The only thing I miss about Los Angeles is the Hollywood Freeway at midnight, windows down and radio blaring bearing right into the center of the city, the Capitol Tower on the right, and beyond it, Hollywood Boulevard blazing —pimps, surplus stores, footprints of the stars —descending through the city fast as the law would allow through the lights, then rising to the stack out of the city to the stack where lanes are stacked six deep and you on top; the air now clean, for a moment weightless without memories, or need for a past. The need for the past is so much at the center of my life I write this poem to record my discovery of it, my reconciliation. It was in Bishop, the room was done in California plush: we had gone into the coffee shop, were told you could only get a steak in the bar: I hesitated, not wanting to be an occasion of temptation for my father but he wanted to, so we entered a dark room, with amber water glasses, walnut tables, captain's chairs, plastic doilies, papier-mâché bas-relief wall ballerinas, German memorial plates "bought on a trip to Europe," Puritan crosshatch green-yellow wallpaper, frilly shades, cowhide booths— I thought of Cambridge: the lovely congruent elegance of Revolutionary architecture, even of ersatz thirties Georgian seemed alien, a threat, sign of all I was not— to bode order and lucidity as an ideal, if not reality— not this California plush, which also I was not. And so I made myself an Easterner, finding it, after all, more like me than I had let myself hope. And now, staring into the embittered face of my father, again, for two weeks, as twice a year, I was back. The waitress asked us if we wanted a drink. Grimly, I waited until he said no... Before the tribunal of the world I submit the following document: Nancy showed it to us, in her apartment at the model, as she waited month by month for the property settlement, her children grown and working for their father, at fifty-three now alone, a drink in her hand: as my father said, "They keep a drink in her hand": Name Wallace du Bois Box No 128 Chino, Calif. Date July 25 ,19 54 Mr Howard Arturian I am writing a letter to you this afternoon while I'm in the mood of writing. How is everything getting along with you these fine days, as for me everything is just fine and I feel great except for the heat I think its lot warmer then it is up there but I don't mind it so much. I work at the dairy half day and I go to trade school the other half day Body & Fender, now I am learning how to spray paint cars I've already painted one and now I got another car to paint. So now I think I've learned all I want after I have learned all this. I know how to straighten metals and all that. I forgot to say "Hello" to you. The reason why I am writing to you is about a job, my Parole Officer told me that he got letter from and that you want me to go to work for you. So I wanted to know if its truth. When I go to the Board in Feb. I'll tell them what I want to do and where I would like to go, so if you want me to work for you I'd rather have you sent me to your brother John in Tonapah and place to stay for my family. The Old Lady says the same thing in her last letter that she would be some place else then in Bishop, thats the way I feel too.and another thing is my drinking problem. I made up my mind to quit my drinking, after all what it did to me and what happen. This is one thing I'll never forget as longs as I live I never want to go through all this mess again. This sure did teach me lot of things that I never knew before. So Howard you can let me know soon as possible. I sure would appreciate it. P.S From Your Friend I hope you can read my Wally Du Bois writing. I am a little nervous yet —He and his wife had given a party, and one of the guests was walking away just as Wallace started backing up his car. He hit him, so put the body in the back seat and drove to a deserted road. There he put it before the tires, and ran back and forth over it several times. When he got out of Chino, he did, indeed, never do that again: but one child was dead, his only son, found with the rest of the family immobile in their beds with typhoid, next to the mother, the child having been dead two days: he continued to drink, and as if it were the Old West shot up the town a couple of Saturday nights. "So now I think I've learned all I want after I have learned all this: this sure did teach me a lot of things that I never knew before. I am a little nervous yet." It seems to me an emblem of Bishop— For watching the room, as the waitresses in their back-combed, Parisian, peroxided, bouffant hairdos, and plastic belts, moved back and forth I thought of Wallace, and the room suddenly seemed to me not uninteresting at all: they were the same. Every plate and chair had its congruence with all the choices creating these people, created by them—by me, for this is my father's chosen country, my origin. Before, I had merely been anxious, bored; now, I began to ask a thousand questions... He was, of course, mistrustful, knowing I was bored, knowing he had dragged me up here from Bakersfield after five years of almost managing to forget Bishop existed. But he soon became loquacious, ordered a drink, and settled down for an afternoon of talk... He liked Bishop: somehow, it was to his taste, this hard-drinking, loud, visited-by-movie-stars town. "Better to be a big fish in a little pond." And he was: when they came to shoot a film, he entertained them; Miss A—, who wore nothing at all under her mink coat; Mr. M—, good horseman, good shot. "But when your mother let me down" (for alcoholism and infidelity, she divorced him) "and Los Angeles wouldn't give us water any more, I had to leave. We were the first people to grow potatoes in this valley." When he began to tell me that he lost control of the business because of the settlement he gave my mother, because I had heard it many times, in revenge, I asked why people up here drank so much. He hesitated. "Bored, I guess. —Not much to do." And why had Nancy's husband left her? In bitterness, all he said was: "People up here drink too damn much." And that was how experience had informed his life. "So now I think I've learned all I want after I have learned all this: this sure did teach me a lot of things that I never knew before. I am a little nervous yet." Yet, as my mother said, returning, as always, to the past, "I wouldn't change any of it. It taught me so much. Gladys is such an innocent creature: you look into her face and somehow it's empty, all she worries about are sales and the baby. her husband's too good!" It's quite pointless to call this rationalization: my mother, for uncertain reasons, has had her bout with insanity, but she's right: the past in maiming us, makes us, fruition is also destruction: I think of Proust, dying in a cork-linked room, because he refuses to eat because he thinks that he cannot write if he eats because he wills to write, to finish his novel —his novel which recaptures the past, and with a kind of joy, because in the debris of the past, he has found the sources of the necessities which have led him to this room, writing —in this strange harmony, does he will for it to have been different? And I can't not think of the remorse of Oedipus, who tries to escape, to expiate the past by blinding himself, and then, when he is dying, sees that he has become a Daimon —does he, discovering, at last, this cruel coherence created by "the order of the universe" —does he will anything reversed? I look at my father: as he drinks his way into garrulous, shaky defensiveness, the debris of the past is just debris—; whatever I reason, it is a desolation to watch... must I watch? He will not change; he does not want to change; every defeated gesture implies the past is useless, irretrievable... —I want to change: I want to stop fear's subtle guidance of my life—; but, how can I do that if I am still afraid of its source?
From In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. Copyright © 1973 by Frank Bidart. All rights reserved. Used with permission.