill.
William Michaelian: Of course it’s going downhill! How long can you brush aside the crow situation and expect otherwise? Change is one thing, but the slaughter of innocent trees is another. Crow Magnon. Crow’s feet.
John Berbrich: Crow’s Nest. Crow-atia. I detect in you a political & social fervor, Willie. Crows storming the Bastille & all that. Placards. Boycotts. Girlcotts. Letters to congressmen. Sit-ins. Tree-hugging. Crow Peace. Banners. Bumper stickers. Angry blogs. Fists raised in the air. Secret handshakes. Midnight meetings in dank cellars by the light of a lone candle. Where will it end?
William Michaelian: In justice! Liquidarity! Bread crumbs. Worms. Remove the “n” from “crown” and what do you get? That’s right — crow! Crows from all walks of life, walking wing in wing, singing, “We shall overcaw.”
John Berbrich: You make it all sound possible, like it really could happen. I want to believe, but I’ve been wounded too many times by false prophets, charlatans, & scam artists. Maybe this is the real thing. Heckle & Jeckle for President & Vice President!!! But wait — if you take the “R” out of crow, you’ve got cow. Oh, that would be awful.
William Michaelian: There, now. Steady yourself. It would be awful, but only temporarily, until you add an “l” — giving us cowl. And don’t they also remind you of hooded monks, attending to their duties on the monastery grounds?
John Berbrich: Yes, & what strange rituals do they perform, eh, w/ their musty books & scabbed knees? They’ll doubtless add an “s” to the stew, making it scowl. I see a cornfield filled w/ scowling cowled cows. Willie, this just keeps getting worse.
William Michaelian: Yep. And it’s purely by instinct. There’s absolutely no work involved. For instance, borrowing your “s” for a moment, look how easily cows becomes scows — which we can use to transport this heap of bad jokes out to sea.
John Berbrich: But now they’ve changed the “c” to an “l”. This slows us down to the point that we’ll never get there. And why would you want to send a load of bad jokes out to sea, anyway? I was having fun w/ them.
William Michaelian: Oh? Then by all means let’s drop the second “s,” replace the first one with a “p,” and plow ahead.
John Berbrich: But if we drop the “w” & add a “t”, we have plot & I almost think you’re up to something fishy.
William Michaelian: Only because if you swap a “p” for that “t” you get plop — which is the sound a fish makes when it jumps in the water next to a scow hauling bad jokes out to sea, see.
John Berbrich: Oh. Double you. No, but one’s enough. Seriously, though. When you remove that “l” & replace it w/ another “0” you get poop. And that’s you on the poop deck, Willie. Hey, that’s a great name for a book of some kind: Willie’s on the Poop.
William Michaelian: That would be perfect for a bestselling book of useless facts. And it would serve an important patriotic function — keeping the intellect at bay.
John Berbrich: A top priority, I’m sure. Tell me, which is worse — a book of useless facts or a book of incorrect facts? Or are they just two different stops along the information highway?
William Michaelian: Hmm. I don’t know. Tough question. Is any fact useless? What’s useless to me might be of value to you or anyone, everyone else. Who’s to decide? In the end, of course, no book is useless. Even if you don’t read it. Because it looks good on the shelf with your other books. Or because it’s the perfect doorstop, or a bookend for other books.
John Berbrich: That reminds me of this Robert Frost poem I read years ago. It’s late afternoon one warm summer’s day, and he’s gone outdoors as I recall, w/ some sort of holy book, a book of Hymns I believe, in hand. But he never opens it. He stands looking at the golden late-afternoon sun, the hay stacked in bales, w/ a few farmhands busy here & there. He doesn’t open that book, yet its presence is significant.
William Michaelian: What a great painting that would make. A figure with his back to the viewer, gazing at the scene you’ve just described, a book in his right hand, down at his side. I don’t know the poem, but I love the subject.
John Berbrich: Yeah, I could see that. The color would be very important for the artist to reproduce. That golden-amber sort of thing. The way I’m seeing it now, everything is focused on that book, even though it appears insignificant. “Why is it there?” you wonder.
William Michaelian: As you look at it, you run through the possibilities in your mind. He was reading; he intends to read; he had planned to read but he has changed his mind; he is taking the book to a friend; a friend has given him the book and now he’s on his way home. And so on. Of course, not knowing is what makes the painting so good. Have you dabbled much in painting or drawing?
John Berbrich: Not much. Lately I’ve been thinking about buying a small canvas & fiddling w/ it. I’m not sure what I’d use — oils, watercolors, acrylics. I did have a brief fling w/ pencil drawings years ago. A few turned out fairly well, particularly one amazing drawing of a toad that truly astonishes me. Otherwise my attempts are at the kindergarten level. You? I mean, besides the classy mustachioed faces.
William Michaelian: Ha! — and those characters are getting stranger and stranger. Well, I did draw a crazy sunflower with colored pencils the other day. Kindergarten, maybe first grade. It’s in this blog entry. You’ll need to give it a click to see it at full size. In any case, I mentioned in my latest Notebook entry that I am indeed thinking about venturing beyond those weird “portraits,” just to see what happens. What about that toad? It sounds great. Can you scan it and send it this way?
John Berbrich: I’ll see what I can do. First I’ve got to find the notebook that contains the drawing. I like your sunflower. All the energy in the drawing seems to be focused in on the sunflower, or perhaps the sunflower is emanating the energy. Either way, it all looks alive. Maybe third grade.
William Michaelian: Third grade. This kid goes to a rural school located next to a field of sunflowers. He stares out the window at them every day in early September, wishing to be among them, wanting to talk with them, more than anything wanting to be a sunflower himself. “Your child is totally unresponsive,” the teacher tells his mother on the telephone. “Unless it is yellow — he is madly, passionately attracted to yellow.” Later that night, after the boy is asleep, his mother goes in to check on him — and finds a sunflower on the pillow. That’s the one I drew. That’s why it has an eye.
John Berbrich: And this scene has been bothering you for 45 years, eh? I wonder what inspired you to draw it at just this time.
William Michaelian: Actually, it’s been bothering me for about five minutes. Unless — oh my
god — do you think this is something I’ve suppressed all these years? Because I have no recollection of it. I thought I was making it up.
John Berbrich: Just as I suspected. There obviously is a reason why you felt compelled to draw the sunflower & then invent a fantasy scenario regarding its genesis. First we have to ascertain what the sunflower represents. Tell me about your third grade teacher.
William Michaelian: Well, he was rather short-stemmed. His leaves were a dark, healthy green — although there had been a hatch of worms on the undersides of two or three of them. But I don’t think the other kids noticed that. His head was rather large, and it faced east in the morning, and then as the day progressed his fuzzy neck bent toward the sun. By the time school was out in the afternoon, it seemed like his head had become too much of a burden to bear. He liked water. Used to keep some on his desk at all times. A bright, cheery fellow, most of the time.
John Berbrich: Hmmmmm. Sounds pretty normal. Any other adults from third grade — gym teacher, lunchroom lady, bus driver? I’m sure there’s a problem in there somewhere. Or maybe a deviant babysitter?
William Michaelian: I doubt it was anyone in the lunchroom. Those women were pleasant enough, for marigolds. There were two bus drivers. One on the morning route, one for afternoon. Philodendron, cactus. I’m speaking of their personalities, of course. There was a wonderful weed-like janitor. Really, looking back, I see no problem with any of them. Then again, there was the sun itself, blooming overhead.
John Berbrich: Ah, I might have known. Well, perhaps what we’re categorizing as problems could actually be considered strengths. You know, I myself wrote a sunflower poem many years ago. I’ve just found it.
a ragged sunflower
at the end of the
at the end of the
at the end of the
of the very
old man who
had planted it
nods its head
like a black
as the sullen
dusk falls the
the telephones start ringing.
William Michaelian: Beautiful. I love it. And so it turns out that you, too, are obsessed with sunflowers. There is something powerful and prehistoric about them, isn’t there. Something both triumphant and sad.
John Berbrich: And so tall & brazen. All these other flowers are grubbing down in the dirt while the sunflower stands above all that, its head hanging in the breeze. It is certainly a different, prehistoric species. Have you ever seen pictures of these gigantic fields out west, in South Dakota I think, of nothing but miles & miles of sunflowers? It’s awesome, amazing, humbling.
William Michaelian: I have. In fact, I just posted one taken near Fargo, North Dakota, in Recently Banned Literature — along with your poem. I’ve also seen some pretty big sunflower fields in California. All those eyes, looking at you.
John Berbrich: Wow. It’s not just a field of flowers — it’s more like a civilization, like a gigantic colony of ants or an endless bee-hive. There is something a little scary about it, those eyes, as you mentioned. Alien eyes, eyes behind which are thoughts you could never understand.
William Michaelian: Yes. Imagine trying to make your way across a field like that — imagine it’s absolutely imperative, and that you have no idea how many miles across it is. Imagine the panic you feel when you finally realize that you’ve been walking in circles. And now the sun is going down. No way out. You have to spend the night.
John Berbrich: Yeah. And then on the second day you realize that the sunflower eyes aren’t following the sun — they’re following you.
William Michaelian: Well, such things are to be expected, I guess. Then again, what if, when the early settlers heading West came to the prairies, the prairies had been a gently rolling sea of sunflowers? Would they have made it across? Would they have tried? I mean, it’s nice to at least see where you are, even if you don’t know where you’re going.
John Berbrich: I suppose you’d have to chop your way through, like w/ a machete. It would take simply forever to cross a big field covered by those hideous sunflowers, especially w/ all those clunky wagons. I would expect the sunflower stems, trunks — what do you call ’em? — to wrap themselves around the wheels & axles. It would be like going through a jungle. Sounds to me like a nightmare, a never-ending one.
William Michaelian: And then, too, you’d be sure to meet the Sunflower People, that naked tribe that wears sunflower seed necklaces and sunflower masks, and weaves huts from sunflower debris. But you don’t meet them until you’ve waded through at least 400 miles of sunflowers. Some say you never meet them, that by this time you only think you’ve traveled 400 miles, that you’re totally, desperately, deliciously delirious — hence your marriage to the beautiful and exotic Sunflower Goddess.
John Berbrich: That doesn’t sound so bad, except that I’m sure to be sacrificed in chapter two. I hope they do it quickly. And I hope the Sunflower Goddess is pretty.
William Michaelian: She’s beautiful and exotic, I tell you. . . . Okay, she does resemble Van Gogh, but just a little. Only when she smokes her pipe. And she has both ears. Hmm. Maybe she’s also the goddess of corn.
John Berbrich: I’m not sure I like the sound of that. I can see her shucking corn all day long, smoking a pipe, her skin burned nearly black by the sun. Those crazy beads strung around her slender neck. Perhaps we can convert the Sunflower People to our religion, that of early 21st century American Capitalism. Too much to hope for?
William Michaelian: Aw, man. If a goddess wants to smoke corn all day and shuck her pipe, I say let her. Embrace the moment. Become one of them. Be primitive. Find your roots. Be a Sunflower, live like a Sunflower, think like a Sunflower.
John Berbrich: We all stand there, nodding, indistinguishable, looking off in the same direction at nothing. Yeah, yeah — live in the moment. Peace, dude.
William Michaelian: Do I detect a note of sarcasm? Anyway, throw in a few line breaks and you just wrote a poem called “The Congregation.”
John Berbrich: Like this?
We all stand there,
looking off in the same direction
Yeah, yeah — live
in the moment.
William Michaelian: That’s it exactly. But what do you think about changing “there” to “here” in the first line?
John Berbrich: “Here” makes the poem more immediate, since it’s happening right now. So yes, “here” it is. Anything else?
William Michaelian: Yes. Before we move on — if indeed we ever move on, here’s a list of sunflower varieties from Wikipedia:
American Giant Hybrid
Indian Blanket Hybrid
Large Grey Stripe
Ring of Fire
John Berbrich: Very cool names. You know, for someone who likes to take on new & impractical literary projects, don’t you think it would be a grand idea if you wrote a poem for each variety, using those cool names of course for the titles? All those queens & suns & giants. The poems would make an entire chapbook. This is positively brilliant!
William Michaelian: Funny — I knew you’d see it this way. Of course I see nothing impractical about it. Shall I? I mean, like you, I see these names and they’re irresistible.
John Berbrich: By all means, my good man — the project’s yours. This has real potential.
William Michaelian: I’ll say. Someday, the end of my biography will read,“He spent the rest of his life writing The Sunflower Cycle, which is comprised of twenty-eight poems inspired by the names of sunflowers. He died insane.”
John Berbrich: “He faced the East at dawn & the West at twilight. He was a circadian man.”
William Michaelian: “Through the deep dark night, bumblebees slept in his beard.”
John Berbrich: “His neighbors thought he was weird.”
William Michaelian: “Perhaps it was an image he wished to cultivate. Perhaps it was just the rustling of his leaves.”
John Berbrich: He gave everyone he knew these delicious black seeds.
William Michaelian: And new meaning to the word “salt.”
John Berbrich: Eh? What’s that about salt?
William Michaelian: Salted sunflower seeds. Hey, here’s an intriguing image: sunflowers on the beach, wearing bright yellow scarves.
John Berbrich: I can see it. Can you picture little sunflowers frolicking in the waves? That could get messy.
William Michaelian: Especially if their mammoth parents are drunk along the shore, not paying attention. Sunflowers in Death Valley. Sunflower Meadow State Park. Sunflowers in a snowbank. Sunflowers growing in the cracks of a concrete prison yard. A sunflower dies alone out West, in an old brick hotel, a losing game of Solitaire on the wash stand.
John Berbrich: Are you considering illustrating this poetry chapbook? Now I’m seeing another project: this one’s a calendar, w/ one colorful glossy sunflower photograph for each month. Man, Willie, you are going to be one busy feller.
William Michaelian: Nah, I’ll do the calendar after the chapbook, when I’m dead. A sunflower, hanging from a scaffold, surrounded by onlookers — all the other flowers in the town.
John Berbrich: Looks like a scene from an old movie, where the hollyhocks & petunias discriminate against the poor, blameless sunflowers. Those were evil days, that’s for sure.
William Michaelian: In the beginning, they begged the sunflower to be sheriff. “Everyone will respect you,” they said. “Tall, strong. Big head. This town respects people with big yellow heads.” But the sunflower refused, explaining that he was just an ordinary flower who wanted to lead an ordinary life — you know, maybe settle down, get married, have kids. Well, that scared the daylights out of the hollyhocks and petunias, the zinnias, marigolds, and mums. And so they organized against him. Tried to undermine him. Watched his every move. Doctored his drinks at the saloon. Fixed him up on a blind date with a tumbleweed. That sort of thing.
John Berbrich: Yeah, evil days, like I said. I hear there was this tremendous fight w/ a gang of zinnias over the tumbleweed. The Sunflower emerged, like John Wayne, w/ a smoking pistil. Tell me about that.
William Michaelian: Well, the zinnias were wild about the tumbleweed because they knew she’d been around. But the sunflower didn’t really care for her, for the same reason. But you know how sunflowers are — he took pity on her when she fell into the clutches of the Zinnia gang. To get their attention, he gave out a long thistle. Then he walked straight toward them, pollen rising from his roots.
John Berbrich: Wow. What happened next, grampa?!?
William Michaelian: The leader of the Zinnia gang, a flashy guy whose nickname was State Fair, looked ol’ Sunflower in the eye and spat a seed on the ground. “Say, kid,” he said, looking down at Sunflower’s roots. “You look like you could use a drink.” To which ol’ Sunflower replied, “No thanks, shorty. I wouldn’t want you to fall out of that planter of yours.” This started the whole Zinnia gang laughing. That’s when the tumbleweed broke free and rolled on over to Sunflower’s side. Next thing you know, a big gunfight broke out. Petals were flying everywhere. When the dust settled, State Fair was sprawled out flat on the ground, without a bud left on him. The rest, as they say, is history.
John Berbrich: Wow. State Fair was dead? What happened to Sunflower & Miss Tumbleweed?
William Michaelian: Miss Tumbleweed got stuck on a cactus, and they lived next to a little shack at the edge of town. Sunflower got gold fever and died in Alaska. Alone. In the snow. At least that’s the general drift of it.
John Berbrich: “Stuck on a cactus” is cowboy-talk for pregnant, ain’t it grampa?
William Michaelian: First of all, I ain’t your grampa. I don’t know where that rumor got started, but that’s all it is — a rumor. Not that I wouldn’t be mighty proud to have you as a grandson. Yes, mighty proud. Second of all, these aren’t cowboys we’re talking about. They may act and shoot and spit and fall into abandoned mine shafts and otherwise generally carry on like cowboys, but they pretty much fold up shop after a good frost — something a cowboy would never do. Now, as for the term “stuck on a cactus,” I just don’t know. But it’s catchy enough, I think it just might stick.
John Berbrich: Aww, grampa. You’re such a trickster. Last time you told that story, Sunflower wound up selling used pickup trucks in a little dirt town outside Fresno. It’s sad to think of him freezing to death way up in Alaska, all alone. Are you sure Miss Tumbleweed didn’t head up there w/ him? And what about the little tumbleflowers? What about them?
William Michaelian: Well, it’s true, Miss Tumbleweed did leave the cactus when she realized he was spineless. She set out after Sunflower, who had turned in his badge and struck out for the north country. He holed up in Fresno for a time, but scattered when the locals approached him and asked him to run for mayor. He might have sold pickups, I’m not sure. Might have done a lot of things. Then there was the steamer episode up in Puget Sound, where he fell in love with an ear of Indian corn. That made Miss Tumbleweed awfully jealous. Ol’ Sunflower, he didn’t even know she was onboard. But she was, and there was no doubt in his mind that Miss Tumbleweed was responsible for his new love’s death. He turned awful bitter. Awful bitter. Some say his death in Alaska was really suicide. Miss Tumbleweed, though, she was tough. She just put on another layer of insecticide powder and carried on.
John Berbrich: And what about her? One time you told us that she took to selling her own seeds by the roadside, in a seedy part of Salem, Oregon. Jeepers, that’s along way to fall for a noble tumbleweed.
William Michaelian: She did what we all do in these parts — she rolled with the punches. Then the rains came. The streets turned to mud. But surely you don’t care that much. What about you? Do you have any tumbleweeds up in your part of the country?
John Berbrich: Haven’t seen one. But I keep looking.
William Michaelian: That’s my boy. Meanwhile, here are the first two paragraphs of an article on tumbleweeds from — you guessed it — Wikipedia. The page is worth a glance. It has a picture of a tumbleweed in a full bloom, and another snagged on an old fence, looking pretty much as they found Miss Tumbleweed after she heard about Sunflower’s tragic-foolish death in Alaska.
Salsola (also known as Tumbleweed, Saltwort or Russian thistle) is a genus of herbs, subshrubs, shrubs and small trees in the family Chenopodiaceae, native to Africa, Asia, and Europe; they typically grow on flat, often dry and/or somewhat saline soils, with some species in saltmarshes. Recent genetic studies have however shown that the genus as traditionally circumscribed is paraphyletic, and many species are likely to be transferred to other genera in the future.
In several annual species, those known popularly as “tumbleweeds,” the plants break away from their roots in the autumn, and are driven by the wind as a light, rolling mass, scattering seed far and wide. The seeds are produced in such large numbers that the plant has not developed protective coatings or food reserves for the coiled plant embryos. The deep, ineradicable taproot survives to grow again the following season. Contrary to popular belief, tumbleweeds are alive.
John Berbrich: Now I didn’t know much of that, although I’d always assumed, correctly it appears, that Miss Tumbleweed was alive. Looks like Wikipedia took their introductory paragraphs directly from your last entry. Thieves.
William Michaelian: That’s a little harsh, maybe, but they could have at least mentioned it in a footnote. Isn’t it poignant how these plants break free from their roots and tumble off into the countryside in the fall, committing suicide, as it were, in order to further their kind? Of course, it isn’t hard to imagine a bleak, sinful town taken over by menacing tumbleweeds, sent by God as punishment to the wicked.
John Berbrich: The idea is downright poignant, you’re right, & deserves a full treatment in a 40-page poetry chapbook written by an eminent Oregonian poet. Don’t you agree?
William Michaelian: Yes, I do. Unfortunately, William Stafford is dead. Do you have a title in mind?
John Berbrich: Not really. But how about “Sunflower & Miss Tumbleweed”? You could tell the story just like you told it to me, only in little poetic vignettes. You gotta admit, it’s different.
William Michaelian: And it would be even more different after I got through with it. For instance, at key moments, say when a new character is introduced, or a term like “taproot” is used, I could put in footnotes from Wikipedia.
John Berbrich: Yeah, that would be more different. You’d have to make those footnotes really small. You know, whenever I see a sunflower nodding by the roadside now, I always look for a tumbleweed nearby. See how literature influences life? And the thing isn’t even written yet.
William Michaelian: I’ve developed a fear of sunflowers myself. And last night I dreamed I was kidnapped by a tumbleweed. The odd thing is, when I woke up this morning, I was covered with dust and there were seeds in my beard.
John Berbrich: Hmmm. Was a ransom demanded?
William Michaelian: Almost, then he realized I wasn’t a tumbleweed. We were both disappointed.
John Berbrich: I see. How long have you had this abduction fantasy, Mr. Michaelian?
William Michaelian: Ever since the first time I was kidnapped, I guess. Did I mention that my dentist is a sunflower? I think my fear stems from that.
John Berbrich: Indeed. His name isn’t, by chance, Dr. Farrago?
William Michaelian: No, but the adjoining office is occupied by a Dr. Farrago. I understand they work together on some of the more difficult procedures.
John Berbrich: Good heavens, man — you’re lucky to be alive! Do you realize that this Dr. Farrago is an untrustworthy fiend, a man capable of stooping so low that he’d be knee-high to a worm — if a worm had knees, of course. You didn’t let him look into your mouth, did you?
William Michaelian: Well, yes. He used something he called a “Farragoscope.” It seemed harmless enough.
John Berbrich: Good Lord! And what did he find w/ that bogus, over-priced, high-tech hunk of junk?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. He says he’s still developing the slides. He said something about “hoping to find a match.” But I’ve never been good with technical jargon.
John Berbrich: Let me guess. Next time he’ll say that he just wants you to come in for a minor examination. I’d be very careful around this character, Mr. Michaelian. Tell me — did he have an assistant w/ him? Rather an obscure, partially deformed chap?
William Michaelian: Yes — how did you know? He looked both eager and tormented. Farrago called him “Muddle.” Rather derogatory, I thought, but this Muddle fellow seemed to like the attention. Also, it was the first time I’d seen a shovel in a dentist’s office.
John Berbrich: The shovel is Farrago’s standard tool for root canals — he digs ’em deep. Seriously, you’d better find another dentist & soon. You’re getting quite a tartar build up along your canines.
William Michaelian: Ahghammb?
John Berbrich: Gesundheit. A little wider, please. That’s better. Now, where’s that damn tongue depressor...?
William Michaelian: Splot! Jeez — I’ll tell you where it’s going to be, if you don’t ease up.
John Berbrich: Will you just sit still? Gods, you’re jumpy, man. Look, this is a simple procedure, one I’ve performed thousands of times before. Have a little faith. Now, a little wider, please.
William Michaelian: Very well. But I wasn’t expecting a checkup. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have eaten so much garlic.
John Berbrich: Achh — think nothing of it. I love garlic. Let me stuff this wad of cotton in here, like so. And this here’s a clamp — it’ll keep you from wiggling your jaw. I’ll just twist the crank so it’s snug. There. Now, bite down hard on this synthetic cylinder constructed of tough wrinkle-proof fibers. Good. God, I wish you could see yourself. And now I’ll insert this moisture-absorbent pad for any loose spittle & blood, whatever. There. Now, how’s the wife & kids?
William Michaelian: Ggh . . . ine.
John Berbrich: Good, good. Glad to hear it. Look this way now. That’s better. Say, while you’re here, how about I lower your ears for you? That & a shave, only ten bucks. For you, twelve-fifty. Waddaya say?
William Michaelian: No . . . gh . . . hands . . . off . . . gh . . . beard . . . Pogo . . . nology . . .
John Berbrich: Pogo? Sure, I used to read that comic when I was a kid. Pogo was a little possum thing who lived in a swamp w/ his pal Albert the Alligator. Walt Kelly was the cartoonist. So what is this ology stuff, the study of Pogo? And now for your beard. Here’s my sharpest razor.
William Michaelian: Ghorceps? . . . gh . . . no . . . pogo . . . udy . . . eards . . .
John Berbrich: Eards? What the hell is an eard? Let me get all this junk out of your mouth.... There. Now, what the hell are you talking about?
William Michaelian: Oh, nothing. Just passing the time of day. I thought you might be interested in pogonology, which is the study of beards — or, as it’s defined in my 1924 Webster’s dictionary, “a treatise on beards.” But I am curious about something: why this sudden spate of dentistry? I mean, are you harboring some deep, unrealized desire to be a dentist?
John Berbrich: I believe it was the mention of Dr. Farrago, the mad dentist, that inspired me. I’m feeling much better now, anyway, thanks. Here’s a rag for that bloody mouth of yours. Guess I did get a little carried away.
William Michaelian: You might say so. Frankly, I dread your bill. So — let’s talk about books. I assume you’re steadily adding to your already vast collection.
John Berbrich: Of course. On our recent trip to Burlington, Vermont, I picked up three. I bought two used books at the Crow Bookshop: a collection of poetry by David Mamet entitled The Chinaman; & In Radical Pursuit, a book of literary criticism by W.D. Snodgrass. Then we strolled over to Borders where I purchased Lies, Inc. by Philip K. Dick. I’ve finished Dick’s & Mamet’s, working now on the Snodgrass.
William Michaelian: Great. And I, too, have made a few acquisitions. Let’s see . . . the other day at Goodwill, I found a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, along with a little selection of William Blake’s poems made by Stanley Kunitz — The Essential Blake, it’s called. And then there’s Eight Lines and Under, An Anthology of Short, Short Poems, edited by William Cole. I’ve found several enjoyable pieces in that one. Haiku in English, by Harold G. Henderson. And a couple more of the Peter Pauper Press haiku collections that we mentioned some time ago, The Four Seasons and Cherry Blossoms. I really love those little books. The Sayings of Doctor Johnson, edited by Brenda O’Casey and published by Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd., contains a number of witty gems by Samuel Johnson. And there are others. Did you enjoy The Chinaman?
John Berbrich: Some of it was very good. In other poems, I found the language rather thick & difficult to get a feel for. Perhaps it’s one of those literary works that takes some time. I read a book of Mamet’s essays last year which I enjoyed quite a lot. On your list, I love Henderson’s haiku translations, but we’ve discussed all of this before. Regarding the Peter Pauper books, I have #’s 1, 3, & 4 of the haiku series. I don’t know how far they went w/ it. Lovely little hardbacks.
William Michaelian: That they are. I also bought a book that contains Samuel Beckett’s novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Started reading the first novel once while waiting for our van to be fixed; I was asked to leave the waiting room, I suppose because I was mumbling incoherencies. Wait — is incoherenices a word?
John Berbrich: Well, which is it? — incoherencies or incoherenices? The former you could make a solid case for. The latter, well, I’m having trouble even saying it. in-co-her-e-nices. There.
William Michaelian: Nah, save your breath. One of us being incoherent is enough. But this does remind me of another word I'm always fouling up: commercial. I often type it as commerical.
John Berbrich: I like commerical — reminds me of chimerical. I sound smart when I say it: commerical. And I love to befuddle that spell-check.
William Michaelian: Yes. For instance, I’m working on this poem, “An Absurdist Play,” and the spell-check doesn’t approve of the word “absurdist.”
John Berbrich: Hmmmm. That’s not a really unusual word. Well, I guess you can’t use it. The word police will be after you. One of our kids was writing on a computer at a local college. He typed the word “he,” & a warning popped up: “gender-specific term.” That is scary.
William Michaelian: Gad. “Gender-specific term. Suggestions: it; consider re-writing your sentence so that it refers to no one at all, or choose another subject and begin again.”
John Berbrich: That’s about it. Eventually you may not be able to talk because anything you say might offend someone. Although I’m sure some people will be offended by your silence. Then what? The government will issue a manual of acceptable words & phrases. Use any word not found in the manual & you will be machine-gunned down. Isn’t that how it works?
William Michaelian: Only in enlightened societies. Hey, I know — let’s conduct a study. I don’t know what we’ll study, but from what I can tell, studies are a pretty lucrative business. In fact, maybe we can study studies.
John Berbrich: Eureka! An excellent idea. We’ll have to write a grant first. Get some government money. You wanna start?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. That doesn’t sound like much fun. And something tells me that if it turns out to be fun, the government won’t accept our proposal.
John Berbrich: Okay, we’ll freelance. A study of studies. We’ll need to conduct exhaustive research & give an account of all the studies undertaken in the 20th century & compare statistics regarding successful studies & dumb studies & then determine what makes the successful ones successful & the dumb ones dumb. And then we’ll conclude w/ a chapter extolling the virtues of our own particular study & explain exactly why it is the perfect model for all future studies.
William Michaelian: Sounds good to me. Another possible study would be a study of people who do studies. And then a study of people who study people who study studies.
John Berbrich: Sounds like the work of a lifetime, for sure. But one project at a time, I like to say. Where do you want to start?
William Michaelian: With beer or coffee. I’m not sure. You ever feel that way? Also, I think we need to devise a massive system of tiny cubbyholes — walls and walls of them. A labyrinth. Into each will go a single fact, a single bit of research. When they’re all full, then we can begin examining and compiling the information.
John Berbrich: Thanks for volunteering to build the labyrinth. By the way, I remember reading that the method you just described was the one they used to compile information for the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. They built bazillions of those tiny cubbyholes & started filling them up. The rest was easy. I’ll start w/ a coffee — beer later.
William Michaelian: Check. Anyway, we’re both thinking of James Murray, the first editor of the OED, who worked for decades in his “scriptorium,” a system of lettered cubbyholes into which he eventually placed over five million slips of paper. And there was this one guy, a schizophrenic murderer by the name of Dr. W.C. Minor, who sent him thousands of useful quotations from the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
John Berbrich: Oh, everybody knows that. But what they don’t know is that he stole most of those quotations from cereal boxes, the contents of which were provided for the residents’ breakfast. Unfortunately, Minor was cursed w/ a shaky hand, as well as a psychotic brain, which helps to explain the bizarre state of English spelling.
William Michaelian: Cereal boxes, eh? In those days, did they even have Shredded Wheat? Anyway, I picture far more cubbyholes than Murray used. His fit in a room. Ours will be like a vast museum of cubbyholes, room after room after room, from floor to ceiling. To use the bottom rows, we’ll have to crawl. And the top rows will be accessible only by means of a very tall ladder.
John Berbrich: I can picture us as the curators, bearded, esoteric, half-drunk on homebrew from the Antique Poem & Junk Shop next door. Our own endless little universe. It’s a vision worthy of a poem or something, at least.
William Michaelian: Yes. You know, it occurs to me that these cubbyholes and the Antique & Junk Poem Shop really constitute a giant model of the human brain. Well, maybe not the human brain, but ours, anyway.
John Berbrich: I’ll agree w/ that one. My brain is becoming antique. And there’s plenty of junk in there. At least a few poems. Strange to think about a brain forming, the convolutions winding & curling like a snake. So many cubbyholes. And they say we use only like 10% of our cubbyholes. Man, what’s going on w/ the rest of them?
William Michaelian: Maybe each is inhabited by a tiny writer, with an even tinier typewriter. Could be what causes headaches.
John Berbrich: Could explain the tinnitus I’ve had for years, although I’d always attributed that to all those years playing in a rock band w/ no ear protection. Rock music is supposed to be reckless, & how can you really play reckless music when you’re wearing ear protectors? Doesn’t make sense. Anyway, I wonder what those diminutive writers would write about. Maybe that’s what dreams are — minute productions of those cubbyhole brain writers. Could be.
William Michaelian: It seems only logical. But some of them could be musicians too. Rock musicians, trombone and kettle drum players, cymbalists. The Cymbalist Movement. And then in other cubbyholes, tiny little folks sweeping, fretting, sewing, whittling, wishing they could get some sleep.
John Berbrich: Sounds like a cool place. Why isn’t the real exterior world like that? Why is it cool only in inaccessible places? I — * * * ...back again. Someone just hit a deer in front of the house. I heard a thump & then two cars pulled over. I ran outside to check. The deer got clean away. No damage to the car....Lots of them around lately — deer, I mean.
William Michaelian: My goodness. And to think all of this just happened one or two cubbyholes away.
John Berbrich: Well, it happened right in front of my cubby. You’re way on the other side of — say, where are you, anyway?
William Michaelian: Where do you think I am? I’m in the Antique & Junk Poem Shop, mapping out a highly detailed scheme of cubbyholes so we can get started on our study. I’m building a model cubby right now. That’s the hammering you hear.
John Berbrich: I thought you were practicing the drums again. Man, the Antique & Junk Poem shop definitely needs a band. But we require a bit more practice, I’m afraid. Here’s another box of nails. Watch your finger.
William Michaelian: Thanks. Now what about these deer? You say there are herds of them? A great migration, maybe? Signs of an early fall? A hard winter? What does your almanac say? Ouch!
John Berbrich: I told you to be careful. If you’d only listen to me once in a while, you’d solve half your problems. My prediction is that this winter is going to be a monster — lots of cold & snow. I’m basing this prognostication entirely on the weather we’ve had this summer, both cool & wet. Of course, this prophecy is focused on our valley in Russell, New York. It’ll be totally different for you dudes out West.
William Michaelian: Yep — the West is just one big happy dude ranch. We all have cowboy hats and ride little stick horses. Gets crowded on the freeways with all of us hopping along yelling hyah! hyah!, let me tell ya. Ouch! Now I know why they call them thumbnails.
John Berbrich: Well, I’ve also heard that you can toe-nail things, but I don’t think the word is actually spelled that way. So how are the cubbies coming? By the way, your thumb is turning purple, & it’s swelling.
William Michaelian: I can’t let little things like blood and agony stop me. I don’t know. This looks more like a birdhouse than a cubbyhole. Maybe it doesn’t need a door after all. You know, I thought it would be nice, you come walking up to a cubbyhole and knock on its little door, and the little cubbyhole dweller calls out from inside, “Yes?” and you say, “I have a delivery for you,” and then he opens the door, and you hand him your document, which he examines, then takes inside, slamming the door — and you smile, because this means you’re making progress on your study.
John Berbrich: Well, that’s true, I suppose, but what do you plan to feed these little cubbyhole dwellers? Surely they must eat something?
William Michaelian: That, my friend, is for you to figure out.