I know this guy. It was thirteen years ago when he first set some words and gunpowder next to metal casings with the intent of being a truth-teller, a dangerous artist, a maker of things that do harm where harm needs doing. If you had asked him back then, he wouldn’t have been able to name specific targets. He had no enemies. He woke up happy; he went to sleep happy. Not the bubbles of giddy nor the flatness of smiley faces, each day the same. His happy was deeper than those, more contoured, and he knew it. Still, he also knew its rep, that happiness gets in the way, that it’s bad for art, that it doesn’t do enough harm to do any good.
Tonight the word is Art.
Tonight the word is Happy.
Tonight the word is Harm.
So there he was, every few days crowbarring the side of his head open and shaking the awful content out onto the table. Bricks, nails, some gasoline-soaked topsoil, a whiskey bottle, a barrel of crude oil, a Molotov cocktail, a handsaw, shards of glass, barbed wire, another broken marriage, prison bars, a tavern, a switchblade outside a tavern. Over the next few years he packed casings with the words and the gunpowder, tamped in the awful content, crimped the casings tighter than drums, and loaded them into small rockets made for a bazooka he then built and calibrated so finely it would bruise his initials on the night air when fired. One night, not too many years ago, it did just that when he carried it to the roof and lit up the sky with himself.
Tonight the word is Self.
Himself, myself, same self.
Tonight the word is Bomb.
The word tonight is Me.
As in I. As in I drive in rectangles above a lake of gasoline carrying news about a friend’s cancer. Overpass Girl’s cancer. As in I drive and drive and I have this friend from childhood who has this cancer and I am making myself angry, layering it on top of my hard-wired happiness. I, I, I, I as in the straight lines of road and railroad track and refinery fence and levee, all of it forcing a script of right angles I trace and retrace with the wheels of this beater van because I have no choice, the engine clicking like synapses firing tiny holes in my brain pan. As in I drive at the end of a hard rain and feel the water table lifting the lake and smell the fumes rising out of the ground, through cracks in foundations. As in I do nothing but bear witness, locked here in my consistent state of good cheer, turning left through the old neighborhood, one block east to west, up and over a set of tracks, turning left at the town’s one tavern onto the main drag, turning left at the next stop sign, left again just over the tracks, and back down the few blocks to the old neighborhood. As in trace and retrace, turn and return until I pull over in the gravel behind a building, turn off the engine, slump down in my seat, sip mash from a flask, scribble ink in a journal, word, word, me, me as in I, as in I sit there and talk to myself about damage and sketch a happy guy in a beater van sketching an angry guy in a beater van, all of it cupped in my navel, wrinkled palm of Narcissus, the innie into which I turn as I crimp more casings. Happiness and Cancer, the likely targets.
I as in homonym of Eye, as in antonym to outward-turning Eye.
Omphaloskepsis. Navel-gazing. If that’s what I’m doing, so be it. I carry news I can’t shake, and it’s turning me inward at the risk of turning me away from what I’ve come to focus on. Overpass Girl. I sit and I sketch and I sip. I’m a hand drawing itself. I’m a hand writing the C word, under which I print its mantra in capital letters. AGGRESSIVE. INVASIVE. METASTATIC. I am trying to stay on task. In my journal I ink the initials like tattoos or bruises.
Cancer aims to bruise its initials all over my friend. All over. In. My friend. Cancer aims to take Overpass Girl one piece at a time. All I can do about it is write. So I take a sip and I write the word “Dickel.” As in George. As in Tennessee Sour Mash. As in Old No. 8. Got to be the black label or it’s not No. 8. And it’s got to be 8 or it ain’t right. A working man’s whiskey, though Dickel has always used the Scottish spelling, the e-less whisky, to make its boast that Dickel’s as good as Scotch.
Yes, Scotch. Pantalooned connoisseurs, bounce lively off my liquor truck. I wear the black label like a uniform, like a union card. When Old No. 8 began disappearing from liquor stores a couple of years ago, Overpass Girl used a family connection and a gal pal driving her metallic-purple semi to smuggle three or four tax-free cases from Pennsylvania. When that supply dwindled, Overpass Girl found some cases in Florida and Tennessee while on vacation. Thanks to the trunk of her car and a delivery to my door, my liquor cabinet is once again a black-label beauty. Eight bottles wide, four deep. There’s beauty in sameness. Fidel Castro’s wardrobe. Johnny Cash touring in black. My address is Whisky Eden.
Now the word is Paradise.
Now the word is Shame
for what I’m feeling here in my van. My happy up-and-over to Overpass Girl’s getting drug under. Up-and-over’s my natural chemistry, the way I move through good and bad. I don’t take my father’s advice–ain’t no hill for a high-stepper, son–because I think it good advice. I take it because I have no choice. My blood runs happy. With or without Dickel. I start the engine, tear a poem from my journal, wad it into a little ball, put it in my mouth, and pull back onto the road running along the tracks. I feel good. I have no choice. I suspect I’m lined with dozens of tiny slow-release, self-replenishing endorphin bombs that keep me this way, that keep knocking me from one thing to another.
A few days ago Overpass Girl, minus one breast already, was sedated for a biopsy. The night before the procedure, she sent me an email with a subject line borrowed from her favorite novel, Holy Book of the Beard. “Spit in the face of cancer” is Helga’s advice to her daughter, advice that her daughter shares at her mother’s wake. In that email Overpass Girl told me there’s a letter in a trunk. For me. Heat-seeking with my name on it.
Tonight the word is Trunk.
Is Letter. Is Truth-Telling.
A letter for me, to be opened one day, right in there with letters to her grown children, her husband. A letter to be sent if and when. Another bomb. If and when. The letter in the trunk, the letter with my name on it, insignificant in comparison, yes. Nothing like the If and When. The C-Bomb. I understand that. Still.
Tonight I drive. I break the pattern of straight lines and right angles over Gasoline Lake and head up the Great River Road. I stop occasionally to look at the dark, choppy water and write. I don’t think the Mississippi River can do anything Gasoline Lake can’t in the way of miracles, but I sit here in my van, scribble lines for poems in the shape of bullets and bombs, rip the pages out, tear them in twos and fours, make spitballs of them. I carry a print-out of an email she sent me.
Doctor called me just ten minutes ago. . . . He wanted me to know that the lesion on my lung was not cancer. . . . He figured I stayed awake all night worrying. I didn’t. I slept like a baby. (Drugs are great.)
I will be losing another body part at some point. A decision I’ve been putting off. The one remaining breast. Sort of sickens me, but who was it that said it’s not the parts that matter? I guess they served their purpose, nursing children and nursing men.
I will do something that spits in the face of cancer. I will write things that spit-bomb it. I will crimp more casings and light up the sky with myself at the Hyde Park Arts Center later this week.
I make that wild claim in a blog entry. An ex-student who works in Chicago writes to tell me she can’t make the reading. She writes also to talk about Gregory Corso’s “BOMB.”
You remind me of the time we read Corso’s poem in your class, one line per person. I did a version of that when I started teaching, and the kid whose job it was to say “BOOM” brought in a giant drum just for the occasion. He would say BOOM and hit the drum, or just hit the drum really hard instead of saying BOOM, but either way it was very powerful. Powerful enough to spit-bomb death? I don’t know. Good luck.
She means it, but good luck with that is what she’s really saying. Uh huh, sure, if you say so. I do. I say so. I will spit-bomb death. And I will fail because words fail. Writers tell us that over and over. I will also fail because death’s as hard-wired to life as happiness is to me. I look at the river and I’m swept downstream, all the way to Louisiana and a summer job in 1979. I’m punching my time card and leaving the chemical plant in Geismar for the twenty-minute drive to my parents’ home in Baton Rouge. I’m falling into the backyard pool, a jug of iced tea at water’s edge. I catch myself. I’m sitting here at the confluence of the Illinois and the Mississippi, and I’m derailed once again by this happiness I can’t escape long enough to stay on task. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t bang a drum if I had one. It does mean I might not bang that drum as long as I should. And how long would that be?
One thing I know: Overpass Girl is lonely. Even when she’s feeling good, her parts cooperating or the drugs making temporary miracles, she’s there with that body of hers, in it, looking for those initial-bombs carved into her tissue, her organs, A.I.M., some days seeing those initials everywhere, mets to the liver, mets to the brain. No way out of the loneliness BOOM except a total cure and enough time afterwards to believe it’s real. A miracle. Back to that bomb. Miracle-bomb. Failing that, a stay. Five more years. Ten.
The word tonight is Time-Bomb.
Grab the carving knife, Surgeon. It’s almost time. Lymph nodes? Those, too. Dig in. Deep.
I periodically crowbar the side of my head open and pour awful content out onto the table. Natural-born happiness doesn’t negate a real life. I can pour my awful content into casings, crimp them shut, and make a bomb as small as a spitball or as big as the sky at midnight, lit. I can explain what I’m doing, how I’m failing. I can blame it on the happiness that keeps me from staying on task, from doing the kind of harm someone less happy might do. A dangerous artist, a truth-teller, a maker of things that have an effect. I can aim my spit-bombs at Cancer, do my best to blow away Overpass Girl’s bad tissue, erase all those ugly initials carved inside her, the ones that are there and the ones that will be. I can also sit here in my beater van, hide from that trunk and the letter with my name on it, drift with the water to the gulf, sip Old No. 8 from my flask, pour some self-pity on my good cheer, watch the two separate, my happiness rise.
Or I can address you directly, load my bazooka with a letter of my own. Put your name on it. An apology not for my happiness, but for the failure of words, anyone’s, to scrape flesh clean. Maybe you’ll walk out of work one night, a long shift of helping others with cancer, and the sky over the hospital’s tallest point will light up with poems about pills that lift and drop you, about pain, release and return, about the dirt we come from, the bottom land and the terracing up to fields and creeks going the way of steel rods, mesh, and concrete walls for highways that keep people moving over us and past. Maybe the sky will stay quiet that night, you’ll slide into your car, and there on the passenger seat will be a small package, a sheaf of pages tied together with twine and marked with your name. For Overpass Girl.
Maybe your nose or your ears will draw you to it, the smell of a fuse burning slowly or a tick tick tick. Something. You’ll know what to do. You’ll drive in the old direction. You’ll head for the overpass, yours because they put it where your ground used to be, yours because it’s waiting for a couple of cans of spray paint and your initials, O. G., writ large across it. You’ll drive under that overpass, all that concrete, and continue for a couple of miles to the Nest, that place you go for bacon and coffee. There you’ll untie or cut the twine and see the inscription.
These words tonight BOOM
That stuff I said about our hearts making morphine? I am, as you said, in need of none, floating, happy. No apology.
–originally published in Northwest Review 47.2 (Spring 2009).
A few words about “No Apology for Happiness.” Late in 2008, Geri Doran in the role of Nonfiction Editor emailed to ask if I’d contribute an essay to the rebirth of University of Oregon’s important literary magazine. (Though it was a short-lived rebirth, that Spring 2009 issue was star-studded. My essay occupied the pages between Charles Wright and Maura Stanton. Yikes.) I was already publishing some of the breast cancer poems that would make their way into 2012’s Overpass. “Popular Science,” for instance, had already been featured in Verse Daily. I had also already, without knowing it, written an early draft in December 2007 of “No Apology,” which I promptly read with good friend and poet Juan Manuel Sánchez, for Series A and WBEZ-FM, in Hyde Park. The step to full-blown print essay was not a big one.