Some nights Whiskey Tub gets drunk rereading books it loves. Sometimes the cause of drunkenness is the hole someone thought to put in a bottle. Dangerous, beautiful thing, that opening. Sometimes Whiskey Tub gets drunk on love. How reliable is Whiskey Tub when drunk? And which obstacle, corn whiskey or the brainwashed heart, is more likely to limit the usefulness of Whiskey Tub’s confessions, tips, and proclamations?
Pssst. So you know, when Whiskey Tub’s rereading, I’m right there and we’re not always rereading every page, every word. Sometimes we’re reading only the lines or the passages we underlined in a first reading, which means this: what we may be loving most of all is not the book in our hands but the memory of that book and the brilliance of our well-placed ink strokes, the choices we made with superior taste and acumen.
Whiskey Tub may be narcissistic. I worry sometimes.
Other times I find myself making lists with Whiskey Tub of things we like, don’t want to do without. Edwidge Danticat, Patti Smith, Henry Miller, Joan Armatrading, the St. Louis Cardinals, The Roots, Lucinda Williams, and Ramsay Midwood, for instance. Sudoku puzzles so difficult we get whupped now and then. Popcorn. Tacos. Places that fools call “middle of nowhere.” Ice. Hot black coffee in a bottomless cup and corn whiskey in a bottle that has a hole in it. Bless the genius who invented the hole, and props to the designer who put it in the right place.
“The history of literature is a history of friendships,” says friend and writer Okla Elliott. I have no interest in testing that claim across the many relationships that constitute literary history, but I know it’s true enough about my own. In a future blog entry, I’ll talk about such matters as they pertain to what I’ve come to think of as Okla River, Big E Bar, Lake Renee, and my editing days for Ninth Letter. I tell my writing students they need to work the graveyard (read dead writers, canonical and forgotten) and walk the mall (read stuff by living writers in every kind of store, from the big-house shoppes to the smallest of small-press stalls). Stay in the game long enough, I say, and some of those living writers will be your friends. Spend extra time in their shoppes and stalls. You’ll want them to visit yours, buy something from time to time. Most writers seek solitude when it’s time to write, but books need company. Whiskey Tub and I love to sip mash and revisit things our friends have made. We particularly like it when those things are excellent and we discover all over again that we underlined the best parts (best because, well, we underlined them).
Like tonight and Susan Yount’s 2012 Hyacinth Girl chapbook. Thanks to the fiery marriage of the orange ribbon that binds it and the striking house-afire cover (severed hands holding that house!), Catastrophe Theory is a beautiful, a striking thing. If cover art’s job is to demand a buyer’s attention in a busy stall while faithfully representing the material in the pages, artist and designer Renée Alberts deserves to be lifted and carried about the mall. And the poetry? Here’s something from the title poem.
The house developed germs: scotch soaked pillowcases,
mold in the toilet, a head-sized hole in the linoleum,
broken television set, cast iron skillets,
wood stove and the bones of a cat.
The tipping point was the father’s behavior.
I met Susan Yount and her husband, Michael Pichowsky, in May 2010 at Miller’s Pub in Chicago just after she won the $1500 I had taken the train up from Urbana to win. (She and I were two of seven finalists for the Poetry Center’s 16th Annual Juried Prize. I tied with the other three male finalists for fourth.) At the bar, a man I didn’t know surprised me when he said, “We thought you were going to win.” I thanked him, wondered what he meant by “we,” and responded that when the last finalist read, I knew she, the woman who won it all, was the competition and was comfortable losing to her. He stepped aside and introduced me to the winner, his wife. That perfect and perfectly orchestrated mutual-admiration moment led to email exchanges and the solicitation of a few poems that Susan would publish in the summer issue of her lit mag Arsenic Lobster and then a guest introduction I wrote that December for the winter issue. It was that introduction that helped me write my way out of the worry caused by the minor stroke I had suffered in late summer. By early 2012 she agreed to make what would become my second book of poetry, Overpass, her first Misty Publications publication. She won Chicago Poetry Center fame and $1500. I won a new book.
Back in 2009,
They told me I didn’t have to come back and they would still count my 30 hours—
They told me that the last thing I will think of won’t be my toenail fungus
but the untouched bed with our separate blankets. They told me none of this.
(from “Practical Geometry”)
Better a toenail, I’ve told students, than the word “love” in a poem. As a young man, I watched my mother clip her nearly comatose father’s toenails in a nursing home when she was still wounded over his drinking and the shame of his two stints in prison, all of it a couple decades in the past. He wouldn’t have known, no one would have, if she had cut him. And maybe the anger, I’ve told students, or payback behind a cut made with heavy clippers would have been the best expression of their complicated bond, which was, after all, the love they shared.
And, of course, if you’re reading a Susan Yount poem or listening to her read or listening to someone else reading a poem of hers, better to expect toenail fungus than a toenail. Like the houses they inhabit, Yount’s bodies are distressed. Take Joe, for instance, in “Almost Catastrophe”: “he pointed to his every physical fault false/ teeth wet lung hernia enlarged nutsack prison tattoos . . . .” It isn’t just that swollen testicles are at home in a Susan Yount poem; it’s that they’re called a “nutsack.” Class consciousness drives the diction in Yount’s poetry. Working class. Midwest rural. Then there’s the subject matter.
I had chipped nail polish. I coveted sunglasses.
I suffered from a lack of kindness, prayed.
I drank beer mostly. I cleaned office buildings.
I cleaned someone’s shit off a toilet lid.
I stole everything.
(from “I Worked for a Boss Who Wanted Sex”)
Whiskey Tub and I love poems about work, all kinds of work, especially when that work reveals things about class and privilege and even better when the poems offer the stunning power and speed, not to mention the violence, of “Spring Break” or “Picking Scabs” or when they offer up the finesse of “Hyperbolic Umbilic Catastrophe,” “Cusp Catastrophe,” and the masterful “Fold Catastrophe.” As the poem says, “a=daughter. Little runt. Her last name Cunt or Yount or vice versa.” The unfortunate rhyme becomes, in “Fold Catastrophe,” a syllable of power, and Yount makes of Catastrophe Theory a motherfucker of a chapbook.
Just out of high school I cleaned a refinery office building four hours a night, five evenings a week. I don’t remember bathrooms in the building. I assume the toilets had lids. A few years later, having just graduated from college, I turned down a couple of offers to teach high school and middle school English and then quit my job as a bouncer at a bar to return to Peavey Flour Mill, where I had worked before. I stood at a machine that I used to sew 50- and 100-pound bags of flour shut. I worked on the dock along the Mississippi loading those bags in train cars. At lunch I enjoyed freshly fried chicken, drank a beer or two, and occasionally smoked some substance on break. I was dating a nice woman, who had quit high school a few years back and didn’t like to read. I had my first apartment. Soon enough I was moved to midnights to be the janitor and I was cleaning lidless shitters in the locker room.
Oddly enough Susan also worked in a flour mill at a similar age, though I believe hers was an office job. Truth be told, some nights I enjoyed cleaning those shitters. I was my own boss on midnights, the place was mostly deserted, I had plenty of time to read and think or do nothing, and a clean toilet was something I understood, could achieve with clarity. Years later I got a shitter poem out of it. I don’t think everyone needs to work in a flour mill, but I do think cleaning shitters should be a pre-req for a lot of things or a job we all have to do for at least a year in our twenties. You know, like a national conscription. No exemptions. Cleaning your own toilet or your kids’ diapers isn’t at all the same thing.
I have no idea what my friend Bayo Ojikutu would think of my radical proposal, but I doubt Tommie Simms, the protagonist of his second novel, Free Burning, would agree. Tommie Simms, a young black man who left the neighborhood to earn his undergraduate degree at state school SIU Carbondale only to find himself back in the neighborhood and working the streets or trying to, would probably see the literal shit I’m talking about as metaphorical shit. I imagine he would say that I romanticize the toilets I cleaned, that I was able at any point to pack up and leave the shitters to the next guy. He would be right. I did. Here’s Tommie thinking about the old days in the neighborhood when he and his wife were young and seen as the hopeful ones:
Her little neighbors from our courting block have all grown and moved away, except there ain’t nowhere outside this place for them to move–so, though they thought they’d grow and go, they all stayed in the Corners. They just don’t skip or sing or throw anymore and there’s no shine to their smiles, because we ain’t queen and king, and there’s no lives to begin. Just these houses of chipped brick where the souls stay to keep watch. (54)
Lack of mobility, as the poet James Wright once said, is a problem for the underclass, but sometimes it isn’t just a lack of ready or steady cash. Sometimes it’s turf, the feeling you belong there, on that floodplain no matter how many times it sends you up to higher ground or in that neighborhood because you know and have accepted or learned to live with its rules. Tommie’s double, his cousin Remi, who went to college with him but was kicked out, returned to the neighborhood and does well for a time. No one understands Tommie and Tommie’s confusion, obligations, and promise better than Remi does. And one thing Remi knows is that Tommie has no business on the street no matter what Tommie says.
“Job’s a waste,” I say. “What’s going to Chinatown getting me? Bullshit paycheck, half-assed cubicle. Just a fool, picking lint out my pocket every day, that’s all. Fuck else it’s doing
for me? I ain’t no hero.” (357)
Remi’s response? Exactly what Bayo Ojikutu and his street-savvy novel know.
“Need to go home, Tommie.” He speaks to my back, for I’m searching for the headlights in his window view. “Only get all fucked up out here. Nothing but fools, clowns, and maniacs running around these streets. Got two lovely ladies waiting for you.” (357)
And then it all comes crashing down in a sadistic play that involves a pot of boiling water, an incriminating sex tape the bad cops want and don’t get, and the drugs they do take when they hear a noise outside, one they can’t control, and leave in a hurry.
Flames jump at the pot’s sides as the pigs wait for something more. Phil Friday grabs the cocaine altar offering as Wee Man draws his nine, and death does go from this place, fleeing through the back alley door and peeking over its shoulders with terror streaming from its mask slits. (365)
What’s at stake is Tommie and his potential, the idea that he might one day be the exception and make it on the outside, maybe even leave the Four Corners for good. To do that, he has to understand what he learns late.
Pretending is just the way we come to deal when we want to dream a place outside these Corners. Greatest dope to ever course nappy veins, this make-believe. You don’t even see pretend fantasies–or smell or know them–before they’ve seeped inside the mind and wiped the hurt away, so that we can handle the reality. When we play make-believe, we got no clue how high we are until the eyelids open and the ceiling gets to tumbling. (371)
For Tommie Simms it’s not the Thomas Wolfe line “You can’t go home again.” It’s “You can’t leave home.” It’s “Even if you do leave, you take home with you.” The Four Corners lives in Tommie Simms, which means that if he is to understand the dope he calls “make-believe,” he must understand mobility differently. Tommie Simms, as he says, “ain’t no hero.” He’s a man who needs to understand the work he does, the paycheck it delivers, and how to live clear-eyed in a system that includes the home he internalizes no matter where his obligations take him.
Should Tommie Simms have to clean shitters for a year? I’ll leave that decision to Bayo Ojikutu, his creator. Maybe some folks have a right to get metaphorical. I didn’t clean shitters for a year myself. More likely, a couple of months. I should have kept a diary, taken a photo of two of my excellent work.
Here’s what I know for sure. I have friends who can write, whose excellent work (underlined parts!) Whiskey Tub and I are enjoying this evening with a beverage or three and later a bad-ass Sudoku puzzle (but not that bad-ass). Like Garin Cycholl, Susan Yount moved to Chicago. No matter how long she lives and works there, no matter her rep as Chicago poet, editor, publisher, and Madam of the Chicago Poetry Bordello, she’ll always be a southern Indiana farm girl. During his formative years, Bayo Ojikutu lived in the neighborhood he fictionalizes as the Four Corners. At the age of ten, he moved out and away to Glenwood and eventually graduated from Bloom High School. He left town for a degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and returned to Chicago, where he enjoys obligations as husband, father, teacher, and writer. Bayo’s still from the Corners. Like Garin Cycholl, he was there at the Poetry Center for me when Susan won the big prize and at Susan and Michael’s house for the Overpass release party. Because Bayo and my wife went to high schools (Bloom and Bloom Trail) that shared resources and opportunities, they had the same high school creative writing teacher, Mort Castle.
We might be a little drunk, but we know one thing for sure. Susan and Bayo (Garin too), we count on the nearness of you.