A second ago my heart thump went
and I thought, “This would be a bad time to have a heart attack and die, in the middle of a poem," then took comfort in the idea that no one I have ever heard of has ever died in the middle of writing a poem, just as birds never die in mid-flight. I think.
As movies seem to keep getting bigger and louder, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch still sets his own pace. In his latest, a bus driver makes his daily route through the streets of Paterson, New Jersey, taking in the stuff of everyday life to write poems. Jeffrey Brown talks with Jarmusch and poet Ron Padgett, who composed poems for the film.
in memory of Lorenzo Thomas
How long do you want to go on being the person you think you are?
How Long, a city in China
The nouns come toward you
“Knee how,” they say
To the cluster of synonyms also approaching
… has that evening train been gone?
How long, how long, baby, how long?
Let me know
if you ever change your mind
about leaving, leaving me behind
or at least tell yourself
before you find yourself on that train
winding its way through the mountains of How Much Province
The ten thousand yellow leaves of the ginkgo tree
kerplumfed onto the sidewalk on East 12th Street,
a deep-pile carpet of them on the roof of the parked car
proving that Nature does have a sense of humor,
though if a sense of humor falls in the woods
and there is no one there to hear it… .
for everyone has clustered alongside the railroad track
for the arrival of night and its shooting stars with trails like pigtails
I am among them and I know this track is mine
though it does not belong to me
Nothing belongs to me
for at this moment the boxes are being stacked
to make way for you to move through them,
reading their labels: family photos, Pick-Up Stix, miscellaneous
and the song of the porcelain, the celadon, and Delft itself
vibrating How long, how long
will this baby take to depart?
But I don’t want to think about the past
I want to be the past,
with everything I’ve ever known and done
spread out on a two-dimensional plane
erected vertically and moving through the space I occupy on Earth
There is a lot more room left in me
though everyone I’ve ever known who’s died is there
My mother my father say hello
to Ted and Joe and laugh with them
though Joe knows they are crying too
and that Ted is crying
and it sounds like laughter
They do this to console me
and I let them do it, to console them
What? I didn’t hear you
or rather I heard you
but I couldn’t make out what you said
The phone lay in its cradle
pretending to be asleep
and the blinking light made you think
that it was dreaming and that
there was someone you were supposed to call—
or were they supposed to call you?
Supposed. What does that mean.
It means no more than the contours of the landscape
that is as beautiful as the contours in John Ashbery’s poetry
but it doesn’t mean anything
unless you turn your mind on its side
and let it lie there
inert, and from this inertia
will arise a wing, the white wing
of a bird that has no anything else,
only this one wing
that folds and unfolds itself
like the magnetic field it rises above
in wave after wave after wave.
Then it’s back to basics:
If you bone or debone a chicken
it comes out the same,
if you dust a cake with sugar
you add something
but if you dust your house you take away.
Oh to be a rock or a stone or even a pebble!
for there is much that is unattractive about being a rock.
For one thing, I wouldn’t be able
to finish this poem, I would sit here petrified
until they carted me away
to a park to serve as ornamental sculpture,
if I were lucky.
Now that you are convinced of something
that you already believed, the wallpaper becomes a fact
in the home of Anne and Fairfield Porter,
in the upstairs hallway and the bedroom
where Jimmy stayed, the wallpaper that here and there
was curling off the wall so Joe could tear it off
and glue it to a big white sheet of paper.
There is no other wallpaper
I would ever want.
Now the wallpaper goes away,
back on the wall in 1969
where I stood and gazed at it for a long time
and then went downstairs
to add coal to Fairfield’s stove,
the big Aga he had shipped all the way from Sweden
because he was very determined to have it.
All day its warmth rose up to the second floor
and caressed the wallpaper.
Do you mind my going on like this?
You want something else, right?
Perhaps you want what you think poetry should give you,
but poetry doesn’t give anyone anything,
it simply puts the syllables on the table
and lets you rearrange them in your head,
which you can do unless your head is a square
the size of the tabletop.
So why don’t you lift your head off the table
and go lie down somewhere
and not worry about anything,
including the list of things to worry about
that you keep revising in your head,
for there is a slot through which that list
can slip and float down like a baby in a rocking crib,
down to a comfy dreamland
and be transformed into a list of gods whose jokes are wonderful.
But when the alarm goes off
the jokes don’t seem funny
now that something is missing from them—
but what? (You weren’t even asleep.)
It’s not something you feel you’re going to remember,
it’s not as if you can go down the alphabet
until you get to a letter that has a special hum
because it’s the first letter of the name
you can’t quite recall,
it’s not as if you can look just to the side of where
you think a dim star is and thereby have it magically appear.
The glow is gone,
and knowing it comes back sometimes
is little consolation.
But I’ll take it
and go not to a deserted island
but to the factory where they make the bottles
that are washed ashore with a message inside,
and though the message has been blurred by water stains
it’s a message, like the poetry in Valéry’s saying
that poetry is something written by someone other than the poet
to someone other than the reader.
To you, Paul Valéry, chapeau,
though in some of your works no chapeau,
for in them it is not a bottle but a test tube
one finds one’s finger stuck in.
What do you want to do with your life?
is a question asked of a young person
but slightly modified for an older one:
What do you want to do with the rest of your life?
Having control is an illusion we like to be fooled by:
the pinball machine of experience has bounced us
off one thing and onto another bing bing bing!
Life might be like a pinball machine
but it isn’t one, and the trouble is
that you might be like a person
and you are one, as if in reverie,
but then it all seems crambe.
And so Sir Thomas Browne walks in
with an insane look on his face, he is searching
for examples of the number 5, do you
have any new ones for him? If not
please step aside, and out he goes
into the garden, eyes locked
onto the vegetation, the afternoon light
on the back of his coat.
You’re relieved he didn’t stay long.
For God’s sake
here he comes again.
Lock the door!
But he performs osmosis
and becomes the door and then
the room and then you!
And you go about the house
looking for examples of the number 5
and you don’t know why or where
it will all lead to.
But I do.
Who said that?
Why did you say that?
You didn’t what? I heard you!
You mean you hurt me.
No, I … I see
there’s no point in talking to you.
And there wasn’t
for there was no one there,
only the residue of an idea
that lasted a few moments,
like the history of Bulgaria
or the rattling of bamboo trees in the wind
or the Millennium Hotel in Minneapolis.
The water lilies float on the surface of the water
unaware that they are being depicted
“I love to be beside your side
beside the sea, beside the seaside
by the beautiful sea!”
underwater glub glub
as the propeller turned to face us
and we fled
because Hitler was the propeller
and he was unsanitary
So Père Noël took a bath
whose bubbles rose up around his beard
and tickled his fancy
enough to keep him ho-ho-hoing throughout the holiday season,
for he was in denial
about his powerlessness
in the face of Hitler
Hitler kept a special area on his face
for the powerlessness of Santa Claus,
he wore it like a merit badge
among the many others that covered his face
so that no one could see what he really looked like,
the way Santa Claus used his beard to hide
the deep sadness he felt for all humanity,
for if he arrived on their rooftops weeping and wailing
it would not do,
it would not do to bring the children
model replicas of Auschwitz
or dolls in the form of the Butcher of Buchenwald
or even of himself with downcast eye and ashen brow.
The doctor comes in and says, “What seems to be the trouble?”
for the twenty-fifth time today
but you are only once today
so you say, “There’s a pain in my chest it’s been there for three days it
started on Sunday night right after dinner,”
but the doctor is thinking about the dinner he is having tonight with
an incredibly attractive woman
He is more worried about her than he is about your symptom
In fact he isn’t worried about you at all
though he might be worried about being sued by you
if he tells you to go home and take an aspirin and when you do you die
But maybe you were going to die anyway
no matter what he said or did
and the lawyer who eagerly took the case on behalf of your family
was hit by a car as he crossed the street toward the courthouse steps
and your entire family was killed in a plane crash
on their way to a Grief Management Center in Arizona
But none of this happens because the pain
was due to a strained muscle in your chest
and now you do remember that right after dinner
you tried to stop in midsneeze
Two hundred dollars for half a sneeze
is the going rate these days
The cost of living sticks a hose into your wallet
and vacuums out the money in a trice
and you are so grateful you aren’t having heart surgery
that you don’t even notice
until cold air drifts across the floor
like fog in a horror film,
the one you decided not to be in,
and now it pursues you
in the form of frozen air,
the evil brother of cool air
that filtered down out of the early summer evening
and told you that the world is kind,
that atoms rearrange themselves to make you feel better,
that the sun is departing only because it felt
you wanted to be alone for a while
It didn’t say, “I will never rise again,
I will go far away and be a pinprick in the sky
among the billions of others, and you
will never know which I am
and I will never tell you.”
And you will never answer back, “Sun,
I do not think you have that power:
only I do, and I will go away and be the sky.”
Is that what is meant by “aesthetic distance”?
It’s as if the Panama Canal had been given aesthetic distance
by becoming a passageway in your brain
and you floated down it and came out
on the end that you started at!
I keep a ball of laughter inside that Hunh.
If you asked an Elizabethan
What are you on?
he or she would have answered
The earth, this terrestrial globe
whereas today it means
are you taking?
Are you taking has less energy
What medication it is an anticlimax
without a climax)
What are you on about?
would have sounded like
What are you of thereabouts in?
So what medications are
I am taking italics it pokes
a hole in whatever is going to be
so I can slip through
and not have arms and legs all the time
You've lost me and I'm not even an Elizabethan
That's O.K. neither am I though both
of us bestride this terrestrial globe
and fain would lie down
for the earth is a medication a giant pill
we ride on
like the aspirin in the poem I wrote in 1966
and didn't understand until last night or was it this morning
A.M. and P.M. are medications
I take one in the morning and one in the evening
Some day people will look back
at the twentieth century and think
How backward they were
the way some look back now
at tribal societies and say
But primitive life was so dirty how
could you keep things clean?
not knowing that tribal people
lived in the Garden of Eden
That is they had more humanity
than later people
who traded theirs for technology
so that those people who look back at Earth
some day from a distant galaxy
will not be people at all
they will be cue balls
But this morning I am not in a billiard situation the sun
is shining onto my house and the trees
are feeling like their tops because they are still in the Garden of Eden
that is the gentle endless hush
of an endless mother to her endless newborn child
Things are there
covered with sparkles
that have nothing to do with sunlight
the way one night I got out of bed and found
that I was covered with sparkles very small ones
I wondered if I would be covered with sparkles the rest of my life
and if other people had them
But these are not the same sparkles that things have on them
except the ocean sometimes at night
By day the ocean moves away from where it was
but a mountain does not
Somewhere in between lies Hidden Valley
where Grandpa comes out of his cabin
and staggers around the dooryard
then goes back inside
where Grandma is holding a baking tin
of fresh hot biscuits
but she will give him none
Give me some biscuits he cries
but she smiles and shakes her head
They are all for me she exults
and then laughs she is only joking
Grandpa sits down at the table
and pretends to be dead
revived only by die muffled thud of the biscuit tin
Where's mah coffee he roars
even though he sees it in the cup before him
and Grandma says We're plumb out
That's how the day begins in Hidden Valley
But where are the grandchildren
They are scattered about the world in jagged pieces
that move like birds in spring
with colors and speedometers on them
Someday they will return to Hidden Valley
and form another mountain
to make Hidden Valley even more hidden
when the waterfall closes over it
You think I don't know where it is
or is that just a ploy to get me to tell you?
You are like the guy who looked all over
for his hat and later learned it was on his head
but it didn't mean anything until he realized he had a head
and that the hat was both on and inside it
and when he did
it was not a rabbit that he pulled out
but a rectangle in which the rabbit was imprisoned
You don't want to be that guy, do you?
You would rather be the rabbit
when all along you could have been the waterfall
We move ahead in our story to five years later
then we move five years back
because there is no story
only a collection of events with no beginning,
no end, and therefore no middle, it is all
one big beginning, middle, and end every second
and though you are in it you are also to the side
like an actor waiting in the wings for the cue
that will cause the stage to light up and expand
though it is also the cue for the audience to rise
and head for the exits, because
they are the real players
and you, it turns out, are part of the scenery
propped up against a wall, gathering dust along your top ridge,
for soon you will be transported to Hidden Valley
and placed among the other mountains
One of these mountains is the Earl of Essex
covered with the crud
of having galloped all the way across Wales and England nonstop
Essex who dashed up the palace stairs and barged
into Elizabeth's private chamber unannounced
—where no man had ever set foot—
midst the gasps and cries of her ladies-in-waiting
and there it is
on the front of his head
and her face coming off her head
and starting toward him
because she knew right then his head
would be severed from his body
but what she did not know
is that he too would end up in Hidden Valley
raining down his sparkles upon the house of Grandma and Grandpa
Are you enjoying your vacation
Yes I am
in fact so much that I don't even think of it as a vacation or as
and come to think of it I don't even think of it
it's just the way things are
How about you
Yes I too am enjoying my vacation
What you just said about your vacation I'm not sure I understand
what you mean
I didn't mean much of anything I guess
The mountains around here have a way of making me not think very
maybe because they aren't thinking at all who knows
and I tend to become like whatever I'm around
But you're always around air do you turn into air
Yes I'm always air
What about Grandma and Grandpa are you turning into them
No I can't turn into them I already
Well that is very interesting
but I have to scoot along now
And a fine day to you as well
Ireland rose up on the horizon
backlit by history
but Hidden Valley was too powerful it made Ireland sink back down
though the voices of Ireland could be heard in the distance
some singing others laughing and some wailing and scolding
and then they too faded when Grandpa brandished his lips at them
for he wished to sing himself
and all alone on the veranda of his own personality
the one built partly by him and partly by the celestial carpenters
who found his scratchy gurgling caterwauling arias to be as
as he found them to be beautiful and moving—
arias that caused tears to gush forth from the sky
you could see when you looked up into his eyes
not long after you were born
the sky at night
and professional wrestling was on TV
Antonino Rocca bounded around the ring
evading horrible huge guys who fought dirty
the kind you would find only in New York City
when it was in black and white
little Antonino who looked like a short-order cook in a diner
but who dodged and slid and leaped so fast
the horrible big guys couldn't catch him
but when they did, Ow! Get away, Antonino!
and he came back to life and slithered free
and hurled the big guys down and one-two-three boom
they were pinned
and once more he smiled
at people like us out in the middle of nowhere
prompting Grandpa to clear his throat and say
It's time for bed it's way past time
and it was
but we were hidden outside of time
and no one would know
because they were visible inside of time
I was happy in Hidden Valley happy enough
and I'm happy I once lived there
Maybe I'll find myself there again someday
even though the mountains will be gone
and the rest changed beyond all recognition
Everything is perfect, dear friend.
Get some sleep.
Don't give advice.
Take care of your teeth and gums.
Don't be afraid of anything beyond your control. Don't be afraid, for
instance, that the building will collapse as you sleep, or that someone
you love will suddenly drop dead.
Eat an orange every morning.
Be friendly. It will help make you happy.
Raise your pulse rate to 120 beats per minute for 20 straight minutes
four or five times a week doing anything you enjoy.
Hope for everything. Expect nothing.
Take care of things close to home first. Straighten up your room
before you save the world. Then save the world.
Know that the desire to be perfect is probably the veiled expression
of another desire—to be loved, perhaps, or not to die.
Make eye contact with a tree.
Be skeptical about all opinions, but try to see some value in each of
Dress in a way that pleases both you and those around you.
Do not speak quickly.
Learn something every day. (
Be nice to people before they have a chance to behave badly.
Don't stay angry about anything for more than a week, but don't
forget what made you angry. Hold your anger out at arm's length
and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass ball
Wear comfortable shoes.
Design your activities so that they show a pleasing balance
Be kind to old people, even when they are obnoxious. When you
become old, be kind to young people. Do not throw your cane at
them when they call you Grandpa. They are your grandchildren!
Live with an animal.
Do not spend too much time with large groups of people.
If you need help, ask for it.
Cultivate good posture until it becomes natural.
If someone murders your child, get a shotgun and blow his head off.
Plan your day so you never have to rush.
Show your appreciation to people who do things for you, even if you
have paid them, even if they do favors you don't want.
Do not waste money you could be giving to those who need it.
Expect society to be defective. Then weep when you find that it is far
more defective than you imagined.
When you borrow something, return it in an even better condition.
As much as possible, use wooden objects instead of plastic or metal
Look at that bird over there.
After dinner, wash the dishes.
Visit foreign countries, except those whose inhabitants have
expressed a desire to kill you.
Don't expect your children to love you, so they can, if they want to.
Meditate on the spiritual. Then go a little further, if you feel like it.
What is out (in) there?
Sing, every once in a while.
Be on time, but if you are late do not give a detailed and lengthy
Don't be too self-critical or too self-congratulatory.
Don't think that progress exists. It doesn't.
Do not practice cannibalism.
Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don't do
anything to make it impossible.
Take your phone off the hook at least twice a week.
Keep your windows clean.
Extirpate all traces of personal ambitiousness.
Don't use the word
extirpate too often.
Forgive your country every once in a while. If that is not possible, go
to another one.
If you feel tired, rest.
Do not wander through train stations muttering, "We're all going to
Count among your true friends people of various stations of life.
Appreciate simple pleasures, such as the pleasure of chewing, the
pleasure of warm water running down your back, the pleasure of a
cool breeze, the pleasure of falling asleep.
Do not exclaim, "Isn't technology wonderful!"
Learn how to stretch your muscles. Stretch them every day.
Don't be depressed about growing older. It will make you feel even
older. Which is depressing.
Do one thing at a time.
If you burn your finger, put it in cold water immediately. If you bang
your finger with a hammer, hold your hand in the air for twenty
minutes. You will be surprised by the curative powers of coldness and
Learn how to whistle at earsplitting volume.
Be calm in a crisis. The more critical the situation, the calmer you
Enjoy sex, but don't become obsessed with it. Except for brief periods
in your adolescence, youth, middle age, and old age.
Contemplate everything's opposite.
If you're struck with the fear that you've swum out too far in the
ocean, turn around and go back to the lifeboat.
Keep your childish self alive.
Answer letters promptly. Use attractive stamps, like the one with a
tornado on it.
Cry every once in a while, but only when alone. Then appreciate
how much better you feel. Don't be embarrassed about feeling better.
Do not inhale smoke.
Take a deep breath.
Do not smart off to a policeman.
Do not step off the curb until you can walk all the way across the
street. From the curb you can study the pedestrians who are trapped
in the middle of the crazed and roaring traffic.
Walk down different streets.
Remember beauty, which exists, and truth, which does not. Notice
that the idea of truth is just as powerful as the idea of beauty.
Stay out of jail.
In later life, become a mystic.
Use Colgate toothpaste in the new Tartar Control formula.
Visit friends and acquaintances in the hospital. When you feel it is
time to leave, do so.
Be honest with yourself, diplomatic with others.
Do not go crazy a lot. It's a waste of time.
Read and reread great books.
Dig a hole with a shovel.
In winter, before you go to bed, humidify your bedroom.
Know that the only perfect things are a 300 game in bowling and a
27-batter, 27-out game in baseball.
Drink plenty of water. When asked what you would like to drink,
say, "Water, please."
Ask "Where is the loo?" but not "Where can I urinate?"
Be kind to physical objects.
Beginning at age forty, get a complete "physical" every few years
from a doctor you trust and feel comfortable with.
Don't read the newspaper more than once a year.
Learn how to say "hello," "thank you," and "chopsticks"
Belch and fart, but quietly.
Be especially cordial to foreigners.
See shadow puppet plays and imagine that you are one of the
characters. Or all of them.
Take out the trash.
Use exact change.
When there's shooting in the street, don't go near the window.